Category Archives: Escapism

All the best Things have Campfires

The other night when staring into our fireplace at home, a feature I’ve come to appreciate a great deal since moving house in 2015, it dawned on me how many of the best things I’ve enjoyed over the years included campfire scenes. That is books and games more specifically, my favorite, most formative titles then and now came with special campfire moments that I remember always –


The Dragonlance companions, by Larry Elmore

ct camping

The heroes camping in Chrono Trigger, the Green Dream


The Witcher 3, first chapter


Recently, myself hanging in Eorzea

Campfires are obviously the romantic locality of choice to gather your heroes in fantasy tales or listen to the minstrel play; fire is a most enigmatic and evocative force that will also transport to the screen, be it in live action or otherwise. Video games come very close these days in emulating the real thing and the atmosphere it inspires. Fire stirs us on a deeper level.

I cannot pass campfires in MMOs without standing still and gazing into the flames. Wherever it is I am headed, I will take a solemn moment and join whatever company has gathered, be it players or NPCs. There’s an irresistible draw for me that’s hard to explain; as if I was touching something timeless and with it, a realization that the fire before me is all fires. There lies a gateway within the flames to all the other moments that there were in so many tales of beauty and peril, a gateway to all the memories of happiness stored away inside of me. Fire is the thread.

Fire is escapism.

QOTD: Completionism, No Thanks!

I am blessed as a player of MMOs in that I have not one tiny jot of the Completionist gene. If I’m not enjoying something I can easily stop, leave and never come back. I don’t feel any nagging pressure to finish anything in a video game. If it isn’t entertaining me it can go die in a ditch. [Bhagpuss]

I want to say amen to a sentiment expressed by Bhagpuss yesterday about his relationship with completionism in MMOs. As a fellow explorer and potterer, I have given up such past ambitions after realizing three things about my own completionism-monster back in vanilla WoW:

  • the (rat-) race never ends
  • it’s not actually enjoyable (duh)
  • this is not what I’m here for

I am not much into progressive content nowadays and yet, I am a fairly progression-minded player in the sense that repetitive tasks with foreseeable outcome bore me a great deal. There is a degree of repetition to all the games we’re playing but completionism in today’s MMOs is often defined by collectivism for collectivism’s sake (lots and lots of achievements of no further consequence) and the type of grind that solely exists as timesink and where the balance between journey and reward is broken. There’s no purpose or meaning in 100 of the same daily quests, no challenge and satisfaction in performing the same motions over and over in so many similar bossfights. The underlying narrative to many of our activities has become strangely reductive (as in stripped of all decorum) and circular:

Why do you farm 100 tokens? – To gain an achievement.
What does the achievement say? – That I should farm 100 tokens.

But this is not the time to get back into it all: the different playstyles and player focuses, intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivators, longterm vs. instant gratification, journey vs. reward, themeparks vs. sandbox worlds, the value of randomness, meaningful choices, incentives of cooperative vs. solo content and so many more topics that I’ve written articles about over the years. Instead, I am leaving you with three links, old and new, that discuss this subject in different ways:

  • On MMO Gypsy: Achievement (Hate), Exploration and Mystery

    About the ways questing and exploration have changed in MMOs over the years, why more and more rewards cannot make up for journey and how dominant achievements/achiever mindset have contributed to the current status quo.

  • Tevis Thompson’s Blog: We are Explorers

    The inspiring article for my own post and possibly the greatest and most important read on the subject of mystery and exploration in games I have ever read. Deals with the subject of how the illusion of scale and immersion in virtuality are juxtaposed to completionist mindset.

  • Recently on The man who made a game to change the world

    About Richard Bartle’s dream of virtual worlds as a safe haven, MUDs/MMOs changing society and the ways current games have failed to live up to that potential (thanks Spinks for the link via twitter!).

The true traveler doesn’t know where he’s going. Happy exploring!

Second Skin: The perfect MMO Gear and Impact on Longterm Commitment

The other day, I had a bit of an argument with my significant other concerning folk who like to transform themselves with help of expressive or more unusual attire, often in their private time. The topic wasn’t so much cosplay but people generally wearing clothes that come with a certain message of affiliation or membership, to name more flamboyant members of the goth/black metal scene as one example. This type of expression isn’t limited to the rock’n rollers among us though; it can be found anywhere, even for more conservative interests such as golfing or hiking. Dressing up for the occasion plays an important role in many social activities and for some people it’s an integral part of who they really are.


Probably not on their way to the golf course. (

At a first glance, this might strike you as a very superficial approach to identity. Why do you need to wear a certain style to feel part of a social group or (in some cases) to communicate associated belief systems? Isn’t our heart the place of true identity? Strictly speaking that is true – it doesn’t make you any more or less of a “punk” whether you’re wearing torn jeans and a mohawk or not. Clothes and looks are deceptive and they should never be a requirement for someone to belong to whatever culture or creed they relate to. I can be committed to a set of beliefs without looking a certain way.

At the same time, clothes can be a powerful catalyst of self-expression, even self-discovery and confidence building. There’s a reason why many actors, especially method actors require authentic clothing that goes with the character they’re not just playing but becoming. Inner and outer transformation go together. There’s also a more common phenomenon of someone cutting their hair after ending a longterm relationship or getting tattooed after a great cesura in their lives. Our body is a reflection of the things that are happening to us. Some people, not all people, simply choose to include that part of themselves more actively.

