Through the Looking Glass

In a recent survey, I asked players whether they had ever learned anything about themselves from their MMO experiences, or whether their experiences in an MMO had ever changed how they thought about themselves or their perspective of the world. About 400 MMO players responded to this particular question, revealing some interesting perspectives on what they have learned from their experiences in an MMO.

MMOs are interesting social spaces in several ways. First of all, there are almost no other social spaces in the physical world where people from such different demographic backgrounds and life experiences collaborate on a regular basis. The age range in most MMOs goes from 10 to 70. In a typical 5-person pick-up group, you may have a high-school student, a war veteran, a professional home-maker, a law professor, and a retired bank manager. In our education and work systems, we typically only get to talk and work with people who are incredibly similar to ourselves. This is actually seldom the case in MMOs. Another thing that bears pointing out that there are almost no social spaces in the physical world where teenagers routinely get to work with adults as equals. But not only does collaboration occur, teenagers routinely lead groups of adults, give them orders, and partly schedule their leisure time in MMOs. Learning how to work with and lead a diverse group of people is an important social skill, especially for teenagers.

Beyond the demographic landscape, MMOs also expose us to stressful group conflicts, leadership opportunities, and moral dilemmas, among other scenarios, that we may be less often exposed to in our day to day lives. Another interesting part of MMOs is the compressed time in several domains. While it may take decades to rise to the top of your profession in the real world, it is possible to reach max-level in some MMOs with just several months of casual playing. The rate at which guilds form, fragment, and dissolve may also allow some players to try out and understand how to lead and manage teams in ways that may take much much longer in an actual office. In short, MMOs may offer players experiences in roles and positions that they may not have access to in the physical world.


Leadership and Management

Of all the things that players mentioned, one came up over and over again. Of the 400 responses, and this includes players who said "no, didn't learn anything", about 44 specifically described how they had become better leaders or team managers from their MMO experiences. Many of these players also specifically mentioned how this has helped them tangibly in their work lives, in terms of promotions or better pay-scales.

The following responses are insightful because several players articulate the specific skills that they have become better at from their MMO experiences. Another important thing to note is that these responses aren't only coming from teenagers who have few leadership and management experiences from real life. Players from all over the age range noted this change. And finally, I want to point out that no examples were given in the original phrasing of the question. In other words, this isn't a case of respondents flocking to examples in the question stem.

Leading Raids in EQ gave me the courage to take up project manager duties in the real world. I would attack each project as if I needed a raid of people to take it down, and would put together good teams of people to get the job done. EverQuest is directly responsible for me getting promoted and a MUCH better pay scale. [EQ2, F, 44]

I've honestly learned to be a far better manager by helping run a WoW guild. I lead game development teams in real life. I stopped running my WoW guild because I realized I would come home from work, try to play, and end up doing the same thing I do all day. It was stressful. WoW has helped me get better at resolving disputes, improving individual team members' performance, dealing quickly and fairly with problem children and prima donnas, managing results / rewards expectations, and communicating more clearly and effectively. [WoW, F, 41]

The game environments helped me realize that the only thing preventing me from being a leader in real life was a lack of self-confidence. I didn't believe I was old enough, or good enough, or capable enough. MMOs got me over that stumbling block. These days I'm comfortable leading teams of any size, whether it's ten people or one hundred. I've taken small tech teams (just a few engineers) into contract jobs and produced excellent results; I've been a department chair (with dozens of staff) for a non-profit convention with over twenty thousand attendees. Doesn't matter what size the task is, doesn't matter what size the team - if I can lead, I'll do well, and that makes me very happy. I have MMOs to thank. I might not have developed this way otherwise. [EO, M, 27]

I had never really thought of myself as a leader, or someone who naturally takes charge. After pouring myself into being a WoW guild leader for almost 2 years, I find myself taking on the role of arbiter, overseer for projects, personal counselor, and friend to a lot of people whom I've never actually met. This has translated into my personal life a great deal, as I've gained the confidence to begin acting upon leadership impulses in my workplace which have recently led to a promotion to upper management. [Anon]

