Tuesday, August 10, 2010
The border between virtual and real world
Ardol from the WoW Philosophized blog has an interesting post up on Caillois-complete games. According to the French philosopher Roger Caillois a game is "complete" if it is optional and free of obligations, separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, and make-believe. Ardol then tests World of Warcraft against these conditions and finds that they are not necessarily all fulfilled all the time for all players. Playing WoW can become mandatory for hardcore raiders, the separation between virtual and real world can stretch thin, some activities have very certain outcomes, gold farming is "productive" in creating real world value, the rules don't completely cover player behavior, and stuff like RealID shatters the make-believe.
But that World of Warcraft can be more than "just a game" is not an inherent attribute of the game, but depends largely on the attitude of the players. A very casual player can play WoW in a way which fulfills all the conditions to be Caillois-complete, and where it therefore is "just a game" for him. A hardcore player might view the same game very differently, as "more than just a game", and having more connections between the virtual and the real world, for example with your friends calling you on the phone to see whether you are available for a raid. And for a gold farmer World of Warcraft might *be* the real life job, with no make-believe involved.
The same is true for other MMORPGs as well. The "thinnest" partition between virtual and real worlds appears to be the one of social relations (unless you are Gevlon): Players "make friends" online, and consider those online friends as not fundamentally different from real world friends. Being betrayed by an online friend stings more than a virtual headshot from a stranger. And if you feel that you need to log on because your online friends need you, the condition that play should be optional and free of obligations isn't fulfilled any more, and the border between virtual and real world crumbles.
Now different players might be looking for different things. Personally I have a "casual" attitude towards games, in spite of the amount of time I spend in them, and writing about them, in as far as I prefer my games to be Caillois-complete. I hate to feel obliged to play, I try to keep my real life and virtual lives separate, I like games to be uncertain and unproductive, and so on. One reason I'm not sure I'm going to play A Tale in the Desert for very long is that through its strong social connections it is fundamentally a very hardcore game, in spite of being so peaceful. Others might be searching for more meaning in a MMORPG, including "real" friendships, and a greater purpose.
When MMORPGs run into trouble, it is often at a point where they stopped being Caillois-complete: From the issues with gold farmer, to the RealID fiasco, to stories of players getting into real-life fights over virtual events and possessions, to the subject of "video game addiction", these are all issues that happened where the border between virtual and real world became porous. As long as customer are "just playing a game", they are a lot easier to handle for the game company. And that makes me wonder whether Blizzard's design trend to make World of Warcraft less hardcore isn't a deliberate attempt to push the djinni back into the bottle, and make WoW more Caillois-complete. Because a Caillois-complete game is much safer to sell as a product, causing less problems and potential liability.