Massively Overthinking: MMOs as distraction vs. culture

    
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Earlier this month, there was a fascinating conversation swirling around a Gamasutra article by Bryant Francis, specifically a quote from game dev Patric Mondou. “We’re moving away slowly from games as a cultural product,” Mondou suggested. “You know you’re not buying a music album anymore, you’re buying entertainment for a while. That’s what games are now. Music is going that way now too, with Spotify and all of that and Netflix.”

As Gamasutra’s Kris Graft put it, the idea that games are becoming – or becoming framed as – little more than distractions that we consume is disturbing… but maybe not wrong, either. I’m sure you folks have seen it in non-MMOs, and I suspect we can name MMOs that definitely lean in that direction. So let’s Overthink it: Are games in general and MMOs in specific stepping away from being cultural products and toward temporary entertainment – as distractions? If so, is it a problem, and what, if anything, can we do about it?

You’re going to notice some new names in this edition of Overthinking. We’ve been joined this round by two of our newly acquired columnists. Expect a more formal introduction for all of them this weekend! -Bree

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Games in general are becoming more raw entertainment, more so than before. At least shooters often have team components and hand eye coordination as benefits. Matching games never seemed to have solid benefits in the studies I read, and selecting minions to do automated tasks based on a timer system probably has limited time management practice benefits (if anyone’s seen a study, send it in!)

MMOs have sadly been falling away from this for a while, starting with the decline of the RPG aspects. I don’t mean stats but specific role playing in game. Worlds where lore comes before mechanics, social systems are crafted for player support instead of scienced for retention. When veterans of the industry become paid consultants but are still ignored by the companies who hire them to assess social systems, you know we’re in trouble.

And yet, it’s not the end. I know some people hate it, but going mainstream isn’t exactly the death of something you love. It does mean finding the good stuff is harder, but because it’s more familiar to people, it’s at least easier to share with a wider audience, at least in terms of conversation, if not also finding new gaming partners. I think that’s something that benefits us all.

Andy McAdams: I probably have a unique perspective on what actually constitutes “Cultural products” in that I think everything is a cultural product. I don’t think there can be a thing as entertainment without cultural implications. Media, including games, only ever make sense in the cultural context that they were created. Even those games that we call out as having no value outside of killing time are still cultural products. Those games often carry a different message, but the cultural message is still there. We often fall into the trap of thinking that some messages are “more valuable” than others, devolving without meaning to into the Marxist concepts of High and low culture. I think it’s all the same cultural products; they just communicate a different culture than what we think is “valuable.”

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think some genres have been inching this way for a while. Consoles were already there. Mobile just made it easy. Always-online but short-in-stuff-to-do titles, from shooters to battle royales, only get more popular. And I admit I get a little queasy thinking about the regression of the MMORPG genre itself here. But when I try to think of true MMORPG examples, most of them are overt temports – and when those show up, those obvious short-term flash-in-the-pan distraction games with short-term ambitions, MMO gamers tend to reject them. I think the problem with the MMO genre isn’t a lack of creativity or a lack of player attention span but a lack of monetary investment, and that’s going to take a market shift bigger than MMO fans to fix.

Another angle: We have only to look at the popularity of the survival sandbox genre to remind ourselves that a lot of gamers are not looking for mere distraction. Yes, millions of people right now are spending their spare 15 minutes dancing in Fortnite, but millions of others are spending months building elaborate Minecraft servers to live simulated part-time lives on. The problem isn’t that nobody is willing to be invested in games as culture; it’s that too few companies are willing to invest in anything but blockbuster-chasing. To their own, as well as our, detriment.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): No, video games and MMOs are not “stepping away” from being cultural products. Games will always be cultural products. But here’s the thing: I think the developers are confused with the difference between cultural product and cultural practice. But they are right, this is a problem, especially for MMOs.

