The other day, I mentioned to my friend of 10 years that I was doing research on massively multiplayer online role-playing games ("MMORPGs") for one of my game design jobs. I said that it was especially difficult to understand what people were talking about on online forums, given that I'd never played an MMORPG for more than an hour of my life.
He said he could maybe help me understand them, because he's been playing Final Fantasy XI daily for the last six and a half years. I was weirdly shocked, baffled, and intrigued: He'd never mentioned this until just then.
I'd held the notion for the longest time that MMORPGs are the only form of entertainment that existed in the world of a person who played MMORPGs. I know for a fact (hint: not really a fact) that many large game publishers believe game-buyers know nothing of any other form of entertainment, that they spend all of their money on games, and that they play games because they have nothing else to do. I know that game publishers believe this, because they consistently get away with presenting writing and acting that supposes the audience has never appreciated a good film or ever finished reading a half-decent book. I can only wonder what they think of MMO subscribers.
My only response, which I didn't speak, was "How can you play an MMORPG? You're such an intelligent, well-balanced person." .... I didn't think I had opinions like that in me.
As prejudiced against gamers as I (dis)like to imagine game publishers are, I was surprised at my latent, invisible belittling of MMORPG players. When my friend revealed that he was an avid Final Fantasy XI player, I was awestruck. My only response, which I didn't speak, was "How can you play an MMORPG? You're such an intelligent, well-balanced person." Saying that would have been like asking a friend who just came out of the closet how he can be gay and still watch football. I didn't think I had opinions like that in me. I guess I did. I blame society. (Watch, in later paragraphs, as I blame society in more detail.)
For the last decade, this friend has been my go-to chat-pal. He provides endless entertainment. We talk about anything and everything — and constantly. He is the recipient of these columns you read, long before they become columns. More or less, he's head of Quality Assurance for the game company that composes these column-labyrinths.
He and I were born on the internet, we live on the internet, and we will die on the internet. When asked where we are from, we reply, "I'm from the internet." When people someone else where we're from, that person will invariably reply, "He's from the internet."
I met him on the internet. He'd read something I'd written on my old livejournal. That's how you met a netbro back when The Internet was still capitalized. Now we are jaded old refugees of a country that had far too many nubes for two talented trolls to pone, much less tire of poning. (Those are not typos in the preceding sentence: past a certain age, we elite netizens must spell the old language in a way more befitting our newfound maturity.) We were great friends from the start. We conspired, we discussed meaningful things, we lolled.
I met him in person at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles three years after meeting him on the internet. He introduced himself by his internet handle. I shook his hand. I invited him to dinner with me and my other friends.
He proceeded to freak my friends out.
It turned out that my internet friend was exceptionally awkward in real-life social situations. He talked loudly. He talked quickly. He interrupted others who were trying to talk. He didn't seem to know that he was making everyone uncomfortable.
He did know that he was making everyone uncomfortable. He simply had no practice not making people uncomfortable.
My friends' opinion of my good net-friend was that he was "annoying", "a huge nerd", "a massive geek", and "a colossal dork". One person might have called him "terrifying".
Yes, I know he's reading this, and I know he doesn't mind me going over this.
At his request, I'm not going to get into all the dirtiest details of his personal situation. Suffice it to say that my net-friend is a sufferer of Asperger's Syndrome. No, not a "sufferer" — he's more like a "carrier". The "sufferers" were the people he tried his best — and sometimes failed — to communicate and form bonds with in social situations attended by others passionate about the things he's passionate about.
I met him when I was in Los Angeles earlier this year, and we got along more than just fine. He didn't freak out anyone I introduced him to. In the last six years, he's gone from freaking people out to not freaking anyone out.
He tells me deciding to regularly play Final Fantasy XI was part of a deliberate decision to discover better methods for interacting with humans in the real world.
I'm not going to say Final Fantasy XI is the reason why he doesn't freak people out anymore. I also won't say that Final Fantasy XI is not the reason he doesn't freak people out anymore. I can, however, say that he tells me deciding to regularly play Final Fantasy XI was part of a deliberate decision to discover better methods for interacting with humans in the real world.
