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The Seduction of Achievement in MMORPGs

The fairy tales we grow up with and our schooling system hold a particular vision of how people are rewarded and how goals are achieved in life. Goals and rewards are well-defined – the prince has to slay the dragon to marry the princess, or you need to write the alphabets three times before you get a sticker. Moreover, you will reach the goal if you put in enough effort – princes always defeat the dragon, and you can always get that sticker if you finish your work.

After 6 years of fairy tales and then 16 years of school, we are then exposed to the real world. In the real world, goals are seldom well-defined, More importantly, the amount of effort you put into something isn’t guaranteed to get you any closer to your goal. Sometimes, you put in very little effort and hit the jackpot. Other times, you work week after week to get an incredibly small payoff. One of the disillusions of being an adult is that the framework of goals and rewards we learned the first 22 years of our lives suddenly stops working.

Unlike single-player and limited multi-players games, MMORPGs offer social rewards and achievements. High-leveled characters have social prestige, are perceived as powerful, and are valuable members in their guilds. More importantly, these rewards follow the framework that we learned as children. Levels are clearly defined goals. When you are given a quest, they tell you exactly what you need to do. And when you’ve done what they want, you get the sticker … I mean level.

Achievement in MMORPGs is seductive because the goals are well-defined, the journey is well-defined, and the rewards are social and persistent. Games in non-persistent worlds destroy the illusion of achievement when you quit the game – your "achievement" has suddenly vanished, gone unrecognized, and become inconsequential. In an MMORPG, you accumulate what you have achieved in a character that is a part of a community that recognizes your power and competence. Your efforts and achievements in MMORPGs gain a consequential realism that other games do not provide because they are persistent.

Unlike the real world where effort does not translate into achievement, MMORPGs offer an environment where you know exactly what your effort is going towards and a good sense of how far you are from your goals. Unlike the real world where connections, chance and family background are what mostly determine your success, anyone can become rich, powerful, and admired in an MMORPG if they put enough effort into it. In a strange way, The American Dream – the belief that anyone can become successful if they work hard enough – does exist, but it exists in worlds like Norrath and Camelot.


I think your analysis is too simplistic. Yes, there are well defined goals in MMORGs, but there are less well defined goals, too. Gaining skill or killing monsters/mobs can be seen as well defined risk/time/reward objectives which could be seen as analogous to real world activities such as selling goods for a set commision or studying for the postal test which yields postal job opportunities or starting as a peon in fastfood and working up to manager and higher. One might not always see the clearly defined goals, b ut it doesn't mean that they don't exist. Further, is it a clearly defined goal to become the greatest PvP player - I think not since there are several degrees of freedom in crafting and playing your character along with many ways for people to define the goal in itself.

Part of the drive in a capitalist society is the constant accumulation of items which parallels that seen in many MMORGs. A new BMW is analogous to a new horse or weapon in a game. IMO, MMORGs *strongly* mimic real life; otherwise, they wouldn't have the draw.

I have questions for Nick. Did you work hard under clearly defined goals to gain your degree? Isn't college a subset of the real world? Isn't the hard work to obtain high marks and a certain degree a gateway into other opportunities? Do you actually think that because a person has a degree from a certain institution that he is more competent than some one who got their degree froma preceived lesser institution? The deciding factor is not who you are and who you know; it is what you do when you get there.

I think you have become rather cynical about what consitutes success in life. And, that cynicism is clouding your objectivity. As I understand your point of view, in the real world, if you don't work hard and rely solely on your connections and "luck", then you will be a success and can achieve your goals. Do you not see immigrants come to the US and outperform the people surrounding them and move on to better situations due to their hard work?

Basically, I think you need to reassess your assumptions, leave your ivory tower, and observe the real world outside the university. There are a myriad of examples that refute your assertions about the real world and gaming worlds.

Life is not simple. But, for humans to handle their small piece of the world, it *must* be simple enough and often *very* well defined to grasp the surroundings. The world or US economy is so complex that it very difficult to describe its behavior. So, models are created to simplify the mechanisms to a point where some illusory control may be exerted, ie interest rates or taxation or product saturation. But, while these models allow decision to be made, the entire system of the economy is not completely understood.

Now, I appear to be rambling. In any event, I think that your analysis is flawed.

Posted by: Steve on April 17, 2004 7:33 AM

I don't think he's saying that connections and luck guarantee success in the real world. What he's saying is that hard work and time expended do NOT guarantee success in the real world--and that's a true statement. While it's certainly also true in MMORPGs, his point is well taken: effort expended in a game leads to greater rewards with much more certainty than it does in the real world. For example, if you kill enough monsters, you will eventually max your character's level. Moreover, the availability of walkthroughs and guides--for those who choose to use them--significantly limits uncertainty in gaming and increases the chance of success. Even without this advantage, often the only "effort" required to achieve a goal in a MMORPG is simple: just show up. :D

That said, I agree that the analysis on goals isn't completely valid. Goals in the real world remain undefined only if you choose not to do the tough mental work of defining them. One area where the real world differs significantly from fantasy worlds is you have to set goals for yourself, drawing from a virtually limitless set of possibilities. It's true that you must also set goals for your character in a game; however, the possibilities are much more limited, much less complex, and frequently provided ready-made for you.

Posted by: Ytrill on April 17, 2004 9:06 AM

In my view, the author of the Seduction of the Achievment in MMORGs is on to something. I don't know if this is simply an opinion piece, or if it is supposed to withstand the sort of critique of an essay for College Writing 101, but what the author had to say concerning goals and progress made sense to me. For a lot of people, I think, and I'm just talking off the cuff, a lot of people in life end up with low-level dead end jobs. Such jobs would include anything in retail or something that your typical temp agency could get an applicant in an office, like filing files or answering phones, or doing data entry, etc. Working in the post office, or at UPS -- a security guard somewhere. These jobs not only have low prestige, but they're dead end. Sure, there are a few people who eventually get promoted to bossing people around and watching their former co-workers sweat, while they think up better ways to organize them to improve output, or whatever the typical promoted, former peon's job duties might include, but for a large segment of the population, their job, or one of about the same level, is -it- for the rest of their lives.

