The Soapbox: It's a game, but not just that

Sometimes, it's all about the emotions behinds the scenes.
Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

There are things about the MMO community that bother me. If you consider the number of Soapbox columns I've written over the last year or so, this will probably shock absolutely no one. But there's one thing that draws more ire from me than any other, one statement alone that implies an attitude that really gets my goat. It comes from MMO players, from non-players, from all sorts of different sources, and it bothers me every single time.

"It's just a game."

The statement that, say, Guild Wars is a game doesn't bother me at all, just like it doesn't bother me when someone says that Australia is a continent. But that addition, the sentiment that it's just a game bothers me immensely. It's insulting to a lot of people, and it's something that I try to avoid ever mentioning in my own writing because MMOs aren't just games, even though they are games, and the idea of "just a game" alone is missing the point something fierce.

It's not just a toy.  Toys don't have four semisentient arms that shoot energy blasts and grenades.Now, before I go any further, I want to point out that there is such a thing as taking games too seriously. It's very possible for someone to see a game as the only overriding force in his life, and you don't have to look far to see articles about game addiction or parental neglect or someone flunking out of school because of World of Warcraft. I'm not arguing that games should be treated as the sole light in this world.

I'm arguing that games are important, and MMOs are even more important to the players, which is why I've talked about letting go of a dying game and how leaving is an important protest. I know that these aren't attachments that are formed casually. Games in general and MMOs in specific matter.

Of course, no one should need to be told that games matter. Anyone who has cheered for a sports team knows that games matter, and those aren't even games that you're playing. Games are a way for us to present ourselves with obstacles and overcome them, to take a step away from ourselves and enjoy something a little more fantastical if only for a moment.

And belittling them ignores all the bonds you form over them. For me -- and many other children, I suspect -- the path out of misery in middle school lay in finding other kids who liked games. Board games, roleplaying games, card games -- all of these things require other people, and they help attract you into circles of shared interest. Even video games provide a point of commonality, a shared experience that you can talk about with someone else even if you've both fallen out of touch.

MMOs provide all of that. You get the community, you get the shared experiences, you get a world to inhabit and other real people to meet. But there's more than just that to get you emotionally invested, and that's the fact that the game doesn't have an end point. It keeps going until the servers shut down, and frequently it takes a very long time for that to happen (if ever).

The thing is, MMOs embrace a certain amount of tedium in exchange for the knowledge that your character inhabits a world. Sometimes that world has kind of strange and arbitrary rules, but it's still a world. It's a place. And in even the most rudimentary MMO, you can set goals for yourself and achieve them. See that guy by the bank in the shiny armor? You can obtain that. See that crazy-looking area full of floating stones? You can go there. It just takes time, dedication, and work.

Maybe you feel like you lack that opportunity in your real life. Maybe you want to occasionally be someone else, to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. Maybe you just like the idea of getting to briefly live in a world where magic or space travel or something else is real. Most likely it's a combination of all of those things. And whatever style of game you like -- themeparks, sandboxes, action-based, turn-based, stat-focused, stat-lite, free-to-play, pay-to-play, covered in pandas -- when you find the game that you like, you can log in and make your character. And that character is yours.

It's just a hat.  Just an AWESOME hat.Saying that it's "just a game" when you've sunk hours and hours into improving a character is like saying a lovingly restored car is "just a transport mechanism." It's that, sure, but that's really a secondary function to everything that it represents. This is something you've chosen to put time and effort into, something that matters to you, something that makes you excited. This is something you're passionate about.

Of course, it's actually not that different from restoring a car. MMOs are a full-fledged hobby unto themselves. They're an activity you experience with others, something that forms a part of your identity, not something that you can just discard with a shrug and a wave. Spend months in the game and the odds are beyond good that you've made a few friends, found a few people you dislike, and generally had a number of experiences that you'll carry with you for quite some time.

And if you ask me, there's something far worse than feeling passionate about a game: feeling passionate about nothing. Having zero emotional ties to anything, not being invigorated and excited -- that seems much more banal and mind-numbing than liking a game and playing it and telling others about liking it.

Yeah, it's a game. Sometimes you need to walk away from it. Sometimes you're taking it too seriously (because there is a boundary -- something can be important and worth taking seriously without breaking yourself in half for it). Sometimes you wind up getting anxious over it for no good reason, and that can seem odd to people who don't understand that this is something that matters. But no part of this makes your game of choice something to be reduced into the same category as Candyland, with the carried implication that there's nothing worth emotional investment.

It's a game. But it's not just a game.

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!
This article was originally published on Massively.