This is something tangentially related to the whole women in TF2 discussion that I’ve been wanting an excuse to write about for a while.
A few months ago I was reading the Spirit Level, and one of the points it made that really stuck out for me was that societies with high levels of financial inequality have heightened levels of stress relating to social evaluative threats. In unequal societies the kids there have an increased prevalence of social anxiety disorders and often narcissism as a coping mechanism.
What occurred to me is that social evaluative threats are a big deal in social video games, particularly for newer less hardcore gamers. Try to get someone to play a fighting game? “No way, you’re just going to beat up on me.” In a 1v1 situation everything is a evaluative threat. But try to get someone to play Smash Brothers FFA and it tends to be a lot easier. “I may never win, but this time I came in 2nd and got more kills than I ever did before.” The switch from a 1v1 game to a 1v1v1v1 game destroys the previous zero sum situation and removes a lot of the shame component that intimidates newer players.
But more common, particular now for PC games, is teambased multiplayer, which is sorta a mixed bag. MMOs tend towards popularity when they have a pure PvE component because then you can have a social game without any social evaluation. It gets more complicated when you start mixing in grouping because once the content gets hard (and failure becomes a possibility) a lot of groups go on a witch hunt for the weak link that is causing them to fail. I’ve known a lot of MMO players who insist on always soloing, and while it’s never made explicit there’s usually hints that what they fear is being belittled by complete strangers.
Incidentally, WoW’s 5-man design was at its most popular in WotLK when the 5-man content was so trivialized that characters could in some cases successfully solo it. The very possibility of failure is a turn-off for many players because of the social threats it could prompt, so much so that a complete lack of challenge is viewed as preferable.
On the competitive side of things you have the MOBA genre (Defense of the Ancients, Heroes of Newerth, League of Legends, etc.) MOBA communities are infamous for how common raging assholes are, but what’s noteworthy is that the worst assholes are inevitably your own teammates. While 1v1 is intimidating to new players because if you lose it’s all you, 5v5 seems to be worse because if your team loses someone will very likely spend half the game raging at you.
But interestingly, what ends up happening is that the larger the team sizes get, the less you run into SETs. When WoW’s battlegrounds first came out, the most popular was the 40v40 Alterac Valley. Games would go on for literally days with no closure, but surprisingly that was partly why they were successful. In 80 man eternal war nothing you personally do can ever cost your team the game, every death can be rationalized as unpreventable, and if you toss enough of your abilities in a packed room you’ll eventually get some kind of a kill. It becomes a safe place to learn about PvP without the threat of loss and shame.
I think TF2 has inadvertently accomplished the same thing for First Person Shooters, and this is partly why it’s capable of having so much pull with newer gamers (which has a significant amount of overlap with women gamers). Pull down any server list and you’ll find tons of 24/7 2Fort and 32 player payload map servers, and while these games play into the parts of TF2 that I personally find the most frustrating, what they do is create the FPS equivalent of Alterac Valley. The wins and losses are mostly irrelevant (or non-existent in the case of a lot of 2Fort servers), no one can notice your mistakes in all the chaos, and if you just dump explody thingys in the choke points you’re going to get some kills and assists and feel accomplished.
And I know that probably sounds belittling, but it really isn’t. Getting into a competitive game is intimidating for most people (and absolutely not just women), and it can be really important to have an initial setting where you feel safe while learning how to play the game.