Recently, the makers of a MMO gamer documentary called “Second Skin” have sent copies of their film to a number of — you guessed it — MMO bloggers for review and hopefully a bit of free publicity. By all accounts, it’s a depressing and one-sided look at our cherished hobby, reinforcing the negatives without really getting a handle on what positives people get out of playing these and being involved in the MMO culture. (Although I won’t deny that people do and have gotten addicted to them, especially as an escape from daily difficulties.)
That upsets me somewhat and is a good reason I pretty much avoid documentaries as a whole — few documentarians have the ability to look at both sides evenly, and instead twist the facts and stories to serve their own point (gee, Michael Moore would NEVER do that, right?). I’m a big boy, I can take a presentation that gives me two opposing viewpoints without feeling sandwiched in the middle.
If anything, hearing reports about this movie makes me think about the few times that I’ve had to explain and/or defend my MMO gaming hobby to non-players. It’s a very weird thing to outline to folks who are ignorant of this slice of the gaming culture, and what I find useful is to start with a commonly shared point of reference. If the other person is a video gamer, but hasn’t experienced MMOs, then I have a great launching point — they understand “multiplayer”, they probably know of XBox Live and hooking up to compete with/cooperate with gamers across the world, and they could probably understand why one becomes passionate about a game.
For a non-gamer, the best reference I’ve found is by trying to relate it to a hobby they’re familiar with, be it sports or, say, gardening. Personally, I find the concept of watching sports to be utterly pointless and silly, but there is the shared spark of experiencing something vicariously. The sports fan’s team is “their” team, and whether they realize it or not, they’re envisioning that they’re somehow involved with what’s going on during a match. There is a large amount of repetitive action, with the potential for a surprising payoff once in a while. If someone attacks MMO players for their hobby but thinks that watching overweight men trot a misshapen ball up and down the same 100 yards ad nausium, then there’s a reality check waiting to happen.
Or take someone who doesn’t just observe as part of their hobby, but takes active participation in it — ahh, now we’re coming closer to MMOs. You build things? Play competitive games? Collect something? Guess what, we do too. Sometimes you engage in a hobby for the long-term benefits: a final goal, a destination, a great achievement of some kind. Yet sometimes you do it just to enjoy the doing… “grinding” out a garden by planting the same things, and weeding over and over, year after year. Both of these attitudes are very present in MMOers.
Something I always point out is that engaging in MMOs is — no matter what your playstyle — a highly social activity. Even if you don’t talk to another player in the game, you’re aware of them. You keep track of what’s going on outside of the game, and discover that many other people share your interest. Hobbies get us to meet other people that we might never have otherwise because of this activity. Our friendship circles grow, we are challenged to achieve more, and we have something that makes us happy to some extent. These are aspects that are replicated across all sorts of different hobbies and interests, and even if the other party never comes to understand what I find so fascinating about these fancy-schmancy online games, they can understand the sentiment behind why I feel that way about them.