I remember raiding at the start of Wrath of the Lich King very well. My Shaman was one of the first people in my guild geared up to run Naxxramas, and the oft-mentioned Ms. Lady was herself one of the first tanks to be ready to last through the boss fights. We were a casual guild, sure, but even in a casual grouping you have stars, and we were stars. We were experts on the content, we destroyed the fights, we marched around dripping in epics. I was the highest DPS in the guild, she was the tank there for nearly every session, and we were known and respected.
It was absolutely awful.
Of course, it didn't start like that. But there was a very good reason we finally decided that this was not only unfun but actively harmful to our relationship. We left and didn't look back, and we never moved back into raiding in a real way -- nor did we want to. Our time at the top made it very clear how raiding changes you and how you move from not caring about a stupid pretend sword to being absolutely livid when someone else wins a roll for that pretend sword. It's not a case of taking the game too seriously or not having a grip on reality -- it's the way that endgame raiding is structured that drives you, inexorably, to that point.
Usually, when people see an article about some extreme example of raider behavior -- and I'm using "raider" here as a shorthand for countless alternative activities, since many games have them -- there's an explosion of comments to the effect of "I could never do that." And looking at it from the outside, it seems ridiculous. Why would you log in to a game that you don't enjoy to do something you don't enjoy on the outside chance that you might get a made-up shiny trinket?
The reason, of course, is that you don't. You start out going in and playing a game that you do enjoy, and through luck or a vague sense of obligation, you reach the endgame and start pursuing the only goal that the game has seen fit to provide you. World of Warcraft is a particularly bad offender in this regard because for a long time it offered no way for players to advance other than raiding. (The same is true of the present expansion; the designers have explicitly stated that they consider heroics the warm-up round.) Other games offer similar endgame mechanics but give you other options, meaning that only the people who really want to raid are involved.
Do keep that in mind: In the cases where raiding is the only option, many of the people who are raiding do so from a sense of necessity. That makes sense because you've enjoyed the game up to this point, and you don't want to just stop. Heck, most games are structured to suggest that you've just gotten to the good part. So you go ahead and you start signing up, you learn some strategies, and more often than not you pick up an upgrade or two.
And if you've got the time, you come back to another few rounds. After all, you had fun the first time, right? Why not go for another round or two? Besides, you know the content better than two of the other people who are coming along for that next run, and you're going to be a bit better equipped than they are...
What happens is a slow progression, something you don't even notice happening. Gradually, your presence becomes more and more integral to the success of the group. In WoW, you start assembling a set of equipment for another spec, then you start pulling that spec in when you're short another role. You start explaining strategies, then you start deciding on strategies, and before you know it you're signed up for every raid for the next two months because damn it, the group needs you.
You get to know the people you're raiding with. You develop in-jokes. Like any group of people working toward a common competitive goal, your group becomes part of your identity. And the more you rely on your fellow players, the more they realize they can rely on you in turn. The more you feel as if they have to be able to rely on you. The more you feel as if the success or failure of any given night is part of your responsibility.
It was certainly what I found happening. Without meaning to, I'd gone from being one of the people who was ready during an early time in the expansion's life-cycle to being someone whom the raid outright needed in order to clear content successfully. And that meant that logging in or not stopped being an option. I was needed. I couldn't opt to just stay out of the raids that I found boring or to avoid stretches of content where there were literally no more upgrades that mattered for my setup. If I wasn't there, things would fall apart.
And then the boredom starts to set in. Or maybe it already has by that point. You're tired of running the same dungeons on a regular basis. Any novelty has long since been wrung out, the challenge is gone, and the only thing that's left is just an incessant sense of being needed. Your fun really doesn't factor in any longer. If you leave, you're hampering the progress of a lot of other people.
Take that walk, mentally. You started doing something that you found a lot of fun, but you're bored now. Yet you can't just leave because people are relying on your presence, people with whom you share laughter and friendship and triumphs and even defeats. These are your friends, at least in your mind, and you don't want to let them down. So now you're back in again, and you're doing this for the fortieth time this month alone, and you're watching people make the same mistakes, over and over, and then the boss finally dies and someone else wants that armor? And armor that might only be marginally better than what you have now, but damn it, at least it's some sort of upgrade?
Maybe you won't start yelling the first time. But the third time, or the fifth time... eventually, it will happen. And after that explosion, you're going to have to come back and keep doing this because now you owe these people even more. You have, through luck and some vague sense of obligation, turned what used to be a relaxing hobby into a second job, a job where you don't get paid -- you just hope to get paid.
Then another tier of content gets released.
Therein lies the central issue with raiding. You don't mean to get involved, but in some games, you don't get a choice if you want to keep playing. And once you're in, you get caught in a cycle of guilt and obligation that pulls you along even when you're ready to be done with the whole damn mess. You don't get to leave, you don't get to choose, and you wind up fighting over smaller and smaller stakes until that +1 Strength is literally the only thing you're looking forward to.
Is there a lesson here? If there has to be one, it's a simple call for designers to give players options about what they want to do. Certainly there are people who really want to play the raiding game, who know going in what's going to wind up happening and as such have an easier time stopping at the top. But there's no reason or argument in favor of forcing players into situations that not everyone wants to be in.
More than that, however, is the simple question that gets repeated again and again. "How could someone get that invested in the game?" There are extreme cases, definitely, but you get to the point of having screaming arguments and full-on rages over make-believe swords through a more subtle process than most people realize. A lot of people assume that it's the lifers, the ones who do nothing but raid, without realizing that a lot of these arguments and dramatic explosions come from people who didn't plan to be in this situation. Now they're stuck, and they want to leave, and it's not really an option.
You say you'd never get involved like that, but it happens. It's insidious. And until you start down that road, you don't understand just how deep the raiding rabbit hole really goes.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!