I learned that I can be a leader. When I started playing World of Warcraft I never expected to gain any sort of prestige in a guild. When I finished with the game I was a class leader in a top end raiding guild. Since being a class leader I have received two promotions at work, one to crew trainer and another to shift manager. This is significant for me because people had always told me I was too shy to be a leader and not a very good teacher. MMOs have taught me how to manage people and resolve conflicts as well as how to pass my own skills on to others. [EQ2, F, 20]

In addition to high-level leadership and management, a related skill that several players brought up was learning how to work with and understand other people in team scenarios.

Before my MMO experience I preferred to work alone, but the tasks I ended up doing in the game taught me that I can work in a team just as well and even take the lead when needed or asked for. One Guild Leader promoting me to Class Leader because of my knowledge about that class and the resulting duties during raids (telling people of my class what to do) showed me more of my abilities that no amount of group assignments in school had ever managed to do. [WoW, F, 32]

Things like running guilds, or being leadership in one, these things really clue me in to the dynamics of group interaction. I've frequently found myself drawing on my online experiences to get along better with people at work. [WoW, M, 27]


Gaining Confidence

Another theme that some players brought up was that their in-game interactions allowed them to work through some shyness issues they've had in face-to-face interactions. What is most striking in this first anecdote is that the MMO space removed barriers to self-growth present in this person's day-to-day life at school.

I used to be very quiet and withdrawn. In school, I was extremely insecure about myself and my abilities. After picking up WoW in ninth grade, I developed the extroverted side of myself and became way more outgoing and secure of myself. My sense of humor, which was typically kept within my own head, found its way out into jokes and a general sense of easy-going-ness. Now I'm the one who's drawing out the quiet ones, because I still know how it felt to be that shy. I am also much more confident in my own intelligence and abilities. Being in an environment where the playing field is completely level and it didn't matter that I was only a young girl allowed me to find out that I really could succeed and that I really am competent. Being accepted by a group of my mental peers (college-aged guys) was a wonderful experience and let me see that I was only a 'social reject' within the confines of my high school, where social barriers and judgment had left me very lonely. It gave me the confidence that a typical teenage girl is in severe need of. [WoW, F, 16]

Of course, shyness is an issue that many people struggle with, and isn't a problem only teenagers have to work through.

in wow my character is very personable and outgoing. i will talk to anyone if they strike up a conversation with me and im not too busy (i have died many times from paying more attention to chat than what i am doing!) in real life i am very shy and its hard for me to get to know people. i guess what this has taught me is that i dont need to be afraid to be more outgoing in real life, i was never able to do that before. i think it has also made me be more daring, doing things i wouldnt normally do in real life, such as striking up conversations with strangers. [WoW, F, 28]

One thing that has changed about me through gaming is my newfound ability to say 'hello' to strangers. When I first started playing MMOs (SWG), I was as painfully shy in game as out. As I got more comfortable talking to people in game, I found that I was able to approach people in the real world. [EQ2, F, 34]

One of the processes that drive these increases in confidence, and hinted at by some of the narratives above, is that trying out more confident and sociable identities in an MMO allows them to experience what they didn't think they were capable of. This in turn encourages them to extend their new behavioral repertoire outside of the virtual setting. The following players make this point more explicitly.

It also gave me a lot of confidence - after all, if you can lead a 60-person complex raid, how hard can it be to organize a team meeting? :) This has led to me to take on more responsibility in the workplace and feel comfortable about handling it, as well as being far better able to deal with criticism or conflict (either as target or arbitrator). [WoW, F, 38]

I had to represent myself in court because I could not afford an attorney in a custody battle with my former spouse. He is quite aware that ordinarily I am a push-over in real life. In this situation I kept my pirate character in mind and imagined that I could stand my ground as I do in the sword fights in the game. I was able to represent myself calmly, clearly and effectively, and the final result was the judge did not award custody to my former spouse and his wife. [WoW, F, 23]


Personal Growth

Apart from these two broad classes of skills that people mentioned, some players described stumbling-blocks in their personalities that their game experiences allowed them to move past. These are probably more accurately described as personal growth. This first anecdote is a good example.

