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.
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.
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.