Because video games were born out of communication mediums (TV’s, computers), they have been mainly examined as media artifacts rather than construed as extensions of games and past-times. The lens that has been focused on video games is mainly derived from the “media effects” tradition – an attempt to examine the consequences of exposure to different kinds of media. The carryover from that perspective is quite palpable – the incessant suggestion that video games can’t be good, and that the more of it you’re exposed to, the worse off you must be (essentially a parallel of critiques of watching TV). While this framework has mainly been used to vilify violent video games, its basic conclusions seem to have spilled into video games in general and helped ferment general paranoia about video gaming – that they are pointless at best and might actually be highly addictive and dangerous. After all, media has to have an “effect” on you, right?
But in reality, video gaming is much more like a hobby or past-time than passive exposure to media, and the critiques along the lines of addictiveness seem misplaced when we consider our cultural attitudes towards other past-times and hobbies. We seldom ask avid book readers how often they stay up late at night just to finish a chapter from their favorite author. We don’t ask avid mountain climbers how distracted they are while working because they are thinking of their next climb, or whether their spouses feel neglected when they go mountain climbing. We also don’t ask aspiring writers or actors how often their art consumes the rest of their lives. In fact, it’s perceived as noble to be consumed by artistic endeavors.
Furthermore, by categorizing MMORPGs as video games and video games as media artifacts, it allows researchers to talk about MMORPGs using an exposure model. The problem is that this implicitly denies the importance and effect the other thousands of people in the environment have on the experience. It likens MMORPGs as passive an activity as watching TV. But in fact, MMORPGs are social communities. What's frustrating when talking about MMORPGs to non-gamers or some researchers is that they are examing a social community as a media artifact - where fascinating issues of social identity and social interaction are reduced to issues of media exposure and usage.
Games have always been human constructs. The goal of any game has always been a seemingly meaningful task in a scaffolding of arbitrary rules. To a Martian, it may be incredibly difficult to understand the point of football (or golf) or why so many people are emotionally invested in how a ball is tossed on a field, or why any sentient beings would reward tossing balls on fields. When we take a step back, it seems odd that the very people who find so much value in one game deny any value to other kind of games considering that all games at an abstract level are goals defined in the context of arbitrary rules.
Non-gamers scoff at the joy derived from looting a rare item or when a dragon raid succeeds. They wonder how so much happiness can be derived from something that is not real. The answer is that it’s an exact parallel of any other game. After all, achievement is entirely defined by the rules scaffolding. Getting a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal is as much a game as defeating Vox in EverQuest. It’s about a set of rules that were defined by us, not some universal guideline for achievement. The universe could not care any less about what we do.
A colleague once critiqued MMORPGs this way – “Why don’t I just give you a black box with a crank? Every once in a while, you get a piece of candy. That’s what an MMORPG is, right?” Of course, this focuses on the grind and doesn’t take into account the social interactions of the environment, but even if we conceded that point, there’s a problem with that analogy. The problem is that that’s a good description of almost anything in life. When you take away the specifics, even something like trying to get a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal is like that black box.
Many of the frustrations associated with talking about MMORPGs to non-gamers stem from two incorrect categorizations. Either they lump MMORPGs with media artifacts, or they see MMORPGs as games but forget that much of life is a game as well. For some reason, popular culture would like us to think about video games as a very different beast from what it is. Many people talk about video games without noting its striking parallels to other activities we deem worthy and wholesome. Many would have us think that video games can never be taken seriously. The reality is that when you take a step back, most of life is a game.
My older brother is just 15 months my peer. We spent all of our time together and some even mistook us for twins when we were very young. Before video games it was chess, risk and other board games at an early age (<13). In the early 80’s we pooled our limited resources and purchased an Atari 2600, which became the pride of the neighborhood. All the kids wanted to see it, touch it, as far as I knew nobody else had one.
Our parents condoned our purchase of the game system but soon began to worry about the time devoted to using it regardless of their time spent in front of the television. Our TV was playing Combat while in the next room theirs was playing the nightly news or jeopardy etc.
When they informed us that they had no intentions of purchasing new game carts, weather it be for Christmas or birthdays, we began a recycling drive to feed our crave. For me, I guess, it became a crusade to save nickels and dimes. At one point I remember the Mars candy company offered five cents for each candy wrapper sent in. All of a sudden I found myself cleaning up the schoolyard and baseball field for discarded Milky Way wrappers.
Now I am 32 years old and I may not be the voluntary public servant I once was but I still enjoy gaming.
I recently told my father about playing MMORPG’s and he looked dumbfounded. Just the idea that the little avatars on the screen were people playing the same game at the same time threw him for a loop. I pointed to the screen,
“This person is in Hong Kong.” I told him.
He began to get upset about the whole notion.
“Those are not real people.”, He replied pointing back to the screen, “You don’t really know them, you’ve never met them or even talked to them.”
“Some of them I know. This one you’ve even met.” I retorted indicating my old college roomate.