So MMORPGS might fill what one might consider to be a natural human trait -- the need to feed one's ego and to make progress. These games offer the patient player, regardless of talent or IQ, the opportunity to excel at or beyond his peers. Massive amounts of patience are required where, say in other recreational games like basketball, talent is a deciding factor on performance. To make the analogy to the job world: race, connections, IQ, resumй, and the amount of avaliable jobs restrict the amount of people who will find promotions to a higher standard of living and social status.

It's just an idea. A theory. There are probably other reasons people choose to play, like to go kill stuff (for young males), or maybe a generation that grew up playing computer games will want to continue playing games, pure and simple. Or maybe for some it's just a glorified chat room, something that offers a shared experience rather than the dry, substanceless conversations that you get in most of the chatrooms, say in the IRC or many of the other chat services.

At any rate, I number myself among the former MMORGP's, and it is because I saw myself using Everquest much like this article described: to give myself structured, outlined, well-defined goals to success, only, it was a fantasy illusion, an inadaquate replacement for real goals in real life, among real friends whom you can really see and touch.

Posted by: Paul on April 17, 2004 9:30 AM

Sorry but I have to strongly disagree.
I myself am an italian player of EQ since 5 years, reached the high end game, part of a high end guild and so on.
The reward is not so automatic: is not true that in a MMORPG (in EQ at least) you need just to work strong and the result is sure to come.
The same thing that happens in real life happens also in this game: you can work like a mad, and in the end for any type of cyrcumstance (bad luck, someone else more powerful, competition, anything) you can remain with nothing in your hands.

I am 29 and I think due to work and other real life reasons (go figure, I play EQ but I have also a job and a family) I know what is the feeling of working hard=don't gain what I worked for.
I can recognize this.
And I can tell you that it happens in Everquest too.

Interesting words, anyway.
Great site.

Posted by: Ombra on April 17, 2004 1:22 PM

I'm a 20 male and i play MMORGP's cause they are fun. Well some of them are fun. I find alot of entertainment through them. Mostly in the RvsR aspect of them but not always. In the RvsR aspect i find i get entertainment out of it in the way i would get from playing a football game with my friends. If i win i'm excited. If i lose I figure out a way i can win next time. To post an article with everyones reason for playing this game would take a very long time. Many of us play for many different reasons. Yes i too have played to get a goal completed and enjoy its rewards, but that is not all the time. Goals not clearly defined in life? I'm going to college right now to learn computer science. If i stay in school and get my degree i will get a better job then people who dont. That seams clealy defined to me based on survey results and such. If i stay at my internship i will get a job when i finish college. The fascination with these goals in the games is most of them can be completed and you have your reward in a few hours. Unlike years to complete college. While attempting these game well defined goals you get to enjoy playing the game, killing stuff, chatting in a fun envirement unlike yahoo chat, and meet people. When finished you have your reward plus everything you did while achieving it. College is not fun to go to, most of us dont get to kill people at school, chatting can be fun but in the game everyone obviously has the same interests, and you meet a few people. So a little difference but the game seems to offer more. Unfortunatly i've quit Dark Age of Camelot because i dont have fun playing it anymore. I dont think anyother game will be fun either. I'm not sure why my level of entertainment has dropped playing these games, i mean i built a really nice pc to play them on lol.

Posted by: Casey on April 17, 2004 1:29 PM

I believe it best we look at the report for what it is, a report based on one persons experiences both in life and in gaming enviroments.

Regardless of what our individual opinions might be, his argument and presentation is valid for him. And I would wager it would echo of truth for those who have similar experiences to those which he has had.

One aspect though that I see few remembering in any report, is that these games being looked at are -not- true roleplaying games. There is no benefit to immersing yourself in the fantasy world. In fact the few instances I have been a part of groups attempting to do just that we have been met with vicious comments degrading the nature of Roleplayers in general.

To that end I would say that any evalutation is going to be flawed as one is not evaluating what they are claiming to evaluate. They are, evaluating a mass marketed, watered down, version of a RolePlaying catalyst that serves no other purpose then to pull those with little to no concept of RolePlaying towards it. While leaving games out there that do provide true RolePlaying with the dregs of the bottle.

Still, thank you for all of the hard work.

Posted by: Jennifer on April 17, 2004 1:32 PM

I have seen a lot of people who seem to substitute success in the game for success in real life, so this theory to me actually makes sense.

Let's face it, when we were kids we dreamed of the exciting careers we would have. And then we got to a real life job that was usually a lot less exciting than what we dreamed, or in some cases, isn't even close to what we desired — but it pays the bills, and we are stuck in it b/c of family and other obligations.

The game brings a brief respite at least from the humdrum reality of life, and a chance to dream again of the exciting things we'll do, the exciting places we'll go. I don't see it as particularly different than other such respites, books, TV, music etc., but perhaps it is a little more effective b/c of the immersive possibilities and the fantasy land feel.

This is not me saying this is a bad thing in any way. I think we all need a little exciting fantasy in our lives, and to me, this is one that also lets you reach out and learn from people all around the world. Television keeps you in a private shell, and so do books and music. The gaming universe otoh connects you to people and challenges you to be your best among them.

Posted by: rubythorne on April 17, 2004 5:49 PM

I enjoy your analysis, but I have a simpler Freudian approach. Gaming is no different than any other neurosis. We retreat into any world that offers greater access to meaningful actions and rewards: fast cars, the acquisition of wealth, sexual conquest... All these provide escapes from the inherently meaningless nature of our mundane existence.

Posted by: Ceej on April 17, 2004 8:58 PM

...our mundane existance built around cyclical debt and being forced into working a job we don't like for material things that we could do without.

o.t. but I felt the previous comment left the idea hanging out there so I tied it up.

Posted by: jon on April 18, 2004 2:08 AM

I find the analysis very interesting. I'm actually writing about EQ and its similarities to the real world as a paper for a class and will probably incorperate this article into it a little. I do agree that it does seem a bit cynical , but I agree with most of the points made. I also agree that in EQ things are not as well defined as this analysis makes them out to be, but I believe that generally things are more well defined and attainable in EQ than in the real world. Also, whoever was talking about the ivory tower of school, acadamia is pretty different from the rest of the real world, and while it is a subset, it is a small subset where the normal rules do not apply. I work for a fortune 500 company, and I've seen people who started in data entry end up senior programmers (so their hard work paid off, the model we were taught) only to have their job outsourced to India one year later (bad luck). I would say the real world has many more chaotic elements such as this than a set system like EQ. On the other hand, all my hard work hunting Quillmane and I still don't have my pegasus feather cloak for my epic. Go figure.

