The Socially Anti-Social

Last week Belghast raised an interesting topic. Izlain brought it up on the most recent Couch Podtatoes episode, and I’ve been thinking on it ever since. Has technology made us less social? Are we anti-social these days?

anti-social-technology

That’s a difficult argument to prove even for those who believe it. We communicate in more and varied ways today than ever. Technology has supported socialization …but a very different kind, just like all media of any given era. Radio changed the amount of speeches and book readings we could attend. TV made theater accessible to even the poor. Placing a computer in every home has also come with it’s bonuses and downsides. We’re learning to socialize in dramatically different ways. It’s not really surprising that we don’t do it in the ways we did even 10 years ago or that it’s impacts on our social lives have been so huge.

Belghast said that the idea of face-to-face communication as the norm is extrovert centric and I think that’s a fair point. I hadn’t really thought of it that way before, but that still seems unlikely. It’d be like saying the human diet is food-centric — it sounds correct, but it’s also a little absurd. It’s well established that humans are intensely social creatures, literally surviving on interactions with other humans. Can we lead rich social lives without coming into physical contact with humans? Guess it depends on how we define rich.

But usually I hear people describe how they’d rather spend their time on the internet than face to face and I can’t help but feel they’re missing something. The longer we’re alone with the internet, using it as a proxy for socializing, the more comfortable it feels and the more uncomfortable we’ll feel in face-to-face interactions. There are literally thousands if not millions of people around the world who know this feeling, and apparently it’s not too surprising. It’s just the times we live in. Studies conducted about how we use the internet and it’s impacts on our social lives show a significant correlation between increased internet use and decreased socialization. I think we’ve adapted to a certain level of anti-socialization. That’s my fancy term for saying “people like to have their cake and eat it too”. We want all of the perks of socializing with people with none of the downsides. A free and open internet delivers this, but in doing so it breaks people down into byte-size for our consumption.

What if you could have all the joys of socializing without any of the discomfort? Well …you can! The internet allows us to communicate in ever preciser doses of social interactions. We can use chat boxes when we don’t want to hear voices, avatars when we don’t want to use videos, pictures when we want to see faces. At no point on the internet am I forced to view (pictures), watch (interaction), feel (emotions) and hear people all at once which is what face-to-face interactions require. I can chose to enjoy the pieces of socializing that suit me and discard all the rest. And that’s exactly what we do on the internet. And that’s anti-social in my opinion.

This is why internet anonymity is dear to us. It is control. I can be precisely who I want whenever I want. People’s perceptions of me will be whatever I want them to be since I control the entire interaction, unlike face-to-face where we’re constantly judged by appearances, sounds and bodies. We love to socialize, and if something else controls how we do it then we’re effectively back to the way things where before the internet. Choosing to surf the net instead of going out with friends on a Saturday night is a perfectly normal choice, but the former is inherently less social than the latter. Still, there’s also really good reason to prefer virtual gatherings to physical ones.

I'm prepared for Games Tourism. Aren't you?

I’m prepared for Games Tourism. Aren’t you?

People are exhausting and it’s not really because any one of us is extroverted or introverted even though that plays a part. People literally place demands on our energy when face to face. We have to talk with them, tapping into our emotions, making us think about their ideas, adjusting to their physical presence …socializing literally requires a lot of energy. So it’s no wonder anyone could feel exhausted after a gathering, going out, party or other social event. There’s nothing abnormal about that. But what’s interesting is that in this technological time people have suddenly noticed the amount of energy that this takes, whereas before we took it for granted. And having noticed, we can now make a choice to save our energy for other things. That’s not a tough decision to make. If I can put that energy to more efficient use while getting the amount of socialization I need to get by, I’ll naturally prefer this method over any traditional way of socializing. Whether that’s healthy or not will, to some extent, depend on the person but what we do know is that too much isolation from other people causes psychological distress — and that’s not healthy. There’s good reason that solitary confinement is used as a method of torture and punishment. We know how bad the effects of loneliness are on people.

