REBECCA COMPTON: Cooperation vs Collaboration

The Link Between Player Relationships and Interactivity in Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games

Massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMOs) is a genre of gaming that cannot be grouped with others despite sharing common traits with single player console games. MMOs feature first-person shooters (FPS) as well as the more traditional open-world and fantasy-based universes. The motivations that guide players to MMOs can be found by distilling motivations discussed by Kristen Lucas and John Sherry describing six traits found in players of any kind of video game: competition, challenge, social interaction, diversion, fantasy, and arousal.1 One trait for which MMOs are especially known is social interaction through public spaces found in-game which attract those looking to socialise with like-minded players.

Another aspect of socialisation which is unique to MMOs is guilds. Guilds are groups formed by players to make dungeon raiding easier: not only is solo play through a dungeon more difficult, guilds give players an opportunity to form balanced groups of different strengths and weaknesses, because each character class has its own collection of both. Guilds have been described as existing for purposes of co-operation, yet game designer, Jane McGonigal suggests that, especially in MMOs, the key is not co-operation but collaboration. While these traits seem similar enough not to bear distinction, she claims there is a clear difference between the two. ‘Collaboration is a special way of working together. It requires three distinct kinds of concerted effort: cooperating (acting purposefully toward a common goal), coordinating (synchronizing efforts and sharing resources), and cocreating (producing a novel outcome together). This third element, cocreation, is what sets collaboration apart from other collective efforts: it is a fundamentally generative act.’2 For those teams who have a mutual understanding of the goals and ideals of the game, the benefits granted by the fusion of McGonigal’s three traits is felt by everyone within the guild. Even for the most introverted player behind their screen, this is prosocial behaviour.3

Because MMOs are created to make interactivity encouraged if not necessary, studying player behaviour within the genre is a way to determine to what degree cooperation and collaboration are adopted by players. There are several different activities which offer themselves for close study as different roles of teamwork are available to players – routes that demonstrate that cooperation and collaboration are quite different. When Winter Mason and Aaron Clauset researched how real-world relationships translate to the game world, they found several trends in how different personality types play and relate to others. They found that within and without MMOs, 78% of players wanted to be part of a team, whether in leading or supporting roles. Most players of MMOs prefer the team dynamic, but those who do not are referred to as the ‘lone wolf’.4

Quick reflexes are not crucial to successful play, and one trait that surpasses it, is loyalty to the group. Players are more likely to feel loyalty to their team if they are familiar with the other members; however, another trait which has linked to successful cooperation seems to be age. Mason and Clauset found that when playing team-based FPSs, ‘[y]ounger players (age?18) showed a disproportionate amount of […] team disloyalty relative to the older players […] with the former group exhibiting a betrayal rate about 40% higher than the latter groups. Because betrayals result in a penalty against the team’s overall score, this suggests younger players exhibit significantly increased anti-social behavior while older players generally exhibit a more pro-social or cooperative orientation.’5 In light of this data, it appears that age or immaturity determines loyalty to teams, or perhaps that older players are less likely to sabotage the game by intentionally playing incorrectly. Closer inspection reveals that the motivations of these players are not anti, but rather pro-social to a different group:

A strikingly clear result is that the amount of cooperation and defection (measured as assists and betrayals) a player exhibits depends strongly on the number of friends on their team. Specifically, the more friends on one’s team, the more one assists (pro-social) and the less one betrays (anti-social) one’s teammates. The implication is that players actively adjust their play based on their friendships—the motivation to maintain these relationships is greater than the motivation to maintain harmony within the current team or to win the current competition.6

Therefore, the young players who are perceived as skewing the results of each round are in fact showing loyalty to their friends, despite the act showing disloyalty to their peers. ‘In other words, if one or two friends find themselves playing against their friends, they are much more likely to kill their (non-friend) teammates than if they had no friends on the opposing team.’7 Further, the greater the number of ‘friends’ on the opposing team, the greater the betrayals until balance is achieved when the team consists mostly of friends.

