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Shared Awe and Community Building

May 6, 2013

Dear Reader,

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)


12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2013 9:35 am

    Of course, by that argument the cycle will simply repeat and likely in ever shorter intervals as each “new” is quickly worn-down by the jaded consumers who have become accustomed to novelty as the measure of worth.

    I still believe that this is largely a facet of both the maturing user population and the slickly commercial nature of the large publishing houses. TSW and GW2 and SW:ToR all provided amazing vistas that awed the users when we first saw them. But that stops rather quickly. The game needs to be about more than pretty scenery or it stales before it has a chance to grab an audience.

    It’s much easier to sell “three new item tiers!” than it is to explain that you or your group will struggle for months to overcome this obstacle. Remove the challenge and you reduce the opportunities to form communal bonds. Make the game about me getting stuff and I stop caring about other people save their utility as tools to my end.

    • May 15, 2013 11:02 am

      I agree with your cycle comment except for the “shorter intervals” part. I think the experience of awe is rare and wonderful enough that it’s hard to become acclimated to it. The shorter parts of the cycle are the “re-awe-ing” of each new game to come into the genre that awed you in the first place, like how for many how each subsequent MMO they play lasts a little less in their interest. To be fair, though, I really don’t know; this is only my 2nd or 3rd trip around the awe-wheel (RPGs, FPS, MMOs), and the cycle runs so long, it’s hard for me to measure. It’s certainly something to watch the next time around.

      I completely agree with the rest of your argument. Both older gamers and slicker (I’d call it sleazier) marketing has really changed the nature of the games, and you’re certainly right that it’s easier to sell better stuff in the same setting than something wholly new. Hopefully, though, someone will be willing to take the risk.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Joseph permalink
    May 6, 2013 9:54 am

    Even still. . .this has been the thing I have been trying to verbalize for as long as I have been reading your blog. It has been an itch I could not scratch. Finally you write what has been lurking in the back of my mind since you began discussing communities in MMOs. Thank you!

    • May 15, 2013 10:59 am

      You’re quite welcome. I’m glad it struck a chord with you!
      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Beshara permalink
    May 6, 2013 9:02 pm

    I think you really hit the nail on the head here. While I am fine with “settling” in with WoW, there is no room for awe when you group up. The majority of the community is focused on the grind, and if your group can’t tear through the new content fast enough then people leave to find a group that can. Even older dungeons are just run through and get it done. It does seem much harder to find that community feeling of defeating the challenge together. Most of my current enjoyment comes from grouping with my husband for dungeons and raids, or signing up for stuff to do on Even trying to get people in the guild to do stuff together seems hard to do some weeks.
    I do look forward for something new, because while I enjoy Mists as a game, some days it feels very single player for me.
    Do you plan on playing Hearthstone when it comes out? I’m looking forward to that. Haven’t played a card game in years.

    • May 15, 2013 10:58 am

      Thank you. You’re quite right that “the grind,” which is a symptom of the larger problem of enforced efficiency, is all that many people care about any more. It’s sapped the wonder away and left us with hundreds of dailies.

      I’m not sure about Hearthstone. I’m often a late adopter of things that I’m’ not 100% sure are going to be awesome. If you give it a go, let me know what you think; it may help spark my interest.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. May 6, 2013 9:22 pm

    I was thinking about something along similar lines the other day. I still remember when I logged into WoW for the first time, the fact that there were all these avatars of real people was amazing to me. Just meeting strangers in the wild was exciting, even if we never talked.

    Nowadays we’re used to online worlds being full of other people, we know that many of them are annoying, and we’re about as interested in them as we are in the strangers at the bus stop, i.e. not very.

    • May 15, 2013 10:56 am

      I love your second paragraph there. It very succinctly sums up what went wrong with MMOs, and I’m afraid it’s something that may not be able to be put right. No matter how long you go to that bus stop, no matter if one fo the people there turns out to be decent, that trained behavior of avoidance is really hard to overcome.
      Great point, and thanks for the comment!

  5. May 7, 2013 8:59 pm

    Great article. I really love the point you make about the role of awe in building bonds for community.

    You’re correct that you can’t awe a veteran of any sort with stuff they’ve seen. This disappointment in MMOs shows how long the genre has gone without major innovation.

    • May 15, 2013 10:55 am

      I’m glad you liked it. I really felt it was a little revelatory (at least to me), so I’m glad it resonated well to others, too.

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. Mhorgrim permalink
    May 8, 2013 6:07 am

    you know NWN had a solid thing going initially with player created worlds. It took a skilled person to create a world and you kind of needed a little experience in programming but it was still a blast to pop into new worlds all the time. While I am no longer “awed” by WoW, AoC, and others…I still enjoy the games for what they offer as a casual player.


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