Competition, Cooperation and Their Effect on Toxicity in MMOs

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“Competition” and “Cooperation” are terms that often oppose one another, and many people don’t believe the two can be reconciled.

But the reality is that competition and cooperation are not in conflict with one another at all. One might even say that they’re two sides of the same coin, but that would be too simplistic.

In fact, cooperation and competition are two social interactions belonging to two separate categories. For example, it’s possible to be competitive, to try your best to outperform people, while still cooperating with them. It’s also possible to help and assist someone even when only one of you will end up with the reward.

Some may have trouble reconciling this point of view with their everyday life experiences, but gamers, and especially MMO players, are sure to have come across proof of this in their experiences. In the social microcosm of MMOs, it’s easy to put your finger on interactions that are linked to cooperation and those linked to competition, and then prove that those two concepts share the same roots.

Cooperation in MMO games

The First MMOs Are to Blame

This doesn’t mean that each and every gamer thinks this way. Many gamers believe that cooperation and competition are incompatible. This opinion is not innate but has been shaped over many years thanks to the social structures of the first MMOs.

Initially, very few games had well developed social mechanisms. Developers - whether lacking the means or the inspiration - placed players in situations of confrontation or mutual aid. This revealed their rather extreme views on the ways that humans interact, essentially a “you’re either with me or against me” viewpoint.

First generation MMOs also lacked balance. It was possible to harass players, to harm other players’ characters, and even to sabotage other players’ progress. This antisocial behavior was classified as “competition” since there was no better categorization at that time.

Over time, and with the development of the social dimension in MMO games, it became necessary for developers to create interaction menus. Today, we’re no longer limited to only sharing resources or attacking other players. It’s now possible to discuss ideas and strategies, to collaborate on missions, to create alliances and guilds, to share different interests, to progress together, and to act as rivals without becoming enemies.

Competition does not contribute to antisocial behavior, but popular opinion on the topic is still divided.

Social Players Aren't the Only Players

While it is clear that many people still imagine social interaction to be made up of cooperative players on one side and competitive players on the other, others classify these players differently. Some players might be classified as “anti-social” or “solo” players. These players prefer, for a variety of reasons, to play on their own.

Solo players don’t try to interact with other players, even when these interactions could be beneficial to them. They don’t try to block other players’ progress either. They are antisocial because their preference is to avoid the social dynamics of MMOs.

On the other side of the spectrum are the social players. This group is composed of both competitive and cooperative players since these kinds of players all enjoy interacting socially.

Game researcher Richard Bartle classifies players differently. In his taxonomy, Bartle places players into one of two major axes. The first: action and interaction. The second: players and environment.

The Bartle Diagram

In this categorization, players are organized according to their interactions with the environment and to other players, then according to the actions they take. Four groups soon emerge:

  • Killers - act against other players
  • Socializers - interact with other players
  • Explorers - interact with the environment
  • Achievers - try to tick all the quest boxes

This typology was born after Bartle studied a 1978 MUD (Multi-User Dungeon). After all this time, this categorization has been supplemented and expanded by other researchers like Amy Jo Kim and Andrzej Marczewski.

This categorization was really useful when Bartle’s questionnaire was created, as it intended to place players into one of these groups. The issue with his test is that it works on the assumption that a player cannot belong to more than one group. Here’s an example of what the questions are like.

Would you prefer:

A. To win a duel against another player

B. To be accepted into a clan (or another group of players)

As you can see, It’s not possible for a player to express that he would like to do both. If you want, you can take a look at Bartle’s questionnaire and see where do you fit in. It’s important to note that Richard Bartle didn’t create this renowned test. He just created the taxonomy above.

It's All About Motivation

Bartle’s typology isn’t wrong, far from it. But it’s difficult to use as is and needs to be updated to meet the realities of a world that is not restricted to MUDs. That’s the mission of the Quantic Foundry’s group and Nick Yee. These researchers specialize in video games and, specifically, MMOs.

Using modern technological tools, this group created a more comprehensive model of players’ profiles. And instead of restricting player motivations to a total of four, this new model takes dozens of motivations into account for each player. To date, more than 270,000 players from all over the world have taken part in this massive study. You can add your own data by visiting the study’s website.

Players working togeher

Here are 12 of the motivations offered: fantasy, storytelling, design, discovery, destruction, excitement, community, competition, challenge, strategy, completion, power.

These represent different reasons for why a player would want to join an MMO. People taking part in the study are free to choose different motivations. 

After studying the data they compiled, researchers realized that data about competition and community are not contradictory. On the contrary, players who like competition and those who enjoy community have a strong relationship. To check that their data wasn’t skewed, researchers filtered the results by gender and age. The strong correlation was still evident after introducing these new settings.

The Social Space Isn't Always a Safe Space

If competition and cooperation are not opposed, how should we view social interactions between players? The first thing to understand is that a social interaction isn’t always positive. Duels, ambushes, encounters, exchanges, support, rivalries, sabotage, negotiations are all types of social interactions between players. Some are positive, others negative, and some don’t even fit into either category.

