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The Things we Carry (Part 1, it turns out)

September 9, 2011

Dear Reader,

I was recently directed from MMO Melting Pot to an excellent blog that had hitherto flown under my radar. The blog, Brave Tank, written by a character of the same name, documents the trials and tribulations of yet another adult WoW player who’s working to balance life, family (husbands and dogs count), and fun. I say “yet another” not in a derogatory, “it’s been done” sense, though, but in the sense that the gaming community is aging. While it’s easy to misrepresent the amount of adults to kids in the community simply due to the more likely participation in a written form by adults, the fact remains that there are a lot of us adults out there, and more of us every day, aging away while the games, sometimes unfulfillingly, stay the same.

At any rate, Bravetank’s post got me thinking several divergent but related thoughts, which I decided might make for good conversation today (and next time, apparently). First, what effect might an aging game population have on the market? Secondly, how do our own personalities carry into the games we play? Giving credit where it’s due here: Syl produced an excellent discussion of the first over at Raging Monkeys earlier this week, so I’ll be piggybacking on that post a bit, and of course I have Bravetank to thank for the other idea.

There’s a joke about being a college professor, particularly a male one, that “You get older, but they stay the same,” which I guess is supposed to highlight or excuse some misconduct on the professor’s part. You needn’t worry about me; I’m a firm believer in the unbreakable trust between students and teachers. However, the saying pretty adequately sums up some recent feelings I’ve been having about the games around me (not just WoW, mind you). Let me be clear: I’m enjoying WoW and Vindictus and Darkspore and Terraria and all the other little games I’ve played recently. That said, in teaching a course about games, fun, and learning, I’ve informed myself about some things that have made me worried.

Just as Romeo and Juliet cropped up a lot while I was teaching that last semester, Raph Koster‘s A Theory of Fun for Game Design has been cropping up a lot here this semester. You shouldn’t be surprised, though, dear reader; being a teacher, as I learn new things, I’m dying to share them. In this instance, I want to talk about something he wrote about mastering a game. He writes

Engaging in an activity that you have fully mastered, being in the zone, feeling the flow, can be a heady experience… [but] Games need to encourage you to move on. They are not there to fulfill power fantasies…

Making you feel good about yourself in a pretend arena isn’t what games are for. Games are for offering challenges, so that you can then turn around and apply those techniques to real problems. Going back through defeated challenges in order to pass time isn’t a productive exercise of your brain’s abilities. Nonetheless, lots of people do it.

Some choose to play for “style points,” [i.e. achievements] which is at least a sign that they are creating new challenges for themselves. But once you get past the point of doing something perfectly, do yourself a favor and quit the game.

Of course, perfecting something in an MMO is a difficult activity, since there’s always new factors being thrown in by other people. However, we can talk about our own gameplay, which might not lead to a perfect boss fight due to outside factors, but can still be perfect in a personal sense. I recently talked with Gaz over at Mana Obscura about this in his discussion about the Trifecta (dps/heal/tank). I wrote there that I think a lot of attacks against MMOs and the trifecta in general come from our mastery of it as a concept. I don’t think people dislike the trifecta in and of itself, but are simply yearning for a new challenge, a new pattern to master in game play. Even if the pattern comes back to the trifecta (which Fallen Earth did and I’m sure Secret World will), just offering a new direction to learn from will be refreshing.

The point I’m ramblingly trying to make is this: WoW offers us new challenges in several directions, both in terms of classes, specs, roles, and encounters (be they PvP or PvE). However, the broad pattern of these has not changed very much over the almost 7 year run. Big Butt Bear Blogger said just the other day

…if all you dwell on now are the things you cannot adapt to or that have ‘ruined’ the game for you…

Then stop playing. Leave. Put the damn game down, cancel your subscription, and go play Rift. Or pre-order SWTOR! Or try Guild Wars 2, or LOTRO, or Warhammer 40K, or World of Tanks, or any of seemingly hundreds of other options…

It’s not the game. It’s you. Grow up and look around you with fresh eyes, open your mind, no really open it this time, and maybe actually make an effort on YOUR part to find some friends and play with them.

He was more right than he knew, but also a little wrong. The issue does rest with the player, not the game. The game is as strong and fun and diverse as it’s ever been, so when BBB talks about having so much fun with it, I have no doubt that he is. Where he was wrong, though, was at the start. It’s not the things we cannot adapt too that are hurting us, it’s the things we adapted to long ago that haven’t changed that are hurting us.

Some dissatisfied players absolutely love the feeling they got when they first mastered their class, or a particular boss, or a PvP battleground because their brain fed them lots of dopamine as a reward for learning. They’re struggling to get that back, but once something’s learned, you can’t learn it again. They want WoW to challenge us more – not in a “harder fights” sense, but in the sense simply of something new. You can love and hate a game at the same time; still, Koster’s suggestion rings true, echoed loudly by BBB. It may be time to move on.

