Wednesday 18 February 2009

Society is no comfort to one not sociable.

It was while stalking the vast echoing corridors of my work place looking for a vending machine that was stocked with anything other than peanut M&Ms, like a T-Rex of confectionery, that I witnessed the common place routine that people who know one another but don’t actually work together go through when they meet in the corridor:

“Oh, hello Karen.”

“Hi Bob!”

“How are you?”

“Good. You?”

“Yes, fine thanks.”

All of which is, of course, said at pace as the two people desperately try to maintain that level of acknowledged politeness which unwritten etiquette dictates, whilst simultaneously not shedding any momentum; thus at least one person ends up walking backwards, the other twisted half around with one arm out in their general direction of motion in order to feel for the door that they’re approaching at full walking speed without being able to see it. Today the one walking backwards was also heading towards the concrete stairwell, but he managed to cram in the last required line of the Rite of the Polite and then turned in time to make a stumbling grab for the bannister and correct his course before he fell to his untimely, yet incredibly polite, demise.

The T-Rex, who had paused on the stairs to watch the scene unfold, snorts derisively, and stomps off to the north in search of a herd of Mars bars.

It was while quietly boggling to myself about the curious nature of this, perhaps very British, way of maintaining social contact with people who we’re just too busy to know about right now, and kicking the vending machine that had eaten my pound coin and now abjectly refused to divest itself of any chocolate and caramel snacks in return, that I realised that this social weirdness was something I had experienced often in MMOs that I had played. Then I was struck by the fact that MMOs might actually be the perfect breeding ground for such behaviour, like a microbial culture for transitory social interactions. Outside of your close-knit group of friends that you play with, and perhaps some of your closer guild mates, do you often stop to chat with people you know in-game if you bump into them in a capital city, or a popular questing hub? Obviously some of you will answer in the affirmative, but I haven’t witnessed many players who start their Bartle categorisation with an ‘s’. From what I’ve witnessed, many people would emote a friendly wave and carry on their way to wherever they had to be; we often make ourselves busy in MMOs, make work for ourselves, if you will, things that we need to be getting on with right now. So we’re too busy to talk. Sorry! Emote wave. Move on. It’s a curious situation when you consider that in an MMO, should we wish to, we can carry on the conversation without actually having to stop to pass the time of day, but we often don’t. I’m as guilty of it as the next person, and I’ve exchanged many a wave with someone I recognise while doing the half-turn arm-out-in-front run for the nearest door, and yet I’d also be quite happy to chat if the other person were to whisper to me. But I don’t whisper to them, they don’t whisper to me, and we both carry on with our daily MMO grind, and in all possibility we’re spiritually a little worse off for not having shared time with one another.

Not everyone is this way, of course, there are those socialites among us who can while away hours in an MMO without actually touching the ESDF (pfff WASD indeed) keys. There are also people like Bob, whom we are acquainted with but don’t actually want to stop in the corridor to talk to, because he has BO, or talks incessantly about the extraordinary mating habits of dung beetles, or has an unnerving way of adjusting his testicles when he’s talking to you, as though he’s trying to work out a poi routine with them.

The anonymity of MMOs means that we don’t have to feel any real pressure about socialising, and the fact that we can socialise at any time, should we so desire, means that the need to maintain a face-to-face connection is felt even less. My character isn’t me, and if you want to speak to me I am an entity outside of any chance meeting of avatars in a virtual world, and yet I can’t help but feel that this is a sad thing in a game where I’m still very much aware of the RPG heritage that these massively online games share. One would think that MMOs might be the environment where social etiquette and interaction would evolve above beyond those staid and stilted conventions that have formed in the real world due to its various constraints on our lives. Yet it seems that the real world conditioning is quite strong, and is perhaps a reason why many guild channels that I’ve witnessed have long since devolved into a silent gathering of people, whose only passing acknowledgement is the ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’ that their curious social etiquette commands, an etiquette mimicking those real world transient interactions, but for the txt spking, online generation. Perhaps I’m just unlucky in the social circles that I’ve fallen into in many MMOs, perhaps it’s my somewhat errant social compass that guides me consistently to such places, I’d certainly be interested to know of any examples where socialising in MMOs has evolved different rules and interactions due to the nature of the medium.

The T-Rex tears the helpless Mars bar from its protective shell and with a massive vicious chomp bites it in twain. Mouth still full, he lets out a mighty roar of victory, which is only cut short when he sees the cute girl from the third floor standing behind him waiting to use the vending machine. He makes his way quickly past her, not evening making the socially expected fleeting eye contact of acknowledgement, before returning to his desk and brooding over the consequences of being a T-Rex at work, while finishing off his confectionery kill.

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