He felt confident that his son was an anomily, the only one on the planet who spent so many hours playing video games. When I presented a social group from around the world and that group chimed in with “Hi Aule’s Father” he didn’t know what to say, though secretly I believe he was thinking “I’m surrounded by idiots”.
Both of my divorced parents and their spouses in my youth did not like video games yet all but one
play a video game of some type now.
It's just as silly as when any other new thing that's been presented in the last 100 years, people are quick to judge it and if they have no use for it, to proclaim it to be no good.
I had a similar experience to Mr. Bouchez when I was younger. My parents gladly bought the Sega Master System for my brother and I but then refused to get the Sega Genesis because of the amount of time we spent playing Phantasy Star I.
My brother and I also played games of all types and enjoyed reading classical novels and watching japanese anime. For us this combined all our favorite hobbies into one. Instead of taking a chance on being bitten by rattlesnakes exploring the woods behind our house I was able to safely explore the much more fascinating digital landscape of an 8-bit world. For my brother it was a steaming plateful of raw data he could collect and analyze as he uncovered the game's secrets, completed the quests and figured out the best use of each item and character.
For us gaming has been a way to exercise our minds
but to our parents we were staring blankly into a t.v. screen mindlessly pressing buttons in our every spare moment.
That perception hasn't changed for alot people. They think of gamers as pale skinned zombies totally forsaking reality for the next high score.
I agree that the stigma of video games is derived from the concept of 'media effects' (which is related to the layman's concept of hypnosis) and I believe this kind of superstition is hampering current video game development.
What an insightful piece! This is the first article I've read on this site that I feel truly transcends the realm of traditional psychologically and instead pursues something deeper.
As you said, we value our lives in MMORPGs in precisely the same way others value their lives in, say, the workplace or in their social endeavors. Most of us play MMORPGs because it's fun and fulfilling (barring the social obligations and addiction). We gain satisfaction by achieving that new piece of armor or becoming a leader of a guild. Similarly, an office worker might gain satisfaction from receiving a bonus or promotion, or winning the respect of superiors. Why is this office worker satisfied? Because she believes that with the increased money and power her life is somehow better off. In a way, it's almost "fun" to be working because it is through the rewards of her labor that her life is improved. But the question becomes: How much will her life really improve?
In short, I feel we must all look for the root causes of why we are doing what we are doing. When you realize that most of the things we do in real life seem as trivial, as mundane, as the things we do in a computer game (wanting a new piece of armor/wanting a promotion), it starts to put life in perspective. Is anything truly meaningful?
A great article and very true! I remember years ago my dad would always scoff when he'd want to chat while I was in the middle of a raid (EQ), and I had to explain why I couldn't just drop everything and devote all my attention to him. He could never seem to get his head around the fact that I'd made a committment to be there to the little pixely people on the screen, "they weren't real people!" after all. Then one day I got him to sit down and play World of Warcraft and some comprehension dawned on him - enough anyway so that now he has some understanding of and respect for the validity of social connections and committments in an online game.
I also get similar reactions from work friends when they ask me how I spent my weekend and I reply with "gaming" or "we had a great raid in World of Warcraft on Saturday night, it was a lot of fun". I get the funny raised eyebrow look, hehe.
I think a lot of the angst against games also stems, in addition to your fantastic points, from the old-fashioned idea that playing games is a waste of time (which I think you addressed somewhat in paragraph 2). Thankfully studies are beginning to show that games are great for all kinds of things - pain relief, dealing with stress, communication opportunities for those with disabilities or who are housebound, improved multitasking and concentration... just great overall brain downtime which we need more than ever in our hectic information-overload society.
as an relative outsider on mmorpgs (ive only dabbled briefly in ragnarok online as research for my thesis on mmorpg addiction) but an ex hardcore-gamer in the console realm, i agree with a lot of the things that have been said, but draw the line at the parallel between reality and online rpg'ing, i can obviously see where you're coming from, but strongly disagree with the notion that playing an online game is as worthy of ones time as, lets say, as you put it 'artistic endeavours'. as a musician as well as a gamer and a video game technology degree student, i would personally far rather invest my time in learning a new skill on my instrument, or learning a new production technique, than trying to gain a rare item from fighting a dragon or what have you in everquest
but then again, i've never played everquest, i've just seen it in action at friends and such, and to be honest the idea of playing the game terrifies me from what i've read on this site and others, as i don't want to become a mmorpg addict myself, having been on the brink of a counter strike addiction 4 years or so ago.
i'm all for video games being a great outlet for escapism, 'brain downtime', and what have you, i just draw the line at when that escapism becomes a permanent fixture in ones life
while life may seem insignificant at times, and our outputs often seem worthless, surely there are better things to be doing with ones time than dedicating it to becoming a level 82 wizard
offense not intended whatsoever, just an outsiders view on the matter
ps. keep up the good work on the site.
Alasdair MacIntyre's distinction between 'internal' and 'external' goods provides an extremely helpful (I'd say 'true' as well) way of looking at things here.
There are two types of goods in the world. The first, external goods, are those which may be achieved through a variety of means. Some classical examples are wealth, power, and physical pleasure.
