My parents circa 1970-something
I have loved role-playing videogames my entire life. My older brother introduced me to them when I was only four or five years old. The original culprit? Final Fantasy II (IV) on the Super Nintendo. I would spend hours just watching him sluggishly grind through red pixel imps and angry yellow flans, having little idea of the motivations behind Cecil and why he would no longer be serving as the leader of the Red Wings. The substance behind stories like Cecil's turned out to be the real catalyst in my decision to decry the existence of MMOs and their ilk.
As the years went on I developed my own tastes in videogames, but largely remained true to the Final Fantasy franchise, only occasionally breaking off for a spell of Suikoden or Wild Arms. My brother discovered Ultima Online in 1998. A few months later, so did my mother. The same influence that had wrapped me in the Japanese RPG web caught my mother in something similar, but with more of a western fervor.
Little did I know that this was the defining moment of the division and inevitable commercial down slope of Japanese RPGs. The go-anywhere-do-anything nature of games like Ultima Online, Everquest, and World of Warcraft offered the same feeling of grinding-looting-hunting satisfaction of my favorite RPGs, but without the mechanics of a linear story, personable characters, or static and limited equipment hauls.
My mother got worse, quitting her 13-year job as a well-liked waitress, sleeping on my living room sofa to avoid my father, and developing a caustic and unpredictable attitude toward her two sons. I don't like to compare my mother's personal issues with those of alcoholic or drug-addicted parents because these are typically much more violent and physical sources of abuse, but even though I was rarely if ever physically hurt, the psychological effects that videogame addiction employs can be just as long-lasting and tragic.
My mother's game collection
In the early 2000s, my brother ventured off into the punk and hardcore music scenes whereas I, being four years younger, kept on the path I was seemingly destined for as a lower middle class white kid forever bored in suburbia: some friends, some bike-riding, and a lot of videogames.
Everquest had just come out, so while I was getting Vivi to jump rope in Alexandria 30 times in a row, my mother was setting up Ventrilo and joining guilds. While I was learning to wrap my head around why this scene in Final Fantasy X brought tears to my eyes, my mother was barking commands and cackling away in her smoky room at the end of the house.
If you have ever lived with an abusive parent, a wild and uncouth roommate, or even a troublesome pet, then you know somewhat of what I went through. You're trapped in a house with something venomous, something poisoning your personal ecosystem that you can do little about. You can complain, but no one takes videogame addiction seriously. In fact, my peers thought it was humorous. "Your mom plays WoW? Weird duuuude." Yeah, weird. Those very same peers (see: best friends) became temporary addicts of the famous Blizzard title in the intervening years themselves.
You can leave, but only when your tired and compassionate-to-a-fault father feels he can muster up the energy to drive you around after working, buying groceries, and cooking dinner for his motherless children all day. All-weekend sleepovers at friends' were frequent, if sometimes marred by sessions of trying to push those aforementioned friends out of their WoW-induced reveries.
Or you can make plans to go far away. Plans like, "When I graduate the first thing I'm doing is moving out."
My mother died of a brain aneurysm in May 2007, three weeks before my high school graduation; it was the most peaceful summer of my entire life.
Final Fantasy XII was my current jam, but there was something about the game I didn't quite like in comparison to the past entries in the series: it reminded me too much of an MMO. Very roam-friendly, a lot of freedom to explore and wander, no limitations. I had never played a western RPG up until this point, having only briefly delved into Diablo II with a friend years before (to date, my only other experience is a mere 34 hours of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim).
My plans were foiled, and suddenly I was home alone and the birds were chirping softly every morning and I could eat whenever I wanted and live and breathe cleanly in my own home. I finally had time to take that juxtaposition of Final Fantasy XII to past entries and develop the most important opinion I believe I have ever had about videogames and role-playing games specifically.
I kept it simple when I had to explain my reasoning to certain peers who were as enthralled as they could be with adventures like the ones my mother slogged through with her online buddies: I said, "If it doesn't end, I won't play it."
This simple motto helped turn away an eerie feeling of hypocrisy when enjoying the process of grinding and treasure-seeking in the subsequent RPGs I played myself. It meant that if a game doesn't have a relevant story directly proportioned to the gameplay that eventually has a sensible conclusion, it is not for me.
Some might say I simply need something to blame in the wake of my mother's clearly addictive and lonely nature, with her eventually erratic behavior having a distinct and obvious negative effect on me. Preferring her guild mates to her loving and neighboring real life community and family, for example. The whole blaming the abuser, not the drug, thing. Yeah, yeah, this is a bit more personal. As an avid and passionate gamer, I feel a burning need to simultaneously defend my beloved pastime and favorite art form as well as decry its mutations, especially when they help destroy an entire family for the majority of a decade.
MMOs and their ilk (most western fantasy RPGs, and now the JRPGs trying to emulate their success) represent a latent trend in gaming first seen in the arcade days: clear and outright exploitation of players. Games designed to ensnare and subsequently harm the well-being of players using proven dirty tactics. In the arcade days ensuring more quarters was simple: limit life counts, make the game super-challenging, and include lots of shiny collectibles. Not too harmful because the technology wasn't there yet for it to be. Kids didn't have arcade machines in their homes and they couldn't voice chat to people across the country, coordinating the best paths to take in Joust. Addiction was kept at arm's length.
