Sunday, February 2, 2020

Between Thought And Expression

I wrote a long post that took me most of this morning and some of this afternoon. I gave it a title that turned out to be prescient: "Overthinking It". Then I read it back. It's in the bin, now.

Instead, I'm going to try and say the one thing I really wanted to say, only in about a tenth of the words. It's not a statement; it's a question: am I even playing any more?

It's been itching at me for a week or two now. When I log into the two MMORPGs I'm currently focused on, how much of what I'm doing can I really call "gameplay"?

I won't re-iterate all the mind-numbing detail of what it is that I actually do when I "play" (that's one of the things that made the failed post so bloated). Anyone who reads this blog must have a fair idea what that would entail. You're all probably doing something very similar.

Dailies, missions, tasks, rep grinds, achievements... all the paraphernalia of the modern game. Is any of it actually gameplay? Do we even have any clear understanding what "gameplay" is any more?

I'm not convinced that spending two hours or more every day, which is what I do now, sending notional NPCs on missions that are imaginary even within the context of the gameworld (EverQuest II) or performing certain tasks for the sole and only purpose of earning coin (Guild Wars 2) conforms to any functional definition of either "play" or "game".

Even some of the less abstruse things I find myself doing, things that use the mechanics of "questing" and are ostensibly conceptualized within the context of the game, come unmoored from anything I would once have recognized as internal logic, let alone narrative. They exist solely to provide a mechanism to deliver a reward. They have no before or after, no beginning or ending. They just are.

What I'm finding myself wondering is whether this is anything new or whether it's just that I can see it now. Is it the same skeleton that was always there beneath the surface, made visible as the concealing skin sloughs away? Or are these excrescences, parasites, carbuncles clinging to the worn and damaged carapace of an aging behemoth, too weak to scrape them off?

I always struggled with the word "game" in the acronym MMORPG but increasingly it appears to me that games aren't games any more. The best of them are stories. The rest just sets of actions to be completed, like setting a table for dinner or putting all your books into alphabetical order. We could call those things "games" if we wanted to: they have both rules and win conditions. We don't, though.

A while back there was much talk of "gameifying " real life to make doing chores feel more like play. Sometimes I wonder if what's actually been achieved isn't the exact opposite.


  1. This, I think, is one of the reasons I never stick with MMORPGs past "level cap" or endgame or whatever you want to call it. When I feel like I'm out of "story" I generally move on. In a themepark game the story is being told to me, in a sandbox game it's a story I'm creating. But there's a point where I start feeling like I'm accumulating 'stuff' (currency, experience, loot) just for the sake of accumulating it and that's generally when I start logging in less and less, even though I THINK I'm really enjoying earning this stuff.

    But what I think/say and what I actually DO tell two different tales...

    1. I've never been comfortable with the concept of "story" or "narrative" in games. We all love stories so it works to draw us in and hold us and it's apparent now that the mechanics of what we call "games" can be employed effectively to tell good stories... but that's neither "play" nor "games" as I understand either concept. You can make up a story while you play -children do that all the time; it's called playing make-believe, or it used to be. That's why sandbox games where "you are the story" probably qualify as genuine "play". Once you're following a script someone else has written, though, even if you're being given a part to play, you're playing in the sense of acting, which is a different meaning entirely.

  2. Agreed. I’ve been meandering through several months of this, trying to see some kind of understanding through the fog of checklist-things-to-achieve with not much success. I haven’t even managed to get through GW2’s latest episode yet, just played a story or two and put it down feeling very little.

    Instead, I’ve been experimenting with books and tapas tasting of varied singleplayer games, which seemed to be working out for a while. This idea of chasing the curiosity and enjoying the experiences. Then I got sucked into Stardew Valley, which is weirdly all ‘chores’ and repetitive action, yet felt pretty fun. But now I’m starting to question “the point” of an endless game, be it singleplayer or MMO...

    And yet if I start to make a list of games I want to complete or try out or little goals to get done around various game worlds, ie. “creating mini endings of completion for myself,” aren’t I just doing the same thing to myself as a quest chore list?

    So I got no answers as yet, just a bunch of half failed, half successful experiments. Does everything have to become ‘work?’ What does it mean to truly just play?

    1. The GW2 episode was part of what spurred this post. It felt so palpably formulaic I found it impossible to ignore the shopping list structure. As I posted, I did find the ending redeemed it somewhat, but that is problematic in itself. If what makes the experience feel worthwhile are the story beats and the dialog, what does that even have to do with play or games?

      So many of the blogs I read about MMORPGs and single-player games focus on the narrative or the story. Does that even have anything to do with play? Or games? Over the years the two once entirely separate concepts have become muddled up together to such an extent that, apparently, many of us can no longer tell them apart.

