I was playing World of Warcraft tonight with my Alliance Guild. We had a good night of questing, and even picked up a few novel and interesting quests, like the one where you have to tame the big dinosaurs and bring them back to the wacky gnome at his hut. We had one left to do in the series, and it was one of those infernal “get x larynxes from y type of scorpion (NOT z type of scorpion), and the drops were like one in 10. So I started on this somewhat cynical lament, sort of like Eyore tagging along on some adventure or another with Winnie the Pooh and complaining all the while. At one point I said, “They are just trying to keep us busy so we keep paying the subscription fee.” At another point I posited, “If Blizzard told us to jump in a lake, would we do it?” And my friend said, “If the rewards were enough.” And as I was getting progressively more de-motivated, I finally said: “Sometimes I feel like I’m playing this game, but sometimes I feel like the game is playing me.”
After logging off a few minutes later, I began to ruminate on this insight. The thought had actually occurred to me before, but it took on new dimensions in this context. The first thing that came to mind was Bernie DeKoven’s phenomenal philosophical insight in The Well-Played Game: “Are we good enough for the game, or is the game good enough for us?” The second thing that came to mind (appropriately) was Second Life, which I had just logged off of immediately prior to the WoW session. What I realized was that I NEVER feel like the game is playing me in a more Paidia-type world like Second Life and There. This is because even the structured experiences are not obligatory; even something formal and competitive like Spades in There, I can get up and walk away from the table at any time. I also never feel like the software is actively trying to thwart me, and in a case like this, I was feeling manipulated: IT knows there are hardly any drops on this quest so why is it taunting us so? It just doesn’t want us to go to bed at a reasonable hour! And because of the relentless demands of leveling, which you must do not only because it’s the whole point of the game, but if you don’t, your friends will surpass you and you will die a lonely death as a solo player, you feel obligated to do all these things that Blizzard has decided you need to do in order to be up to par on the game. Now I must say I sometimes feel that way in Uru: I feel like Cyan is holding a carrot just arm’s length away; but the one thing that keeps me from feeling completely manipulated in Uru is that I can walk away from the carrot whenever I want, and I can come back to it when I’m in the mood. There is not this relentless sense of accomplishment.
Please bear in mind that I have very mixed feelings about WoW. To me WoW is the worst of times and the best of times. I can’t say I’ve had the most fun in a game in WoW, but I have had some pretty stellar moments, especially when the teamwork is really humming. You get in a certain rhythm, what rowers call “swing,” where you feel at one with the universe and your party. I described this in my study of the Uru Diaspora as “inersubjective flow,” borrowing from DeKoven and Csíkszentmihályi, that sense of being totally connected to a play group. It’s really what Bernie’s work is all about, and that is where MMOGs are at their best. I also find the environment can be highly compelling in WoW. Some areas really have a sublime beauty, even the more desolate areas (Desolace, the name of a dessert-like area, was in fact where the aforementioned revelation took place.) We saw a Draenei go by on an Elephant. That was pretty exciting. I love the Night Elf lands and pretty much live there now, even though my main Alliance character is human…I consider her a human expat living in elfland. Part of the pleasure of hanging out in a “fixed synthetic” world as I call such totally designed environments, is that, very much like a theme park, there is a certain pleasure in being drawn along into an imaginary place without having to really think about it. I mean, yes, we have to decide which part of the world we will go quest in, but once we make a choice, everything is more or less just a matter of following the directions given to us by NPCs. Some quests are more inherently compelling than others, either because the activity is inherently interesting, like the dino-taming quest or some of the escort quests, or because the story set up is somewhat compelling, like some of these “Missing Persons” quests that take you halfway around the world. Given that, perhaps that feeling that the game is playing me has a positive side as well, in the same way that watching a film like The Sixth Sense is fun: because basically the creator is just taking you on a crazy ride all the while knowing what the outcome will be. On the one had, I get frustrated because Blizzard and all its somewhat ill-construed, not-very-bright NPC minions are telling me what to do; on the other hand, when this is done well, it’s quite fun just going along for the ride. And of course there are variations on strategies but for the most part, you are working to a script.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, however, I imagine there must be a better way. There must be a way to still have a game that is essentially ludic in its form, and has some kind of story framework, but which you feel has more play, in the sense that a steering wheel has play, in the sense that you can play with it, and around it, not just play along and/or against it, if that makes sense. I also believe ultimately that story does not have to be passive, that sitting and reading a paragraph of text is not what “story” is about in the interactive sphere; rather it’s about feeling engaged in a drama. Every once in a while, I actually care about the characters in WoW, but this is, sadly, much more rare than it has to be. And actually sometimes I care when I’m not supposed to; like when my friend and I who play both Alliance and Horde (which apparently is not really done from what I can tell) were killing Night Elves, which is the race of her Alliance character. This was very disconcerting to me, but eventually I got past it. I also find it really annoying that Alliance cannot buff Horde players and vice versa. (I found this out the hard way by trying to buff a Horde player not knowing that any click was basically an invitation to battle.) However, I’ve heard some very poignant tales lately of Alliance and Horde players trying to play together or help each other on a quest, which is particularly difficult since, in addition to deeming all direct interaction hostile, the game makes the language of each incomprehensible to the other. So how do you communicate with your “enemy” when the game is literally programmed to make it impossible? To me, that is REAL drama…not just synthetic storytelling. You suddenly have a reason to feel something real…and then it becomes much more interesting.
Well a long post but one that synthesizes some things I have been thinking about lately, in their raw, immediate and somewhat unrefined form.