Vague Patch Notes: MMOs are useless, and that’s completely fine

You're allowed to have hobbies.

    
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Not everything is a job.

When you play an MMO, you are developing a skill. That skill is playing that MMO. It’s not a skill with a great deal of lateral application. But it doesn’t need to be.

We were having an interesting discussion in the MasivelyOP offices at one point about hobbies and the things that qualify as hobbies… a list that seems to be rapidly shrinking and even extends to MMOs. Essentially, we were talking about the generational push to turn things from being just hobbies into some kind of skill-building exercise. You’re not just playing a video game; you’re learning conflict resolution (because you screamed at a teenager from Arkansas for two hours after she rolled “Need” on an axe you wanted). Or you’re learning time management (you forgot to take the trash out three days running, but you’ve spent lots of time killing pretend lizards for a sword). Or something along those lines.

But guess what, folks? MMOs as an aggregate aren’t interested in teaching you useful skills. They might provide you a bit of incidental practice for improving the skills you already have, but fundamentally, they’re there to be games. And you know what? That’s just fine.

Playing video games well is a skill, just like any other. If you play a lot of video games, you’re going to have an easier time recognizing shared elements, reacting to certain puzzles, figuring out how these things work, and so forth. Playing a random Mega Man game is something that is not insurmountable for me because I understand how a Mega Man game works – because I spent a lot of time playing Mega Man games.

All well and good. Also all pretty inapplicable to other scenarios. In my adult life, there have been exactly zero situations in which I have been better suited to solving a problem because I could tell you the boss order for Mega Man 4. I can think of even fewer situations where my ability to actually do those appearing-disappearing block segments instead of skipping them has made me a better husband or writer or anything. In fact, that skill in particular has basically helped me in exactly one situation: doing those block segments. That’s it.

We have a tendency to gussy this up, especially when it comes to MMOs. After all, we’re spending all this time on the game, but it can’t just be a game. We’re really learning about strategy or time management or creative writing or lots of other things. That’s what’s happening, right?

Eh… not so much. You might be using those skills in the course of play, and you may even be helping to refine them or get a little extra practice in, but spending weeks roleplaying will not teach you how to write a good story; it’ll just make you good at roleplaying. Downing a progression boss in World of Warcraft just means that you’re good at progression content. That is the skill you’re developing here.

And that’s fine.

among the fields of barley

Here’s the weird thing about human beings, at least from my own observation: We suck at doing nothing but working, but we also suck at not working. Give us nothing to do but work from sunup to sundown, and we’ll quickly want a break, but many of us almost immediately want to go back into a self-directed form of work as soon as we’re not actually working. “Oh, boy, I can’t wait to leave this boring job and go back to practicing my Java coding!” “Wow, thank goodness work is almost over, my dance class is tonight!” “No more work today, it’s time to organize raid night!”

It’s been said many times (originating with Sid Meier, I believe) that video games are a series of interesting choices. They constitute tasks that require completion. Playing a video game is giving yourself a new set of tasks to overcome, several of which are overseen by artificial intelligence, placing hurdles in front of yourself and seeing whether or not you can get over them.

Usually if someone’s bringing that up, of course, it’s brought up as a negative. I don’t think it is. I think people generally like the feeling of developing and refining a skill, a sense of progression and accomplishment when you finish doing something you thought would be more difficult or even outright impossible. Video games give you that, often in fields of tasks that are otherwise unapproachable.

You can’t actually journey across a vast and unconnected starscape surviving by your own effort, but you can play No Man’s Sky. There are no actual dragons in the real world to slay, but The Elder Scrolls Online lets you pretend. Engaging in an actual war across a fantasy land might be horrifying, but Black Desert Online is set up so that it’s a fun diversion from your day.

The idea is that this is a work-like task which is not actual work, not a chore, just something to do for fun while still stimulating that sense of decision-making and refining skills. Because you are refining a skill. It’s just that the skill in question is playing this game and having fun, not something that’s more marketable.