      For me, the most playful of times comes when I start a new game or make a character in an old one and just wander about, getting involved with whatever I happen to bump into, with no real plan or purpose other than seeing what there is to see and doing what there is to do. But that can only last so long. Eventually goals and purposes begin to emerge and it starts to be more about achieving those than about playing for the sake of play. Once, the developers mostly left us to work out those goals for ourselves and come to that point when we were ready; these days the games are designed to start us down that path from the tutorial.

  3. I don't game in P1999 I am a member of a community - who is frozen in time. It's odd. I log in, help people out, do a few things - I wholly exist in that small ecosystem and many know me (or OF me) and my exploits... it's so strange. I had a very similar thought that I am not really gaming either. Which is queued up for a rare post from me (these days) so won't spoil it here - yet.

    1. I read your post and it adds another level of nuance to the issue. Older MMORPGs often allowed players to set themselves up inside the game almost as service providers or tradespeople. It's weird when you stop and think about it now. Most, if not all, of those niches have been replaced or filled in newer MMORPGs by game systems - no-one needs to provide teleport services in EQII or GW2 because all anyone needs to do is click an icon on the map.

      It also raises the thorny question of whether offering those services equates to pretending to be something you're not which equates to playing "Let's Pretend" and therefore qualifies as "play", or whether, to all intents and purposes, you really are that service provider, in which case it equates to "Having a Job" and therefore definitely does not qualify as "play".

      Plenty there for some enterprising PhD student to get to grips with...

  4. I don't know.

    I mean, when talking about dailies and stuff like that you're absolutely right of course. I've expressed my feelings about such busywork before, and with very few exceptions I don't like them and wouldn't call the activities 'playing a game' either.

    On the other hand...half an hour ago Lakisa found a cross-continental tradepack in ArcheAge. It was just lying there on the ground. Why its owner dropped and left it there we'll never know, but in a couple if minutes we will board my clipper and try to deliver it to the enemy continent. Maybe we'll get ganked and relieved of the pack, maybe not, but I'm looking forward to it either way.

    I think there's still 'game' to be found in MMORPGs. Not in every title out there, agreed, but in some at least.

    1. I think you absolutely can (and always could) use the virtual space of an MMORPG as a playground in which you make up your own games. What you're describing fits into that narrative, I think. I also think the item delivery across hostile teritory motif in ArcheAge does probably qualify as a "game" in itself - it's basically tag, isn't it?

    2. I've never looked at it that way, but you're right! Only that here, when you get tagged you lose your stuff. :-)

      Personally I found it harder to make up my own games in some MMORPGs more than others. Hence my preference of sandboxy kind of games I guess.

      In SWTOR, for example, I either had 'something to do', that 'something' being the kind of activities you described above, or I didn't log in at all. That game didn't trigger my desire to just go out and do whatever because I felt there wasn't much there to be done, no adventure to be had, unless I had some kind of developer-made quest that made it so.

  5. That definitely feels like overthinking it to me. To me, MMOs are like playing ball - you can play a specific game following certain rules or kick the ball around in a more freeform way... but it's a form of play either way.

    1. I had a line in the post where I cited you and Wilhelm as two bloggers who seem able to just play but I took it out because it seemed a bit invidious to pick on two names when there are others who do it as well. All of your series of posts on levelling up SWTOR and WoW Classic and the pacifist levelling too just seem to describe play. Ditto Wilhelm with his Instance Group and EVE war stories. Even when you mention routine, repeated activities you somehow make them sound playful.

      A lot of blogs I read, though, do very much the opposite. I see a great deal of writing about doing things almost unwillingly because they "need" to be done. And I'm beginning to notice myself both doing that and writing about it. It needs to be watched. And dealt with!

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  7. This resonates with me as I'm finding it harder and harder to enjoy MMO's these days. I know - just stop playing - but my other half is still big on WoW and enjoys the community of the MMO, so I find myself tagging along.

    I've mostly gone back to single player games. I like open world and I like regular RPGS, but whats best is that they have an 'end'. I can play through the story and then call it done.

    For me, end game in an MMO is a boring, endlessly repeating tick box no matter how fancy they try to dress it up. My partner and I try to mix it up with roleplaying and stories about our long term characters, but that only gets me so far.

    I put some of this down to a)Being older and b)being less interested in the increasingly toxic communities in games like WoW. Now I almost exclusively just duo with my SO and perhaps that in itself puts a limit on how much I can repeat content.

    Its something I've been thinking about a lot lately. I wish I could rediscover the magic of all the old MMORPGs I used to spend my time in but no luck yet.

    1. I used to be more down on endgame than I used to be. For years I considered myself finished with any character when they hit the level cap. I would just make a new character and start over if I was still enjoying the game.

      Then there was a period when I did play at endgame, in EverQuest and EQII among others, and latterly in GW2. The developers seemed to have gotten better at making that fun. And then they began to rely more and more on achievements and rep grinds and any number of artificial ladders to be climbed while still essentially staying where you were. It has definitely reached a point now where it's impossible to ignore.


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