Escapist Editorials

Escapist Editorials
The Psychology of Playing MMOs

Greg Tito | 3 Jan 2012 18:00
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Like a silly Facebook romance, my relationship to massively multiplayer games is ... complicated. I loved the idea of MMOs before I ever played one. The promise of a true second life was appealing for a middle-school jerk like me. I consume quests like candy, and crafting is a serious enterprise for me, but a curious thing happens when I pay a monthly fee to log in to a persistent world: investment, and not in a good way. I put nearly 500 hours - sorry, that should read "days" as in 1.4 years - into playing World of Warcraft, but it started to feel like I was carrying that time like a weight on my shoulders. I felt like I had contributed too much money and time into one game to bother spending those precious resources elsewhere. To wit, playing other games felt like cheating on my wife of warcraft. Eventually, I had to break up with that girl. The effect MMOs have on my psyche is just too creepy.

And yet, here I am, on the verge of taking a nose dive into BioWare's The Old Republic. A well-crafted MMO with a strong narrative and a Star Wars universe unbesmirched by Lucas the Hutt is too tempting to ignore. I am wary, though. Do I really want to commit to playing another MMO, not for review, but for pleasure? I just cancelled World of Warcraft this summer with my life, bank account, and marriage intact, and I've enjoyed playing a much more varied menu of games since then. I'm worried that TOR will become WoW reborn.

I grew up a PC gamer, cutting my mouse on games like Civilization and X-Wing, but my taste for proto-MMOs was fueled by my love of old Dungeons & Dragons books. Being unsatisfied by the limits of computer RPGs, I lovingly imagined inhabiting vibrant locales with other people playing every role around me. Still, I resisted the MMO siren song for a while. I dabbled briefly in Ultima Online, but I still preferred single-player games such as Alpha Centauri and Morrowind. That changed in 2004 when World of Warcraft fever infected me - I bought a collectors' edition at launch and pretty much lived in Azeroth any moment I wasn't at work or with friends. WoW took over almost all of my gaming time for more than six years and even games I was excited to play like Oblivion received mere specks of my attention.

It also struck me as insane that doing something other than gaming while gaming was somehow more enjoyable. I would queue up a Netflix movie, or throw in a DVD to watch while I was doing daily quests in WoW. During Wrath with its Dungeon Finder easy mode, I would even run two or three instances back-to-back as I watched the latest episode of Lost or 24. Back when I had dual monitors, I always had a gmail window up to chat with friends as I played. If I wasn't doing something else at the same time, the game itself would quickly get boring. Why the hell was I playing game that wasn't fun?

The resentment against the game I "loved to play" grew. I can't point to a single event or moment when I realized I had stopped enjoying WoW. The expansions held my interest well enough, and Cataclysm was certainly a neat way to reboot the world. But instead of being excited to play games when I had a spare hour or three, that yellow and black icon on my desktop would just stare at me. "You should play WoW," it seemed to say. "You are paying a monthly fee, and you haven't yet hit 85 on your main. What the hell is wrong with you? You can't play Shogun 2. You must click me. Doubly. Mwahahaaha."

The thing is, I did want to play Shogun 2 and other game that piqued my interest like Sword of the Stars, King Arthur or Sins of a Solar Empire. But something felt wrong about booting up another game when, every six months, an $80 charge hit my credit card for WoW. Sitting in front of my monitor figuring out what game I wanted to play, I often felt paralyzed. I felt negative emotions of guilt, resentment and anger, no matter what I chose to do. Eventually, I would choose to not play any games at all.

At that point, was I even a gamer anymore?

So I cut the cord. Cancelled the WoW subscription. Tossed the authenticator with the rest of the junk in my top desk drawer. I made it out of Azeroth alive, and I suddenly had the free time to play any game I wanted to. I kissed the ground of Steam, and rejoiced in life once again. There are so many different titles, platforms and genres out there to explore, I felt silly I had restricted myself to just one for so long. I finished the Red Sox season in MLB2K11 in much better fashion than the real team did. I jumped into Saints Row 3 and Infamous 2. I strategized with a geisha. I took an arrow to the knee. I was happy.

Enter The Old Republic, a game seemingly custom-designed to pull me back in to massively multiplayer Hell. The game has only been out a couple weeks and I've already begun to feel the same emotions. I can't play Skyrim, I should really get on and level up my Sith so I can join The Escapist office guild. I only bought a few months of gametime, I should try to get my money's worth before it expires. You don't need to see its identification, The Old Republic is the game you are looking for.

Is it really? Or am I just a sucker?

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