Loving variety, I hold a torch for people who go for the so-called deviant styles in our society, be it a part-time thing or fulltime commitment. It takes guts to go against social conformity and nobody deserves to be written off on account of green hair or piercings. That’s one of the criteria I try to push as a recruiter too, by recommending clients keep an open mind to more colorful candidates rather than blindly trusting another picture in a grey suit and tie. At the same time, I’m trying not to fall prey to inverted snobbery; I admit I have a soft spot for people who don’t fit the corporate cookie cutter.

The perfect MMO gear

I’m neither the most imaginative nor boring dresser in real life but when it comes to my MMO avatars, I’ve always cared a great deal about customization options and cosmetics. I don’t know if this interest is more prevalent among players that treat their avatars like an alter ego but I am guessing most of us have preferences regarding their MMO character'(s) looks and have things that can throw them in/out of immersion. Unfortunately, we are all too familiar with the sub-par customization options of some games and the often lackluster or ill-conceived gear choices. And so I wonder: how have my past avatars’ looks, more specifically gear approach of the MMOs I’ve played the most, affected my playing longevity? Where and when did I truly feel at home gearwise?

World of Warcraft


I played WoW for over 6 years and would call my experiences with its gear a very mixed bag of hits and misses. WoW made me feel epic spellcaster and disco clown in equal amounts and even the better sets I collected over that time were more hyper-stylized than I would have wanted, glorified leotards with near-zero extra customization options. Transmogrification was added just after I left and to this day Blizzard haven’t added a dye system. I guess this means gear wasn’t an integral part of my character immersion in WoW despite a few definite favorites.

Guild Wars 2


To this day I’ve never played an MMO with more beautiful, aesthetically pleasing gear than GW2’s, certainly none with a better dye system. While ArenaNet could’ve offered more variety in their initial character selection, there’s not much left today that you cannot do with cosmetic and town gear. And yet, despite loving the different looks of my Elementalist, I cannot exactly claim to have been immersed in my alter ego. This is tricky to explain: to me, GW2’s gear is almost too beautiful, like a painting or wonderful piece of art to admire from afar without wishing to take it home with you. I love looking at my character but she isn’t really me, not the way I think of myself as an adventurer. What can I say, it’s complicated!



I’ve never written a post on LOTRO’s gear. Instead, I’ve praised it frequently as my personal winner of immersion in so many ways – from scale to atmosphere, scenery and sound effects. There’s an authentic quality to online Middle-Earth that’s never been reached in other games. It’s therefore probably no surprise that my favorite MMO gear too, is in fact my Lore-Master’s humble Ferrier’s Robe with its leather straps, stitched pieces of fur and merrily dangling satchels (I imagine they would dangle). Combined with a simple hood and backpack, I never felt better dressed or more ready for adventure than in LOTRO. There is countless lovingly detailed gear in the game like that, with the kind of commitment to practicality that may only be found in ESO right now. I love my character’s looks in LOTRO – more importantly, this could be me tomorrow!

Sometimes less is more, especially where immersion is concerned. However awesome gear or not, it’s probably fair to say that it’s not our character’s looks or customization options that decide over the longevity of our commitment. That doesn’t mean they do not add a lot of enjoyment to the games we’re playing though or that there aren’t certain breaking points. Playing Wildstar right now, I am back to hyper-stylized but also practical gear. Mostly, I am happy that the game doesn’t make me run around half-naked.

What was your perfect MMO gear of all time? Do you feel your character’s looks have any bearing on how much you can enjoy a title longterm? I wager more customization is always popular in MMOs, no matter how much we love cosmetics. There are limitations to what I can wear or get away with in real life, so it’s all the more important my online selves enjoy that unlimited freedom of self-expession.

MMO Dragons through the Ages – Fantastic Creatures, Formidable Foes


D&D cover by L. Elmore

Dragons. Formidable beasts of fantasy and wonder. The stuff of nightmare in many a heroic story of folklore, mythology and children’s tales. Most beloved foe of the high fantasy genre be it in movies, books or video games. Where would our MMOs be without dragons? Who doesn’t love dragons?

From an early age I was fascinated with draco, also known as dragon, drake, sometimes wyvern or lindworm. I was a child of fairy tales and the big bad wolf aside, which mostly just scared me, dragons were the most fascinating and exotic creatures that would inspire my wild dreams like none other. I remember a particular story in my vast audio&textbook collection about a green dragon and a knight; the pictures of the ferocious beast gave me such nightmares that my mother glued a blank opaque paper over the pages so I could follow the story without seeing the dragon. Bless our early beginnings.

Remember with your heart. Go back, go back and go back. The skies of this world were always meant to have dragons. When they are not here, humans miss them. Some never think of them, of course. But some children, from the time they are small, they look up at the blue summer sky and watch for something that never comes. Because they know. Something that was supposed to be there faded and vanished. Something that we must bring back, you and I. (Robin Hobb, Golden Fool)

White Dragon Sleet(Elm)

Dragons of Winter Night by L. Elmore

Later I discovered the dragons of D&D and in particular, the Dragonlance; that’s when I irrevocably fell for this genre, absorbed in pages full of colorful illustrations by Elmore, Parkinson, Caldwell and Easley. My first artbook was a Larry Elmore limited edition which me and my best friend ordered on that novelty called the internet. I remember sending Larry a short thank-you email for the exclusive sketch he had done in each of our books, adding this well-wish: “may there always be dragons soaring across your sky”. I imagine he can see them whenever he closes his eyes or how could he possibly illustrate them in such stunning detail?

