Wednesday, September 16, 2009

No Country for Old Trolls

by C.T. Hutt

The first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem. In the darkest period of my addiction there was no questioning that things had gotten out of control. My apartment was a mess, my health was in steady decline, and I spent most of my days and nights with only the sickly blue light of my monitor to keep me company. It was as though my avatar in World of Warcraft (Troll, Hunter, Lvl 60) was slowly consuming my strength. As my life declined, he became more powerful. Thankfully, in the spring of 2005 my computer suffered a terminal meltdown forcing me to spend several weeks without my precious. In that time, I was able to re-connect to my life. I shudder to think what would have become of me if I hadn’t gotten that digital monkey off my back. Perhaps I would have simply wasted away to a shadow, leaving only my online character to wander the plains of Azeroth alone.

I don’t play massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) anymore; I simply do not have the time. Whether you love them or hate them there is no denying the fact that they have become more than a passing fad. They have become a part of our culture. And I don’t mean “our” culture to mean gaming culture, American culture, or even western culture. MMOs have become a part of world culture. Eleven million people play WoW alone: from every corner of the globe people are signing in at this very moment to take a break from their lives and go slay a dragon or storm a castle with their buddies. If every single person in Ireland and every single person in Norway were to get together for one big game of capture the flag it would still be a smaller game than WoW. That goes beyond entertainment. That is a phenomenon. And WoW is hardly alone. Others like EVE online and Final Fantasy XI have respectable populations. But what are these places really? Beyond their value as amusements or distractions do they have any real social or artistic value?

Artistically, I think that so far MMOs have about as much value as a crackball machine. So long as the developers gets their nice shiny quarter and consumers get their sweet, sweet crack everyone is a winner. Crack here being entertainment value, and quarter being the eighty quarters a month players pay in subscription fees. There is no denying the presence of beautiful music, stunning visuals, and extensive creative writing present in these works. Still, MMOs are creations of function before form. If these games ever failed to keep us entertained or started losing their creators money, they would cease to be.

From a social standpoint I think MMOs are symptomatic of a colossal shift in human history. The advances furnished to us in the technological age have been so ground breaking, so fundamental to our understanding of the world and of each other that we really have no idea what they mean for society as a whole. Let’s approach WoW from a distance, cutting away all aspects such as context, style, and game play. Here is a forum where people from practically anywhere are able to gather, not physically, but using digital representatives of bodies. Anyone, from anywhere, may take part in this forum. Age, sex, race, religion, and appearance before entering the forum are completely irrelevant. Using their digital representatives, players work together and against each other to achieve various goals. I think it is either going to take historians or archaeologists to measure the width and breadth of the development of social anomalies like MMOs. Those of us stuck in the present are only seeing the very top of the rabbit hole.

I am hard pressed to think of a single other scenario where hundreds of complete strangers from all corners of the globe and all walks of life get together in their free time to work in unison to accomplish a given objective. Not only are people engaging in this activity in mind boggling numbers, they are paying for the privilege of doing so because they enjoy it so much. Taken outside of the gaming medium, what could the combined efforts of eleven million people accomplish? For some context, most modern Egyptologists believe that the pyramids where built by about twenty thousand souls, none of whom owned a PC.

I am curious to see what MMOs will evolve into as time goes on. There’s truly no limit to what they could mean to us as a society and while they may not be art themselves I appreciate the artistic aspects of them. I can only hope that developers will someday make one slightly less addictive so I can give them a try once again.

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