The Totalitarianism of Progress-Focused MMO Gaming

Rohan mused over the question of “optional” goals in MMOs yesterday, on the basis of how so many things in Pandaria are gated by daily limitations, and the feeling by many progress-focused players that there is too much that they have to do right now to stay competitive. He quotes himself from an earlier post of his:

Sometimes it seems like this genre has no concept of the term “optional”. Something is either absolutely necessary, or it is useless. There doesn’t seem to be any in-between.

This quote is very scary. This is in part because he is right. All too often the focus is on pure numbers and progress, and everything else is subordinate to that. Something that was added to the game either doesn’t help with progression, in which case it is considered useless, or it gives advantages in gear, enchants, consumables, etc., in which case it is considered mandatory to stay competitive. I will call this the “raider’s mindset” (and the people with that mindset “raiders”) because it is short and handy, even though you will only see this in a subset of raiders, and on the other hand also in non-raiders with a highly competitive mindset.

The other reason why it is scary is that the way Rohan puts it is eerily similar to Curzio Malaparte’s definition of Totalitarianism:

Totalitarianism is when everything not compulsory is forbidden.

Of course, it’s harder to flee a totalitarian regime than a raid group, and you (typically) don’t choose to live in a totalitarian state, but choose to play with a certain group, yadda yadda. Let’s discount this for the sake of this discussion (also, because it opens up a completely different can of worms when it comes to official pressure vs. peer pressure and such).

The question, though, is: is there a prevalent mindset in this “raider” group of MMO players that works almost like an internalized totalitarian game regime?

Any means that further the ends of progression, however small, become compulsory, not only to not let down your peers, but also because there’s a feeling that keeping up is necessary for your own sake, to feel like a worthwhile player. On the other hand, every other in-game activity will only be an afterthought, something to do in your “free time”. But, there’s the problem: Pandaria has, like all expansions, brought heaps of new content that contain these mandatory bits and pieces, and it seems Blizzard has upped the ante this time in what there is to do to stay competitive. When it is hard or impossible to complete all the compulsory tasks, everything not compulsory becomes in effect prohibited, because it takes up valuable time that should be used otherwise. VoilĂ , your internalized totalitarian game mini-regime: the game tells you what to do, and you do exactly that and only that.

The difference to a classic totalitarian regime becomes clear when it comes to the breaking point: I, like many people, at some point burned out and got disillusioned, even uninterested, in the raiding game. You then can say for yourself: “enough”, and stop. That obviously doesn’t work as well when borders are closed and passports hard to come by.

It’s strange, I still look back fondly on my hardcore raiding days. I miss them sometimes. I wonder whether it has something to do with exactly being told what to do, and just doing it, regardless of whether you like it or not; and being proud of that? Let’s hope not, because that would be a somewhat scary thought.

6 thoughts on “The Totalitarianism of Progress-Focused MMO Gaming

  1. I don’t think this is a problem inherent to MMO’s or even gaming. It’s a life problem. Think about youth sports growing up – generally you have two options: you can play in a relaxed rec league, having fun, but not really learning a lot of skills or giving you an opportunity to play at a high level; or you can play in a select/travel league which requires lots of dedication and practice, but does allow at least for an opportunity to garner high skill levels and opens up more options for playing. But there really isn’t a “middle league” where practices are required but don’t take place every day of the week that there is not a game, for example.

    For a long time, games sought to give us that middle road that life did not. And in a predone RPG, its easy to code a setting that modifies the bad guys to give you that. But its much trickier to do so in a game where your player base continues to grow in skill over time. Eventually what is the middle road for your loyal subscribers is actually quite difficult for new or casual players!

    1. Funny enough, the sports example was exactly what I had in this post at some point, but then deleted it again because I had a hard time getting to the actual point and it got too convoluted. You are right, of course. It’s not the fault of the games per se. It’s more of a mindset fault. At the core, it is also a question of how high you value your dedication and single-mindedness. I would argue that there is a point where this can become obsessive, and you should just say “stop”. I’ve seen enough people who wrote in their posts that they reduced the number of dailies they run for factions despite the fact that this reduces their overall effectiveness.

      One thing about the sport example, though, is that some sports have league systems with very high numbers of layers, from the local “clubs within a 1-hour driving distance” leagues all the way to regional, national, and supernational leagues, over sometimes as many as a dozen intermediate leagues with promotions and relegations. If you are good enough, you can switch to a more successful club, and level out at your personal preference and proficiency.

      Of course, that doesn’t work in a classic virtual world, because the shared experience and environment by all players is one of the main defining points.

  2. For a progression path to have meaning, it must have a reward. If there are two paths to the same reward, most people will choose the more efficient one, even if it is painful, dull, or painfully dull. Therefore, rewards should be distinct and separate, though equal in value. If the path to the reward is too short, everyone will be done and complaining about having nothing to do 2 weeks into the expac. Conclusion: make gearing up require multiple paths, each long and high commitment, so people take their time working through them. More paths is better because then people have a choice that is meaningful to make, and must prioritize.

    All the above logic sounds perfectly reasonable, but the end result is an incredible amount of work required of players before they do what they want, which is to raid. I don’t have a better solution, but I know this system isn’t tenable for many people, some of whom will decide the reward (raiding) isn’t worth the work, and that’s a shame.

    1. Speaking without really having thought this through: I think timed content unlocks, for all the problems they bring with themselves, might be one way to help out. Instead of releasing five factions at launch day, each with lots of things to do and reputation to build, only launch with two. Open up one more every month. Beneficial side effect: you can label the introducing patches x.1, x.2, x.3, and maybe even get some praise for fast development cycles.

      1. It looks like what they tried to do. Instead of timed content locks though, they used pre-equisite content locks. Notice how Shado-Pan and August Celestials only opened up once you hit a certain level with the Golden Lotus.

        Which, I don’t know, I don’t agree with that being the “right” way. I prefer timed unlocks. It’s nice knowing that I don’t have to worry about doing other grinds until a set time period.

    2. For my two cents, if raiding is the prize, there is literally nothing you can offer me to get me to take that prize. At this point, I would pay $15 a month for a game to not give that prize out in an MMO, if you catch my meaning.

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