What Is It About Online Games?

Over the past few months my rather generous computer gaming time has been divided between the Nordic lands of Skyrim and a galaxy far far away in Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR). These two games are both RPG’s, they’re both AAA titles and they both attempt to involve the player in their deep, all-voiced worlds.

The largest difference between the two is that while SWTOR is attempting to breach the online hegemony of WoW (if you don’t know this acronym stop reading now), Skyrim has very purposefully chosen the controversial route of being single player only.

But there are many other differences. In Skyrim the graphics are superior, the landscapes more attractive, the story much more involving, the freedom of action greater and the combat system deeper. When looked at critically, Skyrim is the better game.

Any critics scoring will back me up. And yet since I downloaded the outrageous 25gb of Star Wars goodness I have not once returned to Tamriel, too engrossed am I with the lightsaber swinging and blaster spamming that SWTOR delivers.

Why is this? I sit here contemplating, conveniently with a laptop in front of me. Why is it that I’m playing a sub-par game who’s only redeeming feature, when compared to the brilliance of the Elder Scrolls fifth adventure, is its online…ness?

Similarly, why are there still over ten million players rerunning the same battlegrounds in WoW, grinding the same raids over and over and over (and many more) again? The game is more than seven years old people! MOVE ON!

So, I am going to take this chance to look at why online games are so appealing and why millions of gamers spend billions (prove me wrong!) of hours grinding away at the same content when such promising alternatives clog the video game market.

Social Comfort:

Though gamers have come a long way from the stereotype of their parents’ basement promulgated during the 90’s, the truth is that there is still a portion of gamers that are made up of the more socially awkward individuals. While all of my male (and a few of my female) friends are gamers, only a few of them would be considered ‘nerds.’

But I know they’re out there. Slouched in front of a computer somewhere, munging on a breakfast burrito and wondering why they’re still a virgin at twenty-five. For these timid and slovenly individuals the attraction of online games lie in the social freedom they allow them.

A meek, bespectacled teenager becomes a virile warrior with pauldrons of masterful slaughter when online and can interact with his fellow gamers without the fear of embarrassment or retribution. With a keyboard to hide behind he can be charming, underhanded or aggressive in a world with no social preconceptions and empowering anonymity.

Furthermore the online realm provides a comfortable peer group with which to communicate. Let’s look at a scenario:

A man walks into a bar, sits down next to a comely female and regales her with tales of his level 80 Troll Rogue. He tells her of the dangers of Stranglethorn PvP, the joys of gaining your first mount and the woe attached to a failed raid. One of two things are going to happen:
1) The girl politely listens with a strained expression on her face, one part pity, two parts revulsion, leaving the man at the soonest opportunity to laugh about it with her friends.
2) She laughs in his face and tells him exactly what she thinks of his online gaming enthusiasm.

Laughed at

Then he said, “I’m Combat specced” What a noob.

As disappointing as it is, women and most men (at least in public) will scorn your attempts at gaming related conversation. And yet gamers are just like everyone else and need their fill of social interaction to stop them curling up into the foetal position and eating nothing but Kit Kats.

When online and participating in an MMO of some description it is perfectly acceptable and in fact encouraged to talk about the game and pretty much nothing else. Online games provide an opportunity for gamers to get their fill of social interaction in a non-threatening environment that accepts and reciprocates their interests. In this way gamers are attracted to online games not just for the games themselves but for the social environment they cultivate.

Competitiveness:

Humans are by their nature competitive creatures. There is nothing more satisfying than knowing and having proof that you are better than your peers. The majority of the world’s population gets this either from the work place, armed conflict or its civilised counter part, sports. Speaking for myself here, and I can only imagine a lot of gamers are in the same boat, I’m just not fantastic at sports.

I enjoy kicking a soccer ball around, hitting a squash ball against a wall and doing a (bad) top gun impression while playing volleyball, but I’m just not good. If I was good at sport I’d be playing it on the weekends, going to sports parties (where I imagine the beautiful people hang out) and wouldn’t have time to play six hours of SWTOR a day. With no good wars going on, and with the work place really being just a source to get my man toys, I need a way to get my competitiveness on.

Online games, especially of the Modern Warfare or Battlefield variety offer the perfect outlet for the modern competitive male. You may be mediocre at kicking a football but as long as you can take a headshot at 700m from a moving helicopter, you’re still able to feel that sense of achievement that only comes with the defeat of another human being. And on the flipside if you don’t win, well, it doesn’t matter.

Unlike sports where there are spectators witnessing your inadequacy, there is no one around to see your online failure. Except of course for that 12 year old crouching repetitively over your dead avatar after the tenth time he’s stabbed you in the back.

Teabag

Then he makes a shirt to commemorate the event

Investment:

Most activities in life worth doing take a significant investment. It may be an investment of money, of time or an emotional investment. The majority of online games require a combination of all three. Let’s use your standard MMORPG as an example.

Firstly there is the initial monetary investment as well as the monthly fees. Then there is the time that you put into your character, which can often range in the hundreds of hours. Lastly there is the emotional investment you’ve not only put into the character but also the people you’ve met, grouped with and become friends with through that character.

WoW graph days per level

WoW average play time per level: All that time wasted… he rolled a Hunter!

If one day you stop playing the game or delete the character, you are essentially walking away from a large part of your life. All those hours, all those friends you made are useless and gone the second you put down the game.

I’m sure there are gamers out there who play online games for the fact that they require this investment and are in a sense then trapped by what first appealed to them. Which brings me to my last point.

Addiction:

The academics are still out on whether games are addictive. But I can talk from my own experience (and the benefit of needing no solid evidence) and say that online games, more than others, hold a certain level of addiction. A certain anecdote comes to mind when talking about gaming addiction.

I was a young impressionable boy of seventeen and had just decided I was quitting WoW. It was the right thing to do. $15 (US$ when their economy wasn’t in the toilet) a month was a serious investment, I needed the time for study and it was losing its appeal. I lasted two days. Cut to 01:00am on that third night and I was huddled in front of a WoW account screen, shaking like a meth addict, trying desperately to enter my Mum’s credit card details to re-activate my account.

Like a weak-willed smoker I have gone back to WoW on six separate occasions since that first premature attempt at quitting. Each time spending more money and downloadable bandwidth than I could really justify to myself just so I could get my fix when I needed it.

These lapses almost always coincided with the latest expansions and I live in fear of the upcoming Mists of Pandaria. What more does one need in life than drunken Panda monks and Pokemon? Addiction implies dependence upon a substance. Can online gamers really say they don’t in some way depend upon their games?

Other hand should be dragging the screen

This use to be me. Then I got my own car.

Due to a mixture of providing social comfort, an outlet for competitiveness, requiring a significant investment and holding a certain level of addiction, online games manage to draw and then maintain huge player bases well past the traditional shelf lives of games. So share with me. Take a good hard look at yourself and tell me why YOU play online games.

Is it due to a complicated combination of theoretical psychosis or because you enjoy trolling NOOBS? Maybe take this opportunity to let your level 85 rest and take a look on Steam and see what else is out there. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem…

Chazz enjoys the solitude of tiny figurines that can’t talk back when he orders them into formation. To learn more about him click here. To read more about online etiquette and the types of behaviours you are likely to find, read this.