What not-game am I not-playing, here?

Yesterday I was pondering a couple of recent gaming purchases I’ve made. Annalise. Diaspora. 3:16. Trail of Cthulu. Like that, you know: table top roleplaying games.

And somewhere in my ruminations of same (thinking about what game I’d like to play and/or run next), my mind wandered, as it does, to other topics, one of which was my ‘to do’ list on Lord of the Rings Online, my current MMO and pretty much my default game of choice.

And while pondering that, my thoughts wandered further afield, coming (eventually) full circle to the Day Job and various duties therein: specifically, stuff I needed to get done before I would have anything that looked like free time for a little side project I’m thinking off for the online training area.

And then all these thoughts that had been wandering around walked back to me and said

“You know… the thoughts you have about LotRO are a lot more like the thoughts you have about Work than the ones you have about Games. It’s all to-do lists and stuff you want to get done, and only very rarely is it about, say, a new tactic you want to try (though it is sometimes about that) or the larger story that’s unfolding (rarely about that) or the story of your character (never). Is playing an MMO really a game? Hell, is it even play?”

And I had to admit, those thoughts had a point. That’s not to say that LotRO isn’t enjoyable (it is), and that I don’t have a good time (I do), but does it scratch the same itch as tabletop gaming or board games or tactical war games? Is it even the same as other kinds of video games?

  • Tactical reward. The joy of a risky but sound plan executed successfully? MMMmmmmaybe. Sometimes. Most of the time, the game is ‘tuned’ so that you can kinda coast a bit and play at a medium level of skill and do just fine. Yes, sometimes you really have to use your shoulder-mounted thinking bone to accomplish a goal, but… hmm. Okay, I’ll say “yes”.
  • Cool story. Well, there’s two kinds of stories you’ll get out of an MMO: the Big Picture Story (which will pretty much happen whether you do anything or not) and your guy’s personal story that the game probably doesn’t help you realize at all, which you’re pretty much making up in your head and whatever forum you’re writing your own character’s fanfic on. MMOs are fine on Big Story, but that’s a pretty passive experience in most cases… one’s personal story, on the other hand, is very proactive on your part in that it doesn’t happen at all if you don’t make it happen.  I used to do that, but I don’t any more for a couple different reasons, so I’m going to call this half-yes, half-no.
  • Roleplaying. I’m not just talking about tabletop roleplaying, but the childlike play-pretend that exemplified the core of ‘play’. Again, there is very little in an MMO that encourages this, though there is some to be had as you stomp through the virtual world in the body of your cool-ass avatar. As for ‘gamer-style’ roleplay, maybe nothing discourages it, but it’s pretty much all on you to introduce and perpetuate. (I used to do this a lot, but I don’t now, and without my continued effort, it’s essentially an element that doesn’t exist in MMO play for me.)  I’m going to call it a Yes on child-play and a maybe-yes on gamer-play.
  • Puzzle solving. This is, for most mainline MMOs, pretty rare. I can think of three or four examples in LotRO and none in WoW or CoH or anything else I’ve tried. There aren’t even any puzzle ‘mini-games’, which could be worked into some games’ crafting systems if they wanted to do it — I’m thinking here of stuff like the lockpick/hacking mini-game in Bioshock. Hell, even the ‘how do I get to point x?’ puzzles as are found in games like Tomb Raider or Mirror’s Edge are active discouraged in many MMOs.
  • Planning and management. Anyone who doesn’t think that’s a viable kind of game has never played Civilization or Zoo Tycoon. MMOs have this, sometimes to their detriment, as many don’t seem to know how to express it as anything but a boring grind.
  • World Creation. Please. Tell me an MMO (Second Life is not an MMO for this exercise) where you can create your own chunks of the world. No.

So… the stuff I (or my daughter) would readily recognize as ‘play’ is not strongly prevalent. There’s no real-time strategy. There’s really not even dice rolling going on to give you that little gambling frisson. There’s socialization, sure, and it’s one of the things I enjoy but… a game? Is it? Really?

Maybe.

And yet I enjoy the hell out of it. For all that it’s a lot of me finishing off one task and starting another — “working” on this guy and then “working” on this other guy — it’s still play for me.

Somehow.

I just… don’t exactly know how.

Maybe it’s scratching that itch so well that I don’t even feel it anymore.


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