Precious Time-outs

Ironyca has published another fascinating chapter in her series on social interaction and dynamics in MMOs few days ago. If you haven’t come across her blog until now, I strongly recommend you step by sometime for some great and insightful reads.

One core argument against realID and in favor of invisible alts, is of course that social interaction cannot be forced on people the way Blizzard seem to think. Or as Ironyca puts it in her article: “I think this is social engineering gone wrong, the leash is too tight.” If you want people to form social bonds, you need to allow for that to happen naturally. Players need to be able to choose their own time of when to get closer or withdraw from one another. Good relationships are about free will.

Now, I am the first person to criticize MMOs that allow “too much” player self-sufficiency and soloplay; because there are plenty of examples in both real and virtual worlds of how cooperation fades as soon as individualism and independence increase. Human beings might be social creatures, or as the saying goes “no man is an island”, but I have always been a little skeptical of that (or rather, I see it the utilitarian way). Personally, I think there is a lot more truth in another phrase: “in times of need, we are all brothers”. The way western society has gone with increasing wealth and how it takes traumatic catastrophes to bring people closer together nowadays, is proof of that. Therefore, I want MMOs to enforce cooperation by means of need – need for grouping in order to advance.

Still, there is no way I’d ever support an MMO that disallows privacy: the privacy to roll another character, to break lose from an existing social bond or guild. It is not a developers business to dictate who you roll with or that you shouldn’t get some peace and space from others when you require it. Sometimes you need to unwind alone from the day – that’s what MMOs are there for, too. And it can be awkward getting haunted by guild tells, asking you to switch over because they’ve just lost a guy or nosing about. You should be able to decide when you want to engage in the cooperative part of the game and when you don’t. It doesn’t help your relationships if you are guilt-tripped into switching characters or pressured to tell somebody ‘No‘ – even if that’s something you have every right to do. Yet, sometimes we are just not up for questions, justifications and potential misunderstandings.

Why disappearing benefits relationships

Being able to withdraw from social circles isn’t only important because of free will and quality interaction though; there is a beneficial and invigorating aspect in taking time off – which is why it is such a shame that it should be such a difficult thing to admit and ask for.

A few years ago, a close friend of mine got married and became a father twice, soon after. We used to see each other almost weekly and our friendship has always been of a rare and precious nature. We are also geeks of an uncanny kind. It was something we cherished and missed dearly once he got sucked into family and work life so completely (plus I moved further away). It got very quiet between us for several years; not a good time for either. I respected the life-altering changes and new responsibilities on his side but at the same time I worried too, not simply for selfish reasons. From the little I still heard, he was often sick, increasingly worn out and weary. He had no place of his own, no space to recharge his batteries. I’m very sure that such thoughts alone made him feel guilty – after all he was a father now and provider of a family. He was the guild leader.

It took several years of just being there, waiting (nagging) ever so quietly in the background, hoping for his return. Making sure he always knew that door was still open. It also finally took one hefty argument on the phone, which I still recall perfectly, when my patience finally broke and I shouted at him (and my shouts are pretty frightening, I hear) that he needed to allow himself something of his own sometime. He had become a shadow of his former self (with a serious health condition developing).

And so gradually, things started to improve. We arranged for regular meet-ups again that would not be postponed or changed for anything. The time together, away from everyday life, became an established island that he would grant himself, a break-out from routine. He realized that it was something he needed – not just for himself, but for his family too. Getting away just for a day or two, having something for himself, infused him with energy that would in return benefit his loved ones. He’d get home fresh and inspired, longing to see his kids. He’d be a less tired, more attentive, happier dad and husband. More whole a person. He found his healthy balance and things have changed a great deal ever since, for which I am very thankful.

We need to allow ourselves these spaces; we need to allow ourselves to go invisible. Not just because we need to escape, but because it actually makes our most important relationships in life better, not worse. There’s nothing wrong in wanting to catch your breath for a while, to put things in perspective and return with a vengeance. Withdrawing does not always mean we want to get away from somebody, for good. All it means is that we need to withdraw for our own sake, for a while. It’s not a proof of broken relationships.

This is something we need to learn claim for ourselves without guilt, and learn to tell others if required. It’s also why realID or no secret alts in MMOs are frankly bogus, creating issues for no good reason.

