Like many gamers, I’ve recently become utterly engrossed in the role-playing adventure, Monster Hunter 4. It’s a challenging and demanding title that encourages shared experiences via its excellent co-op mode where people hunt monsters together in small groups.
What I have most enjoyed – and been pleasantly surprised by – is how friendly and helpful the community is. As an online moderator, I’ve spent years dealing with abusive, disruptive and aggressive individuals. I’ve noticed, however, that some games seem largely free of the griefing, anger and intolerance that sometimes feels ubiquitous. I started to wonder why that was. What makes certain games more likely to attract friendlier communities?
Particularly, why is Monster Hunter so welcoming?
One answer, of course, is the platform. Monster Hunter 4 is a 3DS exclusive and typing messages requires the touchscreen keyboard, which takes a long time. You can set pre-prepared phrases to use during fights but you have a limited number – it’s literally not worth wasting a slot for abuse.
A visit to the Monster Hunter subreddit shows this isn’t the only factor, though. The community is honest but constructive: a common theme seems to be “you likely suck, you will continue to suck for a while but don’t worry we all do. Here are some tips”. While there are similar guides for games with difficult learning curves like DOTA2, the tone in other communities, particularly those of massively multiplayer online (MMO) games often include a level of condescenion or elitism.
There’s a sense with Monster Hunter 4 that we’re all learning together. The game has only just begun to feature in mainstream western media with comparatively little attention paid to previous games in the series. There’s still so much about the game that’s unknown – and so the subreddit, Wikis and player videos on YouTube are a vital resource for everyone. There’s no repository that can definitively answer every question about the game,. Everyone relies equally on the community. which diminishes the likelihood of abuse.
Demographics may also play a key role in how friendly a game’s community is. It’s difficult to advance beyond stereotypes when assessing who players are likely to be at this stage, but for a title like Monster Hunter, which hasn’t received as much Western mainstream press and hasn’t yet become part of mass popular consciousness, the game plays to a niche audience of people who have directly sought it out because people they know and respect are talking about it. You have to go out of your way to become interested in Monster Hunter – that’s a different mindset and likely a different player attitude than someone playing Diablo 3 or Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, for example.
Monster Hunter 4 allows players to use a variety tactics to kill monsters. In the early stages of the game, these beasts rarely require a specific weapon to beat them; your role in every fight is mostly “don’t die, hit when you can”. Now contrast this with an MMO like World of Warcraft where there are detailed guides on how to beat every boss, where mechanics are clearly explained and where deviation from specific strategies, particularly on hard modes, means certain failure. World of Warcraft has classes which specialise in, and generally only perform, certain roles; raids require a certain number of healers and tanks (characters that can take a lot of hits, thereby providing a safety barrier) to function, for example, whereas Monster Hunter only requires co-ordination. Indeed, there are no tanks: if a monster looks at you, you have to run away and hope it chases someone else. You can’t yell about how someone failed to heal you or the tank couldn’t hold aggro: when another player makes a mistake during a fight and faints, there’s rarely time, much less inclination, to abuse them for it.
In terms of both gameplay and community, Monster Hunter actually shares similarities with the classic MMO Phantasy Star Online, which first arrived on the Sega Dreamcast console 15 years ago. Typing a message into that game was a long, clunky affair unless you bought a special keyboard. Internet connections were slower and less reliable, mass online gaming was a novelty and players were keen to explore a whole new world, even if it was filled with murderous, mutated wildlife. It’s reductive to say Monster Hunter 4 is a modern Phantasy Star Online, but there are clear parallels to draw, in terms of a rapidly growing fanbase working together with a limited ability to communicate in the face of challenging enemies.
There is also an obvious cultural component here. Both Monster Hunter and Phantasy Star Online are Japanese titles, a culture in which manners, politeness and group-orientated thinking are highly valued. Monster Hunter 4 is a more stable experience (Phantasy Star Online was plagued with technical issues that included cheaters being able to completely delete your character), but it promotes the same environment, the same values of harmony and cooperation, amid perilous encounters.
Communication is only part of why people play games online, though. A large factor is bragging and showing off your achievements. In frenetic player versus player games such as DOTA2, Call Of Duty or Counter Strike you test your skill against other players, and your reward is another win under your belt and a sense of accomplishment (unless you’re a major league player, in which case your reward is a gigantic pile of money). Monster Hunter 4 – like Phantasy Star Online, which originally had no player versus player features – is different: the sense of achievement is in successfully conquering a challenge with a group of people and showing off your prize in the form of brilliant new equipment and weapons. Rewards are random and require crafting to make into armour, there are no exclusive drops for people to fight over, which have been the bane of many a random group in MMOs. In short, showing off in Monster Hunter is a communal, shared system – like going shopping with friends and then comparing the new stuff you’ve bought.
It’s also worth mentioning how Nintendo’s promotion of the 3DS as a social platform has maintained a level of decency you seldom expect online. Nintendo advises against inappropriate or abusive messages on its simple StreetPass system, which allows players to create profiles and swap these seamlessly with nearby strangers. There’s no real moderation going on, and yet in over a year of owning a 3DS I’ve never seen any offensive comments. My StreetPass Plaza app says that over 80 people have called my Mii “fantastic” – while this is enforced niceness based on nothing more than a binary choice other players have made, it promotes a more friendly environment than platforms which seem to grudgingly accept abuse as an inevitability. Limiting open-ended communication is a drastic way to improve the tone of a community, but with handheld systems it’s effective and unintrusive. StreetPass is used as a tool to advance in a game – the fact you’re meeting other people is incidental and abuse is therefore less likely.
I’ve played Monster Hunter 4 for a week and I am dressed in Kecha Wacha (a playful monkey) armour with basic weaponry. I am clearly a new player warily looking across a horizon of terrifyingly difficult encounters – and yet I’ve had players in powerful Gore armour sign me up to quests against a Gore Magala (a giant shadow dragon). At first I protested “not ready, look at gear” but they were insistent, they had faith. Obviously we all died as me and another participant were still new, but after we found ourselves back at the Gathering Hall, the experienced player didn’t say anything beyond “that was fun!”. Contrast that with DOTA2, where if you mistime an ability or Doom the wrong target, you risk a torrent of abuse for the rest of the match.
As I progress through Monster Hunter 4, life at the higher G-rank class may be very different. I expect it’ll be similar to World of Warcraft’s harder dungeons where a minimal gear level and performance are expected. But unlike World of Warcraft, I doubt most players will go as far as abusing one another if someone falls short. In Monster Hunter, there is always a chance to dwell on your own failures, but the other players are there to pick you up, not bring you down.
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