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Archive for April 24th, 2011

“Entertainment can sometimes be hard, when the thing that you love is the same thing that’s holding you down.” – Pulp, Party Hard

It was a simple yes or no question – “Do you wish to uninstall Dungeons and Dragons Online?” – and yet, like so many simple questions before it, it heralded a significant step in my life. I knew what had to be done, I knew that there could only be one answer to the question, yet for a moment I lingered, pondering the consequences. Could I really walk away from the City of Stormreach? Could I really abandon the members of the guild I had only recently begun – The Frozen Spine? Could I honestly leave behind the myriad pleasures of adventuring with friends and strangers in a virtual fantasy world? Would I ever see my wonderful avatars again? The likes of Hallifax Bender, Jasparr Krait of Luskan, Bethanie Brinsett, Honeydrop Sundew, Snowfell Vanish, Arnalde Holdfast, Lucessa Rainsinger, and Yardley “The Scissors” Bruce? Would I really never trade on the auction house again?

What had brought me to this decision was, however, a different set of questions. Did I really want to spend many of my waking hours thinking about characters in a virtual world? Did I really want to suffer further the anxieties of grinding, levelling, equipping my characters, searching for loot and waiting to find a decent group of people to play with? Did I really want to spend hour after hour on inventory management, arranging hotkeys, buying goods from the town pawn-vendors and selling them at profit on the auction house? Did I really want to spend another year in which I barely slept, in which I was merely a ghostly social presence on account of physical and mental exhaustion?

These activities, fun though they could be, were so time-consuming, so thought-consuming, so addictive despite being so repetitive, and ultimately, so utterly pointless, that I could not in any way justify their pursuit a moment longer. What had begun as a hugely fun, thrilling and exhilarating gaming experience then blossomed into an uproarious social experience, had ultimately become a part-time job which required most of my mental faculties, then a dreadful grind wherein I could barely think of anything else. Once I had passed the zenith of pleasure, it took a long while to reach the nadir of despair. I walked away and came back, I took holidays and tried to forget, but ultimately, the lure of the game was so great that only a significant and final step would do the job. And so it was that I pressed the “yes” button, and in an instant, my heart flooded with an unimaginable sense of relief. I felt as though I had put down a very heavy burden. And, indeed, I had.

One of the defining factors of an addiction is the persistence in doing something long past the point of it being any fun at all. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction in the following manner:

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in the individual pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviours. The addiction is characterized by impairment in behavioural control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviours and interpersonal relationships. Like other chronic diseases, addiction can involve cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.

Addiction is generally seen as a physical and psychological dependence on drugs or alcohol, yet it can also be characterised as a continued pursuit of activities, despite negative consequences derived from such pursuit. Psychologists have identified many areas of addiction such as gambling, food, sex, the internet, work, exercise, television, pornography, religion, shopping and computer gaming.

I, it would seem, fell into the final category, though it was hardly the first obsession of my life. As a child I had, sure enough, been obsessed with pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons, to the extent that my brother and I once locked ourselves in my room and refused to come down to dinner as we did not wish to stop playing. Later, in early adulthood, I developed an addiction to cigarettes, alcohol and to marijuana, again with varying periods of intensity and rejection and relapse, all, fortunately, now a very long time ago.

Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing games (hereafter MMOs) can be especially addictive, largely because there is always something to do. There is levelling to be done, there is equipment to purchase, there is loot to seek out, there is the auction house to trawl through, there are rare reagents to find… the list goes on. There are social obligations, group and guild activities, deadlines, events, and so many targets one can set for oneself that the mind boggles. Each game will have its own incentives to keep one playing. The problem is compounded if you have my habit of continually starting new characters or “toons” and running them up with some tricky, experimental build in mind.

Of course, it is also well to remember that everything is potentially very good fun, and people wouldn’t play these games if they weren’t enjoyable. The problem is the sheer amount of time and effort it takes for one to reach the endgame, if one ever gets there at all. It is estimated that players of World of Warcraft have already played for more than six million years in total. I must have spent positively thousands of hours gaming over the years, but nothing took my time away so successfully as DDO.

Much of the time it felt like great fun, though it was often difficult to tell. There is a significant difference between behaviour designed to stabilise one’s mood, and behaviour that produces genuine pleasure. Smoking cigarettes is not only about fulfilling a physical addiction, nor is it necessarily otherwise for the sake of pleasure, but it is also largely about the reassurance it brings from the anxiety of not smoking.

