For the uninitiated, MMORPG stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. The basic premise of these epic online games is that players from all over the world converge on servers to battle against computer-controlled opponents, and often against each other. Each server can host an average of up to 5,000 players at a time. So it’s no wonder these servers become home to a unique subculture of gamers who eat, sleep, and breathe these fantasy worlds, sometimes to the detriment of everything else in their lives. Countless news articles tell of gamers who have abandoned their family, friends, jobs, and sometimes even their own lives to continue playing. Large companies continue to make money while people’s lives are disrupted by the constant attention that these types of games demand from their players. So what keeps players coming back every day, and why do they pay for the privilege?
As a former MMORPG enthusiast, I can tell you that the hooks for players are many and varied. For the casual player, leveling up and associated character stat increases are your first pitfalls. Knowing that you are only a few hours away from becoming better at fighting the monsters that haunt your online existence is a very good reason to keep playing. Who wouldn’t want to be 10 points stronger for just a few hours of work? The problem with this is that game designers are always one step ahead of you. Now that you can easily kill the monsters you were fighting just moments before leveling up, they are practically worth no experience points. This means that in order to get to the next level, you will have to go out and find some more difficult monsters to kill. To someone outside the trap, it’s painfully obvious what’s going on here: You haven’t really progressed at all. So why do people keep playing?
Equipment falls. As you fight those creatures for more experience points to level up and fight more monsters, they have a chance to drop useful gear every time you kill them. Unlike the leveling process, which is very linear, a good team can go down at any time, but often it doesn’t. It seems that no matter which team goes down, there will always be something bigger or better than what the player is expecting. Again, the viewer can see that this is nothing more than a form of gambling. Of course, the cost is only slight in real dollar terms, but the players’ time is the commodity spent on this transaction.
The combination of gaining new levels and waiting for gear to drop can keep a player busy for weeks. So what happens when the player realizes this is happening and decides it would be better to do something a little more productive with their time? Game designers hope at this stage that players have made friends in the virtual world with whom they can chat and share their experiences. This makes leaving the game even more difficult, as other people may have come to rely on the unique abilities that a certain player can bring to the game. Peer pressure is as alive in MMORPG gamers as it was in the schoolyard and this may be one of the biggest factors in keeping people playing. When players are in the game for more than a few months, it is highly unlikely that they will drop out due to a combination of all these hooks.
Just like anything else that carries the risk of addiction; this does not affect the entire player population. It’s also something I think we can no longer ignore. There are so many similarities between an MMORPG and any other type of addiction that it’s hard not to care about people who fall into this particular trap. You wouldn’t want any of your friends or family to have an uncontrollable problem with alcohol, drugs, or gambling; however, we tend not to see any immediate harm in someone who overplays a computer game. With the influx of new players into this genre, I think our attitude will have to change towards the growing problem of digital addictions before we start losing too many good people.