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MMORPG: Time the industry started to act responsibly?

Having literally lost a year of his life to playing World of Warcraft (WoW), a ‘successful’ player anonymously writes about the personal, social, financial and physical costs of the addictiveness of WoW. However, his chilling story could be that of any MMORPG – present or future.

World of Warcraft (WoW) is one of, if not the, original and most successful MMORPGs out there. It’s combination of Tolkin-esque sci-fi thematics (similar to those of Miniture wargaming) and pioneering might of the genre has created a userbase of more than 6 million people

However perhaps one of the most interesting (and to some degree frightening) point is the sophistication of the product – both in terms of the economics of the game and it’s addictiveness.

The economics side of things has been well documented (gamers in sweatshops in China and Eastern Europe who play the game full-time to earn virtual assets their employer then trades on the open market, through to recent news that the $million’s traded every day are attracting the attention of global tax authorities).

The addictiveness, on the other hand, seems to be less publicised – which is why this story is perhaps so poignant.

The blog post itself is fairly long, but I thoroughly recommend reading it. But here are some key quotes:

“It took a huge personal toll on me. To illustrate the impact it had, let’s look at me one year later. When I started playing, I was working towards getting into the best shape of my life (and making good progress, too). Now a year later, I’m about 30 pounds heavier that I was back then, and it is not muscle. I had a lot of hobbies including DJing (which I was pretty accomplished at) and music as well as writing and martial arts. I haven’t touched a record or my guitar for over a year and I think if I tried any Kung Fu my gut would throw my back out. Finally, and most significantly, I had a very satisfying social life before.”

“…the time it requires to do anything “important” is astounding, it gives people a false sense of accomplishment, and when you’re a leader, and get wrapped up in it, no matter how much you care or want people to care, you’re doing the wrong thing.”

“To really be successful, you need to at least invest 12 hours a week, and that is bare minimum. From a leadership perspective, that 12 hours would be laughed at. That’s the guy who comes unprepared to raid and has to leave half way through because he has work in the morning or is going out or some other thing that shows “lack of commitment”.

“I know of children and spouses being forced to play and grind [repetitive in-world menial work to gain status/credit] for their parents, threats of divorce, rampant neglect, failing grades in school, and thousands of dollars spent on “outsourcing” foreign help. … The accomplishment and sacrifice itself are meaningless a few days later.”

I think I played WoW once, for about an hour, back when it first came out in late 2004 and before it was as established as it is today. Orcs, warlocks and elves aren’t really my thing and it reminded me of the “Warhammer 2000” craze that went around my school when I was a kid (I wasn’t into orcs then either, but my mate ‘Pottsy’ was). I decided to uninstall it.

However I am much more interested in SecondLife – which has (perhaps wisely) kept the ‘theme’ of their system neutral, avoided a class/level system and removed the need to perform explicit tasks, aka grinding (which is very much at the heart of the dynamics of WoW). To this extent SecondLife is considered an environment rather than a game.

My biggest concern about SL (SecondLife) is that I could quite easily get addicted to it to the same degree as the anonymous blogger above has with WoW. I already know one person who is pretty addicted to SL – both in terms of the time spent on it and money s/he spends on the system (buying virtual land, which in term attracts a further monthly maintenance fee).

The key issue about all these MMORPG systems is that they have been intentionally engineered such that value increases exponentially as more time (and money, in the case of SL) is spent. In other words, you have to play a considerable amount of time to get something meaningful back, and once you have already committed that amount of time you are sucked into playing further to maintain your investment.

This is more noticeable with WoW, as noted above. In fact the anonymous blogger writes in the blog post that anything less than 12hrs a week is going to make you a “useless player” – with 10 hrs a day being the kind of commitment needed to further within the system.

In SecondLife it’s more subtle – Linden Labs (the game’s creator) state that you don’t need to put any money into the system in the same way that you can technically walk around any city with no money in your pocket. However, like a city, to get something out of the game you have to put some money in (or somehow earn some money).

The logical conclusion of pretty much anything you do in SecondLife to achieve this endeavour is that you will find yourself needing some land – a place to sell your wares, run your event, etc. All of which means spending more money but then, perhaps crucially, spending more time building to realize the opportunities the land has created you. Then you spend even more time in SecondLife because of the time and attention you have already invested into it. The cycle continues.

Yeah, much of this is simple socio- and monetary-economics – and we’re all adults playing these (well maybe not – but that’s another story). But the point is the abstract nature of these environments means that we end up behaving in ways we wouldn’t normally. Like spending time in the game rather than playing with our kids, putting money into the MMORPG then paying for food or bills etc.