I think communicating face-to-face is still important, it doesn’t matter if you’re introvert or extrovert. There’s a reason we’re born yearning for a human touch and a human face. Those yearnings are part of what make us human. The internet isn’t yet mature enough to make that less important. Today we’re adapted to the current technology, we’re used to it’s demands and perks. In this case, I can chose to socialize via the net instead of in person. Either way, I still always chose to connect with people, which says a lot about what we really want. No one wants to be alone, we prefer to spend time with people, even when we chose to do it over the internet introverts and extroverts alike.

I'm personally looking forward to this. I suspect the movie The Surrogates has a special importance to humanity ...as a warning.

I’m personally looking forward to this. I suspect the movie The Surrogates has a special importance to humanity …as a warning.

And that’s why VR is going to explode all these concepts of introvert and extrovert! Those same people who call themselves introverts (me included) will be the first with virtual avatars, walking through Janus or going to VR travel agents …and they’ll do it so that they can see other avatars and be in their presence. I personally want to see how extroverts react to this, because I have a feeling they’re less likely to embrace it than the same introverts who prefer the net to real faces. We love being around people more than we care to admit.

I enjoy being alone and I love being in the company of people, the former more than the latter. Before I married I was spending an inordinate amount of time on the internet. I remember feeling crazy some nights being alone. Some part of me enjoyed the silence, but some other part of me felt it wasn’t enough, the feeling of something missing and not in the “I want a partner” sort of way. It wasnt’ loneliness or unhappyness, it was just the feeling of something …missing. A bit off. One way or another, I found excuses to be around people I enjoyed or went out to meet new people to enjoy, even though I still spent the majority of my time alone and even though while in the company of people I didn’t tend to interact with them in any way at all. I need to experience the presence of people. I found the balance for me and I suspect everyone finds that balance for themselves. I think it’s a very strange idea that life can be rich without the strong presence of people, even if it’s just a handful of essential people. That’s tough to imagine because in some ways people are what make my world feel large and full of possibilities.

A really unfortunate side effect of the internet age is that while trying to spend our energies socializing more efficiently, we’re objectifying human interaction. In our minds, we now have Human Interactions in nice little packages of varying sizes and shapes which we can go to the internet and “shop” for. Feeling anti-social? Turn off the social media or ramp up my inner-troll (consequence free!). Want to feel voices around you? Hang out on Twitter. Need someone to talk to? Open Skype and pick any of the dozens of impossible numbers of “friends” on your list and strike up a conversation. We didn’t aim for this state of affairs, but when you think about it it’s all kinda anti-social because we’re just looking for pieces of others, the pieces we’re comfortable with. We want the perks of interacting with people without actually interacting with people. Socially anti-social.

In this crazy age of cyborgs we view each other less and less as necessary and I don’t like the idea of people becoming unnecessary to one another, so I tend to think that at some levels, internet socialization is harmful. But I suspect many of us think that. We just don’t know where to draw that line or at what point we’ve crossed it. At what point is preferring the company of virtual people anti-social? Can we really socialize with pieces of people? How we understand the word socialization is changing, but so are we.

I’ve rambled on enough here. This subject is endless, like the droves of billions of humans around the planet. We’re not in a danger zone yet, I don’t think. But when people say that the internet is making us anti-social, I suspect they feel that the line between socializing and anti-social is being blurred or crossed for them. They’re afraid, like many of us, of people forgetting people and I think that’s a healthy and well-founded fear to have.

Couch Podtatoes Ep. 15

It’s out! Go listen to it!

I’m awful at putting out posts when a new podcast is published by my dear friends Eri and Izzy. I only make an appearance once per month, but it’s a fun show, just a few gamers talking about what’s going on in the blogger community and having opinions.

It’s linked in the sidebar 24/7. This week’s episode is about Bragtoberfest which is coming October 1st. It’s a gaming event for game bloggers, so head over to Me vs Myself and I to learn more!

bragtoberfest_spooky

Mega Server Tech and Player Communities

Belghast has sparked a discussion in light of the fiasco that is the Archeage (AA) launch. Everyone who’s tried to play it the past week have met the day-long queues. I think it’s a travesty. It seems clear they didn’t build a server system suited to the task.

