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Feb 14, 2005

Comments

1.

I'm a little torn about this issue, and it once again comes down to anecdote versus data. There's no question that online gaming can have a harmful effect on relationships and there's no question that it can help them. It's a question of qualitative difference, though. My theory is that the net effect of a lot of online game play is to displace some number of existing strong relationships with a larger number of newer, weaker ones. The sociology literature says that this is not inherently "good" or "bad" since weak relationships have advantages that strong ones don't--namely heterogeneity, new information and new opportunities (i.e. horizon broadening). And we know that a lot of people with existing relationships play together, possibly (if not always) reinforcing existing bonds. So we might hypothesize that MMOGs generate well-networked, broadly thinking people with lower overall social support (emotional and practical).

So here's what my data from an experiment say: people who played a lot don't (on average) suffer problems within their families. On the down side, they did start to lose touch with their more distant friends. They also had declining face-to-face interactions with existing friends and went out less often. I find this worrisome.

Now before someone jumps all over me and says Hey, that's not how it is for everyone, some people react differently, let me say Yes, of course. I also only tested one game (AC2), which may differ from others in relation to these outcomes. My experimental data show what happens on average, all else equal, compared to a group that didn't play MMOGs. Some people showed gains and some losses. What I just typed in above were the net averages. But those averages were real.

2.

Hi, I've read TN for a while now but haven't posted a comment before :)

From my own experience, the number one thing that makes me quit a MMOG is that all the time invested is eventually for naught. The company running the MMOG will eventually go out of business, release a new version, fundamentally change the game with expansion packs that require a new investment of time to catch up... I might have some surface friendships and a large group of diverse friends, but I only know them in the context of the game. Once I leave the MMOG, I'm left with nothing in the MMOG that translates to real life. At the end of it all, I may have had some memorable experiences, but I've also missed out on other experiences that were potentially more memorable (by mere virtue of engaging more senses) in real life.

It's for this reason when I do play MMOGs, I prefer to play them with friends I know IRL... that said, that experience differs a lot in that the constant reminder of the real world via friends produces a sense of detatchment from the MMOG, which can be both good and bad. One begins to see a MMOG for what it is: a game, and a pale imitation (at least with current technology) of a world.

This leads to the question:
What's the point of MMOGs?

I haven't been able to formulate a satisfactory answer. The obvious "to have fun" rings false; I am not always having fun in MMOGs, oftentimes parts feel like a grind, or chasing an ever-moving carrot. "To make friends" isn't really true. I might make friends in the context of the world, but I've never seen that friendship translate into RL, nor am do I think many people would be comfortable facilitating that translation -- most people seem to keep a very large barrier between RL and MMOG life.

The best point I've been able to formulate is: "To escape." MMOGs provide people with somewhere to go that isn't real life, where real life doesn't matter, where real life can't touch them, where they don't have to be who they are in real life... And I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with the connotations of that purpose of MMOGs.

3.

I've considered the same question Dominik, but aren't there varying degrees of the need for escape? Some people watch TV shows like Star Trek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer because it's a pleasant way to while away an hour, yet others are clearly more engrossed in the fictional realms they represent than is necessarily healthy.

4.

I think the notion of "escape" is a good one, but the question "necessary health" that Theo raises is also important. Part of the point I was trying to make in that essay is that for a lot of people, real life feels pretty unhealthy: repetitive, unfriendly, uninteresting. It feels like the kind of place where you can't easily meet people who like what you like, where you can't build relationships without being judged around categories in which you do poorly (for whatever reason), in which your increased effort at work doesn't seem to produce any results or rewards, in which your major interactions with people involve them asking you to do stuff and your doing it.

By contrast, life in EQ allows you to be judged by conversational skill and wit, game "talent" (though as I say I don't think this is a huge factor) and success, and to enjoy teamwork, friendship, and community in ways that may be difficult or impossible in real life. Sure, it may not engage all the senses, but it covers sight and sound pretty well...

Let me pick a specific example: most people like to be generous. It gives most people a great deal of pleasure to be able to help others, either through time or money. But in real life, many people are not in a position to be generous--money's tight, time's tight (or feels it), and they really don't have much to offer. But in Norrath, you can easily become the kind of person who is generous with time or goods or money... and that's a source of pleasure in game that's just not available in real life. And that's just one of the reasons someone might move (even for a few hours a day) to Norrath.

5.

Good points Eric. I'd like to make clear, however, that even when life in the Real World is a largely pleasant experience, we still have some need for fantasy and escapism. Plenty of healthy, well-adjusted people who lead happy, productive lives enjoy taking time out to see a movie, lose themselves in a good book, or catch a favorite TV show. There's nothing remotely unhealthy about escapism as entertainment.

I think that the more immersive forms of entertainment appeal to a "lowest common denominator," (for lack of a better term); the people who seek out these fantasy realms as a literal replacement for their real lives. It's not unique to MMORPGs...look at how seriously some people take film fantasy. Religions have sprung up preaching the Jedi Code!

6.

I'll agree that some escapism is healthy, but from personal experience it is pretty hard to strike a balance between RL and MMOGs. If I play a few hours a week I feel like an outsider in the game world, but if I play more than that I start feeling like an outsider in the real world. WoW does things well until cap level, when doing anything (e.g. raiding zones such as Molten Core) takes several hours in a row. Hopefully their conception of battlegrounds will allow what I see as a Holy Grail for fantasy MMOGs: instanced PvP on demand -- play for an hour, have fun, log off and feel like you accomplished something. Wandering around the lands trying to find PvP or waiting for everyone in a raid to arrive are, for the moment, necesssary obstructions to fun :-/

I'll agree that a healthy lifestyle involves a mix of work and play, of reality and imagination. Balance, however, is a fine art I am still working on mastering.

7.

To be fair, I walk the line between healthy escapism and obsession myself at times, particularly during the winter months. The inability to log in for a half hour or so here and there and feel like I accomplished something is exactly why I've quit EQ2 already. It takes a few hours and a good group to accomplish much of anything, whereas City of Heroes lets me complete a mission in about fifteen minutes to half an hour (including travel time), and even in the mid-30s I can still level every day or two if I put my mind to it.

I play MMOs with a couple of close RL friends using a voice server, and I find that if they've stopped playing the game, the virtual world feels empty to me despite all the other players. It becomes a silent grind.

8.

Dominik has some good points. When you socialize with a group of people in only one enviroment, the ability to interact outside of that framework becomes difficult. Plus, when the enviroment is of limited scope (like the quests of a MMOG), once you've used up that content, there's not much to do.

I've been lucky in that the online groups I primarily socialize with have made a clear effort to provide RealSpace interaction, in the form of mini-conventions and gatherings; and, in the case of Until Uru, where there *is* no new content, an effort to find things to do within the scope of the game enviroment.

9.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media has now picked this story up, playing up its most sensationalist aspects and misquoting me in the process.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4265407.stm

Please don't let the snarky first paragraph fool you into thinking I'm not secretely delighted to be (mis)quoted by the BBC.

10.

In reponse to: "I'm a little worried it might be tactical media, like MAVAV.org (a spoofed anti-violence site), but if it isn't the stories are eye-openers."

Well, it may qualify to be tactical since I want MMOG players to read and think about their own lives and draw their own conclusions, but there is no media behind it, I can assure you of that. Just a blogger who used to play Everquest obsessively enough to forgot the real person behind the keyboard.

I just linked to Terra Nova as a permanent link on EQ Daily Grind because of its insightful aspectvarying looks at virtual worlds. Thanks!

11.

Love is a path to the heart that knows its own way.

12.

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