Massively Overthinking: What important lessons are MMORPGs failing to impart?

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MOP reader and Patron Brett has a burning question about the lessons we’re learning (and not learning) from playing MMORPGs.

“In his book Theory of Fun, Raph Koster suggests that games are really just systems of learning things in a way that we enjoy with fewer consequences. In his words, ‘That’s what games are, in the end. Teachers. Fun is just another word for learning.’ If that’s true, then modern MMORPGs and their narratives would seem to be a pretty mixed bag of lessons – individual power can be accumulated like wealth; evil can be conquered through solo and group acts of courage; violence is a feasible solution to almost every problem; your race, nation or profession defines a lot about who you are; and accessorizing with the most expensive bag is possibly the most crucial decision to make before leaving home.

“So with so much opportunity at the moment for our real-world societies and communities to be better, I’d like to know what you think is the most important lesson or lessons that MMORPGs could be teaching us, but currently don’t? How could these games leave us wiser or more richer people for the experience?”

I’ve posed Brett’s questions to the team for the resurgence of Massively Overthinking this week.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Oh my god, this is my Overthinking. I could write a thesis on this, but I’ll try to spare you all.

I think if there’s one thing that all games do teach but people simply don’t like: just because you did everything right, doesn’t mean you’ll be successful. There are a lot of lesson MMOs are capable of teaching if you’re invested in the communities. Sharing, communication, diplomacy, creating lists… I’ve written some of my personal ones from my first MMOs. But one thing I see a lot of people… no, gamers, is randomness. Eliot’s actually penned a really good example of all the lengths you have to go to for a “fair fight” which, in his conclusion, pointed out that there’s really no such thing.

And that’s what gets away from a lot of gamers. I know people like to feel competitive. They want to feel like they’re mastering systems. To show off what they’ve learned and flex their gaming muscles. And when a fire trap, bolt of lightning, or random banana peel show up to ruin their day, they cry foul.

I’ve been talking to more and more people in meatspace about “gaming addiction,” as well as reading articles. I won’t lie, I like the comfort of knowing I have a reward of achievable goal, especially as I struggle with some personal problems. But one constant I hear is the reward mechanism in games essentially being where the dopamine “addiction” kicks in. Maybe it’s because I was bullied a lot as a kid, especially when I stood up to bullies and received no back-up, but gamers in my circles who dislike, say, the randomness of Nintendo games are the same ones that have a hard time bouncing back from life’s curve balls.

This isn’t just about why I love Nintendo games, but games that bring in non-gamers or casual gamers. Random power-ups, items that target the person in the lead, and environmental hazards are simulations of what goes wrong in the real world. Your work rival suddenly gets better tools than you can afford, boosting their output ability. The people in the staff room start giving you the cold shoulder because you’re too good at your job and they’re being reprimanded for being less than you. Sometimes, emergencies strike and throw your whole schedule out of whack, causing you to be unable to make deadlines.

That’s life. That’s gaming. Trying to strip games of random elements is understandable if you want to be competitive, but I remember when World of Warcraft took the random elements out of some of their arenas. I think that’s when I was feeling more “done” with the game. I like those random elements. They taught me to roll with the punches. The punishments sucked, but especially in casual games, you could just dust yourself off and give it another try. Even better, when you did manage to pull off a victory despite that wrench being thrown into your process, the win is just so much sweeter, as well as more memorable.

We need these moments, but not just in single player games, or even lobby games, but MMOs. That lightning does need to strike randomly during PvP sieges. That clutch dice roll to dodge a potentially fatal boss blow needs to be felt. We can’t have MMOs devolve into esports. Sports are simulations too, but one that’s worked itself into an area of life many people take far too seriously and invest far too much into. Enjoy the fun. Invest in it. But much like the classroom, you have to step outside and experience life with what you’ve learned.


Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): What, you mean MMORPGs aren’t just about getting the high score on all the games? I’m shook.

If “us” includes the developers too, then MMORPGs have so much to teach. I mean, how many times are we listening to a video or reading an interview where the devs act as if they’ve just come to the realization that if left unchecked, even a handful of griefers can really destroy a gameworld? We literally had one of these moments this week. Every time a dev figures out or reinvents something an MMORPG dev learned 20 years ago, Raph Koster gets another grey hair, people. Stop giving him grey hairs! Even if they learn nothing about humanity from games, they should at least learn how to make games from games.

Brett’s list of lessons is super insightful, so let me add a few I wish MMORPGs were teaching but don’t.

  • How to cooperate with people who speak a different language – server setups and regionlocks make that really hard now.
  • How to empathize with other people – MMORPGs almost never actually support or reward roleplay, so all teaching of the skill (and it is a skill!) comes from other players, not the game. And yes, this matters; being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine how he or she would act in multiple situations engenders empathy and social understanding you can carry back into the real world.
  • How to socialize for socializing’s sake – and I don’t mean how to talk, but how to find joy in just hanging out online rather than seeing people as only a means to an achievement or loot drop.
  • How to be selfless – when every mechanic is tooled as an “incentive” to get you to do something, selfishness and greed rather than generosity rule the day.
  • How to lose gracefully – instead of being that jerk who trashtalks and spews toxicity after a fight and usually gets away with it too.
  • How to value time and money – MMO studios intentionally confound players with multiple currencies, cash shops, packages, and conversions. In-game, they let economies run wild with inflation, sending the wrong message about value.

