Redefining friendship: Facebook, MMORPGs and Dragon Age Origins

Jonathan McCalmont @ 06-01-2010

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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The Antiques Roadshow” – For an entire generation of people who grew up [in the UK – Ed.] in the 1980s, those three little words herald a wave of unease and bitterness.  Like a Renaissance magus, they conjure forth memories of Sunday evenings dominated by the looming return of school and the perversity of one’s parents’ taste in television.  You see, younglings… prior to the internet, cable TV and the explosion of cheap consumer electronics, most young British people were trapped not only in a four channel world, but in a world where only one TV channel was ever really accessible to them : the one that their parents wanted to watch. 

This centralisation of power meant that what culture you were subjected to as a child was largely determined by the vagaries of parental whim.  If you were lucky, you grew up in a house with cool parents who shared good culture and encouraged you to expand your horizons.  If you were unlucky, you were trapped in a mire of terrible and monolithic mass culture.  These inequalities in luck translate into inequalities in what sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu call cultural capital.  Inequalities in cultural capital then translate into economic and social inequalities, as the people who grew up chained to The Antiques Roadshow lose out in job and university interviews to the people whose parents took them to art galleries or the theatre on Sunday evenings.

Bourdieu and other sociologists draw a distinction between cultural capital, economic and social capital.  All three types of capital can result in social inequalities and all three are, initially at least, a matter of chance.  How much cultural capital you will accumulate as a child is as much a matter of luck as the question of how much economic capital you will accumulate.  If you’re lucky you will be born into a rich family.  If you’re not lucky then… well, it sucks to be you. Social capital is, in some ways, the central topic of this column – as I think (with some support from actual research) that phenomena such as Facebook and games like Bioware’s Dragon Age : Origins add some interesting complexity to the model developed by sociology.

Dragon Age: Origins (DAO) is ostensibly a Fantasy RPG of the most generic kind.  Refusing to stray too far from the well-beaten tracks of post-Tolkienian Fantasy, the game happily draws its narrative frame from the grand old tradition of bastardised Christian sacred history with a tale of periodically returning ancient evils that can only be defeated by a Christ-like figure who will unite squabbling nations and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity by an act of heroic sacrifice.  As hackneyed as Ferelden’s secret history might be, its residents are doubly so.  We have Dwarves who are skilled artisans living in underground kingdoms, Elves who are beautiful magical creatures hostile to humanity and Humans who are medieval Europeans with the numbers filed off.  The game-play is not particularly revolutionary either, reliant as it is upon the ingrained system of weapon- and clothes-swapping and upgrading that has haunted pretty much every RPG since the year dot.  Where the game does do something new is at the level of presentation.  Indeed, DAO does an excellent job of taking a traditional one-player computer RPG and making it play like an MMORPG like World of Warcraft.  This unique stylisation takes place on two separate levels; the first is that of the game-play.

One of the most fascinating aspects of MMORPG play is the extent to which these games have created a culture of tactical rigour that simply did not exist prior to the mainstreaming of online gaming.  Out of a desire to compete (and to not let their fellow players down), MMORPG players have developed an entire tactical vocabulary allowing them to not only build the best characters they possibly can, but also to play the game in the most efficient manner possible.  Some players treat it almost like working a job.

DAO assumes a certain degree of familiarity with this type of thinking and, as a result, it is quite a tough game.   In other words : build a sub-optimal character and you’ll die a lot.  Fail to make optimum use of your powers and you’ll die a lot.  Fail to manage your party so that their skill sets interlock effectively and you’ll die a lot.  Fail to grasp the subtle difference between being the party’s DPS and its Tank and you’ll die a lot.  Of course, you can dial the difficulty level down to the point where these tactical choices become less important… but rather than calling this difficulty level “easy”, DAO calls it “casual”.  It might as well be called “bitch” or “n00b”; the implication is that you are not playing the game seriously if you are not approaching it in the way that you would an MMORPG.

This brings us to the second way in which DAO apes massively multi-player games : party dynamics. Denis Farr at Vorpal Bunny Ranch has put up an excellent post about how affecting and deep DAO‘s characterisation is, and I can only agree with him.  The game’s characters are not merely well written by the standards of most contemporary video games, they are well written full stop.  As Farr points out in his additional post about the character Zevran, we are dealing with characters who have their own voices, their own viewpoints and their own histories.  Like real people, they have layers.  Indeed, what took me completely by surprise was the extent to which the different personalities of the characters affected not only each other but also my choices as group leader.

For example, in one scene, I decided to allow a noblewoman to sacrifice herself so that we could defeat a demon possessing her son.  The group’s main tank disagreed with me, but once my decision was made he held his tongue like a good subordinate.  However, the next time we were in camp, he sought me out and dressed me down, raging against my pragmatism and lack of humanity.  When I eventually managed to talk him down, the character sulked me, giving only one word answers to my questions.  Up until that point, I had enjoyed my interactions with him and his anger at my actions really stung.

