Let's get balanced. With MMOs, that can sometimes be easier said than done. The same qualities that make MMO gaming such an easy hobby to enjoy – convenience, multiple layers of involvement, immersion, sociability – are the same qualities that make it so easy to overindulge.
After you've been at it long enough, though, you begin to realize that you can dip in and out of different games and different gaming styles as your life evolves. Dark Age of Camelot kept me in touch with my guildmates during the ragged, 24-hour days of my daughter's first months of life. I ground EQ XP like a trooper when she grew old enough to start sleeping like one (a trooper, that is). Once she became interested in handling her own nocturnal drinks and visits to the bathroom, I dove with abandon into hardcore raiding in World of Warcraft. When work began beating down my energy level more nights than not, I began dabbling with achievements and meta-gaming. And none of that touches on all the games my kids have splashed their way in and out of over the years. It's an evolving patchwork – and that's what I'm encouraging you to develop for your own gaming family.
At the micro level of daily living, it's all about balancing what you'd like to be doing in game with the rest of your life. Notice that I didn't say "balancing gaming with real life" – I said "what you'd like to be doing" with "the rest" of your life. MMOs are so immense now that you'll never have enough to time for everything you'd like to accomplish. Realistically, busy families will have to choose parts of MMOs they enjoy the most and disregard the rest. (I feel your pain; I'm currently "disregarding" WoW's holiday achievements, to prevent getting sucked into a year-long completionist frenzy.)
Then there's the whole "real life" conundrum. The problem with efforts to balance gaming with "real life" is that gaming is real. It's a real hobby, worthy of real respect and real time. Your passion for gaming is part of you that deserves a place in the family mix.
All that said, the avid gamer can definitely weave MMOs into the family lifestyle.
For gaming kids
- Take care of homework and chores first. This non-negotiable principle keeps responsibilities in the bag and parents off your back.
- Don't try to cram time- or attention-intensive game activities into little niches of time. Don't work your way deep into enemy territory when you know dinner's nearly ready or a friend is about to stop by with notes from class. If a few moments are all you're likely to have, make sure whatever you're doing is something you can drop at a moment's notice.
- On a related note, don't get involved in group activities during "family hours." Groups and raids are a commitment; either you're there for your group, or you're not. With potentially dozens of other players waiting on you (with their own dinners to eat and their own trash to take out), you simply don't get the luxury of being "kinda AFK."
- What are "family hours"? Knowing clearly when parents expect you to be free from the keyboard will save a lot of grief down the road.
- Establish a schedule for uninterrupted gaming. Work out times when parents are cool with considering you to be "occupied."
- Respond to interruptions responsibly. "Sure, Mom, but I'm right in the middle of a group event and I don't want to leave the other players hanging. Can I get it done when we finish this section, in about X minutes?"
- Are you giving yourself the chance to do something besides sit at the keyboard? Don't let gaming become your default activity. Carving out some offline evenings every week, with no expectation of gaming "after you've done your duty," removes the pressure of "hurryhurryhurry-so-I-can-go-log-in."
- Just as kids need to handle homework and chores before gaming, so do parents need to cover their own obligations – including time with your spouse and your kids.
- Don't try to cram in daily quests and easy activities during family time on a habitual basis. You'll appreciate time with your family more if you're not trying to steer your character around on errands at the same time, and you'll appreciate your game time more if they're not coming to you with all the loose ends you couldn't focus on while you were trying to multitask.
- Grouping or raiding when a child is likely to need your attention and you're the only adult present is an exercise in frustration.
- Remember to reserve nights away from gaming. As difficult as it can be to peel away from something you really enjoy when you feel you've earned it after a long, hard day, you simply can't replace time spent with the people you care about. Give yourself the space to relax and embrace hanging out with your family, even on nights when nothing spectacular seems to be happening.
- The schedule and balance that works today may not work tomorrow. Today you may need a game you can dabble in casually while your school-age daughter runs in and out of the house with her friends after school; tomorrow may bring an opportunity for hardcore raiding alongside your teen.
- Help non-gaming family members understand and respect your group time by pulling out the ol' bowling league analogy. Explain that gaming online with others is like bowling: you can wander down to the alley and sling a few balls down the lane on your own, but it's much more fun with a group. Once you've committed to a group, your groupmates – just like the members of a bowling team – rely on you to hold up your end of the bargain. You can't keep hopping up to take out the trash or come help hang a picture or whatever else may be going on in the household.
- Give your family an idea of how long common game activities run: "A five-man dungeon usually takes about an hour, but it could go twice that if our group is having a hard time. I can zip through all my dailies (the chores my character uses to make money and maintain her stuff) in about X minutes. A raid is more like a bowling tournament; I need to be available the entire afternoon or evening."
- Explain raid etiquette and demands. Family members may not understand why you can't or don't want to answer questions or make conversation when you're in the middle of an encounter.
- Yes, you're technically "at home" – but being immersed in a game isn't the same as being emotionally present for your spouse. Has she come to rely on you to keep her company every night? Would he prefer to chat over dinner before you head off to the keyboard later in the evening? Does she crave more time doing things together, rather than simply being in the same room while pursuing separate activities?