Today I read an older article (compared to what one usually reads when researching internet-based phenomena) called ‘Ends, Means and Galumphing: Some Leitmotifs of Play.’ The author, Stephen Miller, focuses on how we recognize play in animals and other humans, and how that might help us define what constitutes ‘play’ a little more clearly, something scholars of the subject seem to have had a lot of trouble with. We know it when we see it, it seems, but we can’t define exactly what makes it in a general sense. Anyway, one of the things discussed in the article is that human infants (among others) will often play with something by making it more complicated for themselves. Having learned to walk, they try out different ways to walk, or do other things at the same time, challenging themselves. They repeat the task with varied elements, keeping it interesting.
Miller argues that a task becomes ‘play’ when it becomes enjoyable in its own right, rather than for something we get out of doing it. “Opening someone’s hand to get a toy is a means – a process leading to the desired state (possessing the toy). The process becomes play when it becomes interesting in itself,” he writes. “It is repeated and repeated, and then some part or new consequence of the process becomes the object of interest, and is elaborated in its turn” (Miller 1973:91). Thus a child who repeats something they have recently learned does so because the new ability is itself fun to use.
Applying this to video games, and in particular to MMORPGs, produces a rather sad assessment. How many of us play MMOs chiefly because the gameplay itself is enjoyable? Not as many as play to achieve top rankings, maxed gear, or to beat their friends, I would wager. This may, to some degree, be inevitable given the social context of online games, which invites everyday social relations to play themselves out in the virtual environment rather than creating some kind of perfect, isolated environment where there is nothing but the game. Still, the goal-oriented, means-to-an-end style of play seems increasingly prevalent in MMORPGs. But I also wish to turn this around: when was the last time you or someone you knew made your play of a video game more difficult in order to “prolong and increase the enjoyment of his play” as Miller puts it?
It is certainly possible to do this. My friends who play Monster Hunter often joked about doing ‘naked runs’, undertaking a hunt with no armour whatsoever so that one relied solely on skill and attentiveness to survive. ‘Soul level one’ characters in Dark Souls are similarly handicapped, artificially, to make the game more interesting for experienced players. What’s more, these are not game modes included by developers – they are player innovations, decided on by players who voluntarily make their characters worse than they could be. This strikes me as remarkably close to the infant behaviour that Miller (following Piaget ) describes. Once we have mastered the basic skills required by a game, we have the option in many cases on creating our own additional challenges, to pursue for their own sake.
In my opinion, the best games are always the ones that are satisfying to pursue for their own sake, even when no achievements, scores or bonus content is available. In MMORPGs, though, it seems to be accepted – I myself assume it – that the vast majority of players will do whatever gets them the best stats. “Regardless of good intentions, a decade and a half of MMO development suggests that wherever you put the “best” gear, that’s where the majority of players will feel they have to go, whether they enjoy it or not” bhagpuss said on Kill Ten Rats recently. My own thesis research suggests that MMO players are often resigned to doing content they find to not be fun in order to keep up with whatever the highest available standard is. In this kind of environment, it’s highly unlikely that anyone is going to choose to arbitrarily handicap themselves. In fact, if you tried to do a naked run in most MMO worlds, you’d probably just get reported as a bot.
Instead, what we have is a lot of complaining to developers. “We need more to do! This needs to be more challenging! That needs to happen less often so that it doesn’t get boring! That needs to happen more often so that I can do it!” Players want devs to keep them in that magical flow of gameplay where things are fun. This kind of thing is actually becoming pretty central to my thesis: the idea that players act as customers in a consumer culture, demanding that the producers of games keep them entertained. They shouldn’t have to put work into making the game fun, they’re paying for it to be! There’s plenty of evidence that the same thing is happening in universities (with professors expected to keep students entertained, comfortable, and unchallenged, then hand them a degree at the end) as they become increasingly commercialised… but that’s another blog rant. The point here is that players – as customers – make it game designers’ responsibility to keep them having fun. If it’s not fun, there’s enough competition now that any player will have three or four viable alternative games to jump ship to.
But what about the spontaneous play that play scholars always talk about? What about the playful self-challenge that Miller refers to? Is there none of that in MMORPGs? Almost certainly there is. Celia Pearce reports plenty of it among Uru players, and I am sure that many MMO players could recount stories of their own groups of friends getting up to shenanigans that had nothing to do with gear grind and progression. You don’t hear much about this, though. The idea of having anything except the absolute optimal set-up of gear, skills, scores etc. seems completely foreign to many players, who view anyone who hasn’t read up on the meta-game and copied a build from one of the approved options on the game’s wiki as a complete idiot.
A friend of mine was recently asking me about bots in Guild Wars 2, and why anyone would create them. “To farm gold, sure… but why buy gold? What’s the point in just buying max everything? Isn’t the point of playing games to have fun?” It’s sad that it feels like the self-evident answer is ‘no’. That is apparently not why many of us play games. If it were, we would pursue the parts of them that were fun, and not just the things that gave the best rewards-for-effort ratios. In Guild Wars 2, people frequently ask things like “if the loot from the dragons isn’t that great, what’s the point in fighting them?” And my answer will always be, because it’s fun. In and of itself, the battle is fun to participate in. If it’s not, don’t do it. Sure, it’s probably not fun if you do it three times a day every couple of days, but maybe you shouldn’t be doing that, in that case. You’re not actually obliged, somehow, to farm things!
Perhaps all this is just as connected to capitalist society and the consumer ethos as the way that players feel entitled to make demands of game developers. We are kind of trained, under contemporary capitalism, to think in terms of optimal expenditure of resources and effort, risk vs. reward, and conspicuous consumption. It shouldn’t be surprising that the same philosophies and strategies are carried over into our virtual lives. What we lose out on, though, is the play element. Participating in MMORPGs is, for many people much of the time, not actually very playful. If you only played games whose gameplay was enjoyable in and of itself – if nothing offered any kind of end reward, say – would you be playing the same games?