26 November 2006

World of Warcrack... or is it?

Last month this post on Soul Kerfuffle caused a stir in gaming circles, including this thread in Video Games Open over on RPGnet. Around that time, as well as noticing the counterpoint view given by another guest poster and officer in the same guild as the author of the original article on Soul Kerfuffle, I saw that Ian O'Rourke, who I used to game with back in the good old days of Neverwinter Connections (NWC) - and who can almost be single-handedly held responsible for my Gaming (re-)Awakening as a result (roleplaying games (RPGs), not videogames) - and who has been blogging his thoughts and happenings on and in World of Warcraft (WoW) over at Fandomlife.net for a long time, described the fracturing of his guild and a general pre-Burning Crusade (TBC; the forthcoming WoW expansion) malaise/disillusionment around the game.

So a combination of a number of factors arose that led me to commit my own thoughts on WoW to the blogosphere - not so much for others to read but for me to have said them to myself.

Straight up, and before I get started, I'd like to point out that this is just a blog post, it is all opinion, and I'm not about to spend time researching and publishing figures, statistics, citations or such like. This is not a cry for help, it is not an attempt to get noticed, and it is not intentionally a copycat post so much as the wanderings that my mind took in the aftermath of having read other views recently. Sure, some of the same ground might be covered - heck, all of it might be - but the views will be my own, from a different perspective than either of those linked above. This might make it sound self-important and put people off reading, but in the end: this is for me.

The title used here is deliberately antagonistic. Using the "crack" suffix to replace part of the name of a Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) (roleplaying-)game name has been commonplace since the early days of Everquest, usually by opponents of the games - whether the individual title, MMOs in general, or all videogames as a matter of principle. It is not hard to understand why it is used either. Stories of people putting far too much time into these games are hardly rare. However the news headline-grabbing horror stories of people who've died as a result of playing too long in one go or killing other people in the Real World (In Real Life; IRL) over something that happened in the game may be hugely "popular" in terms of media coverage but they're so few and far between compared to the relatively common word of mouth (or first-hand experience) of people who function just fine but have "no life" outside the game. It is this latter phenomenon and the (exaggerated but not entirely unwarranted) parallels to drug use - the addictive nature and potentially damaging effects of overdoing things - that sees "crack" added as a term to apply to some games. In this screed I am hoping to get down, and thus clarify, my own thoughts on the addictive nature of online gaming, and World of Warcraft (WoW) in particular, as well as possibly splurging my thoughts and feelings on the game at the present time.

First, some background. WoW was my first MMO, but not the first game I've played (extensively) online nor my first exposure to a potentially "addictive" online environment. I bought WoW in May 2005, when things weren't going particularly well for me personally, or with respect to my work (I was nearing the end of the lab work for my PhD at that point). I played a lot more than most people would have time for between then and February 2006, when I first walked away from the game. I took a 5-month break, re-subscribing in July when my thesis was nearly complete and awaiting submission. I am not a raider, nor a guild officer, but I am the type of person that tends to get very involved in friendly online communities - possibly a little too readily! I would always describe the way I played the game as "casual" even if the amount of time I played the game was not. That is to say I put as much time into it as one might expect from a hardcore raider but got a completely different experience out the other side. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. To really explore what I'm hoping to get at in this piece I have to go further back - another 3 years in fact - to the coming of the first game that saw me get involved in an online community: Neverwinter Nights.

I first got into RPGs way back, when I was a kid (maybe 8 years old?) and saw a load of to-be-discarded Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 1st edition books on a table in the hall at my piano teacher's house. I'm not entirely sure how I ended up with them, but I did... then got the 2nd edition books for Christmas (or a birthday, I don't recall) soon after. What kicked off then was a love of DnD which lasted a few years until I couldn't find people to play with anymore. At that point gaming as a hobby died for me, but computer games were all the rage and as most people are aware there is a long and - not always but often - glorious tradition of computer RPG (CRPG) titles - which largely do no more than lip service to the term RPG, but that is, perhaps, for another post. I am not really sure of the chronology, but I got into a lot of the old DnD CRPGs - the first I remember owning was the original Eye of the Beholder, and then shortly thereafter the two Dragonlance-set Gold Box titles - Champions of Krynn and it's sequel, Death Knights of Krynn. These titles kicked off an interest in CRPGs and the CRPG medium was my only tenuous connection to roleplaying games in any way shape or form for the next 10 years or so.

Fast-forward several years to the Baldur's Gate series (and in the meantime the growth of the internet as both a source of information and a medium in which to play games with other people - yes, Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) an so forth had been around a long while but it's beyond my range of experiences so I shall not be commenting on them. (I did experiment with the very popular Discworld MUD for a while whilst at Bristol University as an undergraduate but never really got into it and stopped very soon thereafter). CRPGs were still my only contact with RPGs when this hit series of games hit the shelves. A couple of hugely successful titles later all the talk was about this nebulous Neverwinter Nights (NWN), a forthcoming game which would apparently allow people to use their characters from Baldur's Gate II in new and better things. Well, NWN didn't quite turn out like that, but as the release date got closer and the information more complete, what was appearing instead piqued my interest greatly - more so than any other game before or since.

I was just really looking forward to, well, essentially to doing what Everquest and other MMOs already allowed - only in a fantasy setting that I had familiarity with and in a medium where the end user was creating the content - thus in theory preventing repetition, all with the added bonus of a rule set I had a passing familiarity with. I don't know why, when traditional MMOs had never appealed to me, that NWN did - perhaps it was simply the lack of pay-to-play after initial purchase or the fact it was going to have a games master's (GM) client. But for whatever reason, I bought it before I even had a machine that could run it, and played through the single player game on my mother's computer (I was living back at home in Oxford at the time, commuting to London for a Masters, and waiting to start my PhD in Bath come October - at which point I was buying a new PC to see me through the work; this machine on which I write this now some 4 years down the line). The single player game kept me entertained on a basic level, but I was really just waiting for my move, my broadband connection, and the chance to explore online.

I was a latecomer to internet gaming at 22, and some years after the advent of MMOs or networking first-person shooters over the web. It took me all of a month to get absolutely fed up with it. Sure, running around someone's pet persistent world was fun at first, but it did not last. I met a couple of half-decent people, but formed no ties, and after a month the novelty had worn off. I would have been looking for another game to play but for Neverwinter Connections (NWC). BioWare, at the time, had a weekly community spotlight for the online NWN community, and one week in November 2002 it interviewed people using a "matching" service: Neverwinter Connections.

Now, you may be wondering why I'm talking about a non-MMO matching service here, on a post that purports to be about the addictive nature - or otherwise - of MMOs (and to be honest, I'd be wondering too, if this whole project hadn't turned into an opportunity for more than that). But to not digress into the semantics of what I'm now doing, I'll plough on and describe my first experience with a genuine online community - for that is what NWC was back then.

To put it simply, what NWC did (and still does, just with much less traffic) was to provide a scheduling service where people could post up a game session to be run in NWN. This means that people could get together to run through a module, facilitating a style of play online that began to emulate what tabletop RPG groups have done for years. Even better, since NWN sported a toolset and GM client for building and running one's own modules - bringing it even closer to emulating the formula that typifies most tabletop gaming. This set up, combined with an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) server that facilitated spur-of-the-moment pick-up games and a real community spirit to provide a powerful, drawing package in which roleplaying was not just accepted, but actively encouraged. It was here, then, that my interest in roleplaying grew again and, in turn, breathed new life into playing NWN online.

