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Six Months Later: Exploring the Appeal of MMOs

Six months ago, I quit World of Warcraft.

After four years of systematic hacking and slashing, I decided the game had come to occupy an unhealthy position in my life. I decided to leave behind the friends I had made, the experiences we forged, and the memories we shared. 

Luckily, I was only 19 at the time, so the stability of my life wasn’t in any explicit danger. I didn’t have a wife to neglect, children to ignore, or a job to be fired from. Yet, while my academic career was intact, I lost something in the caverns of Molten Core and in the cobblestone corridors of Blackwing Lair…something I’ll never get back.

Time.

My best estimates lead me to believe that I spent approximately six waking months in-game. In that time, I could have taught myself a language, learned how to play an instrument, or mastered a vocational skill. Trust me, I feel a tangible pain just thinking about it.

To outsiders, it must seem outlandish that a healthy, physically-active teenager would surrender himself completely to a video game. But to those of us who have dared to wander into Blizzard’s enticing world, the fact that I spent half a year within the virtual walls of Azeroth is unsurprising. 

I wouldn’t call myself a martyr, but I believe my addiction may serve as a cautionary tale. In that vein, I’d like to try and explain the appeal and danger of massively multiplayer games.

I collected my thoughts before quitting World of Warcraft in an article which became my first post on this very site. With any luck, this will be my final article on the subject, and it will bestow you with a sense of awareness.

 

Probably the most obvious element to any MMO’s success is its community. Players begin meeting allies and associates mere moments after character creation in most MMOs. Whether they aid each other in combat or simply exchange courteous greetings, they form relationships. In World of Warcraft, as players level up, they depend on their peers for more than mere salutations — cooperation becomes an important factor for success. Challenging dungeons and instances force players to interact, develop stratagems, and collegially assail their enemies. 

But the groups established to complete quests are wholly temporary, which is why players join guilds — player associations which compliment the permanence of character, with an equally enduring community. The longer a player stays in a guild, the greater the perceived relevance it has.

Omar Playing WoW
The time stamps on these images are 2 p.m., 11 p.m., and 7 a.m. respectively.

I was 15-years old when I joined my first guild. At that uneasy age, my mind wandered in search of a “cause.” Politics seemed boring at the time, school didn’t interest me, and no evident social issues affected me. When I joined “Brotherhood of Light,” however, a sense of duty provoked me. I found myself in the midst of an eclectic group who would soon become my surrogate family. They hailed from different countries, spoke different languages, and were of varied ages. Yet they all pursued a common goal: the advancement of the guild. We helped each other gather equipment, complete quests, and ameliorate the reputation of the guild. I found a cause to fight for. I found my Vietnam.

I know what you’re thinking: “This kid is nuts!” Trust me, I know how it sounds.

By all accounts, these are simply video games. But never underestimate the sense of purpose and motivation an MMO can give a bored mind. With nothing important happening in my real life, I jumped at the atificial goal which the World of Warcraft community set for me. Without the correct checks and balances, my mind was allowed to inflate and exaggerate the importance of gear ratios and spell proficiency.

This leads me to yet another source of appeal: the sense of accomplishment.

Ulduar

You really have to commend Blizzard for the meticulously crafted pace which they’ve created. Players level and acquire gear with mathematical momentum. Just when you’ve become sick of killing mindless enemies, the environment tosses some elite units in your direction and rewards you with great gear. The sense of achievement amplifies when larger groups confront the game’s challenges and stretch the conflicts across longer durations of time.  Whereas a 20-minute solo quest may result in a pat on the back, a five hour excursion with 39 other gamers will inevitably conclude in cheering, fist pumping, and capitalized letters.

Massively multiplayer games succeed most when they keep the proverbial carrot at an appropriate distance. If the top tier equipment is too difficult to attain, gamers will give up and play something else. If players are too easily rewarded, they will move onto more challenging games.

Some will inevitably argue that gamers stick with MMOs because of their quality. Indeed, World of Warcraft and Everquest are beautifully designed games which offer a genuinely fun experience. But the reason people like me play them five hours a day is not because they are merely fun, but because they offer a persistent world which recognizes and rewards my skill, accomplishments, and commitment.

I’ve written about addiction, massively multiplayer games, and — in particular — World of Warcraft several times now. Hopefully this is the last time. I don’t hold a necessarily poor opinion of these games. Contrariwise, I believe they were seminal in my appreciation for the medium of video games. But I must stress that MMOs have a charm and seductiveness which is difficult to notice. If you’re not careful, you could end up like this kid….

Will I ever play another massively multiplayer game? Well, I won’t allow the sordid aspects of my experience with World of Warcraft sour me on the genre completely. I plan on playing MMOs in the future, and I’m certain that nothing bad will come of it. At this point in my life, I have inestimable causes, sources of motivation, and accomplishments which easily eclipse the petty milestones which WoW may have offered me. Having said that, I had a great time in Azeroth.


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