There’s a conversation about social play and soloing that’s been going on in the blogosphere, in one form or another, for years now. I was struck by one of Tobold’s recent posts, WoW the Single Player Game? — in response to a post from The Godmother about Cross-Realm Zones where she mentions that she “liked it when it was quiet“, Tobold asks,
[W]hy do people who “like it quiet” play a massively multiplayer online game? Wouldn’t let’s say Knights of the Old Republic be a much better game for them than Star Wars: The Old Republic?
Many of his commenters focus on the fact that WoW’s mechanics and systems aren’t set up to handle large player numbers in one area, discussing competition for quest spawns and resource nodes. Michael of Gaming for Happiness echoes my feelings, though, when he comments that “Why do I not just play KoTOR instead? Maybe it’s just me, but playing in an online world just seems to make everything seem more real. My actions more meaningful, my efforts yielding greater permanence than I can find in single player games.”
This really struck a chord with me. I’ve been playing a lot of The Sims 3 lately – I go through phases of this, and I’m well and truly entrenched at the moment. (I even bought some shiny new DLC as a birthday gift to myself.) I really enjoy The Sims 3, and Steam tells me I’ve racked up over 400 hours ingame – although I’m sure a lot of that is idle/AFK time. And yet, something about The Sims 3 feels wrong to me, and always has — it’s the fact that I’m completely alone in the game world.
So my Sim is living out her life, interacting with her neighbours, winning hearts, making friends, and they’re all NPCs. In the houses I’ve never visited, NPC Sims are sketching out a rudimentary copy of sim-life, but the town is virtually stagnant apart from what I do.1 If there were other players around, even if I never socialised with them directly, my little town would feel a lot more real – I’d know that behind all those front doors, other Sims were living lives just as varied and interesting as my own Sim’s. Someone might buy the Perfect-quality fruit and vegetables I can grow. Someone might sell me a beautiful photo they took in Shang Simla.
But playing alone, nobody else’s actions will ever make an impact on my Sim’s life, and everything I “achieve” with her is equally meaningless. Any variety I encounter is just the result of a random number generator, not the dynamism introduced by other players.
Not that games automatically have to be ‘meaningful’ to be fun, of course. But I think MMOs have trained me too well to expect a certain permanence and persistence to what I do. When I make items to improve my crafting skill in an MMO, there’s someone around who’ll buy them from me. When I earn an Achievement, my progress is highlighted to anyone who cares to look. Even if I never say a word to another player, the world feels more real, more immersive and ‘alive’, because I know there are other people around all doing their own thing.
As one commenter, Josh, noted over at Tobold’s discussion, “[t]here’s a difference between quiet and silence”.
I talk to my neighbours, in RL, about once a year. Yet if they were suddenly replaced by timer switches who turned the lights on and off at the right times and robots who drove their cars off to work and back home again every day, I’d damn well notice the difference, and living in my house would suddenly start feeling very lonely and isolated. I may not want to interact with my neighbours, in game or in RL, but I want them to be there.
- There’s actually a third-party patch that vastly improves the game’s background story progression and growth, but the patch author adamantly refuses to support the Steam version of the game, so I’m out of luck. ↩