The most insidious message of class-based sociality, whether it’s MMO design or classist notions in “real life”, is that people only are, and can only ever be, what someone else has pigeonholed them into being, or what they chose to be once upon a time, long ago. Once you’re labeled, your entire raison d’être is defined, your fate sealed. There is no learning, no evolution, no enlightenment. Only a dammed populace, stuck in ways of thinking and action that were determined long ago.
If, on the other hand, everyone is self-sufficient, capable of stepping up and doing whatever needs doing, social interaction changes. Old roles might be seen for the blindered workhorses they are. Communities that are self-sufficient need not lean on imports to survive. Countries that build their own abilities and resources need not pander to external agendas, slave to those who do not have their best interests at heart.
It’s no accident that airlines demand that you put your own oxygen mask on before helping others in the case of an accident. If you are incapacitated, you are of no help to anyone.
So why do we accept being pigeonholed and crippled in MMOs? Why do we accept a single role in the abstracted sociality present in group combat? Why are we content to be the Best Darn Widgetmaker In The Plant, when we have the potential to be so much more as players? When presented with the option, why do players embrace hybrid class design?
I posit that it is against our nature as beings of aspiration and potential to merely settle for mediocrity and mundanity, ever doing the same thing, never improving our varied talents or exploring other interests. To be sure, gaming isn’t the epitome of human expression or progress, but it really shouldn’t be a surprise when some people want to do a little more in their entertainment than color inside the lines.
It’s no accident that I have played with other players more in Puzzle Pirates than I ever have in all other MMOs combined, forced grouping or otherwise. PP lets me step up and play in any capacity that the ship or economy needs. There are social structures and game mechanics that prevent me from taking the helm whenever I please on someone else’s ship, but I have unprecedented agency to fill whatever station I choose, if it’s available. I’m limited by my own skills as a player (and perhaps a C.O. who doesn’t want me moving around), not my avatar’s level, gear or class.
I can solo my own ship with the help of a few NPC swabbies, or bring on other players who can then fill whatever role they feel like. I don’t need to spam a chat channel looking for a Carpenter class. I can take anyone on board who is willing to make an honest effort and do their best.
That is more social than any class-based trinity MMO could ever be, and it’s all because I have more options, and can choose how I approach the game. When I have the choice to be social or not, but still make all the progress I care to, I have a tendency to be more social. When I’m forced to group up to progress through the game, I kick against the impositions from on high, the ivory tower design ethos, the mandate that “MMO means playing together, noob!”
When I can do anything that the game might need, anything that the group might need, I’m far more willing and able to step up to the plate and actually play with a group. When I’m self-sufficient, I’m more social.