metaphysics of MMOs (2/5) : it’s not the deep end


MMOs are shallow.

There is no way around it. Not yet, anyway: not limited by the capabilities of our current technologies (specifically, speed and storage). What you do in an MMO does not matter. You know because everyone else is doing the same thing — performing the same quests, fighting the same mobs, escorting the same NPCs — and they have been before you and they will be doing so after you. And it won’t matter. Because, by and large, the worlds of MMOs are static.

People have tried to find ways around this, of course. There are the instanced environments where you only make it to the instance after you’ve decided whether to save the town, for example. Of course these tend to be linear: there is the pre-town saving instance, and the post-town saving instance. Creating a new instance for each branching decision choice would be a server nightmare, and not only for pure spatial reasons. How many people do you think would log into the game intending to play with their friends, or join a certain guild, only to discover that they’d made a different choice than their intended groupies, and thus cannot see the same world? One person is trapped in the saved-the-town instance, one person is trapped in the didn’t-save-the-town instance, and never the twain shall meet. Complaints would multiply like bunnies.

So you can see why, in MMOs as opposed to RPGs, such instancing tends to be chronologically linear, rather than branching. But while this changed state, even without the branching, is intended to lend agency to the player — “Look at how the world has changed, now that you decided to save the town!” — really it can only push so far in that direction. Since the town’s new state is, again, static. There is the before/after toggle, and that is it. If you’ve just stomped on a horde of enemies in PVP, the townsfolk do not cheer you. If you ganked a couple of innocent bystanders, you are not (generally — I know games like ESO have tried to implement justice systems, with varying degrees of success) hunted down like the jerkface you are. You’re a bit of a ghost, really — floating through the world, touching people’s lives but then drifting off across a new frontier; putting down no roots and cementing no relationships. It’s shallow, is what I’m saying.

But I’m also saying that sometimes, we need that.

I am (unavoidably, if you saw this blog at all in 2015) a hopelessly besotted devotee of deep, engrossing, emotionally compromising storylines in immersive RPGs. I confess to an agony of withdrawal upon finishing such a story: weeks of half-hearted fanfic attempts and replays ensue, and that’s leaving out all my desperate attempts to either engage friends with discussions of What Went Down or, in last year’s case, actually buying the DLC for them in order to encourage them to play through said DLC, so we can discuss it. I’m that into such storytelling.

But I can’t always be submerged like that. I caution this with the obligatory note that everyone deals with things differently, but I cannot now, for example, plunge deep into a game that’s going to tear me apart. I could, once, set about in fiction, after the fact, trying to put back together hearts such games broke (or could have broken), but now? No. Now I just want to tend my crops and level up my horses in BDO, while wait for my phone to chirrup, delivering the next blow about my mother’s health. I have enough depth in my life; enough stop-and-think-about-where-you-are change. I don’t need any more.

I wouldn’t point it out if I thought I was alone on this front. I’ve read plenty of people say that this or that game, or this or that fic based on that game, helped them through difficult times, it’s true. But I’ve also read people say that the shallower games (read: Fantasy Life) got them through some difficult shit. And that’s fair. People are different, and the things that happen to them vary in length, breadth and the degree to which they take over their lives (or their family’s, or the country, or the planet). And when that degree becomes too large, you need somewhere to retreat that won’t break your heart every five hours of gameplay. Where every gaming session is Just Another Day; where your horse never dies, your house never gets set on fire, and the NPCs never get Alzheimer’s and start shitting on the floor just to spite your dad. Everything is normal.

Normal is shallow, it’s true. It’s static. But when everything else is in motion, breaking and being broken, the placid, static worlds of MMOs — yes, despite all the swords-and-shields strife that contributes to their lackluster, predictable storylines — is valuable. Precisely because it’s predictable. Goblins running amok on the trading caravans, I can deal with. My dad coming to loathe my mom because the person he married is gone? That’s harder.

