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Are MMOs Making Us Less Detail Oriented?

February 7, 2014

Dear Reader,

I’m a voracious reader.  I admit to having low periods of reading where I may only do a book a month, but during my peaks (summers, often), I can easily put away two or three big books a week (I read the first three books of the Wheel of Time series in about 8 days last summer).  I’m an English teacher, literacy proponent in the community, and volunteer at the library, so why don’t I bother to read quest text?

It wasn’t always like this.  I used to pour over every single quest in WoW.  It became a problem because my buddy, who was leveling his second character then (in BC by the time I got to max level), had read all the quests (he had the Loremaster achievement before it was an achievement) and wanted me to hurry up.  I didn’t, though, making him frustratingly wait as I read and then double checked for details (as this was back when you needed to actually know where to go, which might be on another continent).

Nowadays, I can’t be bothered.  Pick up the quest, scan it for relevant words (if there are any), note the quest tracker direction, and head off.  That’s how I play MMOs now, and I have no doubt I’m missing out occasionally on some good stuff.

It’s really come to my attention playing Neverwinter Nights with my other buddy (heretoforth referred to as my NWN buddy, or my young buddy, or my math buddy).  There have been multiple occasions where he’s had to point out that the information I’m seeking is in the quest journal right under my nose.  I’ll wander around a while aimlessly, and he’ll eventually clue in that I’m lost, and he’ll prompt me with, “Did you read the quest in the journal?”

Well, shoot.  The thing is, I used to read all the quest text.  I remember when I originally played NWN, there were other circumstances where the relevant info was there in your journal, and after once being lost and by chance checking it and successfully finding my answer, I was very diligent about reading the journal every time the game “pinged” that there was an update.

So what’s changed?  I wholeheartedly admit it might just be me.  Studies show that as you get older, your brain becomes better at holistic tasks but worse at details, which is why we believe wisdom comes with age but still laugh when grandpappy can’t find the glasses on his head.  Alternatively, I might have seen enough “game” text to bore an horse to death (cows are far harder to bore to death.  Think about it) and simply have had my fill.  Still.  I don’t really think that’s it.  Like with most things, I think there must be an aspect to training about it, otherwise I don’t understand how I can love so much to read in one aspect of life but not bother to in another.

And really, why bother to read the quests?  There’s markers pointing the way, trackers telling you the relevant tasks, and tags on the monsters verifying you’re killing the right ones.  Everything you need is right at your fingertips, so why stop playing to actually talk to the NPC?

Of course, this kind of slope can be a slippery one.  When convenience trumps manners, we often end up with what we see in LFD and LFR: people treated like disposable commodities.  Then again, maybe I’m just making those connections because it serves my preconceived outlook on such things.

So I don’t know.  I suspect MMOs are making us less detail oriented, making us read and see less.  Below was the first screen in Shadowgate, an old point and click adventure for the NES.  This was the very first part of the game.  You had to figure out to click the skull above the door to reveal a key.  There were no instructions on doing that.  There were no hints.  You just had to be detail oriented and figure it out.

You have to click the skull.

You have to click the skull.

That one wasn’t even that tough.  Here’s another screen from Maniac Mansion, another point and click for the NES.  Here, there’s was one loose brick out of that entire background that you had to “push” to progress.  Had to push, not could “pull” or could “turn on” or just click for a piece of bonus gear or buff.  Had to push.  I don’t know if the modern gamer would be patient enough to figure out what was going on, since there were no real hints on how to move forward.  I was perpetually stuck here, forever.  I never beat the game.

Maniac Mansion

You had to select “push” and then find the loose brick.

So yeah, maybe it is me.  But I don’t really think so.  I think we’re being trained to consume more, faster, and I think that it’s making us less detail oriented, less able to appreciate the hard work the designers are putting in.  That’s why sites like Postcards from Azeroth (in the blogroll) are so amazing; they make us look at things we’ve seen a hundred times with fresh eyes, to actually look instead of checking the mob tags, watching the tracker go up, and running back to turn in the quest for some new crappy boots.