This package offered me consistent gaming of a very high quality that just running around on public servers did not permit. It allowed me to meet and get to know people before and as I played with them, and allowed me to have a social hobby in time where I would have been doing things on my tod. All of this proved a very strong draw, and as I integrated into the community - which was as a whole incredibly mature and friendly - it was soon not uncommon for me to be logged in to the chat server all the time when I was at home (though I would not always be at the keyboard). I also found myself playing a lot; not a lot by the standards of hardcore WoW raiders, but a lot by any other standard. At one point I was partaking in 5 scheduled games each week, every week - each session of 3hrs or more. Some I was playing in, some I was GMing. This was an incredible mental strain - both playing and running games can be mentally taxing when one is wholly in character and the plots and events are engaging - and the games were engaging, often on many levels, from the challenge of beating tough encounters to highly intricate emotionally driven character plots relevant to the individual characters in the game (where the characters were all a lot more than a bundle of numbers and statistics, and their players brought tangible "life" and personality to them).

But as taxing as it was, it was also incredibly rewarding in many different ways. The fun quotient from partaking in the games was generally high, the social interactions netted me a couple of really good friends and one disastrous personal relationship (which I will not discuss here in any more detail than providing the timeline as it relates to other points presented). I learnt the (real) basics of scripting and met Ian O'Rourke, with whom I started talking about, delving into, and beginning to discover my motivations for gaming - allowing me to tweak the games I was in to provide me with even more enjoyment. It was also as a result of this interaction with Ian that I ended up registering over at RPGnet and, ultimately, getting back into tabletop roleplaying games as a hobby.

Thankfully, I broke the excessive gaming habit early - I knew people then (and now) who had it worse than me. I was far from the only one up all hours of the night because we were based in Europe and the majority of the community was 5-8 hours behind us in the USA, but I found that after a short while the sheer number of games I was playing made it hard to maintain distinct characters in the different games, left me without enough time to prepare adequately for the games I was GMing and, most importantly, generally sucked the fun from all the games I was involved with after a while. So I cut down, and it was easy enough to do. One group fell apart due to player turnover, another game was at the godforsaken time of midnight to 3am on a Saturday morning, and I felt no guilt at dropping it from my schedule. Suddenly I was left with 3 games - one I (at that time) more-or-less ran myself, one I co-GMed and which was low intensity for me, and one I played in with the two closest friends I made over my time there. All three were scheduled at easily accessible and sociable times and were spread across the week to avoid overkill. Some of the time freed up went into the preparation and design of the game I was GMing (and which ran on and off for 2 1/2 years; an incomplete summary of the plots and so forth can be found here). Most, however, got channelled into the more insidious "addiction" - the chat server.

Now, part of this was the fact that by now I'd met the individual with whom the relationship began to propagate, and while that was building there was naturally a period of excessive time spent just chatting with each other. But this disguised other issues that were relevant to my burgeoning reliance on the 'net. I cannot recall what other sites I pissed away my time at whilst chatting at this stage, but my participation over at RPGnet didn't begin until September 2003; I may have been running browser games or some other windowed entertainment in the background whilst chatting - I must have been doing something as text conversations could easily run on (slowly) for hours. What the fledgling relationship and the associated activities were covering up was that I was fleeing into cyberspace for other reasons, too. By this time (spring/early summer 2003) I was getting more and more disillusioned and fed up with the problems I was experiencing with my PhD. I did not know many people living in Bath, and did not find it a pleasant city to live in. I did not get on brilliantly with many of my fellow postgrads, finding a general lack of shared interests. It didn't help that my "lab group" was not one - it was just me, in a basement, out of all natural light for most of the three years. Put simply: I had issues. I knew I had issues, but not the extent of their effect on me (that would take another 18-24 months to play out). The relationship "justified," in some small way, how I was spending my time. Truth be told had I not had that to lean on then, I'd have probably run into other 'net habits, or found some other (chemical?) hole to crawl into to flee the issues in my life - but these things are easier to see with hindsight.

Back to the chronology, and my personal revelations on what I wanted and enjoyed in gaming came about over the summer of 2003 - and lead directly to my registering over at RPGnet - initially with the hope of re-engaging with the hobby, talking about the hobby, and possibly finding a way back into tabletop gaming. This time also resulted in the culmination of my participation in the community at NWC.

In October 2003 the NWC community got together and organised a week long bonanza of games, web chats and the like - a mini online gaming convention, NWCon. Positioned in the run up to the release of the second NWN expansion pack, Hordes of the Underdark, the event was met with warmth and encouragement from BioWare and we scored the first announcements of some features that would be added in the expansion. I say "we" because although I hadn't originally signed up to take a role in organising any part of NWCon, I ended up being responsible for the IRC chat panels. I was the chair for the majority of the NWCon chats, I liaised with panellists (respected community members - GMs, module builders, custom content designers and so forth) and in general the chats we held over the week were smooth - even the BioWare chat.

The crowning moment of the week, without a doubt, this web chat with the developers drew a massive crowd, and despite it being held at an abysmal time of night - 8pm EST was 1am for me! - there was no way I was handing over the chair reins to anyone else for this one. It was a good little chat - and is still archived in the Neverwinter Vault at ign.com, along with many other NWCon web chats; re-reading some of the old logs I realise that I was still involved in April 04 for NWCon II: I'd forgotten that! - but the first NWCon really signalled the beginning of the end of my involvement in the NWC community, though not with NWN.

By the end of NWCon I knew what I wanted from my gaming, and was getting it; it meant that I was highly dependent on a certain type of gamer - those whose interests meshed with mine. It was also becoming a lot of work to keep up building and planning for the game. Unlike tabletop RPGs, I couldn't walk into a session with a few ideas and then wing it. Given the medium all the areas and potential Non-Player Characters (NPCs), enemies etc. all needed to be planned and inputted to the module in advance of the game session, and some of the work wasn't quick! All of this meant that my time actively participating in the community of NWC dwindled. The site became a convenient hosting station for forums specific to the game and messaging/scheduling with the other people involved, as well as an avenue to find new players as and when it became an issue, but no more than that. I was still on the chat server, although I'd almost weaned myself off that by this point as the people I was chiefly there to interact with drifted away or towards other instant messenger systems. Plus there had been a split in the community over the merger of the chat server with the NWVault chat server and some of us who felt it devalued the purpose of NWC left when it was clear it would go through anyhow, so this old dependence quickly died except for focussed use as a tool to co-ordinate before and after my game sessions - i.e. once a week - the game I ran was the only one of the three I had kept involved with still running by this time.

It might look that by this point that my 'net habits were clearing up, alas the truth is that by now I was mainly using message boards as a crutch to get me through boring or slow work days, and as a diversion in the evenings whilst having IM windows (always with the same people, though chiefly one person, still - the relationship did not finally break down for another year or so) open and buzzing. The main target for this work/life-avoidance behaviour was now the off-topic forum at RPGnet: Tangency. Note - the landscape of Tangency now is very different to what it was then and I'm not about to further broaden the scope of this essay by delving into that too far. Suffice to say that the entity known as "The Britpack" on the RPGnet forums was then a lot more defined by individuals than the nation they posted from and that the concept - the term originated to describe 4 long-time posters by one of said same - was generally applied to the collective members who posted during UK office hours. Without delving further into what, or who, the Britpack were it is safe to say that it represented a subgroup on a high-traffic, worldwide, forum - or as high traffic as one can be on a site devoted in its main part to a niche hobby! - and a friendly, accessible one at that, with a typically British brand of humour and people who had interesting views on things. I became embroiled in the boards as a result; I think it's fair to say that without the individuals and groups that made up the Britpack I would not have stuck around on RPGnet. Why, when this subgroup of people was found on the off-topic forum, not the RPG discussion boards? Simple, it was because at that point, having only just rekindled my interests in tabletop roleplaying, and not having had exposure to a multitude of different gaming systems I found the majority of the on-topic discussions at RPGnet went right over my head. I am sure some on the boards there would say that they still do - but that is a tale for another day.

