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.