Times have changed and now publishers have proven that they can't control their own greedy desires in favor of, let's say, making fun and heartfelt experiences at meager or moderate cost to the player, both monetarily and psychologically. They offend simple principles of how to be humane and compassionate human beings to one another and of what makes videogames amazing.
The first offense that WoW makes is its subscription fee. At the time, my mother was paying $15 a month and I knew of no other game that had ever asked for more than a one-time purchase. This was way before downloadable content (which I loathe) and on the precipice of many other games trying to emulate Blizzard's commercial success. The fee might be a slap in the face, but at least it bars entry to people who can't afford to pay $180 a year to play, like young people. Of course Blizzard has followed the recent sneaky trend that makes WoW free-to-play until you hit level 20: just enough time to let the cycles sink their teeth into you and never let you go.
This leads me to the second offense I believe MMOs make, which I think is the true heart-and-soul of this issue: the warping of enjoyment in videogames into dull, lifeless, never-ending timesinks. In this regard, World of Warcraft in particular is absolutely good-for-nothing. Whereas the Final Fantasy series balanced out its sometimes arduous grinding with memorable characters and emotional stories, WoW does not even make this effort. The entire game is just a shameless series of side quests. Get the quest, kill the monster, get the loot, get the better quest, kill the tougher monster, get the better loot. Never rinse, always repeat. All with no real motivation (if you try to tell me that World of Warcraft has a story I will bludgeon you with a hilariously sharp Atari Jr. until you bleed from your ass) and therefore minimal substance. If you are going to play games like WoW, at least have the courtesy to admit that you enjoy them for the empty satisfaction you gain from treasure hunting and monster killing for the sake of itself.
Behind the computer desk
The third offense is a tricky one to define nowadays, but I hold true to it nonetheless: online-only friends are not real friends. Therefore the system of guilding, raids, and inevitable forum discussion is nothing but an illusion of real human connection and community.
Two guildmates of my mother's showed up at her funeral. Amidst the brawny, thick, hardened hands of the numerous cousins and uncles I took condolence handshakes from, there came the pale, soft hands of two nerds reaching out to a vague family in New Jersey, having no idea of the demonic aura their presence cast over that room for me that day, despite their well-meant intentions. My mother was a sociable person until her devolution into MMO addiction. After quitting her job, perhaps she found it too difficult to begin something like a career search -- something she hadn't pursued in years. Instead, she found it easier to simply live off of my father's meager earnings and delve deeper into the digital bonds she began to form with those in her virtual life, those who knew her as "Leanan". No body language, no eye contact, no real relatable goals other than to take down the next big mob every Thursday night, no ifs, ands, or buts.
I remember hearing her emotional wails from down the hall as each mob hit the ground, or if a tank wasn't performing up to snuff. Maybe this is just another aspect of our modern lives that was soured by my experiences dealing with someone who lost their grip on reality because of it, but I simply cannot agree that those I have only spoken with through text online are my "friends", especially considering the numerous filters and false arrangements creating any type of internet persona requires, all hidden under a literal fantasy avatar. This is the veil proposed by the necessity to band together and gather support to take down high-HP creatures in WoW... and it works because ultimately, World of Warcraft is a single player game.
I believe Blizzard is acutely aware of the effects that their games cause in people. It didn't take long for the stories of videogame addiction clinics in the Netherlands and starvation suicides in Korea to surmount over the past decade. Exploitation is the name of the game lately, and companies like Blizzard and Zynga are at the forefront of transforming gaming from simple distractions and heartfelt experiences into a world of subscription services, microtransactions, and shameless player entrapment. With no employed sense of moderation, the majority of the bored-forever population see an easy alternative; an escape to a life of instant satisfaction, a compulsory sense of purpose, and the barest whiff of humanity within.
You know, entertainment.
The popular existence and overwhelming passion of players of World of Warcraft and its numerous counterparts terrifies me because I've seen the unreasonable and selfish behavior of those addicted to it and the games are simply too shallow to be worth all of this fuss.
MMOs are the ultimate example of exactly how video game(r)s can sometimes go too far. I believe such pride (as seen with the release of Diablo III last week) is the result of an inability for individual gamers to admit to themselves that their hobby is perhaps life-draining and caustic, and their refusal to accept this instead morphs into banding together in online communities solemnly declaring that "if there is more than one of me, it must be okay". Unless we back off a bit on the pride we have in slaving away in favor of our own true solitude, the implications will become painstakingly clear; a delusional fantasy facade masking a psychological pit of isolation, depression, neglect, and fear is waiting for those who cannot or will not moderate.
I am a Level 27 Khajiit Thief in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I sneak and I cast magic from a distance and I Fus Ro Dah with the best of them. But I feel nothing, my head hurts, and there is no end in sight.
I go on Amazon and pre-order The Last Story, and return my borrowed copy of Skyrim to my older brother.
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