Stubborn (and less detail oriented than he used to be)


15 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2014 10:15 am

    Not a new issue, that’s a roughly 7 year old comic. 🙂

    When I’m playing a single-player RPG I’ll read the full quest text and will generally even read supplementary lore (in-game books, etc). I primarily play those games for the story and I’ll appreciate it as much as possible (some RPG stories are less than stellar) while playing even when it significantly slows me down since I want to get as much value out of the game as possible since it’s a one-shot deal cost-wise. The longer it takes, the more value I get out of my $.

    MMOs… somewhat different situation. I’m a lot more likely to skip quest text and especially supplementary lore in an MMO when I’m paying a monthly sub and on the clock, so to speak. I don’t think that’s the MMOs fault, though, so I think your original premise is backwards… MMOs don’t make me less detail-oriented, instead, I’m less detail-oriented when playing MMOs, when progress doesn’t just correlated to power, it also correlates to RELATIVE power. Story still matters for me in an MMO but it’s only a part of the focus, not the bulk of it, so it gets less attention than it would in a single-player RPG.

    • February 7, 2014 12:12 pm

      I tend to feel the same way when I’m actively loading up an MMO; I just wonder if my own increased play time in MMOs is detrimentally affecting my vastly reduced play time in single-player games. I suspect that progress to power correlation flows backwards as well, and if you ARE so detail oriented in single player games, why aren’t you now in MMOs? Surely your ingrained habits didn’t just vanish as soon as you started playing; they atrophied over time until now you approach MMOs differently. What caused that change? If it’s training, then I’m not sure I’m wrong. It may just be that the training is happening below our radars while we consciously justify it as a decision we’ve made. I don’t know.
      Thanks for the comment!

    • February 7, 2014 3:07 pm

      It’s interesting, though, it’s a passive, unconscious switch that gets flipped for me… the vast majority of my gaming time in a year is MMOs, only once or twice a year do I take a bit of a break and weave in some single-player RPGs… but regardless of how much MMO play I’ve had and whatever “speed play” momentum I’ve accrued, when I start up an RPG, I play the RPG in a slow, methodical style that isn’t even close to how I typically plan an MMO. What I refer to as my “completionist tendencies” in MMOs is DWARFED by how I play RPGs.

      Having given it a bit more thought (and seeing Beshara’s comment below) since I posted that I have a couple of other related thoughts. First is voiced content… WoW specifically has very little of that and what there is is generally cutscenes. Most semi-recent and some quite old RPGs are fully voiced which is (assuming it’s done at least competently) a much more immersive experience and encourages you to follow the story. Also, RPGs tend to be somewhat linear, once you’ve done something, you probably won’t have a chance to go back and experience it again so there’s some incentive to do it all while you’re there. MMOs, on the other hand, have very little of that limitation in general… if you skip a zone or quest line you can go back and do them later.

      Another aspect is that an RPG story is generally self-contained within the game… you generally know what’s happening. When I started playing WoW it was mid-BC and I played it entirely solo… just questing. I quested 2 toons to max level so I experienced the story about as well as I could, short of end-game stuff. Despite that, any time WoW Insider does any sort of lore-related post from BC, they talk about stuff (including non-endgame stuff that I actually played through) that went completely over my head at the time… maybe it’s fair to say that MMOs are more about the big picture, RPGs are more about the moment, and play styles naturally adapt based on that.

      Also, for some reason a farmer who needs my help clearing his fields of wild animals seems more legitimate in an RPG since only I can help him (well, he could always pick up a sword himself, but that’s crazy talk…), while in an MMO, any of the other 9 guys wandering around could help him (and probably are… in fact, we’re competing for mobs and they’re actually slowing me down from completing my task!).