…the Dragon is the Patron Saint of all storytellers and artists and his likeness has adorned canvases and stone and has been forged in every precious metal. (Guillermo del Toro)

The Dragonlance Chronicles also opened a new, more modern perspective on dragons for me: dragons that are more than mere alien beasts and forces of nature. Dragons that have a face, that are scheming and cunning creatures of magic (sometimes shapeshifters like Silvara whose name I’ve adopted). Dragons that can choose different allegiances – good or neutral as much as evil. I love when dragons get to be real characters in stories and not just the ultimate yet dumb antagonist for the glorious dragon slayer. When a dragon ends up being little more than a T-Rex, that’s what I like to call narrative mistreatment, a lost opportunity. As far as morphology goes, it is interesting to note that historically there’s a distinction between European and Asian dragon tradition, with European dragon imagery being the predominant representation still in our western culture (with legs, wings or the ability to breathe fire) as opposed to the more snake-like Asian dragon (also naga).

MMO Dragons through the Ages

With the amount of dragon imagery and tradition out there, it’s no surprise that fantasy MMORPGs too capitalize frequently on our fascination with the winged, fire-breathing reptiles. I’ll come forth and say that I never ever tire of dragon encounters in MMOs; give me Blackwing Lair, Onyxia and the Dragon Aspects any day of the week! My favorite boss encounter of all time will probably always be Lord Victor Nefarius aka Nefarian which in my humble opinion, was a way more fascinating figure than Deathwing.

WoW is a game that loves to flaunt its dragons and “dragonkin” as foes but also mounts or pets. GW2 features the most breathtaking dragons for me as far as sheer size and dramatic entries go, so while ANet failed to make Zhaitan and Co. a particularly interesting bunch, the Shatterer or Claw of Jormag encounters will always hold a special place in my heart. Who would not feel awe and terror facing this? –


Descent of the Shatterer (

Musing on dragon history and my favorite encounters in MMOs, lead me to a full-scale investigation of MMORPG dragons of the past, present and future. As far as popular mainstream titles go, there’s not a single game that didn’t feature draconic foes at some point or other – or is there? Anyway, let’s look at my quick and selective chronology of MMO dragons (you can find the full-size wallpaper of the image here):


While we’ve come such a long way graphically since the dragons of UO and Everquest, today’s MMO dragons have the same effect on players and still follow the same narrow design template. AION probably holds the trophy for the most beautiful and lavish dragon design. If I had to try and tackle the beast, put into words what still makes dragons so appealing to lovers of the genre, I’d call it a mixture – the fear of the unknown and supernatural as much as a fascination with the majesty, power and wisdom of a sentient being that shares traits with familiar animals. More than any other fantastic creature, dragons embody the virtues of a magical world beyond our wardrobe and maybe our longing thereof. Or as this article concludes beautifully, quoting a Tolkien essay:

Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded… The dragon had the trade-mark of Faerie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie. I desired dragons with a profound desire… the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril. [JRR Tolkien, On Fairy Stories]

That is the gift of dragon-sight; the purpose of the dragon quest. Dragons embody the beauty and the peril of an “other world” that is “richer and more beautiful” and full of strange and marvelous things.

I look forward to meeting more MMO dragons in the future. I’m not sure about Wildstar but it’s probably safe to say we’ll see more of them in Everquest Next, Elder Scrolls Online and certainly WoW. What are your favorite dragons in MMOs? And is there anyone who’s tired of all the dragons? I can’t imagine my virtual worlds without them.

Achievement (Hate), Exploration and Mystery

The epic quest of kill ten rats has humble beginnings. Once upon a time the explorers of virtual worlds received hardly a hint of where to go or what to do but such are not the times we live in. Those who embarked on this journey before Blizzard’s time will remember that era of glorious uncertainty but early WoW players too, know how considerably the questing experience has changed over the course of a decade. The “kill ten rats” of yore and the “kill ten rats” of today have precious little in common.

Kill ten rats: a history of epic questing

Year #1
Player X overhears NPC talking of a special breed of rats with silver pelts that may exist “somewhere”. Player finds said rats by accident one day. Player kills rats, loots five pelts in 30 minutes. Player feels special. Wahey.

Year #2
NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts and deliver them. Player finds said rats one day, thanks to friendly advice in zone chat. Player kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #3
NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Player finds said rats after some searching, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #4
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. Player finds said rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #5
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! Player can’t miss rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #6
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! Player can’t possibly miss rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #7
NPC with an exclamation mark, now also indicated on the mini-map, asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and silver pelt cloak in return from NPC.

Year #8
NPC with an exclamation mark, now also indicated on the mini-map, asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn north/northwest/south/southwest of the inn. Also, there are many yellow markers on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and silver pelt cloak in return from NPC. After delivery, player X receives special kill-ten-rats achievement!

Year #9+
After reading the achievement tab, player X finds NPC with an exclamation mark, also indicated on the mini-map. NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn north/northwest/south/southwest of the inn. Also, there are many yellow markers on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and epic pelt cloak in return from NPC. After delivery, player X receives special kill-ten-rats achievement!

..Such explorers we are. Paradoxically, the shorter, the safer, the more navigated and convenient our questing has become over the years, the more MMOs have felt the need to reward us for it. That makes no sense whatsoever but it’s not a coincidence either. More on that later.

Why I hate Achievements

A fair warning: I don’t like achievements. I get why some players like, nay love achievements but I really don’t. More importantly, I don’t think they have any business in this genre.

The unconditionally worst thing that has ever happened to MMOs are achievements. Hate is a strong word and applies for my case of die-hard explorerdom although it need not be yours. Nothing feels more counter-intuitive, more obtrusive or immersion-breaking to me than the flashy achievement fonts and in-your-face achievement tabs that greet me in most of today’s MMOs – yes, even at the bloody login screen of once-great Guild Wars 2. Sic transit gloria mundi virtualis. When did all this happen?

