“Pulling in three … two … one. Named epic mob incoming!”

I can’t tell you how many times these words have crossed my lips, accompanied by my teammates’ shouts as we take down a mighty creature of lore. As the main tank, I have one job: take the damage so that nobody else does. If I go down, the whole group falls with me. It’s not the healers’ fault if I kick the bucket; it’s my fault I don’t have better armor. And if someone else dies, it’s not the fault of the nuker who chain casted for 30k – my taunts just weren’t good enough.

Looking back into my MMOG past, a pattern emerges: I’ve always been a tank. EverQuest? Paladin. City of Heroes? Ice Tanker. Final Fantasy XI? Paladin/Warrior. And now in EverQuest 2, Guardian. I played other classes too, but they were always just a diversion by comparison.

I can’t remember the last time being the main tank could be considered fun. All of the time spent camping for armor, just to turn around and spend hours more helping others do the same because I’m the only one that can take a hit. So why do I do it? Because I’m a nice person or I’m a sucker – either way, I can’t say “no.” And maybe, because deep down somewhere, it’s nice to be needed.

***

According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, there are five levels of need. The first is physiological, the need for food and shelter. The second is security and protection. The third is social, which encompasses the sense of belonging and love. The fourth level is esteem needs: self-esteem, recognition and status.

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Playing an MMOG may not put food in your belly or keep you safe from harm, but it certainly fulfills those third and fourth levels of needs. Joining a guild provides a sense of common purpose and belonging that offline games simply can’t. And for those looking for recognition and status, no class puts you in the spotlight like the tank.

Maybe being a tank in an MMOG helps me get my fill of something I’m missing in real life. I can’t really complain: I’m healthy, well liked, and enjoy coming to work every day. I can afford food and shelter and even have some extra money for going out and socializing. It seems as though I have Dr. Maslow’s fourth level pretty well satisfied. What could it be, then? Perhaps it’s more innate, built into the genes of my family members from thousands of years of breeding: instinct.

I can still recollect the bedtime stories my mother used to tell me about superheroes who needed my help. Likewise, when my father used to go on business trips he would tell me to “be good and take care of your mother.” (I was 5 at the time – I could barely tie my own shoes.) But I think the crown jewel came when I was 8.

I was in a drugstore inside the Penn Can Mall with my mom buying band aids. While we were checking out, I heard yelling coming from just outside the store entrance. I looked to see what was happening and saw a man yelling at a woman whom I thought to be his girlfriend or wife – either way, it was obvious they knew each other. The woman was beautiful: young, long blonde hair, wearing a business skirt and a blouse as if she had just come from work. The guy, on the other hand, looked like a scumbag; greasy hair, crappy jeans and crummy black leather coat. I watched silently as the guy verbally tore her down in front of the growing crowd.

I wanted to do something. I told my mom, who quickly told the cashier, who called security. Meanwhile, the woman just stood there, not saying a word. When she opened her mouth to speak, the guy swung at her. Without even thinking, I rushed toward them. I didn’t hear my mom call me, and struggled against her when she held me back.

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Rage poured through me. I wanted to help. Without being told, I knew what he had done was wrong. The woman needed a hero, and my instincts told me I could protect her. My mom just held me and hugged me. I started crying, not because I was hurt, but because I couldn’t help someone in need.

***

Growing up, I tried to help people when I could. I was never big enough to take down bullies, but that didn’t stop me from trying, usually at the cost of a bloody lip or a bruised ego. Unlike the movies, it was usually a thankless endeavor. There was never a kiss for doing the right thing from the girl being picked on; never a handshake from the nerdy kid getting beaten up. My only satisfaction was in knowing I had done the right thing.

As I grew into my body and hit college, my years of being an athlete and deep voice only made my real-world “tanking” more effective. (Being 6’2″ and 220 pounds had its advantages as well.) I learned that bullies one on one were nothing, and simply standing up to them was usually the hardest part. Thankfully, I only got into the occasional quarrel, even when I was a bouncer or head of security for concerts on campus. I specifically remember hanging out at a local bar one night with some friends when a fight broke out right next to us. Without thinking of my own safety, I pulled my friends who were near the fight around me and put myself between the fight and them so they wouldn’t get hurt.

In the MMOGs I play, the same scenarios are pretty familiar – only there, I’m applauded and thanked for it. Guild members look up to me and respect me for my “talent” in tanking, which has earned me a position as a guild leader and a main tank in raids. When I hop online, I’m usually caught in a flurry of tells from friends across the server who need a tank for one quest or another. Even if I did jump online just to do some soloing, how can I turn down someone who has sought me out among all the other tanks on the server? There is nothing better than joining a pick-up group and seeing the cheers, thanks and “woots” from five to 23 other people.

Some people play videogames to escape real life or be something different. I use my MMOG tanks as a larger-than-life, sword-wielding, shield-smashing, ass-stomping version of my real-life self. In the games I play, 23 people count on me to protect them. It feels good to be needed.

Jeff Palumbo is currently employed by The Escapist for his skills in brand management, a passion for gaming and the ability to make flaming hot apple pie shots.

Stolen Pixels #19: Assassin’s Greed

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