That’s not to say that you can’t use skills within the MMO space or get practice in with them, of course. Maybe you’re learning another language and practicing by playing on another server where that’s the dominant means of communication, for example. But that is fundamentally a bonus to what you’re already doing. It’s not the game teaching you, it’s the game providing a communication platform.

Not everything in your life needs to be marketable. Therein lies the rub. It’s not just all right but healthy to have things you do that do not, in fact, have anything to do with developing skills useful in your work or for future work.

You don’t need to plan on being a professional musician to have fun at karaoke. You don’t need to want a career on Broadway to enjoy dancing. And you don’t need to force your skills at playing video games to be some sort of strict value equation to just have fun playing video games. Even if the shared social space gives you an opportunity to refine some of your existing skills, it’s all right to be playing a video game because you’re just having fun.

brkooom

Of course, there is a darker flip side to this, and it tends to be overlooked in the other direction. It’s all right that, say, BDO isn’t going to actually serve to teach you empathy and compassion. But those skills are actually really important to have, and the problem comes wherein you’re not just treating these games as a form of training for “real” skills but when they substitute for personal growth.

If we put it in very game-like terms, video games are a skill that goes on the fluffy side of character creation. That’s fine; having those skills is important. It’s a boring character in a tabletop game who only has strictly functional skills, walking around with a huge to-hit bonus but no points in Basket Weaving or Local History. But you don’t want to go adventuring with the character who knows only Basket Weaving and Local History if you expect the adventure to feature fighting, solving traps, and casting magic with nary a roll about baskets or history to be seen.

It’s fine that MMOs aren’t there as a platform meant primarily for learning real-world skills. Not everything in your life needs to be about developing another useful marketable talent to put on your resume. But those real-world skills are… actually pretty important, you know? You still do need to learn those.

The fact that you’re not going to learn them while pretending to be an orc named Grignr just doesn’t invalidate pretending to be an orc named Grignr.

In other words, MMOs don’t have to be a space for you to refine some other skills from your daily life. It’s all right for them to be, first and foremost, a place for you to relax and have fun. That has a value in and of itself. It’s enough for these games to be a place to be fun, and you don’t have to treat them like continuing education when that’s not their designed function.

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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Hikari Kenzaki

I mean, I play games that I find fun, but this also advances my job skills.
When my boss asks me about a feature in a game and I can rattle off how comparable systems work in 20 other games from memory (I literally did this last week), then it’s a bit of both.

It’s funny. I spent my whole life as a gamer in preparation for my job. (A community can tell when someone in a game company doesn’t really play games)

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Neowolf2

Props on the Eye of Argon reference.

MST3K-ed version: http://www.coraline.org/other-things/eye-of-argon

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Schmidt.Capela

I find that games, including MMOs, teach me a lot. About communication, narrative, storytelling, logic, art, programming, client-server architecture…

But my approach to having fun with a game isn’t exactly usual. I don’t just play the game; I more or less reverse-engineer it. I break apart the narrative, look into how I could program its systems and graphics, why specific gameplay decisions were made, etc; I get at least as much fun figuring what makes a game tick as I have actually playing it. I also mod games, which for those written in C# includes directly changing the IL code (AKA .net’s “assembly”) in order to better tune them to my preferences.

Well, I guess that is par for the course for an introvert who, as a kid, used to read encyclopedias and do math homework for fun.

BTW: English isn’t my native language; I learned it mostly by playing games.

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Bryan Correll

BTW: English isn’t my native language; I learned it mostly by playing games.

I’m surprised you don’t use a lot more expletives in that case.

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Schmidt.Capela

I learned English before the Internet went commercial, thus before the era of trash-talking kids playing online games. Heck, from when I started playing games it took some time before games advanced enough to be able to have more than a few lines of text; it’s hard to write enticing dialog when the system’s total memory is about the size of a few dozen tweets.

