When an elementary teacher gets certified, it's done with the understanding that they've been taught how to teach the four key subject areas: math, science, social studies, and language. Bear with me here, because it gets around to games. When the time came for me to tackle my Methods in Science course, one of the requirements was that I do a two-week+ observation and analysis on a behavior of my choice. I had a heavy workload at the time , so I'm not ashamed to admit I was looking for an easy way out. I chose to study play in my two cats (something I could do passively), how they played together as well as independently and the behavioral impact of when they were deprived of play (don't worry, I wasn't cruel about it). Tobold's recent “Why Do We Play” series brought my mind back to this exercise. The results of the study, while not surprising to those with pets, relate directly to we as gamers. There's more to it than that though and that's what I'd like to look at today.
At it's most basic level, we play for something to do. For the cats, it gave them exercise but, more than that, it gave them a break in the mundane that it is their life. In much the same way, games provide that for us. They are an escape, a refuge, and represent the potential for the unexpected.
Be it a mouse or string, my play with the cats revolved around exploiting their instinctual urges to chase and attack. What is it then that games exploit in us?
From the time we are born, play is of incredible importance. We want to manipulate our environment because, through that, we grow our minds and build our understanding. This continues all throughout childhood; the way in which we play changes yet the purpose remains the same. As we get older, the necessity of play is thought to decrease as we prepare for adulthood.
Yet, instinctively, we are hard wired to explore and imagine. Society, however, is not kind to this schematic and, more often than not, tends to shun it. Creativity isn't the key to a successful future and, when it is, it's the supreme rarity.
What's left is a deficit in what we need to satisfy our minds. People fulfill this in many ways but for us, it tends to be games. They give us the unexpected and visualize what it is that we used to imagine. In short, games call out to our inner children while requiring the skills of an adult to complete. It's a beautiful dance of imagination and coordination that touches on our inner selves in a direct way; this inner part of our self is that inner child, which may well be why non-gamers don't understand our love for gaming; we are, after all, out of that phase of life now, as their own hobbies probably indicate.
Making Sandboxes from Theme Parks
MMORPGs in particular call out to our inner children because they provide us with a world of perceived possibilities. When we're young, we don't know the world well enough to differentiate all that is possible from all that is not. MMORPGs remove the reins from our hands so we're left with a similar blind spot; we can never know what may or may not happen in a game because we don't control it and can never fully understand it.
The most successful MMORPG out there makes us feel free while also providing us with a tailored experience. Perhaps a key limitation of most adult minds is that we can never fully achieve the imagination of our childhood selves once we have moved past it. When I was a kid, I remember playing Spy in my backyard and pretending that I was being hunted by soldiers. When the time came, I could almost see them coming after me. In games, though they provide us with a world where we know the possibilities are nearly endless, a little hand holding helps us move past the valleys in our own imaginings. They give us an experience and set it in a world. Those two facts create the illusion of a sandbox without actually making us build all the castles. Games that do require that are a rarity these days because, simply, they're harder for most people to have fun in.
Socialization and Progression: The Real Challenge in MMOs
For an animal, play represents practice. There is purpose behind it, even if they're not aware of it. When they attack that mouse on a string, they're readying themselves for the hunt. Does an MMORPG represent anything like that for us?
In some ways, yes.
Why is it that we choose to play MMOs instead of console games? After all, many console games provide worlds of consistency and, if we're being honest, generally provide better “game” experiences than those we favor. At the core, I believe that most of us turn to MMOs because they are a social outlet. Even if we choose to never talk to another person the whole time we play, we still derive something from being around other players.
Inside ourselves is a social desire. For some of us, we may log in and tackle challenges solo while talking to our guild. Others might join a PuG and run through a dungeon. Still others might grind quests quietly, all the while knowing that they're part of something, this group of people playing the game, even if they do so alone, when they may not have that in their day to day life. On the latest Spouse Aggro, Beau made an excellent point that it probably doesn't take much to make a person feel better about themselves. Simple interactions, positive remarks, and good moments, can give us a boost and make us feel better, even if our lives aren't bad to begin with.
So, what practice do these games provide? Interaction, teamwork, organization.
I've talked about challenge in MMOs before, so I won't rehash that topic here. I don't believe we stay with this genre because they're hard or require great intellectual throughput. I think we stay here because, well, we like doing something with other people, actively or passively.
Anticipating the Future
Finally, the last point I'd like to discuss is the simple act of anticipating something. We become emotionally invested in our games, more often than not, because of the social connections we build within them. Even if the social connections fail, there's still the association that's been built around the game those connections were created within.
It's not surprising then that we care when things change. We get excited about patches and expansions and new releases. We look forward to all of the little things that may be coming down the pipeline. It's the potential to be awed that keeps us baited; the potential for experience (and not XP). All that is tied up in these games, the fact that they are our equivalent of a child's play, makes them the perfect outlet for our imaginings. We read blogs, check out websites, and listen to podcasts to fulfill our desire for information on something we care about.
At it's core, it's hope. We hope that next game or patch brings us something incredible. That's what the game companies try to sell us, after all. We hope that it's a step forward towards immersion and towards a real virtual world. We hope for innovation, even though it usually doesn't work (and isn't that the way of all innovation?), because even if it doesn't and we're let down or frustrated, in our hearts we know that it moves us one step closer to what it is that we are looking for. And maybe that thing is a little different for all of us.
We're built to look forward. When my cats were derived of play for a day, they became restless. They cried out and looked to me with eyes that asked me what their voices could not. And I felt bad for them. If that were to continue, to make them devoid of hope, they would lose interest in their play and also lose an intellectual output that was important to them.
As we would. MMORPGs are not static things. They do not exist in a vacuum and must always move forward or else risk losing their base. In their own way, they are creatures of anticipation. They give players something to look forward to through all of the possibilities and opportunities they provide. If there was no anticipation, there would be no MMORPG as we know it today.
I know this article is a bit lengthy but it's something I've been kicking around for a while. As a blogger, I spend a decent amount of time thinking of things I'd like to write about. More often than not, I get grandiose ideas that humanize the inhumanitable or draw connections that are difficult to articulate. I hope that, despite its length, this article might shed a little light on what it is I see in MMORPGs and the perspective I write from. Why do I play? Because someone gave me a world of toy soldiers and said do with it what you will.
I read a book recently called Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Though I'm usually not a fan of Science Fiction, I read this book as a kid and decided to come back to it. There's a revolving image in the story around a “fantasy game” the main character plays in. Though the book was conceived before the first graphical MMO ever saw release, it still captures exactly where it is games are heading: freedom of experience and choice and, really, everything. The “fantasy” game let the player do whatever they wanted exactly how they wanted to, as if they were in the game themselves. It is our passion for gaming that has brought these conceptualizations where they are today and, with any luck, will continue to push them forward.
Diversification is inevitable and not a bad thing. I've felt let down by games in the past-- and it usually wasn't much to do with the game and more to do with what I sought from it -- but I'm excited looking ahead. Aren't you and shouldn't we all be?