Tobold's Blog
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Thought for the day: Wrong book?

We play fantasy MMORPGs because we wanted to be in Lord of the Rings. Why does it so often feel as if we ended up in Lord of the Flies instead?

(Wonder if this question will get any comments, or whether it was tl;dr, too literary; didn't reply.)
Truthfully, if LoTRO had come out first I wouldn't have given WoW a second look.

Unfortunately, by the time it did come out, I was too deeply entrenched in WoW to be very impressed.

That goes for Aion, too.
Without the inherent challenge of that parenthetical remark you might not have gotten my response.
For what it's worth, here goes:
The Hobbit was the first novel I read on my own. Granted, I started at the Lonely Mountain, picking up where my dad left off after he was done reading aloud for the night, but when I asked him to continue from where I left off, 10 pages later, he laughed and told me to finish it on my own. I have read the book several times since, once in French ("Bilbon" and "Frodon"), and once for a college course titled "From Homer to Hobbits". It, and the Lord of the Rings, serves as mental comfort food. That world is so rich from the writing alone, and my respect for the characters so great, that I am very reluctant to deign to inhabit a virtual world in which I can act selfishly and callously in their presence. I was even reluctant to see the movies, as I liked my own imaginings well enough.
LotR has humanity in it, but separated into Good and Evil. Lord of the Flies has humanity, but the separation is not so clear-cut; it is a better representation of what it is to be human. I will continue to avoid LotRO, and will likely continue to be drawn to WoW; that story (there's a story?) is hardly meaningful to me, and I find the loot-, pet-, and econ-management, along with the eye-candy experience, to be a fulfilling way to spend down-time.
I'm also fine with the callous side of humanity that MMORPGs enable; it might threaten the Magic Circle a bit, but only if you are deep into the WoW mythos.
You may find your answerin another book - Maskerade from Terry Pratchett:

“The IQ of a mob is the IQ of its most stupid member divided by the number of mobsters.”
It was Conan that inspired MMOs, not LOTR, and Conan and Lord of the Flies are both cut from the same cloth.

= # # =
I understand why trolls feel the need to ruin everyone else's internet fun but did they really have to kill Piggy?!
Loved it.
I would say MMOs feel more like Escape from New York. Locked in a giant prison where the guards look in from the outside and everyone inside runs around lawless.
If you want to be a special snowflake like Frodo play a singleplayer RPG (Risen looks good).

If you want to spin in circles, play WoW.

If you want to rule the prison come get shanked in Darkfall :D
Very witty comment, Tobold.

Undeniably true really, except of course for MMO players who wanted to play in Conan/Lord of the Flies all along.
It's obvious if you really are literary. Lord of the Flies is a story about what happens when civilization and order fall by the wayside when some of the boys give into their baser instincts. This culminates in the murder of the most civilized and orderly boys and the subsequent collapse of civility between everyone, and the murder of another boy averted by an authority figure arriving in the nick of time.

Given the classic Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, is it any surprise that when a bunch of people get together without the need be on their best behavior and few imposed rules that we get the re-creation of this book? Probably not. Just as not every group of boys ends up murdering someone, not every game has to end up being a cesspool, even without the direct murder behavior found in PvP. But, most people expect the worst rather than the best in either situation.
If you derive MMOs from RPGS and thereby from D&D, then Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" books are as big an influence as Tolkein.

There's an interesting biography of William Golding just out, in case anyone's interested:

John Carey's biography William Golding: The Man who Wrote Lord of the Flies published by Faber and Faber on 3 September 2009 at £25.00.
I think the analogy is ingenious.

In the Tolkien books the group was fragmented, yet the appeal of their journey and the richness of their world made the experience remarkable and worthwhile.(Vanilla WoW)

In contrast, the Lord of the Flies demonstrated how utterly useless the Uber-Foozle(The Conch) actually was when everyone could wield it.(Current WoW)
I never read LoTRO. It was DragonLance that did it for me.
Everybody wants the conch.

