I like to think that I’m a better person now than I was when I first loaded up Final Fantasy XI. That’s how long I’ve been playing MMOs: I loaded up that game on the day it launched, started playing, and have looked back many times since. It’s nearly a third of my life, and I’ve gone from being just some guy to being… still just some guy, but some guy who has a career analyzing and writing about these games. And in the process, I think and hope I’ve become a better person.
Do I credit all of that to online games? Of course not. That’d be ridiculous. But I do think that playing MMOs can make you a better person. Not should, and not necessarily will, but I think that with time and experience, the possibility is there that they can. And I think that when taken in the right spirit, these lessons can help you be a better person in your day-to-day life. No, not by trying to get stronger by wandering out and smacking random wildlife with a sharp bit of metal but by applying lessons elsewhere.
1. You have to encounter other people
MMOs are one of the last bastions of the world that still requires you to deal with people whom you would rather not deal with on a regular basis. And you don’t like that, and I don’t like that, and the fact is that it’s still probably good for you.
On social media, you can block or unfollow people you don’t want to hear from, and some sites like Facebook curate your stream anyway so you don’t have to see those people. I’m under no obligation to watch television shows that I dislike, or even know they exist. Beyond dealing with clerks at retail stores and customer service, you can get through most of your days happily ensconced in a little bubble.
But MMOs bring you into contact with other people — sometimes people you like (who enrich your life); sometimes people you don’t like. And it’s one of the places left where you still have a reason to not be a jerk to those people you don’t like because you might still need their help on down the line. There are tangible rewards and consequences to being polite or being a jerk, respectively.
Dealing with others is like a skill, and you get better at it with practice. And as an introvert who would prefer to deal with very few people, I appreciate being forced to step a little bit outside of my comfort zone.
2. You think about progress differently
In the real world, when you have a problem, the temptation is always there to completely fix it immediately. You know what the problem is, so why not just make it not a problem any longer? The answer, of course, is that sometimes problems take time to solve and you can’t just turn around and make things all right in a night, or a day, or a week.
A friend of mine once told me her anxiety mantra as a simple litany: Do you have a plan? Are you working on the plan? Is there more you can realistically do for the plan? MMOs are good at teaching us that there comes a point when you can’t do more toward the plan on a given day. Sure, in the real world you aren’t waiting for daily resets for various things, but the principle is the same.
3. You learn to look for resources
In the American primary education system, a lot of emphasis is placed on knowing facts. The mark of being smart is knowing, say, when the Crimean war started and ended. Don’t know that? You’re not smart.
It’s not necessarily the Crimean war; sometimes it’s the Franco-Prussian war. That isn’t the point.
As I get older, I am increasingly aware that being able to recall the dates of the Crimean war is almost useless to me. However, the ability to recognize that I won’t remember that trivia and knowing how to look that information up? That is valuable. Playing a new MMO means knowing how to seek out community resources and build a reliable set of places to check for new information. If you didn’t learn it in school, you need to learn it now, and it will help you everywhere.
4. You understand what you like
I don’t care for sushi. Seriously, I’ve tried it over and over, and most of it just doesn’t taste good to me. So I don’t go out to sushi restaurants when I want a bite to eat. Playing MMOs – games which are almost universally long-term time investments – can help you narrow down what you do and don’t like while allowing you to focus your time on the things that you do like. Don’t like fantasy games? Don’t play them. Dislike anything with traces of World of Warcraft? Don’t play those games. Like crafting games? You get the idea.
5. You realize the world is in flux
Games change. Business models change. Release schedules change. Mechanics within a game change. Everything changes, all the time. Searching for permanence is a fool’s errand; rather, you need to accept that things are always going to change, and instead of railing against change, you learn to embrace it and understand it as it comes.
I don’t know about everyone else, but I’ve found realizing that things will always be changing makes me feel a lot better about the world.
6. You get better at setting goals
Have I mentioned that MMOs are a time investment? Because they are. And just like they require you to recognize that you can’t think of progress in absolute terms and that you will have to make slowly accumulating progress, MMOs force you to think about your long-term goals differently. Everything is a step along the road to a larger goal, and you have to progress at a pace that makes you comfortable and that you can keep up, lest you burn yourself out.
No, goals in the real world don’t work quite the same way. I didn’t grind up a reputation bar until I earned “Writer” as a rank. But I still had to make slow progress toward where I ultimately wanted to be, and I had to recognize that this was a long-term goal that I needed to work on over time. It changes the way you think about things.
7. You see entertainment differently
There was a period of time in my life when my not-yet wife and I played a lot of WoW chiefly because it was hours of entertainment for the smallest amount of money that would not leave us starving. The idea of buying a new game once every other month was insane. We barely had the money to keep eating. But $30 for two WoW subscriptions a month? That we could afford, and it was a lot more entertainment than just going out to one movie a month.
Don’t get me wrong, here; judging entertainment by how much time it takes up is a terrible metric. My point is that you judge entertainment by a slightly different metric just the same, and engagement does factor in to your enjoyment. “How long am I going to have fun with this?” becomes a question you need to ask and answer – and it always has been, but we’re not generally trained to think that way.
8. You gain a wider perspective on the past
I wouldn’t trade my time in Final Fantasy XI for the world. Nor would I trade my time in Star Wars: The Old Republic or Guild Wars or even EVE Online. But if you ask me about going back, my usual reaction is an emphatic negative. Those games were fun, and I’m glad I played them, and they were important for me, and that was then.
One of the elements I like about playing MMOs is that they allow you to move on and segment your history in a certain way. It’s a lot easier to look at games, recognize the bright and dark points, and realize that while nothing could ever diminish the value of the experiences, you don’t want to go do that again. It’s the sort of look at nostalgia that we don’t often get, neither celebrating it fiercely nor decrying it as silly sentimentality.
9. You accumulate diverse memories
Of course, the bright side of having all those experiences that are best left in the past also means that you wind up with a whole lot of stories to tell and things that you can recall fondly. So that’s awesome.
10. You realize self-improvement is ongoing
In a given game, you might reach the level cap, but there’s more to do then. And you might do all that can be done in that patch, but there will be another. And then there’s an expansion, and a new level cap. And even when one game shuts down, there are other games. There is always somewhere to go. There are always new adventures to be had, no matter what.
Self-improvement is the same way. Being a better person is not something you achieve after a certain amount of time; it’s a process. You strive to do better, you succeed sometimes, fail other times, and then you do it again only more. It’s an ongoing process, a way of living rather than a state you achieve. To be a better person is a journey with no defined endpoint.
And that’s a lesson worth learning, no matter how you get there.