Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Competition and Cooperation in MMORPGs

I've heard it said recently that "the difference between competitive and cooperative is purely in style."

I disagree strongly with this statement. Behind each of these approaches to problem-solving lies a fundamentally different understanding of what the world is like.

Competition typically assumes a zero-sum world of finite resources. In this environment, winning is defined as accumulating more of some scarce resource than everyone else. There Can Be Only One.

Cooperation typically assumes a world of infinite opportunities. Winning in this environment is about adding to the pool of resources by creating new things, allowing multiple winners.

Those are two radically different ways of looking at the world. In practice things are rarely so clearly defined -- you can have people cooperating in order to compete (corporations), or competing in support of a larger cooperative goal (Olympics).

But I think it's safe to say that in general, individuals will naturally hold to one of these worldviews or the other. They either see the pool of available resources as finite, in which case their solutions to problems tend to be redistributionist, or they see it as infinite, and their solutions to problems will tend to be expansionist. (I don't base this theory on James P. Carse's Finite and Infinite Games, but it's an interesting take on the subject.)

Where I see this relating to MMORPGs is that the developers of these big gameworlds tend to focus on controlling the rules-based play experience in the belief that this is necessary to maximize fun. (I don't disagree with that, except that it mistakenly defines "fun" to be rules-based play only.) That control is a lot harder to exercise if you allow (or expect) players to make their own content. Consequently no major MMORPG provides features permitting players to make truly new kinds of things in the gameworld.

Since it's not possible for players to expand the resources inside the game universe through creative effort, it becomes a zero-sum world by default. And in that kind of universe, there's no incentive to cooperate except in pursuit of a redistributionist competitive victory.

Small wonder then that the behaviors typically seen in these gameworlds are so competitive -- the gamers attracted to such a game will be those whose finite-resource worldview is being validated. And the corollary to this is that MMORPGs won't attract more cooperative players until the nature of the game universe is changed to offer features that enable players to create new resources.

If you want to attract cooperators to your gameworld, build it to be non-zero-sum. Certainly that would be a very different definition of "fun" from the hardcore, tightly controlled rules-based play enshrined in current MMORPGs, but would it really be so terrible to have a few such alternatives?

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