By definition, a cultural product is something created by a culture, it can be something you can hold in your hand, like a piece of artwork. It can also be a concept, like belief system. Video games came from our inherent human desire to want to play with something. So Spacewar!, the first video game, and Anthem are both cultural products of popular concepts. No matter how much reverence one holds for the former or disdain one holds for the latter, both games still come from a culture that saw shooting at stuff in space as a fun way of play. And what of MMORPGs? MMOs came from the same ingredients that make video games cultural products, but with a little extra spice: the internet and the culture around it.

A cultural practice is what people do with those cultural products. When I was in 7th grade, my friend bought EverQuest: Ruins of Kunark. He didn’t know it was an MMORPG, though, so he couldn’t play it. For middle schoolers in the year 2000, it was a cultural practice to let friends borrow or have games. He let me have the game for free. Sadly, I couldn’t run it on my computer. My friend didn’t want it back, but I wanted to keep it because I liked collecting video game boxes, which is another cultural practice.

Cultural practice around video games in today’s culture is completely different. Modern first world culture values mobility, versatility, and convenience. Spotify is a great example of how this cultural practice has changed how we consume music. Spotify gives us access to thousands of songs in our phones; there’s the mobility piece. Those songs have something for everyone, even for folks like me who have very specific tastes when it comes to anime openings. It checks out the versatility requirement. Finally, it’s convenient. People can access the app through various ways.

Within the framework of the MMORPG, it’s a problem. The best example I can provide is the autogrind button in a mobile MMO like Kritika: The White Knights. As a mobile game, it satisfies the mobility piece. That button fits helps the game be more convenient and versatile. Now, the developers have to design around that. The game is literally designed to work with a push of a button. By my standards, this is not an MMO. The problem really boils down to this: There are cultural products out there that masquerade as MMOs to forward the cultural practice of gaming as a service.

So yes, the problem is legitimate. My solution? Enjoy the games we enjoy and make awesome memories in the process.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): Wait, aren’t these things distracting by nature? Wasn’t there a whole kerfuffle about how these gosh-darned vidya games are rotting kid brains by aged senators? I’m not so sure that MMOs needing to be cultural products is a good thing, especially if that puts undue pressure on developers. I’m pretty sure attempting to capture the cultural lightning in a bottle is what caused the WoW Clone Surge — a design tactic that seems to finally be falling to the wayside. As it should be.

I suppose the other side of that coin is that making MMOs feel like “temporary entertainment” leads to the lack of building a world and so demeans the point of MMORPGs entirely. I can see that to a degree, but I also have never been one of those folks who believes that all MMORPGs must be like EverQuest or Final Fantasy XI. Advancement is a thing that should be embraced, not scorned, and as someone who has been actively whined at for his “wrong” definition of what an MMO is, I stubbornly hold on to that ideal if only to further lance the side of those same jerkwads.

Sorry, guy.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): All right, in this case I’m actually going to take a sharp turn to one angle and state that the change isn’t actually in the games but in the market. More pointedly, it’s a change about how much stuff is out there on a regular basis.

The thing about music, and television, and games, and everything else, is that the vast majority of it is… well, fine. It’s not terrible, it’s just… fine. It’s whatever. It fills the space and serves as a distraction. That doesn’t mean you can’t discuss its artistic intent or elements, and it doesn’t mean that it’s awful or the worst thing ever; it means that it’s just there.

This has changed over time not in the sense that the overall ratio has changed all that much. What’s changed is how much stuff is out there to be blandly distracting filler. When the NES was a new thing, there were 10 games released per year and four of them were Mega Man games and thus functionally interchangeable. (Those of you unfamiliar with hyperbole are encouraged to look it up now.) If there were two good games in that batch, it was a banner year. You were lucky if you got one new game a year.

At this point, there are just so many games coming out. The demand is higher, the supply is higher. As a result, there’s a much larger number of games that get released that, again, are just… fine. While it’s a similar ratio to the past, you could now play through several dozen games without finding any that are actually particularly good or memorable or worth the time you spend to play them, even without looking for any hidden gems or the like.

