Virtual "Achievements"?

Our cultural distinction between "work" and "play" traps us in what may be false dichotomies. We are so caught up in thinking that games are for fun that even when some of us toil away for hours in an MMORPG, even when we become extremely frustrated or angry with something in the game, we sometimes forget that "play" can become "work". As the following quotes taken from the "Why We Quit" collection of player narratives show, playing an MMORPG can become like having a second job.

It became a chore to play. I became defacto leader of a guild and it was too much. Being an officer was too much. Pleasing people did not interest me. I wanted to get away from real life and politics and social etiquette followed me in! [EQ, m, 20]

I stopped playing because I just didn't want to commit to the crazy raid times (6+ hours in the evening?) and because I'd kind of stalled out on my interest in my main character. [EQ, f, 27]

Rethinking MMORPGs as something not-quit-game yet not-quite-work frees us to ask a whole host of provoking questions. Could and should the virtual achievements that occur within an MMORPG world be taken seriously? Do these virtual achievements deserve recognition? And how do we compare virtual achievements with real-life achievements? This set of questions is all the more crucial to answer as new MMORPGs bring in more realistic political and economic elements.

Clearly not all virtual achievements are meaningful. Getting a character to level 40 or 50 is really only a matter of time investment and patience, as is the same for camping a rare drop in EverQuest. When an achievement revolves around pure time spent and involves no complex skill, it is hard to justify as a real achievement. But MMORPGs introduce a set of achievements that are based on the social nature of the world. Narratives in "The Rise and Fall of Guilds" highlight the complex management and leadership skills needed to sustain a large guild. From dealing with clique formation, preventing polarization in a guild argument, keeping the guild motivated or deflecting strong personalities, a good leader must understand and deal with these issues as they occur. As the narratives show, these are no trivial tasks.

We might also consider raid leaders who coordinate and then pull off a large scale raid successfully. Managing multiple groups with different tasks composed of disparate personalities while under unpredictable and stressful circumstances is a gargantuan challenge, especially when the only means of communication is a thin typed-chat channel. There are also the leadership challenges of sustaining group morale, having and holding firm to a vision, and dealing with discouraging players. And all this occurs in real-time, not some turn-based tactical game. The question is whether there are certain virtual achievements that we should take seriously. Could we imagine a time when putting "guild leader of a 120-member guild" on your college resume is taken seriously?


Some may argue that the problem is that not only are these virtual skills non-transferable to the real-world, but that they have no financial opportunities because they are part of a "game". But neither of these arguments holds any water.

We live in a culture that celebrates skilled performers in other "games" activities that are based on arbitrary rules and typically used as entertainment. Take chess or tennis for example. Certainly an MMORPG has all the elements of chess or tennis an arbitrary rule set, the need for strategic understanding at multiple depth levels, and a combination of training time as well as inherent talent. We recognize great chess-players and tennis-players, but for some the idea of recognizing a great guild or raid leader outside of an MMORPG feels awkward. But why should it? If its only about the financial opportunities, is it so far-fetched to imagine future MMORPGs where players pay or compensate a good guild or raid leader to be part of a successful group a virtual membership that parallels what real-world memberships do? But in fact, the financial opportunities are an effect of recognizing the achievement itself. If being a great guild leader involves the same types of symbolic challenges that a great chess or tennis player would face, then is that not something that deserves recognition?

We also have good evidence that the management and leadership skills we have mentioned can be learned in the virtual world and then be used in the real world. Data to support this can be found in the "Learning Leadership Skills" article. Afterall, leadership is about leading other people, and the context or medium isnt the primary issue. An individual who understands how to motivate, lead and manage individuals in a stressful, real-time context can probably do this in different scenarios.

We are now in a situation where we might be forced to compare virtual achievements with real-life achievements. If leading a large guild deserves recognition of some sort, then how does that compare with being an Eagle Scout in the real world or being elected school president? In a sense, the question may not be whether virtual achievements should be recognized now as much as whether this will be an inevitable phenomenon as virtual worlds become more complex and more people are involved with them. As people take virtual worlds and their own virtual identities more seriously, is it inevitable that our virtual achievements will be recognized? Could we imagine a future where we can accept both virtual and real-world achievements (or in fact realize that virtual achievements are real-world achievements)?

If we believe that virtual achievements are legitimate achievements, then we are left with a particularly disturbing question. If life is about finding happiness on an individual level and we accept that different people derive pleasure and satisfaction from different things - then what is our role with regards to individuals who are obsessed with these games but who are clearly making real achievements in the game? In fact, there is an X percentage of the population who can achieve more in the virtual world than in the real world because of their social, physical or psychological circumstances. If existential happiness and satisfaction is based on achievements, then this is to say there is some part of the population who can derive more happiness from the virtual world than from the real world. What then is our role in moderating obsessive game-play? Is it in our right to take away this source of happiness from an individual? Many of us believe that real-world achievements are more meaningful and gratifying than virtual achievements, but is this always true?

As these games become more realistic and more engaging, and it becomes more obvious that virtual achievements are on par and can be compared with real-world achievements, we are forced to answer tough questions that we never thought a "game" would force us to answer.