I'm currently re-reading a bit of Jesper Juul's book, Half-Real. I should say at the outset that I haved always enjoyed Juul's general approach to videogame studies. His work is highly accessible, innovative, thoughtful, and centered on concrete (and popular) examples. (He also includes lots of screenshots, which is good.) Juul takes what might be called a "grassroots" approach to game studies, not bringing heavy disciplinary baggage to colonize the area, but instead trying to build a formal theory of games from the ground up. He takes his lead primarily from game and culture theorists like Huizinga, Caillois, Crawford and Sutton-Smith rather than from literary theory or media studies.
But I don't want to review Half-Real here -- I just want to share a passage that made me wonder a bit about the differences between MMORPGs and other games. The question is: how do players set the balance in MMORPGs between world immersion and game/rule objectives?
Part of Juul's thesis in Half-Life is that games are not just about rule systems (what one might call a "radical ludological" approach), but are also about the establishment of fictional worlds. (Cf. the past ludology debate.) Yet on page 139, Juul makes an interesting assertion about the relationship between worlds and rules in games:
It is a common characteristic that with sustained playing of the same game, the player may become less interested in the representational/fictional level of the game and more focused on the rules of the game.
After citing to this paper, which described how Quake III players would turn down graphics detail in order to get higher frame rates, Juul says:
Experienced players shift their focus from the fictional world of the game to the game as a set of rules.
Juul references Haider and Frencsch and posits that this is a form of intentional information reduction designed to improve task performance.
Imho, in the FPS (first person shooter) setting, that seems true enough. The reader can offer his or her own experience, but I think the "eye candy" of many FPS games is appealing but ornamental in terms of game play. Perhaps the agonistic drive to win leads many players to turn down graphics quality to maximize the tactical advantage of higher FPS (frames per second). It seems to me fair enough to interpret this as game players sacrificing some of the richness of the fictional FPS world (so far as it is a "world") in order to maximize the precise inputs that are instrumental to victory (defined by the rules).
What I'm curious about is whether that type of tactical behavior generally extends to MMORPGs, and in particular whether there is a difference between the early stages and endgame play. My hunch is that when we see rules crowd out fiction in MMORPGs, it is likely that some form of social pressure is at work.
MMORPGs are generally not (directly) competitive games. So it would seem to me that most experienced players soloing the early stages of the games are probably not inclined to tune out the fiction in order to maximize instrumental play. While information reduction tactics might make the dreaded grind more efficient, it would probably make it correspondingly more miserable. For solo video games, I'd have the same hunch. If I could reduce the Katamari graphics to a gray ball and countless gray squares rectangles, I'd probably improve my score somewhat, but why would I want to play that game?
Toward the endgame raids in MMORPGs, however, it seems pretty clear that the broader group's demands for precise social coordination probably *do* have a tendency to downplay the fiction in game play, making the individual player focus more on game objectives. Players likely adopt tactics like information-reduction in order to better service group objectives.
As TL Taylor noted in Play Between Worlds, achievement-centered "power gamers" are, in a way, more social beings than the casual gamers we call "socializers." It's probably the primacy of shared group goals (including, as in FPS gaming, playfully shared antagonism) that leads to highly instrumental play and corresponding withdraw from fiction. So, in many ways, MMORPG endgame play is the most inimical to the RP (role-play) in MMORPG. As Tim Burke has noted here before, MMORPGs are essentially two very different types of games. (Cf. recent stuff by Dave Myers, exploring the differences between group and solo play.)
For players, is this right? How do you manage the balance between instrumental goals and world immersion? Are your strategies different at various stages?