Similarly, people who check Facebook repeatedly often do it less for pleasure than to allay the fear of missing something, or of not being up to date. I won’t attempt to venture an opinion about addictions I have not experienced, such as heroin, suffice to say that where physical necessity is not involved, the desire to do something repeatedly is often driven by anxiety about not doing it, rather than the joy of doing it.

So how did it come to this pass? What drew me in, and what, you may be wondering, was all the fuss about? Well, allow me to explain.

I have always taken my gaming rather seriously. A little too seriously, in fact, for I was a snob about role-playing games. I felt I had a right to be so, however, having cut my teeth on 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons back in 1981, and having played a large number of early role-playing systems such as Middle Earth Role-Playing Game (MERP) / Rolemaster, Runequest and Traveller. Between us, my brother and I owned a large number of other role-playing systems, many of which we read but never played; games such as: Chill, Conan RPG, Call of Cthulu, GURPS, Palladium, Twilight 2000, Paranoia, James Bond RPG and Top Secret. We felt confident from a young age that we could sniff out a pretty decent rules system, and many games simply didn’t cut it; still, they were worth a look. D&D and MERP took the cake by a long shot, so far as rules complexity and functionality were concerned, and I was also most drawn to their themes and settings. The aesthetics of these games were essentially an offshoot of genre fantasy, yet as pioneers in the genre of fantasy role-playing, they had their own mood and style. So far as D&D was concerned, this style shifted considerably with the increased popularity of the game and the employment of better artists such as Larry Elmore, who gave the game a more air-brushed, commercial appearance, yet still retained and expanded the sense of epic fantasy.

The need to rely on the imagination with pen and paper role-playing has always been its greatest strength. Most individuals and locations are accompanied by a description, but not by a picture. Take the following example from module EX2, The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, by Gary Gygax, first published in 1983.

“This largish room is cluttered indeed. Large, colorful rugs

lie on its hardwood floor. The walls are paneled to about

waist height, and metal brackets with strange, crystal-tipped

torches stick out of them. Several table and floor

candelabra also hold these weird torches. The couch,

chairs, tables, and other furniture are of unusual design and

workmanship. All around the wall are glass boxes that

contain dead insects, or else odd bits of brightly colored

paper stuck on a dark background, placed behind glass,

and framed with wood. Several small animals and birds are

sitting on shelves and tables. They are regarding you with

unwinking stares! In strange contrast to all of this are

numbers of crudely made weapon heads, possibly made by

cavemen, proudly displayed beside the arcane materials

and unknown insects. A large book on a table near the

windows has white pages covered with more small, colorful

bits of parchment. On either side of the windows are shelves

that, in addition to holding the small birds and animals,

contain devices that resemble sun dials stood on edge.

Nearby is a huge mirror (point of entry, possibly) fixed to

the wall. Across from it is a tall thing made of glass, wood,

and metal: a rectangular box at least 7’ tall.”

Once the Dungeon Master has read the above description to the players, a vivid image of the space in which they find themselves will take shape in their minds and they are at liberty to explore the place for clues or whatever it is they may seek. The Dungeon Master will, of course, have further information about the contents of the room, including any nasty or pleasant surprises that may be in store for the group of players, and the DM is also at liberty to embellish the scene at will. The players will also have a quite firm vision of themselves within this space, feeling anxiety and excitement in equal measure for their character who may be on the brink of finding some important information or wondrous item, being poisoned by a trap, falling through the floor, or perhaps facing an attack from the myriad dead animals about the room. As a child, I was constantly transported into these scenes which held me entirely in their grip as events slowly unfolded.

I don’t wish to go too deeply into the lure of pen and paper role-playing games, suffice to say that it is an experience I’ve never forgotten and always longed to return to. As we grew older my brother and I continued to play Dungeons and Dragons and MERP, only stopping when he left home after finishing school. Ever since I have longed to play the game whenever possible, but apart from a few sessions with friends in my final year of high school and an excellent pen and paper campaign in 1994/5 run by my friend Cody, along with the rare revival on a visit to my brother in Brisbane, the sessions have been few and far between. It is largely the difficulty of organising a game that makes it so impossible to play. It also requires a lot of time, a good large table, and a general absence of the nagging bullshit that constitutes adult life, like having to go to work, which is, let’s face it, practically a crime against humanity.

Thus it was, in this barren world without pen and paper role-playing, that I was forced to turn to computer games as a last resort. Computer games had long been an adjunct to pen and paper, yet their lack of graphical sophistication back in the 1980s made them a pretty poor substitute, especially as story elements were usually rather truncated. The first fantasy computer game that attracted my attention was called Phantasie II, which I used to play repeatedly with my friend Mike when I stayed at his house.