He's had a rough couple of years, where by "a couple of years" I actually mean "most of a life". Because of his condition, he was inappropriately slotted into classes for disabled students at school. All the authority figures in his life were just a bit overprotective. School wasn't helping him. He took the GED exam, graduated early, and went to a vocational school to learn how to make 3D art for videogames. Many years passed. He studied computer graphics. He lived on the internet. He basked in the Demoscene.
"I stayed in the Demoscene a little bit longer than people are supposed to," he tells me. We're Skyping as I write this. We Skype regularly for two reasons: it's fun (he helps me think of billions of ideas), and it helps him practice verbal communication.
By staying in the Demoscene "too long", he means he might have been wallowing. He didn't end up with a job. Maybe he didn't try very hard. He still had that protective, easy life. Then, one day a few years ago, maybe inspired by his favorite Japanese role-playing games about young men getting out, seeing the world, and collecting all the Pokemon, he got the idea to strike out on his own, to see the world, and to collect all the Pokemon. I supported his decision.
"You know," I told him, back then — and I remind him tonight — "a vast majority of the overnight billionaires or creative geniuses are hosts to some form of socially-debilitating anxiety or autism."
I was speaking from experience — I was a bit (a lot) of a weirdo, myself, when I was a kid — when I told him that it's not nearly impossible to leverage the good parts of autism: the ferocious, voracious ability to become so fascinated with a thing that you rote-memorize every aspect of every bit of lore associated with the thing. Some autists can hear a day, a month, and a year and immediately output a day of the week. I was born on a Thursday, for example. I have a high-functioning autistic friend who is such an expert on . . . god-knows-what that I was able to tell him I wanted to eat gouda cheese and cranberry juice and live in an apartment with a treadmill, two bedrooms, and a huge television so I could be like Howard Hughes for the rest of my life (except with cheese and cranberry juice instead of chocolate and milk), and he was able to tell me, immediately, exactly how much money that would cost. I asked if he figured in inflation — of course he had. I asked if he figured in electric bills — of course he had. He asked me if I was going to ask if he'd figured in probable death-age due to illnesses associated with vitamin deficiencies that arise from living on cheese and cranberry juice, so I asked him, and he said that of course he had. Then he spat back a new estimate, based on a revised life expectancy considering a lifetime supply of vitamin supplements (the estimate included the price of the vitamin supplements).
However awkward they are at social situations, these are the kinds of people you'd be insane to not want working for your major corporation.
Well, of course, major corporations sometimes have insane people sitting on the throne in the penthouse. My super-abled human friends sometimes can't make it past job interviews. Maybe because their mothers wouldn't let them go to college, or maybe because they have a borderline-terrifying stutter. I happen to know and regularly associate with many fantastic CEOs who do indeed hire people based purely on their ability to do great things, or do decent things greatly. However, these CEOs tend to not be in a position to pay a man to run a life with virtuosity, much less chase his dreams, much lesser actually cold-tackle those dreams to the dirt and handcuff their wrists behind their back. Most of my super-human netfriends are close enough to pennilessness to have forgotten what a nickel looks like.
My friend who plays Final Fantasy XI ended up not becoming a billionaire overnight. As of this writing, he lives right next door to the poverty line. I want to give him a job — I really do — though I need to first have some money to give him. The nature of the "game company" I'm running, these days, is such that employees are volunteers until I can pay them. They call this The Startup Lifestyle. I really care about this guy, so I advise him to do the things that actually get him paid.
Is Final Fantasy XI getting him paid? I can't say it is, and I definitely can't say it isn't.
My friend and I just Skyped for several hours about Final Fantasy XI. I lost track of time. The call kept getting dropped. We went down a couple of weird roads. I've still never played an MMORPG. I can, however, say that I know two things about them. I can also say that I knew at least one of these these things before gathering eyewitness testimony.
My friend was hesitant to pick up Final Fantasy XI when it was released in North America in 2004. Ultimately, he got into it because it was a Final Fantasy game. He'd grown up playing Final Fantasy games. He loved the maybe-too-intricate good-versus-evil plots, with their sleeping alien demons on the moon and magic spells that can summon meteorites. That Chrono Trigger and Xenogears writer Masato Kato had written much of the scenario for Final Fantasy XI convinced him it would be worth playing for the story alone.
However, he wouldn't be playing for the story alone alone — there was the issue of all those other people playing the same game.
