The Inequitable Equity of MMOs

“Life isn’t fair.” It’s the catch-all phrase when things just aren’t going your way, a sort of tough love answer to the daily inequities we encounter. For me, in the midst of one of those very moments, I stumbled into a world that wasn’t just fair; it was built to be that way.

When your real life is racking up more failures than successes, it’s easy to lose yourself in the artificial accomplishments provided by an MMO.

Between jobs and wondering how long unemployment could keep me afloat, I had a surfeit of free time that I knew could easily translate into depression. At that time, Star Wars Galaxies had recently released and my spouse was excited to try it. Back then I wasn’t much of a Star Wars fan myself. I’d seen snippets of the movies and knew generally how it all went. However, $30 a month seemed like a reasonable expense to keep me sane and him happy. That was how I wound up creating Yavassk, my much cherished Trandoshan tailor.

Galaxies in its early life eschewed rigid classes and instead was based off skills that advanced as you used them. In the time I had Yavassk, he jumped from tailor to doctor to dancer, sometimes all in the same night. It was this flexibility that first drew me in. Outside of the screen, the feelings of failure and desperation that lingered around me left me feeling ineffectual. Inside that digital world, Yavassk’s potential to be anything I wanted let me feel capable.

By day, I stared glassy-eyed at job listing after job listing. In my growing depression, each one seemed like another rejection waiting to happen. Copy after copy of my resume lay strewn across my desk or crumpled in my trash can; victims of my attempts to shift the blame for my failure to find employment to a piece of paper. It was the night when I felt most content, bathed in the digital glow of a galaxy far, far way. There people sought me out for what I could do. There, hidden in the pixilated scales of an alien body, I felt whole.

Contrasted with the endless interviews and rejections I was dealing with in the real world, Yavassk’s life was simply more appealing. After all, he could build speederbikes and Nemodian Bird Cages while I was still struggling to pay the power bill and rent. He had opportunities in abundance and I was poring over want ads on a daily basis. When your real life is racking up more failures than successes, it’s easy to lose yourself in the artificial accomplishments provided by an MMO.

Being my first venture into the world of MMOs, the robust community that sprung up in Galaxies was an unexpected surprise. Comprised of diehard fans and an older skewing audience, they made the most of the social aspects the game provided. Whether it was a spontaneous dance party while waiting for the shuttle or a proud display of trophies and artifacts in the instanced player housing, they interacted with each other more than with the game itself.

Socially-focused gameplay was a new thing when Galaxies attempted it and it remains one of its unique quirks. Cantinas in every city were natural meeting places and with their class advancement tied to group size Dancers and Musicians naturally gravitated there. As performers got to know each other they soon formed bands and ran events across multiple worlds. These events acted as a fulcrum for individuals seeking to make a name for themselves. It wasn’t long before players who had made their fortune in the marketplace or through questing began to sponsor everything from music festivals to player-created questlines.

This overarching community became my security blanket. From meeting people at server wide events to participating on unofficial forums, the list of new people I’d met kept growing. I had started with nothing more than a desire to tinker and now I had people to socialize with on a regular basis. My desire to write rekindled even in my deepest funks and I took Yavassk all over the galaxy on adventures through forum posts and live role-playing. I was even approached to establish an in-game museum dedicated to the culture of Yavassk’s species.

Except it wasn’t his species anymore. It was my species. That was how far it had gone. Yavassk wasn’t a character or an avatar; he was me in that world. There were still filters, aspects of his culture that I tried to emulate as best I could, but it was all done with the full force of my personality behind it. I didn’t log in to “play” Yavassk, I logged in so that I could get back to being who I thought I should be.

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Real life wasn’t offering me anything better which made it even easier to put it on the back burner. Instead I poured myself into the little projects I’d created in my new virtual life. My museum devoured countless hours, endless resources and much of my husband’s sanity. I even did odd jobs on the side; a wedding dress here or a trenchcoat there. I looked for any excuse to ignore the real world a little longer.

With fewer reasons to log in every day and my real life starting to have tangible benefits, I noticed Galaxies‘ flaws even more distinctly.

That changed when an interview came through. The phone call left me ecstatic. Now I had a job and an income. The stress that had plagued me for months began to melt away. Bills were getting paid, food was on the table and my unemployment was a thing of the past. Thrilled about the prospect of beating my depression, I rushed to tell my new friends all about it, but they weren’t there anymore.

People were logging into Galaxies less frequently. Events were vanishing from the calendar and cantinas were almost vacant. The population had dwindled to the point where seeing another person was a novelty. As fewer and fewer friends bothered to come online, the mundane tasks I’d once taken joy in became tedious. No one approached my vendors or asked for my clothing designs. Harvesting ceased being a chance to explore and became another pointless chore.

With fewer reasons to log in every day and my real life starting to have tangible benefits, I noticed Galaxies‘ flaws even more distinctly. Bugs that I’d ignored since launch seemed more prevalent than ever. Not only had the game’s delicately crafted hold over me begun to fade, but my desire to keep the illusion alive had dwindled. It didn’t feel like there was anything left to keep me engaged.

Eventually, I just stopped logging in at all. My subscription lapsed and I’d begun to wonder why I had been so engrossed in the first place.

I didn’t understand what had changed. I tried a few other MMOs assuming I’d find my niche, but I couldn’t capture the same feeling I had when I first played Galaxies. New mechanics, new worlds and better graphics seemed to have no impact on my interest. Even playing with the tightly knit group of friends I’d made couldn’t keep me interested for long. Something was missing and nothing I did seemed to help.

I assumed it was the games at first, but soon I realized what I was looking for wasn’t possible. What I was playing hadn’t fundamentally changed; instead, I had. My life wasn’t something I felt the need to escape from anymore. It was that need that let me overlook the flaws and gaps in Galaxies and that helped me to fill in the blanks when a quest giver was telling me to punch another 50 thugs into submission. Without that, my character was nothing more than more than a picture on the screen. It wasn’t the game that kept me from becoming immersed; it was the fact that I didn’t have to hide from my problems in someone else’s digital skin anymore.

I still play MMOs but my expectations of them have softened. Nothing will ever capture that feeling I had with my first MMO because I’m not in the same mindset. My life is no longer a mess that I’d rather ignore and my time is better spent in a number of other, theoretically more productive ways. Still, the impact it had on my life stayed with me. Part of me wants that strange symbiosis between borderline depression and virtual perfection; to lose myself in both a game and character like I did back then. Tinged with nostalgia, it remains an intoxicating mix.

Fortunately, the rest of me is content with a regular paycheck.

Jeff Davis has spent way too much of his life being someone else. Despite this, he still writes on his blog at between occasional museum openings and killing 10 rats.

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