But it's mine.
Even a 1000 pages isn't enough to communicate the structure and subtlety of a living community. Developers aim to replicate the high points and surface characteristics of fantasy heroes - the epic battles and the sense for adventure - but not the mundane experiences and qualities that make those literary figures part of a "real" world. A lot of MMOs are like Lord of the Flies. We play in virtual words devoid of implicit social norms, yet we still carry the baggage of those associated with real life. Until game developers make a concerted effort to reward good behavior, or build a sufficiently deep sandbox that it will develop on its own accord, MMOs will straddle an uncomfortable divide between entertainment and real life.
Well to be honest, there is no punishments, no laws, and no rules with lasting effects. Sure you may be labeled as a "ninja" or the like these are only social punishments and dont force anyone into acting in any particular manner. We need adults!
It's been far too many year (decades) since I read LotF but...I SPOILER ALERT!!! I thought they got rescued right before they killed Piggy.
At first I thought you wrote "Lord of the Files". That's how I feel when I administrate my addons…
Both the "thought" and the first comment by Agravaine are interesting from the point of view of my own history.

If it wasn't for LotR and LotRO, I might have never found my ways to MMOs. I found the concept somewhat silly and didn't quite get what the deal is. MMOs are a little bit like the Matrix - no one can explain MMOs, you have to see it for yourself. Plus, I never liked Warcraft, and thus wasn't interested in its World.

But Middle-earth? That was something different. That was worth a try, at least. And so I tried. And suddenly it was fun. Cue lots of "oooh" and "aaaah". But, thing is, "oooh" and "aaaah" only last you that long. Standing atop Weathertop, riding through the Shire, visiting Rivendell, travelling the Lone Lands, fighting through Goblin Town (and finding Gollum's cave), that's all pretty awesome, no doubt, but subject to harsh diminishing returns. In the end, the gameplay has to deliver.

Shadows of Angmar gameplay was great - on top of the iconic locations. Not going to compare it with anything, since I can't, just saying it was great. In Mines of Moria, I'm going to cut it short and save you the long rant, Turbine kind of dropped the ball. Moria itself was, for the most part, just a generic location (see, if you "reclaim" it and put a dwarf camp/base at every turn, it's just not Moria any more - the entire point is lost) populated by generic freak-mobs. Not that I mind the extravagant, some of the places were pretty atmospheric, but it wasn't Tolkien-atmosphere.

True actual end-game content was severely lacking, in its place was a blatant, barefaced, undisguised time sink of epic proportions. Lothlorien was released, and it was as pretty a place as any - only, after a week or so, the only thing for you left to do there would be daily quests for collecting flowers and singing to trees. Literally. I'm not paraphrasing. This guy essentially nailed it. He decided to leave for WoW and I stumbled upon his comments while desperately searching the US forums for any indications of solutions to the whole LI-disaster. The words resonated at the back of my head. Soon, I found myself walking the same path (to WoW, that is).

Yes, I started playing MMORPGs because I wanted to be in Lord of the Rings. But, at some point, the "what" became more important than the "where". I also suspect this all was entirely off-topic.
I don't play RPGs because of Lord of the Rings. I play them because they are one of the genres that can offer some great storytelling opportunities while also engaging with strategic thinking. I play almost entirely for the mechanics.
I was always under the impression Lord of the Flies was a social commentary illustrating that in the absence of law, the worst in people inherently comes out.

I think MMO's could use a little more lawlessness. I'm a strong believer that if there is no risk involved, victory becomes meaningless.

If Lord of the Rings was written by Blizzard, getting to Mordor would have taken two weeks, the fellowship would have split up much sooner for better xp gains. They would have put Gollum on /ignore and the Orcs wouldn't have been able to attack unless they flagged themselves for PvP.

This is of course assuming Frodo didn't just take the ring and become the best level 19 BG twink in all of Middleearth, capping hella flags in the Shire.
I thought they got rescued right before they killed Piggy.

No, they got rescued right before they killed Raph. Who then grew up to design Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies, and Metaplace, and write a book about The Theory of Fun, after this ample demonstration that the Practice of Fun eluded him. Hmmm, or maybe I'm mixing something up here. ;)
Lord of the Rings is a relic. None of my friends nor I were even able to sit and read through it without desiring to shoot our brains out.

On the surface it's an ok story, but I really couldn't even sit through a movie of it. I think I got most of the story line from the Veggietales video I got for my son, "Lord of the Beans".

Regardless of all this, I don't play MMOs because of love of fantasy, which is why I probably hate everquest. I play MMOs because of my love of Warcraft, that awesome little fantasy/steampunk universe that Blizzard created. From there I started enjoying the MMO genre.