MMOs produce relationships with non-existent intimacy distinctions between virtual and real-world friends, and playing with friends from either source warrants similar results. Research dictates that friendships found or maintained in the online gaming space produce stronger relationships than those over other online medias, even those which depend on users seeking real-world friends (Facebook). Mason and Clauset found that ‘[f]or online friendships, the reciprocity is 36.9%; that is, when one of two survey respondents indicated the other was an online friend, about a third of the time did they agree they were friends. The agreement on offline friendships was higher (60.9%). While both of these values may seem low, both are in fact much higher than the rates observed in other online social networks, e.g., [sic] Twitter (22%).’8 Members of online communities are finding relationships with those met in virtual spaces, and their relationships there are giving them levels of satisfaction rivalling those of real-world friendships.

Meanwhile, small guilds are finding collaboration easier when the groups are more intimate with fewer members who require attention. Nathaniel Poor researches the phenomena of communities in MMOs, and states ‘[g]uilds, as coordinating groups, may provide lessons for both real world and virtual teams’. He claims that smaller, more intimate guilds coordinate more smoothly as they are often inhabited by a tightly knit group of friends whose relationships are not only virtual.9 He further argues that while these smaller guilds do not have the wide selection of race and class offered by larger guilds, they may be more capable.10 These teams have spent time gaining an understanding of the other members’ play styles within a dependable social circle, and they take advantage of unified questing attitudes to take on more difficult bosses. In the cases when these smaller groups do not have the numbers for a large scale raid, they may combine with a similarly sized guild to form a ‘raid alliance’ and make themselves able to take on more dangerous dungeons.11 These assists are called ‘bonding’ when the guild works together within its unit, and ‘bridging’ when that unit ties itself across to another.12 In-group bonding takes many forms, including players who log on for the sole purpose of chatting with guild members rather than to pursue quests.13 Members of small guilds understand that even if these virtual spaces encourage competition between every individual inhabiting the game space, players simultaneously need one another even as they compete. Poor states that ‘[w]ithout competition against players of the other factions there is no point to cooperation with those in your own faction.’14

The wedge between players to compete against each other is subverted by the need to be productive – the need to progress, level up, and take down more challenging monsters is the catalyst which encourages players to form teams via the lure of collaboration.15 Poor qualifies this statement by claiming ‘[w]ith social graphs, both cooperation and competition are forms of collaboration [….] Researchers have noted that a mix of cooperation along with competition between groups is effective for motivation’ and this drive is what unites players who choose to join a guild.16 Harmonious guilds are more likely found in intimate groups; Clauset and Mason’s research states that ‘players win more often when playing with friends than with strangers, and the more friends they play with the better.’17

One of the prime reasons that this topic warrants discussion is that, while solo play is an option in MMOs, it does not allow for a full use of the genre’s capabilities. Not only that, but according to Yee, the genre has changed as MMOs have become easier to play without depending on other players in the game space. This opposes the game-play experience of games when the genre was new, and ‘[…h]aving a “social network” in the game was literally a matter of life and death for these players.’18 Solo play was not an option in early MMOs as in current games; levelling up was slower and more difficult, but most importantly, the loss sustained upon character death was catastrophic. Players not only had to search for their corpse before they could fully respawn, but in the time spent looking for their character, their inventory was unavailable and laying with their corpse, free to be picked up by other players who stumbled upon it. Most players would never conceive of raiding without their guild members with them, and killing monsters was a time-consuming endeavour. EverQuest19 is one game in which there was a need for other players, and between the time a player engaged a monster in combat and when the monster was defeated, players had time to get to know each other. According to Yee, in EverQuest, ‘combat occurred at a glacial pace; monsters took minutes to kill and players had time to chat during combat. Contemporary online game designers have streamlined pacing to minimize any down time. The action is brisk and constant. But downtime performed a valuable social function in the older games. It gave players a chance to talk to each other. In streamlined games, chatting is instead viewed as slowing down the combat (and thus experience gain). In EverQuest, if you didn’t chat during the downtime, there was nothing else to do.’20

