Multiverse's Bob Moore, a sociologist, says games have always been social -- even Pong had a two-player mode. But most of the sociability that occurred happened around the game. With MMOs, sociability has moved further into the virtual environment itself, where players interact avatar to avatar instead of face to face. So how can we design environments for sociability?
Moore defined sociability as: "A distinct social form that distills out of social life the pure essence of association, the sheer pleasure of the companies of others." Currently, that's what MMOs do best, he says.
He clarified that there's a difference between sociability and socialization, and the two are not equal -- "Sociability is a term that is routinely misused in this world to mean socialization," he says. "Newbies learn the culture of a game -- there is social vision going on, but that's not the same as sociability or socializing."
So what facilitates sociability in MMOS? So far, gameplay has the most accessible way to do it.
Gameplay At The Core
"One thing I found is that, in general, the social dynamics of the MMORPGs were actually more complex and interesting than those in the so-called 'virtual social worlds,'" Moore says. This finding surprised him at first, as one might expect to find more sociability in worlds that appear designed for it.
But Moore soon realized that much of the "play" in these areas resembles "mingling at a cocktail party -- conversation, both public and private, are the main thing to do there." The skills required are general social skills -- wit, charm and good communication skills.
Contrast this with play in MMORPGs, which he says is more like a group poker night. "Here, you don't need to be charming or witty to engage with others. All you need to know is how to play the game. And once you're in the game, you don't even need to talk that much... but the game gives you a reason to interact with others."
Games, then, provide a framework around which sociable interaction can emerge. The first game he studied is EverQuest Online Adventures on PS2, and provided an example of the kinds of sociable interaction that evolve around gameplay.
Four avatars may put together a group and then run off together to camp and gain experience points. They don't know each other, but they send out "shouts" to each other in the in-game chat, asking questions about play habits and styles.
This kind of interaction happens in downtime, which Raph Koster would say is crucial in encouraging a social environment. The game, then, provides a sociability framework by giving players a reason to be together and something to do -- what Moore calls an "interactional scaffolding" around which sustained socializing tends to emerge.
Gameplay in MMORPGs is "an omni-relevant thing," Moore explains, that provides you something to talk about and do with anyone you encounter. It also encourages sophisticated group formations.
"But solo play can have a social use as well," says Moore. "If socializing is the only form of play in your virtual world, then you can't do it when there's nobody else around."
The Importance Of Solo Play
He contrasted the experience of being the only one to show up at his Second Life club to the experience of visiting the Star Wars Galaxies cantina, where players could level up dancing skills, for example, even when all alone -- and could often themselves joined later by other players attracted to the activity.
This principle is especially timely given all the virtual social worlds that have emerged even in the last six months. "From what I see, most of them are not thinking about gameplay... they're not really taking gameplay seriously," Moore says.
Challenges in Avatar-Mediated Interaction
One of the most fascinating things, Moore says, about 3D avatars is that it doesn't take much to create an engaging experience. Simply having a block with one side designated as a face and the ability to move freely on a plane is effective in making users feel like they're actually "with" other people.
These basics haven't changed much, says Moore -- "once you assume that the turning and moving of the block is controlled by another person, it becomes surprisingly powerful."
But how far have we come since the block-people? We've made great strides in 3D modeling and lighting -- "but I would argue that much less progress has been made as far as avatar functionality and interaction," says Moore. "So the avatars might look great, but the interaction is still chunky."
So how can this interaction evolve to be made more effective? One area is the conversation in MMOs and virtual worlds, which generally import the IRC or instant-message model.
"You can't focus on a single topic at a time because you never know when someone might be introducing a new one," says Moore. His research has also focused on how it's difficult to coordinate the text chat with the avatar motions and reactions -- avatars move in real time and chat lags behind. Coordinating this better could improve conversation, he argues.
Facial expression is another area needing improvement -- whether avatars can have lots of expressiveness, users can rarely see them due to camera angles and proximity, meaning that users are relying on text emotes rather than using the avatar expressions.
Neither can avatars communicate eye gaze, which would ordinarily clue conversation participants into who and what others are looking at, focused on, or talking to. Some games at include head-turning, but the feature is not common.
"We have a lot of sophisticated mo-capped gestures in games, but still gestures are difficult to use," says Moore. And it's daunting to memorize the list of commands required to get an avatar to gesture, presenting another unnatural step as coordinating the execution of a gesture becomes difficult, especially for newcomers.
Avatars appear idle even when a player is actually doing something, like browsing inventory, checking the map or working the UI for trading items. "Contrast that with what real human bodies do," he said, showing slides of real people checking their "inventories" (their personal property). "Real human bodies give off nonverbal cues whether you like it or not, and these are critical for figuring out what someone's doing, and these are critical for designing your responses to them."
So if avatars can't perform essential communication duties like responding to gestures and giving nonverbal cues, and if the essential communication relies solely on text, avatars are "kind of made irrelevant."
What We Can Learn From Social Networking
All current MMOs have buddy lists and profiles, "but we didn't know they could be this much fun before social networks came along," says Moore.
Even the feature of a customizable status message would've sounded boring before the advent of Twitter. Status updates and news feeds about other players and in-game events let users feel connected to each other even when they're not simultaneously in the game world -- this kind of asynchronous interaction is essential to sociability in games.
"For most people they have just a few... periods of time where you can devote to the real meat of MMOs. But the rest of the time, if you don't want those friendships to go away, you need ways to keep in touch," says Moore.
There have been guild forums for as long as there have been MMOs, after all, demonstrating that players find it necessary to have asynchronous interactions with their guildmates. So why should this kind of interaction be external to the game? "It should be part and parcel to the game itself," Moore says.
Moore has also noticed that MMO players lacking time for extended play together still like to stay engaged with the world and do light, asynchronous social play like auctioning items and monitoring competitors' prices. Providing avenues whereby players can access the world when they don't have time to do intense group play is just as important as providing solo opportunities from which players can still benefit when their group isn't all there at once.
Who Are You?
Speaking of "the group," though, raises one question to which Moore says he doesn't know the answer -- people "play themselves" in social networking, but in MMOs and virtual worlds, one tends to play a character. So are they compatible? Will integrating more social network features into a virtual world ruin the game?
One of the advantages of MMOs is the fact that players' age, race, income and social status doesn't really matter. But as social networking features and virtual worlds converge, the answer is likely to become clear. They're not necessarily incompatible; rather, they feature a "continuum of self presentation," whereas being genuine exists at one end and roleplaying a character exists at the other end, and a broad range can be seen across all social media.
Some guilds have real-life identities prominent and the group's always played that way -- they use the gameplay for professional networking, and in their guild mission statement they clarify up front that their guild is not an in-character one.
To the other extreme, there are lots of Lindsay Lohans on MySpace -- most of which are not her. And while some might be willful impersonators on a lark, plenty of others are enjoying a deliberate role-playing exercise, where they make sure to mark on the profile that they're role-playing the celebrity for their own entertainment.
In a study of online dating sites, women were found to lie about their weight by a few pounds on average and to lie about their height by about an inch on average, Moore notes, leading to the point that in any kind of environment, players maintain control over how much of themselves they expose.