Though it was hardly driven by a strong narrative, its length and seemingly epic proportions made the advancement of our party of adventurers a story in itself. It was highly derivative of Dungeons and Dragons – much to our pleasure – and offered a large world to explore full of random encounters, caves, towns and the like. We were certainly very taken with it and for a while it actually superseded pen and paper gaming as a priority.

I have, elsewhere, described the circumstances under which I first encountered the 2nd edition Dungeons & Dragons computer game, Baldur’s Gate, and thus will not go into detail here.

https://tragicocomedia.wordpress.com/2011/03/23/baldurs-gate-in-paris/

My discovery of it, in the year 2000 was, however, the long-awaited moment where something faintly akin to the pen and paper experience was replicated for me in a computer game. I became mildly obsessed with playing Baldur’s Gate at first and had a difficult time walking away from it, yet ultimately, I found I could regulate my interest in it and push it back to playing a mere hour a day. Baldur’s Gate 2, however, was so utterly gripping and engrossing that I could not walk away from it. I first got hold of it late in the year 2001, two weeks prior to flying out from Cambridge to Australia for a home visit, and I basically locked down for two weeks and did nothing else. I played it all day and night, smoking roll-your-own cigarettes, drinking tea and coffee and sleeping a bare minimum to maximise gaming time. Even in two full-time weeks of gaming, I only made it halfway through the game and was forced to walk away only by the pressing need to get down to Heathrow. Upon returning from Australia, with a deliberately perverse glee, I started from the beginning again and put my PhD on hold for another month. When I finally finished the game, I felt so awfully bereft that I kept replaying it, despite its having largely lost the ability to surprise me. Even in the face of the law of diminishing returns, I was still sucked in.

After Baldur’s Gate 2, having seen just how well a computer game could be driven by a strong story, I came to expect all games to provide an equally engaging storyline. Thus, along with many other RPG enthusiasts, I keenly awaited the release of Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights, based on the 3rd edition D&D rules, when it was first announced back in 2001/02. Unfortunately, however, the storyline of Neverwinter Nights proved to be a great disappointment. It lacked intrigue, contained wooden dialogue, and the action elements of the game seemed ultimately repetitive. It was practically an advertisement for itself, a sample of what could be done with the engine, yet not a very engaging game. What the game did provide was an excellent platform from which to play Dungeons & Dragons, for Bioware, bless them, had the foresight to release the toolset with the game, so that writers and modders out there could create their own adventures using the same kit as used by the game designers. It was the community response that ultimately made the game what it should have been from the start. There was a veritable explosion of community-written modules which appeared on www.nwvault.com and elsewhere, some of which provided far superior narratives, more engaging characters, more interestingly designed locations and, in some cases, epic scope of up to 150 hours playing time. The amount of work that people put into these games out of love and the community spirit in assisting the writers and designers with play-testing and advice was astonishing. The NWN vault still holds thousands of modules, many hundreds of which are well worth playing, despite the age of the game engine.

So it was, having long been a snob about pen and paper role-playing systems, I now became a snob about computer games. I had very little interest in action-based games without a sophisticated story, though I could enjoy them as a brief diversion. When it came to the fantasy genre, however, I felt there was no room for compromise. Without a story, without a purpose, without the ability to change the world one inhabited, I felt there was no point playing. It was in this spirit, with this attitude quite firmly established, that I first encountered MMOs.

I had certainly heard plenty about MMOs since they first became broadly popular. Everquest, released in 1999, was the game making all the headlines long before World of Warcraft appeared on the scene. The nicknames which Everquest earned make play of its addictive qualities: NeverRest and EverCrack. Everquest was so time-consuming for many players and caused so many broken relationships that an online support group called EverQuest Widows was created, along with sites such as www.GamerWidow.com It became a commonplace for people to apply the suffix “aggro” to whatever called them away from the game or interrupted their attention: “wife-aggro”, “girlfriend-aggro”, “work-aggro” and, indeed, “life-aggro.”

It was clear that the emerging social and cultural phenomenon of the MMO was out of the bag once newspapers began commenting on it outside of their game review sections. Attention was initially largely focussed on people’s playing habits and the buying and selling of virtual property for real money. MMOs were not merely seen as games, but as “chat rooms with a graphical interface”. They were social experiences, and thus, to all intents and purposes, legitimate virtual worlds in which people lived parallel virtual lives.