While that’s achievements on the surface, repercussions reach much further. Several times on this blog have I raised the question of why virtual worlds need to save time, why players need to be told what to do and where to go by which path when developers have spent years creating vast open worlds of beauty. What’s it all for – just a pretty, expensive paint around a game telling me what’s an achievement?

Who would wish to complete a world? Completionism, pre-defined paths and goals, extrinsic motivators – none of these go with my personal sense of exploration. Every time unwanted and un-asked for achievements pop up in an MMO, my chosen modus operandi is disturbed or hindered. Every time that happens, that delicate illusion of virtual world is shattered. Worse, there’s no opt-in (why?).

The greatest RPG I’ve ever played was a game I didn’t complete. Where things happened at random, sometimes or never again. Where going south was as good as going north and an endless sense of mystery added depth and immensity to the world.

Even if you can’t design endless worlds, you can create size through mystery. Exploration feeds off mystery – and mystery is neither excellent nor should it be fully solvable.

Mystery resists.  Mystery refuses.  It will not yield.  Not to me.

Mystery resists closure.  It resists completion and clean getaways.  It, instead, insists.  I’m not done with you yet.  Get back over here.

Mystery is not merely the unknown.  It is the impossibility of knowing and yet the continual attempt to know.  It is unknowability itself.  It is futile and essential.

Why do we diminish our own experience?  Are we afraid of not connecting, of confirming our solitude? [T. Thompson]

No really, go read the whole thing.

When the journey is no longer the reward…we need more rewards?

Whether you agree with my passionate sentiments or not, what most design critics can agree on is the relationship between journey/effort and goal/reward in games; the required balance in order to make either feel significant. Long and hard journeys with never a memento to show for feel unfulfilled, just as easy and plentiful loot won’t be remembered by anybody. More than that though, whenever players think back on their greatest achievements in MMOs, they don’t usually name purple swords and special titles but rather the road that led there, the obstacles that had to be overcome in the company of comrades. Naturally, loot matters too and we’ll keep those special items forever – yet loot like an epilogue, is only the last part of that story.

The journey is the reward. Knowing that we did it, that we’ve accomplished something. The shiny purple sword is a representation of that experienced, gratifying victory. It means nothing if we got it for a bargain on the flea market. (Okay maybe if there was an achievement for that….)

So, if the journey becomes ever shorter, ever more straight-forward and without mystery, what will a game attempt in order to compensate for lack of win? Will it pile on the rewards, the titles, the achievements – desperate to convince us we achieved something anyway?

I don’t need to be told I achieved something in shrill and flashing colors. I should be able to feel it and to judge it was a worthy cause. That’s when you may reward me with items, sometimes, so I may carry them with me to tell the world about my adventures.

And whither there? I cannot say. For now, let’s leave it a mystery!

Holding on to your Escapism

Hello, my name is Syl and I am a screenshot junkie. I admit, I have a weakness for shiny fairytale worlds. Sometimes, I wish I lived there.


There have been times in my life when I have. Half of my childhood (literally) was spent lying on my bed, listening to audio cassettes (fifty-two, for which I will always thank my late grandfather) full of international folklore, mythology and fairytales, while reading the colorfully illustrated booklets. All day long I watched Jack climb the beanstalk, Sindbad fly giant birds and Odysseus fool the cyclops with sheep skins. When George killed the dragon, I was there with him. The secret backdoor in my wardrobe has been wide open all my life. Escaping to fantasy land always came easily to me. It’s what has kept me sane. I don’t want to imagine my life without stories growing up.

There’s nothing wrong with escapism. The key points of consideration, though, are what you’re escaping from, and where you’re escaping to. [source]

When less informed people talk about game-related escapism (for that still seems to be less established than the literary form), they only ever focus on the escape; the negative distancing, the social estrangement. Hardly ever do they understand that when we do, when we need to, we escape to a better place – maybe to the only, currently right place in our life. That it’s only there where we find shelter, safety and peace of mind. For a little while. And that it may save us from something. That it gives us hope.

The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragons can be killed. [source]


I will never apologize for my escapism. I don’t know where I’d be without it. I will never be ashamed of what’s kept me alive. Things could have gone badly – instead, I found universal meaning, truth and understanding that reaches beyond the struggles of our everyday lives.

We read to know we are not alone. [C.S. Lewis]

Moving on to the interactive stories of video games was the natural progression of my childhood thirst for fairy tales. Discovering JRPGs around age 10 was a revelation. Later, MMOs finally allowed us to enter the worlds we’ve been day-dreaming about in Lord of the Rings or the Forgotten Realms in full capacity, as ourselves.

The rest is history. I love this genre – I love it for its immersive otherworldly-ness, its places of order and beauty where, for a little while, I can rest in peace and recharge my batteries. In a way, this is self-medicating. Bhagpuss commented elsewhere that ‘the reason games are “fun” is because they allow us to forget for a small time that we are all going to die one day and probably sooner than we would like to think’ and that may be a part of it too, the older we get. I do not fall down the rabbit hole as deeply as I used to nowadays, yet there are still moments in my daily life when I feel completely drained and in almost physical need to switch off and just play games for a while. There have been times when I neglected this part of myself for real life demands and that didn’t go well. I need to keep in touch with my wardrobe; it restores my sanity like nothing else does.


I wish that more people understood this because so many of us deal with the world in similar fashion. In the words of my old philosophy teacher: “the greatest gift we can give our children is to give them stories”. So keep yours close (and check out my new screenshots gallery!) and a happy Monday to all you MMO escapists out there. Hold on to that escapism for as long as you need it.