When asked if I play any MMORPGs, I will respond with some knee-slapping one-liner about how if I wanted to deal with people I'd leave my house. Sometimes, the person gets defensive, and explains that MMORPGs sometimes have stories to enjoy and dissect in your brain free of the need to interact with other people. I'm told that parts of World of Warcraft encourage contemplation when you're away from the game. In short, I'm being told that I might appreciate these games because they contain things I'm free to think about without asking other people what they think about them, too. It's not the strongest argument. I'm not going to deride it. I could deride it. That would only make someone deride me. Then I'd have to deride them back, and I don't feel like deriding more than once today.
I don't want to play an MMORPG. If I wanted a story, I'd read a book. I'm grinding around in circles, I know — remember above, when I said that games generally have writing that would make a film connoisseur vomit? Now I'm saying I'd read a book if I wanted a story. I'm not saying I want games to have great stories. I'm saying I generally prefer games that have no stories at all. I groan so much whenever anyone within earshot asks someone else for clarification about the relationship between two characters in Tekken. "Didn't he kill that one guy's mom?" "No, he killed his mom's granddaughter. That one guy isn't even that one guy — he's that one guy's great-grandson, so it was more like that other guy killed his great-grandmother." "No, you mean his great-great-great grandmother." "Oh, yeah . . . wait, no?"
For me to play an MMORPG, it'd need to be about cavemen — all characters are mutely yawning naked freaks, communicating with spear- and club-violence perpetrated against trees, rocks, people, or beasts.
I asked my friend how he found the story in Final Fantasy XI.
"It's not a masterpiece. It's tolerable."
As a fan of Masato Kato and a respecter of Final Fantasy, he saw fair to tolerate every scrap of Kato's writing as presented in the game. Doing this meant dealing with all those other people.
In Final Fantasy XI's world of Vana'diel, my friend tells me, some monarch-person or god has decided that the five deadly sins include apathy and arrogance. "It's a game about sharing, communicating, and cooperation." The game uses world-story context to enforce players to seek out the help of other players. It's an MMORPG. It's also Japanese. As of 2001, when the game was introduced in beta, Japanese players typically didn't do much of the cooperating-with-other-people thing via the anonymous internet, especially in the context of games.
In order to play the game the way the game told him to play the game, he had to talk to other people. He found it surprisingly not-hard to communicate with people in the realm of the game. The general situation was that anyone playing the game probably wanted to play the game well. Being an RPG, it wasn't the kind of game you provably get better at by thinking about it. You have to put in hours. You have to repeat tasks to make your numbers get bigger so you can challenge bigger tasks. Tasks are easier to tackle with the help of other people. So it is that people are willing to work with any other people who want the same things.
If you're playing Final Fantasy XI, then you have at least one thing in common with everyone else playing Final Fantasy XI: you're playing Final Fantasy XI.
My friend says the game was, at first, "an escape". He found people he could tolerate, and he completed quests. More than any other reason, he enjoyed the game because he enjoyed the feeling of the world. It was well-realized. It was a neat little imaginary place, and he liked just being there, knowing things were going on in it. He kept it running in a window — running under WINE, in Linux — while he did various work projects, browsed the internet, and chatted with friends such as myself. At one point, in The Real World, he got a full-time job. At another point, he didn't have that full-time job anymore.
Three years later, he found he wasn't enjoying the game, because none of the people he played with was enjoying the game. This is when his reason for playing the game transformed. He was going to use the game to learn how to make friends and influence people. He was going to use the game to teach himself how to manage a company.
He decided to start his own "Link Shell".
I had to ask him what a Link Shell is. He says a Link Shell is an item that makes Link Pearls. Of course! A Link Pearl is a device a character puts in his or her ear — I think? — so that he or she can communicate with all the other characters carrying a Link Pearl generated by the same Link Shell.
In other words, it's a cute in-game contextual justification for peoples' ability to communicate privately with one another. Buying your own Link Shell is like starting a guild. My friend started his Link Shell ("LS") and invited people he liked. The only rule of his Link Shell is that if you invite someone, you have to vouch for their behavior. The mission of the Link Shell is to have fun. Together, he and his friends band together twice weekly to enjoy quests because they genuinely enjoy playing the game, the way my friends and I enjoy playing Gears of War 2 even though we could be playing Halo: Reach. As owner of the Link Shell, it's my friend's opportunity to make sure that the people in the Link Shell are willing and able to have fun.
