Working as Intended: Sparking joy in MMOs


On this week’s podcast, I mentioned that I’d just finished off Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, something that superficially seems unrelated to MMOs but (as I’ll eventually get to, I promise) actually is, with a bit of tugging and stretching.

Most everyone is now familiar with Kondo and her “KonMari” method of decluttering your life of unnecessary things – you know, you touch the item and determine whether it “sparks joy,” and then discard it with gratitude if it doesn’t. Described that way, it’s basically the typical self-help claptrap that I would normally roll my eyes at and would certainly never spend my coin to buy, but I had previously watched her TV series, which was startlingly non-judgmental and non-exploitative, compared to other “hoarding” shows that exist chiefly to mock people with serious mental health problems (and make the watcher feel smug about more moderate and manageable overconsumption). Her show, like her book, is not really about decluttering at all but about reconciling delight in the things you hold on to.

And this is how it relates to MMOs.

Though City of Heroes returned to us in 2019, in the years before that it was not at all uncommon to dip into a City of Heroes-related thread and see “Let it Go” memes directed at sad and disgruntled fans lamenting their loss. This has been a recurring theme among the MMO playerbase for many years in the diminishing wakes of the sunsets of titles like Star Wars Galaxies and Tabula Rasa and Vanguard; while something like WildStar is still being revered here in 2020, in a few more years, if it’s not resurrected, then it too, along with its dwindling fans, will be subjected to that same scorn from whatever is then left of the generalist MMO population. Paradoxically, the more important and innovative the game, the greater the scorn, almost as if we’re subconsciously, collectively afraid to reckon with the magnitude of what’s been lost.

I’ve struggled to explain this phenomenon for years. I didn’t feel a spark for Vanguard, but intellectually I know its value and emotionally I sympathize with those who lost a home when it was closed. So why would people be so callous, belting out their Elsa memes, their “stop liking what I don’t like” spite? Sometimes I’ve thought it was down to historical ignorance from younger or newer players – understandable, since few sites remain to preserve the record and studios prefer to excise and rewrite that history. Perhaps it was pure partisanship, the belief that the genre is a zero-sum game and the desire to see vulnerable MMOs crushed to make way for others. Or maybe it stemmed from the uncomfortable fear of gamers who don’t want to believe they missed out on something amazing (I can’t blame them).

But mostly, I think it’s pure chronological snobbery. MMO players famously hate old things, prizing new shinies (and then abandoning them) while scoffing at old stalwarts, presuming antiques could not possibly have anything to compare with fresh novelties. Some gamers are obsessed with mocking other people for refusing to let go. There’s a persistent strain of thinking here in MMO land that maintains old games are pathetic, that playing them is wasteful, that hanging on to them or revisiting them or pining for them is somehow shameful. I once had a Redditor inform me that spending absurdly long hours a week playing older MMOs was explicitly disqualifying, since old games simply don’t “count” as playing MMOs. Only new things counted.

Still, a quick tour of the MMORPG Reddit in recent weeks should remind us that the problem isn’t just derision for old things. Many MMORPG players hate MMORPGs period, including the newer ones they do play, and certainly the ones they don’t and can’t play. I suspect far too many of us carry around guilt and shame for preferring the red-headed step-child of gaming or for playing games we know aren’t as good as they could be or once were. And then we’re made to feel guilty for keeping and voicing our memories of games that died too young!

Holy hell, we are dysfunctional as a genre.

But it makes sense. Many of us, certainly those of us playing MMORPGs at this moment in history, live in a world of plenty – or at least of enough – even during a devastating pandemic. We have been groomed to keep buying and keep playing even when we hate it and resent the studios and suits responsible, so naturally, we also have that raw urge to settle the score – to set it all on fire Fight Club-style (whether in real life or on a subreddit) to escape that guilt and shame. Why did we buy Ball Kicker 3 when we didn’t even like Ball Kicker 1 or 2? Or when Ball Kicker 3 is just a nostalgia cash-grab remake of 1? Because that’s just what we do. We replace the old things with the new things without even thinking about whether we even like or want them.

Like many hoarders, we’ve not forgotten how to throw things away; we’ve forgotten how to cultivate anything resembling healthy relationship with our things and our worlds and our entertainment, and you’d better believe that’s exactly as studios and shops intend.

Marie Kondo does not tell you to throw away everything you own, to kick everything old and dated to the curb. She does not impose rules about deleting a set number of old things from your life before allowing yourself to bring in new ones. She is not a prescriptive minimalist or purging fetishist who believes just the state of Having Less Stuff will make you content or that keeping the Stuff you adore is somehow shameful. It’s not only absolutely fine to like your stuff – and your games and hobbies and memories – but essential that you love what you keep and surround yourself with things that engender meaningful affection. Her method of having you touch and sort and make conscious decisions about everything you own is really just a training apparatus for making you understand yourself, to provoke you to consider why you have these things in your life and whether you really want to keep them – or whether their purpose has come to an end, even if that purpose was merely to teach you that you didn’t need them after all. “Our possessions very accurately relate the history of the decisions we have made in life,” she writes. “Tidying is a way of taking stock that shows us what we really like.”

Fam, you need to KonMari your whole gaming life, and I’m not talking about deleting unplayed games from your Steam library.

If you don’t love your MMO anymore, don’t play it. Just stop. It’s seriously fine. Thank it most sincerely and unironically for everything it’s done for you along the way, and then put it in a virtual garbage bag and yes, let it go. Don’t keep logging into games that don’t spark joy. Find one you, personally, love. Or find a hobby that you love. Or find something, anything, that you really, truly love. Don’t feel bad about this. You don’t owe MMOs anything.

And if you do love your game, play the hell out of it, whatever it is. Hug it close. Don’t be embarrassed to play (or to memorialize) some broken-down junker of a game that’s older than your kids, as long as you’re in love with it. Don’t listen to what some jackass on Reddit is whispering in your ear about the value of your personal choices and secret faves. Your games, your worlds, your characters are likewise a history of the decisions you’ve made as you’ve lived, so make them worthwhile. And then reconcile yourself with the delight in the things you choose to hold on to. Holding on for dear life to things you love is good, actually, whether it’s an obsolete game from the ’90s or Marie’s beloved but ratty anime t-shirt from high school.

I think most of us know all this, instinctively, just as I knew in my heart what Kondo’s book would tell me before I picked it up. But sometimes, just hearing someone else say it is the more effective balm.

The MMORPG genre might be “working as intended,” but it can be so much more. Join Massively Overpowered Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.
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