But the question is, why do MMOs end up like Lord of the Flies?

I couldn't tell you, though I know the PLOT of lord of the flies, and why it all happened, it doesn't seem to be why MMOs are the way they are.

MMOs fall under the Internet Dickwad Theory, and because it's a bunch of twelve year olds. Look at Halolz and you'll see why they act the way they do; because they think it's funny.

So unlike LotF, which is a bunch of kids without supervision breaking down and going crazy, because they had no consequences to their actions, MMOs are the way they are because of the lulz.
Well, if you want to be a hero (=make an impact for the better) in a world filled with awesome creatures and persons, that's fantasy. It requires imagination, fabrication, and a healthy dose of literary magic, I would say.

Why does WoW make you have little to no impact whatsoever in a world mostly filled with an annoying majority of absolutely dull persons? Because that's reality.

Despite what Blizzard PR might say, not everyone can be a hero. If you're surrounded by the same people in-game as surround you in "real-life" (just filtered for knowing how to click a mouse and thinking elf chicks/guys are hot), why do you expect fantasy to happen?

I would argue that fantasy is a small-scale phenomenon by necessity, since it requires a level of focus that's impossible to achieve in a crowd. Hell, even in a D&D session with 3-4 equally devoted friends it's still a challenge to keep the fantasy alive.

If each human participant has a 10% chance to break the immersion (by chance or on purpose, completely hypothetical number), in a million-player environment it can only be achieved by filtering out everyone except a few people who will try to stay "in character".

Well-written computer participants can have a 0% chance to break the immersion (the first time you meet them, that is - lots of repetition can kill the fun). So if you want fantasy and not an elf/orc-skinned version of the reality, you need something that is not massive. In other words, not a MMORPG, but a MRPG or just a RPG :)

Complaining that millions of people who pay $15 to Blizzard to kill their time are failing to produce the "proper" fantasy/immersion/magic comparable to Michael Moorcock's writing (this one just to annoy Tolkien fans ;)) is like complaining that they can't all write novels or direct movies or even make the world a better place - those things are exceptions by definition. Magic (wizardry, sorcery, literary, musical, relationship magic, ...) is always rare, otherwise it's not magic.

Sorry about the rant 0:)
And does that mean that most people following the development of upcoming MMOs are living out "Waiting For Godot"?
Even as a slow reader, only reading a few hours a day, the entire available Tolkein Middle Earth library from The Hobbit to The Silmarillion would be done within a month. It has a number of tales, at least three true epics, and each comes to a satisfying ending. A number of important characters die, but more give up adventuring and retire to lives of politics. Their every action is loaded with purpose and consequence. They make history.

One month. Then it's done. No subscription MMOG wants you leaving so soon.

The desire to be part of that world will not be satisfied on a compressed, derivative world where every available action is the meaningless repetition greater acts of heroes past. Evenentually everyone is just another child trapped on a tiny island where nothing changes, bored out of his mind, trying to make-believe he's a warrior king. They war amongst themselves in a futile attempt to do something real, to act with purpose and consequence.

...but there's no final chapter, no satisfying end, and the only politics anyone retires to is the politics of Lord of the Flies.
And to the people who compare Conan etc. with the Lord of the Flies side of the equation - we're not talking about High Fantasy vs. Sword & Sorcery here (personally, I actually prefer the former).

Take Conan: in how many Howard's stories does Conan lead a band / an army into a dangerous situation, and emerges as the last survivor by the end of the story? Every single one of them :) From the ambushed army of 5000 in that Aquilonia story to the black pirates and Belit in the Queen of the Black Coast, non-Conan characters are sooner or later swept away under the crimson tide.

Or Dying Earth: Cugel (the Smart, [snort]) might be a complete tool, but he has a knack for surviving dangerous situations - regardless of his methods (running away, betraying people who trusted in him, ...) and the outcome (being stuck on the wrong end of the world, with all it's discomforts and dangers), he comes out alive and still as Cugelish as ever.

Why does only Conan survive? Why does Cugel survive? Because they are the hero, the embodiment of the kind of person that can thrive in the circumstances they're facing. Why do countless other characters (often more sympathetic than them) perish? Because they're not heroes, they're regular people. Regular people with swords and magic and a myriad skills, but still not heroic enough...

