Sunday, October 21, 2007


Gaming circles are like little closed societies. They have rules that you may not understand, make jokes that you don't get, and may interact in ways that make you feel left out. The oft-used scene in movies and television where you see 3 or 5 geeks sitting around a board playing "Dungeons and Dragons" and engaging in dialog which makes absolutely no sense is meant to bring this home. It's also used to make you think gamers are strange in their insularity.

The level of weirdness you perceive is largely a function of how familiar you are with the "culture" of a particular game. If you were a part of it in any way, you are less likely to see the gamers who are actively embracing it as strange. One of my friends (Shawn, hello loony!) told me that on-line gaming has become mainstream enough for commercials to include references to World of Warcraft. There's a commercial for the Toyota Tacoma.

There's also one for Coke.

(There are more but I'm not going to embed them all since this post will be long enough without them.)

This is an indication of one of several possible things. One is that the target demographic for these (and other products) is squarely in the same demographic for playing World of Warcraft. It could also mean that there are enough people out there playing this game that the references may make sense to most people either because they play or they have someone in their families who does.

If you watch these videos, you'll notice that the joke is in the insertion of game elements into real life or vice versa. Despite the fact that gaming society is often seen as weird and idiosyncratic by those who have never been a part of it, the truth is that people pretty much behave the same as they do in real life. Here are a few examples based on my personal experience:

The Aggressive Salesman:

In games, there is an economy just like there is in real life. Just as gold and jewels have greater value in the real world, items which are scarce and highly-valued have greater value in the game world. The only difference is that game gold isn't always the most precious commodity depending on the game's mechanics.

My husband and I have experienced opportunistic players who will try to undercut your "prices" for game goods in Diablo II. The way we trade in this particular game is to make a new game (which anyone can see the name of and join) which is named in such a fashion as to state clearly what we have and what we want in exchange for it. Invariably, people will pop in who have the same item to offer at a somewhat lower price. Considering that all they have to do is make their own game and name it with their lower price, this is akin to someone jumping in and trying to steal your customer away by offering the item you have on sale for $25 for only $20.

Since it takes no effort at all to make games, this is rather rude and selfish but I'm sure it's the sort of thing that people would happily do in real life if they wouldn't get kicked off the store premises for trying to undercut the competition. As it is, stores do have their variation on this by offering to beat the price on an item their competitor offers if you offer proof of a lower price.

The Bully:

In gaming, bullies are often called "griefers." This is a concept that was rather famously played out in one of the best episodes of South Park of all time. Like real life bullies, they attack only those who are vastly weaker than themselves so that their "victory" is assured. In role-playing games, you play characters who "age" by gaining levels. Higher level characters have greater strength and life and are nearly impossible for vastly lower level characters to defeat. It's akin to an 18-year-old beating up a 5-year-old. What is worse than that is that characters that have played a lot and racked up a lot of levels tend to have superior equipment so it's like that 18-year-old wearing steel-plated armor and wielding a gun while the 5-year-old is equipped with his bare hands and donning a wet paper sack.

The reason such in-game bullies are called "griefers" is that their purpose isn't to prove their superiority but to spoil the game for other players. When they enter a game full of lower level players, their intent is to spoil the experience. Weaker players who were enjoying playing together and accomplishing a mutually-desired goal often scatter to the winds when a griefer comes in and smashes them.

The Bosses, Their Followers, Their Challengers:

If you've worked in an office, you know that there are people who gain positions of authority either through nepotism, force of their characters, charm, or superior skills. There are also the subordinates who will either blindly follow the leader or undermine his or her credentials to be in such a position and seek to unseat their superiors. In gaming, the same situation often plays out among those who choose to play with regular groups.

The interesting thing is that the very same factors that tend to play into gaining a position of authority in real life play into getting one in a gaming society. Players who have game "wealth" frequently attract groups of hangers-on who benefit from their largess. The rich players shed their "lesser" and duplicated game gear and shower their devoted followers with such gifts. The wealthy players often form a following of another type of player, the beggar, who is constantly asking for better equipment either overtly or obliquely when amongst other more experienced players.

Additionally, having familial or real life connections to someone who is in a position of power may allow you to ascend to their level when they grow bored and give up the game. Of course, there are also those who become leaders through superior skills. If there is a difficult goal to attain and someone persistently is capable of accomplishing it where others fail, that person may gain followers and be a default leader, at least intermittently. In my experience, however, such players tend to play alone most of the time (which is how they hone their skills in the first place) and tend not to seek leadership roles. I suspect this is because the liability associated with being a leader is you have to drag along a lot of incompetents when playing and the dubious value of their allegiance to you is not worth the hassle of failing repeatedly due to their feckless playing.