The different personalities of the characters also affect play in more subtle ways.  For example, when the group is faced with a moral dilemma, the other characters frequently chime in with their take on the matter.  While you, as leader, may see the issue in a certain light determined by your cultural background (elves frequently get the option to point out that something is a ‘human issue’ and hence none of their business), the other characters may see the issue in entirely different terms, colouring your decision.  Indeed, if you are adventuring with ‘evil’ characters such as Morrigan and Zevran in your group, it takes a degree of stubbornness and zeal not to go for the pragmatic option.  DAO also provides a certain amount of banter.  For example, Zevran will express his admiration for Morrigan and demands to know why the two of them have not yet made love.  Morrigan replies that, if they had, she would have had to stab him in the face.

In effect, what Dragon Age: Origins does is to give you the same social experience playing a one-player game as you might get playing a massively multi-player game.  You have to not only work out how to get the characters to mesh tactically, you also have to be aware of group politics and modify your behaviour to keep important parts of the group on side.  In a way, this capacity to emulate social activities while on one’s own marks a further step in the on-going ‘virtualisation’ of social capital.

In 1995, Robert D. Putnam produced a paper entitled “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital”.  In the paper and the ensuing book, Putnam argued that the number of people investing in social institutions had decreased alarmingly: lots of people were bowling, but bowling leagues were closing down.  In other words, Americans were no longer investing in the networks of friendships and relationships that form, according to Bourdieu, one of the three sources of capital and therefore wealth, opportunity and inequality.  However, the internet has seen a change in this tendency.

Nowadays, while Thatcher’s Children might not necessarily be investing as much in social capital, they are choosing to invest in what some sociologists are calling ‘Virtual Social Capital’, which is accumulated by constructing social networks that exist independently of the real world.  These networks are most obvious on social media sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and MySpace, but they can also exist more nebulously across the blogosphere and via pretty much any form of electronic communication.  Virtual social capital is also created through the construction of game-related guilds and clans, as both institutions are created by people who may never meet in meatspace.

What is interesting about Dragon Age: Origins is that it shows how the urge to withdraw from the awkwardness and challenges of social interaction can now take the form of activities that almost perfectly mirror virtual social activities of the past.  So, just as children of my generation decided to play video games instead of sports, tomorrow’s children may well withdraw into what are in effect single-person MMORPGs.  How far could this trend carry us?  Could well-written AIs allow the creation of single-person blogospheres, allowing virtual introverts to enjoy all of the pleasures of online engagement and idea exchange but with none of the personal downsides?  Imagine being able to hit reset when you poke the blogosphere too hard and get dog-piled; imagine becoming the centre of a huge network of websites all discussing your opinions amongst themselves regardless of how poorly thought out and how personally odious you are; imagine being able to purchase software that allows you to be Cory Doctorow, Jason Calacanis or Paul Staines. [Purchase? The Doctorow software would be free and open-source, surely… 😉 – Ed.]

We exist in a world where social capital and friendship have been redefined in order to allow social contact between people who never even meet.  Just how virtual can social capital be before it becomes entirely insubstantial?  The genuine emotional reactions experienced whilst playing Dragon Age: Origins suggest that friendship could conceivably be redefined even to apply to ‘people’ who exist purely as self-contained loops of code in artificial universes.  Would such a development effectively break the concept of friendship?  Or would it suggest that even virtual people can acquire social capital?  And if we allow that people are sane when they value the time they spend with characters such as Zevran, are we not effectively suggesting that artificial intelligences can be legitimately treated like people?

In recent decades, film has produced numerous visions of the ways in which human civilisation might be destroyed by artificial intelligence.  In the Terminator series that destruction is physical; in the Matrix series that destruction is psychological as mankind is forced to retreat from the real world.  But it seems more plausible to me to imagine a future in which humanity no longer feels the need to engage with itself.  The end of human civilisation is millions of World of Warcraft servers with only one human player on each of them. Dragon Age: Origins seems to bring that day one step closer.

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Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.

Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.

[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]

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8 Responses to “Redefining friendship: Facebook, MMORPGs and Dragon Age Origins”

  1. Chad says:

    Quality post. I will definitely check out your personal site.

  2. Andy Havens says:

    The party members in DAO aren’t just *like* people in MMOs… they’re *better than* people in MMOs. I was thrilled when I started playing WoW, as it was (to me, at the time) the best implementation of classic roleplaying online. Fun story (familiar through other Warcraft games), good visuals (gamey, not trying-too-hard like Everquest), nice ramping up curve, easy to play by yourself for awhile, but then good for groups.

    Unless, of course, you actually want to roleplay on an RP server. Or anywhere in Azeroth.

    I made it up to about a 40th level character before I just gave up. Not on the game, but on the people. I only have so much time to game, and I was spending 75% of it looking for people to group with, trying different guilds, getting half-way through a quest with a party and then having somebody have to go back to RL. Yikes. Gaming is supposed to be an escape, and the work I was putting into the social element in the game was more than it took to get along with people in the real world. Why play if it’s a chore?

