Spending time on computer games

World of Warcraft has proven to be the most popular of the many different Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPG) played by millions of people all over the world. These players play together or against one another in huge multiplayer worlds – each being able to contain several thousand players at a time.

These games differ from other computer games in that they are designed to contain a social element which ensures that people not only invest time in playing but also in building a network of other people whom they can share the playing with. Its praises have been sung by many, noting how the game is redefining how people play games and interact online.

To accomodate this social level in the game, the game mechanics are designed in such a way that the game never ends. You can’t win. Sure, you can reach level 60 – the highest level attainable, but then there will be new “epic” equipment and the challenges that yield this equipment are so insidiously difficult that you will need to work together with other players in groups of up to 40 people in order to succeed. And then you will only have a slight chance of actually getting the item that you hoped to acquire.

I haven’t played World of Warcraft for more than a few hours to get an idea of the basic game mechanics, so I haven’t experienced the extended social interaction to any degree, but Jakob, a friend from the hall of residence where I live has showed me how he plays World of Warcraft at level 60, and his interaction with the other players – both through on-line chat and live voice TeamSpeak. And it really is developed from a simple game into something that is a distinct social commitment like meeting your friends to play golf or football. For instance, my friend’s guild meets every Wednesday and Sunday to go raiding for raiding for treasures.

Coordinating these Raids can be very time consuming indeed:

Let’s say you want the “epic” items from the Alterac Valley battleground. This is a PVP arena that up to 40 people can participate in. On my server, the wait to get in is usually about an hour and a half, assuming there are enough people to start the battle. In order to buy these items, your reputation with the denizens of Alterac Valley must be Exalted. To get from Neutral reputation to Exalted requires 42,000 reputation. You earn maybe an average of 1000 reputation if you play a full battle, less if your side loses. That means you have to play at least 42 battles, which run from one to four hours each. Let’s say the average is two hours, which is optimistic. In essence, getting the reputation you need requires at least 146 hours spent in Alterac Valley, much of it just waiting to get in.

You can only participate in these battles with any chance of surviving if you’ve reached level 50 or more, which means another big chunk of time invested in the game in order to participate. Another blogger illustrates just how much time it takes to reach such a level:

There’s a command in World of Warcraft that tells you exactly how long you’ve played with your active character and how long you’ve been playing at your current level. […] I’ve had World of Warcraft for almost exactly six months now […]

So I typed in /played over the weekend and I got back the figure of fifteen days and four hours for my main character – another nine hours for my second. Fifteen days solidly. That’s three hundred and seventy three hours of immersion in Nordrassil when I could have been doing something else, something more useful.

Let me give you some context there. Imagine playing WoW was my second job, which is how it has felt at times. Thinking in terms of eight hour days and five day work weeks, I’ve played the game for roughly two and a half months. And that’s on top of the day job. […] More alarming still is that even though I’ve played it for that length of time, I’m still only level 51.

Investing such an amount of time in the game will give you even more time to interact and talk with the other players, creating further social obligation to the other players and to the character that you have created for yourself in the game. Yet as at least one observer has noted, most players do not actually spend this time socializing directly with other players, but it is more the comforting feeling of not being the only playing the game, a sense of “being alone together.”

Instead, most of the social interaction takes place among the highest-level players where social interaction is necessary in order to play the game successfully, and among those players who know each other already, some of whom even begin to substitute actual physical time together for time together in the World of Warcraft , as one self-proclaimed gaming geek humourously describes how he and his wife spent their anniversary weekend at a fancy five star hotel in downtown Seattle:

“We made sure to find a place with wireless internet and we both took our laptops so we could play WOW all weekend.
[…]

… Kara turned to me and said ??We??ll have this hotel room all to ourselves with no baby, you know what we should do??

My mind exploded into possibilities. We only had a day before we left for the hotel, where was I going to get an ostrich?

??We should do our first Molten Core run.? She says.

The words were like music in my ears.

??That??s hot.? I told her. Then I leaned in and whispered, ??We should get fire resist enchants.?

So Saturday night we ordered a pizza to the hotel room and spent five hours in Molten Core. Each of us came away with an epic which was super cool. I know the first year anniversary is paper and I think the fourth is linen, I guess the sixth is Arcanist.”

So it seems that it is the fascination and challenge of the game that is the initial draw for new players. That is how most computer games engage their players. But unlike other games, this one has the community around playing the game built directly into the game itself, and as the game progresses the community becomes the goal of the game in lack of any other lasting goal. But even with the social aspect at the centre of the game, it is still limited means of expression that requires huge amounts of time from the player. One one-time long-time player commenting on Slashdot critically put it this way:

Yes, WoW does foster a huge sense of community, Yes, it does form relationships. Indeed, I know of THREE couples who met, engaged, and married during the course of playing together. (this taken from my ingame relations with… say 200 people on a semi-regular basis) However… Every person I know of who quit seems grateful that they did so, Acting as if they finally kicked some long drug habit, or Finally escaped from some prison. Mind you, I come from the raid game, but there are those who would say that is the entirety of WoW. Take a second and ask yourself why would they be grateful they have quit? geh. the Game is addictive, in the same sense that having a weekly game of pool is addictive.

And addiction is a recurring theme in a number of the blog entries I found when examining how people use World of Warcraft, but I mostly I was struck at the number of comments each of these posts had attracted, agreeing and supporting them in “kicking the habit”.

“So, sure” the helpful mediator would interject, “the game is a tremendous timesink, but so are all computer games, aren’t they? But the game is also a social enabler, surely it’s not all bad?”

Of course not. I have played a lot of computer games in my time, and learned a lot through them. I will readily agree that a good part of my English skills and understanding of American popular culture can be attributed to playing adventure games such as Day of the Tentacle, while my interest in world history to some degree was established by playing Civilization, and my interest in fantasy literature and multi-ended stories were fed by playing role-playing games such as Baldur’s Gate. Indeed, you might conceivably argue that if it hadn’t been for computer games, I might never have found any interest in computers to begin with.

I might even dare agree that the central aspect of computer games is fun as Raph Koster defined it: “learning in a safe-environment.” And I believe that there is a huge pedagogical potential in computer games from that perspective, building fun and accessible learning curves to many different subjects.

But to me it seems that World of Warcraft requires way too much time compared to how much you’ll learn from it. I suppose that at its highest level of playing the game, you’ll be able to command and direct 39 people in a real-time battle, but most players will only learn that the way to get ahead is to put in much more time that you can afford to develop your character.

There is a word for this kind of character development. It’s called grinding. The point is that it is not fun, it is not a learning experience at all, but just work to get to the next level and the in-game abilities and possibilities this will allow for. It is no longer the process itself but its goal that will yield the fun.

And that is the most common complaint I’ve found from those quitting the game: “Think what I could have done with all of that time I spent playing World of Warcraft” – not all of it is productive time, of course. Sometimes people will play games as relaxation or a bit of escapism from a dreary work day, and that’s fine.

But when these players stop after months and months of intense playing, many of them find that they have nothing at all to show for it and wondering at what they could have spent their time on instead.

An interesting aside is that some Free Software hackers actually call F/OSS hacking their own kind of MMORPG, and many of the same traits are present: Online sociality, common goals, fun and learning. One hacker even wrote an applet for GNOME so that he could see his GNOME Bugzilla level directly from the desktop panel:

Level applet

In this way F/OSS hacking can even replicate the “level-grinding” through triaging bugs. But this sort of grinding seems much more acceptable, as it does lead to a applicable real life skill and makes Free Software better for all of mankind. If only MMORPGs did the same…

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