That’s the deep end. If I only ever swim down there, I’ll drown.


metaphysics of MMOs 1/5 : people as (wall)paper


I didn’t realize until early-morning gen chat in BDO a few weeks ago how many MMOs I’d played. I don’t particularly consider myself a strictly MMO person, but I guess there are some things you learn after plodding though so many. Things like the value of people as (wall)paper.

When I describe to a non-MMO player some of the more asinine discussions that continually crop up in general chat, be it in World of Warcraft or Elder Scrolls Online or anything in between, the question that routinely crops up is why bother playing MMOs at all? If gaming is an escape — and for many, it is — and something which you are supposed to enjoy, why expose yourself for hours at a time to people not only with whom you disagree (exposure to a certain amount of disagreement, after all, is healthy and wise), but whose opinions are expressed with such vitriol and at times blind seething hatred that you are forced to wink their invective out of existence through the use of an ignore filter or, in extreme circumstances, report them?

My answer sounds worse than it is. People in MMOs function as wallpaper. They decorate the world you move in, and fill it with the kind of life — liked and loathed — that populates your actual world. It is true that I quit Facebook this year precisely to avoid the asinine asides, political and otherwise, of in-laws and friends-of-friends. Why, then, would I persist playing MMOs, whose general (see: broad, zone- or world-wide) chats frequently serve as the platforms for those exact same conversations?

The fact is that when it is people I know, or whom I might be required to know, displaying such opinions, I am torn between my furious desire to fight with them and the knowledge that I should not — either because I am related to them and unable to part from them permanently if things should turn sour (hello, SNL Thanksgiving skit) or because I have no wish for people I do know to see me associated with such people (see: racist sister’s wife’s posts anytime someone of color is killed). I am a very generous clicker of the ignore button in any MMO, to be sure. Anyone spewing slurs across chat is dead to me. But seeing people stand up to them is sometimes worth hanging on, at least until the end of a conversation. Knowing that there are others out there who will push back is valuable. It makes you feel less like an island, certainly more so than when someone spew hate across a social media platform like Facebook. In MMOs, without your real identity to anchor your actions to a traceable history, absolutely the ONLY gain in engaging such invective is moral. You are fighting this asshat because it is the right thing to do — not because you need to be seen fighting anyone, or because you’ve secretly resented them for years and finally have an opportunity to take them on. You are strangers. But you, as a stranger, are bothering to stand up for another stranger or a group of strangers, and that’s on you.

Setting aside harassment, though, consider the upcoming release of No Man’s Sky. Yes, it’s not an MMO in the traditional sense but the same “why do it with many people?” question applies. Perhaps more so here, in a game so vast you are unlikely ever to even encounter those other people. Why bother putting them in there, then? Why not just make it huge and procedural on each individual’s own machine, with no interaction? Or — because I’m sure there are technical aspects which apply to the making and maintenance of the thing that address it less metaphysically — why play such a game, where you’ll never see the people?

Because, simply put, you know they’re there. Even if you don’t see or hear them…even if it takes you months to find a planet bearing another’s stamp of discovery…you know they’re there. I am not sure there is a way to convey the value of this fact without growing maudlin. I have no wish to beat the by-now very dead horse of modern isolation, etc. etc. But interacting with them isn’t the point, really. Not in so vast a multiplayer or even, I think, in MMOs. It certainly wasn’t the point in MUDs, where again quite often you never saw anyone. The point was that someone else was sharing in that experience, somewhere. The people, seen or not, populate the blank white walls of the gaming experience, lending a togetherness (or at least the belief in its possibility) to the time you spend in the game that it otherwise would lack. And our desire for that, at least, has not changed since the days of MUDs.

desperate to communicate it to you

Welp, I definitely need to see this movie now. Less because of anything I read about the movie itself than about its director, Jodie Foster:

She made clear to me that she was sharing that story only because it couldn’t embarrass her mother, who has advanced dementia.