Happy Moday Post: A Gamer’s Dream

I am a crazy dreamer which I’ve always attributed to my rampant imagination. I dream very vivid dreams on most nights, in stark contrast to my partner who never ever dreams and if he does, he never remembers. I, on the other hand remember lots of things although on average memory is at its freshest right after waking up and then fades miraculously soon after. It’s only ever the most impressive, horrible or delightful dreams that stick with me longterm and honestly this dream business is as much a blessing as a curse at times. Dark dreams can overshadow my mood for the entire day to come – not very pleasant! On the other hand, nothing beats being woken up by your own laughter (and creeping out whoever may be in close proximity). I don’t place much meaning on dreams though; I’ve always interpreted them as “brain doing a clean-out or re-arranging furniture”. I’ve definitely had dreams in the past which were a direct consequence of intense experiences or stressful times, still dreams are ripples on the surface of our subconscious at best, without any indication of what’s to come. I believe as little in oneiromancy as in palm reading. Did you know that’s a word?

Anyway, it so happens that I’ve had one of the most fantastic gamer dreams ever only two nights ago and I’m still thinking about it. I’m having lots of cool gaming-related dreams of late, it must be a lucky streak! That particular one was so geeky and epic however, I just have to share it on this sunny Monday morning! Most people would give me funny looks over this but I feel this blog is a safe place to tell the tale.

“The Ultimate Escapism”

Artwork by HeeWonLee

Artwork by HeeWonLee

So, I am standing on the balcony of my apartment which happens to be a different apartment, but then dreams never seem to care for this type of accuracy. It’s a sunny day and I am looking down on the green lawn below. Suddenly, this tall and bulky male Troll warrior in full battle armor materializes out of thin air; he is lying on the grass quite relaxed, staring up at me. He is also an ingame character (as in WoW cartoon while me and the rest of the world are still erm photo-realistic). He’s winking at me while I’m trying to catch up with my brain. Next thing a shiny sword starts materializing beside him, followed by a Draenei, this time a woman, grasping it. Apparently they’re here to fetch me. And I’m late.

This is where the dream “zones” or makes a cut, or maybe I just don’t remember how I left the balcony. I’m now in company of these two mysterious figures leading me to a WoW style city, where numerous other game characters are fighting and training and basically doing MMO THINGS as I’m given a tour around. I end up being introduced to a cheerful troll girl with pink hair (she actually had a haircut that exists in the game…and tusks) who takes me to the inn. She had a name too but I’ve lost it.

Troll girl introduces me to her girlfriends at the inn and they’re talking about fashion (…). Apparently there’s a party later on and I’m not dressed for the occasion. Worse: I am still no cartoon figure! Immediately I’m taken to this lake where – wait for it – there’s a sort of fishing mini-game going on with small rafts. I have to compete against 7 other players and win the thing by collecting most items from the water.

And so I do! Victorious, I head back to the lobby (or whatever it was) and grab the reward sitting on a table. It’s a fairly lackluster cardboard box really and when I open it, there are several cockroaches swarming out (which I interpret as tokens for the losers). What’s left is a grey bushy tail.

(I’m not kidding! First I thought it was weird but then I remembered this…….)

The tail looks more like a short brush and is made of some cloth fabric (rather than real tail thank god). I’m supposed to eat it to complete the transformation to cartoon Syl. As I start chewing on the thing, the troll warrior from the beginning is back cheering at me. I’m still trying to gulp down what’s left, feeling strangely warm inside.

…And that’s when our neighbor from downstairs (I hate these people) rang at the door, waking me up. It’s SO cliché yet it’s nothing but the truth. And I never got to know what else would’ve happened in that strange dream land after becoming a WoW character, DOH! I went back and tried but re-connecting to dreams is virtually impossible. /sadface

Oh well. It was a wonderful dream nonetheless, a gamer’s dream. One that I got to share with you. Happy Monday everybody – and hang on to those dreams of yours!

The Deathbed Fallacy. Or: Spare me your Gamer’s Remorse, Thank You!

(This post is dedicated to all the happy gamers out there. And the unhappy ones.)

I have one more month to go at the current job, much to my great delight. Imagine my surprise then when today, somewhat late, I discovered a distant co-worker talking about his WoW raiding spree some years ago, when he was still a progression raider on his horde shaman. Unfortunately however, WoW had “gone wrong” sometime after WotLK (which is true of course) and so he stopped his raiding career of many years and approximately 172 days of total playtime. What a familiar story.

However, my initial fuzzy surge of ex-raider fellowship was short-lived; three minutes into the conversation, the topic shifted to what an utter waste of time it had been to play as much WoW as he had. How could anyone in his right mind spend that much time on games? And with nothing to show for after such a long time? Never ever would he do anything like it again.

Of course! I can never be that lucky….after all this workplace just sucks in all respects!

From there this guy went to explain how he’s rather playing online poker these days and earn some money – because that activity at least has some financial upside (and hence must be utterly worthwhile compared to playing silly fantasy games). Of course my mind was reeling from all the familiar, hollow argumentation at that point, but what struck me the most about this person was the way his enthusiastic flashback of past WoW days turned into such a fundamental condemnation of the once cherished pastime. His eyes had been shining brightly thinking back on his raiding career. There was grim pride in his words when he clarified he’d been one of the “real raiders” on a popular German progression server. Not to mistake with one of the casual crowd! He had killed Arthas on 25man and more. He had “had everything”.

