They say opposites attract, and that's definitely true of my husband and me, especially in regard to the way we play MMOs. While I spend hours customizing characters and combing the Internet looking for suitable names for them, he zips through character creation and slaps names like “Snackfood” on his avatars. This natural opposition extends well beyond character creation to define the way we play. It's also caused a lot of contention as we attempt to push our individual play styles onto one another. Try as we might, we continue to wrangle over the question: whose approach is better?
Years ago, I remember having a debate with a male coworker about whether or not games needed stories. At the time I believed they did (having somehow forgotten the hours I'd spent as a kid playing games like Pac-Man and Tempest) while he argued that story was extraneous and that fun mechanics were all that was necessary. This difference of opinion could be chalked up to differences in gender or to a disparity between what appeals to right/left brain-type people. Whatever the reason, and although I finally came around somewhat to his point of view, my original attitude still informs the way I approach role-playing games. While I of course enjoy the skills, combat, gear and loot that are endemic to MMOs, for me those aspects have to exist within some kind of meaningful context.
Conversely, my husband—and players like him—are fairly indifferent to the whys and wherefores; they merely want the shortest route from level 1 newbie to level 90 ass-kicker. These power-leveling juggernauts don't seem particularly interested in what kinds of experiences the game has to offer; they only want to experience them first. It's also important to them to become experts on things like arenas, character builds and dungeons. Perhaps behind this inclination is a need to feel as heroic as possible or perhaps it's simply bragging rights. In any case, and in spite of these players' mechanical expertise, in my opinion they miss a lot.
Having for years played MMOs with my husband (and other guild members with his predisposition) I've noticed that a big part of these games' coolness goes right over their heads. It's really frustrating for players like me to be part of a group like that because they're not happy if between fights you want to take a minute to admire your surroundings, read lore or examine interesting artifacts. Or hey, how about taking the time to at least read the quest summaries? My better half is a “clicker”. He never takes the time to read quest text either before or after; he just clicks through it as fast as possible. It's absurd the number of times I've watched him waste energy figuratively bashing his head against something only to finally ask me, “What is it we're supposed to do again?” For him, every quest is about fulfilling the requirements as quickly as possible and getting a good loot drop. For me, the rewards are secondary. The fun comes first.
I have a hard time understanding my hubby's brand of power-leveling, but at least he'll stick with one MMO long enough to get something out of it. Stranger to me than he are the promiscuous players who don't stick with anything very long and instead plow through one MMO after another. I have a brother-in-law who does this, and every time I talk to him he's burned through another MMO. Now, there would be nothing wrong with this if he seemed to enjoy it, but he never has anything good to say about the games he's played and always expresses a lot of disillusionment about the experience. Obviously, this is one gamer-related mystery my feeble analytical abilities are just not up to.
Then again, perhaps his attitude is a reaction against role-playing. I remember him talking about how his time in The Secret World was ruined by a group of role-playing guild Nazis who were constantly on his case about how he role-played. It seemed within that game—or within their guild at least—there was a prevailing character type outside of which you were not allowed to stray. To do so was to risk censure and eventually, banishment. If that's his reason for becoming an immersion-hostile MMO reaping machine, who can blame him? Regardless of how he or anyone decides to forgo what an MMO has to offer narratively-speaking though, I still believe an MMO's ability to take you somewhere new is the whole point of playing one. Not that I haven't experienced a down side to this approach.
Many's the time I've stopped in a dungeon to read an ancient tome and then suffered a sad, solitary death because my group had moved on without me. Similarly, I've been subject to countless complaints from impatient friends who don't want to stop in the middle of progressing to the next zone to say, help a poor farmer kill the bugs in his field. I suppose you could call what I have a form of MMO attention deficit disorder. It drives my more goal-oriented friends up the wall, and it's only gotten worse the more organic MMOs have become. My latest obsession is Guild Wars 2, which feeds my scattered approach by constantly presenting me with new things to do. I ask you, how am I supposed to keep focus on my main goals when every few feet I discover interesting smaller things that need my attention?
I like to go slow. So sue me. My characters don't walk around talking like Ren fair rejects, but they do behave as if they live in the world and that what they do has meaning. No, I'm not the kind of player you want commanding a battle or leading a raid. I don't know all the boss battles by heart, my gear isn't particularly enviable, and I make most of my choices by the seat of my armored pants. Still, I've stopped to admire the waterfalls, found lost children, fed hungry farm animals, and helped good people in distress, and all of this has made me feel like a part of the game world. Looking back, I realize that that sense of integration is important to me both in and outside of games. In either case, it's not enough for me to simply get to my destination. Along the way I want a sense of history, connection, continuity; I want to enjoy the journey and I don't care how many toys I'm holding when I finally arrive.
That's a personal choice that doesn't necessarily reflect how anyone else feels. Still, when considering whether it's better to zoom through an MMO or take the time to savor it, it could be the closest we'll ever come to an answer—that it depends entirely on expectation. Whether your goals involve the attainment of power, wealth, status, knowledge or relationships, MMOs are much like life—your priorities determine the quality of your experience.