I was raised to be self-sufficient. For instance, if I asked my Mom how to spell something, she would tell me to look it up in the dictionary. The message I got was that I shouldn't ever ask for help. When I started playing EQ, I quickly learned that I could be more effective if I had buffs from other players in the group, but I also found that it was really hard for me to ask for buffs, even from group members, because it went against my childhood 'programming' of not asking for help. In time, I learned that it was not only better for me, but better for the whole group if I just went ahead and asked for the buffs I needed anyway. It became much easier for me to ask for buffs, and I found this behavior spilling over into my real life as well. Now I find it much easier to ask for help in real life when I need it. It has without a doubt had a positive effect on my perspective of the world to know that it's perfectly okay to ask for help when I need it. [EQ2, F, 42]

Another kind of growth that several players mentioned was learning how to stay calm and not be bothered by the small stuff in life.

I used to think myself a fairly angry person, merely being killed in PvP in World of Warcraft would spark off angry insult-throwing tantrums from myself, even though the only person who would hear it would be me. I've realized how much of an angry person I am through this, and have been fighting to control it ever since I realized. If a rogue jumps me and beats the ever-living crap out of me without me being able to do anything, I try to shrug and tell myself it happens. If I die repeatedly in an encounter ... I just fight the urge to rage about it. I don't particularly want to be an angry person, especially in real life - it raises blood pressure and stress and tension levels. It makes you insult people for no good reason and gives you intent to cause the same anger (and depression really) in other people. It's nothing I want to be a part of, and playing World of Warcraft and controlling these emotions has taught me some aspects of Anger Management, I find myself feeling less tense in real life now and I'm thankful for it. [WoW, M, 19]

I think the way in which I've grown the most through playing MMOs is that I no longer get as angry or offended easily by people with obviously stupid or bigoted viewpoints. I find myself seeing comments on the forums or in chat and just thinking, 'It's not worth it.' [WoW, M, 26]

These final two examples are interesting in that they show more clearly how an MMO can reveal an area for potential growth and facilitate that transition.

I am very ambitious in RL. When I was active in Star Wars Galaxies I suddenly realized that I spent all my in game time trying to improve my character. I was always grinding, earning money or questing. The things I really wanted to do like exploring or decorating my house were not high enough on my priority list. They seemed so futile in comparison to gaining another level. Even in a virtual world I wanted to be successful. This mirrored exactly the way I handle work/hobbies in my life. The game helped me to reflect myself. I was really amused when I found out that my toon was indeed a Mini Me. When I thought it through I changed my behavior. Instead of gaming I went shopping and finally found the time to decorate my apartment ... [GW, F, 27]

Often, during raids, I would make jokes in guild chat based on comments that were made on Ventrilo. In general, a lot of my energy was (I do this less now) focused on getting as many people to laugh at those jokes as possible. The downside of this was that very few people ever took me seriously. As a result, I actively decided to change the way I was perceived by others, and started focusing more on keeping the jokes in /whisper with a few friends. Combined with adding more serious commentary in guild chat and in our guild forums, I feel that more people take me seriously, which I prefer to being the 'class clown' who gets very little respect. [WoW, M, 20]


Revealing Aspects of the Self

Of course, it isn't the case that MMOs can solve everyone's personal stumbling-blocks. Indeed, many players noted that their MMO experiences helped reveal negative parts of themselves that they didn't really know about. Since awareness is necessary before change, I guess we could think of these as precursors to personal growth. For example, some players noted that they never realized how competitive they are.

Playing WoW has definitely made me recognize how sensitive I am to competition. I've always known I had a competitive streak, but after obsessing (even while lying in bed) over how to out-DPS the other warlock, or bitching for hours about someone insulting my playing ability in a battleground, that definitely made me realize that I am extremely prone to identifying my personal success, and my value as a person, with my achievements in a specific setting. [WoW, F, 25]

Others noticed how much they cared about other people's approval and their need for validation.