Needless to say, else it wouldn't fit into the context of this piece, I ended up pissing away far too much time by simply posting or reading things on Tangency. At this point I knew it was bad; it wasn't so much affecting my work (I still got done everything I needed to do, was punctual and so forth) but it was accounting for far too much of the time I spent there. That said, shut yourself in a basement for 3 years with no natural light, work that doesn't fill the days and a 'net connection, and see how much of the working day you spend online reaching out of the situation! Yes, I'm somewhat overstating the poor conditions I experienced whilst at Bath University, but it's not entirely inaccurate: in wintertime I did not see the sun on working days - I was in work before it was light and out again after it was dark.

This situation probably lasted for anything up to the next year (between April-ish 2004 and early 2005). That is to say - work sucking, once- or twice-weekly gaming online and a tabletop game every Monday night, and pissing away the hours of my life as a forum rat. I had an opinion on everything, had to read every thread and posted far too much. Looking back I do not know how I did it. I look through the topic list these days and it just screams boredom and a complete waste of time; I'm just not the slightest bit interested in the majority of threads. How much of that is down to the people that made the site interesting not being about now, or down to the fact I have other interesting things to do now I don't need to waste time on RPGnet, or whatever else, I couldn't say. My post count is still massive (though since dwarfed by others) and my posts-per-day is a misleading ~ 13.5, but the truth is while I'm still a regular visitor to RPGnet I contribute to any of the forums a lot less there now.

Along the way - in October/November 2004 the relationship that had sprung from NWC collapsed under the weight of ever piling issues. By now, the other party was also an RPGnet poster and Tangency regular, and when things went very far south in the aftermath of the break-up the RPGnet boards were probably not a very pleasant place for either of us to be for a while. I snapped and handled the situation very badly (in short, I don't know how I did not get banned). This is where my grasp on the exact chronology really fades again - specifically what happened between the breakdown of the relationship in November '04 and my self-imposed exile from Tangency in May '05. Basically at some point I stepped away from Tangency altogether (and from the whole of RPGnet for a while, I think - I really can't recall) to avoid the other party. Other than this happening I can't recall a single damn thing on my 'net usage between the events that led to me walking away and the moment I made the decision to purchase and start playing WoW - which my account management page suggests happened on May the 6th, 2005, rather than June/July where I would have put it from memory.

It was April/May 2005 when I decided to step away from Tangency. That still leaves 5 months of blank space, but with a fair assumption that too much time was still being ploughed into RPGnet forums, despite it being a somewhat uncomfortable place for me to be - insofar as a web community can be uncomfortable, at least.

So, then came WoW.

I can remember very clearly the moment I decided to purchase World of Warcraft. It was a warm-ish late spring/early summer day. I had had only a modicum of lab work to do that day and skipped off campus early, feeling utterly wretched - emotionally, not with illness. In a fit of pique, I forwent taking the bus down from the University (Bath University is on a sizable hill looking over the town) and decided to walk home - a 45 minute stroll at a good pace. The day was nice and the act of walking, I surmised, might help take my mind of things. Predictably, it did not. I stopped, about halfway down the hill, at a bench looking over some fields (Bath is pretty like that, as much as I hated living there). I sat there for a while - I couldn't say how long - mentally debating with myself. I reasoned that I needed something to throw myself into utterly, some form of complete escapism that I could use when not working to stop my mind drifting to all the horrid places it had been residing for the past few months. That said, the first candidate I put up for consideration, then laughed off, as a sick joke by my own mind, was work. In an ideal world, work would have worked as something to lose myself in - in that it would have allowed me to be productive whilst learning to forget the many issues that dogged me. Unfortunately one of the primary things I was having issues with was work. I had grown to detest every second of every day spent at Bath Uni and Bath itself - the place, the people, my work... all of it just made me sick, so diving into my work to put aside or escape reality was not an option.

Consciously or not, I'd been using the 'net to avoid issues for a good couple of years by this point and I'd been playing videogames since I was a kid. Combining the two seemed like a no-brainer. Besides, I'd read a fair bit about WoW, knew a number of people who played and couldn't stop talking it up - including many of those I played NWN with on Sundays. I didn't think at this time that I'd actually play the game beyond the "free" month that comes with purchase - partly because I disagreed with pay-to-play and partly because I tended to get a very limited use out of any given game purchase; a few get played to death for years, but most fall off my radar inside a month. And I had a free month to play with. My mind made up, I stopped off at the store on my way home, made the purchase and installed. I had bought the game - fully aware of the "-crack" epithet - explicitly as something to lose myself in, for the short term at least.

Given I wasn't convinced that I would like the game, or be playing it long term, and given that I am not the most "out-reaching" of individuals I rolled my first character as a Night Elf Hunter - a very solo-friendly class, and rolled on an RP server since I was approaching it from the point of view of needing to roleplay the character to have any chance of getting into the game. I dived in, and was struck immediately by the visuals, which generally are very well done, albeit more cartoon-y than my tastes. I pottered around a bit, gained a few levels and figured out how the interface worked. But there was no interaction with others, by and large. Fine, said I. Not a problem - there was plenty to do on my own and I was able to enjoy the game for what it was, with or without any interaction with other people.

That state didn't last too long, and I quickly formed the opinion that it would take something special for me to keep playing beyond the first month. I thought I had lucked out when I agreed to help some random other get his guild established (which requires a certain number of signatures from different players), only to find out that it was planned as a heavy RP guild - exactly what I thought I was looking for. Long story short, it was not really, but it took me a long while to figure this out. Things moved too slowly and although I was very involved in the immediate aftermath of the guild's creation, it came to the point where I realised that I would never be able to achieve the things that I thought I wanted to achieve in a static world such as that provided by WoW, and that to even come close would be more work than fun. In the end, the character was played less and less as I found more of a home on the other side of the (realm vs. realm) fence. I had rolled a Horde alternate character (alt) because I found out (or rather, I think I knew before I bought WoW, but wanted to try things my own way first) that some folks I knew from RPGnet had a guild on this same server.

Originally, on rolling the Horde alt, I had intended to play both sides of the divide, stay active in both guilds and see both sets of content, but the pattern of play was soon 75/25 in favour of the Horde, then 90/10, and before long basically all my time was spent playing Horde side, and the Alliance character stagnated. The reason was simple: the guild on the Horde side was full of more mature, more interesting and more fun people to play with. Of secondary note was the fact I found the Hunter a quite boring class to play after a while, and the Druid on which I spent most of my time played was a lot more suited to my interests - both from a roleplaying point of view and, more crucially for the long-term, a gameplay point of view. I suspect this decline in play took a lot longer than it seems looking back on it. After all, I did get my hunter to level 43 before I retired him, and had ground out the money for a mount along the way (making in-game money in WoW is not tough, but it is also not something that automatically happens smoothly for a first character). Regardless, I found myself to be a bit of an altoholic - another drug reference, its meaning in this context to be prone to rolling and playing many alternate characters, as opposed to alcohol in the phonetic link - and because I was having more fun on the Horde side that was where new alts were rolled, thus contributing to the swing in time spent firmly in favour of the Horde.

