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Fair Game: Why Do We Play MMOs?

Column By Lisa Jonte on September 20, 2013

It’s a fair question, given all the time, money, effort and thought we put into playing MMOs, not to mention all the time, money, effort and thought companies put into making them. But it’s not an easy question. For people like me, with our bitter, black misanthropic hearts, it’s a downright difficult question.

So why do we play MMOs? Moreover, with all that’s involved in leveling on just one character, why do so many of us play several MMOs? Well, I’ve looked around me a bit and come up with a few possible answers to that.

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The Story:

Say all you will about theme-park MMOs, but they do have an allure, and for good reason. As Shakespeare said, “The play’s the thing.”* What The Bard meant was that a meaningfully woven narrative could catch the guilty off their guard, provoking them to reveal their innermost secret deeds. The same is true for books, movies and TV shows that we love. Watch someone who is wrapped up in a really great book sometime. Watch as their expressions change with the story as it unfolds. Do the same with TV or a movie. We may all like to think we’re cool customers, enjoying our second-hand adventures with dignified detachment, but we’re not. We’re hooked.  We’re in it neck-deep and we love it.

And when it comes to the MMOs we love, that story doesn’t just grab us and pull us in, it weaves us into itself, making more than just readers of viewers, but actual participants in the stories we all crave. Even in sandbox MMOs, the story is still there, maybe not leading us by the hand, but weaving us into itself nonetheless.  In MMOs, the adventure is no longer second-hand.

The Social Aspects:

Now, as I said, I’m a black-hearted creature, ill-suited to the demands of being around people. While it may seem strange, I do spend a lot of my MMO time solo.

“If that’s the case,” you ask. “Why bother with MMOs at all?”

Again, fair question. I’ll admit here and now that I really resisted the idea of playing MMOs at first. I just didn’t want the responsibility of other players in my game. I didn’t want to have to play anyone else’s way, or have to dance to some guild’s tune. In the end, the dearth of good, solo, fantasy PC games eventually drew me out of my cave and onto the net. And a good thing too. While I can’t say I’ve met or made friends in any particular game, I certainly have met a lot of fine people and made many a good friend because of those games.

I will further admit that, when the planets align just right, and a group of your friends are all available at once, grouping up over TeamSpeak for a bit of coordinated mayhem can be an absolute blast, not to mention a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an evening.

The Sense of Accomplishment:

There is something about the shared experience of accomplishing mutual, known goals, that just feels right. Above and beyond Skinner’s principle of Operant Conditioning,

(i.e. reward in exchange for effort) there is a great deal of satisfaction to be had in, not only accomplishing in-game goals, or gaining levels, but in doing things for friends, or even strangers.

In LotRO, for example, leveling up as a tailor or an armorer often has more to do with outfitting one’s friends, than with any new title or skill bump. In real life, I like to make things, and I enjoy giving those things to friends. Doing the same in-game gives me the same rush of pleasure as in real life, but with far less investment in time or cash. I don’t have to take as long or spend as much, but I take as much pride in my virtual creations as in my real word works, and my friends are just as glad to get them. Moreover, knowing that my gift of armor, or weapons means that my friends can more easily survive the perils of Middle Earth, thus enjoying the game more, is a great feeling.

The Sense of Shared Purpose:

Everyday life, with its responsibilities and its mundane nature doesn’t often offer much chance for heroics. Yet heroism is something that I think we all aspire to. It’s something that I think we all need. While regular games offer players that chance to be the hero, only MMOs allow us to take our friends and family along for the adventure. For the first time in history, not just friends, but family can share real-time experiences across great distances.

Military parents deployed to far-flung places can not only talk to their kids, but pretend to be wizards and pirates with them. Friends or siblings can still connect over distance to become elves, or  Jedi, or mech operators. MMO players can not only maintain their relationships, but we can build them with new shared experiences, despite duty or distance. That’s powerful stuff.

So, what do you think? Do you agree? Or did I miss something vital about why you play MMOs? Drop a line or two in the comments and tell us the tale.


For more of Lisa's thoughts on gaming and narrative, try:

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