Socialisation is only one motivation for games, but MMOs attract players for this very purpose since public spaces allow guilds to exist and the players within to collaborate. MMOs supply the opportunity to observe connections between virtual and non-virtual relationships, character choices, and age and their link to social choices in-game. Tanks, healers, damage dealers, and other classes are most successful when working together, and the environment the teamwork creates is one which players take seriously. MMOs connect players simultaneously around the world, and the interactivity found in this genre holds potential for further study on player relationships.

[1] Kristen Lucas and John L. Sherry, ‘Sex Differences in Video Game Play: A Communication-Based Explanation’, Communication Research, 31.5 (2004) 499-523 (p. 503).

[2] Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (London: Vintage Books, 2011) p. 268.

[3] McGonigal. p. 269.

[4]Winter Mason and Aaron Clauset, ‘Friends FTW! Friendship, Collaboration and Competition in Halo: Reach’, Proceedings of the 2013 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, (2013), 375-86 (p. 4).

[5] Mason and Clauset, p. 5.

[6] Clauset and Mason, p. 8.

[7] Clauset and Mason, p. 8.

[8] Haewoon Kwak et al., ‘What Is Twitter, a Social Network or a News Media?’, as quoted by Clauset and Mason p. 6.

[9]Dawn Owens and Deepak Khazanchi, ‘My Guild, My Team: Applying the Technology Capabilities of Massively Multiplayer Online Games to Virtual Project Teams’, as quoted by Nathaniel D. Poor, ‘Collaboration via Cooperation and Competition: Small Community Clustering in an MMO’, 2014 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, (2014), 1695-1704 (p. 1695).

[10] Poor, p. 1695.

[11] MJ Guthrie, ‘EverQuest II Expounds on Tears of Veeshan’, as quoted by Poor, p. 1695.

[12] Howard Rheingold, ‘The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electric Frontier’, as quoted by Poor, p. 1696.

[13] Joi Ito, ‘WoW Talk Transcription’, as quoted by Poor, p. 1695.

[14] Poor, p. 1703.

[15] Poor, p. 1696.

[16] Chun-Hua Fu et al., ‘A Kind of Collaboration-Competition Networks’ and David W. Johnson et al. ‘Effects of Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Goal Structure on Achievement: A Meta-Analysis’, as quoted by Poor, p. 1696.

[17] Clauset and Mason, p. 9.

[18] Yee, Proteus, p. 182.

[19] Brad McQuaid, Steve Clover, and Bill Trost, Everquest (San Diego: Sony Online Entertainment, 1999) [Video game].

[20] Yee, Proteus, p. 184.


Lucas, Kristen and John L. Sherry, ‘Sex Differences in Video Game Play: A Communication-Based Explanation’, Communication Research, 31.5 (2004) 499-523

Mason, Winter and Aaron Clauset, ‘Friends FTW! Friendship, Collaboration and Competition in Halo: Reach’, Proceedings of the 2013 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, (2013), 375-86

McGonigal, Jane, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, (London: Vintage Books, 2011)

Poor, Nathaniel D., ‘Collaboration via Cooperation and Competition: Small Community Clustering in an MMO’, 2014 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, (2014), 1695-1704

Ducheneaut, Nicolas, Nicholas Yee, Eric Nickell, and Robert J. Moore, ‘“Alone Together?” Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Online Games’, Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, (2006) 407-16

Ducheneaut, Nicolas, Robert J. Moore, and Eric Nickell, ‘Virtual “Third Places”: A Case Study of Sociability in Massively Multiplayer Games’, Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 16.1 (2007) 129-66

Rebecca Compton grew up a Hoosier, but is now in Cardiff working on a video games PhD looking at everything from female physical representations to queer theory. She flies small planes and has a motorcycle license and imagines this makes her super-hip.


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