The Soapbox: The perils of passive gaming

Couch potato cat

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.

My folks don't really understand my infatuation with video games (and MMORPGs in particular). "How can you sit there and play a game for two or three hours at a time?" my mom is fond of asking. Ironically, this usually happens on a visit that ends where most of our visits do: on the couch in front of the television.

Don't get me wrong; she's no couch potato, and in fact she has the meanest green thumb you'll ever see. When the sun goes down, though, my parents (like most of their generation, I'll wager) park their butts in front of the TV. That I should park my own posterior in front of the computer is exceedingly strange to them even though online gaming is to the 21st century what television was to the 20th.

I wonder, though, if games are starting to become more passive forms of TV-like entertainment.

Laptop cat

First off, I guess we should define passive and active for the purposes of this article. When I generalize and state that games are a more active form of entertainment than television, I mean that you're not just sitting there consuming content that's being spoon-fed to you by content producers when you're playing a game (or are you?). When I say active vs. passive in this context, I'm mostly talking about gameplay mechanics that require some level of choice and continuous action/reaction.

There's a certain interactivity inherent in video gaming that cuts across all genre boundaries. Watching films or television, on the other hand, ultimately boils down to a single choice: What do I want to watch?

Cat vs. couch pillows

Interestingly, though, as gaming has become more socially accepted and more visible to mainstream audiences, this interactivity has undergone a few changes. Now, I don't want to get sidetracked into the hardcore vs. casual debate here because it's usually counter-productive (and at this point, it's not very interesting either).

That said, video gaming is trending away from its choose-your-own adventure roots. Don't make your own story; just sit back and let us tell you ours. Don't make your own character build; pick from one of these pre-defined classes.

In the MMORPG space, these changes manifest themselves in the massive shift toward accessibility. We started out with MUDs, MUSHes, and other prehistoric forerunners of the modern MMO. Calling these games niche was an understatement of epic proportions since, in many cases, you not only had to be interested in hardcore sim-type mechanics and immersion but needed to be technically savvy enough to find and connect to the services.

From there, we moved on to seismic events like Ultima Online and EverQuest, and from there to World of Warcraft. WoW's 2004 release was the last major game-changer as far as the genre goes, and since then, there has been a gradual but steady refinement of the quest-driven MMO model that has come to dominate the industry. Most gamers would agree that MMOs are markedly easier to understand and interact with since 2004 than they were prior to 2004. But why?

Well, tutorials are better, UIs are better, and due to larger numbers of people playing, the collective knowledge about how to play an MMO has gone up considerably. When I say "better," though, that's kind of a loaded term. To me, a few of the mechanics that have fallen by the wayside in the name of progress were "better."

EverQuest's penchant for having you actually talk (or more accurately, type) to interact with an NPC springs to mind here. The mechanic largely doesn't exist anymore because it was deemed too time-consuming and needlessly complicated when compared to pez dispensers and floating question marks, whereas to me it's one of the more immersive and fun mechanics to come out of an otherwise forgettable game.

Cat with a beer and remote

This is but one example of the trend toward passivity, and it's merely a gameplay example. Equally noteworthy is the exacerbation of passive consumption by the economic forces at work in the industry. You can see this in the various free-to-play cash shops that monetize the ability to skip certain parts of a game or the single-player DLC packs that unlock godmode cheats and basically turn a game into a semi-interactive movie.

There's also the explosive growth of livestreaming and "let's plays." Recently I found myself watching a Morrowind series on YouTube. I initially fired it up because I wanted to see what some of the spiffy new environment mods had done to one of my favorite games, but I ultimately got sucked into watching some dude play through the main quest line for 30-odd hours.

These hours were broken into convenient 15-minute chunks of video that I watched on my laptop, my phone, and my second monitor while I was playing a different game, and it was here that I stopped and asked myself what the heck was going on. I basically cheated myself out of the kick-ass experience that is playingMorrowind, and I turned one of the more immersive RPGs ever made into episodic, passively consumed television.

Fortunately, I'd already played the game a number of years ago, but it was a strange experience nonetheless. It's probably not the last such I'm going to have, either, since the game industry seems bound and determined to ape its film and television counterparts on multiple levels. As of today, your average video game is still quite a bit more interactive than a film or a television show. That divide is shrinking, though, and it's not the films or the television shows that are closing the gap.

I'll leave it to you guys to tell me whether that's a good thing or not.

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!