From fish to MMOs: Grouping

From fish to MMOs is a running column that re-evaluates, through a biological lens, fundamental video game mechanics and designs. This is the introduction.

Titus, eighty and munching on apple skins, tells me his usual quip about lizards dancing naked and free in the sub-Sonoran desert, exploding outwards two legs at a time across blistering sand. He goes on and on, can’t see past his glasses, and I sit staring at his bright white dentures sending fiber down into an already agitated mess. We’re in his research office, on level three of the Calcutta Integrative Biology Center. The most I can gather from his rambling is that he’s jealous of the lizards and wary of his own research. Here, he has to sit still, wearing a button down shirt and prim pants in his pastel office from the 60s until his retirement or his stroke. He complains about the double standard.

A “double standard between species” mentioned offhand like there’s something meaningful in that. Those lizards, they don’t have the luxury of being self-aware and no one has the luxury to claim that they’re indecent for scurrying nude in the sand. But Titus doesn’t mean it like that. He’s trying to point out how we’ve forgotten that we’re nude too, under all our clothes, how we have eyes like lizards do, how our brains both respond to stimuli. The double standard is that we think we’re not animals, and we’re so fast to pass judgment on everything else because of it.

No matter how convoluted our culture becomes, no matter how often we claim full privilege over our desires or relationships, there will always be something rote and mechanical about our behaviors. Inspired naturally and inadvertently by our biological roots, bent and twisted through time by evolution, built from the ground up and slathered in mud, is every human construct.

Including video games.

Guppies and Grouping
Sometimes, I flip through science texts to find graphs that I can tangentially relate to video games. You’d be surprised how often I don’t have to make a stretch. This is the result of one book and a sit down.

Chapter six of [REDACTED] begins by explaining the terms of group living and the social behaviors responsible for cooperation. Like all behaviors, the cost and benefit of performing the behavior takes top tier. There’s a graph on the next page: Figure six point one.

It shows that guppies (these small, rather slimy fish) change the size of their schools based on the rates of predation in their immediate area. The more predation, the tighter the school of fish. This makes sense, intuitively. We’re also animals; we probably employ the same mechanisms, but with suave. Today, for now, we’re fish. We’re slimy guppies swimming from whatever eats us and to avoid being singled out, to amass a shape potentially horrifying to our ensuing enemies, we get close and touch each other and all the other guppies with our slick bodies.

I’m sure military handbooks have similar guidelines for the soldiers they teach, though they’re probably not so explicitly touchy-feely. Stay together, right? It explains why the “Army of One” campaign was a bust; it directly opposed these principles of survival. War, in the real world, isn’t and never was a singular effort.

It’s important to note that there’s no conscious awareness of cooperation in guppies. The association is completely driven by a stimuli-action circuit. Guppies certainly don’t understand why grouping lowers their chances of being eaten, though it seems so obvious to us. They do it simply because that behavior was selected for over time.  I don’t know the proximate – the immediate – mechanisms for detecting predators and for grouping in guppies, but the ultimate – the evolutionary – significance is clear: group or be killed.

Exclamation, yellow
Half of my time in any given MMO is spent looking for a group.

There’s… Roger Hammerfield? What a stupid name for a make-believe superhero. He’s looking for someone to group with outside Orgrimmar and yelling obscenities into the wind at the silence.

And some other player… I can’t remember his name. It was something like Skywalker or Lightfoot, but a bit off and less creative. He stopped at my ranger camp and invited me to find some Nightsisters on Dathomir. He promised me some loot.

Through the linkshell, I’m invited to Valkurm Dunes to grind, to grind, to grind, and to cut some goblin throat. I get there and I see groups of five, combo chains left and right and pretty explosions.

I pick up a quest in [insert MMO] and I check the LFG chat. Before starting this one alone, before falling fool to the elites at the end, I check to see if anyone has had the audacity to attempt the kill on his own. Struggling for resurgence, a way to avenge his own death, he’s screaming in chat to find a group for this quest, my quest. I save myself embarrassment and some time and send him a tell.