I learned from playing MMOs that I am very concerned about what people think of my performance. I worry sometimes in game about whether or not I am doing a good job, and if people think I am lacking in my class duties. I am 37 years old, but the game brings out these teenage thoughts in me of, 'I hope they like me' and, 'I hope I'm doing things correctly.' You know, I worry about proving myself. This is something I have felt more acutely in-game, but it has helped me to understand some of my behaviors and anxieties in RL. [EQ, F, 37]

I am always annoyed at the co-workers who are show-offs and like to talk about whatever bizarre thing they did with a network at home; these are, to me, nothing more than the fishing stories of the workplace. It was something of a surprise to me, then, to learn when helping a newbie guildmate complete some quests that I really enjoy that same sort of showboating in WoW. I love nothing more than to walk all over a ridiculously low-level quest while someone new to the game watches. I did not realize my ego was that important to me. [WoW, M, 32]

And finally, for others, the game revealed a dark side of themselves that worried them.

IRL, I pride myself on being ethical and honest. Imagine my surprise when I found myself ninja looting in Westfall! A group was fighting a bunch of Defias and I stepped in and looted an unguarded quest item; I was soloing, had been trying to complete the quest for some time, and knew I couldn't do it by myself, so acted impulsively. I realized later that due to the mechanics of the game, this probably wouldn't have prevented them from getting it also, but I was pretty disgusted with myself, and saw a side to my own character that was not so nice. [WoW, F, 53]

I found myself becoming so vindictive that it scares me. I find that I have an ugly monster in me. I definitely don't like this. I now play once again on the PvE server, partly to play with no worries of being ganked and partly to rein in the monster and be myself. [WoW, M, 34]


Global Perspective

One final category of comments that players made involved how their MMO experience helped broaden their perspective of the world. For some, interactions with players from different countries provided a more sober perspective of the US.

Back when I played EQ1 I transferred to a European server with my guild. Had to transfer back shortly after due to many 'muslim baby killer' and other such comments from the non-american players. This really hammered home how much the USA is disliked about the war we started. [CoH, M, 37]

I honestly thank the ability to understand current events a lot better thanks to Guild Wars, my good in game friend happens to be Muslim, and I (an American) don't get any interaction with Muslims outside the internet, and he has really helped me understand just how ... ignorant so many people are, and how powerfully destructive the media is. I've also met many British gamers, who have helped me understand that America isn't the center of the world. [GW, M, 15]

But overall, players commented on how their experiences helped them see the world from a more global, connected perspective.

Playing MMOs have help shaped, the once narrow view of the world I had. It's quite a different thing compared to simply reading up on a foreign country or culture, and being actually able to interact with them on a daily basis. Previously, I wasn't aware of the happenings outside of my region, but since I embarked on playing MMOs, I became more globally aware, and am able to draw comparisons between life here and there. [Lineage 2, M, 18]

During the time that I've played MMOs, I've met people from all over the world, and it has expanded my understanding of the world that we live in. I don't think quite as much 'locally' anymore, but now lean more towards a 'global' type of mindset. [Eve Online, F, 26]

I realized how many great people there are all over the world and how many people you really can be compatible with... it's amazing to think how many people are out there all living their lives that you can talk to and get to know, that you never would have had the opportunity to before. [WoW, F, 27]

Ending Thoughts

I think these narratives are helpful in highlighting the porous boundary between virtual worlds and physical worlds. As many of these stories show, it just isn't fair to talk about MMOs as fantasy worlds that are somehow cut off from reality, nor is it fair to claim that MMOs only produce negative consequences. What happens in MMOs can lead to self-growth as well as promotions at work. Of course, this isn't to say that everyone who plays MMOs will derive positive consequences from it, but these narratives do hint at the fuller spectrum of what MMOs are and the interesting ways that virtual worlds cross over and tie into who we are and what we do in the physical world.