Vague Patch Notes: Maintaining MMO anonymity in the age of parasocial bonding

If you meet the Buddha on the road, leave him alone

Trouble double.

In an author’s note at the end of the novel The Dark Tower, Stephen King writes frankly that some people will not like how the novel ended or question the ambiguity of the conclusion. He implores readers who still have questions or don’t like the ending to leave him the hell alone. “My family and I have a good deal less privacy than we used to,” he writes, “and I have no wish to give up any more, may it do ya fine. My books are my way of knowing you. Let them be your way of knowing me, as well. It’s enough.”

I have been doing this job for more than a decade now, and with each passing year I think King was even more right than I did in the prior year. This is especially interesting when you consider the parasocial bonds created by reading someone’s writing, the very nature of interactions in MMOs that we all play, and how all of us are adapting to new paradigms as we navigate a world that is at once more distant and more connected over the past few months. So let’s talk about leaving people the hell alone.

In all honesty, one of the things that I tend to be somewhat terrified by is people coming up to me in the various games I play – Final Fantasy XIV, World of Warcraft, Star Trek Online, or whatever – and immediately starting in by saying that they know me. It’s flattering when it happens, but it’s also a surprise and kind of a lie. And it’s a very, very different context from, say, comments on an article.

There’s a very limited span of time for basically any of us in this field wherein playing a game is our job. Playing a title for Choose My Adventure? Part of the job. Streaming it? Part of the job. But the minute the stream ends, it’s no longer your job, and all of us work in this field because we do genuinely like these games. There are betas I have not particularly cared for or games that I didn’t like on launch, but those are games I choose not to continue playing after the work part is over.

And the thing is that for some of us, part of the joy in the first place was that you stop being Steve from Accounting for a little while once you log in.

Don't call me Kyle right now.

Remember the whole RealID fiasco? The short version was that Blizzard basically wanted everyone on the official forums to post using their real names instead of just character names. Players and fans hated this, and this was back in the days when Blizzard did things that lots of people didn’t hate on the regular.

A lot of that backlash came from people who, by all accounts, just enjoyed the fact that playing WoW even without explicitly roleplaying was still a moment of stepping out of your own shoes. You could be someone else for a while, be regarded as someone else, and you got complete control over whether or not other people got to know all the details of your personal life.

That’s where the “kind of a lie” part from before comes in: If you religiously read everything I write, thank you! I really appreciate it and your feedback. But just as I do not know you, you do not actually know me.

You have a window on me, yes, but it’s a window that I choose to open or contract based on the situation and the details in question. Just as an obvious example, in my writing I’d like to think I can come across as charming, even witty at times. (In reality I think I’ve managed “witty” exactly once, and that was more a matter of falling with style.)

The nature of a parasocial bond is creating a feeling as if you know people based on their works – writings, videos, hearing them blather over podcasts, and so forth. It makes the person in question feel more directly accessible. But while this isn’t the same as putting on an act – and none of us are playing characters – we are still changing our behaviors as a part of public performance. Our podcasts are not actually recorded without any editing or professionalism or change in affect for public consumption.

And none of this is, inherently, a problem or weird! We all have different faces and different facets of our lives. If you had a long-standing habit of hanging out with the regulars at the local comic book store, that’s fine; that might not be something you tend to bring up with people at your workplace, but it’s still perfectly normal.

But if you saw your boss at the comic store, it’d be weird. And it’d be even weirder if your boss now wanted to treat you as if the two of you were fast friends because of this shared bond.

Roooooooock monster.

This is, of course, not unique to MMOs or this field. It has an even more common manifestation in the form of developers doing their best to keep their personal characters secret because however much many of them might love their fans, time spent playing the game is not the same as community engagement time. People have some idea of who Yoshida plays in FFXIV, but when he’s playing that character, that’s time for him to do things, not for players to start chatting with him.

And I think it’s the same thing you yourself experience. You don’t want to necessarily be running dungeons with your boss when you log in to FFXIV. You really don’t want to find out that your boss is the kind of jerk who provokes off the MT and types the whiniest crap conceivable in dungeon runs. (Or, conversely, that your boss is way better at the game than you are.) These are different parts of your life, different spaces.

Some people want these to be linked together. Others would rather keep them separate, and speaking personally, I’m in that latter group.

One night, I was out mining for shards in Thanalan when another player came up to me and eagerly said that she knew who I was and she loved my pieces, that she was super excited and it felt like meeting a celebrity. I think it was probably somewhat accurate because the fact of the matter was that, like a celebrity, I didn’t have much to say. I was decompressing at that point in the day and just idly mining. I really wasn’t even sure how to end the conversation; this was my time for me to play the game, not really to provide hopefully entertaining analysis of the gameplay or anything else.

For myself – and most gamers, in my experience – the reason we don’t tell other people where to find us isn’t to make the process into a puzzle. It’s because we genuinely enjoy the game as a separate portion of our lives from the professional segments. And while it can be exciting to realize that you might be playing with writers and developers and community team members, most of them are in the game for the same reason you are: to not be these things for a while, but instead be out on an adventure. To be like, well, you.

My articles are my way of knowing you. The game is the designer’s way of knowing you. Let them, in turn, be your way of knowing us. It’s enough.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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