Here is where my naivete steps into the room and says, "It couldn't possibly be that hard to find players of a game who are willing to have fun."
This kicks off an hours-long discussion of many things I rather wish I'd never started thinking about.
My friend's Link Shell consists of eight players. As people who are playing the game to have fun, they are unofficially and/or officially denoted as a "Social Link Shell".
"Social Link Shells are looked down upon as ‘weak' by players in Endgame Link Shells," he tells me. I don't know what the hell an Endgame Link Shell is. I ask him to tell me. He says he has to show me.
My friend links me — several times during our conversation — to threads on a certain Final Fantasy XI players' forum. I find the lingo-wall near-impenetrable. I ask questions. My friend sighs countless times (actually, being a bit of a Rain Man, myself, I must report that he sighed 25 times, and I only said "countless" to better blend in with people who don't count every time everyone does anything). He can't get through an explanation of what a single cut of jargon is supposed to mean without heavily insinuating what jerks these people are. They are fun-stealers. They are such fun-stealers, they're stealing the fun from even themselves.
I can't even begin to talk about these people. I've never played the games they play, and knowing that they exist, I kind of don't want to. Rather than give up on playing Final Fantasy XI when he found near-everyone around him in the game was a fun-stealers of some type or another, rather than just play Super Street Fighter IV or Gears of War with, say, someone decent and agreeable and excellent in conversation as myself, he stuck it out. Final Fantasy XI is not a game. It is a waning nation of a sadly collapsing spiritual economy. He stays in here to learn about people and what they do.
He links me to hundreds of threads full of people talking about the things they do. The mumbo-jumbo is the scale of a Sumerian Sun God. If I wanted to write about these things in detail, I'd first need a PhD. I'd need to pass a psychiatric evaluation to prove that writing about these things wouldn't push me to suicide, and waiting for clearance from a psychiatrist would no doubt cause me to miss my deadline. I'll try to be brief, for my own sake, and for the sake of the human race.
It used to be, people wanting to get ahead in the game cheated and stole. Or they were elite hackers who wrote scripts to maximize drops. I only just barely knew what a "drop" was, when I first heard this. It's an item an enemy leaves behind when he dies.
Players would write scripts that, for example, analyze the game in real-time, predicting the location of a monster microseconds before it spawned. Then it would issue a command to kill the monster, then pick up the item. They call this "monopolizing" a monster or a drop. Players would sell these scripts to other players for usually around $1,000. You do this to "farm" items, which you sell for money. Then you can sell the money to other players of the game, who love playing the game, who love basking in the world of the game and wish they could see more of the game's world, though just can't be bothered to sit around earning all that money they'd need to buy the better equipment to make the game possible to advance in.
Cory Doctorow wrote a book about the people who do this. It's pretty good. The best I can offer is the following paragraph, which consists of a True Story:
I was in Korea in 2004. I was waiting for my friend to get off work so we could go to a bar and meet with some of his other friends. I didn't know any of his other friends. I was only in town for a week. I'd spent the day wandering around the city of Seoul. By nightfall, I was back near my friend's place in Incheon. I didn't have a key to his place. I knew he'd check his email before getting off work, so I stopped in at the internet cafe near his house. The place was lit electric-blue. It was low-key and quiet. It was a little tomb. I was standing at the front desk for a minute, waiting for someone to show up and ring me in. A guy came up eventually, looking upset. I took my number and found a nice little booth in the corner with a big puffy chair. Minutes later, I realized I wanted a Coke. I went up to the front desk. The guy was gone. I looked left, right. The place would have been dead silent were it not for the muffled screams of beasts coming from one corner. I figured the owner was back there playing a game. I walked back to the farthest row of computers. There he was, sitting in a rolling chair, elbow on his knee, chin on his fist, eyes zipped tight. Before him, the exact same scene played on 10 computer monitors: a monster appeared, then died. It appeared again, then died again. It just kept happening. I wanted a Coke. I didn't want to wake the guy up. I had no idea what was going on.