Now, over the three or four months after I bought WoW I did very little else in my free time bar sleep, eat, and when the matches were on watch or listen to the summer's Test matches (this was the summer England won the Ashes for the first time in 18 years - the title they will lose over the next month or two). Work was winding up, and I was spending less and less time actually in the lab as I came to the end of my experimental work, which just meant more and more time in Azeroth, the World of Warcraft. Now, it's not that I was taking time off to play, just that I was playing in my time off as that time off increased, and in such ways WoW did not begin to impact on my working life - no more than the slump I had fallen into emotionally and motivationally months previously had - and I was still keeping up with my other commitments, such as the still-running NWN game. By mid August I was done with my lab work, and was moving away from Bath, back to Oxford to write up.

It's worth noting that I had never, ever, intended on moving back into my parent's house to write up, but there was no way in hell that I was going to stay in Bath a day longer than I had to, as the place held nothing but bad memories and associations for me, not to mention social isolation. I had hoped to flat-hunt and find a room to rent either back in Oxford or elsewhere for the writing up period, but with the state of mind I had been in it became a task I just failed to force myself through, and I ended up coming "home." It could be argued that I couldn't force myself to search because I was playing WoW instead, but I doubt it. I suspect the actual reasons are tied into the reasons I bought WoW - the emotional turmoil and disillusionment with everything in, or rather not in, my life - rather than being a consequence of having bought the game. But then, you'll have to take my word for that.

What happened after I moved home though makes the above look positively normal and no trouble whatsoever as now, freed from all bonds of work short of self motivation to get on and make a start on writing up the PhD, the wheels fell off completely. Understandably, given the torrid time I'd been through and the landmark that was reaching the end of lab work, I'd long resolved that I would have the rest of August off as a holiday, then look to get myself knuckling down on the writing come September.

The former happened, but the latter did not.

My routine break ended up lasting the best part of 5 months, as I completely fell out of a working habit, found no motivation and drifted into a pattern of late nights, late-ish mornings and pissing away day after day buggering about in World of Warcraft. I became the guy who was playing enough for two, and always available when people needed someone for an instance run. I was the one to ditch my main character - or at least put him on the back burner - to powerlevel a priest because the guild (and fledgling guild alliance) lacked them. I even enjoyed doing some of this. Certainly at first levelling the priest was good fun; it was the first time doing some of the same quests again with a real knowledge of how the game worked, how to make money etc., and presented enjoyable challenges since I knew the quests already I was able to consistently do things I would have failed at had I tried them at that level for the first time.

But it began to grate, and of course I was getting nowhere writing up my PhD. Aside from all the grief I was giving myself, I thusly had everyone I knew IRL - friends and family - on my back for not having started. All of which did nothing for my confidence, state of mind or motivation to start work. Things built up in a vicious circle: the more I didn't work, the more I got down on myself for not working and the more I fled having to work by immersing myself in WoW. It hadn't helped that I had not found (and if I am honest, I had not even really looked; putting one ad up does not really cut it) a tabletop group since moving back to Oxford, and that following the enforced break as I moved house and got the network here established a number of people from my NWN game drifted out of contact so that went down the pan too, at a time when I was genuinely upbeat about how it was looking, had grand plans and a good group of people together. This meant a complete and utter dearth of gaming in the sense of RPGs - because for all of the fact MMOs may have "RP servers" there is absolutely no way I can, with a straight face, call them RPGs in any way that meaningfully relates to RPGs as tabletop games or even to NWN when played with GMs.

But MMOs are more than games; they are a social activity, their very own meeting place, and not hard to look at. They are, in effect, an IRC server with built-in pastimes - and this is, I think, what WoW came to be for me at the back end of 2005. It fulfilled the role that 2 1/2 years earlier the NWC chat server had done, only without me feeling the need to even semi-actively do other things since the "game" part of it fulfilled that side, especially when one could change the nature of the game by simply playing a different character for a while (which is exactly what I did). What I did not do was get involved in the raiding game come level 60. With the amount of time I was throwing into the game it would have been easy enough for me to do so from that point of view, but the ethos of the raid game didn't appeal. Insofar as I was enjoying the game (rather than the social side) I enjoyed feeling a genuine part of things, that my contribution made a difference, and the freedom to do what I chose to do with my time. The one 40-man raid I went on (as a favour to an ex-guildmate and as a first chance to see content that was new to me) I wished all the way through that I had not agreed to go. I just did not enjoy it. Nor did (or indeed, does) the idea of farming for materials, gold, potions or what have you in order to acquire "buffs" necessary on the next raid sit well with me. The idea of having to spend one's play time doing certain things in order to spend more play time doing something else just does not mesh with my approach to games in general.

It is for that reason that I would still call myself a "casual" player, even when I was playing so much. For me the terms "casual gamer" and "hardcore gamer" say nothing about the amount of time put in but everything about how that time is spent. I would pootle about being inefficient, chopping and changing between characters on a whim just because I suddenly fancied doing something different.

Anyhow, I was playing too much and I knew it. I was also getting to the point of not enjoying more and more of the time spent. However it took something else to kick me from the stupor and realise this, as at the time I was still too oblivious, stuck in a mental rut that prevented me making the link myself. The jolt came with the New Year, when I opened my inbox one morning to see mail from my PhD supervisor about a planned meeting in mid-January at which I would have to see my industrial sponsor. Short version is they wanted to see how I had been getting on, which of course I had not been doing. But the date was set and I needed to have something ready to show them. So, just like that, work started and the time ploughed fruitlessly into WoW decreased, but didn't immediately cease. I was still playing most evenings, just not as I was during the days anymore. Though I was playing, I was really not enjoying it and this was beginning to grate on me. WoW had become a "default activity" - unless I was actively doing something else I would be playing WoW, regardless of how much fun I was or wasn't having, and that had to stop.

Additionally the in-game (or game-related) pressures seemed to be rising. A couple of discussions boiled over on the forums, the odd heated exchange here and there. Nothing particularly major but there were enough small niggles building up that something twigged. The interactions with others playing were mattering too much. This is not to say that it is more desirable, sensible, healthy or so on to play MMOs with no regard for others - that is just being a jerk and common courtesies should apply to all social interactions, regardless of where they are held. (Inevitably we all fall foul of this at some time or other in our lives but that simple truth does not make the principle redundant). It was to say that others' opinions on factors related to the game meant too much to me at that time and those points I disagreed with were causing me to get far too mentally agitated. I snapped on a particular forum thread - something vaguely related to raiding, though I cannot remember the exact context and have no desire to dig it up because, in the end, it is not important. I snapped and realised in that moment that I needed to take a step back. So I did. For a week I just didn't log on at all - not to my major characters and not to unknown alts on other servers either.

It was nice! I suddenly had free time; I unwound a little and made some real progress with work on the thesis. Tempers cooled and after a week or so when I logged on again it was because I felt I wanted to, not because I couldn't think of anything else to do. I was touched and somewhat surprised by reactions of others though. Some people expressed worry because I had not been seen. I hadn't forewarned of my absence and I had avoided the guild website while I was steering clear of the game itself. Now, it's certainly true and fair to say that you spend enough time online with people and you can start thinking of them as friends, and that if a friend IRL suddenly dropped off the face of the planet for a week without warning, having been in daily contact for months as a matter of course then one might worry, but as much as I like the people I play with I had not consciously considered them as friends in this sense. Yes, others had stopped playing over the course of my involvement with the game, but largely I'd missed them in a specific context rather than worried about them. Again, this kind of mental attitude fed the idea that my approach to the game was a casual one, despite the time involved and my forum histories suggesting otherwise.