Posted by: Ged on April 18, 2004 1:14 PM

[quote]Do you actually think that because a person has a degree from a certain institution that he is more competent than some one who got their degree froma preceived lesser institution?[/quote]
Have you worked with people with similar degrees from "Greater" and "Lesser" institutions? There's a vast difference, partly from a more motivated crowd at the better institutions, coupled with more money for education, and better profs, especially at the undergraduate level. So as a general rule, I'd give a reluctant "general yes" to your question.

Posted by: on April 18, 2004 3:27 PM

I completely agree. I went to a very expensive and prestigeous university. I got good grades and graduated. Then I entered the "job market".

Things are not what we were taught in school. The "starting at $45000" engineering job all students were supposed to easilly be able to get upon graduation didn't come for four years. Promotion through the ranks is wholly dependant upon brown-nosing, "perception" of achievement, and political lobbying. For paying $100k for 5 years of college and comming out of it with a degree and a thesis, I'm severely dissappointed.

The real world does NOT mimic the dreamworld that is college, or even the MMORPG. In college, you work hard, and that hard work is directly translated to your grades. You work hard, and you become a pestigeous member of an academic fraternity or group or club. You work hard, and you gain some recognition amoung nitche groups and/or the student body.

In the real world, you work hard... and you get the same paycheck as if you slacked off for a week, the only difference is whether you got co-workers and or boss griping about you or not. The US economy is in terrible shape, and thus nobody is hiring for perminant positions. Employers have gotten into the concept of "just-in-time" employment. Perminant employees are now seen as a liability, and technical work is being farmed out to China and India because they're cheap.

I come home from work, and log into SWG, where hard work is paid off by great rewards. The more people I have set up harvesters for me, the more materials I can pull in and sell. The more meticulous I am about my resource stockpiles, the better equipment I can make, and thus earn more money and prestige in the game as "a great crafter". The harder I grind my pistols skills, the better I get with them, and closer to that elusive "Master" position.

My point is simply, in the real world, if I work hard at my thankless job (2nd I've had since college, last was the same way) for 40 hrs a week, I make the same amount as if I slacked off for 40 hrs a week. If I grind hard in Star Wars Galaxies for 40 hrs a week, I earn 10 times the XP/Credits/Loot/Prestige as if I just casually play and slack off for the same time.

Excellent observations Nick. I never considered it the way you put it, but it's some great points.

As a side note, I wish you'd do more focus with some of the newer games though like SWG, Shadowbane, etc. Quite honestly, I think your data is too skewed towards Everquest in many regards.

Posted by: Jenner on April 19, 2004 6:30 AM

For me, that hits the nail right on the head.

And I'd never though of it before.

Which is odd, because I tend to be pretty introspective and analytical.

School and college were easy for me. The rewards just fell into my lap. I did enough work to get by, often got shouted at for not handing in assignments, but I knew what was being asked for and put in as much effort as was needed to get what I wanted.

It's 26 years since I left college, and yes, my experiences confirm that the real world doesn't work that way. Sure, I have a decent job with decent money and nothing physically unpleasant. I have perfectly adequate social skills and often end up in a "leadership role" at work, in games and socially. But generally the rewards go to those who handle their lives in different ways from mine.

In MMORPGs, my natural style and preferences work very well. I like to know everything about a game, the systems, the markets, the tactics, how to grind xp efficiently (though I rarely gind myself). People love an expert. I like to pick the hardest clases to understand and do well at (DAoC Mentalist and then Spellcrafter, SWG Bioengineer etc.) and do well with them. I lead raids and hunts, recruit for our player city, run player events. I don't have to go to an annual appraisal to get more money or a promotion. I don't have to keep interacting with people I don't like.

It's the same equation as college: do the work you choose to do, and get the associated rewards.

So, I'd say Nick's observation is valid for at least one person.

But equally, people play MMORPGs for a host of reasons, as Nick has observed before. I can't think that simplicty and clarity of reward structure is the main driver for most people, it's just an enabling factor: if it were hard to know what you needed to do to progress, most people would give up. That's why I gave up on Black and White.

Posted by: Astrakhan on April 20, 2004 2:45 AM

Games like everquest do offer a certain amount of predictable achievement. However Achievement in the game (as in life) is not quite as certain. Through bad luck or the actions of other players you can lose a level. The raid might not go as planed or you could spend hours hunting something and not get a drop. In the movie Star Wars the force could be with you. In the game Everquest the random number generator could be against you. About the only difference between the two is the amount of effort you put into the game is often less than the amount of effort than what you put into life and it is much easier to start over again. If you don’t like your career then you may have wasted years worth of time and huge amounts of cash and you may also have months or years worth of training to get a new one. Not to mention the problems of how are you going to pay for it; what are you going to do with the kids; how are you going to support your spouse.

In eq just go to the character creation screen. The risk/time/reward ratio is often better than real life and there are a lot fewer complications.

What you fail to mention is why do people continue to play when achievements are not meet. What motivates people to try again or try something different or to put their goals on the back burner? What are people most likely to do when frustrated. Quit the game or change goals?

Also single player games can have much of the same achievement goals. I.e. get the highest score of all the people you know or get an item or solve a puzzle. What makes mmorpg’s different? I suspect it is because they offer far more content than single player games. I also suspect it is also because human beings are creatures that love to socialize in dozens of different ways (anonymous pick up group, grouping with friends, raiding ect.) and because human beings in a virtual world that is constantly changing are much more entertaining than a world only made up computer generated characters and plots. What makes them different is the fact that there is no end and there are lots of things to do in them with more added regularly.

Posted by: Jasret on April 21, 2004 11:35 PM

You are spot on. I think a lot of the criticism you are getting is just people not wanting to accept an unsavory truth. Of course the achievement model is not the ENTIRE picture, but it is a huge part of the phenomenon of level treadmill games.

The point of the level treadmill rewards is not the empty achievements of reaching a certain level or getting a desirable item or whatever. The point is what those things mean to a player's interaction with the other people in a game. In a level treadmill game (or equivalent system) the player's rewards are guarunteed, all that is required is an input of time. The player WILL reach the highest level, they WILL find the super items, they WILL get rich, and they WILL be looked up to and respected by hundreds or thousands of other human beings who see those achievements as 'elite'. With enough of a time investment, any player, no matter how stupid, no matter how socially inept, no matter how obnoxious, no matter what, will become elite and gain the respect of all those lower players, and thus be able to look down on them. And being able to look down on and feel better than other players is a HUGE part of what is going on psychologically in these games, whether people like to admit it or not.

