Life is, to varying degrees, hard. Only a lucky few of us do something we really enjoy and do not have to work at it, and even then there are usually at least occasional challenges that get in the way – relationships, logistics, family, mistakes, accidents, grudges. “Hard” is of course subjective, but you only have your own frame of reference, and there are very few people who do not, from time to time, shout or grab their hair or sob or seethe quietly in frustration at the barriers life throws in the way of just getting along.
So it’s good to escape now and then – immerse yourself in another world, maybe far away, maybe with better weather, maybe bashing a ball around, maybe just between the pages of a book or the episodes of a box set. We sit with our feet up, forgetting all our responsibilities for a short time, usually with a glass of it’d-be-rude-not-to and a helping of oh-go-on-then, and think how great life would be if we could just do this all the time and not have to return to the hurdle-strewn normality we’re taking a breather from.
An increasing number of us are choosing to escape to faraway worlds (but without moving), imagined worlds (but that we can be a part of), unreal worlds (but populated by real people). Referred to in the industry as massively multi-player online (MMO) games, these include “traditional” role-playing games like World of Warcraft, Rift and EverQuest but also increasingly other social strategy games such as Farmville and the child-focussed Club Penguin. Some of them cost to play but an increasing number are free, accessed through social network platforms; all of them are marketed furiously, generating enormous revenue for the makers through either subscriptions or advertising. Some estimates suggest as many as 400 million people are regular participants, which is 15-20% of the world’s internet users. In terms of participation, this is more than all but the most popular sports; several times more than golf (60m), tennis (75m) and squash (20m), and comparable with basketball (250–450m depending on what you read).
What they all have in common, apart from the reliance on a significant body of regular competitors, is that they attract a certain amount of sneering from people who do not take part. Sports suffer this to an extent as well, usually between proponents of rival sports, but not to the same extent. A stereotypical online social gamer would be young, male, socially awkward, a little on the heavy side from too many Pringles, and probably fairly pale from lack of direct sunlight and sleep. So admitting you play MMOs can be tantamount to suggesting you are unhealthy, have few friends, get laid rarely, and probably smell a little.
This characterisation is grossly inaccurate nowadays. Studies vary in rigour but some research suggests as many as 40% of participants are female; only 25% are teenaged; over a third are married; and half have full-time jobs. Many people play with partners or family members, suggesting that women are increasingly following the “if you can’t beat it out of them, join them” route and getting to enjoy increased social interaction with their partners as a result. Young men are still the majority, but then young men also make up the majority of participants in most sports, so the old stereotype is clearly no longer valid.
But are they good for you in the way that sports clearly are? Most of these games have some form of development at the heart of them – perhaps developing a character you are playing, or an enterprise such as a farm or a city that you are growing, and the online element of them allows you to play with and against other people, who you may or may not know, rather than against a computer, as was the case before fast broadband became widely available. Thus you could characterise MMOs as a way of pitting your wits at some sort of challenge against competitors at your own level, since most of these games, either by design or by human nature, cast people together who are at a comparable level. There is a logical assumption that your mental fitness is being improved in the way that regular sport maintains physical fitness.
Compare MMO participation to joining a sports club, or even just having a regular game against a colleague. You will normally play against someone of a similar level, or with an advantage given to the less-skilled player, to afford all parties the chance of celebrating some success. Some games are team games, some you play individually. You pick up tips from better players, you improve through practice, you put yourself out to attend at given times, and in many cases it becomes a significant commitment in terms at least of time. Golf can take up four or five hours a weekend before you even hit the bar for the mutual commiserations; MMO average weekly participation is over 20 hours, dedication well beyond the vast majority of amateur sportspeople, although obviously made easier by the ability to play regardless of location (you can’t play football while commuting, lying in bed or waiting for the kettle to boil).
For me, the most positive aspect of MMOs is the total lack of discrimination. Physical characteristics are hidden online; no-one cares what colour you are, whether you have any bits missing, how long you’ve been on the planet, or whether you have a regional accent. You share only what you choose to share about yourself, other than the character traits that make you behave in a certain way; and those traits can differ wildly to the ones you exhibit in real life, the protection of the screen affording looser inhibitions. Of course, where you get people, you will always get conflict, and MMOs have their fair share of cheats, nastiness and rash decisions or comments made in the heat of the moment; but no more than real life, and nowhere else would you get the same demographic diversity, all collaborating for a common purpose – however ethereal, and arguably pointless, that purpose might be.
What might need further study is the impact of MMO participation on local society. It could be argued that spending such a considerable amount of time staring at a screen prevents, or at least reduces, active participation in your immediate surroundings. That would certainly be a drawback; but it may just be replacing the time that people would otherwise spend watching TV, and if that results in more interesting programming to entice people back, then everyone wins.
For the record, I am not a fan of RPGs. I play Scrabble on Facebook, and have been known to spend many an hour playing Risk in the past, but I don’t share the same thrall with acting out a role in an imagined world that others have. I probably just don’t have the patience; it’s not an antipathy towards games in general. Give me a Wii controller and a copy of Sports Resorts or FIFA and I’m as likely to waste a few hours as anyone else.