And no, the reason really has nothing to do with pandas.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The thing is, I feel like this question is based on a fundamental misreading of the core statement. Fun is a teacher, but not in the sense of teaching something concrete so much as teaching a different way to approach and look at things. Looking at it in terms of the concrete misses out on the lessons that multiplayer games are actually teaching.

When we talk about “teaching” we’re usually thinking about facts. In high school, you probably had to learn about the Franco-Prussian War, and I’m going to bet dollars to donuts that you can’t remember when the war took place without a trip to Wikipedia. That’s a set of facts. But a good teacher won’t teach you about the facts as the only focus; a good teacher explains how the Franco-Prussian war was part of a long-standing reunification process for Germany that had long been complicated by Austria, how the whole thing was meant as something of a “gentlemanly war” that turned unexpectedly savage, how that conflict seeded what would eventually blossom into World War I, then World War II, then a simmering resentment that neither Germany nor France could get over for a long time. And a great teacher will have you look for the systems at work within, understanding the way that national opposition shapes national character, the reasons why the war happened beyond simply “resources and political animosity” that never actually describe what leads to these conflicts.

Just teaching facts assures that the facts will be remembered for as long as they’re necessary, and as soon as they’re not necessary you’ll forget them. (This is why so many people are “proud” of not remembering math; it was presented as a set of facts with no relation to anything else.) But good teaching is about sharing ways of thinking. It teaches you approaches and concepts that you can then apply to lots of different things. So sure, it requires a trip to Wikipedia for me to recall when the aforementioned war started, but I can still talk about it somewhat intelligently despite not remembering that one fact. And I can recall the ballpark of when it started partly because of that!

So let’s talk about fun as a teacher, then. Fun is, in fact, a form of learning. But good fun doesn’t teach you to remember facts, it teaches you about a way to look at the world and the satisfaction that goes along with it. It shakes up the core process of how you look at things. And since you remember it being fun, you put that thought together in a pleasant way. “Hey, doing X worked out well, I can apply that here.” It’s the whole principle behind play in most animals. When lion cubs play hunting games with their parents, they’re not learning to hunt other lions; they’re learning the methods and associating it with positive things so that when they get older, they will be able to actually eat.

What lessons are MMOs teaching us? Not the ones posited in the question. MMOs teach us that long-term planning rewards us, even when chance is always a counterbalancing element. They teach us that you need a diverse group of people with different skills to succeed at challenges, and encourage us to find ways to work together if we want to succeed in the long term. They teach us to prioritize our goals and seek those out. That you can obtain new skills over time, but you’ll have to put in the effort. And they teach us that at the end of the day, you share the space with other people, so you need to make it pleasant to be around you… or you won’t have anyone to help you when your space is dangerous or difficult.

And really, those are good lessons. Bad implementation of those lessons and those ways of thinking are the results of developers not understanding what they’re teaching, not a result of the lesson being bad. So I think the genre’s doing pretty good, at least on a conceptual level.

There is a metaphor here somewhere.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): The greatest asset an MMORPG has compared to other video games is its community. These are games that are built around and thrive upon communities, welcoming thousands into their worlds to not just interact with what the developers have created but each other. Sadly, this asset is underutilized because, even after decades of MMOs, developers can’t seem to figure out how best to nurture, encourage, and utilize communities.

The lesson should be that people and connections matter, that collectively we can accomplish something greater than any one person, and that there is an enjoyment in experiencing the variety of human expression whether that’s in real life or in games. Relationships are one of the very few things that endure past a game’s lifespan (or your attention span) itself, and MMOs should be putting us together in a myriad of ways for any number of purposes to see if those relationships can be formed and fostered.


MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Koster is very right. We already know that entertainment has the power to teach us. Just look at Star Trek TOS: Gene Roddenberry used entertainment as a vehicle for teaching social change. So what can MMORPGs teach us? Where to start! Seriously, it could be anything; I touched on some of these in my Soapbox in defense of gaming. But what is one lesson I think they could be teaching better? I think MMOPRGs should take a page from Trek. They have the unique opportunity to focus on building positive interactions between others, and that is definitely something we need more of. How many other places in life give you the chance to interact with so many different cultures and people? Not many. MMORPGs give the chance for folks to come together from all across the globe to work together cooperatively on goals, build friendships, and create wider support networks. You can also and learn and practice social cues in a less threatening environment. So social skills and community building are the biggest topics I think MMORPGs could/should shine as a learning environment.

Of course, I think MMORPGs are also a great medium to teach and encourage creativity in many ways, and… well darn I can go on, but the idea was to focus on just one.

Your turn!

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