Why Do You Play?

The subtlety in the answers to this seemingly straight-forward question is quite fascinating even after 4 years of exploring the reasons why people play MMORPGs. One player likens it to explaining the meaning of life:

That question is about as difficult to answer as ask for the meaning of life :) Not sure why I 'still' play. Everyday I log on and find something new to complain about or not like, or bump into someone who rubs me the wrong way...funny how an online environment can be similar to reality in that sense? For me personally, I do enjoy the fantasy about it all, being something your not even in the imaginary sense. It also provides an easy way for me to keep in touch with several real life friends I’ve made over the years who have moved to new geographic locations. The same applies for family, I have a brother who plays and this is the only way we can 'spend time together' with a country between us. [EQ, M, 28]

But his answer also quickly exposes the interweaving of underlying motivations, dodging the categorization and assessment schemes that people like Bartle and me have tried to create. On an aggregate level, the general categorization of why people play seems to be quite robust and can roughly be described as: 1) achievement, 2) socialization, 3) immersion, 4) vent/escape, 5) competition. On an individual level, however, the answers are quite provocative and resist easy categorization.


Socialization I

For example, consider the diversity of how players socialize in MMORPGs through the following narratives. There are players who use the environment as a chat-room with dynamic backdrops:

I started playing after watching my young sons play - i never had never been interested in computer/video/nintendo/online etc. games but felt that i needed to watch to make sure it was suitable for them. After many weeks of questioning and watching i found myself interested in the interactions between people in the game, it was totally absorbing!!!! The fact that i was able to immerse myself in the game and relate to other people or just listen in to the 'chatter' was appealing. I enjoy being a healer and like to help people and are often disappointed if I’m too slow in helping even if people haven't asked, I'm quite happy to watch while someone battles and then heal them once they are finished and then just keep going with what i am doing in the game. I will happily risk my character to save another’s character. [DAOC, F, 34]

What keeps me coming back to MMORPGs, and any RPG in general, is the social aspect. I've been playing RPG's of various kinds for over 15 years, and it's the only 'hobby' that I have maintained that long. The reason is the people. When I log on to EverQuest the first thing I do is say 'hi' to my guild, then I hit my 'friends' list and say 'hi' to them. Often times I will sit and chat with people and never get anything accomplished in-game. And I never feel like I wasted my time. I would have stopped playing long ago if it wasn't for the other people that play. [EQ, M, 30]

One step away from the players who enjoy the chatter are the players who enjoy making good friends in the environment. For them, a large reason why they play is to sustain their social network:

Overall, I think it's the friendships that I've forged that keep me returning to Norrath time and again. It's rewarding to log on and be greeted by the same quirky, fun-loving friends I've spent the past two years learning and growing with, both in-game and personally. [EQ, F, 37]

For awhile I kept playing because I enjoyed exploring the high level zones and seeing new things. The gods and other creatures looked amazing and the scenery was really beautiful. Now I have seen mostly everything and I continue to play for lack of anything else to do and mainly log on to chat with the good friends that I have made. Raiding with my guild is pretty fun, we just recently made it to Plane of Time - only one other guild on the server has made it there so far. It's new and exciting but raiding gets old sometimes, so mainly just to talk with my friends. [EQ, F, 18]

I just recently started playing again after 2 years away. I started playing again simply because I missed the people that were my friends. I enjoy being able to chat away while healing my group and meeting new people. [EQ, M, 30]


Socialization II

Whereas for others, the focus of socialization is less on the chatter and more on group loyalty and affiliation. Notice how for some players this creates a two-edged sword – the burden of responsibilities that come with the satisfaction of feeling valued, or in the case of the third narrative – the way socialization transitions into group achievements.

My guild and my friends. I am an officer in my guild, with a lot of responsibilities (head of recruiting, raid organization, healer organization) and my loyalty to the guild and my friends in it keeps me playing. Experience camping got dull a very long time ago (I've been playing for over 4 years), but my friends keep me coming back. When I don't attend a raid because of some RL commitment, illness, or some other reason, I often feel guilty that I'm letting my guild down. [EQ, F, 31]

I play for friends. I have made many friends in EQ - and have carried those friends threw to other games. If it wasn’t for my friends in EQ I would have cancelled my subscription a year ago. Having a family like guild has been important to me, and in turn I stick around to help them out. Friends can make you feel needed, and that feel is what keeps me in game, cause I am then useful. [SWG, M, 26]