This was mid January now. I'd had my meeting, and developed a strategy for actively and productively getting on with my work. It was hard enough for me to motivate myself to do anything having lost all interest in the work I was doing without any extra distractions. And that is what WoW quickly became - a distraction I could do without. The desire to play that had returned after a week away from the game soon dimmed again and WoW was back to being that default activity within another week or two. My eyes had been opened now though and I was aware that something needed to change. Moreover I actively wanted to reclaim some of my free time and do things with it that I chose to do, rather than ended up doing for lack of anything better in the way WoW was to me now.

I had my work plan to focus on and could see progress being made on that front, and so I just did not need my free time being taken up by something I did not absolutely enjoy. I had taken just a week off the first time, but when I walked away again in February 2006 - again after I let a forum disagreement get to me far too much - I stayed gone for 5 months. This time I did inform my guildmates of my decisions. Not right away - I took another week's break, and then when that was up I simply did not feel like returning to the game, so I didn't. That's when I posted about taking the break. More, I didn't know how long I'd be gone. It was more than a month after I'd last logged in that I actually cancelled the account, so my ability to walk away was not predicated on lack of access, simply the decision not to play. I didn't miss the game, although I did miss the people to varying degrees. Energies were re-directed into work (between February and July I wrote 95% of the thesis), a new NWN game with good friends from NWC days - later replaced by Dogtown (which bears nothing in common with either the RPG of the same name, which I only found about afterwards; likewise the skater wear or any other use of that phrase) - and finding a group to game with IRL. Ironically this last had come about through WoW when I had got talking to one of the other RPGnet types who dabbled in WoW and who had a friend in the Oxford area who gamed.

I think my net usage dipped some in these months, as I was - for once in my life - completely focussed enough on work. I dabbled in offline games and console titles in my downtime, but 'net use was pretty restricted. Not much beyond my compulsive checking of email, news and sport on the BBC website and an increased reading of the gaming-related forums at RPGnet; I did not start reading Tangency again at this point. Regardless, in this time I was productive, if not happy (I can't think of many times in my life when I was genuinely happy for any length of time, but then that's for another day). From the point of view of this piece, these 5 months of productivity are just filler, to be skipped over, so skip we shall to how they ended. July 2006, with thesis almost ready for submission, waiting on bells, whistles and sourcing journal articles from library stacks I found myself with more free time again, and at a bit of a loss what to do with it.

I reasoned first that it was just boredom with my current crop of games and books, so the first thing I tried was finding a couple of budget titles that might hold my interest for a while. Waste of money the turned out to be - shoddy games seem to be the only things that sell cheap these days, rather than older quality titles. Next, reasoning that the lack of interactions with others were what was leaving me cold when dealing with modern games I tried a couple of MMO free trials without being mentally grabbed by them or interacting meaningfully with anyone.

Inevitably, given that nether gameplay nor interface grabbed me on these trials, when I thought about the next, I just shrugged, told myself no, and figured I would dip back into WoW - at least (assuming meltdowns hadn't happened during the time I was away) the game was one I knew I could enjoy and that there was a core of very good people to game with. So, mid July, I reactivated my account and began playing again. Some things had changed from the gameplay side - major class overhauls and the like in my absence - but the people were more-or-less the same and I was welcomed back as if I hadn't been away. Well, nearly. While the community was as friendly as it had been before, it seemed that the majority of people were now playing less for various reasons or were on just as much but with that time prescribed for specific things. This boiled down to a feeling from my perspective that there were few options for Things To Do. In the fortnight immediately following my resubscribing I was fairly certain I'd stop playing again soon, but I bought the line that everyone was selling: "It's the summer, things will pick up again come September" and I decided that I'd stick it out until people were around more again and then make my decisions. In the meantime, I spent a fair bit of time playing various alts (different classes and so on), noticing the general decrease in roleplaying on the server and grinding Player-versus-Player (PvP) faction reputation (and, as a side effect, minor ranks; I'd lost all my honour from being away for 5 months, but as I'd always previously PvP'ed because I enjoyed it, rather than for honour, rank or reward I wasn't bothered by this. Further comment on the PvP system will be forthcoming). I stuck it out, finding little fun things to do here and there and was enjoying the game again by the end of August.

I had submitted my thesis on the 4th of August and my viva voce was not until the 20th of September so I had plenty of spare time that was not spent studying. It was also not spent in sufficient quantities on the future; I really ought to have been more active looking for jobs - both long-term and short-term options - but I did not. I did other things, including WoW, instead, knowingly not doing what I should have. And why? If I'm honest, it is because the viva was too far away yet to worry about, and the future scared the shit out of me (and still does in many ways). I have been on an academic track all my life, always known what I was going to do next. I have come to the end of that track now and I don't have a clue what the future holds; for some, maybe most, that is an exciting prospect but for me it's fucking terrifying. Hold this thought, because it is somewhat relevant to the issue that prompted this piece - whether MMOs are truly addictive.

Anyhow, I was enjoying the game come September and what's more, as people had predicted, things did pick up more in terms of more people being on more often and more group activities going on as a result. September drifted by with me playing too much - almost invariably on every day - but with there being things to do. I studied for and had my viva (thesis defence for readers in areas where it's called that; 3 hours of exhaustion) and received a list of corrections to be made. And this is where I identified a problem once again.

With the viva being held on a Wednesday, I had fully intended to take the rest of that week and the following weekend off then get cracking as efficiently as possible on the following Monday. As I typed this paragraph on Sunday October the 29th 2006, that was almost 5 weeks ago, the viva itself almost 6 weeks past. And I think you can guess the next sentence: the corrections weren't complete. They had been started, not left untouched, but progress was coming much, much slower than I had hoped. (OK, the week of 23-29 October was not helped by the fact the writing bug bit me with respect to this piece but the 4 weeks previously were unaffected by this.) I'd set myself the deadline of the end of October to have the corrections done and the final thesis submitted for approval (no second viva, regardless - thank goodness!), but I did not make this target, unfortunately. (I resubmitted on the 20th of November 2006).

Why do I mention this? Because one constant in those 4 weeks of inactivity was playing WoW; not just playing it though, but playing it despite a growing disillusionment. Once more I was logging in as a default free time activity only to find myself wondering why, or what the hell I intended to do. This time there has been no emotional over-investment, no WoW-related argument or heated forum discussion (there was one misunderstanding that was quickly cleared up), just a pervading feeling of "meh" towards most, if not all, of the game. Things are worse than that though, as a couple of the posts I've made to this blog in the meantime suggest, as this feeling of "meh" was spreading to every activity I can think of.

Regardless of this spread - and chronologically it has followed the initial WoW-disillusionment - I was already feeling a bit played out on WoW by the week of 16-22 October. Over at Fandomlife.net Ian - who's blog I have been reading ever since we gamed together in NWN - had posted about the splitting up of his WoW guild (and how it happened) the fallout it caused and how it has generated a feeling of malaise in and towards the game (specifically with reference to the forthcoming expansion) before someone posted this link in Other Games Open on RPGnet and I was thusly made aware of the Soul Kerfuffle blog entry.

My initial reaction to the situation presented there was interest and shock, and then to write a short piece on how I was getting a bit fed up with WoW but I was too apathetic towards anything to do that on the evening. A weekend doing other things due to having visitors followed and come the Monday I'd come to the conclusion that writing something would be a Very Good Thing. This is the result. If (and I would guess it is a big if!) anyone is still reading they'll understandably be wondering what the fuck I could possibly have to say that justifies the above as an introduction.

The answer, by any reasonable yardstick, is nothing.

