Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #138:

Social Gaming Interactions, Part Three: Cooperation & Freeform

by Shannon Appelcline

Two columns ago, in Social Gaming Interactions, Part One, I began discussing the topic of social interaction in games by offering the statement that we'd barely scratched its surface. Then, last week, in Social Gaming Interactions, Part Two, I offered a number of ideas for how games could incorporate competitive interaction. This week I want to finish the topic by looking at new possibilities for cooperative and freeform social interaction in multiplayer games.

Cooperative Interactions

In Richard Bartle's categorization of of multiplayer gamers, he very broadly touches upon "socializers"--players who are there because they want to interact not just with the game system, but also with other people. I actually believe there's a lot more granularity to the category of socializers than just its simple name.

The biggest subset of socializers is, I believe, the cooperative players--those who are working together within the game system toward a specific goal. A few different MMORPGs have tried to appeal to this group, but as with competitive gamers there's also more we can learn from the word of tabletop games.

Direct Cooperation: This is the most typical type of cooperative interaction found in multiplayer games. Some opponent is described by the game and players directly cooperate in order to defeat it. It dates back to the second generation or so of MUDs, when players started being able to group together to fight monsters and has bled into groupings in EverQuest, Asheron's Call, and other early MMORPGs. Some of these MMORPGs are fairly sophisticated in how this direct grouping is accomplished, with different characters types able to provide very different resources to a grouping.

Lord of the Rings, by Reiner Knizia, is a direct-grouping tabletop game which is worth studying largely because its social cooperation is the heart and core of its game play. The players work together to try and expend resources in the most efficient way to more forward (toward Mount Doom). The game is full of discussion of what individual players should do for the overall good.

Arkham Horror, by Richard Launius, shows how the same issue can be approached in a much more casual way. Although separated by terrain, players all ultimately have the same goal--closing the extradimensional gates opening up on Arkham. Only through careful coordination can all gates be closed at once and the game won. Arkham Horror really points in a direction that multiplayer online games haven't taken within this category of social interaction by allowing players to be spread apart, yet still working directly toward a common goal. [See: Review]

Hierarchical Cooperation: Within the real world, hierarchies seem to develop natural; this seems slightly less likely in virtual worlds. Perhaps this is because of the lack of goods shortages, perhaps because of the fact that the fulfillment of basic human needs are never in question. Whatever the answer, it's probably worth an essay all on its own--but the point is that because of the lack of these pressures, a powerful means of social cooperation can be absent in online worlds.

Various multiplayer online games have tried to combat this. Asheron's Call is clearly the best example, because its hierarchy is explicit--but unfortunately that explictness tends to cause the ends (social interaction) to become subservient to the means (experience gains), so that the ends are somewhat lost. Other games such as Underlight and our own Castle Marrach approach hierarchy in a different way, making it the core of a skill-teaching system, and thus forcing less skilled practicioners to look up to their more skilled brethren, as might seem appropriate in real life. No matter what's been done so far, the concept of hierarchies--whether they be master/apprentice, lord/minion, or senior/freshmen--can add rich depth to social gaming.

The Great Dalmutti, by Richard Garfield, is a very simple tabletop example of hierarchical social dynamics. After the end of each round of play the top players (masters) get cards from the worst players (minions). This is a neat example to consider for online play for several reasons. First, it's not recipricol. The minions get nothing out of their service to the masters, and if anything they just accrue anger and resentment, much as lower castes often do. Second, it produces interesting social dynamics, with the desire for middle-class socials to overthrow the masters (and become such themselves) offset by their fear of becoming minions.

The Game of Thrones, by Christian Petersen, explores the hierarchy from another direction. One player holds the Iron Throne and thus has the power to settle any tie in any way he sees fit. Thus other players are encouraged to help out the holder of the Iron Throne and generally be friendly enough that he'll decide things in their favor. [See: Review]

Mind's Eye Theater, the Live Action Roleplayin game by White Wolf, shows more explicitly how the same idea can be used in a roleplaying setting. Some players simple are masters and they have powers over minions and also the ability to reward them for their services. A hierarchy naturally develops, along with whatever resentment or respect is appropriate.