It's called "Gold Farming", and it's apparently something everyone except for me knew almost everything about before today. Maybe I have some sort of disease that makes me oblivious to news regarding massively online games.
Every so often, an email message slips past Google's wonderful Gmail spam filter, and I'm subjected to headlines offering to sell me "WOW GOLD". I guess that's what those are, then? That's people in China trying to sell me in-game currency so that I can enjoy the fun part of a game without having to anti-enjoy the un-fun parts.
Being extremely simplistic and naive for a moment, I guess that's the best way to sum up why I don't play MMOs: I have subliminally perceived them as games that literally begin development as a document whose title page indicates two sections: "The Not-Fun Parts" and "The Fun Parts", each with a hundred pages of sub-sections.
"They're glorified chat rooms," my friend points out, of MMOs. "The social component is just about everything."
You form a bond with your fellow players while doing menial game-work, he says.
"You form a bond with your coworkers at your job," I offer.
Well, in Final Fantasy XI, at least you know that most of the people in this world are at least fans of Final Fantasy.
"Well, in a sweatshop, at least you know that most of the other employees at the sweatshop aren't fans of sweatshops."
When Final Fantasy XI, like many MMOs, cracked down on scripts that monopolized monsters and drops" the elite system-abusers devoted most of their wiles to "gardening". Final Fantasy XI includes a wholly un-fun sub-game where you can plant things in a garden, harvest them, and sell them for money. This is the developers' way of saying, if you want to use this game to be a jerk, we're going to make sure you have even less fun doing it. Now, it's harder to go out and take a walk or see a movie with your girlfriend while the game plays itself. Take that, jerks!
Or you can level up obscenely high, obtain detailed knowledge of battle tactics, take on powerful monsters, earn the loot, and do with it as you will.
I must admit I'm grossly underequipped to explain how gold farming works. I am aware that allegedly a hundred thousand Chinese citizens are employed in the task of farming videogame currency, which is then sold to players — most of them in other countries — who don't want to spend as much time playing the game as the people who earn their living playing the game spend playing the game. The reason they don't want to spend as much time playing the game as these gold-farmers spend playing the game is because they have a job, or a life. To the gold-farmer, farming gold is their job. Maybe it's also their life. Maybe they're in a room with people they like. Maybe they find it amusing that they can earn a living by working with people they like. Maybe they actually enjoy the farming of the gold. Maybe it relaxes them the way FarmVille relaxes some people.
I'm going to revise my earlier statement about why I have been subliminally led to believe I don't like MMOs: They're apparently games some people are willing to pay other people to play for them. Other things we're willing to pay people to do include cook us food or drive us home from the airport.
The main thrust of my friend's distaste for the majority of Final Fantasy XI players is their serious-business attitude. It's one thing to be someone who plays to win, he says — it's another thing to be someone who plays to win in a game where you can't actually win.
Final Fantasy XI has no "ending". Players define the "endgame" as the part of the game where you make the decision to continue playing despite having experienced all of the story sequences and reached the developer-imposed level cap. Your reason for continuing to play is to "farm" better "loot". Endgame guilds organize parties to complete missions to earn items that will allow them to upgrade weapons or armor in order to earn a one-percent strength bonus. As you continue to kill enemies, you earn "Limit Points". 10,000 "Limit Points" equals one "Merit Point". You use a "Merit Point" to increase a statistic of your choosing. These players, nose to the brick wall called "endgame", sprint with all their might, grasping at reasons to feel superior to other players.
For an hour or two, we talk about business. We talk about the scene in "Glengarry Glen Ross" where Alec Baldwin puts his watch on Ed Harris's desk and says, "You see this watch? That watch costs more than your car."
I offer that in the context of having a job or running a company, in the context of selling things to people who might not want what you're selling, pointing out that you drive a BMW to a person who drives a Hyundai might even be considered healthy behavior. For capitalism to work, entire industries have to revolve around sons of bitches getting mad at other sons of bitches for being bigger sons of bitches than they are. Economies collapse, for example, according to one popularly soft-spoken theory, when pop-culture indicates we should worry more about saving the environment. Jealousy inspires desire. We want a BMW like Alec Baldwin's BMW. Maybe we hate ourselves for being assholes in the name of getting that BMW, so we decide to get a Jaguar that's better than our own BMW. Via materialism, we become empirically better than our self-despising selves. This becomes a vicious cycle.
