Fabrics and Metaphors
There’s been a fair share of discussions about social fabric over the last few days, starting with Psychochild’s take on it. Several others have responded, including Rohan, Tobold, and Green Armadillo, just to name a few. Each of them has a rather unique perspective on it, and none really fully agree. As always, I suggest you read the posts themselves, but I’ll sum up what I take to be each’s main idea if you’re not in the mood for more reading:
1) Psychochild suggests more grouping, though he’s well aware that it’s neither a perfect solution nor what everyone wants.
2) Green Armadillo counters by suggesting that social fabric is what turns playing into working as you become bound by those social obligations.
3) Rohan also counters by saying it’s not that we need more social interactions, but more repetition within them to form stronger bonds.
4) Tobold overall addresses a different subject, suggesting that MMO longevity could be increased by having worlds that were constructed around more than just progression, but says of social fabric that he thinks it’s necessary, but too often done badly.
None of them really looked at the term fabric, though, which of course they wouldn’t because they’re discussing social mechanisms, not sewing. Examining the metaphor, though, might give us some insight into what we’re all really discussing.
A single string isn’t particularly strong (though you can supposedly hold down someone with a well-placed piece of floss held tight over their upper lip. I don’t think that’s standard Mossad practice, though). However, when you interweave them, you create something much more durable. I think that Psychochild’s argument is based on this metaphorical fact: that the interwoven fibers will “last longer” than many single strands. Consider, then, what you do when a single strand sticks out of your shirt or jeans: you cut it off.
And that’s what’s metaphorically happening to a lot of players; they’re feeling more and more cut off from their gaming worlds. The thing is, I don’t think you can re-integrate a loose thread back into a fabric from which it’s become detached. You may be able to ignore it, but often it comes more and more loose, sticking out more. If left too long, it can even begin to detach other fibers around it. Eventually, a hole forms, which weakens the overall strength of the piece of fabric. Cutting it off, then, is actually better in the long run than ignoring the problem.
I may be stretching the metaphor, but I think it’s still meaningful. Few of us have ever fallen back in love with a game that we’ve abandoned. We may have returned to it, but often it’s not for long and even when it is, it’s not really the same game, like my return to WoW mostly for pet battling instead of hard-mode raiding. I am still there, though, which at some level means I am strengthening the fabric by participating in game activities in view of others and discussing them with you, dear reader.
There is one obvious fallacy, though. People are not mindless strings to be combined into some unseen tapestry. Some of us want to be that string sticking up. Some of us want parallel play instead of multiplayer or cooperative gameplay. Each individual MMO seems to try to find the balance between forced grouping, forced soloing, or allowing players to choose what they want to do. Dungeons & Dragons Online forced players to group to do most of the leveling content. The Secret World forced solo instances into an otherwise great group game. Star Wars allowed the player to choose but increased the difficulty when bringing a group. Guild Wars 2 has very malleable grouping features. Each finds their own balance.
The problem, then, is more the individual interpretation of that balance. Some people, like Green Armadillo, find long-term social obligations to be a problem that ruins games. Psychochild welcomes those same obligations. Neither is right or wrong, but different games’ balances will appeal more or less to each.
In the end, I think what makes so many games 3 monthers now has less to do with social fabric than it does innovation and comfort. Think how much time most people put into their first MMO love. Whether it was EVE, WoW, LotRO, or an older one, the level of innovation that drew you in is what kept you there and made you, eventually, comfortable. It’s also what helped weave that social fabric, the mutually shared love of this new thing. New games can’t match that innovation any more; whatever they offer, it’s been done. As a result, you’re not as strongly drawn, aren’t as quickly made comfortable, and, as a result, are more apt to leave once you feel done. It’s also why so many of us end up back in Azeroth or Middle Earth after prolonged breaks. We’re comfortable there, damnit, even if we know we oughtn’t be.
I’ve said before that I think the only thing that will dethrone the mighty MMO – or even WoW in particular – is a style of gameplay we haven’t even realized yet, something that’s beyond the bounds of what we can imagine, like MMOs were twenty years ago. Maybe it’s being developed as we speak. Maybe it’s still years off. Regardless, in this long, cold winter of stale repetition, we need perhaps to be less picky about which hearth we choose to warm ourselves by. We should be more forgiving and less demanding of the new titles and accept them for what most of them are: a small new spin on an existing genre. If we can do that, perhaps we can be happy enough until the next big thing.