If there’s any movement here in the MMO sphere, it’s solely in the form of those ever-arriving temports, made to satisfy an audience hungry for the next shiny thing that’ll drift into view for a little while before moving on to the next shiny thing. Here’s where we get games that are aiming at being fine distractions and no higher, and their execution can often fall far short; it’s also easier to ignore any sort of cultural values, as most of the games in question are from China or Korea and thus don’t share our particular cultural values. But I don’t think it’s a real large-scale change, just a widening of the field.

Incidentally, if you like looking back at the cultural ephemera of old video games and how many of them can be disposable nonsense, I highly recommend VGJunk as a blog

This is neither fine nor not fine.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I have to say that some games are very much just fun entertainment for me (especially those battle royales I like!), but they aren’t distractions. Are other hobbies distractions? Gaming still doesn’t even get hobby status and is continually relegated to the “waste of time” bin. Many games actually are fulfilling to me, such as being able to design and build in various survival games, being able to decorate in games with housing, and forging vibrant communities and living out roleplayed stories and lives in MMORPGs. They can be amazing outlets for the architect/interior designer/world traveler part of me that doesn’t get to do such outside of virtual space.

That said, it does feel like the industry has moved far away from being fulfilling worlds and keeps moving toward bite-sized, even disposable entertainment. Look how popular games with matches are right now. Look at those MMOs that let you move and even fight without any input from you — just click and ignore. It is a disturbing trend for someone like me who not only likes the myriad opportunities games can offer as a gamer but also as a psychologist who sees how useful gaming worlds can be in developing skills, social interactions, and chances to participate in growth activities that might not be available out in meatspace.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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Ben Stone

I genuinely miss MMOs being a second home. I enjoy playing WoW and raiding with my guild, its a good social environment. But it doesn’t feel like EQ or EQ2 used to. I wish a really community driven MMO with decent production value would come out.

miol
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miol

– “We’re moving away slowly from games as a cultural product,” Mondou suggested. “You know you’re not buying a music album anymore, you’re buying entertainment for a while. That’s what games are now. Music is going that way now too, with Spotify and all of that and Netflix.”

Speaking of: Another contestant wants to join in the arena for the title of the “Netflix for games”…

https://www.cnet.com/google-amp/news/googles-gdc-2019-game-streaming-service-announcement-how-to-watch/

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rafael12104

You know, I really enjoy these Overthinking articles. They have a lot of meat on the bone as we say down here. Heh.

Hmm. We could quibble about the definition of cultural artifact and who gets to define and decide, but IMO it really boils down to a matter of relevance.

Are MMOs, in general, still a relevant cultural artifact? My answer is yes; most assuredly so.

To save time and space, let me jump to the conclusion. MMOs, in particular, are cultural artifacts because even the most mundane deliver an experience that is interactive and communal. Yes, even the “trash” games. It is not like passive pulp fiction and crap movies because MMOs are interactive mediums that form communities in and outside of the game. That, IMO, makes MMOs much more than entertaining distractions.

xpsync
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xpsync

I went to the source to check this out. You know what, I scrolled down and yea I’m not going to go on and on about social media, but it became clear to me as in crystal, I seriously don’t get it?

Prolly why it fascinates me to some extent atm, I would love to truly understand the why? Here’s an example, I scroll down, and you know what, I’m so blown away, I can’t believe this, but this guy ate food in a restaurant, omfg my life is so much more fulfilled. Wholly f folks omg.

First him; why not simply enjoy the moment, enjoy the people around you, enjoy what is real and right in front of you, the food, the atmosphere, your life, why the need to capture it, take pictures of your food and tweet it omfg wtf? I mean who the fuck is this guy anyway? Why the f would I care or have any desire whatsoever to even know this, witness this? Does this make him feel important?

I’m very serious I’m not belittling anyone, if this is something you enjoy then to me that’s great and I’m happy for you, I’m not writing this to do anything like that, this is only my perspective because I completely fail at understanding this in anyway shape or form.

For me: average day to day life. Work days, I pocket my phone in the morning, it’s with me most of the day, when I get home sound is off and put it in another room, on weekends in that room but in a drawer for the weekend, yea I actually go out get groceries, drop by friends, and not bring it with me, mind blowing right, I go somewhere far ofc I would as that has an actually use. (being honest, I will check my phone at least once throughout the evening.)