The parallel people have made here to college is fascinating. It really makes you wonder about the merits of the college system where hard work is, to a large degree, the sole requisite for success. How much more representative of reality is that than the level treadmill model?

Your idea is extremely insightful, Nick, keep up the good work.


Posted by: Alistair on April 25, 2004 3:58 PM

To begin with, Nick said "seldom well defined", which means that they aren't sitting there in a prepackaged box waiting for you to pick them up the way they are in most virtual worlds.

To Ombra, I must ask how you can call "high level" and "high end guild" "nothing". The attainment of a high level isn't considered nothing: it's practically the basis of the game. The acceptance into a high end guild isn't considered nothing: it's the REST of the basis of the game.

I would think those who FAIL to achieve, yet still play on, do so because they continue to believe this fairy tale: if they try again, they will succeed.

Obviously, it is possible to work hard and get nothing in return, even in a game, even in a MMORPG. That's what makes it exciting and challenging: the possibility of failure. But that possibility is so small for most people that it's practically ignored. Failure is a fluke.

Nice stuff.

Posted by: Michael Chui on May 2, 2004 10:18 PM

I don't play MMORPGs (I'm here researching issues related to game economies), but I feel compelled to comment. If Nick's analysis is true, does it concern those who play the game that someone is preying upon your life dissatisfaction?

Posted by: Duane Gran on May 5, 2004 8:27 AM

I have a brushing of experience in the MMPORG world, but found it a waste of my life. It neither puts food on the table, increases my brain's capacity, improves my health, holds my hand when I desire human companionship, nor improves the life standards of anyone else. Esteem by people who will never mean anything to me for things that do nothing to improve our world is not a worthy goal.

Posted by: on May 5, 2004 1:12 PM

I think the author has a good point. I understand the arguments that others have made against the piece, but I think there is still a good amount of wisdom there.

I do think that the reason why people play games is because of the gratification. If you read interviews with developers from World of Warcraft or Tabula Rasa or other upcoming MMORPGs, the general impression is that "Let's address all the old complaints about today's MMORPGs". In other words, game developers make the game so that they cater to the desires of the player (obviously, not doing so would be bad business). I don't see anyone doing that for me in real life.

Even if you can run into bad luck or unfortunate situations in EQ, there is the "expectation" that such events are not frequent or regular, or else no one would play the game. Many MMO games address massive complaints in the game with patches and tweaks, because they'd better make the game enjoyable to the players if they want their money. In real life, you have no reason to expect anything. Your house could be blown away by a tornado, and there is absolutely no reason why it had to happen. You didn't deserve it or anything; it just happened. There is no expectation of anything in real life, not even things that perhaps should be guaranteed like Medicare or Social Security. Just ask people in Rwanda or other chaotic places. This level of predictability and regularity in the game is something that some people hardly ever get from real life.

I have a pretty comfortable life, but a quick look at society and its "rules" tells me that not everyone could live as comfortably, or else our society just wouldn't work. Someone has to do the jobs that no one likes; we can't all be knights saving damsels in distress, unlike in a game where we can. Because of this viewpoint, I would agree with the author on the majority of his views.

Posted by: Gus on May 7, 2004 8:06 PM

I think Nick is spot on with his essay. Where his essay doesnt hold up as well is in high level guild activites. I am in a high level guild in EQ, and at this stage the number of variables that must be controlled to be successful is very high. It isn't as complex as RL, but high level guild raids can be just as difficult to predict as RL. For lower level work, and for single group work at any level, I think his analysis bears up well.

Posted by: Energist on May 21, 2004 7:42 PM

Do MMORPG's seduce people away from engaging in more "worthy" pursuits? What constitutes a worthy pursuit? What constitutes "betering" your life? On the one hand, you have the teenager who spends all their waking hours playing the game and gets so consumed by it that when it eventually loses its appeal for them, for one reason or another, it is like the whole of life loses its appeal for them - and they actually commit suicide in real life. On the other hand, you have the jobless person in their mid 20's who makes friends online and ends up with a job (in real life) as a result, that is in an environment where there are people they know and like and enjoy real life friendships with. Both of these things have happened. The former is very rare, while the latter is not so uncommon. I was very surprised, when I spent time playing one MMORPG in particular, to find people playing the game who are doctors and lawyers, etc., (very "successful") in real life. They were playing the game along with their wives, children, and brothers and sisters and cousins and uncles and friends! Some of whom lived too far away from them to have what they felt was "adequate" contact with otherwise. And I was surprised to end up with the opportunity to have some real life contact with such people as a result of my interaction with them in the game. It seems to me that the goal of life is to be happy, and make as many other people as happy as you can. Happiness in life depends hugely on a person's social success. Social success requires meeting and spending time developing substantive friendships with people. To a whole lot of people, modern life, in the absence of things like mmorpg's, does not by itself present adequate opportunity for this. While many people criticize mmorpg's as propogating lies about reality, I would argue that the particular mmorpg that I have played rewards and develops patience, persistance, and social skills, and has the potential to enlargen a person's circle of influence - it provides the opportunity to have a positive influence on more people's lives. It seems to me that the on-line world is an inevitable phenomenon of modern civilization; we no longer have to spend all our time and effort trying to put a better roof over our head, better food on our tables, or better clothes on our backs. So what do we do? We spend time with other people enjoying their company, and pursuing various entertainments. Does the extent to which our physical bodies are involved really matter so much? How important is our physical body, really? (Is it what is on the outside that matters, or what is on the inside?) Does the extent to which the physical world out there (real mountains, rivers, oceans, trees, birds, etc) is involved matter so much? It does matter to us partly because of the idea that the on-line environment we experience and interact with is artificial.. that is, it was created by people. This gives the sense of being locked in a kind of prison, and one that is.. crazy in various ways.. because of it's lack of being sufficiently grounded in "reality." But we feel this way because of our (false?) belief that "reality" is actually real. Imagine the whole of humanity being trapped inside a kind of Matrix. What matters at that point? Is it not what is on the inside? What Matrix are we trapped in without being aware of it? Does it matter? Does it really matter so much if it is other humans, a race of energy-being space aliens, "nature", God, or some other large supernatural force that created the environment that we experience? Maybe it does. Maybe we need to be grounded and inspired by outside influences. Maybe we should apply a bit of disciplined balance, and not spend *too much* time in a virtual world of our own creation.

