Defending MMOs

secondskinRecently, 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.


20 thoughts on “Defending MMOs

  1. Hudson August 13, 2009 / 10:26 am

    Well said. Again I don’t disagree that the issue exists, but I feel that I went into the film and was ambushed by the content. I know that plenty of documentaries present one sided arguments, but I just really felt like I was set back years in trying to defend the games I play, because I have had to battle THOSE EXACT arguments with friends and family that do not not play them.

    Hey jokes on us game players!

  2. Hudson August 13, 2009 / 10:28 am

    Wait….GET OUT ON THE GENCON FLOOR! No posting! 😉

  3. canazza August 13, 2009 / 10:37 am

    When you play an MMO with the same people for a long time you get to know them just as well as you would if you had spent that time with them in the real world. Maybe moreso, as their choice of character and their play style give away quite a bit as a first impression.

    Add to that voice communication, and it’s a more interactive phone call. People can spend hours on the phone to someone and call it being social, why can’t playing an MMO, where you have both sound *and* vision (albeit a stylised version) be counted as social, especially since you’re actually playing a game together.

    I’ve spend the past two years with the same group of friends in Warcraft, it’s been a fun journey that looks to be ending, but it’s one we’ll remember. We’ve met up in reality, even going so far as leaving the country to visit.

    The major barrier to making friends in MMO’s is that veil of anonymity. Text on it’s own won’t cut it. Voice communication goes some way to breaking it down. Guild meet-ups shatter it completly, allowing proper friendships to flower.

  4. Slurms August 13, 2009 / 10:41 am

    The tough ones to explain MMO’s to are those who really don’t have any solid hobbies.

    Overall I agree with your stand on documentaries. They’re usually one sided, so I steer clear. I haven’t had the chance to watch Second Skin_ yet, but I will at some point. And much like most documentaries,…I’ll stick my fingers in my ears at the parts I find fault in and scream “LA LA LA LA LA”

  5. BVD August 13, 2009 / 11:24 am

    Hey Syp, did you ever see a documentary called The Dungeon Masters? I caught it at the Toronto International Film Festtival last year and I thought it was a great movie that didn’t have any heavy-handed biases or try to exploit the subjects for the viewers’ amusement.

    That tidbit doesn’t really do the movie any justice, so I highly suggest you check out this great review here:

  6. Capn John August 13, 2009 / 11:37 am

    Our DSL Modem/Router died yesterday. I called our ISP and they said they’d have a replacement sent out which we could expect to receive Friday, or maybe as late as next Monday. Oddly enough it was my wife and 9 y/old son who took the news of no internet for 2-5 days the hardest. While they don’t play MMOs in the traditional sense, the wife is hooked on Facebook and the son loves playing the browser-based java games. Me? I just fired up GTA:Vice City and did a couple of missions, and I found something I’d somehow missed the last time I played through the game. VC PD’s helicopter! So I took to the skies and flew around for a while, flew over my mansion intending to land on the roof, and discovered a helipad, with a helicopter! How did I not find that the first time I played?

  7. Kevin August 13, 2009 / 11:42 am

    It’s a closed minded world that is controlled by what the masses tell them. People meet at bars and hook up all the time – that’s the “normal way.” But if a couple meets online, they better make up a lie about how you really met unless they want to feel awkward.

    If you want to sit in front of the TV for hours on end (not interacting with anything or anyone), that’s normal. Interacting with a video game for hours on end is being a loser.

    An even funnier thing: you can watch documentaries or soap operas about other peoples lives (like this one) talking bad about MMOs… or you can play an MMO and play someone else’s life.

    We know we’re right: games are fun, challenging, social, interactive, and a good way to recharge oneself for more work. Yes, people become way too addicted… but most players are no more addicted than they are to fictional TV.

  8. Frank August 13, 2009 / 12:26 pm

    Not surprisingly, I actually find the view they portrayed as more balanced, maybe even positive. Hudson’s Hideout fails to mention the parts of the documentary where they talk about The Syndicate, a multi-gaming long-term guild that has stuck together through thick and thin, a disabled person who can’t talk but finds value and positive self-esteem through playing MMOs, or the rather educational look at a Chinese Gold Farm. Or what about two of the Fort Wayne crew making conscious decisions to reduce playtime for more real life priorities? The fact that Heather and Kevin are still together by the end of the film? To be honest, I feel they were fairly real about it while not being mean-spirited.

  9. theerivs August 13, 2009 / 12:32 pm

    I found it entertaining, and even though I see your point, this casts us in a bad light. Then again I found it amusing.

    I don’t know I can see myself at one point of my life where I could of been that addict, or that guy who forgot to buy toilet paper.

    And since I battle addiction myself it touched me as well.

  10. Eronair August 13, 2009 / 1:02 pm

    “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”

    “hearing reports about this movie”

    I take it you have not watched the documentary? I think you should before commenting on it. I did not find it one sided at all and had some very good interviews. An example would be an interesting look at Gold Farming and some good interviews with people from inside the industry. Also had people who feel that MMO’s have helped them live better lives (wheelchairs). When you watch it you will understand that last part.
    In this case I bieleve you may want to view the subject before making a post that, to me, appears to paints it in the wrong color. After viewing it you may or may not feel as you first have posted. Who know you may feel even more strongly agaisnt it but at least you will have seen it and have a better subject view.

  11. Toxic August 13, 2009 / 1:45 pm

    The thing is that there is a very dark side to MMOs, and even the light side isn’t really that light.