When I watch a movie are you ready for this; i watch the movie, not half watch continually checking my phone, when I play a game for couple hours, I’ll use swg:l as an example, I play the game, talk to the guild, or do stuff with them, and again no phone, no social media, I’m doing this and enjoying this moment, not taking phone pics, sending tweets, checking the phone, I’m focused on what is in front of me, to do otherwise is not. When I come to massively, I read and post, communicate, no phones, no lights, no motor cars, not a single luxury teehee, ok power.

Maybe it’s because the people I socialize with (friends) lack this understanding too. We never discuss it tbh, we never bring it up it’s just not a topic we always have far better things to discuss. We mainly go hiking nowadays (exploring caves for example), our latest addiction is we got into this site that gives locations of abandoned towns, factories, homes, mansions, and we go.

One guy brings a camera (as in not a phone), me I have my phone OFF, they do as well, to have that distraction go off would be, well it would ruin the whole point of what we are doing. We do this a few times a year, we have life’s, jobs but it’s always a great time. We text, that’s it.

I love my job. I have a few hobbies but my main one, I’m very passionate about and cranks out some bucks every month which is only a side benefit as I would do it anyway for the extreme challenges it constantly presents me with. Spend as much time as I can with my boys who are not really boys anymore, lol. And I never know what will interest me next.

I just don’t see where a phone would fit into my life? To be tethered to a phone like that to me is… umm like my own personal prison, it’s an addiction (to be clear I’m no poster boy) I graduated from the university of sex drugs and rock n roll, with honors ofc, so yea far from perfect, that was then I’m sure most people grow up and away from all that. Some don’t I know. But it’s to constantly always have this device with me, just no, f no, some pos device is not going to govern my time, my life, make me judgmental about my life in anyway either, it’s a total addiction, it must be.

I’ve said before you may as well be an alcoholic, or a drug addict, at least then there are professional sources of help for you, with a phone there isn’t. No, never needed help if you’re wondering, only knew how to party hard, wild times :)

Thinking about it we did all that without phones and social media, weird? I mean that’s what it looks to me like, your (not you specifically, generally) life is only going to be more satisfying if you take pics and post it as that has now added value to what you are doing?

To people whom follow, WHY? Is it partly living vicariously through others? I mean I’m not going further with this not sure how I can really ask/say anything without it sounding as if I’m undervaluing other people’s lifestyles, which I’m so not, it all comes back to why, I really don’t get it, I fail, if it’s your way, nothing wrong with it, I’m a firm believer in “whatever makes you happy”. We all have only so much time enjoy it. I do know my gravestone will never read, Devoted life to feeding the machine, then died. tbh; thinking now, I don’t ever want to know the Why? Ignorance can be bliss.

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Ben Stone

Social media is what you make of it. I just see it as an easy way of sharing memories with distant friends and relatives without sending them all a letter.

Some people enjoy sharing food recommendations, if thats not your thing, hide them from your feed? The tools are there to make what you want of it. Think of it like a sandbox MMO.

xpsync
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xpsync

Thanks for that, I do understand that I guess as a food recommendation, staying in touch, and I must reiterate that’s cool if you like these things and I stress I don’t think less of anyone whom does. I personally do not have twitter, facebook, linkedin… so there is no feed to adjust. I am completely void of any desire whatsoever to bother with any of that as to me it’s a massive distraction from your own life.

A recent awakening was the guy who killed his whole family you look at their perfect online profile and think about how many people were probably envious of their “perfect” life. That’s so detrimental to you as a person to be confronted with this on a daily basis, your life has nothing to do in how it compares to everyone trying to carve an acceptable “look how cool and wonderful my life is” profiles.

Another one is the peeps who literally paid their children’s way through life as in the recent college thing. So many people work very hard for this and worse peeps who follow the one child are making her money and are again envious of her “paid for” life most likely.