The friendships are the force that keeps me coming back. The guild keeps me playing. In order to be able to play with my friends, I have to keep up with equipment and raid points. This is not my favorite part of the game anymore; and if it were not for the people and the fun we have as a group, I would most likely stop playing, or at least, stop playing as much. The most appealing part of the game now is the people and the teamwork we display. Our guild, though decent sized, is rather small for a raid-guild. We simply do not usually have the numbers on to 'zerg' a mob or zone. But we make up for that in teamwork and skill, and some of us prefer the game when there is an element of 'will we be able to do this with only xx people?' The fact that we as a small group can take on and defeat encounters that other guilds or groups need (or just take along) nearly twice as many is a great feeling. [EQ, F, 43]

For other players, rather than focusing on making new friends in the environment, socialization means sustaining connections with friends and family through the virtual environment:

My family just moved out to west coast and I still live in the Midwest so my brother and I frequently play together as a way to stay connected. We are constantly chatting about what is happening in life and it's a fantastic way to stay close. We both find the game interesting and fun and can usually be found spending time together in the 'virtual world' when we both have a few extra hours. [SWG, M, 24]

I play MMORPGs with my husband as a source of entertainment. Overall it can be a cheaper form of entertainment where you can spend quite a bit of time with a significant other. To play well you end up developing more ways of communicating. While my husband and I were separated we still played our first graphic MMORPG EQ but switched servers and only duo'd with each other giving us time to talk. Since we were not in same room we actually communicated with each other better at that time. It alone didn’t help our marriage but was definitely one of the contributing factors in helping us communicate and get through our problems much easier and without anyone else's involvement. [DAOC, F, 31]

I use the game as a way to spend time with family and friends while I am away from home at college etc. Almost my whole family plays so it can be a good way to get together and catch up. It's also a way for me to de-stress. [EQ, M, 21]

And finally, for players who have physical handicaps, the environment provides them with the socialization that is difficult for them to find in real life:

Several years ago (Dec of 1997) I was working as a nurse on the graveyard shift at a local hospital. While repositioning a patient, I seriously injured my back (L4-5 disk). I've been disabled and unable to work since then. MMORPGs have allowed me to interact with people and feel more whole/able. I've come to enjoy spending time with people my own age and people of very different ages (both younger and older). Folks who are friendly and helpful, polite and worth getting to know seem to be in most games. With online gaming I can meet people and have something of a social life even while isolated and pretty debilitated in 'real life'. [SWG, F, 46]

I have always enjoyed video and computer games. This was a whole new experience for me, being able to play real time with other humans. I am disabled and mostly housebound so EQ gives me a great social outlet; I can talk and joke with others without having to leave home LOL. I keep playing as I advance in levels, etc there are always new goals to reach. But the most appealing thing to me is not what level I am, or what level mob I can kill - but the interaction with other people. [EQ, F, 59]



Another common motivation is achieving goals within the environment. As the following players explain, the reason why this is so appealing is because there is a constant sense of becoming stronger, more competent, more skilled, and there are so many ways the environment offers players to advance.

I play for the interaction with others as well as for the constant improvement of myself and others. What is appealing to me is that you CAN keep on playing; there is almost always something else you can do. When you finish one thing, there is always another thing, another obstacle to pass. [EQ, M, 16]

The reason I play is that there is so much to do. You can lvl your character and when you get bored, you can craft. Or you can choose another job class. Get bored with that, you can fish, mine, log ... etc. And the thing that gets the most is the scope of the game. How large the world is and the detail of everything. [FFXI, M, 23]

I like the whole progression, advancement thing ... gradually getting better and better as a player, being able to handle situations that previously I wouldn’t have been able to. [EQ, M, 48]

Another player articulates precisely why this is so seductive in MMORPGs:

For the entire first 20 years of our life, we're taught that if 'you put the work in, you'll get the reward'. And it does happen that way -- If we study for school, we get good grades, or do well on tests. If we practice hard, we make the soccer team or the band. If we make the effort to learn or do certain things, we get the next girl scout or boy scout badge. Same goes for college. There is a very clear cause and effect relationship in many of the things we do in our young life. Then ... we graduate from college or grad school, and find ourselves out in the 'real world'. Suddenly, effort and determination are only part of the equation that leads to reward, because now the world isn't as insulated as it was before, or as predictable. Your responsibilities go beyond simply trying to improve yourself, and luck and circumstance play a role in the course your life takes. Sometimes, you try very little, or put in little effort, but you're at the right place at the right time and reap big rewards. Sometimes you work so hard you want to scream, and it seems no one notices, and you don't feel at all fulfilled. The element of measurable and certain reward disappears to an extent, and for some people (like me) attaining personal goals I set for myself in a game like EQ allows me to enjoy some measure of accomplishment, some level of control, and the personal satisfaction that comes with it on a weekly basis. [EQ, F, 35]

But another seduction of achievement in these environments is that it gives players a sense of empowerment that for some players is much harder to derive from real life:

