People Playing Together: A Worthy and Inspiring Purpose

There is within each of us an inborn need for our lifetime pursuits to have meaning and value – to serve some greater purpose [1]. If we do not have some sense of a meaningful purpose in our lives, we can feel adrift, uncertain of our direction, or worse yet, uncaring. When that greater purpose is known to us, and even more importantly, felt by us, it provides both the driving force and the guiding star that inspires us to excellence.

Exceptional companies, just like exceptional people, often have a clear and meaningful sense of purpose [2]. Companies are, after all, nothing more than a group of people that have chosen to combine their efforts for some shared purpose. In some companies, the only articulated (or implied) purpose is to maximize profits, or increase shareholder equity. However, those companies that have withstood the test of time, understand that:

“Profitability is a necessary condition for existence and a means to more important ends, but it is not the end in itself…Profit is like oxygen, food, water, and blood for the body; they are not the point of life, but without them, there is no life.” [3]

Now, I’m not saying that profit isn’t important, because it is. But for most people, after the stack of bananas is higher than we can eat, the need for more bananas just for the sake of seeing how high we can pile them begins to lose some of its motivational force. As one of my esteemed co-workers pointed out, “We all as people want our labor to have worth beyond the purely financial…” [4]

So, if profitability isn’t the greater purpose that we serve, then what worth, beyond the purely financial, does our labor hold? What is the greater purpose that provides meaning, inspiration, and guidance to our pursuits? If not to just make money, then what is our purpose for existence? What is it that we do?

Well, um, we make games.

Multi-player, online (MMO) games to be specific. Certainly sounds like a fun pursuit, but where’s the sense of meaning and greater purpose in that? It’s not like we’re doctors saving lives, scientists curing diseases, ambassadors negotiating world peace, charities feeding the starving masses, or Al Gore cutting back on his electric bill. Nope, that’s not what we do.

We provide fantasy worlds where people spend their spare time, chatting away about frivolous matters with hordes of other online players, pretending to be heroes or heroines, and gawking at each other’s outlandishly costumed avatars. They march together on imaginary quests to banish make-believe creatures and collect virtual treasure. Now, just how meaningful could this be? It’s just fun and games, right?

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Not to say that providing fun and games isn’t a meaningful purpose (and a fun way to make a living too, I might add). All work and no play makes Jack a dull (and unhappy) boy. Recreation and play is an essential component of health and well-being. But as it turns out, there is a deeper, even more fundamental value buried within the context of recreation and play that is driving increasing numbers of people toward online games.

And, boy, are those numbers getting pretty big. By one assessment, the global online gaming community has reached a staggering 217 million people, which is one fourth of the worldwide internet population [5]. What’s up with that? What’s driving all these people to online games?

Other people.

The driving force behind this phenomenon is the deep and fundamental need all of us have to be with (or around) each other. From the moment we are born, there is built into our neural circuitry the need to be seen by each other, known by each other, understood by each other, validated by each other, and hopefully, accepted by each other. This fundamental need to connect with other people, referred to by psychologists as the need for “belongingness” can be “…as compelling a need as food.” [6]

…there is an impressive array of evidence that humans possess what Baumeister and Leary (1995) termed a fundamental “need to belong.” This evidence suggests that the individual’s need to belong to the human community
is fulfilled by frequent and affectively pleasant interactions with at least a few others…the association between human physical health and relationships with others is strong…the age-adjusted relative risk ratio between low social integration and mortality exceeds that of the highly publicized risks associated with smoking and obesity. [7]

This experience of belongingness is essential for our mental health: “…many of the emotional problems for which people seek professional help (anxiety, depression, grief, loneliness, relationship problems, and the like) result from people’s failure to meet their belongingness needs.” [8]

It is through our social connections that we feed our need for belongingness. Social connectedness is such a powerful factor that it is considered the number one predictor of happiness and well-being, “…All other objective predictors of happiness, including money, education, health, and place of residence, are only weakly correlated with happiness.” [9]

This craving for social connectedness is the driving force behind a great deal of online activity. Nielsen//NetRatings recently modified their website rating system to track time instead of just “page views.” This produced a different list than that generated by page views. Of the top three “most engaging” web sites, they found that people were spending over half their time using IM and email in their relentless pursuit for social connectedness. [10]

People are increasingly turning to MMO environments as an alternative to off-line sources for consistent and reliable social connection. Some have even compared MMO environments to “Third Places.” [11] The core elements of “Third Places” are: a place where one is free to come and go with minimal entanglements, status within real-life workplace or society doesn’t matter much, conversation is a main focus (with emphasize on playfulness and wit), easy access to the environment, it is frequented by “regulars” (where everybody knows your name), the environment is unpretentious, the general mood is playful and frivolous, and to the regulars it feels like home away from home.

