Working as Intended: Sparking joy in MMOs

    
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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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Karma_Mule
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Karma_Mule

I’ve never been tolerant of playing games that don’t feel rewarding. (Not so much in terms of loot, but the reward of feeling happy while playing). I’m flabbergasted whenever I see reviews of games on steam in which the person has sunk dozens if not hundreds of hours into a game and then just bitterly complains about it. What sort of masochism is that?

In terms of MMOs, sometimes what’s commonly called a grind can still feel rewarding because, for whatever mysterious reason, doing that action/loop repeatedly is soothing or fun. But that’s more the exception than the rule.

The more common grind that just feels dull? My threshold for saying “OK BORED DONE MOVING ON” is pretty low. I don’t care what shinybright thing you’re trying to dangle in front of me, if it’s behind a barrier of many hours of grind, I have no issue saying “Guess I’ll never see that” and moving on. Life’s just too very short.

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hooby _

That feeling of something being inherently rewarding (just enjoying the game loop) is a LOT more powerful than external rewards (quest rewards, achievements, etc.).

In fact, such external rewards do have the psychological effect of lessening that feeling and thus making things less inherently fun.

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Tom De Laet

This is a good point to be made for MMO’s though I do feel there’s another problem. We also need to start thinking about who/what we are supporting. Because another big problem is people just giving money to games that have done nothing to deserve it. I think of the dozens of KS travesties as well as all the games still operating under the P2W scheme. I know seeing these projects might spark joy but know when to stop. For example when a project is running late (every KS ever) or when the project needs more money to provide the product than originally said. Anyway great article as I’m cleaning out my own room which has accumulated too much stuff over the past 12 years.

Celestia
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Celestia

Loved this article. Thanks, Bree.

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GamingSF

I’ve certainly done this in the past, often my hand is forced by low disk space on the SSD. But then MMORPGs are a bit different, in that if the game hasn’t gone offline permanently, you can usually be tempted into redownloading a game at a later date and ‘re-clutter’, in an easier and often low-cost manner. That said, limiting the number of games I have installed helps me to not feel guilt over not playing “all the games”, so even if letting go of games once in a while isn’t quite as permanent as with real world objects, it does at least help mentally to focus on a reasonable number.

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Brazen Bondar

As someone who was forced to move during the pandemic, I have a new appreciation for developing the ability to let go of things….like do you really need the paper mache thing your kid made in 2nd grade when that person now has a kid in 5th grade?! Probably not. I have recently been clearing things off my hard drive as well. When was the last time I logged into Defiance? Can’t remember what YEAR that was? OK delete, and on it went. Curating is good. Keep TSW, but will I let Anarchy Online go? Yet to be decided but I know my hard drive appreciates a little lightening of its load.

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elenie

Thanks for the article.

Just a note on Marie Kondo, though: While what she says is lovely and all, she also does make money by selling things with “healing properties” to people (think crystals and other such things). It really annoys me how things marketed to women must always come with a side of claims of “magic”, which totally discredits whatever the person marketing it is saying, even if it can be valuable in other ways.

Also, the constant touting of “magic” cures is not only harmful in itself (as can be seen right now during Covid), but it also encourages magical thinking and mistrust of science and evidence-based decision making (as can be seen in, for example, attacks on 5G towers because people think the “radiation” is harmful – thus knocking out mobile reception at a time when people REALLY need it). If you’ve got something true and good to say, do it, back it up with evidence and just sell merch for your admirers rather than $75 crystals and gemmed water bottle with vague (=non-suable) claims about the universe.

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Rick Mills

Wow – thanks for that!

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luxundae

Great read!

Sixuality
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Sixuality

But how will I know which MMOs bring me joy if I don’t play ALL of them?

Joking aside I am – or have been – something of an MMO hoarder, playing far more of them than I realistically have time for, and often not getting very much out of it. I’ve made changes to the way I approach them more than once, and now play less games for longer times.

Hey, it’s a start, even if it’s not so much decluttering my MMO library as it is neatly filing them away in storage boxes from IKEA, and only taking one out at a time.

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Robert Mann

This isn’t an MMO problem. There’s a large segment of the population that treats all games this way. They treat TVs this way, even though the older model works just as well at the same resolution. They treat phones this way, even though the only real difference in many recently is a raised numeral value. Etc.

There is a perception in some areas of society that having newer things means you are showing your wealth, status symbol style. It’s utter nonsense, and it isn’t uncommon for the attempt to “keep up” the image to leave people effectively bankrupt.

There is some difference in graphics, performance, and nice new things in games, where it’s actually a bigger impact than in so many other areas… but I’ll gladly play a selection of games from over a decade ago as compared to many of the shiny yet all too empty offerings that come out of so many AAA studios. Shiny is nice and all, but the looks and newness of something are only a tiny fragment of what it is, and the fact that so many fail to act as if that truth were evident is the issue at hand.