Remember that up top I stated I was writing this for me, not the reader. I have more to say in this piece, and this is perhaps the point at which it becomes more relevant to others as from here on I will broaden into discussing issues rather than presenting my history - but I shall do so with reference to the above, and that is the link and its importance (that, and the fact I felt I had to write stuff, for the sake of my own sanity if nothing else).

Now, a week on from starting work on this screed, I am just about ready to start answering the questions that made me begin this. Before I go on I would like to state three things:

* I still have an active WoW account; I cancelled my subscription on the 21st of November but just missed the renewal date so have access to the servers until December 21 2006.

I have only put more than 20 minutes straight into the game on two occasions since I started writing this piece, a Zul'Gurub raid one Thursday that I committed myself to before I began this text, and an in-character meeting to arrange conducting a friend's in character wedding (it is an RP server, after all).

* The best way to sum up my current feelings towards the game is to link you to a post Ian made a few days ago (as I wrote this section): I Have No Idea Why I'm Playing

So, with that in mind the question is: Are MMOs addictive? No, scratch that. The question is actually: am I, or was I, addicted? Answering quickly and honestly I think not - not to WoW, at least - but there's more to it than that. Much more.

One core reason for my claiming it not to be addiction is down to the ease of walking away from the game and lack of withdrawal symptoms associated with not playing, although looking at it this way is overly simplistic. My perspective is that if one has been playing far too much it is easier to walk away from the game entirely than it is to scale back to an appropriate level. Certainly, when I reactivated my account I did not intend on getting back to the point of logging in every day, but given a lack of other firm structure to my free time (indeed, my entire existence at this stage) it quickly got to that. I am certain that with more structure, even without more willpower self-limitation would be a damn site easier, but that is conjecture, and there are certainly many cases where people who have the structure I lack find themselves playing too much.

And that segues nicely into another reason why I am hesitant to say I was or am addicted to the game, although not one which by itself would mean I was not affected. Aside from delaying me starting work on writing my thesis for 4 months, and making any real progress with the corrections for 3 weeks after the viva, my ploughing time into WoW has not negatively impacted on anything I have had to do. I've not missed any deadlines (despite taking until January '06 to start writing, I was the second postgrad from my department to submit from my yearly cohort), I've not cancelled any social events with the intention of playing WoW instead (though, granted, I did cancel attending one family weekend for another reason - the falling through of an event I was to be attending instead of the gathering - and spent some of the alone time it generated playing), and I may have been terrible at keeping in contact with people during the periods when I've been playing, but I am terrible at keeping in contact with people generally. (A complete aside, I'm really screwed in this department as the majority of my mates are also crap at keeping in contact... or maybe that's just with me... but that's a sob story for another day!).

So, I don't feel I was addicted, and I have not significantly touched the game for near a fortnight now. But the game does still have a hold of sorts; the primary reason that I haven't touched it is that I have no desire to but I cannot deny there is also a subcurrent of me telling myself not to. I have logged in a few times, and logged out almost immediately, not knowing what to do with myself - or why I logged in - once the game loaded.

It is this feeling of uncertainty, of listlessness and of confusion that is a key reason why I have come to the conclusion that WoW is a game I either have to play all the time, or not play at all. Playing here and there appeals in principle, but given my fickleness when actually playing it seems to water down to "eh, I could just do something else." I can see how, when one has limited free time that could be devoted to the game that interest can be sustained whilst playing here and there but when my only limitation is "I don't want to, and I shouldn't play as much as I was doing" scaling down has inevitably become not playing. To achieve anything in the game the time required is more than I become prepared to give, and the fun quotient is lacking and/or very dependent on other people - instance running or team PvP. Given the high quotient of idiots one finds online, this in turn means fun is dependent on guildmates and friends, people whom prior interaction has proven not to be idiots. I personally have a very low idiot tolerance threshold and would simply rather not play than play with people I cannot abide. In this way, Blizzard have made a game that I, and people like me (if there are any), have to either play endlessly without thought or walk away from. This latter option I'm sure they'd rather not offer; surely a formula that would keep me interested whilst scaling back would be of more sense - after all, I pay the same amount per month no matter how much I play, but if I'm not playing at all then I am not paying.

Yet if I was not addicted to WoW, then why was I ploughing so much time into it?

I have already touched on the work and life situations that led me to purchase World of Warcraft, with it intentionally becoming a (short term) measure to flee reality when it was not necessary to deal with it. It ended up being a longer term flight than I had ever anticipated or desired, but whilst it was still ongoing I always had something that I was running from - hell at work, failing to come to terms with personal issues, avoiding writing up or facing an uncertain future. Since I am being honest, that last one is still an issue for me.

WoW was about escapism for me, where what I was fleeing from was more important than what I fled to. Granted, the social nature of the game, and some of the gameplay made for a positive reinforcement of this flight, over and above the initial "fun" of the game. I can say with some degree of certainty that had I not found WoW I would have found something else, quite possibly something more harmful - financially, health-wise or perhaps even legally. My gut feeling is that if I hadn't found solace in WoW, I would have turned more often and in larger volume to alcohol, although not necessarily to dangerous levels - I've tried before to drink myself into the ground through black moods and I just cannot do it. The only way I've ever managed to get myself massively plastered has been by having fun on a night out. I do, however, have a tendency to drink heavily every night if I have alcohol to hand and am not feeling myself (or am feeling myself, depending on how you look at it). Not to the point of an impairment next morning, nor to unconsciousness or incapability (insofar as one can measure oneself in isolation), but to a semi-drunken, morose state. There is a reason I do not tend to keep much alcohol about; beer gets bought and consumed immediately when desired whilst I have a tendency to keep some whisky, whiskey and/or port for the odd nightcap if I'm stressed or in the right mood (particularly coupled to good music and late evening use of the PC - such as when I am typically writing this). I'm fairly sure that had I not thrown myself so completely into WoW that I would have had more nights when I was drinking than when I was not, even if on no given night did I descend to destruction.

I suspect, anecdotally and on gut instinct rather than any evidence-based deduction (what? It's a blog!), that the horror stories of people "addicted" to games to the point where it becomes detrimental to their functional lives are found amongst individuals who have problems they cannot bring themselves to face. The urge to escape something we have no desire to deal with is one which I'm sure most people have faced at some point in their lives. Some people handle stress better than others, some have easier access to escapism than others, some problems are more easily brushed aside than others, and each person's poison is different. I believe, too, that such dismissive thinking over simplifies the issue - too many people who, perhaps, play too much can excuse themselves of having a problem with the game by pointing to a lack of issues they are running from and dismissing people who claim that games are addictive and "evil" don't get the fact that people who are "addicted" to games have other serious problems. But people have erroneously used this "they have other issues" as a blanket statement for other addictions in the past.

What is certain is this: as escape avenues go, MMOs are certainly very accessible and easy to flee into. It is also true to say that they are low risk compared to other substances or mechanisms used for escapism: cheap, lacking in overt health risks - though overuse would tend to be associated with a lifestyle that is far from actively healthy. To paraphrase one poster on RPGnet when this theme was discussed one time "no-one is stealing mobile phones to support their WoW habit," and an MMO is at least a social pastime. The latter though disguises the fact it can be a retreat from society in the context of face-to-face meetings - whether intentional or not. Putting too much time into something like WoW means that one is not out and about meeting people, but it does not mean that they would be out meeting people if they were not playing. (It might be that the internet is the only "visible" social avenue available to them and thus better than nothing; certainly I have felt like that at times in my life). These factors, plus its legality and the ease of access (have a 'net connection and a reasonably decent machine? You're in!) make fleeing into an MMO a very simple thing to do. I would also add that it is easily conceivable that the "MMO addiction" is something that happens by accident after the game was initially bought with a view to playing it in moderation - not true in my case, but surely in many. I've seen many "debates" online, in the press or on the TV and so on where people use hyperbole to link game "addictions" via analogy to hard drugs - hell, I'm guilty of doing that in passing myself with the titling of this post - and just about every single time it is unjustified and poorly thought through.

