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Guild Wars 2: The Friendliest MMORPG Ever (?)

Essay

Soon after I rolled my warrior, I knew something was up. As I adjusted to my new combat abilities, I glanced now and then at the local chat channel in the lower left corner. The subject matter wasn’t unusual for an MMO. People were recruiting for guilds, or seeking interested parties for group quests. But the tone…the tone was different. People were polite and casual, asking others to come play with the ease of inviting an acquaintance to a barbecue. Nobody was yelling, or complaining, or calling people noobs. Just kind words and thank yous all around.

It had to be because I was in a starter area. Had to be, right? But no, it continued, as I left the wilds of Caledon Forest for the Brisban Wildlands and Kessex Hills. Okay, fine. A lowbie zone thing, then. I mentioned this to one of the friends I’d picked up the game with, who had a head start on leveling. “Nope,” he said. “It’s like this everywhere.”

As I’ve said before, any multiplayer game is potential grounds for meeting cool people. Seriously. You can find helpful, friendly players anywhere. But it is true that finding good folks is, for the most part, hit or miss. I’ve developed a thick skin for people mouthing off in general chat. I often turn it off all together, choosing instead to speak only with my team, or just with a private group of friends. Not having to steel myself against the background noise feels alien. I’m remembering an afternoon many years ago, when an alarm system went off in the office building next to mine. There was some difficulty in shutting it down, and it continued for what must’ve been an hour. It was jarring, at first, but I had stuff to do, so I tuned it out and kept working. When it was finally turned off, the silence was almost weirder than the sound itself. I’d become accustomed to irritation.

I had the same feeling when I started playing Guild Wars 2. I couldn’t get over the rampant congeniality, even though I was familiar with the game’s positive reputation. Everyone knows that general chat is where good behavior goes to die. There had to be jerks somewhere. (And to be fair, I’ve seen a few scuffles and insults, but compared to what I’ve seen in other games, it’s benign. I’ve seen people say far worse things face-to-face.) After a few weeks, my broad interest in player behavior superseded my desire to fight monsters (which is saying something). I hopped over to Lion’s Arch, the capital city. I parked myself in the auction house. I made myself a real-life snack. I expanded my chat window. I got comfortable. I watched.

Everyone was so nice.

I purposefully showed up during the evening (server time), when people have typically finished work and school and dinner, and are ready for adventures. Chat was lively, with the usual LFGs and recruitment plugs. The primary topic centered around the orchestration of a cross-guild World vs World event. Those leading the charge were helpful, explaining who to get in touch with and where to meet up. Someone said s/he’d never done WvW before, and asked if there were any websites that would be of help. This would be a surefire way to get called a noob elsewhere, but a handful of suggestions appeared in lieu of teasing. Punctuated throughout were unrelated requests for camaraderie. Who wanted to do a jumping puzzle? Did anyone want to level together? Someone suggested that with so many people present, they should all do something fun. And just like that, a party was born, with smiley faces abound.

I thought of the countless hours I once spent in Ironforge, wading into general chat only when I needed something, sidestepping the constant snarkery and sniping. I played WoW from vanilla through Wrath, on a PvP server (and make no mistake, I loved my time there). It was my first MMO, and it set the tone for what I came to expect from future multiplayer settings. In hindsight, there was always an underwritten sense of adversity. Gankers could appear at any time, and even someone within your faction might swoop in to steal a kill or a resource node. There was a word for people who didn’t like PvP — carebears. From the tone with which it was used, I knew didn’t want to be one of those. This was how MMOs were played, right? Mano-a-mano! Everybody looking out for number one! I’m a cooperative sort by nature, and was happy to find a guild of like-minded folks, but I’m now realizing that any time I encountered a stranger while questing, I viewed them with a hint of suspicion. Guilty until proven otherwise. That feeling of antagonism fell in line with the failed attempts in my early teens to play StarCraft (getting mocked by more experienced players quickly killed my willingness to learn), as well as with the other MMOs and shooters I would play down the road. If dealing with jerks was the cost of admission for my hobby of choice, then fine. I would grin and bear it. But in recent years, I’ve found myself increasingly opting to play with people I already know. I have bills to pay and errands to run and deadlines to meet. I’m reluctant to bring more stress into my life, especially into my leisure time.

There are no enemy factions in Guild Wars 2. There is no kill stealing. Everyone gets their fair share of resource nodes. Helping someone defeat an enemy, regardless of whether they’re in your party or not, results in XP for everyone. You might happen upon a group event as you journey down the road. You can drop in, or not. The game is happy to let you do your thing, and the players seem to operate by the same mantra. Everything here is designed expressly for cooperative play, while still providing plenty of big swords and magical explosions. It’s…it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.

I’ve referenced this before, but there were two studies last year suggesting that increased aggression while gaming is a result of competition, rather than violence. That made infinite amounts of sense to me when I read it. I’d seen that trend myself. Co-op matches in Team Fortress 2, for example, tend to be more cordial. A tense Warsong Gulch match would have me swearing far more profusely than a gory romp through Left 4 Dead. But Guild Wars 2 is the first time I’ve seen that tendency with such prevalence. Like my friend said, it’s everywhere.

The cynic in me was still curious. If the good behavior I was witnessing was a result of non-competitive gameplay, what would happen when those same players were pitted against each other? In the name of science, I headed to the Heart of the Mists, and got ready for some PvP. To encounter as many players as possible, I switched servers after each match. And yes, the talk was rougher. Words got heated. A few bouts of posturing made me roll my eyes. There were some inevitable arguments when a match went badly. But in comparison to other games I’ve played…honestly, this was one of the most kick-back PvP experiences I’ve ever had. That’s not to say that it was all hugs and rainbows, but it felt like an honest-to-god playground pick-up game — scrappy, energetic, fun. Nobody was harassing people. Nobody was throwing around slurs. One player was giving another unsolicited (and respectful) advice on how to better use their abilities. The sole individual I saw being an ass was swiftly reported by several others.

So what’s going on here? Has the cooperative feel fostered by the developers shaped the community itself? Is it because the game is a haven for busy working adults, such as myself, who want to scratch the MMO itch without committing to a time-consuming grind? Have I just been improbably lucky? Admittedly, I have been playing casually, and I’ve only been at it for a few months. It’s entirely possible that I’m not getting the full picture. Even so, this is the most welcoming experience I’ve ever had as a newcomer. I’ve yet to have cause to leave general chat.

That doesn’t mean that Guild Wars 2 is better for lacking a more high-stakes atmosphere. Competition has its time and place, and sometimes, it’s exactly what I’m looking for. In Star Wars: The Old Republic, I got a thrill every time I (as a Sith) encountered a Jedi player on the road. Impromptu lightsaber battles were impossibly cool. And a game like Guild Wars 2 doesn’t appeal to everyone. I have two friends — a married couple, in fact — who are heavily into EVE Online, which thrives on cutthroat PvP. I’ve heard both of them wax poetic over the intense threats of piracy and suicide ganking. For them, that’s part of the appeal, and more power to them. But at this point in my life, I’m finding myself getting a bit smitten with a place where freely given help and easy-going groups seem to be the rule, rather than the exception. I’ve never been adverse to playing with strangers, and I’ve sung the praises of multiplayer many a time. Until now, though, I hadn’t realized just how closed off I’ve started to become. Somewhere along the way, I got so resigned to unpleasantness that I walled myself in, not interacting much more than was necessary. Guild Wars 2 is making me look forward not just to exploring a new world, but to the possibility of making new friends. I’ve missed that feeling.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. Like most internet people, she has a website. She can also always be found on Twitter.

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