Indeed, playing MMORPGs is essentially about hanging out with people recreationally. In some ways, they simulate features of “third places” (Oldenburg, 1989) such as a local pub: instead of having a few drinks, a game of darts and a lot of laughs with your friends, you battle a few monsters, explore a rich landscape and have a lot of laughs with your friends. [12]

In a recent article, Microsoft’s group product manager for Xbox 360 and Xbox Live explains how their recognition of the deep and powerful need for social connectedness is an integral component of their online gaming strategy:

…there’s a new generation of gamers who care deeply about collaboration and social interaction and doings things with their friends…I think that speaks to all the Web 2.0 stuff…It’s no longer about playing by yourself but about how do I play with my friends and stay connected to my community of friends even if I’m not gaming with them. Our research tells us that they want a unified experience across all of their games, to be able to know what their friends are playing, to be able to send cross-game invites, to have voice integration on every game, to be able to manage their list of friends and be able to interact with them via voice or text messaging or even video chats. [13]

However, this notion that people play MMO games to fulfill a need for social connection is not without its naysayers. I’ve heard it said that most players prefer to play MMO games alone. By “alone” they mean playing the game without joining groups or chatting with other players. And if you simply look at the statistics that shows the percentage of time spent in a group, or the frequency of chatting, then one might draw this conclusion.

But this is the wrong conclusion to draw from this data. The truth of the matter is, these players do not like to play alone, nor are they playing alone. If they truly desired to play alone they would play an off-line, single-player game – which doesn’t have a monthly subscription fee, is easier to install, and doesn’t suffer from network lag times and server/client performance degradations.

Instead, these players are highly motivated to go through the greater effort to install, patch, and subscribe to lower performance MMO games because they find greater reward in being surrounded by other human beings in a virtual environment regardless of whether they chat with other players or join any groups or guilds. They feel the presence of people through the incessant world chatter scrolling up their screen, as well as all the screen avatars running hither and yon. This behavior has been referred to as playing “alone together” in recent research exploring the social dynamics of MMO games. [14]

You see this same “alone together” behavior occur frequently in “real life” in such places as Starbucks where many people go to be “alone together.” People prefer to drag their entire portable office to Starbucks and set up shop so they can work “alone together.” Or they may just bring a book to read, or read the newspaper. These people are uncomfortable performing such activities at home where they are truly alone.

In addition to helping people fulfill their needs for social connection and belongingness, the online games we provide also have the ability to influence players toward healthier socialization skills. Social systems integrated into our game designs reward the development of “social capital:”

… [MMO] gamers need to do much more than mindlessly accumulate experience points (xp): they also need to increase their social capital within the game’s society. In other words, they need not only learn the game commands, but they must also become socialized into the game community. To be recognized as a good player you need to learn the lingo, perform your instrumental role well when grouped with others, and more generally demonstrate that you are an interesting person to play with (e.g. through humor). If you succeed, others will include you in their “buddy list” to encourage further interactions. In short, these games are all about having the right social skills. [15]

As the father of three children, I can personally attest to the fact that the most challenging task I have ever experienced as a parent is the ongoing “socialization” of my children. Teaching them the relationship skills to both “play nice” and “play fair.” Teaching them how to get along with others through the practices of equality, fairness, respect, generosity and compassion. Teaching them how to trust, and how to be trustworthy.

The long-term health, happiness, and well-being of our children is more dependent upon these socialization skills than upon any other. In a 12-year study of children, it was found that peer rejection was one of the major contributors to the psychopathology of young adults. [16]

My son was 8 years old when he played his first MMO game, which happened to be City of Heroes. It took me awhile to convince him that there was more to the game than just creating characters (which, I must admit, is pretty darn fun). He was so enamored with the creation of characters that he spent hour upon hour creating one character after another. When he finally filled up all my available character slots, he decided it was time to use one of his (many) characters to play the game. His first order of business was to chase after other players, blasting and hacking like a mad man. Needless to say, the other players weren’t very impressed by his behavior.

