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5 June 2020

On the Appeal of Virtual Worlds

by Florian

I’ve been playing Old School Runescape on and off again for the past two years or so. After returning for a month during the Coronavirus pandemic, I decided to quit again for what I think will be the last time.

Old School RuneScape (also known as Old School or OSRS) is an MMORPG, a genre of video game I’ve been feeling more and more pessimistic about recently.

Some Context

All of this post will be written based on my experience playing Old School. That might be limiting, but I feel like the mechanics that underly the genre are universal and I don’t have the time or energy to pick up a new MMO just to write this. I’ve reached 70 base stats in the game, either in my most recent account or the one I played as a kid. I’ve done a fair portion of the quests, have high 80s in the combat stats, and joined a social clan.

I have by no means experienced the entire game or anything near it, and I’m not claiming to. I’m just writing out the oddities of the experience and reflecting on my time with it.

Massive Time Sinks

The biggest and most notable thing about MMOs (and this is by no means a novel point) is how much of a time sink they are. Prepare to click the exact same spot, over and over again, for hours or even days. This is the core gameplay loop. Click, number goes up on a screen, click again, etc. This is the so-called grind that the game is (im)famous for.

This isn’t unique to OSRS, Bejeweled is no different at its core and they’re both thinly veiled skinner boxes. MMOs, though, carry it to the extreme. Whereas Bejeweled or any mobile game will take maybe 20 to 40 hours to complete, OSRS is going to take you an entire year to max in if you played it like a full time job.

But that’s not fair, most players aren’t trying to max. I certainly wasn’t. Most are probably trying to make it to the end-game, big money-making content in some form, which, generalizing, requires maxed combat stats or ~700 hours of playtime.

Isn’t that literally every video game ever?

This was one of the points that brought me back to the game initially. If all video games abuse the same psychological mechanisms in your mind and are ultimately just clicking on a screen, isn’t it all the same?

No, it isn’t. Yes, other games involve grinds and, yes, ultimately they are tricking reward centers in your brain, but they’re also experiences.

As much as Old School players like to proclaim that the journey is the game, they’re also deluding themselves. In no way is clicking on the same ten to twenty tiles in a game for a hundred or more hours a rewarding experience.

I tend to compare my experience in OSRS with one of my other hobbies: weight-lifting. Both involve doing repetitive actions over and over again, often in the same spot, for hundreds of cumulative hours. And yet, with lifting, I’ve learned multitudes about diet, nutrition, exercise science, and myself. That’s a real experience: It’s holistic, engaging and persists beyond itself. The experience of an MMO can only yield more of itself - more clicking, more “engagement” with the game.

But that’s not fair, OSRS is a video game not reality. Let’s compare it to other video games.

I completed Pathologic 2 a few weeks ago. It was relatively short, ~20 hours to complete, and it’s utterly original. It grapples with themes of life and death, meta-narrative, and myth. I frequently felt uncomfortable and fascinated by the world, and left it feeling challenged by my definition of what a video game could be. It was a real experience and as a result I came away from it changed (albeit in a small way). It wasn’t a time-sink just for the sake of wasting time.

Endpoints and Endings

One of the other insidious features of MMOs is that they have virtually no endpoint. Even video games that are less avant-garde than Pathologic 2, like Halo for instance, have an endpoint.

At the end of twenty to forty hours, you stop. The game comes to a conclusion. This may be an obvious point, but it holds a lot of significance in your experience as you’re given space to self reflect. Am I still enjoying this? Am I still getting something out of this experience? What would I like to see change?

Like I pointed out earlier, MMOs only create more of themselves. They don’t give the player pause to think about their experience, make a decision, and act. They encourage more of the same - clicking, watching a number rise, continuing. Without a pause or a break, the player is never given an opportunity to think critically about that gameplay loop and if it’s still valuable to them.

I’d posit that MMOs really don’t have a lot of innovation as a result. The Halo series is primarily an FPS, but it’s also released Halo Wars, the Forge map maker, and some surprisingly good science fiction novels.

