The Addiction of Purpose


The door opens on a windswept plain, framing a perfect vista of endless opportunity. Clouds gather in the distance, to the east a storm is brewing, and trouble is mounting. I see the days before me as if watching a picture show: Long hours of toil, hardship, struggle, reward and triumph. I will face challenges. I will master them, and I will become stronger, better and more capable. Each day will bring me closer to my goal, the completion of my task, and on the long, winding road to my ultimate challenge I will meet many a fellow traveler and spread my light through the land like a spark creating a flame which will scour the forces of darkness from the earth.

I see all of this in an instant. The thoughts are as clear as the tiny blade of grass waving in the wind beyond my door – the blade of grass which will fall under my foot as I take that first step in to the unknown and toward my destiny. I’ve stood at this same threshold before, countless times, and never once have I faltered, failed to take that step, enter the future and the pages of history. But this time is different. Today, as I gaze purposefully out that narrow door, like Gary Cooper in High Noon, framed between shadow and light, I have reason to pause beyond the mere collection of my thoughts and the pondering of my future. Today, as I gaze at that limitless expanse of possibility and imagine myself the conqueror of an endless world, I have trouble seeing my own path through the smoke and haze of the path already slashed and burned through the wilderness by the one who has come before me. Way before me, in fact.

imageThis week, as news of the release of Blizzard’s Burning Crusade expansion to the ridiculously successful World of Warcraft MMOG spread across the web like wildfire, a second story appeared. While the first-in-liners settled in behind their computers for a long winter’s nap of adventure and discovery in the newly-expanded world of Azeroth, one man quietly announced that he’d already been there, done that and had the “ding” to prove it.

French WoW player Gullerbone has been reveling in his 15 minutes of fame this week, as the very fist person on the planet to reach WoW‘s newly-expanded level cap (level 70, up from 60), a scant 28 hours after the game’s commercial release. He described his accomplishment to the folks at World of Raids:

Gullerbone: Cau (the 1st European lvl 60) and I planned the exp route step by steps, trying everything to make sure it was the most appropriate (sic), the groups organization with the guild Millenium and their members. Each member rotated using a definite order to help me to grind on mobs, mostly with AE, surrounded with several guildmates healers, tanks, pullers etc…

[WoR]Teza: How many people were involved in your leveling project?

Gullerbone: All 40 members were involved; Milleniums member were assigned to specific tasks and planning in order to keep me leveling and (sic) the maximum rate.

Let’s take a moment to step away from the sheer vulgarity of the spectacle before us and contemplate its meaning. According to Gullerbone, 40 separate people colluded on the planning and execution of this assault on Burning Crusade for the sole purpose of propelling one of their number to this vaunted spot of glory, the first to reach the level cap. The interview reads like a NASCAR Winner’s Circle speech and reveals a startling aspect of multiplayer gaming, one which many, regardless of their preconceptions, may not be aware: Some of the people playing are even more serious than we’d assumed. They’re playing to win, and their definition of “winning” may vary widely from the norm.

“We think there’s a deeper theory than the fun of playing,” says Richard Ryan, a motivational psychologist at the University of Rochester, as reported this week by Yahoo! News. “It’s our contention that the psychological ‘pull’ of games is largely due to their capacity to engender feelings of autonomy, competence and relatedness.”

Ryan, his colleagues at Rochester and Immersyve Inc., a self-described “virtual environment think tank,” conducted a study of 1,000 gamers, examining their motivations to play and keep playing games. Their conclusions are startling, to say the least. Among them, that “fun” is largely irrelevant.

“Video games … have tremendous potential to impact people, particularly today’s video games which are incredibly rich and complex,” said Dr. Scott Rigby of Immersyve, speaking to Reuters Health. “This creates very fertile ground psychologically.”

But a fertile ground for what? According to the results of the study published in the December 2006 edition of the journal Motivation and Emotion, videogames, beyond being addictive pastimes, allow those who play them to feel accomplished, talented and connected to others, feelings that those who game may not be used to having in real life.

“Video games in some ways are very good at satisfying these psychological needs,” said Rigby. “Often times real life is not as clear … real life often can make you feel ineffective.”

That is to say those who play games do so, perhaps, less out of a desire to have “fun” and more for the feeling of empowerment and the exhilaration of being able to accomplish, in a game, what might otherwise be impossible. Anyone who’s felt the thrill of raiding tombs or, as I like to say “saving the universe and blowing stuff up” after a particularly hard day at the office can surely relate to the release of escapism. But we can get that same enjoyment, same “escape” if you will from any form of entertainment. Watching the American Idol tryouts makes us forget, for a moment, how badly we suck at singing and dancing and thus feel better about ourselves. But games are something else entirely. Games make us feel like we can sing and dance. Or play guitar. Or save the world and blow stuff up.

As I hover at the threshold of adventure, envisioning my triumphant journey through strange lands to parts unknown to vanquish unseen foes, I ponder the meaning of it all. Am I questing for fun, adventure or accomplishment? And when I get to where I’m going, will it matter that someone’s already been there? If the reason we game is to fulfill the unfulfillable urges, accomplish the impossible missions and feel a sense of worth which our real lives strip away, then what madness lies in the discovery that we’re less capable than we’d hoped even in the virtual world? How does it feel to fly all the way to the moon and see Neil Armstrong’s footprints?

We live our lives being held to various arbitrary metrics and are occasionally found wanting. Perhaps we can’t always make it to work on time, or remember to use the new cover sheets on the TPS report or drive from point A to point B without running out of gas, but when we go online, we’re supermen, and that makes us feel just a little bit better about ourselves. We may never climb Everest, never go to space or save the universe from a horde of rampaging zombies/insects/killer robots, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to. Or, on some level, need to. And it’s really no surprise that this is why some of us play games. We need that one little thing in our lives that will make us feel special – of worth. That that thing is a game doesn’t matter at all. But there too we increasingly find ourselves up against an unscalable wall; held to a standard which we will never live up to.

There are many among us who will reach level 70 in Burning Crusade, but only one person did it in a day. For most of us it will take weeks, months perhaps. And that’s the rub, isn’t it? As we set out to climb that digital peak, slay that electronic dragon or save those virtual worlds, we’re increasingly discovering that the one thing we thought we could do, that one thing we believed was our own domain, our own personal area of expertise, has been usurped by a professional athlete with a full support team. We’ve been bested before even attempting the task, and instead of feeling like Superman, we’re just good, old Clark Kent. My game, once the refuge from the irrational demands of an unfeeling world, has become a red crystal chamber, and I am once again powerless. I’ll still cross that threshold into adventure, still sally forth to claim my prize of heroism, my crown of destiny from the savage foes of goodness and light, but now I’ll do it with a little less spring in my step and a little less certainty that I am, in fact, the man. Now I’m on the clock, and no matter how hard I try, I’ll still get there a little too late.

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