I'm amazed how often I still hear the phrase "learn to play." It's become a nasty term that makes me suspect those saying it just don't want other gamers around at all. And I can hardly blame them when the MMO market is pushing a markedly single-player agenda.
MMOs tout our ability to play with friends and interact with others, but in the end, they are selfish games that breed and attract selfish gamers. In modern MMOs, interaction barely rises above single-player co-op. Guild Wars 2 exemplifies this by dropping you in a world with the potential for thousands of players to be all around you, but its alienating mechanics often make you feel like a lonely ghost who wants nothing more than to hug someone.
L2P and other stock insults are rooted in something ugly: the literally antisocial nature of many MMOs.
Let's first look at the term "learn to play" and what it seems to mean at first blush. Most people throw it out to dismiss someone else's opinion, experience, or ability, without actually knowing anything about those things. Unless every player were to volunteer his shortcomings, we can't really know how many gamers are truly inept, physically unable, or genuinely unconcerned about learning their class or mechanics to the level required by the player casting the insult.
Inside an MMO dungeon, players need to learn specific elements of timing and positioning. I know this even though I'll never be a raider. My reflexes are on the slow side. I could spend the necessary time to practice the macros and learn the strategies that would allow me to run any raid in existence, but I don't have fun doing that. I especially don't have fun doing that multiple times for each dungeon, and that's unfortunately how most of them are built: to goad you into running them repeatedly and wiping as many times as it takes to assay the boss strategy. Once that's accomplished, players clear out the instance, fight over the loot, and move on to the next dungeon. Old and new console side-scrollers do this too, only without the repetition. MMOs, on the other hand, are built around time-wasting more than difficulty in order to appeal to a wider audience and keep us hooked.
I'm not saying you shouldn't "learn to play" in whatever way suits you. Going to a dungeon and getting roflstomped isn't fun for most people, after all. What I'm saying is that there's no point discussing what "learn to play" means superficially because the phrase doesn't really mean "learn to play" -- it means "go away."
The real connotation of "learn to play" and other popular barbs is that other players just aren't welcome in our MMOs. We tend toward a negative view of the gamers around us; we assume everyone else just sucks. Interacting with another person only opens up the possibility that he'll steal your gold, beat you to harvest that flower, or ninja-loot your raid drop, screwing you over in some fashion or another. If there's any chance another player will cause us an annoyance, we will avoid him. MMO features that encourage basic human interactions beyond the confines of a chat window are frowned upon and declared bad game design. (Frankly, I think the ineffectiveness of commercial AI is the only reason we still have the vestigial trait of "other people" in our MMOs at all. And even then, that's mostly for PvP!)
Guild Wars 2 sits at the epicenter of this new philosophy. Gathering, renown hearts, and instances are just a few of the features that ArenaNet advertises as if to say, "Everyone gets his own stuff, so no worrying about waiting in line, node-jacking, or other people showing up to annoy you!" The studio rarely promotes what you can do with others.
"We've reached the point at which we're not interacting as much in real life because MMOs are demanding so much of our time -- but we're no longer interacting with each other inside the games, either."
That type of game design suggests the entire industry is saturated with an extreme pessimism that infects us all. It makes us assume the worst about our games and about each other. Studios now focus on how they can strip negative player interaction from a game without ever debating whether it is in fact bad or how it might be harnessed for good. Correcting weak game design is a good thing, but we shouldn't approach every mildly annoying game element as one that needs to be eliminated without question. Sometimes letting the players sort it out themselves is best.
Guild Wars 2 isn't the only game to suffer this problem; Runes of Magic saw a player uproar over multi-click gathering. Players wanted to be able to chat while gathering, and they were annoyed that other players were nodejacking (yoinking a resource while someone was already in the process of harvesting it). But RoM is one of the most resource-rich MMOs I can think of; there's a resource every two inches. Drastic measures on the part of the dev team weren't necessary. Isn't this something that players could have worked out -- socially -- on their own without developer intervention? Doesn't curbing player activities harm social freedom more than it helps?
We've reached the point at which we're not interacting as much in real life because MMOs are demanding so much of our time -- but we're no longer interacting with each other inside the games, either.
Memes and slang and words like "L2P" and "elitism" and "entitlement" and "bads" represent a specific brand of selfishness that tells us how we should respond and act toward others (and that we should avoid our fellow gamers as much as possible). But in 2012, everyone is becoming a gamer, and unfortunately, the existing gaming culture that mainstream society is now getting its first glimpse of isn't a positive one. We're playing right into loathsome gamer stereotypes with our antisocial slang and the attitudes they illustrate, and the modern wave of nearly-single-player MMOs is nourishing that pessimistic "alone together" philosophy.
MMOs are what they are, and they don't embody evil, but gaming culture is tied to and guided by game design more than we might like to admit. But that doesn't mean we have to accept a massively solitary existence. If we distance ourselves from the "L2P" generation and put in the effort to make MMOs a place of socialization again -- in spite of the game design -- then we might just inspire better-designed games in the long run.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!