      I dunno. It’s definitely a thing, I’m just not sure that MMOs have changed any sort of baseline behaviour of mine… I don’t think I’m any less detail-oriented in non-MMOs.

    • February 8, 2014 10:07 am

      Yeah, I don’t like seeing tons of other “supposedly unique heroes” running around solving the same problems as I am. That’s always bothered me, but it’s a conceit of the genre, so we accept it. I’m not sure why my switch isn’t functioning as well as yours. It may be that I seem to always be playing something – even with “single player” I often end up doing a co-op with one buddy or the other – so there’s still that impetus not to make the other person wait. I’ll have to monitor what I do with Kingdoms of Amalur, since it’s truly only single-player. I certainly took my time and read in Shadowrun, now that I think about it, but I was relatively unfamiliar with the genre, too, so maybe the “tired of reading fantasy quest text” may be more true than any subconscious training. I don’t know, but you’ve made a lot of good points here.
      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Beshara permalink
    February 7, 2014 2:34 pm

    I think you may be right. I think currently MMOs are geared to be more fast paced action than more traditional RPGs. It used to be, in WoW, you had the quest text scroll slowly. For me, it drew my eyes in and made me want to read it, even though I may have read it before. Then they added the speed up option, probably due to feedback from people playing alts who already knew what to do. I recently went to try to undo that option, to make the quest text slow down again, but the option has been removed an expansion or two ago. Now if you want to read the text you have to make yourself slow down, but that’s not easy to do when the quest tracker shows you exactly what to do right away. I think voice overs are used for important parts because you can listen and act at the same time. If you play an RPG with a similar feel, your MMO training could kick in, making you rush through to the action rather than slowing down to read quest text.
    I don’t think you’ve lost your attention to detail overall, unless you notice this behavior in other areas. You might just need a re-conditioning of your RPG behavior, to somehow separate it from MMO behavior.

    • February 7, 2014 4:04 pm

      If I played more single-player RPGs, I think I could do that, but the vast majority of my play time is not in such games. I’m often playing other types of games entirely or, if it is an RPG, an MMO. As a result, I don’t get enough time to practice being a better, more engaged player.

      I was talking to my buddy about the scrolling text; neither of us remembered that until you brought it up, but yeah, we remember turning off the scrolling all together, which is another aspect of feeling hurried.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. February 7, 2014 7:15 pm

    Ah, Maniac Mansion! I played that on the PC and did complete it eventually… but not without help from friends. I also remember it having dark rooms which were nothing but black screens that forced you to hover your mouse cursor around until you found the pixel-sized light switch.

    I do think there has been a general move in the online world away from experiencing and observing to running along and doing, so things that delay you from getting into the action (like reading quest text or having to pay attention to details) increasingly get removed as inconveniences. In an MMO you also have the aspect of “peer pressure” (e.g. in a WoW dungeon I don’t dare to pause and read the quests until the very end as the rest of the group might initiate a vote kick for “being afk” if I read them at the start). I don’t think it’s a completely unavoidable trend though; there are still games that encourage a slower, more relaxed approach and you can make a conscious choice to embrace it (as I feel I generally have).

    • February 8, 2014 10:03 am

      Ah yes, I remember the dark room now, too. Seems like silly stuff nowadays, doesn’t it? But it makes sense, in a way.
      I also agree about the option for slower pacing, but I’m not sure exactly how. I could bring up TSW’s investigation quests, which required a LOT of patience (and 4 college graduates to figure them out, at least on my end, and even that took a lot of misfires), but I don’t know if that’s about pacing or simply a different style of quest; I suspect it’s more the latter.

      Games that encourage exploration, too, may seem like they encourage slower-paced gameplay, but I think that there’s been enough damage done by all the gogogoing in other MMOs that getting that vista (in GW2) or finding the datachrons (in SWtoR) just becomes another sort of gogogo quest. Really exploring, really seeing what’s out there, I just don’t think’s being done by a vast majority of the players nowadays. It doesn’t compete with the Skinner rewards we get for doing other things, and so it’s somewhat lost its appeal to so many.