I suppose World of Warcraft has novels and what looks like a pretty terrible movie, but as far as video games go, it’s only created more expansions of itself - raids and grinding. I can’t help but feel that something would be lost if all games were this self-serving.

Lastly, an ending gives you resolution to try something new. Starting a new game or hobby or interest has a certain activation energy to it. You usually have to work a bit harder in the beginning to understand the systems, pick up the base skills, etc. before you can really enjoy the activity to its fullest.

If you constantly have OSRS to fall back on as an enjoyable hobby, why would you ever bother to put in the work to try anything else?

I felt, and I’m certain others feel this way, that OSRS became a background hum to my life. If I was watching Netflix, I’d boot it up and run it. If I was on Facebook or Reddit or whatever, I’d boot it up and run it. It provided a constant, dull, enjoyment of making progress.

With OSRS always being there, I was never pressed to try anything new. I could never use boredom to my advantage to explore new things, which I ultimately might enjoy more, because OSRS was filling the void of time I had. It’s the ultimate form of escapism - never dull, never ending, and always satiating - and that temptation is near impossible to keep from bleeding into reality.

The Bizarre Community

One of the supposed draws of MMOs is the community. You’re not just playing a game, you’re living in a world of people.

The problem is - the OSRS community is… strange. Definitely not toxic or even inherently bad, just strange. I’m not going to expand too much on this point, mostly because I don’t know how to articulate it well.

When the first player reached 200m xp in all skills, you have to scroll surprisingly far down to find anybody suggesting this is a poor way to spend three and a half years of your life. That player has also not returned to the game since then.

The lvl3 Firecape took multiple years of time and often required hundreds of hours per attempt. No suggestion that this is a bad use of time.

The players seem to have a strange self hatred of their hobby.

This is one of the top content creators. And again.

None of this is terrible. It’s all just an odd place to spend vast portions of your waking life.

A Short Sidebar on Content Creators

I will say, I think content creators are getting far more out of this game than the general community. They are being creative, managing marketing, design, etc. and making money. It’s certainly become a holistic hobby and experience for them even if the lifeblood of the game itself is a grind. However, content creators are not the general populace of the game and aren’t representative of the average players experience.

“Time you enjoy wasting…”

Whenever any of the above criticisms are brought up about the game being a waste of time, somebody always brings up this quote:

Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.

My response is this: Do we not exist in a shared reality anymore?

Imagine a man who derives endless pleasure from pressing his thumb and forefinger together. He does this for two to four hours per day and is entertained. He doesn’t need to do this, it’s simply for fun.

If you question the whether the above hypothetical is a good use of your free time, then you have to question the axiom you’re assuming that “Time you enjoy wasting…” quote to hold.

More philosophically put: Would you trade places with Sisyphus if he were happy?

I expect not. I think most people have some sense of what an objective waste of time is, much in the same way they have a moral objectivism.

I’d also like to point out that quote was made in 1912. A “waste” of time could not be so wholly wasted as it is with an MMO today. Indeed, our conception of leisure time has changed dramatically over the last several centuries. Then leisure time was meant to be freedom from physical labor, giving you the freedom to explore hobbies, not simply doing nothing in service of pleasure itself.

If you look at that quote in context for example, the author is referring to a father “wasting” time by raising his child instead of producing art. This is hardly a moral defense of playing Cookie Clicker all day.

A Framework for Positive Enjoyment

These games exist and are enjoyable. I don’t have a problem with their existence per-se, more that most people don’t have a positive relationship with them and little about the games encourage you to. I don’t want to completely throw the baby out with the bathwater here, though. Here’s my initial thoughts on how to make somebody’s engagement with an MMO inherently better:

I can’t avoid mentioning Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” as inspiration for this post. I see a staggering number of parallels between television and online games/culture in today’s world.

All that said, MMOs are an odd and interesting artifact of our time which seem to be here to stay. I’m probably going to have more posts on them in the future.

- Florian

tags: video games - mmos - posts