    Now… I’ve since met folks who WoW with a group of friends they know in RL. They have predetermined times they game. They all know each other. That’s great; reminds me of the old table-top games. But trying to start from scracth… eek. I’m no casual gamer, but it was insanely hard to even find 10 other players who wanted to actually roleplay and take character seriously.

    In DAO… well, the first time one of them sassed me (in character) and then was less helpful going forward… I LOVED IT. That’s what other characters are supposed to do; be characters. Not a level-meister who’s only interest in you is whether or not you can heal them while they tank.

    If I had to bowl with the kind of people I met while on WoW, I’d bowl alone, too.

    And if you ever thought virtual people couldn’t acquire social capital, try talking to a teenage girl about “Twilight.” They are more involved with those characters than their own siblings. Same for us geeks and our beloved characters. Droids are virtual people, too.

  3. Jonathan M says:

    Hi Chad 🙂 Glad you liked the piece.

    Andy — I couldn’t agree more. I didn’t play WoW for as long as you did but that was pretty much my experience of it too. People either didn’t say much or if they did talk it was all business and mostly complaining about tactical choices and stuff like that. There was no roleplay and no banter. DAO does banter incredibly well. I adore how, when you’re just wondering about the place, the characters will start teasing each other.

    If WoW’s RP servers were full of people as witty as the characters of DAO then I think I’d still be playing.

    Which is one of the reasons why I think DAO is best understood as a game that tries to replicate the WoW experience but for single players. It doesn’t merely copy WoW, it actually improves upon it by making it more fun.

  4. Liz says:

    Interesting piece. I think Andy sums up the frustrations of MMORPGs – WoW when played with the right group can be immensely fun, but even playing with a group of real-life friends it’s a huge investment of time and effort to get everyone into the right place at the right time with the right set of quests and equipment, and then you cross your fingers that no one gets cut off or has to eat their dinner right before the final boss. DAO lets me play with a group of competent, interesting characters on my own schedule, and they don’t keep asking me for gold or whether I’m really a girl or not. I never even tried roleplaying in WoW, and I was surprised to find how involved I got with the characters in DAO, and how much I was considering their reactions when making my endgame decisions.

    From what I’ve read about The Old Republic, it sounds like it is even further towards an MMO you can play on your own.

  5. Sarah Ennals says:

    OT question with regards to your opening paragraph – I’ve encountered a bit of hatred among Brits for The Antiques Roadshow, while I actually kind of enjoy it. Is it considered an old-person’s show? Reactionary? Too materialistic?
    Just curious. (For the record – white, female, Canadian, mid-30s, if any of that makes a difference in this question)

  6. Jonathan M says:

    Liz — What struck me with DAO is that the problem of verisimilitude when it comes to artificial characters and artificial worlds is not one of technology but one of writing. Technologically, DAO is nothing that ground-breaking. It builds upon the lessons learned in Baldur’s Gate and Mass Effect and combines those structures with what is really nothing more than some decent writing. It’s a game that testifies to the power of getting some proper writers in to do the scripts.

    Sarah — A) I think it’s quite musty. If you’re not into antiquing then it’s just people gazing at furniture porn and junk. It’s also presented by and loved by old people. B) It’s quite materialistic in the sense that you can tell that most people are only there to get their junk valued.

  7. Owain says:

    Dragon Age has a different purpose than an MMO. Dragon Age means to tell a story with you as the main character, something that and MMO can’t do easily. WoW for example, has quest arcs, but once you finish an arc, it resets for the the next person through. It kind of kills your sense of accomplishment when your group completes a difficult quest to look in the public chat channel and see 5 groups spamming LFM for the epic quest you just finished.

    I think Dragon Age does a good job of story telling, which is why I bought the game. MMOs, by definition, are more for player interaction than story telling.

    In an MMO, I prefer a sandbox environment over the typical ‘ride-the-quest-rails’ game play offered by most current MMOs. I played Ultima Online for many years until Origin finally ‘improved’ it to the point that it was no longer fun, and I enjoyed Eve for quite a while as well, although I never really liked the fact that you as a player are a ship instead of a person that can walk around inside your own ship.

    Darkfall offered promise, but when the developers decided to screw players from the US who helped them launch the game on their European server by forcing them to buy the game again when the North American server opened, I decided they would be getting no more of my money.

    If a company were to come out with a free for all PvP game, in 3D, that had the same rules and game play as the original Ultima Online, that would by my MMO of choice. That kind of game would not be for everyone, but I think it would be a good fit for a lot of gamers.

    A game like Dragon Age allows the developer to tell a story without a lot of player interference. An MMO done right, in my opinion, allows the players to tell their own story.

  8. Jonathan M says:

    Obviously there are some aspects of the MMO experience that either can’t be captured or which you wouldn’t want to capture. You raise the issue of the fact that your activities in MMORPGs effectively serve no purpose as they’re instantly reset. This is not something you would want to replicate, along with corpse-camping and servers going down 🙂