Posted by: Shavais on May 29, 2004 1:31 PM


great article. I think you covered some interesting point and laid the finger on some of the main drives for playing a mmorpg. I would have stressed the fact that they are social games a bit more.

I want to add some thoughts. Very often people writing about why people play mmorpgs sound negative (poor substitute for the real world and so on). They do have a point. Mmorpgs do specify your goeals and the things you are able to do and it is possible to follow that well defined ways to the very end. Mmorpgs can be very dull and uncreative. But: There are plenty of examples where people made something more of the games. The camelot addict comics are one very good example (if you don`t know it! :) ). Another example would be the ingame videos of some people. Some of them are incredible good.

The online community starts to get a world of it`s own and people who decide to live in this world do have the opportunity to make more of it than to grind lvls and camp mobs. There are plenty of opportunities to create your own dreams and ideas and to realize them. The grey crowd of dull people is there, but there are also people not just killing their creativity at the grind stone, but bringing it online.

The game mechanics are very simple and provide you with well defined goals. The quests are incredible stupid most of the time and so on. But the important point is that there are people interactng with each other. And this is the point where things start to get interesting.


Posted by: Jцrg on April 16, 2005 3:43 AM

Great article, a lot of valid points,

However, I think the article and most of the comments are too biased to the "material rewards" for playing a MMORPG, like experience points o levels, in game items (sword, jewels, etc.), virtual money, etc.

I think you are not giving due consideration to the weight of "no material rewards"

What I mean is a lot of people doesn't just play because they want to be a master level player or a top experience player, or get a shining new sword or armor. It is because they want the social recognition, the prestige, the appreciation from other players related to be a top player, a veteran player.

Many, many times, being a well respected and known player is the real issue fueling a person's efforts to participate in a MMOPRG.

I can talk about my experience: I played MMOPRG for years (I am retired now) and althought the "material reward" was great (to be in the hall of fame, a high level character, a bunch of ingame credits, etc) that was NOTHING compared with the "no material reward": to be known and respected for other players.

That is partially related but no 100% dependent from your game performance. It has more to do with a lot of different factors: how funny or interesting is your ingame "character" and your behaviour, how long you has been playing, how well known you were by the best players in the game, how you follow the ingame "social code" or "netiquette", how you try your best to make the game community a better place, how much you participate in chats, forums, related web pages. etc.

I other words: how "cool" you are

So there are tons of ways to be "cool" and get "prestige" in a game, without being a top player, for example:

-Being a "fun talker" in the game chats
-Writing a online help file for newbies
-Creating utilities programs (calculators shets, skins, etc) for the players
-Being a regular poster in the forums
-Having a cool skin, icon or avatar :)

The fact is that having prestige in a game was for me kind of a drug. I was NOT a top player. In fact, I was a mediocre player. But after a while I was one of the "well-to-do" in the game community because I had a lot of contacts and friends in the top alliances.

Nobody decided it, that just "came" by itself. One day you are an unknown newbie, next day you are a "character" and "everyvody knows your name".

I realized that when things like that happened:
-The game developers and programmers knew who I was, and cared to answer my posts in the game forums
-The top alliance would invite me to join them, even if I was a mediocre or irregular player.
-In the chat, I was invited into closed rooms, where only the "elite" was able to get.
-The newbies talked to me with admiration and respect asking me for advice and "references"
-I had no need to "work" to get cash or items ingame. I had a lot of contacts who would eagerly lend me or give me stuff for free.

It was GREAT. I had tons of friends online, People who known me and aprecciated me.

The best moment for me was when I left the game for more that 1 year because real life issues and closed all my relations with the game community. I was a goner.

Then I went back. At first glance a lot of new names and faces. A lot of changes in the game. I assumed I was already long forgotten and I had to start anew.

I posted in the forum board saying "hi".

... in a few minutes members from the tops alliances (many of them my " mortal enemies" in the game) were posting saying "hello", "welcome back", "long time no see you" and messaging trying to recruit me. Some olds friends checked in the board offering me free stuff and in a few minutes my new game account was set with tons of goodies and a lot of game cash that had taken me months to hoard, all courtesy of my contacts.

Newbies in the board were amazed and asking who I was, wondering why the veterans liked me so much and treated me like a VIP. When one disoriented newbie asked if it was OK to "kill" me in the game, several top players jumped saying: "touch him and you will have to face us, he is one of the originals", "He is our friend, a true veteran", "he is family", etc.

That my friends, was a GREAT moment. I was bursting with pride. I was a "big name" I had the recognitiom, the appreciation of a commnity ... and I was just a mediocre player.

So, the "material rewards" sure are importants for most people playing MMORPG, but the "no material things" the friendhip, the sense of belonging to something bigger, the social prestige, are way more important, at least for me :)

Posted by: Chocolate Bunny on January 26, 2006 5:34 PM

The article certainly rang true for me!

I found myself deeply addicted to DAOC precisely for the reasons the author stated: within the game I gained prestige and status; I was important; I mattered.

It fed the single most important driving force in the human psyche: that need to matter, to be something, someone.

It's not that real life is so miserable: I'm a married professional with a good income, a nice car, a nice house, etc. But something about that silly game .... something almost indefinable ... just grabbed me.

After playing long enough and maxing out my character and becoming a guild officer ... well, it was like walking into Cheers (that reference oughtta show my age!). In other words, it was a place where everyone knew my name.

I was important. I mattered. I was a big whig.

And the best part, of course, was that I didn't actually earn it. I had no actual talent for the game. I sucked at RvR. But I was patient enough to put in the time and gain the status.

The author is exactly right: real life isn't like that. I could work 10 hours a day in real life and never get ahead; work 10 hours a day in DAOC, at the very least you'll have a level 50 character and plenty of "friends."

The author could not be more right in what he wrote.

Of course, just as someone else above noted .... these are all precisely the reasons why I left the game. Why I had to, why I had to destroy the disks and delete my toons.

Because none of it was real. I didn't really matter at all. It was just a nice illusion, and worse, it was an illusion that held me back from achiving a similar status in real life ... if that was my goal.

Great game. Dangerous game. Very glad I left.