WoW or LOTRO: everybody survives, even if they respawn thousands of times. Enemies respawn as well. Being "the hero" is about as meaningful as being the troll (and not the regenerating kind, either).

The monstrous spawn of the blackest abyss that is supposed to reduce ordinary mortals to gibbering lunacy reduces them to arguing about who gets the purple he drops. Aragorn is as likely to hold a rousing speech to rally the troops at the gates of Mordor as he is to tell a fart joke. Actually, scratch that - he's infinitely more likely to do the latter. And even if he did the former, he would be sneered at (if the "troops" are other players) or told to quit blabbering and go kill 10 Orc champions (if the "troops" are NPCs).

Do you still wonder why we're not getting Lord of the Rings in MMOGs? I don't ;)
I could not agree more. This is the inevitable result of our desire to live the fantasy but reality falling oh so short of our expectations. We do not live in a world of heroes, we live in a world where the roggers, sams, and yahoos are all too common and the Ralph's too few and far between.
Why is every PuG led by a Jack Merridew? Certainly you didn't mean Orestes playing the part of Philebus?

As for Lord of the Rings, the wife loves it. I'm fairly meh about it. I prefer my fantasy more fantastical. Gene Wolf, China Melville, Michael Moorcock, Iain M. Banks.
Having played WoW, Guild Wars, Anarchy Online, Auto Assault, WAR, Eve, LoTRO and a few other less knowns over the past 5 or 6 years I generally disagree. WoW came closest but I quit a year after release so may have missed the worst of it. I've come across far more care-bearing than destructive and greedy behaviour and enjoyed most of my gaming with regard to the quality of interaction.

I actually wish there was more of the dark side in games, my ideal would be an MMO borne from the chaotic Diablo 2 online hardcore, the game that got me interested in MMOs in the first place. The experience of being PKed permanently on a high level character you've played for months is incomaparable in the gaming world. The first time it happened to me I felt like I'd been run over by a bus and it really gave me an insight into human behaviour that, with the possible exception of Eve, you never get from any of the far cuddlier games mentioned above
look at successful societies and failed societies in the real world. No penalties for bad behavior is the reason. the MMO's where this isn't a problem either punish people for misbehaving or have forced grouping that allows the communities to self police.

The basic rules for human behavior don't change in MMO's. People do what they percieve as the most fun or beneficial. Without rules in place to punish certain fun but socially damaging behaviors they'll never stop.
"Lord of the Rings is a relic. None of my friends nor I were even able to sit and read through it without desiring to shoot our brains out."

Pangoria --- something isn't a relic just because you and your friends have a 8th grade reading level and undiagnosed adult ADHD. What was the last book you read, Pangoria Fallstar?

You don't like LOTR, fine. I mean, I dislike you on a personal level if you don't like LOTR, but hey, it could be worse. But just say that you don't like it; don't try to act like a 70 year old book is just too old for normal people to read. It's not that the book is too old; it's that you are too stupid.
MMOS are like going to a Renaissance festival in the states. Bad accents, bawdy jokes, WWE wrestling version of jousting, etc. Everything is off. You don't go to a Renaissance festival to experience history (you quietly walk the walls of a crumbling fortress, or talk to a veteran, or listen to your grandparents if you want to experience history). The people there are modern people, with modern values and modern humors, pretending (to various degrees of success) to be from another time. MMOs have the same relationship with the worlds they represent. No matter how pretty they are, they are never quite right, and that is before you add the players.

I think it has been said elsewhere, and said well, that Single Player RPGs are best for living in a fantasy world. The immersion is broken the moment (if not before) Sephilass teh Legoroth comes bounding by and running a circle around you with his trusty bear fuzzynutzzz in tow, before hopping (yes, because people have to damn near hop every-freakin place they go!!!) off.

I hold the Lord of the Rings very close to my heart for a lot of reasons, and seeing screen shots of a group of players beating down a Nazgul like a bunch of bullies behind the schoolhouse was enough to turn me off of the game.

That, and the fact that MMOS are the antithesis of Tolkien's world. In Middle Earth, everything is getting weaker. The heroes and villains of the early ages were blindingly powerful compared to those that came in later ages. The world is in a downward spiral of decay, with the ancient magic slowly fading in the world. The elves are leaving, the lives of men are growing shorter, the ents are becoming treeish etc. Evil has taken a permanent toll on the world, and even victory has its price in the loss of innocence and magic. In an MMO things go the other way. Each character gets stronger, and the trials they face get nastier. Each new enemy is more powerful than the last, and there is always something bigger. Excalibur is replaced by Excalikill teh Destrocombubulator.