AA is using a traditional MMO set-up (multiple, disconnected servers). It has features that makes server modifications extremely difficult and inflexible. AA has fewer servers than it needs for launch and because of the rigid server infrastructure, they can’t just add new ones. They’ve literally developed the game on a server platform that cannot possibly meet the game’s needs. Talk about painting oneself into a corner, XL and Trion have done just that. So what exactly is the problem? There’s two key issues making the game lame and unplayable.

Labor Points and Land

Labor points are the lynchpin in the game. They are the pivot that everything hinges on. This system CANNOT be altered without sending tsunami waves rampaging through every aspect of gameplay. LP are a kind of currency that players earn and which we spend on things like quests, crafting, and opening loot. Yes, you read that correctly: in order to open the loot on the enemies you’ve killed you have to pay a fee. You’ve also got to pay to report bots, abuse and other violations to game rules. LPs are crucial to the gameplay experience. You can’t play the game without them.

To earn LP all you have to do is be online. For Free-to-play (F2P) customers, online presence is the primary way to earn LP. You get them automatically every 5 minutes that you’re logged in. This means that optimizing your character requires that you never logout. Obviously this encourages AFK’ing and botting. Bots and AFK’ers are currently dictating the server schedule. They decide if the servers will be restarted. They decide if Trion must add new servers. Trion makes decisions based almost solely on their behavior right now. This gives new meaning to the phrase “the patients are running the asylum”.

There are other ways to earn LP, like buying things from the item shop with gold and/or real money. LP is also capped for non-paying customers at 2000. The goal of players is to make our time spent efficient. This means we prefer to earn it than to spend any kind of money on it, even in-game currency.

Due to the incentive to never logout and the dedication of AFK’ers to advancing their character, server queues are massive. It’s a problem that’s gorging on itself. As players try to stay online to earn LP, they’re even more likely to AFK for fear of not getting back online due to queues. It’s a problem that gets bigger the longer it persists. This is magnified during weekend periods, but those queues are still there as of this Wednesday morning. I suspect queues will be massive this coming weekend despite the updates Trion have been making.

The current implementation of LP is killing the game. Because of the way LP works, it’s causing self-perpetuating queues. But because of the way land and housing works, it’s preventing Trion and XL from alleviating those queues.

Players can own land in the game. In a game where land-ownership in the main world is available, the game economy depends greatly on stable populations. This means Trion can’t just add new servers to address the queues, because if they launch too many, those servers won’t have a strong population. This also means they can’t merge servers without instancing land, thus destroying the economy along with a dozen gameplay incentives (land value, land conquest, castle sieges, etc).

That’s 2 critical game features that are preventing players from playing the game in a normal way. So how should they have handled this? And how will this impact the game and population in the future?

Megaservers

First, I’ll acknowledge that megaservers aren’t a silver bullet. There’s no silver bullet. Optimal server tech that any given MMO requires will depend on the features of that game. For sandbox games, we have models all around us, showing us their strengths and weaknesses. The core and most important thing to keep in mind for sandbox games is that players are the primary content. This is true for MMOs in general, but the life and death of a game hinges on this principle for sandboxes. Players create the content. And when your primary content is something as dynamic as a human player, megaservers will always be a better solution because they allow the game to dynamically expand and contract based on player activity.

The fewer pre-made landmarks in the world, the more of a sandbox the game is and the more it will require a server solution that’s flexible. EVE Online is a great example of an MMO that strikes a great balance.

New Eden has dozens of pre-made stations (cities) and regions (continents) with NPCs who have their own lives, institutions and property. The player can be friends or enemies with them, but they can’t remove them from the world. Those are permanent features. But then New Eden offers the players a vast sandbox to modify the topography of the game. Player institutions hold immense power and importance. Locations become strategically valuable. Alliances with certain NPCs reinforce power. In this sandbox the devs give players an infrastructure, a skeleton, that we then modify to create the kind of game we have today. EVE also uses megaserver technology. Every player is on the same shard. This means the game scales extremely well. When the playerbase gets smaller, nothing changes and when it grows, nothing changes. The game accommodates small populations and large ones equally well, generally speaking (small hardware adjustments can be handled in hours, if not minutes most of the time). EVE has it’s own technical issues and I’m not sure how well their set-up scales with a game with a much more sizable population (say WoW’s population). But one thing’s for sure: they have the right set-up to make a playable sandbox for their game.