So you have to ask yourself: if the business model of these game developers is to get people spending as much time in-world as possible, what does success ultimately look like?? Grad students wasting their talents (the anonymous blogger was a recent grad student) because they can’t hold down a professional job? Parents neglecting their kids? Players experiencing noticeable deteriorations in their health?

I’m not saying we should close these systems down – in the same way that I don’t feel gambling or alcohol should be banned (both of which have similar social affects if abused). However industries like that of the drinks industry are very keen to self-regulate and act responsibly – initiatives in the UK such as, which is included in practically every TV or print advertisement for an alcoholic product.

I don’t see anyone in the MMORPG industry self-regulating, which is disappointing. The addictiveness of these games seems to have been left to the media to call out and the more ‘conservative’ governments’ to legislate against.

Like any addiction, the first step is to admit there is a problem – and we’re not really even there yet. No one in the industry has really raised the issue – that includes game developers, industry authoritarians or the community to any significant degree.

What do I suggest? Well, I don’t want these games banned. But I think some recognition that the use of MMORPG’s appears to be more addictive than other forms of Internet use would be a positive start. From there hopefully responsible game developers will produce measures to tackle the issue and those who don’t will get called out. Some scientific, cognitive research would also be of interesting, but that’s far beyond the scope of my expertise or familiarity.

In the meantime, do explore and enjoy MMORPG’s – but perhaps always have in the back of your mind (like I do) the addictiveness of them and control your use accordingly.

And don’t even get me started about the paradigms with the Matrix – this really is a dream-world, Neo.

Published in Thoughts and Rants


  1. Have you seen the recent South Park episode where they parody WoW?

  2. Ben Ben

    Interesting stuff. A little background; I played WoW for about 8 months during last year, taking a character to the heights of level 60 and beginning to raid the higher level ‘instance’ dungeons with parties of members from my guild. I used to play the game with my then girlfriend, and as a result it was a sort of social thing we would spend time doing together (we’d play it sat side by side more often than at our respective homes). The reasons I quit in the first place were more personal than anything else, but I had begun to feel the drudgery of the relentless grinding for epic gear as a splinter in my mind by then anyway.

    The problem I have with the whole notion of this being addictive, and that the developers of such games are in some way responsible here is that it suggests that the players aren’t accountable for their own choices. It reminds me somewhat of the discussions related to so-called obscene materials, videogame and movie violence. Are we empty vessels waiting to be directed, or do we have a choice in the matter? The author of the article himself suggests that he made the choice to leave after feeling that he wasn’t enjoying it – or the social side effects it was having – any more, but whose fault is it that it took so long for him to make that choice?

    You make the point that you don’t see anybody in the industry self-regulating, but I should point out that since I started playing WoW again recently I’ve noticed a message that appears as you log in telling you to play the game in moderation. It’s true that Blizzard could do more to encourage casual play as a gameplay mechanism for veteran players (and to an extent this is what things like the player-vs-player battlegrounds are for) but ultimately it is up to individual players to decide what level of involvement in the game their lives should take. Perhaps it is more a reflection of the addictive, materialistic nature of modern society that we feel compelled to play such games to excess, especially when the primary reason for doing so now is to collect further and further virtual baubles?

  3. Seth Seth

    I am in agreement with Ben. While accroding to some people mmorpg’s are addictive and they destroy social life. Anything can be done in moderation even mmo’s. For example with WoW I have been playing fairly steady for two years or so. I quite simply have a set play scheduale but it is up to me to keep it I have 2 raid nights with my guild usually Sunday and Monday as this works best for most people in guild and then generally I hop on first thing in the morning as I am up usually before any one else in the house be it my fianceĆ© (or the dogs. well they are up they just usually require some petting first :P) but at any rate I certainly can say that mmo’s have not ruined my life and i have been playing them since I was about 12 and I am 22 now but back to the main point is moderation and being able to hold yourself to something and manage yourself for the gentlemen in the blog I am sorry things turned out the way they did for you but quite simplely put you did it yourself and the reason why so many people throw away their lives to mmo’s is cause they do not posses the ability to moderate themselves which is kind of sad that they need some one else to tell them hey you have been playing this game for 17 hours today and have done it the last 5 days straight maybe ought to check what is going on out in the real world sorry if I seem like I am rambling but honestly folks bottem line is those who ‘ruin’ their lives marriages jobs physical condition comes down to lack of responcibility and not being able to control one’s own actions……

  4. gary gary

    I am attending AA mainly to stay away from video games. I have spent so much time in these virtual worlds that I now am realizing I have no i dea how to exist in this real one.

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