As in both cases above; false. All the damage they caused in the background over the years as in people’s wellbeing following these perfect “as in perfectly carved out” lives when they are disastrous examples of a well-balanced life, and extremely detrimental to your mindfulness, no wonder anxiety, depression are becoming plague like.

I do get celebrities, companies, streamers, online bloggers (semi celebs) participating in all this, makes sense as in marketing a product or yourself, but then you have influencers, spying, mass manipulating, and there is the abuse of this wonderful framework. I mean I should not be surprised at the corruption aspect of all of it and is most likely why I feel no desire to participate in all of it either. I really don’t feel any need to go hey look everyone at all the cool chit I do. I just do it. I have zero need or desire to barf out my life all over the internet, if i want to share any of my life with anyone, i have email, a phone number and you will get that info.

It’s a matter of understanding that quality is more important than quantity.

I’m moving off this interest anyway, I’ve whittled it down to mostly unanswerable and using an analogy would be why swg devolved into the nge (which yes, I’m playing as I never played the nge before) was that everyone wanted to be a Jedi (a special snowflake) where even back then I asked WHY? I never wanted to be a Jedi in the original game, I was quite happy being in that world doing what I do.

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Wilhelm Arcturus

Cultural Product – Stuff you like

Distraction – Stuff those damn kids on your lawn like

Dantos
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Dantos

Maybe games really are still reflections of culture, but that culture is rapidly moving away from what we grew up with in the 90s and 00s, changing faster than it has in the past thanks to technology, so it seems more alien.

TheDarthStomper
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TheDarthStomper

Since when is entertainment not an aspect of culture? Its nature and content say a lot about those who engage in it. What prospers and what doesn’t, what has a large audience and what has more selective appeal, all that is a function of culture.

This is a difference without a distinction. And probably an excuse to concentrate on cash grabs and hypermonetization. I wouldn’t put too much on it.

kjempff
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kjempff

I think it is always problematic to frame something as complex and diverse as gaming, to be one thing. Because some trend of the majority shows moving in a direction, does not mean gaming has become that or will become that.
Even in the narrow field of “mmo” there are cultures and trends that move in entirely different directions at the same time. That is why “the genre has evolved into….” are invalid statements; because it only takes the view of the majority, while the reality is there are a whole lot of niche demographic and games evolving/moving in all kinds of directions.

Especially in the “distraction” vs “gamer culture” I think we see player segments with hugely diverse fundamental reasons to play. Mobile “gamers” are playing for distraction, while pc and much of console players are more culture based. Distraction gaming is showing an increase and has been for a long time, but it is hardly a change in culture of traditional gamers, but mostly a requisition of “non gamers”.

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Chris Ochs

I think it’s largely an issue of easier money for developers to chase. I worked as a developer on casual/mobile for a number of years, now I’m working on mmo tech. And I’m probably a fool for doing so. It really doesn’t make sense financially.

The last mobile game I worked on grossed in the first year, well I can’t say exactly but it was tens of millions. It took about a year to make.

Games are creative works, the bigger and more complex they are the less chance you have to nail the gameplay. So it makes zero financial sense to make one mmo for what 3-4 quality mobile titles you could likely release in the same time. Each of the mobile titles having a higher chance of success. I worked on a string of mobile titles that all made good money. You don’t hit that success rate with mmo’s, that’s even if you live long enough to make that many.

I’m going to qualify the above with it doesn’t make sense to make mmo’s how they have been made. I think we have to rethink a number of things. I’m not going to pretend I know what those are nobody does until they actually create it. But I do have faith. Because to me the fact that mmo’s take so long to make, is an indicator that we shouldn’t expect to find the fix quickly. The genre might never come back, but I don’t see how we can know that without trying a lot more then we are.

Mordyjuice
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Mordyjuice

MMOs have always been the ultimate distraction from my life of annoyances and stress, For 15 years now I can log in, save the day, always have a solution, while making piles of gold. The problem as I see it is Devs are getting cheap and giving us less elaborate distractions with less features, it’s like being used to eating Mexican Food at Moes for years and now having nothing but.Taco Bell I suppose.