An old man hits you with an ugly stick… you lose one charm point!

Dang it, I just wasted the last week re-living late middle school to early high school by playing Legend of the Green Dragon, a web-based knockoff of the BBS door game Legend of the Red Dragon. BBSes were the nerdy pre-cursor to the Internet, which is what ate up the majority of my free time from grades 7 through 10.

This is why I don’t play games. A relatively small, text-based game was able to eat up an entire week’s worth of my free time; I’m scared to think of what might happen if I got sucked into some huge blackhole like UO, EverQuest, The Sims Online, Final Fantasy XI, WoW, etc. Probably something like this.

I think the biggest problem I have with these online role-playing games is that they’re structured in such a way that they force the investment of large amounts of time in exchange for a gain that amounts to a few rows within some huge SQL database. Those rows get accidentally zeroed out and you have absolutely nothing to show for your time. They get accidentally maxed out and you’re suddenly better off, but it’s strangely unsatisfying because you didn’t "earn" it. Not only that, but your in-game accomplishments have no meaning in the "real world". To the majority of people unfamiliar with the game, they couldn’t really care less whether you’re a level 80 red mage with armor +50 and charisma +12, or a level 1 pooper scooper with stink +3.

Now I suppose the devil’s advocates in the crowd would just turn everything around and say that in real life, you invest huge amounts of time and money in exchange for what amounts to a row within your bank’s SQL database. And that it hardly matters to the players in the game what you do in real life. Whether you earn 6 figures as a brain surgeon, or minimum wage microwaving burgers at McDonalds, they couldn’t really care less. And I suppose that’s the allure of online RPGs, escapism at its best.

Difficult to escape the bills though. Which makes online RPGs the domain of those with philanthropic backers, or the privileged few endowed with the parental safety net. Unfortunately, I have neither, so it’s back to being a nerdy computer programmer with squinty eyes +2.

3 Comments

  1. Tim says:

    For those who hadn’t seen this page before this post, the creator drew fire earlier this year because they had lifted testimonies from newsgroups without permission. He then proceeded to voluntarily remove the offending posts. Yet, because of the way Blogger automagically creates their archives, the pre-March posts are still accessible here for those of you who can’t stop staring at train wrecks.

    That page aside, I would say that ‘escapism at its best’ is justification enough for this type of activity. It’s entertainment, and nothing more. Analyze what most of us do in our spare time, after all, and you could always argue that we could have spent it more productively. Everything in moderation, of course, but can you honestly argue that spending hours earning a few lines in a SQL database is any less ridiculous than spending hours on a golf course taking a few strokes off your game, or time at a gym shaving a few decimal points off your BMI? Heck, I would even add “going to cell groups and sermons and restructuring your life for something as intangible as the concept of eternal salvation”, but that’s just me.

    I’ve met plenty of people in this game, friends who have spanned continents and decades in age. I’ve met people for who are perfectly adjusted, playing the game with their entire family as an alternative to television. I’ve met people for whom their entire self-worth is dependent on how their avatar peforms. And I’ve met people who lead perfectly normal lives but it is this game that gives them a reason to suffer their hated jobs and go back home at the end of the day. Misguided? Perhaps, but don’t undervalue the notion of escapism.

    I’m not proud to say – nor am I ashamed to admit – that I fell into FFXI rather hard. If I may make one point in its defense, it’s that the point of the game isn’t merely the stats that you acculumate, as you’ve so easily simplified above. Go read the red italicized portion of the Daily Grind page, or any of the entries for that matter, and you won’t find armour +50 as the motivation for anything. Rather it’s about the groups you make, the people you meet and the friends you unfailingly feel a responsibility towards whenever you hop online. These games have advanced far beyond LotRD, Dave, when the interaction you have with your other friends is limited to marrying the one girl who lives upstairs in the inn. You may be wasting time trying to earn those few database rows but while trying to achieve that common goal, you’ll make friends, you’ll meet enemies, you’ll fall in love and you’ll have your heart broken. The possibilities are endless, really.

    Now tell me that isn’t entertainment. :)

  2. Dave says:

    I won’t contest the community-building aspect of MMORPGs, I’m sure that part is as rewarding as you describe. Though there’s still something strangely unsettling about them that I can’t quite put my finger on exactly.

    Every form of entertainment can pretty much be reduced to an input of time, plus some other “real” cost, resulting in a desirable benefit. However, most forms of entertainment have some kind of inherent control to limit the amount of benefit that can be derived. Usually the real cost increases prohibitively as more and more time is spent.

    Using your same examples: With golf, the more time you put in, the more you’d pay in course usage fees, golf balls, etc. For working out at the gym, spend enough time there and your body will eventually complain and give up due to exhaustion.

    MMORPGs fall into a category I’ll call “flat rate” entertainment. Meaning that the real cost with respect to time is either constant or very barely linear. I’d also put religion and the whole “eternal salvation” thing in this category as well. The difference being that its derived benefit is questionable and unproven. Though its presence in this category largely explains why religion can be so popular. MMORPGs on the other hand, as you’ve described, provide immense social benefit with the only real cost being a nominal monthly fee.