I'm not about to argue for the analogy, but if people will persist with aligning games with addictive substances then surely one should look at proportion, cost and legality and stick with something legal, socially accepted (to various degrees) and that doesn't generally require riches to keep a habit going - smoking, say. The analogy would still be just as flawed but at least the degree of hyperbole would be less antagonistic and more conducive to encouraging debate rather than immediately throwing up an "us vs. them" barrier.

Ending that aside, and returning to my jumping off point for claiming no addiction myself: the MMO does not engender withdrawal symptoms on non-use. At least, I did not find it to, or think it does. In my case it just made it that much more obvious to me that I had been wasting my time and hiding from (albeit non-urgent) responsibilities. When I fell out of love with the game and realised I was no longer having fun I just walked away and clarity returned instantly. Granted I needed an external kick to be able to see this, and a lack of withdrawal symptoms is not a hard and fast rule for it not being an addiction but still... I find it very hard to accept a point of view that anyone is playing because they "absolutely must play right now!" in a manner of a heroin addict desperate for a fix, or the alcoholic staving off Delirium Tremens - a withdrawal effect that can kill.

At the end of the day people are playing for one reason alone: they want to. They might just want that one piece of gear, or the "prestige" that comes with Rank 14 (the highest PvP rank attainable), the social interaction or because it is fun. Most players probably fall into this bracket somewhere, even many of those who play "too much," but there are certainly some who put in more hours than is good for them (or than is socially acceptable) and neglect aspects of their flesh and blood lives to some degree (or altogether in the worst, very rare, cases). Why do this minority want to play? If there is neglect of real life then I can only fathom it if they are escaping or avoiding something. Missing one meal or staying up all night once because you lost track of time due to involvement in the game is a small matter, but persistent lateness to work because you're logged in until 2am every day is a whole different scope. I will freely admit to struggling to maintain a regular sleep schedule and often succumbing to late nights - even at the point of my lab work in Bath where I was in before 8am every day - but never to the point where I could not make my work commitments because of lack of sleep caused by going to bed too late too often (lack of sleep caused by insomnia is another matter; I suffered that one week recently when I could not sleep for 3 or 4 nights on the trot, got virtually no work done, nor wrote any of this and almost had to cancel my tabletop gaming night for a splitting headache, but I digress).

It is an emotive issue - people who play the game in a normal, healthy manner can get overly defensive when their hobby is criticised as "addictive" and those who cry "addiction" normally have a blatant anti-game agenda and hyperbole to match. Obviously I cannot speak for others but I do feel that on balance the likelihood is that those who are too seriously into MMOs probably have issues - of various severities - that they are hiding from, and playing the game at least in part to avoid tackling those issues. What qualifies as "too seriously" I'll not even attempt to define for others. I am sure there is a relatively objective point that one could use, and say below is alright, normal even, and above which is excessive. I am also sure that more players than would admit it are above that point, but it is not for me to say if others are playing too much: everyone must find that point for themselves.

The rabid "games are not addictive" man-the-barricades!-type response is probably more correct on balance than the equally rabid "MMO makers are hooking our children on game-crack!" but it hides certain truths. Whilst I do not believe in the end that I was addicted to World of Warcraft, or in videogames being truly addictive, I am firmly of the opinion that the designs of the game do encourage that impression and do encourage spending too much time playing. There are also many aspects of this game, and many others - MMOs and otherwise - that have an "addictive" appeal.

Although I may not feel that I was addicted to the game, the design is such that it encourages addictive behaviours - several key ways of progressing within the game require quite ridiculous time commitments - whether it be just endlessly killing the same creatures to gain gold to fund raiding activities, to gain reputation with in game factions for rewards or endlessly fighting in battlegrounds to gain PvP rank. On a more general level, progress breeds satisfaction and reward; being able to see progress happening can definitely re-enforce the will to play and is a common cause of time lost to games - the "one more turn" syndrome predates MMOs by a many a year!

It's been another couple of weeks since I last wrote anything and things have changed again; I have cancelled my account (though it has the best part of a month to run before the subscription lapses). I have one thing left to do in game - a roleplaying engagement where my main character has been asked to oversee the in character wedding of two friends, scheduled to take place on the 3rd of December. I have only logged in once during the last 3-4 weeks, to attend an in character planning meeting with the "couple"; once I have carried out this final duty I shall make announcements - both in and out of character - that I am walking away and will not be around for the foreseeable future.

I simply have not felt the desire to go back to playing at all, and given that I am on dangerous financial ground (having been without income for 17 months since the final stipend cheque for my PhD came through on 1 July 2005) even £9 a month is a lot for something I'm not using! I'm left wondering whether this is in fact the end, or just another temporary sojourn... but that question will be raised and tackled in closing.

Picking up where I left off: what are some of the facets of gameplay that make WoW and other MMOs appear "addictive" and what is the appeal?

I suppose this cannot be answered properly without delving into why the game is fun in the first place, but the fire in my belly that was driving the majority of this piece has gone. So too has any pretence of this being a deep and meaningful opinion piece (and there's an oxymoron if every there was one: meaningful Op/Ed!). Suffice to say that there is an initial challenge to the game content and a sense of achievement and fun coming from rising to, and overcoming, this challenge - coupled with the sense of progress that comes from character advancement and the sense of wonder that first exposure to the new locations can provide (I always got chills wandering around Feralas, for instance, it's a stunningly pretty zone). What’s more is that some of these challenges can only be seen and beaten with teamwork, and that's a different type of good feeling. Working together - especially with people who become "friends" (whether just in the online "these are cool people to play the game with" sense or a meaning of the word more usually associated with RL friends) - is good fun, rewarding and social. The first time beating any given group challenge is more of a payoff than a corresponding solo challenge.

For some this "new challenge" aspect never wears off: those who have the time and mindset to raid regularly get to see all the new content and keep going on to bigger and better things, and simultaneously progressing their character further. For the rest of us this "new challenge" aspect dies on hitting the level cap (60 in WoW) - at that point, without raiding, there is a finite limit to what you can do and how much you can advance. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty to keep this type of player interested for a few months but the sense of "not getting anywhere" will eventually sink in. The problem is, by this time, a lot of the "addictive" patterns are well established. The ways of advancing a character without raiding are few and all involve grinding - repetitive absorption of the same content, over and over. Most people (I suspect) get sucked into doing some of this before either abandoning the game or rolling up alternate characters and going through the levelling process all over again. The game is designed so that it is possible - even easy - to get two characters to the level cap (or most of the way there at least) without repeating content, but this variety dies once the cap is close and/or reached. In essence everyone runs into the same thing eventually - because although play experience does change from class to class, the majority of the solo play functions on the same repetitive level regardless. Group play is more variable, but not that much more so and merely delays the inevitable. It is this repetition, forced (or at least encouraged) by design that gives a treadmill-like feeling to the game. For me, at least, it was only the social side that covered it (and covered it well if the time I ploughed in is anything to go by). It also means large chunks of time required to achieve anything - certainly once at the endgame - and often things that require a lot of time to do themselves also require a lot of time "preparing" for them (farming for potion materials before a raid, for example). These all feed the addiction - the more time required to progress, the more those who want to progress put in, giving an unhealthy image of the gameplay beyond a certain point.