Posted by: Jake Knight on February 27, 2006 3:09 PM

"It seems to me that the goal of life is to be happy, and make as many other people as happy as you can."

Ah, but if that were true then the best thing to do would be simply to implant electrodes into everyone's brains that stimulated their pleasure centers 24/7. Presto, everyone is happy.

There has to be more to life than that.

Posted by: Lucian Carter on March 3, 2006 9:44 AM

There are some interesting comments here. I do agree with this article. Rewards are well defined in games while real life is a lesson in humility, so to speak. You reallize in life that you have very little chance of attaining your goals, unless fortune smiles upon you. The game can also be this way though. Many game developers see that too many players reach those positions of power so they make it harder and nerf those characters to keep them playing. Some games follow that "hunt, loot, repeat" design so well that they become tedious to play and the spread of character power reflects the real world more and more. This is where grind comes from.

Loot and achievements will be the basis of games for a long time to come. This is not because of what developers or players want, but it is because of the limits of technology. The only way that I see for this to change is if we have a virtual world like the Matrix or the holodeck of Star Trek TNG. Those things will open up so many possibilities for games. We may be able to actually become that super hero we dream of or the gunfighter in the old west.

As we have it today, games are still based on trivial goals, but we may yet enjoy those fantasy worlds that only TV has been able to show us.

Posted by: Tom on July 7, 2006 12:44 AM

I found this essay very interesting. Being only thirteen years old, less than half-way through secondary school, I have not really experienced much of the so-called "real world", so some of these analogies are of less relevance to me on a personal level.

I do, however, understand the whole "clearly defined goals" business. I play World of Warcraft, which often results in me grinding to ridiculous hours and emerging from my trance, tired, but having "achieved alot".

Supposedly, (according to my friends ;P) I am quite obsessive. Not exactly a stereotypical nerd (at least I don't look like one, heheh) but I put alot of my "life energy", effort, time, etc. into the game.

I am probably, to say the least, pretty incapable of psycho-analysing myself, but, in my opinion, the reason why I play is not because I'm "addicted"... as explained with Nick's essay on online addiction, (which might I add is really good, everyone should read it.. lol).

I think it is because I am not at all motivated by real life. It's goals just don't appeal to me, and the means by which they are obtained are also pretty mundane.

PvP in Alterac Valley playing as my night elf rogue is fun, so is talking to my friends and exploring new virtual areas, but sitting in a classroom (or an office, when I'm older) just really doesn't appeal to me.

I know I can't live in a virtual world , but my life (which, by most people's standards is pretty good)seems really slow-paced and uneventful compared to it. Will there become a point where virtual worlds merge with real ones? Not physically of course, but mentally. I seem to remember an essay on here which talked about achievment in MMO's being recognised in real life more. That would be very interesting indeed...

I'm scared. If life's boring at school, where there are clearly defined goals, what will it be like later?

Posted by: Timothy Shades on March 31, 2007 7:20 AM

Maybe its that we all want structure. I completely agree with the article. Online worlds are a simpler version of the real world. We want the real world to be more like the virtual worlds - more accessible and organized. Focus on the zones (our environment) first, then let the people fill them and flow like a river. Its not about making virtual worlds funner or more clearly defined, its about making the real world funner and more clearly defined. The real world doesn't have a group of designers looking after the needs of the least of us, ensuring that the experience is fair and enjoyable for everyone, instead we have the most powerfull players controlling the world and determining the course of our future. The real world, to me, often feels loose and willy nilly. Pollution, war, genocide, disease, absolutism, you name it. The UN doesn't fullfill its purpose and noeone seems to agree on a clearly defined goal unless its unilateral - this is exactly what we get when the most powerfull run our lives. And policy is so macho and in your face. Or maybe I'm information overloaded, but where is our humility and sense of humanity? What is all this talk about mercy and forgiveness? Where is our tolerance and why do we pick and choose what Jesus taught? Why is it that conservative evangelical christians were the major supporters of the war in iraq and one of the largest supporters of israeli policy? Evercrack is my currently selected peace when subjected to these crazy maniacs running our country and thrusting their beliefs down my throat. It doesn't matter what I'm doing, its all the same - its my door out of this fuked up world and I'll leave in a coffin whether i fight or not. I'm selfish, pure and simple - I watch my back like a hawk. I always run, its how I play the game.

Posted by: jon on June 15, 2007 9:30 AM

Pattern recognition is hardwired into the human brain - it is one of the building blocks of human intelligence. In its simplest form: if x then y. Every human looks for these patterns, and in a MMORPG we find them everywhere. Of course we find can find them in real life too, but until the definitive encyclopaedia of Life the Universe and Everything is written, they are just more elusive.

Posted by: gwen on July 4, 2007 6:03 AM

I liked this article a lot; it helped explain something to me in words that I always thought about at least a little.

I for one love structure. I actually didn't mind elementary and high school (except for some certain other kids, but nothing too major) because I had something to do, to get to grade 12 and graduate. The best thing about it was that I had a lot of time to do it in, from age five to age seventeen when I graduated. After that, I thought I had way too much 'freedom'; it was like being dumped in the middle of the ocean after spending your whole life in a little pond.

And of course, I started playing vids when I was six.

I played a very TINY bit of EQ, but that never seemed to stick.

Anyway, after I read the article, I scrolled down and read the responses, and ANOTHER thing jumped out at me after reading the last post by Chocolate Bunny.

I'm an avid player of WoW, but I wouldn't say I'm the greatest or among the elite or anything, even if I'm lvl 68 with an epic mount. I usually prefer playing solo and don't group very often. One thing though, I really like my guild; they're great people. I was one of the first to join, so I have mod powers too; I barely ever use them, I'm ITCHING to use them all the time, but I barely do. I just love being able to chat with a bunch of people who pursue similar interests. MSN Messenger isn't nearly as fun for me. I can just do whatever I'm doing in the game and have a casual conversation at the same time with my guild; to me that's almost bliss, especially when we're talking about something interesting or controversial (not going into details). People say hi to me when I log on. I feel noticed and appreciated, even though I may not feel I've done much to attain this sense of recognition.

Try as I might, I just can't find these kind of opportunities in real life, although I'm thinking of going back to school, not for the sake of my career, but for the sole purpose of getting back into that environment and meeting people my own age. I'm 24 in a 'city' of almost 20,000, and most of the high school grads move away to a bigger city to the better schools; the people who remain usually like to just get drunk and into fights all the time. I'd rather play a game and be involved in an enlightened conversation at the same time.

