A Dysfunctional Relationship
Like most gamers, I dislike barriers to entry for games; the little things that constantly get in the way, even briefly, of a smooth and unhampered experience. In general, among the reasons I largely neglect my PS3 is that I painfully resent the idea of installing a console game, to say nothing of the interminable required updates. I have maintained a grudging acceptance of PC installation, though I can be found impatient and irritable during the process, and I am still a lukewarm user of digital distribution because of the delay in downloading 2-10 gigs of information. Lo, how my ire did rage when Steam was unable to preload any Fallout 3 data.
So, you might expect that having to stand in a virtual line as though trapped, waiting for hollow-eyed clerks at the DMV would send me into fits. In at least one case, you would be wrong.
When it comes to my gaming time, I am a dedicated control freak, and to have even the access to my content unpredictably interrupted in ill-defined terms should be an absolute deal breaker, and yet there I sit giddy and content in a World of WarCraft queue a thousand people deep.
This is only one of the exceptions I make for a genre that by every other measure is an inhospitable, temperamental and unaccommodating beast. These are games that make demands on my time, my bank account and my style that would be unforgivable from any other corner of the industry, and yet that I accept without question or contempt. Sometimes, when I think rationally about it, I simply boggle that MMOs have gotten away with it.
I really can’t fault those who are critical of the genre as a whole. Playing an MMO must seem on the outside like having a platonic relationship with a promiscuous diva, annoying in the extreme and consistently unfulfilling. The issues that one must face are a litany of the unforgivable excesses of an industry.
It is expensive
Uncontrolled forces can interrupt or prevent play
Your access to the game can be revoked
Gameplay relies on repetition
Extensive time investment required
You are at the mercy of other players
You are beholden to other players
You have no control over the world or your environment
You can not win the game
And so on. The reasons not to ever invest in a massively multiplayer online space are far more tangible, convincing and imposing than their positive counter-parts. Even as a long time World of WarCraft connoisseur – to say nothing of my time spent in EverQuest, EverQuest 2, Dark Age of Camelot, Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer Online, Star Wars Galaxies and others — I am hard pressed to convince anyone that it is a worthy pursuit.
So what compels me to steer my ship again and again into the rocky shoals from which the MMO siren song beckons? What has enraptured me all anew about the latest overpriced expansion for one of the world’s most popular games? In part, it is a compulsive desire that swells with each level gained and each numerical statistic raised, but even within that answer I must answer to a deeper truth.
I am impatient and scornful of the failings of other types of games, because I have the illusion of ownership of them. Fallout 3 is my game, unrestrained by shared spaces and outside control, so I expect it to bend to my will. The more concrete my illusion of superiority, the less I will put up with needless inconvenience.
In short, I am attracted to MMOs, precisely because they play hard to get.
Like the lover you wanted most in your youth because she constantly reminded you that she was unattainable, World of WarCraft is at one turn a soothing and sensitive deliverer of endorphins and then suddenly she is completely unavailable and unspecific about when exactly we might be able to get together again. The hour spent in the queue is the half dozen needy phone messages left on an answering machine. The endless cash spent on a world with no promise are the gifts and charities that go unrequited at one turn and barely appreciated the next. The understanding that the MMO experience will be fleeting and ultimately unfulfilling, a futile exploration of time lost, well that’s exactly the same in both cases.
I know that there are better things to be doing with my time than losing myself in reckless abandon in the world of Azeroth, just as I suspect every gamer has a nagging sense that gaming itself is a borderline recreation of limited value but irresponsible fun. There are certainly far better games I could be playing, reliable and faithful games that promise to reward my time and money with a sense of accomplishment. These are the games that will always be there, old reliable standbys that I will turn to when I need a promise of comfort and consistency.
And, I will unfairly demand far more from them, simply because they are malleable and knowable quantities, while saving the forgiveness of sin for the games that most require it, an act that would perhaps seem noble if it were not so stained by compulsion and addiction. As irrational as it seems, it is the inconvenience, the uncertain temperament, the unrealistic demands and inconsistent rewards themselves that keep me coming back for more.