For some areas of the game, the time requirement is more evident than others. Far beyond appearing unhealthy, one aspect of the game - through poor design that is thankfully being done away with come the expansion - actually requires truly unhealthy (rather than socially unacceptable) levels of time commitment: the PvP rank ladder. Because of the way the honour system - from which PvP ranks were derived - worked, on a high population server where lots of people enjoyed and participated in a lot of PvP there were only two ways to reach the highest rank (and thus unlock some rather tasty rewards for those so motivated): either one had to invest truly unhealthy levels of time to the game, doing nothing but PvP in the battlegrounds, or one had to break the End User License Agreement and arrange friends or acquaintances to play your account for you to give all-day coverage without overly stressing any one individual. Yes, there is a degree of hyperbole here, but only a degree. Blizzard have, by way of abolishing the honour system in its current incarnation with the expansion, acknowledged there was a real problem and done something to fix it, so hats off to them for that.

Unfortunately it is these repetitive, time-consuming, activities - or raiding, which carries its own huge time requirements and commitments - that are required to "advance" in the end. At this point, sooner or later, the game begins to feel like work and disenchantment sets in. This takes a lot longer for some than others; I've been there twice now. For others, the pattern repeats without the feeling of listlessness or disinterest - I can only assume these emotions or opinions do not arise, as I cannot see why anyone would play on and on through them unless actively hiding from something; I only woke up to them when I stood up to face the work I was avoiding.

In the interest of balance I would just like to point out a couple of more positive things about MMOs: as a social pastime without the propensity to directly hurt those who aren't involved MMOs are a good thing. As an alternative to more harmful ways of receding from reality MMOs are a good thing in comparison. I challenge anyone who complains about MMOs being addictive to admit they would rather someone they know was truly addicted to chemical substances or gambling for example, both of which are far more destructive. Whilst this is not a universally applicable benefit there are universal positives from MMOs (and multi-player games in general).

The most obvious one is the social side of the game and the avenue it provides for "meeting" new people. Many people who've played MMOs will speak of lifelong friends they have made via the medium. For those who might scoff at this, whilst I do not think that I have personally made such fundamental contacts through WoW I think some in my guild have, and I have personal experience - both good and bad, but mostly good - of contacts made through the 'net becoming good friends in a very real sense of the word. The social aspect of such games puts them a cut above vegetating in front of the TV as a pastime in my opinion (though lower than other RL social pastimes - for example I would take a tabletop RPG session over a few hours in an MMO any day, and that was true even at the height of my WoW playing). Social pastimes tend to provide an avenue of learning how to work with others too
which could be seen as a plus. Granted these games are not the only way to learn such skills, and there are surely many people who play and gain nothing from it, but that does not invalidate them as a possible avenue for increasing team working or leadership skills.

Regardless, I feel like I have waffled on more than enough and it is time to bring this piece to a close as a very different article than I had envisioned when I began it over a month ago. I shall end by talking a little about The Burning Crusade, the forthcoming WoW expansion, and what it means for the game and, ultimately what it means for me.

So The Burning Crusade, talked about for months now, and finally due to arrive; not in the Christmas rush (a good thing, for it presumably means it is not going to be rushed but polished, since they are missing out on Christmas sales figures as a result) but on the 16th of January 2007. It adds a bucketful of new content - two new playable races, ten more levels of advancement and new (smaller) raids and other instanced content which should be plenty to keep people interested for a goodly long time. The PvP system has been overhauled (for the better) and the arena (small teams pitted against each other - think an electronic fantasy version of gladiatorial combat) added, all of which sounds very exciting even before the new talents and abilities that each class will get over the next ten levels. That said, at the core there is still a repetitive feel to what is required of players - but any game has that to some extent.

Interesting stuff; or not.

Well in truth I'm not sure. In principle it all sounds great, not only providing more content and new toys but tightening up the areas of the game that let the side down as things stand - such as the current incarnation of the honour system or the accessibility of 40 man raids and the top end content. In practice I was still interested in the expansion even up until two weeks ago, despite my not playing WoW at the moment (the aforementioned roleplaying exception and its forthcoming conclusion aside). Now? Now I'm not so sure. I mean, I'm sure it'll still be wonderful and from what Blizzard have said and released to date I am certain that the game will get more longevity and a new sparkle from the arrival of TBC. I'm just not sure it is for me. I enjoyed WoW when the experience and the content were new, so there is every chance I could enjoy the TBC content. I'll be finally done with the PhD by the time TBC is released and should have more structure in my life so in theory the risks of falling into the patterns I did before should be lower. The same people I have enjoyed playing with and chatting to over the last 18 months will still be playing so there will be a good group of folks to join - and one that will have the manpower and desire to challenge the 25-man raid content on a casual basis once level 70 is reached. But I'm just not enthused any more. Part of this may be the general apathy and inability to settle on anything I actively wanted to do for the last week or so, but I don't think that is the whole story. More likely I think my lack of interest now can be put down to WoW, for me, being synonymous with running away from things and I have woken up to the fact I need to face the future. Doubtless this view will change after I've been away from the game for longer, it did before back in July when I reactivated my account after 5 months away, but for the time being it couldn't be further from my desires and I have certainly not pre-ordered the expansion, nor hold any firm plans to acquire it.

In short, for the time being at least, the completion of this post marks the end of my interest in WoW aside from the roleplayed wedding ceremony to be held in a week's time. I don't believe I was addicted, nor that games themselves are truly addictive, but I was using it as something to flee into or hide behind which cultivated the same appearance to others as an addiction could have done. WoW was my first MMO; it probably will not be my last - I've long been spoiled on single player games since the heady days of Neverwinter Connections in 2002-3 and my interest in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay means I'm half keeping an eye on Mythic's Warhammer Online. The flipside is that I shall need a new machine to play any new releases and I am a long way from having the disposable income for that, and besides if I should purchase another MMO in the future I am going to do so on different terms (not specifically to run away into) and my life situation will be very different to how it was in May 2005 when WoW first caught a grip on my psyche. Fair play to those still playing - and more importantly still enjoying it - this long after release but for the time being WoW is history for me.


Anonymous said...

Fuck mate I didn't realise you were writing War and Peace!

Interesting stuff and I tend to agree with you about the misuse of the word addictive. I'd tend to go for compulsive when I think about stuff like this. Saying that it does explain a bit about you.

All in all I think you'd be better stalking Bill Oddie.

Graham said...

Hah! nor did I until I started and it ran away with me.

Stalking Bill Oddie is best saved for next spring when everyone's forgotten about [constipated scream] Come on Terry! [/constipated scream]

Drew Shiel said...

That's one impressive piece of work. It's fascinating to see the whole MMO thing from someone else's point of view.

Dave said...

sometimes it's a habit / and not an addiction

I've - yet again - been hit by the MMOORPIGGY "temptation" the last week... despite spending a good deal of time on kick-arse MP FPS (Half-Life 2 DM!) and awesomely-written SP CRPG (NWN2!). But it never goes farther than reading up on stuff and pondering Druids and Rogues. And shivering at the amount of WoW-Culture I'd have to wade through in pursuit of Good Game.

Anyway, Tolstoi can't hold a candle to your signal-to-noise ratio. :7

Rosa said...

interesting comments, despite the fact all the game stuff went over the top of my head!

i think maybe you're one of those people that constantly need to have their brain engaged.... that must be exhausting.

hope you find the fire in the belly returns to do with work stuff (?if such a thing exists!)
good luck, and if you ever need meaningless conversation, you know where to find us, at the balmore! :)

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