      I agree, though, that I’d like a slower paced MMO, something that encouraged taking time and enjoying the game.
      Thanks for the comment!

  4. February 7, 2014 8:32 pm

    “I don’t know if the modern gamer would be patient enough to figure out what was going on, since there were no real hints on how to move forward. I was perpetually stuck here, forever. I never beat the game.”

    The problem is that the “puzzle” is neither something intuitive that you can figure out if you think about it nor something that has hints on what you need to do.

    This is why quests are supposed to actually have descriptions that give a hint of what to do. If you enter an RPG and you’re asked to bring the town wizard the “sword of the Fire Giant Lord of Smoky Mountain,” this is an awful quest unless they either tell you which direction to go or you have a map to find Smoky Mountain.

    Or, alternatively, if you had to pass by Smoky Mountain to GET to the town then the developers can assume you’d remember the location if it was memorable.

    But if you’ve never seen Smoky Mountain and you have no reasonable idea where it might even be (whether by quest text or a map) then it’s a terrible quest.

    Quests are also a way for the developers to make sure you understand something significant happened. Consider the sick man on the Ethereal Plane. If you find him and nothing happens, you’d be perfectly justified in thinking “Eh, it’s just flavor.” But the fact it sparks a quest indicates to you as the player that there’s something you’re intended to do about it — and may fill in some of the details which are intended to for you to understand but which might not have been obvious.

    • February 8, 2014 9:59 am

      That’s just it; I didn’t note the quest log updating there – I thought he was just flavor, a lesson about being ethereal. By the time we’d met the mage, talked for 30 minutes about Rimie, killed all the Slaadi, and gotten over to the farm, he was long and truly forgotten.

      That’s not to say I disagree with any of your points; I just didn’t notice it. Whether we were discussing the raid and I missed the noise or whether it was an issue of detail-disorientation, I can’t be sure. But I missed it, and it once again didn’t occur to me to check my quest log about the little girl.

      I actually really liked that quest design; it was open ended enough to be done out of order; I just wasn’t aware there was a quest there at all. And the intuitive vs. non-intuitive gameplay of the past was certainly an issue. A lot of old point and click adventures required some very non-intuitive steps to complete, but that was accepted as part of the genre. Now it’s not. Perhaps that idea of more intuitive gameplay is something you should tackle at your blog; I may be too old school and sold on accepting non-intuitive stuff (though of course I’ll still happily badmouth it when I find it) to really be fair about it; I don’t know. I don’t see a problem with the skull or the brick “puzzle.” It’s what you expected back then. I was likely too young to fully understand the genre when I was playing through Maniac Mansion (though I did finish Shadowgate). It does stand out as one of the games recognized and lauded by that generation, so it can’t be all bad.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. Mercury permalink
    February 8, 2014 12:36 am

    My dear English professor, you mean to say that you used to PORE over every single quest in WoW.

    • February 8, 2014 1:51 am

      I think the appropriate phrase here is “Oh snap.”

    • February 8, 2014 9:53 am

      Shall I come over and edit your posts? 😛
      To quote Vonnegut, “I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.”

    • February 8, 2014 9:51 am

      No, I pour over them. I pour gravy over them, pour soda over them, pour… you get the point.
      Yes, I don’t know if I’ve ever consciously noted the spelling of that before, whether it’s just from lack of exposure to that exact written phrase (studies suggest it takes seven encounters with a new word to begin to internalize it) or what, but I’ll admit to being ignorant of the spelling, not simply having made a mistake. According to Worf here you’re right, though, you’re quite right; I had no idea another meaning of “pore” was “to study,” but it seems you’re quite right.
      As I tell my students, it’s through understanding our mistakes that we improve. Thanks for the comment!


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