The MMO Dilemma

I remember the very first time I ever played Everquest. It happened more than one failed marriage and three kids ago, yet eerily it feels like it was just last week. At the time, I didn’t get the appeal. Why did everyone go nuts over this ‘virtual world’ stuff? You kill an orc, get a couple copper pieces, gain a few levels… big whoop. Sounds pretty much like any other video game.

But then while I was running around killing virtual monsters, I realized I was lost in the game world. This was a bad thing in the game, because virtual death was a serious penalty. I knew that I needed to find someplace safe, so I picked a direction and decided if I went far enough I’d probably find some sort of refuge. After a few minutes of running I saw what I could only describe as a mystical glow emanating ahead between the trees. I realized I had little to lose except time, so I decided to head towards it. Within a minute, I was standing before the great gates of Felwithe, the city of the High Elves.

I went inside, I explored, and eventually I even found an inn. I picked a room, closed the door, sat on the bed. I was safe.

That moment is forever burned into my mind, the time where I was lost in the woods and found a magic city that I could rest in. Real life was never that cool.

From that point on I had a on-off again love affair with the genre that became the MMO. I played Everquest until I realized it was far too geared towards people who really only wanted a virtual life. Then I jumped into Dark Age of Camelot, Earth & Beyond, City of Heroes, World of Warcraft, Champions Online and now, Star Trek Online.

As is often the case with people my age, responsibility for people other than myself crept into my life. That is what eventually curtailed my ability to enjoy these games. I needed to be able to drop a game in a second in case my kids or my wife needed my help, and games that necessitated every moment of my attention just weren’t a luxury I could afford.

Fortunately, the last two that I’ve been playing, Champions Online and Star Trek Online, were designed much more for someone in my situation. They both have a system where I can enjoy playing for short periods of time, but most importantly I can get up and walk away if I hear the kids fighting and not worry about my virtual progress. Plus, super heroes and Star Trek, so there’s that.

But I’ve often wondered what it is about these games that are compelling to so many. Hell, to me. When I started to lose interest in the genre, I asked one of my friends who loves these games why he loves them so much. In his words,

“The adventures we have in those games, adventures with my real life friends but in these worlds, are far more memorable to me than any story someone else comes up with.”

Now I personally don’t agree. I love a good, well crafted story, and “Rember the time that Kanthur got drunk and fell off the boat on the way to Freeport?” just doesn’t quite do it for me. But I get the notion, that sense of hyper-reality.

This morning I logged onto Star Trek Online and knew I didn’t have much time to accomplish anything, but I just wanted to be in Star Trek for a few minutes. I brought up the galactic map trying to figure out where I was supposed to go for my next mission, when I realized I could actually visit Deep Space Nine, the location of one of the Star Trek spinoff series. I got chills.

The chance to visit the space station guarding the wormhole to the Gamma quadrant? Where Captain Sisko defended the Alpha Quadrant from the nefarious Dominion? Where Odo questioned his origins only to discover the horrible truth about them?! Where Nog went from young miscreant to the first Ferengi Startfleet Cadet?!?! Whew, I need a moment to compose myself after that nerdgasm.

It’s that feeling that ropes me in. The chance to exist in the intimate familiarity and love that I have for things that have only existed in my imagination or on the TV screen. How can someone resist that? And I wonder if that’s the heart of any hobby or love, being inside it, part of it.

Deep thought for a guy who originally got into these games because $15 for a month of entertainment was a bargain.


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