When the entire MMO genre is built around the concept of not only giving you so many things to do that you never run out of them and then keeping you there in the game doing them, it can be easy to get suckered in and forget that it is just a game sometimes. Those carrots are always hanging so low, tempting us to just spend a few more minutes chasing them. It's no wonder that our friends, kids, and wives (or husbands) who don't play get fed up with it! It's just a game, after all. And that's true. Why is it so hard for so many people to just step back from the computer for a week (or god forbid, two)?
That's a complicated question, honestly, and it's hard to give a blanket answer. For some people, it's not hard at all. When the game stops being fun, they're done. But many players will continue playing long past the time when the game has stopped feeling fun, to the point of total meltdown and burnout. You probably know a few people who've burned out on an MMO. You may have done it yourself (I know I have, at various times on various games).
You might be tempted to lay the blame at the feet of the game designers for making such an addictive game, with rewards that take too long to achieve and require too many hours of investment. Earlier this year, John Carr, of the Children's Charities Coalition for Internet Safety, did exactly that: He suggested that the best way to "dis-incentivize" long play periods is to give players rewards more quickly. However, I think that this argument is flawed. Players play MMOGs to have something fun to do. If you give them rewards quickly, they'll just get bored and play something else, or they'll replay the same game over and over (as people do with console RPGs and action games, for example). I wouldn't say that the playstyle of an MMOG is addictive in itself, any more than any video game is addictive. They follow the same formula that other games do.
To prove my point, look at Final Fantasy XII, a game that in most respects is strikingly similar to an MMORPG. The combat is basically an adapted version of the massively multiplayer Final Fantasy XI system. You go on missions, complete quests, hunt for equipment (doled out in incremental rewards), level up, and there's even a fantastic story with likable characters (most MMOGs are notable lacking in this department). The whole game experience is even 120 hours long, give or take (compared to the 250 hours of play in Age of Conan and other MMOGs). Many of the same things can be said about Oblivion, which offers a level of game immersion that no MMO is capable of. Despite the similarities of these games to MMOGs, and even the significant advantages they have from a gameplay perspective, you almost never hear anyone talk about their addiction to Oblivion or all of their husband's time getting sucked away by Final Fantasy XII.
It seems that the game design isn't to blame, then. So, what is? I'd argue for human nature and social interaction. The thing about MMOGs is that we don't play them by ourselves. We play them with other people. Hang out in any kind of social space long enough, and you start to identify peers. Whether it's your guild, random people on your friends list, or just the familiar names in trade chat, your MMOG eventually feels like your third place. Like a corner bar, it's a place where you can go hang out and have fun with some familiar faces in a low-stress environment.
Unlike the corner bar, though, MMOGs focus very heavily on a strict track of progression and growth. If you duck out for a week, your character stays put, and everyone else keeps going. There's a very real competition in online games to "Keep up with the Joneses," even if you're always just chasing the Joneses around. Not only do you have the lure of your personal progression -- you also have the motivation to keep going "because everyone else is." Not quitting becomes a test of solidarity. Everyone keeps playing as much as they do (however much it is) because that's how much the people they see as their peers play.
Even though it's just a game and the people you identify as peers are usually almost complete strangers by most standards (do you know anyone's last name in your guild who isn't a friend from outside the game?), that's a hard mindset to break. Especially when you consider some of the recent studies that have been done which examine the connection between videogames and reward centers in the brain. The most interesting one that's popped up recently suggests that it might be a territorial thing, for men at least. When you put it in that context, it's a lot easier to understand the drive to keep playing -- losing your "place" in your peer group because you took a break, as silly as it sounds, probably triggers the same stress that having "your territory" threatened anywhere evokes.
It's very important to analyze why we do the things we do from time to time, to make sure that we're doing the things we really want to be doing. As hard as it can be sometimes to just stop playing for a while, do it. Take a week off. Take two weeks off. Read a book, take a walk with a friend, shoot some hoops, or go fishing. Then, if you decide to come back and keep playing, you'll appreciate the game that much more as the leisure activity it's supposed to be. If you're worried about "losing your place" in a game (and more importantly, if your peer group is that eager to give your place away), you're probably playing with the wrong people anyway. Everyone needs a break now and then.
When the game stops being fun, stop playing the game, no matter how hard it is. You can always come back to the game, but you can't turn back the clock and recover wasted hours of your life. I love playing MMOGs and I have a lot of great memories from gaming with my brother and friends that I wouldn't give up. I wouldn't have wanted to spend that time any other way -- it was fun! It did exactly what a leisure activity should do: entertain me and give me a way to spend my free time. If that's not how your game makes you feel, go find something else to do and come back later.
None of us will ever go to our deathbed wishing we had ground out 1000 more rep, or 100 more coins, or gotten one more epic. It's the fun and the memories that really matter.
||Cameron Sorden is an avid gamer, blogger, and writer who has been playing a wide variety of online games since the late '90s. Several times per week in Player vs. Everything, he tackles all things MMO-related. If you'd like to reach Cameron with comments or questions, you can e-mail him at cameron.sorden AT weblogsinc.com.