AA scales extremely poorly. Any drop in player population brings the prospect of server mergers, which would kill the game. Any expansion of the population causes server instability. For AA, their sandbox is far too small but it can’t be made larger without significant downtime, delays, and big changes to the servers. Sandboxes require a dynamic and vast game space, an environment that creates the illusion of an infinite frontier along with the quantity of land to make it real. Archeage is shaping up to be a gimmick. There’s no infinite frontier (the land is extremely finite, there are definite good locations and bad locations which can’t be made better/worse through player actions unlike EVE Online). They’ve advertised something and delivered only a shadow of what was promised.

The traditional server set-up comes with traditional problems.

  • The only way to respond to sudden over-population is new servers.
  • The only way to respond to low-population is server mergers.
  • The only way to merge servers in a game where players own the land is by instancing that land.
  • If AA instances the land, it will break the game.

AA is in a really bad spot.

Trion’s current solution is attrition: wait it out. Let the players who get fed up with queues quit and soon enough the playerbase will shrink to a size they can manage. Wait until the population hits whatever magic number they’ve written down as “the playerbase we expect to have in 3 months”. That’s one way to handle it, sure. But in the long term they have to make some really hard decisions which will definitely change the game.

  • Remove LP earnings while online and implement a different method to earn them.
  • Develop new server technology so that it scales well with population increases/decreases.
  • Develop smart queueing systems
  • Create more specialized servers

As long as players stand to lose progress by logging out, AFK’ing and botting will continue. The two are never going away anyway, but the game shouldn’t make it profitable.

There’s many examples of server technology which scales better than what they have. Star Wars Galaxies did it 10 years ago. The Secret World has a system, Elder Scrolls Online, and of course EVE. This isn’t new stuff. There are solutions to their server problem and only god knows why they chose the current set-up.

An MMO needs a smart queuing system. It needs to be able to handle disconnects in a smart way, and also needs to tell the player exactly what’s going on so that we can plan our play time accordingly. For example, logging in should give you a report on the status of any given server. Perhaps Kyrios is over-crowded. A smart queue would make recommendations, tell the player when peak hours are for any given server. Inform the player of when maintenance and restarts are before they queue. Make it impossible to lose your position in a queue.

Specialized servers would probably have a big impact on server stability. Create Patron servers if necessary, but there’s other kinds of servers too. Create “flood” servers that allow players a grace period to freely transfer to a different server when there’s room. Flood servers can safely be shutdown because no one can buy land or houses on them. It just gives players a way to get into the game, start earning LP and leveling while they wait for the server of their choice to expand.

There are solutions to Trions problem. The only question is whether they’ll take advantage of them or stick with their guns. Right now, they have no intention doing anything except wait for players to quit. That’s bad for business and really bad for a game that requires a strong population.

Sexy or Sexualized No. 7

Gotta love the Hawkeye Initiative. It takes something people are undecided about and makes it so clear to see.

The past few weeks it’s seemed difficult for us to tell when something is simply sexy, and I guess that actually makes sense. Sexy is subjective. It’s about attraction. I may find something attractive that you don’t. But isn’t there a commonly or popularly understood definition for sexy too? Sure. We can tell when a picture is trying to be sexy in our culture. It still might not attract us in that way though.

Sexualization on the other hand …well. It’s like looking at Greek columns and knowing an Ionic from a Corinthian.

Making an Effort: Game Accessibility

Thanks to Simcha and Belgast for mentioning a new feature of Final Fantasy XIV which makes the game more enjoyable for those with hearing impairments. They’ve introduced a waveform system that allows players to visualize the sounds and effects. Right now it’s only available for Windows, but I just thought this was worth pointing out.

