Thursday, May 25, 2006

Social Engineering in MMORPGs

What is this antipathy to "social engineering" that keeps cropping up in discussions?

If we're talking about real life, I'm with you. The belief that you can perfect human beings is responsible for more killing of humans by other humans than anything else in our history. Attempts to impose this perfection by any means, including the design of social structures into which people must be forced for their own good, needs to be resisted.

And if we're talking about sandboxes like There or Second Life, I'm also with you. One of the points of these games is emergent gameplay; to stick a finger on the scales by imposing certain favored social behaviors would be to reduce the value of the sandbox.

But a MMORPG is neither real life nor a sandbox. I like 'em to be simulations, but I also like 'em to be games.And if it's a game, then there is no alternative to designing social structures -- if you're a game designer, you have to set rules for social interaction. You must consciously encode rules that define punishments and rewards to encourage or discourage specific social behaviors or it's not a multiplayer game.

Having said that, I certainly agree that it's best not to design social structures that force people to interact, or that manipulate players for the amusement of the developers or others. Players should be free to choose. Take away player control over their actions and you're basically treating people like lab rats. Yuk. But there still need to be consequences, and developers still need to be able to encourage friendly social interaction (since that's kind of the point of "massively multiplayer online game").

If forced interaction is what you mean by "social engineering," then I agree -- that's bad juju. But the fundamental idea of the developers setting up sticks and carrots to penalize or promote specific player behaviors, and in particular to encourage (not force, but encourage) friendly interaction between players... I don't agree with hammering on that, because you can't not do it and still offer a game that multiple people can happily play together.