I haven't played any of the other MMOs, save for maybe a handful of hours of EQ, so I'm not too sure how much the "Lore Factor" factors in, but for WoW, it's also like I get to continue the storyline WHILE being a part of it. I started with Warcraft II, played Warcraft III a lot, and I've read most of the books, so for me, not playing the game is like not watching the last half-hour of the movie or not finishing the last five chapters of the books. I get a lot of satisfaction knowing where everything in the fantasy world currently stands. I haven't read much on this in this article or in any of the responses; I'm new to this website, I just found it today actually. I'm wondering, has the Lore Factor been explored in detail? Does anyone feel motivated to play for the Lore Factor?

I sure do.

Posted by: Derek on July 23, 2007 5:49 AM

I think the difference between mmorpg games and any other is simple, you're gathering together electronically and playing the game with other PEOPLE. It's the new marketplace/piazza. It's the promenade that people used to take in the town square.

It's a place where you can have daily contact with some like minded people (when you find them) over a game. And, it's a game where you can work toward a common goal instead of being competitive.

I used to be "addicted" (if that's how you want to put it) to reading. Now I make a storyline with friends in my wow guild.

It's not an addiction, it's social contact.

Posted by: ceejay on September 4, 2007 12:29 PM

I think this analysis is spot on. I'm a long-time player of MMOs, and much of what you say here I have already realized for myself over and over again.

The thing is, I am a type A personality; a perfectionist with a lot of ambition, and I enjoy making goals for myself. I don't necessarily have low self esteem or poor self-image, but I often feel like my real life my goals are too high. I feel like I will never reach the ideals I want.

To add to that, everything in real life is so nebulous. There is no sure solution for success in real life, and there is no guarantee that the goals you've set will satisfy. It's like wandering in a fog, and there's no map to your destination, only hearsay and rumors. MMOs wipe out all that uncertainty. There is a clear formula for success, and time spent always equals improvement. The path to success is well tread. You can see people everyday who have all done it, and there is nothing special about them, so why not you?

That, too, is part of the big draw of MMOs. Sure, I might get a doctorate in computer science, but who will know? I can't run through the streets shouting I've got a prestigious degree. Achievements in real life are not so readily detectable, but in MMOs, it's the complete opposite. Everybody who is high level gets the great big shiny sword, or staff, and the elite armor to go with it... and you don't always feel like you're showing off. That's just what high levels wear, your standard gear, and people are forced to acknowledge it before they even talk to you.

Basically, it all comes down to fear of failure. We're all so deathly afraid that we're spending all our time failing in real life, that we don't even try. We fool ourselves into thinking we're making progression in our online lives, but really, we're just continuing to fail our real lives even more.

Posted by: ceta on November 2, 2007 1:36 PM

The mechanics of MMORPG's is definitely a surrogate workforce for the most-educated, yet most underpaid generation the US has produced. First we learned "hard work pays off". Then it was "Hard work doesn't mean good work." Now, there really isn't a definite parameter to satisfy the human desire to advance. Currently, the western economy cannot support this desire because of overpopulation and a dreadful mismanagement of it. People born post-Baby Boom are quite aware that the best qualified most likely won't get the opportunity to advance, but rather, the best friend. You could imagine it as a "lifeboat" economy, where only those preferred by the jetty's captain get an opportunity to not drown and become productive. The problem lies in the fact that we are not informed of what qualifies you to get a spot. However,those lucky enough to get on the boat, may get booted off. The original poster is also correct that the educational paradigm of repetitive hard-study skills does not prepare the student for the absurdity of an over saturated job market. In an MMO, if there is over saturation, the Dev's just create another server. In RL, we can't just create another world.

Posted by: oriax on July 29, 2008 3:02 AM

For me, It is a very real addiction. I was a very sucessful person in Sales and surpassed my peers very early in my short career. I was doing so well, I even got a home loan. I always regretted having to "grow up" though. To be forced into a world where you spend your life working to achieve material possesions you never really cared about in the first place. I didnt choose to have the responsibility of the real world. I just got older and I had to take it on. To waste your life on something that has no consequence.... what an awful existence. One day, on a whim I decided to buy a mmorpg to see what the hype was about. It has become a way to escape everything I hate about life. Our jobs, the work we do... it doesnt matter. It really is meaningless. Or at least thats true for a lot of us. The game takes that away. Allows me to forget about that. So you have to be thinking, "find something that means something to me" right? Pick a profession that inspires me, that really does make a difference. What if the things that inspire me aren't profitable? Does that make me less of a person? I don't know the answers. What I do know is I do not want to spend my life trying to achieve what you think is success. You will shake your head at this and say "wow", this person has issues. Maybe I do. Then again, maybe you do. You choose to do what is socially acceptable and work at a job you tell yourself matters. I've gone crazy thinking about this. Thrown myself into a depression of sorts. Its a cop out, I know, but the game takes the real world and all the crap that comes with it away. Someone, help me make sense of this. I skip work now to stay home and play. I'm to broke to buy groceries now. I haven't eaten in 36 hours now. And I'm to embarassed to tell anyone I know. May as well be on drugs.

Posted by: ~Addict on October 7, 2008 2:46 AM

yes this is very defined but thinking back when i play MMORPGs its not that i keep playing cause of the acheived goals i keep playing cause i am able to talk to friends around the world, country, or state. And without these people on the game, if it was just me, i would definately stop playing and go back to myspace and junk....which i have never had lol :P.... I play also cause one of my best friends enjoy the game and wants me to get to the lvl that he is so we can play the game together and kill other players :D. There are many reason to why a person would play these games, you can't just single out one and says that it could be the reason. I think that you should put every reason to why people pay on this sight so that people can go to one websight and be able to see why people are addicted nad be able to try to help in more than just those damn psycological reasons.... XD Thanks for this little piece of info though i did rather enjoy reading it and it did help me more to know..

Posted by: on October 22, 2008 11:19 AM

I don't know if it's the seduction of achievement. I used to think it was the fear of boredom, but maybe I'm afraid of something else. I've always been obsessive about my hobbies and interests, devoting every free moment to whatever it happened to be that month. MMORPGs have filled that role for me now for a much longer time than usual, as I can change games to provide a whole new challenge. Sometimes I worry that I'm short-changing the rest of my life, but the lure of the game is still very strong. I generally dislike social situations in real life, but look forward to social situations behind the anonymity of my character. I don't always understand the driving force and motivation behind my "addiction", but I haven't let it rule me completely yet. At least, I try my best to resist the lure of it when I should be doing other things. But, to be honest... it's still on my mind while I'm doing those other things.

