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Player Perspectives: Meaningful Travel: Make Your Own Meaning!

Columns By Isabelle Parsley on February 11, 2011

Meaningful Travel: Make Your Own Meaning!

One of the subjects most gamers I know – myself included – like to kick around from time to time is the importance of meaningful travel in MMOs. The meta-discussion, however, isn’t so much about travel itself but rather about having meaningful experiences in the games we play, and about the increasing trivialization not only of content but of the experience in general. Travel in MMOs is symbolic of the wider discussion because it’s something we do so much of, because it’s repetitive, and because as it tends to become boring we usually end up thinking that slowing it down will instantly recapture those first experiences of wonder and exploration. There’s an awful lot that could be said here, but I’m only allowed small walls of text, so we’ll deal with what we can. (There’s always next week!)

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I’m no longer convinced that making people ride across the map for 30 minutes before they can meet with their friends is necessarily “meaningful,” though at one point I was a strong proponent of doing exactly that. Slow isn’t inherently meaningful, and fast isn’t inherently meaningless – which of course is a debate that applies also to leveling and content-consumption in general. We demand that games provide us with a meaningful experience, and though what constitutes meaning probably varies from player to player, there are probably some common threads to be found.

It’s a difficult conundrum to lay on the shoulders of game developers, because I don’t think they can ever fully respond to the spectrum of player expectations. No matter what they do it will never be quite enough, and that’s more down to how we are as human beings than to how they are as developers. My own expectations of MMOs have changed over the last decade; then again if I look back, my expectations in tabletop RP games before I’d ever heard of MMOs changed over time as well.

When I first started pen’n’paper gaming I was perfectly content to Monty Haul every week with my friends – we ran premade scenarios (the entire Dragonlance Campaign, oh yeah!) without too much deviation, we killed the bad guys, raked in the loot, and didn’t ask ourselves too many philosophical questions. As the years passed, however, I began to look for a gaming experience that presented our group with more convoluted plots, more politics, more betrayal, more chances to examine our characters’ ethics and morals. We focused less on what we could haul out of dungeons (and indeed played games where dungeons weren’t really a prominent feature) and more on how our characters impacted their social environment and vice versa.

Now, I don’t expect to play politics much an MMO, nor to have to make too many ethical decisions (though single player RPGs are exploring exactly those themes with increasing depth and quality). But I do expect to have more options than simply kill-loot-level, which is what I was content to do when I first started playing them back in 2000. What I want out of MMOs has changed because I have changed.

So, back to meaningful travel. A few years ago I was definitely in the “yes please!” camp when it came to stretching out travel times. I, like many others, thought that if it took longer to get around a game map, we might appreciate the world more and thereby enrich our gaming experience. And it does, to a certain extent – but the downside of meaningful travel might be more negative than the upside. I was beta-testing and playing Vanguard at the time, where travel was initially intentionally slow, but as soon as I became part of a social group there we started to realise that it was damn near impossible to meet up with friends on the spur of the moment. Helping someone out right away was only possible if they were nearby. Getting together to do stuff required an extra half hour just to get everyone where they needed to be.

That’s all well and good when you have several hours to play – and that’s the biggest reason meaningful travel usually ends up less meaningful and more irritating than it was intended to be. Most of the gamers I know are more or less my age: we have jobs, kids, social lives (no, really), chores to do around the house, phonecalls to take and bills to pay. The average age of computer gamers is generally on the rise and now sits squarely in the 30s or indeed the 40s; so, contrary to the culturally projected image, most MMO players aren’t socially-inept adolescents sitting in their parents’ basement – they are the parents.

So yes, while I do enjoy riding around the map and exploring, I don’t enjoy having to spend 20 precious minutes of my carefully eked-out hour online getting from A to B. We tend to assume that slowing things down will automatically impart meaning to our MMO activities, much like we assume that slowing our real lives down will automatically simplify them and impart meaning. But being mindful and aware, even if it’s just in MMOs, is a little more difficult than that. It can’t be entirely spoon-fed by the designers: they can encourage it through their design, but part of the responsibility for finding meaning lies squarely with the player.

Like many other aspects of games, travel itself isn’t inherently meaningful: it’s how much attention I pay while I’m traveling that matters. In Fallen Earth, for instance, my first trip from Sector 1 to Sector 2 was an incredible experience – I was a little on the low side to be undertaking the journey, mutants and slavering monsters converged on my delicious-looking mount as soon as I stopped for more than a second, and I kept seeing fascinating things on the horizon that I wasn’t quite sure I should explore. It was a long trip, and it’s a memory I won’t soon forget. My second, third, fourth and fifth trips, however, weren’t nearly as exciting, and by the third long haul I was sighing more than I was gasping in wonder.

It’s human nature. Repetition robs experiences of their initial singular meaning. MMOs are repetitive, but so are many other things we do in real life. It’s unreasonable and entirely unrealistic to expect MMOs to provide us with an endless stream of new experiences. What the devs can do is provide stimuli along the way for when we do choose to travel slowly – but we still have to decide to experience it in a meaningful way. The mere availability of faster modes of travel doesn’t rob the act of traveling of meaning, it just gives us options when we need to be somewhere quickly. There’s nothing to stop us from not taking the flight path or the teleporter, and saying otherwise is basically expecting the devs to not only create our experiences but also to experience them for us. That’s silly.

Even 20 years ago, back in prehistoric times, the one thing our pen’n’paper gaming group quickly gave up on was random encounters while traveling. For one thing they didn’t always fit the story we were telling (even if it was a pretty basic, kill-loot-level story), and for another, we all knew they were randomly generated and thus not particularly meaningful. What we did start doing, however, was planning real encounters that fit into the wider context, that could foreshadow stuff that wasn’t set to happen for several sessions, or that harked back to things the players had almost forgotten they’d done.

Whether an experience will be meaningful or not usually requires a conscious and personal decision, and it’s not something that can just be coded for us. Sure, sometimes we turn a corner and blam, there’s a meaningful experience – but even then we have to decide to stay and experience it. If we keep turning our backs on potential fun and expecting it to be delivered to us without any effort on our part, we’re effectively refusing to participate in creating our own fun, and travel is no exception. Take that flight-path when you need to get somewhere quickly, but don’t act as though you don’t have the option of riding or walking the slow way. Those roses won’t throw themselves at us – we have to actively decide to stop and smell them now and then.

Sometimes, going nowhere is where you need to go. But in a world where game-time can be precious, it helps to have choices.

Isabelle Parsley / http://stylishcorpse.wordpress.com