A good weekend to all of you out there – the visible and invisible! I am off to disappear myself for the next few days, as I am finally leaving these shores and transferring my existence some 150 kilometers down southwest. It just so happens that my aforementioned friend is going to be my “neighbor” two days from now! I will be back as soon as internet is up and running again. Toodles!


  1. Everyone needs time alone and without obligations. It’s just healthy.

    I don’t want the obligations that come with MMO gaming, whether it’s being tied to a subscription or requiring other people to play. I’m happy to play with others sometimes, but it has to be by my choice, not the game design.

    The RealID guys don’t understand this any better than the FaceBook people. Or they do, and they are just jerks. *shrug*

    1. I think they’re really victims of wrong conclusions there; maybe it would help if MMO design teams had experienced psychologists on board to counsel them on designing the social tools in their games and understand more complex mechanics. after all you cannot really expect a coder or designer to know everything. 😉

  2. Lots of good points here. The story about the burdened father was very touching and I can imagine his situation being very difficult to opt out of. All the things he “SHOULD” do all the time. One of the points with RealID is that a guild can be very demanding too (healers and tanks, I’m sure, are more likely to feel it)
    “you don’t want to help our new recruit gearing up?”
    “We just need a tank and no one else is online”
    “It’ll help the guild if you join us”

    1. I know those lines all too well from my wow time; they have the potential to really burn someone out and it’s hard to say ‘no’. especially leaders need to consciously take their own timeouts.

  3. I just came off of a four day break from my blog and Twitter. I literally deactivated both of them and then came back when I was ready and because I was getting deluged with e-mails from people assuming that I was dead. I think the four month break that I took from WoW was the best thing I ever did and I wish more people would acknowledge that they are in need of a break, too.

    It’s very common to “blame” the release of a new game, like SWTOR for people leaving WoW, but I would argue that those people were going to leave anyway or in need of a break and that the new game happens to be the method of choice for them to do that.

    All in all a great post, Syl. Thanks for posting this.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, thanks.

      I agree that the symptom of something often gets mistaken for the reason. in general I’m a firm believer of not being able to ‘break’/destroy/finish something that isn’t already broken. many players stick with wow right now for lack of alternatives, for being used to it, for being lethargic. but as soon as a new game manages to relight their spark, they will be off – because mentally, they’ve already left wow a long time ago. funnily enough there’s quite some parallels there to romantic relationships, where very often it takes a new love to let go of the old, lost one.

  4. This is terribly important for introverts like your friend and me. I need time alone to restore my energy so that I have it to spend with my friends and family. If I try to be social while running on empty, I’m grouchy, anxious and don’t enjoy myself. Extroverts rarely understand this and introverts who don’t realize it tend to spend a lot of time underwater.

    The social features of WoW weren’t designed with people like me in mind. It’s like they were designed to bleed me dry which is why I have one real ID friend (my best friend) and a set of alts on a different server in my own private guild.

    The suggestions that I shouldn’t play MMOs or that I don’t have to use the features I don’t like — those aren’t helpful.

    1. An interesting point on introverts. I’m not sure though that extroverts aren’t just as prone to suffer from missing spaces – I’m definitely more of an extrovert personally, but that also means I shoulder way too much at times and take too little care of myself. burning out is the consequence, so for extroverts too it’s important to take conscious timeouts sometime (and be able to take them).

  5. Ahh lovely post! For me it’s about choices – I don’t like them being automatically invalid. I like being with people, but sometimes I don’t want to interact. I notice that people always expect a reason for the latter choice and I do think we’ve all been brainwashed a bit into the “grouping is good, solo is bad” mindset. I’m not sure why it suits game makers to have people group up (some financial reason?) but it’s great to see it challenged more nowadays. Grouping is great, I like grouping, I do it often. But not all the time.

    Oh how I wish I could choose whether to go groupless on days when I also want to progress, wistful sigh…

    1. Thanks! there’s nothing to add to your comment really, choices ARE what it’s all about. the ideal MMO manages to accommodate as many as possible without negative consequences to either type of players; unfortunately this isn’t always possible, but in this particular case it should be.

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