Rants tag

Rants, ruminations, and rambling remarks from my mad, muddled, meandering mind.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

StoryBricks and the Monkeysphere

Man! I have got to get more posts on here. My readership has probably dried up. I was reading a post from Spinks the other day about Namaste and their new system of NPC "motivation" called StoryBricks that seems pretty innovative from a game development perspective. Spinks' words inspired me to write a post, because I have been thinking about realism/immersion in MMOs. This post may be a bit scattered as it represents the convergences of two lines of thought I've had over a few months actually.
101 Freeway, Burbank Blvd. and Ventura Blvd.
I grew up in Southern California, in Ventura County. On several occasions, I had the opportunity to drive through the San Fernando Valley (the home of Valley Girls) on my way to Los Angeles. It didn't matter what my destination was, it was usually not the Valley itself. The 101 freeway  (US 101) winds through the south end of the Valley past towns like Encino and Van Nuys. When I did stop in the Valley, it was at a mall or other commercial enterprise. I never thought much about the million or so people I drove past on those trips into L.A. Several years after moving away from SoCal, my then-wife and I took our toddler to visit my mother-in-law in Encino for Christmas. While at a park one afternoon during our stay, I looked around in amazement at all the people who lived their lives in this city that I had driven past all those years.

Now, did their lives affect mine? Possibly remotely. Maybe some of them manufactured things I used. Maybe some of them drove alongside me on the 101 Freeway. But they didn't ever really affect me, though I lived only a few miles away. Heck, even most of the people who lived in my hometown of 120,000 only affected me peripherally, if at all. Why is that? A humorous analysis of a theory called the Monkeysphere can be found on Cracked. The TL:DR version is that we humans only have the capacity to develop reciprocal relationships with--to care about--a maximum of about 150 other Homo sapiens. Wait, that number may include our friends from Felis catus and Canis lupus familiaris, as well. Hmm. I wonder if it includes fictitious characters, too. That would explain why I cried when Spock sacrificed himself to save the ship.

You know that nice cashier at the store? You remember her because you are in there every week. She won't remember you at all from the hundreds of people she serves, unless you come in just about every day, and talk to her a bit. But you still won't be friends. To your life, it doesn't matter if she takes your money for that loaf of bread, or someone else does. It doesn't matter if she is a single mother with three kids, or a college student with a lousy boyfriend. You're just a customer and she's just a shopkeeper.

"What has this to do with my MMOs?" you may be saying, Dear Reader.  Referring back to Spinks' article, I don't care if the NPC shopkeepers wander around and "have lives" independent of my game playing. Actually, I'd prefer that they be there when I need to sell my junk or buy some mana juice, not off making digital dinner for their virtual children. I don't need much interaction with them. The interface with them needs to be simple and efficient.
To be honest, most of the other player characters in an MMO are also outside our Monkeysphere. Those decrying the horrible state of communities in WoW, for example, need only walk out their door and drive to the mall or some other venue where crowds of people gather. You'll find that you care very little for any of them. Is this bad? Not necessarily, as long as you're courteous to them and they are to you. Unfortunately, we tend to fall outside the Monkeysphere of other players, just as they fall outside our sphere. This explains the behavior you find in many modern MMOs, and indeed, most of the Internet. You simply are not a real person to most monkey brains.

This is not to say we can't form friendships and even fall in love through online games. I know people who have, and I myself consider many people friends whom I have only ever met online.

It may seem cold, but the reality of our lives is that most of the people around us are merely peripheral shadows, barely registering. We interact personally with a few people at work or school, our friends and family. Strangers may as well be “window decorations” for all we care. Most NPCs serve the same function in our games.

I have decided to discuss the other line of thought in another post. Part two coming tomorrow . . . I promise.


  1. I don't blame people for wanting a more immersive MMO experience, and if it takes NPCs having and living their own lives, I don't deny that will probably make the virtual game world more realistic. Still, I like the twist you bring to it. After reading your article, it occurred to me and it is a little unsettling to think there are probably some out there who would rather "get to know" NPCs more than say, the PCs around them...players with living, breathing human beings behind the MMO avatars. Very ironic.

  2. I know what you mean. OTOH, I got pretty attached my Bridge Crew in STO, especially Tarah, the Andorian First Officer. As did you for Sleer, IIRC. I think some people's desire to get to know NPCs stems in part from how they feel they've been by real people, either online or in meatspace.

    I think everyone's immersion "threshold" vs. their need for immersion is different, just as people have differing tolerances for willing suspension of disbelief in movies and TV. I have never minded the the quest dialogues in most MMOs I have played, or the cartoonish art of WoW, for example. Others can't stand those game elements.

  3. Ha! Awesome. I immediately thought of Oblivion, where the shops would close at sundown. There were a few plot points surrounding that (break-ins), but DAMN! It was horribly inconvenient.

    Thing is, real world style immersion might sound good on paper, but it needs to be "gamified" so that it works within the confines of the genere of game, and more importantly, the amount of time we expect to devote to it. No one wants to RP a game in which you have to stand in line at the bank...I'm pretty sure.

    Also, your observation on human interaction in game mirroring real world human interaction is a cornerstone of the anti-community argument, which I support (I'm not anti-community, but I am anti-FORCED-community)

  4. I think our attachment to bridge officers in STO is little different though. Yes, there is a certain desire for an NPC to have a life of their own in-game and like a real person, but at the same time, the fact STO doesn't have that leads us to make those stories for ourselves in our own heads. That's what makes me attached to my officers, anyway.

    But I do see your point. I became emotionally invested in NPCs in Dragon Age too, and those characters and their lives and dialogue were completely written by the developers.

  5. It's not just NPCs in games. As I mentioned in the post, by the time Spock died in SW:TWOK, I'd grown so attached to the character through the novels that I cried, more than once in the movie theater.

    Actors love death scenes, but audiences hate for favorite characters to die.