    Participation in a “real life” community setting involves costs in the form of risk of public embarassment, ostracism, etc. Things that are either non-existent or much easier to overcome in an online environment. It’s really hard to screw up in a MMORPG. Which leads to the massive investment of time and the resulting Daily Grind-like scenarios. Something I’m not clamouring to experience first hand yet, so I’ll be content to read about them and to listen to your stories instead. 😛

  3. Tim says:

    While I wholly agree that community-building is much easier online – and much easier to take advantage of, as previously suggested – I would hardly say that outcasts and exiles are non-existent. While relatively online anonymity allows you to overcome public embarassment easily, it also frees certain individuals to become the jerks and idiots they always wanted to be. Our linkshell will, as a whole, ignore certain people simply because they did one of us wrong, and ignoring is all too easy to do when you have a blacklist command at your disposal. Honestly, I don’t even know why some of the people on my blacklist are there; I just know they’ll never be forgiven. We are not alone in this.

    Regardless, I would suggest that while community-building may be a rewarding aspect of the game (although you may be giving it a bit too much credit with that adjective. I would say it’s what makes the game worthwhile, but ‘rewarding’ seems to suggest a karmic or financial return which even I wouldn’t argue exists. Pure mindless fun, that’s all.), it’s not what leads people to invest the obscene amounts of time that they do to into a mere video game. Rather, it’s the fact that the game – one that conceivably never ends, it should be pointed out – is structured that you can’t accomplish anything without such devotion.

    It’s quite easy to label the various people who play this game simply by when they lose interest:

    Casual gamers, in general, lose interest by the first eighteen levels or so. These are the ones that barely scratch the surface or realize very early on that the constant xp grinding isn’t for them. RPG’s aren’t for these gamers, much less MMORPG’s.

    Next are the people who will conceivably make it to the mid-level range, who quit after they realize that certain necessary in-game tasks could realistically take days and weeks to perform (e.g., finding a specific item drop). This happens two or three months in and, believe it or not, they are still the ones that quit ‘early’. Solo RPG’s are probably more appropriate for these gamers.

    The next to quit are the ones the ones that like to think of themselves as ‘power-gamers’, the players that might play themselves to a relatively high level in a fairly short time just to show off their in-game status. They usually decide to drop out because they suddenly find the game working against them – where once you could average a level a night, you are suddenly slowed down to a level a week by level sixty, two if you are lucky. They’ll burn out by this point.

    Finally, you have the ones that stick with the game. These don’t have to be power-gamers, talented players or, really, even gamers of any sort. MMORPG’s, and RPG’s of any sort, really aren’t all that difficult. You might play it faster than someone else but at the end of the day, all you really need is Google to succeed, a proper guide to tell you what to do next. The ones that make it through to highest levels of the game aren’t the ones that play better than you. They’re the ones who, and I’m sure Hube will vouch for this, are merely more obsessively compulsive than you.

    And I would propose that therein lies the reason you find MMORPG’s strangely unsettling, and I don’t disagree. The players that you find on the EQ Daily Grind page are strictly from that last set of players, and I’ll reluctantly admit that I probably belong there as well. We’ve called it entertainment thus far, but this whole concept is disconcerting because to make it to that last group (and, subsequently, to “succeed” in this game), it’s much closer to an addiction than simply having fun. I’m not sure anyone would argue that fighting the same monster for hours on end to gain one level, or running around a mine for days so you can is incredibly tedious. In fact, most people would say that they’d leave if it weren’t for the people they’ve met. Whether or not such a tenuous hold on a relationship – one that relies solely on a video game = can be truly considered a friendship is highly suspect, that’s the point of a separate discussion (1).

    The fact of the matter is, though (and I’m not condoning this, just stating my opinion), is that addictions can come in any shape or form. And once they do stick, by definition, you’ll do anything to satisfy your craving. While those which you call ‘flat rate entertainment’ may be easier a habit to maintain, true addicts will ignore all of the inherent controls you’ve listed to obtain what they want anyway, re: those who use their life savings on exotic golf vacations or bet on matches, who work themselves out to injury or, to pick the simpler addiction stereotypes, steal for drug money or chug rubbing alcohol for quick high. You tell yourself that you’ll start in moderation but after a while, you realize that you can’t excel in what that particular area unless you devote more resources than is probably healthy to this activity. You won’t shoot par playing casually, nor will you get as ripped as the guy beside you at the gym working out simply on occasion. Even this game is limited by the time you have, and there are those that quit their jobs just to free up more of that. So you make a choice about how much it means to you, and sometimes you make the wrong one. In the end, you just hope that your addiction is one that you can afford.

    Unsettling? Yes. And I do hope you won’t have to experience it for yourself.

    (and, yes, this has been bothering me far too much)

    (1) Let me say here, though, that community and fellowship alone can be reason enough for an addiction (or would it be less offensive to call it an ‘unhealthy interest’?). Witness the hundreds and thousands of dollars that individuals have pumped into sites like Habbo Hotel and FunHi.