Disclaimer: Please note, when I refer to WoW I’m referring to the game as it was circa Vanilla-The Burning Crusade. I stopped playing seriously during Wrath of the Lich King, and haven’t even touched Cataclysm. If some or much of what I say doesn’t apply to the modern day incarnation of WoW then you’ll have to cast your memory back to 2007 for a more relevant vantage point. Keep in mind that this article should be taken in the context of MMOs more generally as most of them follow a similar formula, with liberal tinkering done on the edges.
There’s no question that modern day MMORPGs (click/tab target xp/level based games in the WoW mould) paint very large targets on their backs. The myriad of softly softly game mechanics, casinoesque reward structures that stimulate the same brain patterns as pokie machines, coupled with greedy and sometimes downright exploitative payment structures give anyone who scratches the surface more than enough ammunition to claim that the modern day MMO is sent from whatever sinister sentient being you subscribe to.
From a strictly gaming standpoint argument against states that these games require little to no skill, usually due to hard limitations on the amount of output your character can produce, (often in the form of a global cooldown on your abilities) as well as things like streamlined and unthreatening level/world design, character design that emphasizes cooldown and resource management more than it does physical dexterity or complex application, an emphasis on repetition of tasks rather than merely the successful one time completion of a task for reward, and the never-ending nature of the game requiring players to spend absurd amounts of time playing (the two latter aspects better known as “the grind”). The game hooks into the part of the brain that wires us into addiction, and much like the gambling apparatus that the games have designed some of their mechanics on, players are caught in a spiral in which they’re stuck playing a game because of reward driven impulses rather than the satisfaction derived from demonstrating mastery over the game’s mechanics. They then charge the player through the nose for the pleasure.
The argument against states that these games teach you nothing, vampirically sucking your wallet, life and gaming ability dry, spitting out a ghoulish noobified husk that can’t crack 100 apm at any respected RTS. I’m here to argue a different viewpoint.
The reality (in said humble viewpoint) is much more nuanced. While much of the above is true, or at least true for large section of the genre, these mechanics tie into some of the positive aspects of MMOs that seem to get overlooked by their detractors.
Before I go further I’d like to reference a point made by Quintin Smith, formerly of Rock, Paper, Shotgun fame. He wrote a passionate review for Russian FPS/RPG hybrid Pathologic (a punishing, depressing game in which you play a healer attempting to hold back a virulent plague that is wiping a small town off the map) in which he argued that the reason video games aren’t widely considered art is because we haven’t had our Citizen Kane of video games. A seminal work that stands out as an artistic masterpiece against which the rest of the medium can be judged. We’re still in the medium’s relative period of silent, slapstick comedy, it isn’t widely accepted that games can convey concepts and meaning that goes beyond simple childish “fun”. In no artistic medium are the widely respected works those that serve no purpose other than being consumed for a fleeting moment of pleasure.
Whether MMOs or even video games should be considered art isn’t a conversation for this moment. Even the question of how to define “art” is a fraught one that could go on for decades, and is frankly as boring as those circular music arguments about whether light rock or heavy metal music is better (the answer is metal btw). For now I’d just like to introduce the concept that entertainment doesn’t have to entail simply frivolous escapism. There are an enormously broad set of experiences available to us as beings of intelligence, limiting us to merely the superficial from video games is hamstringing them unnecessarily.
That’s not to say fun is something to be recoiled from in a game. That would obviously be ridiculous. It does however raise the interesting question of how you would define fun in the context of a video game. In his book A Theory of fun for Game Design, Ralph Koster defines fun in video games as (and I’m simplifying/butchering his argument here) the acquisition of mastery, with boredom emerging when a game has nothing new to teach us. The reason so many can look at MMOs and call them boring is because the vast majority of the game’s constituent parts are easily mastered. Within minutes of creating a WoW account I could create a human Paladin, right click a bunch of boars, make myself a delicious ham and cheese sandwich, toast it up, then return, picking myself up some loot and a level for my troubles. And I got a sammich too! You could do something similar much closer to the apex of the game. It’s very easy to look at someone zoned out in “grind mode”, farming some hapless, never-ending cluster of enemies, never coming even remotely close to being defeated, and come to the conclusion that they’re not being driven by the acquisition of mastery, but some ghoulish desire to see their arbitrary in game statistics rise. Mastery over challenges that amount to little more than a medieval themed Farmville harvest? You look like you’re half asleep man!