Despite the attention given to MMOs and their apparent popularity and attractions, I was not initially interested in playing them. This was largely on account of my perception that they were not driven by strong narratives, but instead focussed on goals that were accumulative – repeating actions and quests over and again to level characters and gain items and money. It didn’t appeal to me, though I knew very little about the actual nature of the games and made rather a few too many assumptions.

When I moved back to Cambridge from Sydney in 2006 and caught up again with my old friend and colleague Chris, I found him in the grip of a heavy obsession with World of Warcraft. He and I had, some years ago, shared a strong interest in BG1 and 2 and we often discussed computer games from an objective point of view, being curious about their design and indeed potential. I was, in the case of MMOs, a little too subjective and decided they weren’t for me. However, after spending some time watching Chris play WoW, I found myself increasingly drawn to the possibilities of such a game. Most of all, its scope was very attractively broad, with a whole, vast world to explore – then consisting of two major continents. I liked the fact that travel had to be done manually – players were forced to run, fly, walk or take a ship across large tracts of land or ocean. There was a lot of variety in the terrain and nature of the encounters, though many of the quests and tasks were disappointingly dull and repetitive. I thought it was time to stop disparaging it and give it a go. Sure enough, as I began co-teaching a summer school with Chris in Pembroke College, I took a small attic room in central Cambridge with a fast broadband connection, installed the game and got underway.

It’s fair to say I was quickly hooked. Despite the absence of any strong narrative and the relatively mindless nature of all the quests and objectives, I was sucked in by the scope and free-flowing nature of the world. Most of the games I’d played previously worked on a far more restricted plane. One entered a particular area, be it a dungeon, a town, a cave, a forest or open plains, but to progress to the next map or area required a transition. There were limits to the world, limits to the map. What made WoW so interesting was that there were no limits. It was possible to continue walking in any direction until the geography literally ran out at the coastline, after which one could take a ship across the sea. When one needed to travel longer distances over land, one could hire a griffin and fly across the continent, and one would indeed fly over the land in journeys that could take five to ten minutes. It was always an excellent opportunity to make a cup of tea if I wasn’t busy being mesmerised by the beating wings of the great beast I was riding, or the landscape passing underneath.

Having said that, on the whole I found the game graphically disappointing. The female characters all had man-hands and most races looked silly rather than interesting or attractive. The scale of things was also horribly out of proportion, with avatars often being completely dwarfed by vast cobblestones or planks of wood six times wider than their bodies. I found this to be very annoying, though I should have let it go. Another thing I did not immediately warm to was the sheer number of people active in the game at any given time. I understand now that populated servers are a bonus, but with so many people running around and jumping over my head, it felt like a silly cartoon and not an immersive fantasy game. I didn’t like it either that the world could not be changed. If I finished a quest then nothing in the world was permanently effected; I could just do it again or watch countless other people do it around me. It all seemed rather pointless and meaningless, and yet, I was continually drawn back to playing.

It was when I discovered that I could make in-game money on the auction house by finding ingredients, mixing certain reagents and putting them up for sale, that the game really began to interest me. This real, living economy was something no single-player game could replicate. The other thing that held my attention was the crafting. I chose cooking and fishing for my character and spent the vast bulk of my time doing both of these activities. In fact, in a month of playing, I only made it to level 18, but I had maxed my cooking and fishing skills to their highest possible level. Whenever I got a whiff of a good catch, I’d pop out a line and sit there reeling them in. It was quite therapeutic and I learned a number of recipes either for refining reagents from the fish, or cooking them to make potions and salves that could be sold on the auction house.

It goes without saying that the principal objective of MMOs is teaming up with other players, but I hardly ever grouped at all. It was partly because I wasn’t used to it and felt rather timid, but also because, being a noob, I was afraid of the censure of more experienced players. It should have occurred to me that there were no doubt many other noobs around as well, and the few times I did team up with other players, they were kind and helpful, but I still couldn’t seem to snap out of my single-player mentality. Indeed, the only other multiplayer gaming I’d done, apart from console-based hand-to-hand combat games, was playing linked Neverwinter Nights with my friend Mike and also with my brother. That seemed a far preferable style of gaming as, despite being localised to a module with limited areas and a closed story, there was at least a strong narrative driving the adventure, which, when well-written, brought emotional engagement. I also found Neverwinter Nights to be more immersive on an atmospheric level, if only for not having random idiots jumping over me all the time as they ran around Azeroth.