If it wasn't an MMORPG, I'd be "addicted" to some other pursuit... it seems to be in my nature.

Posted by: Mitch on December 4, 2008 2:18 PM

I am researching this subject as to better understand my relationship not only with the MMO but also myself. It is inspiring to know that others out there have come to the same conclusions i am coming to - Mainly that MMO's are a huge time sink. I guess the only real resource we all have regardless of circumstance is time. It is what we choose to do with that time which will determine the level of satisfaction we will percieve from our lives. I guess the most logical thing to do would be to first ask what is it in life that I find the most satisfaction from? Is it helping others? In which case maybe in order to feel your life is important you should apply your time to help others in real life. Surely it would be possible to gain the same level of respect in a RL society by applying the same principles to real life community? Instead of throwing a heal on someone fighting a monster in a game, why not spend half an hour picking up litter in your street or buy a homeless person a cup of coffee? That way you can start to build a world that is better and more appealing for you to live in and the need to escape it would not be so great. Find out what it is that makes you happiest and find a way to make a living out of it, that way you never have to get up and go to work, you have to get up and enjoy your life!

Posted by: Andy on November 27, 2009 7:10 PM

Im also making research on the subject, and the only thing i find lacking in your article .. and in some of the replies, is that unlike the real world, the game world doesnt have "real" responsabilities associated with it.

Faillure? Just repeat and sucess is guaranteed. At worst, you lose some time gearing back up to get ready. You dont get fired, you dont lose grades. You only suceed in games, and get better from there.

You get to have all the good things of being powerfull, rich and successfull.. but none of the drawbacks and no duties. And above all else, most of the time its fun to do so.

Posted by: Twad on February 15, 2010 9:00 AM

I think _Steve_ has missed the point of game-playing; some life paths do have some well-defined goals, but many of those paths, or the effort needed to follow them, do not appeal. For example, it may be well-defined that a postal exam lets you work for the post office, but seriously - who wants to? At least in a MMORG your goals lead to a good outcome; your character is powerful, stylish, and instantly recognisable as such.

Another example that might be expected to appeal more to the post-college crowd; degrees, doctorate, etc are fairly well-defined, but getting a good research position is often as much about people skills, patronage, and luck as it is about ability.

Another; most people could become martial arts experts, or even just body-beautiful, but it takes time and effort - as much time and effort as levelling a MMORG. And then they'd be 'exercise addicts'.

One more thing; males 18-22 are most prone to gaming addiction. But teen/young adult males have the instincts most at odds with current social norms; they are wired up to fight (to maximise the conversion of health into social advantage) but they aren't allowed to. People who wonder that young males latch onto other outlets so strongly have forgotten what it is like to be young. Which makes _Steve_ a tragic figure too.

Posted by: irateidiot on March 16, 2010 4:32 PM

I've gamed when I've been poor and struggling (and yes, it was a great escape from a bummer time period), and I've gamed when life is going great and the bounty is flowing (and enjoyed the play). So if we attribute the bad stuff to gaming, should we attribute our successes, as well?

Posted by: Lisa on May 10, 2010 9:34 PM

Let me tell you my story.

I am now 28 and recently quit another mmorpg. When I look back in my life and compare gaming with the rest of my life, I regret to have played these mmorpg games. Why is that? Simply because I feel guilty having played mmorpg games. Why do I feel guilty? People depend on me when playing a game. Is that what a game is supposed to be? I also feel guilty because I have let down my friends outside the game, it destroyed a relationship and the relationship with my family and parents somewhat.

Is an mmorpg a bad thing? No. Is addiction marketing a bad thing? yes. If I think about playing casual or playing hardcore, I would choose to play casual. But when I am playing casual the thrill of doing endgame is attractive. So the last 2-3 years I have tried to play casual and achieve endgame (the game at maximum level).

Then what happens? You get players in your team who are really good, but it isn't fast enough for them so they leave you empty handed. You get players who are casual and actually not good enough experienced or skilled, so it will take too much time for them to gain skill and/or experience with others in their team.

By the time you are about to have accepted all the bullshit from the game and its community (don't get me started on that) you have wasted so much time that everyone around you made other plans in life or change their playstyle or type of playing.

The biggest reason why I quit is because I don't see the value in a community where you have general chats and where in those general chats you get socially underdeveloped people to spit out what they got bashed for outside their computer. I have a history of bullying and it lowered my self esteem, but to see these kind of people doing this in a GAME just totally makes me miss the point of playing a game: spending some casual time with yourself or some friends. With friends achievement doesn't matter, it's the fact that you can enjoy together. With yourself you can achieve, because it is your life and won't have to get in the way of others by relying on them. When you play a game, you already have achieved the money you earned in life which you are spending on the game. Are you supposed to do things that you don't like (farming.........) to enjoy the game at the same level as other players? The community tells you you have to work for it. Seriously why? It's a game. You should enjoy from the start. I realized that when talking about these things hardly anybody in WoW will agree or somewhat realize the problem. Nearly everybody denies. 50% addicted? I have read somewhere you are addicted if you play more than 10 hours a week. To be honest, 10 doesn't seem much but make that 15 and you already play 2 hours a day, which should be too much! With 10 hours per week you should have about 90% of mmorpg players addicted.

The difference between these mmorpg's and real life sports and hobbies is that in mmorpg's your constantly have to work to keep up your gear etcetera. In sports you only think for a small % about gear, for the rest its about skill, physical and mental condition. In hobbies it's the same. Yeah you will always have achievers, people who want to get "the best" out of things. That's fine. But controlling a bunch of pixels simply is no big achievement.

I can only come to one conclusion, 9 out of 10 people play mmorpg's to "hide from real life".

Where I had the opportunity during 6 years from the age of 22 to 28 to do SO MANY things in life I later cannot do I chose instead to waste it in WoW, for 90%. The 10% part that's ok doesn't make up for the 90.

In case another Steve passes by like the first reply............(get my drift?) this story would not be 100% correct and is a mess but generally I know I am right and there is now way you can turn that around with your twisted stories.

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