Shared Awe and Community Building
As we were discussing improving social fabric last week, I had a few interesting exchanges with commentators and people I know in the real world and think I had a bit of a revelation. We keep longing for those strong social bonds we felt in our early MMOs, and I kept asking why we can’t rebuild those. Some people attribute those strong social bonds to increased hardship in those early games and a lack of conveniences, and I used to think the same, but I don’t know. The Secret World was pretty tough at times, but I didn’t see an unusually strong social fabric there. Plenty of games come out without modern MMO conveniences, too, but neither seems to do anything to improve a community. My revelation, instead, was that what built those strong early communities didn’t have anything to do with the games, but with who we were as players back then.
Imagine the first time you logged in to your first MMO. Visualize standing there inside this gigantic virtual environment. Remember that first encounter with another player that unfolded seamlessly in this broad virtual world. These moments struck us with a feeling of awe, of being a part of something epic and larger than ourselves, something grand, and something new.
Awe’s a powerful force, and sharing in that awe with others creates a link that’s hard to break until the awe breaks down into the routine. This brief article summarizes findings of a psychological and neurological study into what kinds of stories we share. Surprise surprise, stories that evoke awe are among the top few. McGonigal talks about it in her book Reality is Broken, as well. Experiencing awe is incredibly powerful, she argues, and it leads people to work together to create great works, such as Golbeki Tep, an enormous temple that predates Stonehenge by several thousand years. Awe is a community builder.
Chasing awe is in our nature, it seems, and in his book Awe: The Delights and Dangers of our Eleventh Emotion, Paul Pearsall describes how awe can lead us to form communities, seek adventure, and even engage in unnecessary risks. The beauty of an MMO is that we can do all those things from the safety of our own home, much like sympathizing with a character while reading a story can evoke the same brain blood flows as actually experiencing those feelings about oneself. Our early experiences with MMOs filled us with a feeling of awe, and it brought us all together and helped us overlook the many vast inadequacies of the various games we played or people we played with.
Then time passed, as it always does, and what was once magical became mundane. Our feelings of awe were replaced with expectations that are nearly impossible to meet. Each new game is presented in its hype cycle as something massive and new – something that will strike us with awe – but never does, because it is largely by design a copy of something else. I don’t mean that in a “This is just a copy of WoW” sense, but that all MMOs are copies of one another in most gameplay features, particularly those that first struck us with awe: playing with others to conquer incredible challenges. Remember the first time you saw Majorodomo Executus summon Ragnaros? The first time you saw Onyxia?
The potentially depressing side of this argument, then, is that those feelings will never be replicated by something similar to what first evoked them. Our early experiences with MMOs blew our minds, but now, our minds are blown and can’t be re-blown by the same material. That’s why those of us who’ve been doing this for ten or so years often find ourselves hopping from MMO to MMO, chasing a hope for another experience like our first that simply can’t be replicated. Those who formed strong bonds with their fellow awe-goers might use those bonds to maintain interest in a particular game, but often even those groups migrate from game to game. Others accept what used to be literally awesome as commonplace and make a life for themselves there, accepting a game for what it is in its current un-awe-inspiring iteration. Those people “settle,” as my buddy calls it, for what they know.
I suspect that’s where many of us are with whichever game we’ve chosen to make our home, why certain games seem to keep drawing back their natives despite boredom with most of the content. It’s comfortable. It’s something we used to love. Now it’s a place where we feel comfortable.
Rather than look at that negative side, though, I prefer to look at the future. I don’t think MMOs are the end-all, be-all of games, and I suspect there’s another trend hopefully not too far in the future that’s going to grab us again, shake our conceptions of what it means to play a game with others (game, by the way, has the same word root as gather, meaning they are inherently social events). Those new games – things we can’t even conceptualize yet, for if we could, they wouldn’t blow our minds – will fill us again with awe, throw us together in communities of sharing that awe, and start us afresh in this cycle of feeling important in a new epic endeavor.
So the positive side, then, is that all we have to do to find that awe again… is wait.
Stubborn (and trying to be patient)