This semester I am working on a semester-long project to create a transformational experience exploring the issue of online toxicity for Games for Change 2020. While 74% of gamers have experienced toxicity in online multiplayer games, I still found that some games succeed to build a positive and friendly community with developers’ effort. Personally I very much value social aspects of MMOs so I looked into these games and tried to find how do they create a positive social experience for their players.
7 years after Journey came out, thatgamecompany released their new game Sky: Children of the Light on iOS in 2019. Rated 4.9/5 in App Store and winning iPhone game of the year for 2019, Sky provides its players with an enchanting flying social adventure.
Friend system and interaction design
In my opinion, Sky builds good social experiences with its unique and well-designed friend system. In the game, you become a friend with another player only if you send her/him a candle (the precious currency in game) and s/he accept your candle. Player avatars are designed by default gender neutral, and other players cannot see your name — instead, they name you when they friend you. These design choices prevent players from giving personal information out and avoid bias/stereotype towards the player as well as possible passive toxicity deriving from the player (such as insulting user names). After you become friends with another player, you can hold your friend’s hands and follow him/her. Two players moving together enable you to fly much higher and reach places you cannot reach alone. This mechanic encourages trust between players and rewards players with greater power in game. Other available interactions with your friend are shown in a tree with locked nodes. If your friend and you want to talk, you need another three candles to reach and unlock the chatting node in the tree.
The game protects its player from hostile words by raising the bar of chatting (which often costs nothing in some online games). What’s more, the design that any advancement in friendship requires candles and no payback is guaranteed ensures that interactions between players are not driven by their own interests but genuine friendliness.
ENVIRONMENT AND ATOMSPHERE
To maintain good vibes in the game, the pleasing environment created by visuals and audio elements plays an important role as well. In Sky, levels, though some are colorful and some are snowy-white, are very dream-like and resemble the fantastic fairy tale worlds.
The association between the dream world on the clouds and peaceful mind and behaviors is made subconsciously when players are flying in the game. Also, since players can hardly talk to strangers, you can interact with strangers by tapping on your own avatar to make a sound that every player in the same space can hear. Other players may tap and echo with you. The sounds are generated following the pentatonic scale, so even if a player keeps tapping again and again, sounds are different, harmonious and not annoying.
Another game in which I had a good time playing and interacting with other people and I think a heartwarming atmosphere is successfully built through good art is Kind Words.
The game space is just a small cozy room where the main character (i.e. the player) writes requests and responses to other people’s requests. The whole space is painted rosy and warm purple, filled with reassuring music from the radio. What a comforting world to be in! And how would someone under such circumstances be hard-hearted and write bad words to other people?
Make developers an example
From my perspective, one of the most effective approaches to encourage positive social behaviors among players is to make the developer themselves a good example. When a new player starts to play Kind Words, the tutorial guides the player through all the features including the inbox. Other players’ responses to your requests will be collected in the inbox so in the beginning the inbox should be empty. However, there is one unread letter from the developers of the game saying “we don’t want your inbox to start empty so we write you this letter and we hope you can do the same to other people”.
Often we would tell or show players what rewards they could get if they achieve the intended goal (in Kind Words, the goal is to care about others). But in fact, the most powerful incentive we can give our players is to let them experience in person what it is like to be cared about by strangers. It’s much easier for them to empathize once they know how good it feels to receive care. We as game developers want a virtuous cycle of positive interactions among players, then why don’t we start the cycle by inputting kindness to our players?
It’s not easy to create positive social experiences in a game, and I have to admit that the suggestions I mentioned above are not suitable for all kinds of games. But I think if we can reflect on successful cases and find what is effective and helpful for a good community in casual games, it can shed light on the games that are more competitive and intense.