1000 words and I haven’t even gotten to my second topic. I’d keep it for another day (turns out I will, too), but I really wanted to highlight Bravetank’s excellent post today before it gets replaced with another excellent post, so I’m surging forward, in honor of BBB, to make a bearwall of my own.

The topic of moving on is tricky, you see, because so much of what’s out there doesn’t actually present us with new challenges. As an aging generation of gamers… uh… ages… we’re finding we’re getting tired of the same old things. Simultaneously, though, we’re aging, which means we don’t really want to change, that new pathways in our brain are harder to carve, and our physical twitch speeds are slowing down. I joked with my buddy the other day who was complaining about Far Cry’s lack of save points; there were only checkpoints, and he was whining about having to do the same pulls over and over due to one small error. I teased him that 5 years ago he’d have been doing just fine and wouldn’t have been worried about it. Surprisingly (and somewhat distressingly), he agreed.

We’re both hitting the age where the first big slowdown happens. While I still play the sniper archetype in most FPS’s, I noticed I was missing more in EYE and Rainbow Six 2 (which also only has checkpoints, and now I’m the one complaining to him about getting killed by people I never even saw. Fortune favors irony). Luckily, I know from my studies that the aging brain doesn’t get worse, it just gets different. Older brains are better at holistic problems, whereas younger brains are better at focused problems. It’s why we forget what we’re looking for when we go to find it, but why we also know when people are lying to us without any direct evidence. A holistic mind sees divergent parts and assembles them well. That’s something for raid leaders, though, not raiders. It means we can note who out of 25 people in a raid is standing in fire while we, ourselves, are standing in the fire.

We carry a lot with us into our gaming world, as Bravetank discussed, and age is one of those things. I wonder what kind of new games will have to be developed that are less twitchy and more holistic in their design. However, age isn’t the only thing we carry; we carry our personalities, as well. Ah, heck, we’re getting too long now. I guess I’ll have to do a part 2.

Sincerely,

Stubborn (and rambling)

7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2011 10:36 am

    I am so happy to read your post for many different reasons. I’m really glad my original post has prompted more thoughts and debates about this topic and I found your wider topic regarding the aging population fascinating. Thanks too for all the kind things you said. I’d never thought about our brains changing as we age & that this alters the gaming experience we have and want. Really fascinating to start thinking about that. Got my brain whirring (which never ends well!). Never considered myself representative of an aging population though – but I know that’s just total denial on my part!

    • September 9, 2011 11:56 am

      I feel like I’ve accidentally implied that a girl (woman? I don’t know what to do with this) is old; I certainly didn’t meant to suggest that, and perhaps I should apologize for a faux pas on my part. Of course, I know that’s not what you meant, but my stodginess sometimes gets the best of me.

      You’ll find more and more as you blog how interconnected this whole community is, almost to the point of being completely insular only to one another (is that redundant?). One day, WoW Insider will pick up one of your posts and your views will go through the roof, showing how many people are really out there reading, but somehow this little group (check pinkpigtailinn.com’s blog roll for a good idea of who’s in the group) is really self-informed and reciprocal in a lot of their writing. There’s no shame in that, either; good writers borrow, great writer’s steal!

      It’s been about two months for you, so it would feel strange to say “welcome,” but for lack of a better word, Welcome to the community!

  2. September 9, 2011 2:29 pm

    No faux pas at all!! :) Is this the bit where I say my age?! Let’s just say I’m holding onto the last months of my 30s with tight clenched hands and gritted teeth. I think that definitely makes me old in gaming terms & I’d be hard pushed to get a career in any sport now (I say now as if I could ever have had one!) apart from perhaps darts?? I was once in a group where people started saying their ages & I stayed really quiet & hoped they’d forget I was there! But I have come across lots of different ages and that’s really good. Just never thought about it the way you did – so that was really interesting to me. Thank you for the welcome as well. It’s been really nice joining the community- everyone has been very kind, welcoming & supportive :)

  3. September 10, 2011 2:35 am

    Also had to add this morning I’ve had so many visitors that have come from your site. It’s been amazing. Very many thanks. :)

    • September 10, 2011 11:06 am

      My pleasure. Some of the big old sites have shut down, like Pink Pigtail Inn and Righteous Orbs, so it’s a bit harder sometimes to get noticed. I was lucky enough to have Larisa at PPI pick me up pretty quickly, as did MMO Melting Pot, but you’ll find as time passes if you keep providing quality content that fewer and fewer views will come from other sites as people are specifically tuning in to yours. One suggestion I’d make is to set up the RSS feed on your site (it’s just another widget you can add) and put it at the top so people can easily subscribe to you; that way, they won’t have to use other sites to see if you’ve updated; they’ll just get your post in their mailbox / feed reader.

  4. September 11, 2011 8:21 am

    Thanks for that suggestion. I’ll do that right away. I’m fixated on my viewing numbers – I just find it all so exciting :)

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