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CommanderZoom

ah yes, the era when some games (like the original Wasteland) had to refer the player to numbered paragraphs in an accompanying book, because storing all of that text – just basic text, mind you – in the program itself was not technically feasible.

rafterman74
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rafterman74

I guess if you log in and play casual, or just have other people set everything up for you in-game, you don’t learn anything, but being a successful guild leader, and especially raid leader, teaches you plenty of transferable skills that you use in the real world. I honestly can’t imagine a scenario where you wouldn’t learn RL skills from dealing with dozens of personalities, massive amounts of decision making, organization skills, etc. that come with being a successful leader in an MMO.

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Bruno Brito

?

Why wouldn’t casuals learn anything?

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Bryan Correll

You learn that you’re going to get screwed over in favor of the raiders, just like in real life.

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David Goodman

I dunno, raid leadership roles in MMOs teaches you about balancing priorities and keeping groups happy in a similar manner to managing employees.

It’s actually harder than being a supervisor at a ‘real’ job — at least with work, you can motivate people with money, the threat of being fired, or the threat of having money fired at you – in an MMO, you’re trying to convince everyone that they will all have “fun” if they follow a specific leader and guidelines; given how subjective that is, it takes a lot more charisma and interpersonal skills to pull it off.

But they also don’t NEED to be justified either, and you don’t NEED for them to have any value except for the fun and enjoyment of playing them. I just wouldn’t say they are useless outside of it’s own environment.

I agree with a lot of this article I just struggle to get over the “THEY’RE USELESS! It’s okay that they’re useless!” – it IS ok! But it’s also OK for them to NOT be useless! MMOs have helped countless people with any number of issues that I simply do not have the time to put into this post. You don’t even have to look hard or far.

SUre it may not be “MMOs are teaching you how to fold laundry and calculate mortgage rates”, but it’s not “uselesss”.

…coming soon, Laundry Foldering Simulator. I’d be joking if we didn’t have a lawn mowing game and power wash simulator that was doing well for itself.

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Rndomuser

Ohhh, MMOs are far from useless in this regard. EVE Online taught me a great deal about “social engineering” and helped me to apply it in other games and in real life ;-)

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PanagiotisLial1

I seen games help people with temporary(strokes for example) disabilities get faster into shape but forcing them think, interact and do things so I dont discount their usefulness even if primary an entertainment form. I also seen them help people pass easier hard patches on their life as it can distract their mind over serious psychological problems they faced. And then there are people with conditions(sometimes from birth) that dont permit them have much in the way of social interaction and mmos in specific helped them meet people and make friends.

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styopa

First, /props MM
comment image

Second, your article is ironic mainly because the flip side is that I see all sorts of companies ‘gamifying’ the experience for their consumers AND (which makes me a little indeterminately queasy) for their employees.

Third, In 2021 do we still have to work to ‘legitimatize’ our hobby? Golf’s not ‘good for’ anything EITHER except…playing golf. My sister used to trivialize my playing tabletop rpgs my whole life, until I asked her about a great trip she took with friends – I said “what do you REALLY have from that trip?” She immediately replied “Memories, really great memories of fun times with friends”…my point being that her experience and mine are (now) identical; they both just sit in memory of great times we cherish with friends. Hers was gambling and drinking in Las Vegas; mine was finally taking down that boss cooperatively with 39 friends, or struggling and finally completing that hard quest chain. Cherished memories are GOOD things, regardless of context.

Fourth, I think too many people rationalize the time they spend playing games as ‘must be valuable or it’s wasted’. A clock’s just a yardstick for entropy man (not my quote); it doesn’t have to mean more than that.

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Anstalt

I fundamentally disagree with everything in this article.

The core purpose of games (in any form) is to teach us something. Most games have a fundamental lesson they are trying to teach us, broken down into it’s core concept and then dressed up in a way to make it engaging and fun to learn.