    At best, MMOs are a place for nerds to socialize. At worst, it’s a place for nerds to damage their lives pretty seriously. If you garden for 30 hours a week, you’re a farmer. You spend 30 hours a week collecting something, you’ve got a great ebay business. All the great accomplishments you feel like you’re doing in that MMO is going to be worthless next xpac.

    The games themselves would appear to be designed to discourage healthy playing, since players who dedicate a healthy amount of time are often called noobs, and get the shit kicked out of them in pve or pvp. The flat fee also discourages reasonable play, since it costs more per hour the less you play. The whole concept seems to be to suck players into a second life, where they are deeply concerned about getting Deep Thunder or killing the boss or whatever. Most other hobbies are simply not like that. Hell, even tabletop games aren’t intentionally designed to suck up all your time. How many other hobbies are you considered casual if you only spend 10-20 hours a week playing?

    I’m not trying to say MMO’s are evil, but there’s a lot of legitimate criticisms to make of the genre as it stands today.

  12. Zubon August 13, 2009 / 5:07 pm

    I already read Mazes and Monsters. It was a lousy book.

  13. xXJayeDuBXx August 13, 2009 / 7:20 pm

    I agree with everything you said!! Like all things in life gaming can be taken to the extreme, which is evident in the crap-umentory. I think it’s ok to make a movie that shows the negative side of gaming, but it’s not ok to have that movie portray all gamers in that light.

  14. Syp August 13, 2009 / 8:44 pm

    @ Eronair – It’s great to hear a different perspective, but I’ve read about a dozen or so negative opinions about the movie from people whose judgment I trust, so I really have no desire to see it at this point.

  15. Ysharros August 14, 2009 / 7:48 am

    Well, here’s a positive opinion.

    My suspicion is that maybe the mirror it raises is a little uncomfortable to look in?

    The movie isn’t groundbreaking by any means, but it’s not particularly depressing either *unless* you already buy into the “gamers are sad pathetic creatures who would do so much better if they were at the bar/bowling alley” schtick, however unconsciously.

    Or maybe I’m just less prone to feeling attacked that most other games.

    Still, I’m a little disheartened that you of all people would post opinions before watching the thing yourself. Oh well.

  16. Ysharros August 14, 2009 / 7:48 am

    Gah. “Than most other gamers”…

    Finger dysfunction.

  17. Buhallin August 14, 2009 / 10:36 am

    IMHO, one of the major problems with the perception of MMO players is that they’re simply NOT FUN GAMES.

    I’ve been a gamer all my life, and dealt with the strange looks and stigma that comes with it. But when I describe the shared storytelling or acting side of RPGs, or the historical recreation potential of tabletop games, people at least get it. But when you tell people about how you ran Molten Core last night (again) and the Hunter boots you wanted dropped but you missed the roll and it’s going to be another dozen trips before you see them again probably, they don’t get it.

    MMOs have very little actual game to them. They’re dull, repetitive engines where what little gameplay they have is built entirely on exploiting an AI which has gotten dumber over time rather than smarter. They’re based entirely on obsessive-compulsive reward behavior. I think it was Keen who recently described leveling up as his favorite thing in MMOs – power to him, but he’s certainly absorbed the rat-reward structure quite well.

    So the core activities of MMOs aren’t healthy – they don’t force mental growth, and they certainly don’t provide entertainment just from the game. So that leaves the social side. But is that really all it’s cracked up to be? For every good, strong, thriving, multi-game guild there are a hundred who are overcome by infighting and drama. On an individual level online games bring out the absolute worst in people, prompting behavior they would never dream of showing in public.

    To a certain extent some of this is standard virtual anonymity at work, but I think the social benefits of MMOs are HIGHLY overrated. It certainly doesn’t stack up well when compared to all the drama and obsession out there.

  18. Andy August 15, 2009 / 4:51 pm


    You really should watch it and form your own opinions about it.

    People are quick to condemn things shown in the film, however there is context for everything.

    (f/e; from watching the film, you’d think I neglected my children because I wanted to spend time raiding. Truth of it is, I took a three month break from playing MMO’s and when I actually came back to raiding, it was never until after both kids were in bed and I had spent some time with the wife. Not sleeping much helps)

    Are we hardcore gamers? Yes. Is that the prevailing messaged portrayed in the film or is it rather a story of 4 friends who are coming to different places in their lives? That’s up to you.

  19. Syp August 15, 2009 / 6:15 pm

    @ Andy – Perhaps I shall. One day. One epic day indeed.

  20. angelsandarmor August 18, 2009 / 10:13 pm

    Ah yes, the MMO sterotype… I’ve encountered it often. I’ve played WoW for four years, tried WAR and even did some DAoC back in the day. What I enjoy about them is the social aspects. Being in a guild, talking to the friends I’ve made over the year. I’ll regularly get together with people in my guild, and even some you’ve left but have remained good friends.

    What’s frustrates me is the commonly held view that what we do is a waste of time. That somehow sitting in front of the television 2-3 hours a night is more productive than playing a computer game?

    I’ll often point out to critics of MMOs that they spend more time watching TV than I do playing games they’ll claim “But that’s different! That’s how I relax!”.

    Well, MMOs are my form of entertainment. I read, have an active sports life and game. I don’t watch TV, cut that out years ago.

    My couple of hours of MMO game time is “an addiciton”. Their couple of hours watching TV is down time.

    MMOs are a form of hobby, simple as that. Ultimately it’s about personal taste.

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