I’ll go into the type of mastery they’re looking to achieve in more detail later, but for the moment I’ll just go over what the game is teaching you at this moment. Patience. It’s a trait that’s very rarely required in traditional video games. Oh sure, you have to be patient to wait for that opportunity in your scripted single player boss fight, sometimes you have to be patient and wait for your opponent to make a mistake in a multiplayer game, but in those games the level of patience required is measured in minutes or seconds, in MMOs it’s weighted in hours, days, months.
Patience is an undeniably positive trait to have in life, but it is of course a very hard sell to the majority of gamers. Patient application to a lengthy multifaceted task can bring you a joy like no other, but a spoiled 12 year old wouldn’t know delayed gratification if it bagged him up and threw him into a compacter. Getting a player like that to patiently commit for patience sake would be impossible. The addictive game mechanics are simply a tool to keep people in the game long enough for the game’s nature to become revealed to them. The “loot factor” is a necessary evil for the positive reinforcement element of learning patience to be experienced.
Speaking of hard sells, if I managed to get that one by you I should probably stop writing this and get on to selling refrigerators to Eskimos. I can already hear the scorn being heaped on this argument. Rubbish MK! They’re just grinding for loot like a living zombie pouring an entire weeks pay into a pokie machine. While for some players that would no doubt be true, for most serious MMO players the goal isn’t that simple. Most are being driven by what I like to call “the long game”.
The long game is responsible for nearly everything positive you can extract out of an MMO. The long game is harvesting Fire Elementals for weeks to make the materials, to build the gear needed to survive the first wave of mobs in that raid your planning on tackling. The long game is working with a guild for months before you see any tangible benefit. The long game is watching the auction house and calculating whether the price on that key material you require is low enough to make farming that material yourself more or less efficient from a gold/hr perspective. All of the above requires the kind of patience and long term planning non MMO games just don’t have the capacity to teach you.
You’re also playing with a real life resource more precious than money, time. There’s a reason leveling and gold farming services take off like wildfire in these games, and incidentally a reason they’re so frowned upon by developers and the majority of the playerbase alike. Playing efficiently is one of the most important goals in the game because time is a resource that restricts you in an MMO. The more time you have, the more powerful you can become, so squandering time becomes squandering power. You won’t do well in any game if you willfully squander your power.
(It’s worth mentioning that even a game like WoW with relatively gentle punishments for failure that gets routinely mocked for being noob friendly still punishes you for failure in a way traditional games don’t. Wasting time on failure is a squandering of real in game power)
None of that would be news to those who frown upon the genre. One player being more powerful than another because of a lifestyle more suited to investing large amounts of time into the game is one of the most repeatable arguments against MMOs deserving a shred of respect. It’s easy to look at this phenomenon and conclude that indeed, MMOs take no skill, just time. But why is that?
Let me illustrate with an example. Back in the days of my WoW fame I played the game religiously with my roommate. We both had 9-5 jobs, girlfriends, hung out in the same social circles and as a consequence had a similar amount of time to pour into the game. We both played with the same level of skill, but at the end he had seen more content, had higher level crafting, made more money, gotten a higher rank in PvP. By every objective measure he was more successful at the game than I was.
It came solely down to priorities and time management. I was an altoholic. I’d read up on Warlock talent trees and suddenly decide than an Affliction Spec looked like a hell of a lot of fun, and I needed a Blood Elf character anyway. Bam, reroll. Didn’t like the way Affliction got nerfed? Well I’ll still need an BE char, I’ll roll a Priest for tasty heals. Run out of excuses? Fuck it, I’m playing my Druid. And so on. I got reasonably far in WoW, but I never had the patience to really push the envelope. My friend on the other hand only played his alliance Priest. On and on he went like some sort of unstoppable biomechanical gaming contraption. All alts were forsaken. When I asked him to join a leveling group with some other friends he said he’d rather focus on progression. He didn’t know how best to gear a Fury Warrior, but he didn’t need to, he just knew they needed extra heals given that they’re a squishy melee class with little threat reduction, and they pose no threat to Priests in PvP because they lacked a healing debuff. It wasn’t apparent if you watched us for an hour, a day or even a week, but over time it was obvious who the better WoW player was.
Are games not a contest of the mind? Can the mind not be tested in different ways? A MMO tests the mind no less rigorously than a strategy game or a shooter, just not the actions generally associated with the faster paced, dare i say more glamorous, side of gaming.
Another skill required in an MMO is the ability to get along with other people, more commonly known as the “don’t be a gargantuan douche” principle, but really it just means fitting in with the accepted norms in your server’s community. (see below) Anyone who’s spent even a little bit of time on the Internet playing more “competitive” games will know that fitting in with some of these people is far harder than you might think. Interestingly though, MMOs are probably the genre that is most resistant to the assholery that comes with a community that is completely anonymous. You actually have a name that’s difficult to change and therefore a reputation to protect. People who aren’t able to integrate with the community they share a game world with will find it difficult to work with a team looking to complete the tougher challenges thrown up by the game’s world. Yet again this is a skill not required of a player in the vast majority of games in other genres.