This is what “making an effort” looks like, folks. You can read about it in the patch notes here and see pics below.

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New accessibility settings have been added to the System Configuration menu. (Windows® version only)
The FINAL FANTASY XIV team strives to provide an enjoyable, accessible gaming experience for all of our players.
As part of this continuing endeavor, we have implemented an experimental new visual alert feature.
* Due to system limitations, this feature will only be available on the Windows® version of the game.

About Visual Alerts
The option to enable a visual representation of sound waves has been implemented for the benefit of our hard-of-hearing players. With this feature enabled, players will see a visual representation of the various sounds emitted within in the game. We hope that this will prove useful, as well as convey the sense that the world of Eorzea is alive with sound.
Details
Sounds are visualized as waveforms, with three categories of sounds (see below) each represented by a different color. These visualizations are connected to the game’s volume settings, so the size of the visualizations may be adjusted by adjusting your volume settings.

Blue: Background music
Red: System alerts
Green: Sound effects, ambient sounds, voices

Who Are You Talking To?

Do you know your audience as a writer? Who are the readers you’re trying to reach? And do you write mostly for them or do you write in the hopes of attracting others unlike you?

It takes a lot of time for a blogger to get to know their audience. But for game bloggers the experience usually starts off as a passion for a particular game and, in a way, you immediately know who your audience is. So there are bloggers who got started writing about World of Warcraft and anyone who plays that game might be interested in what they’re writing. Players from Wildstar or Star Wars might find it interesting too, but the target audience is clearly players who like the same games as you do.

This is the same with social justice, though it seems to be poorly understood. I can’t count how many times I’ve had readers wonder who I’m writing for. Well …for you. The person who read it.

I think over the years I’ve come to know my audience pretty well. I know what riles up my readers and what makes them feel good about themselves. I know what they might find amusing or the kinds of games they might play. In a way, bloggers even come to know things about our readers that are a little …intimate. For example, some bloggers know what makes their readers uncomfortable. That might be why they know which issues to avoid and which issues will net them more page views than usual. Writers get to know their audience and their own writing. For those who have been at it for a few years, you know exactly the kind of response (or lack thereof) to any given topic you publish.

And the audience knows their writers much of the time too.

Almost every one I’ve come to know through blogging who has heard me speak for the first time has been surprised. Because of the intensity of my writing at times, a lot of people imagine I speak more loudly than I actually do. Because of the tenor of my writing some have come to think I’m a talker, but those of you who’ve talked to me have learned that’s not the case either. So in a sense, blogging gives the reader and writer this weird space to imagine who the person really is, but also to invent the person behind the monitor completely.

I speak softly. I speak rarely. But I have a lot I want to say. One could argue that blogging gave me a voice in a way I’ve never had. I feel very comfortable blogging in ways that I’d never feel about talking. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not shy or afraid to speak or anything like that. But …well some things from our childhoods stick with us in my case. Talking wasn’t the way I learned to communicate most effectively and in a way I still feel inadequate when I speak. Words feel clumsy in my mouth.

Here’s a an exercise: who did you imagine your audience/favorite authors to be before you had the opportunity to interact with them? Did they meet your expectations?

How do your various personalities come together? There’s the gamer Doone. Then there’s the community carebear Doone. There’s daddy Doone. Mr. D. Doony. There’s the NBI Doone (the pest who just won’t stop bothering you about getting involved). There’s Doone the friend and Doone the social justice warrior. There’s many Doones, but the truth is that most of you only know blogger Doone. You only know the highly opinionated, analytical, unyielding game critic, the guy who challenges everything even when he agrees with it. I’d ask who your favorite Doone is, but I probably don’t really want to know. Much more fun to imagine.

Know your audience. Unlike when I first started writing, I’ve got a pretty clear picture of who I’m talking to when I write and I think every veteran blogger knows what I mean. Over time you just get a really good feel for who your audience is. For new bloggers, you’re not alone if you still aren’t entirely sure who you’re writing for.  You’re still developing your audience and over time that picture will become a bit more clear to you.