And quite obvious to me, he had enjoyed that greatly. To such a point, a distant shadow of that past glory was still surfacing on his now frowning face. And yet, somewhere along the line that same mind convinced itself that it had all been worthless. An odd ambiguity bespeaking a battle between feelings and reason.
I was just waiting for him to say it: how none of us wish we had played more videogames on our deathbed. At least he spared me that particular cringe.

What none of us wish

Besides the obvious thing, that there’s an awful lot of things we won’t be wishing for when facing death one day, no matter how much we have done them, the truth is most of us will never ever find ourselves on that proverbial death bed. You know, that peaceful and solemn end-of-days contemplation as we feel the last flicker of life leaving our body. That perfectly timed moment of retrospective. And even if by some chance we did, we wouldn’t be thinking of having played too many videogames; in fact I have this wild hunch we wouldn’t think about games at all. This entire analogy isn’t even a thing, it’s nonsensical and construed. Anyway.

Sometimes I still wonder, in a brief moment of desperate frustration, how long is it gonna take? How much more established do videogames need to become in contemporary, western culture to be regarded just as any other hobby out there that isn’t necessarily making “financial profit”(?) That isn’t productive on a first-glance or physically tangible level (tangible on many other levels though). Heck, some hobbies are actually downright detrimental to your health and wellbeing and even those are more accepted than gaming. It’s nuts.

Not to mention of course all the upsides and benefits of videogaming as a hobby / passion. So often documented by gamers out there. Again and again. I’ve talked about it myself, At least twice. I don’t feel the need to revisit this topic. By now there’s a multitude of studies and hard facts out there on all the things that gamers are better at, from hand-eye coordination to abstract thinking, from organizational to certain social skills. And then, in case you missed it in 2012, there’s pieces like this one that actually deal, literally, with the deathbed fallacy in context of videogaming. Yeah, it’s McGonigal again – she’s an enthusiast. And she has a point.

So, in case you still detect yourself in that thought process sometimes, privately maybe as you ponder how much “greater you could’ve been without videogames”, how games stifled your growth and progress in other areas when they’ve really just been an excuse from yourself, saving you from self-doubt and the realization that maybe you’re not going to be a big world changer, internationally acclaimed author, scientist or designer after all – here’s a short transcription from McGonigal’s 2012 TED talk:

“Hospice workers, the people who take care of us at the end of our
lives, recently issued a report on the most frequently expressed regrets
that people say when they are literally on their deathbeds. And that’s
what I wanna share with you today, the top five regrets of the dying:

  • Number 1: I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • Number 2: I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.
  • Number 3: I wish I had let myself be happier.
  • Number 4: I wish I had the courage to express my true self.
  • Number 5: I wish I’d lived a life true to my dreams instead of what others expected of me.” [source]

Now, I don’t think I need to further comment this list. I only wish you do yourself a favor: take it to heart. And while we’re at it: do me a favor and spare me from your goddamn gamer’s remorse.
If you feel the gaming blues sometime (I have), take some time off! If you aren’t enjoying games anymore, don’t play them! If you feel you’re spending too much time on games, play less games! If you feel you’re using games as an unhealthy outlet, ask for help.

….but spare me and the rest of the happily ever after gaming crowd. Spare me the underachiever complex and lamentation of failed grandeur which you so graciously bestow on everyone around you in one sweeping, condescending blow of rotten hindsight wisdom. I think videogames are fucking great – they have been for the past 28 years of my life! That’s for how long I’ve been playing them, so I think I too know a thing or two about the subject.

Just….SPARE ME. Thanks!

But…I wanna be a hero in MMOs!

Wolfshead published an interesting article yesterday in which he questions heroism in current, popular MMOs and criticizes the player base’s need to feel like heroes all the time. And I do see an issue with spoiling your gaming audience very much myself; the overkill of things ultimately undermining all their value.

However, if you were to go as far as to say that the player’s wish for heroism in WoW & Co. was wrong or somehow the wrong thing asked of the wrong genre, a detrimental thing even, I would very much have to disagree with that premise. The wish that drives us to certain books or movies, drives us into playing online games too and it’s neither wrong nor sad wanting to feel like a hero in MMOs. In fact I wouldn’t be playing them if that wasn’t part of the deal.

I want to be a hero if nothing else

In one passage, Wolfshead questions the “by proxy”-effect that attracts “normal people” to the more heroic: those iconic, shiny beings that lead seemingly exciting and perfect lives under a public eye, celebrities of all flavors but also countless fictional characters, protagonists of movies, books, comics or video games. Virtual or not, they represent virtues and qualities we wish we had and for a short moment they lend us a little piece of that imaginary glamour which can be addictive enough to turn a fan into a die-hard groupie, following his idol around the globe for 5 minutes of VIP-pass glory.

People cult has always been big for this reason; if you can’t lead a so-called glamorous life yourself, at least you can watch those that do with envy or admiration. Nevermind that other, less presentable side of the coin – the pressure such people bend under, the non-existent social life, the fake friends, the complete sell-out of privacy, the uppers and downers to keep them steady on their feet. If we can’t be shiny, someone has to be. And it better be so.

I’d like to think that I have a good life, a better life in fact than most, no matter how easily forgotten. The fact that I’m writing this article on my internet-blog, in my free time on my warm bed, is testimony to such blessed privilege. I’m also no person for people cult which I find silly regarding celebrities and disgusting in politics, to name two more popular, public phenomena. Maybe it’s because looks rarely impress me and I never feel particularly inferior to or in awe of anyone on grounds of mere social status, looks or titles. While we’re at it: Royalty is a joke. Thanks for listening!