By contrast, internal goods are those which may only be realized by engaging in the practice in which the goods inhere: the joy of riding a bike for the first time differs widely from the joy of playing Duke Ellington.
To reduce either to 'a piece of candy from a box' is wholly to miss the point. Even if one grants the cynical and false reduction of high-level goods such as the appreciation of music to 'just another form of pleasure,' the fact is that this type of candy is available only from this type of box, and no other.
To understand why this is such a fatal error - and the lack of this distinction is a major cause of confusion our moral use and philosophies - one must read MacIntyre's seminal work, 'After Virtue.'
Classical singer Russell Watson postpones his forthcoming UK tour after undergoing brain surgery...
I'm intersted in studying mmorpg's because I'm also an addict to one.. MU ..
help me please lets shed more light on this little world of ours
MMORPG are games, true, but very different from the classic game concept.
The RP, more a phrase left from old times when graphics were void, is the game itself. P&P RP or Online RP are creaticve and acting arts, telling a story or live a story in a character.
What we refer to as MMORPG is a game concept of grind, archivement and often comunity created contest.
Classic games like Poker, Monopoly, Baldur's Gate, Tekken or Soccer will have a winner. Two or more parties compete in a definated ruleset. After the game or match is over the game restarts.
MMOs have a no winner concept, players dont have any goals but those they set by themself or the almighty comunity.
So, if you ask me, the addictive element (if anyways) must be somewhere in the drive contesting each other.
So when you play a game that noone can win by the rules, when you don't roleplay, what do you do ?
I don't know if virtual archievment is a substitution for anything one doesn't get in ' the real world ', and for sure i can't judge if for the good or the bad.
"as an relative outsider on mmorpgs (ive only dabbled briefly in ragnarok online as research for my thesis on mmorpg addiction) but an ex hardcore-gamer in the console realm, i agree with a lot of the things that have been said, but draw the line at the parallel between reality and online rpg'ing, i can obviously see where you're coming from, but strongly disagree with the notion that playing an online game is as worthy of ones time as, lets say, as you put it 'artistic endeavours'. as a musician as well as a gamer and a video game technology degree student, i would personally far rather invest my time in learning a new skill on my instrument, or learning a new production technique, than trying to gain a rare item from fighting a dragon or what have you in everquest"
This is silly, you are saying you disagree with the article because you believe that spending time on your instrument is more important than the time spent on your game....yet you couldn't give a single reason. I am willing to bet you are just heavily affected by what our culture dictates. Video games are NOT brain downtime, they take just as much brain power as things that are deemed worthy outside of the game. I'm positive that the math required to prove how to perfectly optimize a hunter's dps in WoW is more involved than the majority of math in high school. If you play video games the right way, they can be extremely stimulating to the mind.
I spent a lot of my life playing WoW and a lot more of it playing soccer, but I have been ONLY been made fun of for playing "too much" WoW. What is meaningful in life? Is scoring a goal in a soccer game more meaningful than getting an epic in a video game? To me they are the same. You do things in life because they are enjoyable or will provide enjoyment in the future. The fact that certain enjoyments are socially unacceptable is lame.
I HATE people that say video games are so bad blah blah, but can't give any real answers why.
By my reckoning MMO's are a different creature than "traditional" video games for two simple factors: persistence of accomplishment and social observation. Both of these are found individually in other types of games, but only when they combine do you see the sort of compelling motivations emerge that drive many MMO players.
Persistence of accomplishment has been around in video games since the earliest days of the "ENTER PASSWORD" screen. Made it Dr. Wiley's lab but had to quit for dinner before you made it through? No problem - just write down the password and pick up exactly where you left off tomorrow. Social observation (at least on a mass scale) in video games is relatively new, having really only emerged with the advent of the internet and online competition. Getting a frag in the FPS was suddenly more worthwhile once there were other people in the arena to witness your prowess.
MMO's put both of these together - when you kill the dragon and loot the giant sword of Pwnsauce you can immediately run to the nearest city to strut around and show it off to other players hanging around, but even when you've logged off for the night and the dragon respawns you'll still have the sword strapped to your back. Every day you can take a stroll through Orgrimmar and bask in your status as one of the three wielders of Pwnsauce on the server. It has taken you and your guild two months of raiding to get that sword - hundreds of man-hours spent clearing and re-clearing trash mobs, learning the bosses and eventually downing the End Boss. It is an accomplishment both because of the difficulty of the task and the staggering amount of time invested in achieving it. Sure the sword is just purple pixels with some stats attached to them, but the status afforded the wielder is not so much for the sword itself as the herculean personal and collaborative effort required to obtain it. Like a college degree or a sports trophy, the sword is a token; it has significance to people not for what it is but rather for the work that went into it.
People chase after tokens because tokens help them believe in their own self worth as individuals. The person who spends hours learning a piano concerto or practicing the perfect free-throw differs from the person who raids for hours pursuing a sword only in the way society perceives these actions - for the individual they all serve the same function.