So it was that World of Warcraft had me hooked, but with deep reservations. What bugged me most of all about the game was that it was impossible to multi-class. One was either a mage, a druid, a hunter and so on, and each class was restricted in the items they could use or armour they could wear. I found this awfully simplistic compared to the variety and complexity of Dungeons & Dragons and couldn’t stand the thought that no matter what I did, I’d have pretty well exactly the same build as everyone else playing the same class. It reminded me of the arbitrary silliness of 1st Edition D&D wherein a Magic-User (read Wizard) was not allowed to use any weapon other than a dagger, dart or staff and could wear no armour whatsoever. Why exactly? Could they not take combat training as well? But before the introduction of the feat system, and the freeing up of class combinations with the 3rd edition rules, this was not possible.

After a month, my reservations had mounted and I was concerned about the time I was spending online, so I walked away. What really got me to walk, however, was the release of Dungeons & Dragons Online. The game had hit the shelves a few months before and CodeMasters, who were running the servers in Europe, were offering free ten-day trials of the game. I signed up, downloaded the game and got Chris to join me in our initial trial.

I was, I have to say, initially quite impressed. The action had a nice flow to it, the combat was exciting and the strict adherence to the D&D 3.5 edition rules, with a few necessary tweaks to make the game workable, made me a lot happier with the structural aspects of the game. What I didn’t like at all was that I couldn’t seem to make any progress, largely on account of being unwilling to team up with other players. Chris dropped out quite early in the trial and I played on until the tenday expired, soloing with very limited success. Again I felt too shy to accept the random party invitations I received from other players and just skulked about the city of Stormreach in a hopelessly ineffectual manner, wondering what was wrong with me. When the ten days expired, I uninstalled the game from my laptop, went back to playing Neverwinter Nights and drooling over screenshots of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and thought that would be the end of it.

Fast forward to 2008. I had returned from the UK to Australia and was busy finishing my Masters in Creative Writing, which I had deferred for two years. I was doing my best to avoid playing any games at all, in order to focus on my writing. There were the occasionally lockdowns with Neverwinter Nights 2 and Civilization IV, but on the whole I managed to remain disciplined until I got hooked modifying Oblivion. This process seemed to open the floodgates again, and once I had finished my degree, having no immediately pressing deadlines, the craving to spend my time immersed in virtual worlds returned.

I have a hard time resisting desire once it is firmly rooted in my mind, and the desire to play computer games seems so innocuous on so many levels, that it’s easy enough to satisfy it without feeling like a heroin addict or smoker. The first true addiction I ever had to a computer game was the first iteration of Sid Meier’s Civilization, back in the early 90s. I didn’t have a computer myself and so had to head around to my friend Mike’s place to play it, but once I got hold of his computer I was very difficult to dislodge. I could sit there all night, until dawn, swilling cask wine, smoking cones and building a civilization to stand the test of time. I was, between 1993 and 1995, living with my then girlfriend Kirstin, and she became very annoyed with me for spending whole nights out without calling, because I simply could not drag myself away from the screen to use the telephone.

I repeated the same behaviour regularly at my friend Rob Curtis’ place; sitting in his front room until the sun rose and then some, unable even to bring myself to go to the toilet. And it wasn’t only the dreaded Civilization that could hold me in its thrall. When Kirstin got her first PC computer, a second-hand 486, I installed Centurion: Defender of Rome on it and, in my first game, played from 2130 one evening until 1300 the following afternoon, only leaving the chair once to go to the toilet and get a glass of water. So the pattern was established early, indeed, it had long been established in the pen and paper days when my friend Gus coined the phrase “five o’clock maniacs” aged 12, after we repeatedly stayed up all night playing Dungeons & Dragons with my brother. When Civilization III came out I was living in Rome doing a post-doc at the British School at Rome. I had submitted my PhD on the 3rd of January 2003 and flown straight there, completely exhausted after four months spent working like a dog until dawn every night and sleeping four hours a day. I had no interest in doing any more work ever again at the time, and when, a week later, I bought the Italian version of the game, all hope of a future academic career died. I had some of the greatest sessions of my life in that place, fuelled by daily visits to ruins, museums and galleries. Armed with a bottle of primitivo, I’d fire it up for positively hours on end. It seemed that when it came to gaming, I was built for immersion – for commitment to the long haul. “Close the curtains and get the heater, bro, this is a lockdown.”

And so it was, around September 2008, that, bored with games I was playing and looking for a new experience and challenge, I began to consider giving Dungeons & Dragons Online another go. After all, most MMOs take a couple of years to get up and running, so far as the in-game economy is concerned, and ironing out problems with the gameplay and interface. I figured that this one had had sufficient time to mature and that it might well be worth another look. I signed up for another ten-day trial, downloaded the game and, after an absence of just over two years, found myself back on the streets of Stormreach.

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