The Attention Seekers:

There's always some kid in your class who is doing something to attract attention to himself or some guy at work who meanders around to their coworkers' desks making stupid jokes or who laughs too loud so everyone notices him. Games have their versions of these folks as well.

There are actually several sub-divisions of such attention seekers in games. One of the most common seems to be the sexually-obsessed types who take every opportunity to make a risque joke, sexual innuendo, or flirtatious comment. The worst of these is incredibly persistent and I'm guessing looking to fulfill an inner need to be sexually-desired through in-game banter. Another flavor of such types offers up a lot of witless scatological humor. Just like the dumb classmates you had in elementary school who liked to make farting noises in their armpits, such game players think they're absolutely hilarious when they talk about passing gas or mentioning their breasts, posteriors, or genitalia.

The "Mommies":

Don't mistake the idea of a "mommy" for someone who will look after you all the time. Mothers are just as likely to tell you what to do all the time and scold you when you fail as they are to bandage your wounded knee and offer soothing words. In games, there are those who try to protect the weaker and less-experienced players and help them accomplish the game goals. The pushier "mommies" though will also insist that you do everything exactly as they say or they will withdraw their care.

The Altruists:

A similar type of player to the "mommy" is "the altruist". This is a person who sometimes helps out people just for the sake of offering up an act of kindness. This is the same sort of person in real life who will give a homeless person money or food. Just like in real life though, your attempts to help sometimes bite you in the ass later. Just as beggars who you give money to may try all the harder to extract cash from you next time they see you walking down the street, generous gamers may find themselves being constantly nagged for assistance.

In games, altruism can sometimes be misconstrued as an attempt to find an opportunity to be a griefer, particularly in regards to assisting with quests and whatnot. I'll admit that I'm, on occasion, an altruist player and have been known to take a much higher level character into games to assist lower level players with especially difficult quests only to be told to "get the hell out" and called a great many profanities because the assumption is that the only reason I could be there is to turn on people and attack them at the worst possible moment.

Functioning effectively in various gaming worlds has a lot in common with how the real world works. It's not a bunch of anti-social weirdos engaging in strange activities but a bunch of normal folks playing out the same sort of roles that people do in real life. The only difference is that the basic rules for success are different and people who might never have a chance to assume such roles in real life may find they have the skills to play them out in the gaming world.


M/J said...

HAHAAAAA you sparked me very hard with this post shari. i have to admit it. i played WOW for a year of my life, was in a pretiegous guild, i designed the pink sea lobster Tabbard. And i was the head of the Rouges in my guild. Gay Gay Gay. i regret it. but here is the funny thing. there was not a day that i played WOW that there was not a ice cold coke by my side lol.

Great Post.

Kanagawa G said...

I'm not an online gamer, but it seems that hardly a day goes by without mention of WOW or online gaming in the media.

I think that it is interesting to note that "anti-gaming" promotions are going on as well. I read several magazines each month and was surprised to see an ad in either Popular Mechanics or Popular Science of a man pushing a computer on a swing with a tagline, "Have you been a father today?"

Unfortunately, I have seen the lives of two of my (then) close friends completely derailed because of an online-gaming addiction. They lost their jobs, were kicked out of school, racked up debt and withdrew from society. The worst part of it is that they did not realize that they had a problem and resisted all attempts of help, one guy going so far as to kick down a locked door to get to his computer.

Shari said...

m/j: I'm not sure why you regret it. I think game-playing is just like any other recreational activity. For me, it's no different than taking a break by watching T.V. (though it's more social than that). It's only a problem if you do it too much. The people you talk to can be a lot of fun.

kanagawa g: I think on-line gaming is like any other sort of addiction. If you lose yourself in it, it can be a serious problem, but I think most people don't get quite that wrapped up in it. I play regularly but not for long periods of time and it never interferes with real life in any way. In fact, I often take breaks while I play to go do laundry, take a stretch, or do housework and rarely play longer than two hours in a given day (and generally less). With the breaks I take, I think that's not so much time in the game.

Men seem to be more likely than women to get so wrapped up in it that they get addicted and I think the whole issue is something that needs study. It's a whole new form of addiction brought on by the technological age and the types of people who are susceptible to it haven't really been clearly identified.

Interestingly, WoW is one of those games which the company would prefer you not play all the time because you don't pay by the hour but rather play a flat monthly rate. Their server load would be reduced if people played more moderately.

Personally, I tried WoW for about an hour and it wasn't for me. I'm not sure if I'll ever play an MMORPG which requires a monthly fee. I play Guild Wars and Diablo II as on-line games and both are free once you buy the game. Guild Wars even has a reminder system which tells you how long you've played and encourages you to take breaks at hourly intervals to discourage people from playing mindlessly for too long.

Thanks to both of you for your comments!