There is even a technical term for the underlying lesson: ludeme.

Now, where the problem lies is that the ludemes underpining most games are very primative. Shooters are about aiming. Adventure games are about getting to the other side. Roleplaying games tend to be about acquiring power and exercising power over others.

These lessons appeal to our lizard brain, because for most of human history those lessons have been very valuable. It’s just they aren’t particularly useful in modern society. For example, instead of RPGs teaching us that to achieve our goals we need to acquire more power, wouldn’t it be better in modern society to teach us the value of cooperation?

If you go back in history, you will also find a lot of games teaching useful skills for that particular time and place. A good example is that in the past, there used to be loads of games about farming, teaching things like crop rotations, irrigation techniques etc. They existed because so many people were farmers and they needed to teach their children how to farm, but as those skills are no longer needed, neither are the games.

As for what current MMORPGs can teach us? Well, I can think of a bunch of examples where playing an MMORPG has helped me in my career and life in general!

  • Being and raid leader and guild leader taught me much needed leadership skills, years before I would have had a chance professionally. This gave me a huge leg-up in my career, gaining a management position way ahead of when most people do.
  • LotRO’s vast array of tactical options taught me not to accept the first solution to a problem, but to keep examining all options until you find the best one for you (and your team). Again, this has helped me immensely professionally
  • As a software engineer, much of my professional career has been spent understanding systems – like understanding how a business works so I can design software to make the business better. What are computer games if not complex systems? Learning to play games definitely made me better at understanding all sorts of other systems in life.
  • Simply socialising with a wide array of players from around the globe helped me gain better social skills, in particular developing my ability to communicate with people with weaker english language or lesser technical knowledge. This has definitely helped with things like sales technique and requirements capture with my clients.

The real power of games is that it allows us to experiment with our new skills in an environment with basically no consequences. Reading a book or watching a documentary is all well and good, but knowledge is only useful when it is put into use. However, the majority of us are afraid of the consequences of real life and so we never taken that step. We may have read 20 books on how to be a great leader, but never take the step to being a leader in real life because we’re afraid of screwing up (which might mean losing friends, losing your job, or maybe even having the business close down).

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Toy Clown

I will say that MMOs gave me a skill I didn’t pick up in the real world (RW), and I was able to apply that knowledge to the real world. In the RW, before things happened that changed my life (a.k.a. losing my hearing and becoming “unskilled” as a result), I got on with 99.9% of the people I came across, made bosses happy, was a caring individual that was always there for friends, I stayed on top of fashion trends, had a social life, etc etc.

Losing my hearing negated my degree and the only work I could get going forward was working in fast food, because no one cares if you can hear or not, just go do dishes, cook, sweep, clean the parking lot, smile when a customer is mad… you get the drift: Underpaid peon.

MMOs were the escape I needed during that dark period of my life. It was a place where the old me still shined through, the one that didn’t need to “hear”.

To sum it up, I went into the internet naive and came out battered and raked more than my RL fast food work ever did. MY RL and internet life started to mirror each other. I stopped getting along with people, started hating all people. I had a decade-long epiphany! That’s about how long I spent working on myself, ripping apart every issue in my life that I could get my hands on, pinpointing where things in my life went wrong, and eventually dragging myself out of a bad cycle enough that I’ve returned to work on another degree that doesn’t require me to be part of the hearing world.

The point is, the bouncing around, mirror effect that was going on between my RL and MMOs is what taught me something was very, deeply wrong and I often hop into light social situations in MMOs to push myself past the introvertedness and shyness that I developed after losing my hearing. It helps me to build confidence, which I take into the RW naturally.

I don’t spend a whole lot of time playing anymore. I dig new stories and will be that person taking hours to comb through every aspect of a quest, reading all the dialogue, too. Mostly, it’s for the few friends I have. It makes them feel good, oddly, that they can spend time with me in a game, even though we have discord to keep in touch.