The satisfaction derived from acquisition of mastery over a MMO’s “long game” is stronger than anything I’ve ever experienced in 20+ years gaming. Like many people who cut their MMO teeth on WoW, Ragnaros was my first, and like most “firsts” it was a moment I’m unlikely to ever forget. We had been working on MC for months, longer if you count the farming for Fire Essence to make the resist gear needed to simply clear the trash. The Rag fight took us a further month of hard slog getting the mechanics drilled into the skulls of 35+ players (getting 40 was always a challenge).
When we finally dropped the scalding bastard, our ventrillo exploded. I can find no other word for it. It was 2am, most of us had families or housemates asleep somewhere nearby but the joy was too much to be kept in. To call it satisfaction at simply achieving mastery over a game’s mechanics would be selling it short. This was a satisfaction derived at our little community’s patience and dedication, at my own perseverance, pouring so much time into an enormous task which I ended up completing. It was powerful enough for me to remember the exact moment 7 odd years later even as a relatively junior member of the healing team, I can only imagine how the guild’s management felt. They would likely have described the experience like herding 40 sheep with Alzheimer’s through a maze half the time, and overseeing squalling children at day care the other half. I imagine they were patting themselves on the back at that moment too.
What stands out like a pig at a party is that all of the traits that have been outlined above are traits required of you in the workplace. As anyone who has hired staff will tell you, the technical requirements are reasonably easy to satisfy for most jobs, finding someone with the soft skills, the right ambitions and the right schedule is what really gets shit done. If you’ve ever applied to (or have run) a guild and heard the line “gear isn’t that important, we can gear you up to the required level” this is really what they’re saying. When you’re learning to work together as a guild to defeat a difficult challenge, you’re learning to make a team more than the sum of it’s parts in the same way you would working a job that required the input of more than a couple of people.
The more you look at it the more obvious the similarities between a company and a guild become. Both have leadership structures, and as in business they often vary wildly from guild to guild. Both have remuneration schemes, and interestingly the lack of real world collateral makes these generally much more equalized in guilds than their professional counterparts. There’s politics (oh dear god there is politics), there are power struggles, drama, performance management, promotions, ego clashes, epic fuck ups, hirings, firings and sometimes even defection to rival organizations.
It makes perfect sense really. The defining feature of the MMO genre is the existence of challenges too great for one player. Too great for 20 players. This is a mirror of the real world, though the scale of the tasks are obviously on a different level. The bigger the job the bigger the organization, and getting human beings to complete these tasks without the levels of organization seen in guilds and companies alike is impossible. The entire history of humanity is a story of groups of people working together. The groups that have done it the best have run the entire world, with strong organization and leadership being a common thread throughout all great groups of people. Do you think the Romans kicked the shit out of the ancient world because they had quicker reflexes or thought better on their feet? Of course they didn’t. They were successful because they were well organized, both civilly and militarily, founding some of the societal principles that have allowed humanity to conquer many of the challenges associated with survival on this rock floating through the dark recesses of the universe. That their society eventually fell as a structure serves to highlight how difficult high levels of organization is to maintain. What you are learning in an MMO are traits as fundamental to our survival as a species as breathing or eating, but come far less naturally to us. We succeed through order, yet we’re hardwired to rail and rebel against it.
Which is why the “takes no skill argument” never made a shred of sense to me. What is more difficult? Cooking a delicious meal, or feeding an army? While I don’t think there is a correct answer to that question as they both take different skills, there’s no question which skill set is in higher demand. The skilled chef who couldn’t organize coitus in a gentleman’s club would no doubt have a specific view, but he’s earning an average wage, while his employer reaps the majority of the rewards of his labor. There is no question that we as a society exalt skilled organizers to the upper perches of the food chain.
So the next time you despair for humanity when you see an MMOs participation numbers, save your despondency for the hole in the ozone layer, the armada of nuclear weaponry stockpiled by world superpowers or the rising ocean levels. People learning how to work together is not something that will cause the fabric of society to tear apart. Referring back to Quintin’s point, there is room for games to convey concepts above and beyond simple pleasure. MMOs can teach us about qualities that are fundamental to who we are as a species.
Lastly, and if nothing else, MMOs are the only games that teach us that everything we love will one day end. MMOs are the only games that truly die. RIP.