I said, “Whoa, son! Those characters you’re attacking aren’t the same as the kind you are accustomed to in your other games. These characters are actually other people, just like you, sitting at their computer, somewhere in the world, playing the game at the same time you are. And just as in real life, they don’t like it when you attack them. And if you keep that up, they’re going to complain about you and you’ll get a bad reputation. And if your reputation gets bad enough, you’ll get kicked out of the game and you won’t get to play.”

He certainly didn’t want that to happen. He’d invested way too much time creating all these cool looking super dudes to jeopardize them, so he straightened up his act and started “playing nice”( I figured I’d let him practice cooperative play for a while before I enlightened him about PvP). This concept of “reputation capital” is common in online communities and is a powerful influence for generating trustworthy behavior. [17]

And should my son ever decide to become a corporate CEO when he grows up, research sponsored by IBM indicates that MMO games provide a fertile training ground for next-generation business leaders (really…I mean it… I’m not making this stuff up):

In MMORPGs, leaders develop and operate in environments that are highly distributed, global, hyper-competitive and virtual – not unlike today’s business world. In these sophisticated gaming environments, leaders recruit, organize, motivate and direct large groups of players toward a common goal. They must make decisions quickly, often based on incomplete information. With this backdrop, it’s easy to see how some of the qualities of gifted gaming leaders are very similar to those needed in a corporate setting. [18]

Hey, I think this is a darned good reason for more corporations to support their employees playing MMO games at the workplace. Don’t you?

And all this time we thought we were just making games.

Fantasy worlds for people to fritter away their spare time, chatting away about frivolous matters with hordes of other online players, pretending to be heroes or heroines, gawking at each other’s outlandishly costumed screen characters, marching together on imaginary quests to banish make-believe creatures, and collect non-existent treasure.

And while they are frittering away their time chatting and questing and gawking, they may experience an intangible sense of “belongingness” that brings them comfort, at their “home away from home” (where everybody knows their name).

Some of them may find their “friends list” keeps growing, and they are staying in touch with some of those friends outside of the game environment. They might even find themselves habitually using some of their MMO social skills to improve relations in their “real life.”

Others might discover that leadership skills they employ to manage their guild of 175 members is improving their performance in their real-life job. Who knows? It could happen.

No, we’re not doctors saving lives, scientists curing diseases, ambassadors negotiating world peace, charities feeding the starving masses, or Al Gore cutting back on his electric bill.

We make games for people to play together.

This is the greater value, the greater meaning, the greater purpose that provides some of us with the driving force and the guiding star that inspires us to excellence.

People playing together – it is indeed a worthy and inspiring purpose.


[And just so you know, it's a heck of a lot of fun too!]


[1] Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 57(6), 1069-1081.

[2] Collins, J., & Porras J. (2002). Built to last. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

[3] Collins, J., & Porras J. (2002). Built to last. New York, NY: HarperCollins, p. 55

[4] (Jennings, Scott, inter-office email, 2006)


[6] Baumeister, R. F., & Twenge, J. M. (2003). The social self. In T. Millon & M. J. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of psychology: Personality and social psychology, 5, 327-352. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., p. 498

[7] Berscheid, E. (2003). The human’s greatest strength: Other humans. In L. G. Aspinwall & U. M. Staudinger (Eds.), A psychology of human strengths: Fundamental questions and future directions for a positive psychology, 37-47. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

[8] Baumeister, R. F., & Twenge, J. M. (2003). The social self. In T. Millon & M. J. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of psychology: Personality and social psychology, 5, 327-352. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., p. 521

[9] Baumeister, R. F., & Twenge, J. M. (2003). The social self. In T. Millon & M. J. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of psychology: Personality and social psychology, 5, 327-352. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., p. 328


[11] Steinkuehler, C., & Williams, D. (2006). Where everybody knows your (screen) name: Online games as “third places.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(4), article 1.

[12] Ducheneaut, N. and Moore, R.J. (2005). More than just “X”‘: Learning social skills in massively multiplayer online games. Interactive Technology and Smart Education, 2(2), 89-100. p. 96


[14] Ducheneaut, N., Yee, N., Nickell, E., and Moore, R.J. (2006). “Alone Together? Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Games.” In conference proceedings on human factors in computing systems CHI 2006, 407-416. April 22-27, Montreal, PQ, Canada.

[15] Ducheneaut, N. and Moore, R.J. (2005). More than just “X”‘: Learning social skills in massively multiplayer online games. Interactive Technology and Smart Education, 2(2), 89-100. p. 91

[16] Frankel, F., & Myatt, R. (2003). Children’s friendship training. New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge, p. 3



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