Supportive Cooperation: Finally we come to a more indirect form of cooperation, where players simply offer resources to each other in order to achieve whatever goals are desired. This one is pretty rare in online multiplayer games, though we do see it on occasion in tabletops.

Diplomacy, by Allan Calhamer, is the epitome of this design. In that game, you can choose to have your troops support other troops in battle, thus helping those other troops to win, typically at no threat to yourself.

The Game of Thrones, by Christian Petersen, is a modern wargame that adopts this same tact, but here there are also ways to interfere with a troops ability to support.

These ideas of supportive cooperation are fairly one-dimensional. Clearly supportive cooperation could be military, economic, social, etc. The main points are that: it tends to be a few steps removed, and there tends to be low risk for the supportor.

Overall, these categories of social cooperation tend to form a spectrum from the direct cooperation of fighting together as a group to very indirect ideas of cooperation, like sending money to a distant player (with hierarchies somewhere in the middle of the directness spectrum). For your own online games the question ultimately is: how do you want your players to cooperate? The more you support this through game systems, the more that cooperative socialization will become an important part of your game.

Freeform Interaction

Everything that I've discussed thus far falls widely into the category of game-supported activities. That is, players are depending upon the game to compete with each other; or are depending upon each other to compete against the game. However, I think Bartle's general category of "socializer" players also includes another category of social interaction which I called "freeform" when I first mentioned it two columns ago.

The heart of freeform interaction is that either it's not goal-oriented or it's not system supported. Possibly both. In other words, social interaction is what players do when they're ignoring the hard work you put into coding your game.

Freeform interaction can have many purposes. The most common are:

  • Boredom Relief. Players are feeling unsupported for the system, and just looking for something to do.
  • Attention Getter. Players want to get attention from other players.
  • Ice Breaker. Players are looking for ways to make social interaction less threatening.

I realize that I'm being a bit abstract here, and that's partially because freeform interaction can literally take on an infinite number of forms. However, in the service of specificity, I'm going to outline just a few of the broad categories of freeform play I've seen.

Creative Pursuits: This is probably the most common, with players coming together to create stories, pictures, or whatever else can be created in your game. Sometimes they'll then share this creativity with other players, for example with a poetry reading, an art show, or a performed play.

Hierarchy Building: Even in the absence of good system hooks, players will sometimes try and develop their own hierarchy by latching onto something within your gameworld to use as a token of control.

Freeform Competition: Sometimes players will create competitions that are totally unsupported by the game system. In Castle Marrach, for example, many word games became common, such as spontaneously composing a poem on a provided topic, or even just playing party games like Charades (kind of) or Truth or Dare.

As a designer you may briefly consider these freeform interactions, shake your head, and say: the players will do whatever they want. However, that ignores the power of freeform interaction. The simple fact is that players are engaging in these interactions because they want to. Thus, it'd behoove you to at least consider how you can improve these players' experience.

Here's some ways that you can support and encourage freeform social interaction:

  • Build Good Socialization. Hopefully, this is obvious. You need socialization that is more evocative than just a chat line if you want to encourage freeform social interaction. Consider, is your system robust enough to allow players to freeform Spin the Bottle? How about Pictionary? How about Charades? Each of these games provides a step-up from the one before it in system capability, and thus each one opens up whole new venues of socialization.
  • Build Good Hooks. If your system has great hooks in it--neat objects, clever scripts, intelligent NPCs, etc--it's more likely that players will be able to build freeform social interaction around those hooks.
  • Support, Support, Support. Finally, as I already said, support those things which players are already doing. If they have a neat little create-a-poem-based-on-a-random-topic game why not give them new hooks to: decide a random topic; write something in poetic form; and output a pre-typed poem? Players may or may not use these hooks, but if they do they'll probably appreciate your work and be that much better equipped to freeform.


As is often the case in this column, the last couple of articles have largely been itemization. Given the topic of online gaming socialization I've tried to list broad categories and specific examples of many different forms. Not all games will, or should, include everything I've discussed, but as a designer you should at least consider the possibilities.

There's a lot more to online socialization than what can be discovered in a PK zone or in a simple chatline.

And with that I'll see you next year!

[ <— #137: Social Gaming Interactions, Part Two: Competition | #139: A Brief History of Game, Part Eight: Forging Partnerships —> ]

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