I’ve always had a soft side for fictional heroes though; those had the power to inspire me beyond all limits, be they from classic novels, hero or fairy tales, sometimes even an RPG. I have confessed before how I carry quotes around in my head and how that adds meaning to life for me at times. Yep, I am that normal a person. And if you liked to measure me, then yes I probably have a boring and “uneventful” life. I sit behind a desk everyday, like millions do, I (struggle to) pay taxes, I feed my (lazy) cats. The weekend is the highlight of my average week and if it includes a BBQ with old friends and a good glass of red, I am happy. If my partner still brings me flowers out of the blue after so many years (or remembers anniversaries *gasp*), I am fucking euphoric.

I don’t slay dragons and I don’t save the princess like the heroes in my stories do. I still do the dishes by hand instead of wiggling a finger. And God knows, I’d make for a lousy adventurer – I wouldn’t get through the first wood without hopelessly getting lost (been there, done that) and I’d be halfway through my provisions by noon. So just sometimes, I wish I was a bit more like my heroes; a little bit more than myself. Sometimes I long for the epic and magical in my everyday life. And you know what: that’s okay. It’s neither sad nor “desperate” – it’s just life. Unpretentious and real, Mr. Thoreau. That doesn’t make it any less of a life, maybe it just makes me honest a person.

…That’s why we love stories and lose ourselves in them, that’s why we get absorbed watching the Lord of the Rings for the 10th time (extended), that’s why we play mighty warriors and dark mages in games: it’s called escapism. Mankind has done it for thousands of years, in furs, on smokey incense, with bone and dice. So yes, I want to be a hero in my MMOs; I don’t want to play accountant and write reports with my pen on planet reality. I want epic skills, I want to be powerful and kick some magic ass with a flaming sword!

If I can’t be a hero in a game I play so utterly, what’s the goddamn point???

The dragon – hero equation

There’s an article I wrote some time ago, early into this blog, that I keep coming back to like a broken record (I apologize at this point). It’s the never ending story of game difficulty level vs. meaning in MMOs, cost vs. reward and how they are opposites that rely strongly on each other to survive in perpetual balance. Hard-won victories last forever – easy rewards mean little no matter how purple they are. There is no adventure, nor real heroism where there are no struggles and challenges to face; your book’s protagonist is hardly a hero if he has no fears and demons to overcome, no dragons to slay.

And this is where me and Wolfshead agree completely: the doom of easy and numerous rewards in this genre we love so much, the loss of depth, adventures and stories because we get fed so much candy we lose all tolerance for downtimes , for exclusive content with high requirements and earning our passage. Along with that, a sort of baffling player self-entitlement, no doubt bred in MMOs like WoW that have overdone it on access, balance and fast rewards.

I don’t think that wanting to be a hero in games has any part in these issues though, I really don’t. In fact, I’d turn the table and say that it’s exactly because of this excess that there can’t be any heroes in today’s WoW (as opposed to there being superheroes everywhere) and that’s what’s leaving so many players feeling slightly unfulfilled – how could they not be in the absence of hard requirements and obstacles to make for such a title? It’s really hard to be a pioneer under such circumstances. And that’s what actually makes me sad and desperate. 

In the end I’d rather be me

We all long to be a hero at times. Maybe we even wonder: if life ever gave us the chance to a moment of lasting pathos, would we be brave enough? In video games and MMOs especially, that are so much about escaping, adventuring and immersion, we get to re-invent ourselves a little and unlike to just reading a story, we get to be interactive. Our real lives might be “average”, but in Azeroth we hurl firebolts at our foes. On our way to work, we cringe at our reflection in the morning mirror, but at night that elvish cloak and sparkling armor sit just tight.

And I know, I might never write that novel that keeps robbing me of my sleep. I might never be able to afford that fairy hut or spooky castle I would call a home. And I might just have to accept one day that neither love nor friendship are as perfect nor epic in this life as they always are in the best of stories, the ones which spoil us so utterly with hopeless ideals early on in our lives. And just maybe that’s a good thing too; because the epic and tragic lie close together and usually come at great cost. Just like heroism comes with high risk and hardship. We are not always ready for what we wish for.

Just maybe, a normal, “uneventful” life is not so bad after all. And being that hobby hero at night – in virtual worlds where death isn’t permanent and dragon’s breath is made of pixels. I like things that way.

Ain’t no shame where there’s fun

Two weeks ago, Stubborn had an interesting article up where he compares the more grindy and reward-driven activities in WoW to gambling addiction. Now, discussions on video game addiction are always very problematic: while some ingame activities might resemble or share aspects of addictive behaviour, there are quite some hefty criteria for truly constituting “addiction” in the pathological sense of an illness. For one thing, its highly negative and disruptive impact on everyday life, to a point where the addiction stands above all other needs and the most basic cares will be neglected. For another, signals such as substance increase and withdrawal symptoms. Just because somebody is crazy about an activity and enjoys doing it a lot, or has a very competitive nature, does not automatically expose him as addict – although, there are no doubt extreme cases of video gaming where all these factors coincide.

However, it’s no secret that MMO design appeals to patterns and behavioural routines of the human subconscious. Some developers speak openly about triggering the collector’s drive of their player base or the “lever-reward” mechanic when designing content. Videogames are manipulative; we all know that. But as long as it’s fun, we’re happy to go along.

Most of the time, anyway.

I remember an old article at PPI, where Larísa pondered the heavy chains of daily quests and how she felt pressured to go through boring routines every time she logged on, when she didn’t actually enjoy them anymore. She was far from alone: many players in MMOs engage in time-consuming and repetitive activities, called the “grind”, which they loathe but will tolerate in order to gain rewards. They spend insane amounts of time forcing themselves to repeat content, reward drive and peer pressure usually winning the upper hand of the struggle. Wikipedia has the following to say about this sort of behaviour 

Compulsive behavior is behavior which a person does compulsively—in other words, not because they want to behave that way, but because they feel they have to do so.