Combine that with the fact that true culture is impossible to imitate in these games. In Middle Earth, the Hobbits have a very distinct culture, one that is decidedly NOT conducive to the WoW formula. Most hobbits hate adventure, and live simple, uneventful rural lives. It doesn't make sense for a bunch of them to be running about killing bandits and wearing shoes.

Then there is the fact that you kill literally tens of thousands of things in these games. Aragorn could never hope to kill as many things in his long lifetime as a lowly entry level character does just in one zone.

There are far too many things that make these games, well, just games. Best just to read the book if you want to experience the world. Play the game for other reasons.
William Golding used to teach at one of the schools I attended. True story.

And I don't know about others, but most of my sessions seem to end up like The Hunting of the Snark.

It's deeper than that, if you get right down to it. No society is entirely succesful, because man is broken at a fundamental level. The fact that rules must be made to keep people from hurting each other for "fun" is just a symptom. The rule makers can be just as damaging as the rule breakers.

We have a madness in us, and sometime it leaps out and consumes everyone around us. We can only react when the madness comes out and someone is hurt/killed. Being preemptive leads to other kinds of abuse.
Very entertaining string. And from such an ingeniously simple post. In my 18 months of playing 10 hrs/wk I have not experienced this LotF-like degenerate griefing or anarchy people bitch about. Rare begging. Occasional ganking which makes the game feel more immediate, sometimes humorous/bored idiots on trade chat. It's a game, your reaction to others dictates how you perceive it.

The vast majority of my interactions have been neutral or occasionally pleasant and positive, with the possible exception of WAITING for people to show up.

And other than very superficial aspects it's not really LotR or D&D, either.

You know what WoW reminds me of the most? A fabulously complex and beautifully animated slot machine. Pretty lights and music play while you push a button over and over to try to get something shiny and "valuable".
We have a madness in us, and sometime it leaps out and consumes everyone around us. We can only react when the madness comes out and someone is hurt/killed. Being preemptive leads to other kinds of abuse.

Sounds almost as if you subscribe to the Natural law theory of life and consequences.

The Lord of the Flies illustrates precisely what happens without -any- rule of law. When left to our own devices; we fall back on our own sense of self preservation, which leads to us becoming more focused on those closest to us and, in turn, less social as a result.

But Sam is 100% correct. One look at history and you will find that most failed civilizations failed because of shifts that occured among the population; where the importance of adhering to established laws/policies/religions were dismissed or downplayed as part of a belief that the greater good would be served if "individuals" were valued more than the society as a whole.

That's exactly what you get in MMO's. The individual is more valued because they are the only one paying their subscription costs to Blizzard. Imagine how it would work if I payed for your subscription, and you payed for Tobold's, and he for someone elses...ect...rinse/repeat ad infinitum. How would we act in game if we knew someone else was paying our way? What percentage of players would view that arrangement as a reason to not have to worry about the rules/laws of the game world?
In at least one way, WoW is more similar to Lord of the Rings: the hero is rewarded for perseverance. If you play long enough, and endure enough raids, and hop enough guilds, you will most likely get better and beat the end boss of the current patch / volume.
Actually Chris, I am a Christian, and I was talking about sin. I probably didn't explain my point very well though. I think laws are important, but I was getting at the fact that the very existence of laws shows our taint.

I don't know how anyone assesses successful or failed society, since they all crumble in the end. Some just last longer than others.

The paradox we are in is this: we have to have laws, because people will not police themselves and will give in to baser and meaner urges. We have to have force behind those laws, because simply telling someone something is wrong, even if they know it is wrong, is not enough to keep them from doing it. Such a situation is imperfect because the same flawed humans beings are the ones making these laws and enforcing them. We can't be moral and be preemptive, because that leads to things like concentration camps, slavery, and the general destruction of freedom and liberty. Being free means we have the freedom to do terrible things as well as wonderful things. Being reactive is the better choice morally, but then that means we are constantly cleaning up after the crime.

That was what I had in mind. Hopefully that makes more sense.
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