Why? Well, that's a bit complicated.
I had quit before. But that March, Blizzard was offering a free trial of the latest expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, and I decided to at least check out the new Death Knight class. Before my free time ran out, I logged in to my old character from the last time I'd subscribed. Unbelievably, I was still in my old guild, despite nearly a year of inactivity. My old friends were still active players, and the guild leader had specifically refused to kick me for inactivity on the off chance I'd come back some day.
This gave me such a warm fuzzy feeling that I had to reactivate my subscription. It felt good to roll with my old crew again. But at the same time there was something disquieting about the fact that all these people were still around.
"Really?" I wanted to ask them. "You're still playing this game?" I couldn't help but wonder if they had, well, anything else going on in their lives. In the time since my last login, I had changed jobs and moved across the country. Had my old friends spent the whole time in the same places doing the same things, killing the same mobs and farming the same reputations?
My cross-country move brought me within a short drive of my guild leader, and one evening she invited me over for a home-cooked meal. The experience irrevocably changed how I saw WoW.
She was perfectly nice, and an excellent cook. But it was hard not to notice certain things - no matter how bad I felt for noticing them. It was hard not to notice she lived in a crappy apartment in a crappy neighborhood. It was hard not to notice she was fat. It was hard not to notice that despite her dreams of going back to school and becoming a paramedic, she just worked part-time at a local pizza joint.
She marveled at one point that she'd been playing WoW for four and a half years, ever since the beta. And she'd spent a good chunk of that leading a substantial, successful guild - itself nearly a full-time job.
What, exactly, did she have to show for all the time and work she'd poured into this game? The rest of her life was just the same as it'd been when she'd started. If she'd instead spent the last four and a half years working on her dream, she would be a paramedic by now. Easily.
"Imagine the day that you first bought the game. If you knew everything you do now, would you still have bought it? Now the follow up question: Imagine yourself in two years, still playing WoW, looking back on today when you are making the decision to quit or keep playing. How do you feel about your decision to continue?"
—How to Break a World of Warcraft Addiction
Every day, my guild leader faced a decision: play WoW, or work toward becoming a paramedic. If she played WoW, she'd have fun, and advance a character or improve the guild in some small but measurable way. If she worked toward becoming a paramedic, her progress would be much less visible. It's easy to say that on any given day, the decision doesn't really matter. But every day spent on WoW drove her in circles, and every day spent studying paramedicine would have brought her one day closer to her goal. And days add up, like it or not. We cannot stop them from doing so. What we can do is decide what they add up to.
I didn't want to look around one day and discover I'd turned into my guild leader, dreams on the horizon but unachieved because my days added up to nothing. The idea frightened and depressed me.
So I quit. I quit hard enough that the way the game had pulled me in the last time wasn't an option anymore. And instead of spending an hour every day doing my daily quests in-game, I spent an hour every day doing "daily quests" in real life - I started working out. I started leveling my actual skills and stats.
I started small - some push ups, some bicep curls, some jogging. Nobody told me I'd gained 50 reputation and 100 experience. And without visible feedback, I had to rely on internal motivation. Whenever I thought to myself, "I could just skip today. It's just one day; it's not that big of a deal," I remembered my guild leader, and I thought about how every day is a decision.
"Daily action builds habits. . . . Small improvements accumulate into large improvements rapidly because daily action provides 'compounding interest.'
Skipping one day makes it easier to skip the next. . . .
Think for a moment about what action would make the most profound impact on your life if you worked it every day."
—Brad Isaac, Jerry Seinfeld's Productivity Secret
Before too long, I was seeing real results. I was doing more push ups, lifting heavier weights, running faster for longer. And my appearance improved too. I'm hot now. I feel better and have more energy and confidence. It extends into every aspect of my life. It's far, far more satisfying than hitting Exalted with some faction and earning the right to buy their tabard and mount. The only problem, in fact, is that now I need to buy tighter clothes.
So why do people throw so much time into WoW? Because it's very cleverly designed to hook you, to addict you, and to trick you.
I've spoken before about fake and artificial achievement. Most achievement in WoW isn't fake, strictly speaking, but it pretends to be more real than it is, and uses some clever tricks to make you believe it too. And it goes way beyond the usual ludic tactics: WoW's secret weapon is your friends.
When you start playing WoW, you can single-handedly overcome the challenges the game throws at you. But then some quests show up that you can't handle alone, nudging you to team up with other players. Then the instanced dungeons show up - areas designed to be played by a full team of five people, with better rewards than the solo content. Before long, you're likely to make some friends - people with whom you work well, upon whom you can rely to help you run instances and get the gear you need, and whom you help in return. If you keep going, you're likely to join a guild of like-minded individuals.
The importance of instanced dungeons increases as you approach the endgame, and you're likely to find yourself running instances over and over with your guildmates, getting better gear and helping them do the same. But what, really, is the point? What do you do with all your improved gear?
Take it to the next dungeon, where it makes you strong enough to take out the next set of bosses and get the next set of gear. It's circular, but Blizzard works hard to make the circle convoluted and attractive enough that you won't realize its utter emptiness.
That itself is nothing unusual. Where it gets really problematic is the factor that is the unique province of the MMO: social obligation.
Once you've gotten into the habit of running instances with your guild, you have likely become a valuable member. It's no longer just a game you're playing to entertain yourself. Now you're helping out the team - even if, at the end of the day, all you're helping them do is pour their time into a game.
WoW isn't the only game to hook people this way. It's becoming increasingly commonplace. The same tricks form the foundation of an even more popular game: Farmville.
"The secret to Farmville’s popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. Farmville is popular because it entangles users in a web of social obligations. When users log into Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbors have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with each others’ farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies. As the French sociologist Marcel Mauss tells us, gifts are never free: they bind the giver and receiver in a loop of reciprocity. It is rude to refuse a gift, and ruder still to not return the kindness. We play Farmville, then, because we are trying to be good to one another. We play Farmville because we are polite, cultivated people."
—A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz, Cultivated Play: Farmville
Although WoW is a much better game than Farmville, with a substantially different business model, their tactics are fundamentally the same: use your social obligations to keep you clicking. Exploit your friendships, sense of reciprocity, and the joy of being part of a group with shared goals. Turn it all from something commendable to something frivolous that serves mainly to increase the game developer's profits.
This is the trap which caught my guild leader. The same desire to help people that made her want to be a paramedic is exactly what was caught and shamelessly exploited by WoW, holding her in a useless cycle of fake altruism. But tug the thread and it all unravels - all she's really helping people do is play a game. She isn't saving lives. She's just helping people kill time.
How do you avoid this trap? How do you prevent WoW (or games like it) from hooking you into a shadow of what you really want? The answer is simple: don't play blindly. Consider what it is you get out of WoW. Nearly everything the game provides can be found better and more real elsewhere.
You want to help people? Volunteer or give to charity. You want to improve yourself? Study or exercise. You want to hone a skill? Pick one - maybe an instrument or a sport - and practice. You want to meet and socialize with people with common interests? Join or start a club. All of these options are real, and their outcomes will be real as well.
Even if what you want is to play videogames, at least play one that doesn't artifically entangle you.
"Stop playing games. Seriously. Not fun little indie games or iPhone games, but the soul-sucking, time-stealing, life-owning games like World of Warcraft, Starcraft and Counter-Strike. As a general rule, if it has online multiplayer, a strong social aspect and isn’t free, you’ve got the recipe for a life-owning game."
—Matt Rix, Focus
Ultimately, you have to ask yourself: do you want to do something real or something fake? You can't do both at once. Every day you face this decision.
What do you want to do today?
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