Personally, I’ve always hated daily quests and rep grinds; I kept them at a minimum if I could, although being in a raid guild simply comes with certain “obligations”. The fact that I didn’t enjoy stuff like gaining exalted with the Sons of Hodir or collecting cooking tokens showed me that I was still relatively sane though. That is not to say that I never entered boring grinds completely out of my own volition: I did, I was running the same instances for months and years after all and a few times I farmed mobs for special rewards that I simply considered too shiny to skip. For most of the time though, I’d only undergo this type of drudgery if I really had to. I was very lazy that way.

It still baffles me how daily and rep grinds have become such an accepted form for gaining rewards in MMOs, while players will consider more varied and orchestrated forms of reward-gain, like attunement chains, a nuisance. I don’t want to start counting the hours and days players spend on cashing in the same quest item at the same daily quest NPC. How is that activity more fun than other so-called “time sinks”?

It can’t be bad if it’s fun

I’ve always been very outspoken against gaming bias and stigma, very pro “play as much as you like” as long as you’re enjoying yourself. And I hold to that. I won’t hide my playtime from anyone and I feel no shame for all the hours spent in front of a TV or PC, adventuring through virtual planes and having some of the greatest laughs ever. There is nothing wrong with having fun – and only you know if that applies or if some things are maybe slightly off balance. But just because you’re doing a lot of the same doesn’t make you a “junkie”. It can’t be a bad thing if you are enjoying yourself.

A good 13 years back, my older brother was what the average person would call a bad gaming addict. He rushed off to get a copy of Ultima Online when many private households didn’t even have a PC with internet yet, logging in every day with a  crappy 30k and later 56k (omg!) modem, blocking our phone line and driving my parents crazy. This was the time when internet access was still horrendously expensive, charging minutes and hours per day before the first subscriptions came out, our monthly phone bill ranging in the area of 1500 Euros for the first few months of his “UO spree”. There was nothing that would keep my brother from playing this game; not the many keyboards and mouses my father removed several times, only to be replaced within the next 24 hours, not the smashed modem on the wall which my brother then cunningly hid inside a book case.

I remember sitting next to him on his bed countless nights, watching him play in silence – trying to spend some time with my sibling, or is physical shell anyway, while his mind was absorbed somewhere in Britannia. I remember finding him asleep, crashed halfway to the way of his bed one morning, I remember the dirty, stained desk with leftover food and cigarette ash. I remember his intricate list of directions for me to log into the game each week and “refresh his towers” while he was off to obligatory military service, terrified to lose his virtual possessions. It was a mad ride but it’s all my brother wanted at the time. I remember him roaring from laughter in front of his PC, chatting with his pals on MirC. The game certainly didn’t make him miserable.

After what was probably a good 3 years of intense Ultima Online gaming and a dark red player killer reputation to go with it, my brother had finally flunked his studies at University. Add an angry girlfriend to go with that, unhappy parents and some considerable debts for an unemployed student of his age to pay them back. And yet, to this day, my brother has the following to say about his UO days: that it was some of the best times he’s had in his life. To this day, there’s not a little regret for having played that MMO – regrets for never graduating sometime surely, but never regrets for playing the way he did.  

…because these things were not directly connected. And he’d admit to that, in a quiet moment sometime over a good glass of wine in the evening, he’d tell you that he had plenty of good reasons to play as much as he did at the time.The game was there when he needed an excuse, a trigger to smash what needed smashing sooner or later. And yes, he did play too much; but he would never have finished those studies anyway. It was not for him, and I think by now he knows that too. The game was just there at a time when he needed to escape. Escape the expectations of adult life maybe, his girlfriend’s, his parents’. The game was fun and fun became an outlet. A place to rest, even if a mere onlooker could never understand and would no doubt blame his gaming addiction for everything.

My brother enjoyed playing as much as he did. It wasn’t great on all accounts, but neither was the game the cause of his deeper issues. Excessive gaming is at worst a symptom of an underlying issue and sometimes it can help a person and act as a catalyst. Maybe it has the power to let someone re-invent himself in a way he otherwise never could. Maybe it gives somebody a break, a place where he can be himself without the physical or mental ties that usually bind him. Maybe it can offer acceptance and affirmation to a hungry soul. Maybe it simply has the power to let a lonely heart find a place to chat and laugh with people of no further consequence.

Maybe it grants someone an escape in a time of deep distress; and maybe it has the power to let a person heal through difficult times before rising the stronger for it. Life is about breaks and sometimes it’s about phases of stasis or even paralysis. We are so used to rushing on blindly and pushing forward that we feel guilty to take timeouts for ourselves. Everyone is telling us to be productive, constructive, decisive. Yet, it is exactly during times of standing still and sinking deep where life has a chance to reshape and re-orientate, where we have a chance to listen more closely. It’s not always the best of feelings; waiting, standing in that empty white room between two doors before life turns the next page. For myself though, I am learning to embrace empty spaces. There is something unique and comforting about a white page, about not knowing where the road will lead.

Escape can be a way to return, just like sleep can be a way to recharge your batteries. I’m not sure the same should be said of all forms of escapism, such as substance addiction – for gaming however, I hold a torch for those that either play a lot for pure enjoyment or for catching their breath. Or both. Maybe both most of the time.

What I wish for you

To close, I feel I am left with two humble wishes –

I wish for players to enjoy their online adventures and enjoy them plenty.
I wish for players to be less ashamed of playing games.