Not all types of cooperation are positive and not all types of competition are negative. Competition is even used as an excuse to improve and try even harder. Inside of remaining content by just belonging to a guild or an alliance, players are often happiest when in competition with other players. These rivalries are healthy and, more often than not, give everybody a boost.

Cooperation can also reach goals that are not always commendable. This is all dependant on the circumstances. In modern MMOs, players have a lot of freedom and it’s not usually possible to keep cooperation and competition apart. Paradoxically, it’s not unusual to find groups of players collaborating or cooperating to sabotage or bully other players. This kind of behavior is objectionable for sure, but it demonstrates that these two concepts are not opposed to one another. 

In some games, player behavior is easier to examine. Some MMOs clearly encourage players to act more aggressively with one another while others encourage friendlier competition.

PvP in Sandbox Games

PvP and “sandbox” are two terms that, when they appear together in an MMO description, hint that the game is likely to turn into a real quagmire. In these type of games, players are often exposed to “ganking”, a word describing powerful players turning on and attacking weaker ones.

Developers of this kind of game have to take steps to prevent this toxicity from becoming the norm. Games like Neverwinter Nights or even Albion Online come to mind.

It seems that most PvP games that give players freedom of choice fall into this trap. Even Minecraft had to deal with the notorious anarchy of server 2b2t.

But it would be wrong to think that this lack of supervision is detrimental to cooperation. On the contrary, in these games alliances and guilds are often bound tightly together, and this association can sometimes even manage to overcome a toxic atmosphere and regulate players’ behavior.

Competition can go bad real quick

Social games

Social games encompass a wide array of games on the market today, including simulators, exploration games, management games, and much more. Cooperation is usually featured front and center in social games and there are generally rules in place to prevent things from going too far. Club Penguin or Mabinogi are two of the games that come immediately to mind.

These games put so much emphasis on cooperation and community that antagonism is rarely seen. But it’s still possible to be competitive, even in these games. One of the reasons why is that most of these games feature contests or various ranking systems. Naturally, every player is trying to rank first in the categories they’re interested in.

This provides proof that it is almost impossible to produce an MMO without our two social dimensions: competition and cooperation.

The Idea of Conflict

One question that arises is why do some game environments tend to become toxic if a sense of competition isn’t to blame? Here arises the idea of conflict. In itself, competition is just another social interaction, but it can spiral out of control when the following two conditions are met:

  • No supervision or rules supervising interactions
  • The introduction of a high conflict factor

To better understand, let’s see how the following games are categorized according to the level of competition and conflict included.

The problem arises when a game puts players in a particular situation where conflict is bound to arise, thus manifesting toxicity. In games without any conflict and with low stakes, competition works as a way to engage players.

That’s why games that put an emphasis on conflict almost always remove the other social dimensions of a MMO. They will become MOBA, or even MMOFPS, where players are always in confrontational situations.

A recipe to guarantee that MMOs remain commendable social experiences is to bring the right amount of competition, cooperation, and conflict together. Players can then freely choose what mode they want to play in. But situations where conflict is likely to arise require constant supervision to assure no toxicity enters the MMO.

While this is true for almost all MMOs, there are, of course, exceptions.

Griefers and Trolls

When you think about toxic PvP and antisocial interactions, it’s impossible not to talk about griefers. Griefers are players who ignore quests, steer clear of positive social interactions, and dislike even the competitive dimension of a game. Their main goal is to sabotage the game experience of the newcomers.

In short, griefers will insult, destroy other players’ buildings, use hacking software, create inner conflicts between alliances, waste resources, die deliberately during team missions, and do other things that vastly escalate tensions. The arsenal griefers have to work with is, unfortunately, quite extensive. And they always discover new ways of using it.

Trolls are bad, but griefers are worse

The griefer must be distinguished from the troll, though the latter often uses the same tactics to annoy and aggravate other players. But unlike the griefer, the troll generally wants to be a part of the community.

His pranks are usually mitigated so he won’t be reported and banned by moderators. He often needs to show off his bad jokes to other players.

The tendency is to put griefers and trolls in absolute antagonistic dynamics towards other players, but this isn’t correct.Trolls thrive in communities, but griefers only exist thanks to other players. In fact, most griefers don’t show any interest for the game’s content. What matters to them is the capacity to which they can harm others.

Competition and Cooperation Are Just Tools

MMO games contain a rich assortment of social tools. Whatever the type - MMORPG, MMORTS, simulation games, etc. - MMO games are built to supplement social interactions between players.

Of course, not all of these interactions will be positive. It would be unrealistic to think so. But developers should realize that competition does not necessarily equate to antisocial behavior. Realizing this will allow developers to set parameters where players try to outdo each other without doing things that will contribute to a toxic environment.

Developers need to rethink the social dynamics of MMOs by offering players worlds that feature the right amount of cooperation, competition and conflict. In such worlds, players will be able to express themselves in a way that will benefit everybody.