First off, I am handicapped, and thus don't make real life friends easily. However, in EQ the 'playing field' for social interaction is leveled. I can act and say what I really feel like saying without the pressure I normally feel when around others. No longer am I just another 19 year old in college with an average future. Through sweat and blood I can become someone who wields great power, who has earned the respect of his fellows, and whose actions have a true impact on what goes on in the 'game'. I guess when it comes down to it, I feel as if I have accomplished more through my actions in EQ than I will ever have the opportunity to do in real life (sad but true). [EQ, M, 19]


Immersion / Escapism

Other players are motivated neither by other people nor the goals, but by the environment itself. What appeals to them is that you can step out of the real world and not have to deal with real-life issues for a few hours:

I just like the alter-reality. I was lucky to find a group of people (my guild mates and a few others), with whom I get along and can have amusing conversations. I find EverQuest to be a good way to relax and shed the daily troubles for a few hours. Honestly, I find this alter-world to be like a mind massage that lets me get back into the heat of real life struggle with rejuvenated energies. [EQ, M, 34]

I play Anarchy Online & EverQuest because it's an escape from the real world. No one complains about jobs or other meaningless things. It's a great stress reducer. I like that I can be someone else for a couple hours. [AO, F, 28]

I play the game because it is fun for me to play. When I get home from work or school, and I'm particularly stressed about something, it is fun for me to just jump on the computer and jump into EverQuest. It is a great stress reliever for me. The only real reason I keep playing is because I have a couple close friends that I can talk to a lot via EverQuest. I also am able to keep in touch with my brother through the game. The game itself, honestly, has gotten a little boring now, so I really cannot wait until World of Warcraft or EverQuest 2 comes out. [EQ, M, 17]

I enjoy playing the games because it is the perfect way to escape the mundane of everyday life. I find it exciting to become something that you aren't and live and experience a second life full of adventure and intrigue that I can be shared with many other people. [SWG, M, 22]



Other players are motivated by other people, but in a competitive sense:

I play the game for the challenge. In my opinion, it is far more challenging and fun to play with or against other people. In a video game, you can easily figure out the reactions of the program. With people, however, you can only be 40% sure of what they are going to do. The most appealing thing about the game is the challenge. I enjoy being challenged. I enjoy being beaten. I enjoy the twists and turns that are thrown at me. [SWG, M, 18]

For DAOC, the dynamic interplay of realm war and keep takes keeps me involved. I'm not so interested in victory; in fact, some of my most memorable moments revolve around heroic actions in defeat (I stood off 16 Midgarders alone for two whole minutes - they could hardly land a hit or a spell on me - and that allowed my group to escape.) Facing live opponents is far more interesting than facing a more predictable AI. [DAOC, M, 42]

Comparisons with Other Entertainment

There were many responses that wouldn’t easily fit in one of the well-defined categories. For example, several players didn’t focus on what motivated them to play the game, but instead compared it with other forms of entertainment available to them.

There's also the factor that I often find myself with nothing better to do; I get home from work about 1am, and of course my family is asleep. I'm typically wide awake, so playing EverQuest gives me a way to wind down, and it's a hell of a lot more entertaining than the crap they show on television after 1am... [EQ, M, 32]

Gaming is an interactive time sink. I don't find television entertaining, I can seek out things I find entertaining in the game world. The most appealing aspect of gaming is getting together with friends to explore and garner items. [DAOC, M, 29]

That's an easy answer. I have too much time on my hands. Day to day most single people get bored and end up spending hours in front of the Television. Sure they mow the lawn, clean the house, do laundry and then watch TV. I don't enjoy that or going out to clubs or sitting on the beach, they all lack appeal, so I play EverQuest, it surely beats watching paint dry. [EQ, M, 30]

Perhaps the most interesting answer submitted was the following entrepreneurial motivation – clearly a subset of the achievement motivation, but so novel that it deserved a separate mention.

Currently, I am trying to establish a working corporation within the economic boundaries of the virtual world. Primarily, to learn more about how real world social theories play out in a virtual economy. Secondly, to become rich and famous (in game). Finally, I'm trying to in some way effect the way MMORPGs are designed and played. This process is incredibly time consuming and assures that I will continue to log on daily to manage inventories and make sales. The most appealing aspect of the game is the open-ended player driven economy. Players in general seem to be stuck in a certain paradigm of how things are supposed to work. The idea of a corporate entity issuing stock and offering franchises and employment strikes them as odd. I'm not sure if this is because no one has done it before, or if it is too much reality in a game. At any rate, I appreciate that the limitations are more organic rather than being imposed by the game design. [SWG, M, 30]