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.


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