“Everything I have to say on that subject, I said that night,” she told me, acknowledging that some people remained puzzled. “I can be vague. Vague is moving to me.”


They’re “solitary characters who don’t have mothers and fathers and boyfriends,” she told me, and they demonstrate her desire, when acting, “to have an experience that’s all mine, and I don’t really want to share it.” “Yet I’m totally desperate to communicate it to you,” she said. “It’s a really weird dichotomy. And I think that’s me in life.”

I find tremendously frustrating the veneer my peers adopt as they grow older and become adults — the “everything’s fine” veneer. When one or both of your parents are dying, everything’s not fine, okay? Everything is not fine. But there’s this pressure to pretend like it is. People close up and if you didn’t get to know them when they were open your chance is gone. All you’re ever going to get is that proprietary smile of fine-ness. Nothing to see here.

Except there is. There always is. So to see an adult woman owning up to that is refreshing. Like Stephen Colbert in his startlingly earnest interview of last year, she didn’t need to open up like this. As she herself points out,

“There are only so many steps I can take to protect people I love. There’s only so much I can do to keep them safe. It’s kind of a horrible feeling to know that if somebody’s close to you, you put them in danger of being hurt, of being sullied — trivialized — just by virtue of knowing you.”

Guardedness makes sense (guardedness, I stress — not the fakery that so vexes me). But she lays it aside to say these things though it is not incumbent upon her to do so.

More adults should do that. The best of them do. I think of all the times my mom explained to me what this lyric in a song meant (“sometimes people just don’t love each other anymore”), or how the brain damage after a car accident felt (“I woke up and suddenly I wasn’t smart anymore”); or of other people who’ve told me what having a child or losing a loved one really felt like, and honestly, none of them had to level with me like that. I was never in a bad enough place to need that kind of honesty; to require it as some kind of reward for persisting. I was always doing okay.

But maybe that’s because I didn’t have to subsist on the lie that everyone else was doing better than okay. Maybe it’s because people leveled with me that I was able to remain so level. But the number of people I know willing to do that is shrinking. People are growing up and growing thick hides; shallow smiles. They are growing into longer silences.* It’s upsetting.

I want to see Jodie Foster’s movie just to give whatever tiny part of my ticket money to someone who isn’t afraid to be open like that. Despite having very good reason — more than most of us — for wishing to remain closed.

*I guess I should add that this may just be my perception. And I may even fall into the same behavior patterns. I know 20-somethings who get divorced sometimes feel like they’re diseased — everyone avoids them, like failed marriage is contagious. I think it may be like that, at this age, with sick parents, too. Nobody else’s parents are sick yet. So no one knows what to say when they hear about mine. Nor do they then feel comfortable sharing their own frustrations with me, it seems like, because here they are with healthy functioning parents who love each other, and whatever else is going wrong in their lives seems awkward to mention around someone who fields calls from her father about her mother refusing to bathe or use the toilet or eat. So then people just close up like clams. And then I feel like I should too, out of fairness to them, because who wants to hear my sob story? The only two people who actively responded to my despair re: parents were both my supervisors, many decades my senior, both of whose parents got this same disease. One is gone and one is going away. It’s terribly lonely. Made the more so by the fact that you cannot express your wrath when someone describes a bad day they had, and you compare it to your bad days which end with your mother almost killing herself or the dog and your father furious with her. It’s infuriating to hear about people whose parents are well whine about petty shit. But they’re allowed to. There is no lowest common denominator to sadness. So the only solution seems to be silence all round. It sucks. Because you do end up pretending, however lame and last-ditch the effort is, that everything is fine. When it’s not.

train like you weren’t crushed when you overheard someone say they skip all your training posts : week 12

Temp: 50s-60s

Shoes: Yeah so…had to ditch the Merrells with the mileage increase. I fought it forever but they’re just too small. They’re okay if it’s freezing cold and your feet don’t expand too much but not now that it’s warmer. So I went in search of Altras the running store didn’t have — the ones bright as parrots. No luck on those, and I needed them that day to start breaking them in so I had no interest in placing an order. The store guy began a conciliatory spiel I am long familiar with.