I don’t know the guy. We kind of just float along together through the fighting and get to the end. We win, we don’t die, whatever. Mission accomplished and we’re off and away, him to some new group quest and me to the outside, to my guppy bowl.

My genes
I never take these things to heart. It’s not fun to reduce the human spirit to its final fundaments. You can’t stand straight up on that slippery slope into hell. It’s important, though, to not just look at the vast array of game worlds and mechanics as crafted solely by pure imagination. That assumes too much about our independence from the deep well of biology. It’s no one’s fault. We just can’t help it.

The association between guppies happens spontaneously and without consideration of relatedness between individuals. Inclusive fitness – the shared fitness of relatives, of same genes – just doesn’t matter. Fitness here means how well an individual passes on his own genetic material. We really don’t have to quantify it; it gets dirty.

In the real world, these things have circumstantial weight on our behaviors. We, after all, have genetic material to protect and pass on to kin. There’s nothing conclusive about being completely defined by the stuff so I won’t claim that, but this isn’t without saying that we’ve been given, through some process, the desire to survive and propagate.

Survival translates well into an in-game avatar. It explains why we’re so willing to become dependent on other people within virtual worlds regardless of how related we are. If there’s some benefit to accrue from working with other avatars (as long as the cost to that behavior is low enough), and if the survival of avatars is threatened, then there will be some association – a grouping – between those threatened avatars. It’s logical and it makes sense.

But, in video games, we’re missing something. Game characters don’t have genes. It doesn’t matter if they live or die or what their success is. There’s just no heritable unit (except that which is cultural – I’ll get into this another time) and there’s no one to pass these units on to even if there was some flow of information on that level.

There’s a mismatching here. If the desire to live is, wholly, serving the desire to propagate genes, then there’s a void in the translation of animal behavior into the virtual world. Video games exploit our desire to survive without giving heed to our desire to pass on some form of hereditary information (whether in the form of genetics or epigenetics).

Play hard, sex hard
Outside of some place, deep in some subterranean caverns, I see a female dancing in her underwear in front of another female. Every so often, the dancer pops up in chat and says “how you like that?” or “this is for you, baby” and, every time, it’s always met with the cold, singular glare of a 3rd-person camera.

So video games are strip clubs with strict “no touching” policies, inebriating reality and making fake babies, where two men can court each other, lie to each other, and still fulfill a small part of what’s lost in virtual worlds. And it’s all extranoematic – outside the confines of human thought.

One day, when we’ve finally grown tired of living to take care of worthless in-game pets, grown tired of living to extend the reaches and dominance of our guilds and groups, grown tired of virtual marriage and virtual relationships with robots that can’t feel… we’ll finally be given the option to fuck every virtual thing in sight and have little kin monstrosities of programmed propagation to further spread our virtual seed. I’ll applaud the evil bastard who manages to exploit this.

I think the gamers of MMOs – of any game, really – are being manipulated into thinking that their in-game characters matter. I think the facets of survival – only one of which I mentioned, grouping – that have become so ingrained in our natural behaviors as creatures subject to evolution are being perverted for fun. Games are a virtual extension of our real-life desire to survive and they satiate that desire by employing a suite of behaviors central to our existence. On top of grouping behavior, there’s novelty-seeking, imitation/emulation, play behaviors, tool creation and, my god, so much more (hopefully, all of these will be explored in this column).

But because these behaviors are such an integral part of our natural history, I can’t make the claim that there’s a hunched-over evil developer psychologist working day and night to pry from us what makes us tick. Right now, there’s just some guy, somewhere, who thinks that working together could be attractive in the right context – if our avatar’s survival depends on it. He thinks he pulled it out of his ass, but, really, it was right outside all along. It was there at the team meeting, at the fourth grade play, at the building of the Tower of Babel, at the boar hunt, at the mining shaft, at the holy war, at the camp fire, at the cave, at the berry bush the very next morning.

Grouping’s even found a cozy place in our video games.

And we just eat it up.