MMORPGs and the Illusion of Achievement

Why do MMORPGs (henceforth to be referred to as MMOs) have such a powerful ability to give the player the illusion of achievement? What is it about a silly computer game that can suck in otherwise responsible adults – much less teenagers?

I speak with some experience. First off, before I dropped into playing MMOs, my husband is a major gamer. He has played table-top RPGs since I’ve known him, and started playing Everquest in beta back when we were first married. I joined him in Everquest for a couple of years, although it was never my best game. I’ve played EQ2 briefly, SWG briefly, the first Guild Wars through level 20 (when you had to play with other people), the second Guild Wars through level 30ish (I forget), and I have a level 85 Paladin and Druid in World of Warcraft (WoW). I also spent a couple of years, pretty nearly every evening, hanging out in Second Life. (Don’t ask). Have I gamed? I have gamed.

So why are they so addictive?

First: They level the playing field.(1) No matter your age or education, no matter your real-life strength or skills – in game we’re all the same. You make *choices* that determine your looks, what you’re good at, and what you will learn. And if you don’t like those choices? Fold it up and start over.

Second: Starting over. It’s easy. Especially before you invest much time in a particular character. And death is momentary.

Third: You have to spend just enough time to feel like you’re really doing something. If you work all day at anything, and you are rewarded, you’re going to feel good about whatever it is you did. In an MMO, you occasionally have to do really tedious quests/tasks in order to move up in level or to get a piece of gear. But then – reward! You get it, and you move on to the next task.

Fourth: Always new places to see, new things to do. Even when you hit end-game (maximum level), MMO game designers don’t want you to stop playing – so they find something else for you to do. There will be a new dungeon to hit, a new raid, a new and obscure piece of gear to craft. There is *always* a carrot. (They don’t have a stick, so they’re really great at carrots).

Fifth: New places to see. From the comfort of your couch, your computer chair or even your bed, you can see great plains full of antelope-like critters, swamps with giant mushrooms, dark dungeons inhabited by the undead… etc. You don’t have to leave home. You don’t have to interact with anyone real that you don’t want to interact with (and you can choose to interact if you want to – MMO have other players, they aren’t freestanding games).

Sixth: You can do all this stuff, from bed. Nearly everyone who plays MMOs started because they were bored or sick or lonely or … just not up to dealing with the real world. I leveled 30 levels in WoW while I had a broken foot! Couldn’t do much else… and then once you’ve started, well, you’re addicted and it’s hard to stop.

Seventh: You’ve made friends! You get to know people while playing the game. Even the most antisocial person sometimes has to pair up or group up to get the goal. The game designers make sure that this happens, because the friend group is a draw to return to the game. Some people play with real-life friends, some people meet friends in game, some people combine the two. And you take the same friends from game to game to game…

You can see how this works. Your life sucked for some reason – and you gave WoW a try. It was really easy to hit level 10, and you had so much fun killing all those orcs. Plus, it’s only a couple more levels until you get your pet. Or can turn into a seal. You know, you just want to experience all this game can give you. It’s not a big deal. And then you make some friends, and … suddenly you have other people to brag about having leveled (and to compete with). Oh, you’re “the” tailor in the guild? People need you! Well, you know this Saturday is raid day. And so is next Tuesday, until midnight. Don’t you understand commitment?

The games are immersive. They have good storylines and there is always something else to work for. They’re pretty and they’re fun. And you find people for whom “I just killed the Lich King!” is a big deal. And while you have to work for your rewards in an MMO, you don’t have to work nearly as hard as you do IRL.(2) And when you fail, it’s not a big deal. You make community, you test your abilities, you learn skills, you discover new areas (some games give you credit for running around and looking at things, and they’re nearly always pretty enough to bother). No one cares what your RL self looks like, no one cares how much money you have IRL, no one has to know anything about you.

After a little while, you think you’re achieving something… but you’re not. Just passing time.

It’s not like I hate gaming and MMOs, I just don’t play anymore. I tailored enough clothing in SW Galaxies, WoW, and Rift. I decided I’d make some IRL. I worked hard on making my fantasy house fabulous in Second Life… now I make my real house clean. I have numerous friends made in those games, especially ISL.

Right this minute? My husband and kids are all playing Minecraft together. I could go play … just another MMO… with my family.. but no. BTDT. And I have, not just the t-shirt, but the over priced figurine.


(1) At least at first. Of course after a few people get to the top ranks, you’ll have twinks who get all the best weapons from day one, and of course better players find that their play experience carries over. DH is a top-rank ranger/hunter no matter the game, he knows how to play the long-range DPS class. When everyone can twink, the game loses a great deal of its appeal, IMO – and all the great games have succumbed to the temptation to get people to end-game more quickly.

(2) In Real Life. As opposed to ISL, in Second Life. Or … well, you get it.

6 thoughts on “MMORPGs and the Illusion of Achievement

  1. Sis

    My husband is really into computer games, although he plays a different one. He’s good with balancing his life with us with his gaming though.


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