“So, ah, if those others were uncomfortable, I mean, would you be open to, er, trying men’s shoes? It’s just that sometimes they’re a little more forgiving in the toe box and these companies, you know, they don’t really understand–”

“I don’t care if they’re pink and sparkly. I need to run 50 miles in them.”

“Okay then! Let’s try these ones on!”

So I got men’s zero-drop Altras in Happy Meal colors, and ran 12 miles in them. Immediately noticeable improvement on the downhills. Downhill in the Merrells was torture because my toes slammed right up against the shoe the whole way. Running downhill should not be torture. It should be a gift. Thank you running store guy for these big boxy Altras. Downhill is now as awesome as it should be.

Hunger: Eat all the things.

Road Wildlife: Bunches of kids with basketballs. A lot of pitbulls. Some large beautiful red dog whose gardening owner panicked when she realized it was trotting over to slobber me. No need for concern, lady. I love your giant slobbery dog. It’s like a small horse.

I think I will get the N7 hat to go with the top for the race. I’m not generally a proponent of ball caps but no one likes sunburned skull where the part in your hair is (or falls, when running, no matter how tightly you tie your ponytail) and honestly that last humid-as-hell marathon really sold me on the utility of ball caps, however much I dislike them. So I figure if I’m going to wear one it should at least be part of the get-up. And in the MCM (I made the lottery! yay!) I don’t want to appear to claim an affiliation I lack (via borrowing an actual military hat for the occasion from my dad, for example). I’ll just wear the regalia of the only ship I ever served on…

guardians of our parents’ frail nostalgias

Do you remember the cornfield chase scene, early on in Interstellar? It’s the first time you hear the arpeggio, if that helps you remember:

If you recall, the family careens off the road into a cornfield, chasing a decommissioned drone that just flies pointlessly around the world — a relic of more militarized times gone by.

But it’s not just that. The drone is also a relic from a time when such engineering wasn’t only possible but commonplace. It was the time Cooper, played by Matthew Mcconaughey, was raised in, and during which he was happiest, capable of rising to the calling he had honed his brain and body to answer. That is what kills me about that scene. He, as we know quite well from later in the movie, takes his family utterly seriously and would never purposefully endanger them. But that ghost of his past life, of the dead world in which he held such prowess, in which he had a place, leads him to slam his kids pell-mell through a cornfield and almost off a cliff, all in search of that glimpse of the past and who he used to be. How the world used to be.

His daughter, a character built to know him better and deeper than her brother ever will, sees this in him, I think. Even though she’s only twelve. She’s not meek; she would call him out on the craziness of this venture, if she didn’t see something in him that stopped her. You don’t have to be a precocious kid to see it; you just have to give a damn. And she does. Very much so.

That scene…that is what you do, as a kid, managing your parents’ nostalgia. Asking enough questions to evoke the past — what did that kind of ship do? and that acronym, what does it mean? will this happen? will that? can you tell? — without pushing too far, too deep, and causing pain to well up. Pain about who they aren’t anymore; about how the world no longer is. The way they existed in the world often isn’t even an option any longer. And if they go past their anecdotes and bump up against that reality again, it will hurt. And you, their child, will see it, and will regret saying anything, and will despair of ever saying the right thing; of knowing the balance.

But there isn’t anyone else. No one else who can ask these questions and get answers from a place not primed and polished for boardroom- or elevator-quality responses; canned and cleaned of any affection. So you keep trying.

Murphy never gets that chance, with her dad. He is gone before he needs her protecting. Or at least, before she can give it. He probably always needed it. That wrecks me about that movie. The person she could have been to him. The person she never got the chance to be, and how he loved her for it anyway.