The MMORPG phenomenon: Digital Addiction?

For the uninitiated, MMORPG stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. The basic premise of these epic online games is that players from around the world converge on servers to do battle against computer driven opponents and often each other. Each server can hold on average up to 5,000 players at a time. It is then no wonder that these servers become home to a unique subculture of players who eat, sleep and breathe these fantasy worlds – sometimes to the detriment of everything else in their life. Countless News articles tell of players whom have forsaken family, friends, jobs and sometimes even their own lives to continue to play. Big companies continue to make money while people’s lives are turned upside down by the constant attention that these types of games demand of their players. So what keeps players coming back every day and why do they pay for the privilege?

As an ex-MMORPG enthusiast I can tell you that the hooks for players are many and varied. For the casual player the level increase and the character statistic boosts associated are your first traps. Knowing that you are only a few hours away from being better at fighting the monsters that haunt your online existence is a very good reason to keep playing. Who wouldn’t want to be 10 points stronger for only a few hours work? The problem with this is that the games designers are always one step ahead of you. Now that you can easily kill the monsters you were struggling with only moments before you leveled up, they are worth virtually no experience points. This means that in order to get to your next level, you will have to go out and find some harder monsters to kill. To someone on the outside of the trap, it is painfully obvious what is happening here – you really haven’t progressed at all. Then why do people keep playing?

Equipment drops. While you are fighting those creatures to get more experience points to go up levels to fight more monsters, they have a chance to drop useful equipment each time you kill them. Unlike the leveling process which is very linear, good equipment can drop at any time but quite often doesn’t. It seems that no matter what equipment drops, there will always be something bigger or better that the player is waiting for. Again, the onlooker can see that this is nothing more than a form of gambling. Granted the cost is only slight in real dollar terms, but the players’ time is the commodity that is spent in this transaction.

The combination of gaining new levels and waiting for equipment to drop can keep a player occupied for weeks on end. So what happens when the player realizes that this is going on and decides that they might be better off doing something a little more productive with their time? The games designers are hoping by this stage that players have made friends in the virtual world with whom they can chat and share their experiences. This makes leaving the game all the more difficult as other people may have grown to rely on the unique skills a certain player can bring to the game. Peer pressure is as alive in MMORPG players as it was in the schoolyard and this can be one of the biggest factors for people to keep playing. When players are in the game for more than a few months they are highly unlikely to give it up due to a combination of all these hooks.

Just like anything else that comes with the risk of addiction; this does not affect the entire gaming population. It is also something that I think we can’t just ignore anymore. There are so many similarities between an MMORPG and any other type of addiction that it’s hard not to become quite worried about people who are caught in this particular trap. You wouldn’t want any of your friends or family to have an uncontrollable problem with alcohol, drugs or gambling, yet we tend to see no immediate harm in someone playing a computer game to excess. With the influx of new players to this genre I think our attitude will have to change towards the ever growing problem of digital addictions before we start to loose too many good people to it.