Final Fantasy XI communities offer a cruel picture of the world understandable in all its sludge even to a fourth-grader. My friend says, "On the internet and in real life, people are the same people. It all comes down to the venue of presentation." Different venues melt or harden different inhibitions. This is the old argument that, while people say crazy things while they're drunk, it's nothing that they wouldn't think when they were sober. To paraphrase David Mamet for the 60th time in this writing, let's just say that my dad used to always say always do business with people as though they're trying to screw you, because they probably are.
In a brief span of time, I think far too deeply about the people who play these games with this level of business-like, grudge-holding seriousness. I remember my friend's friend's house in the Indiana countryside. Everyone in that house — the parents, the kids, and the kids' live-in high-school sweethearts — was an EverQuest addict. They were all normal people who dressed normally and talked about sports. One of the kids was a student at Rose-Hulmann, as prestigious a school as exists for future genius engineers. These were smart, serious people. Their house was a pleasant-smelling wooden cave with an above-ground pool outside and Christmas lights up year-round in the living room. At one point, the father, getting up from a chair at one computer next to his son's wife-to-be, sat down at the computer on the other side of his son's wife-to-be. He took one look at the screen — hundreds of player avatars standing still in a computer-rendered marketplace with text bubbles over their heads — and exclaimed softly enough to keep his wife asleep at her keyboard:
"Son of a bitch! This bastarding thing."
Then there's my friend. He's a lot better at talking to people, now, than he was before. I talk to him more or less all day, every day, and I didn't know he was playing Final Fantasy XI. Maybe he was even playing Final Fantasy XI while talking to me.
My friend tells me about dozens of things. I'd love to write about all of them, though doing so would cause me to analyze all of them, and that would make me cry. I'm only going to write about the two of them that provoked an immediate semblance of reason — the only two on whose glassy surface a single bubble of explanation immediately appeared.
One is the story of how my friend went to a "Fan Fest" for Final Fantasy XI. It took place in a hotel ballroom near where he lived. He didn't want to go. His guild members — all spread far and wide throughout the United States — encouraged him to go, and to enjoy himself. One guy even paid his membership. He figured he should go — at the very least, he could learn about new policies being unrolled for the game. He could, as a firsthand eyewitness, tell his friends about new changes to the rules of the game: when they were upping the level cap, for example.
He went to the party. He talked to a few people. He says he had a little bit of fun. All of the people appeared normal. Like, they could walk out onto the street afterward and disappear into a crowd. Most of the people who he talked to wanted to talk about the game. They didn't talk about their lives, or their jobs, or their kids, or what they studied in school, or what they wanted to be when they grew up.
In the game, they form bonds with people based, initially, on the fact that they're playing the same game. In real life, at an event centered on the game, for one rare instance surrounded by people they know for certain share their hobby, they talk about the game.
That isn't the weird thing. This is: Members of hardcore guilds attend these events en masse. Only they don't do it to wear team colors or show team spirit. They do it to "check in" and receive "points" with guild leaders.
This isn't anything secret. Players have been doing this since as long as they've had life-long games played over the internet with other people.
Earning a "point" with your guild by attending a real-life meet-up entitles you to certain perks with the guild in-game. I flat-out don't understand what the points are for. My friend doesn't explain. I use my imagination: Maybe, if you have a point, you're allowed to, at the next post-mission loot divvy-up, cash in a "point" to earn a piece of loot of your choosing.
If that's the case — and it probably is — then this "point" system is an instance of game-players creating a real-life-to-in-game dynamic with mathematically represents and lends weight to a real-world aphorism of hazy nuance. In this case, it's the "it's not what you know, it's who you know" aphorism.
I learned "it's not what you know, it's who you know" the hard way: I'd been writing articles for a specific magazine for two years, never once meeting any of the staff. I was freelance. I submitted my invoices in an obsessively timely manner, because I loved money — or, at least, the idea of it. The magazine never paid me. I mean, they never paid me once. They still owe me that money. I could buy two fine oversize suitcases, and enough vegan sausages to fill those suitcases, with all that money. Then, I met an editor of another magazine, once, at some mixer. I told him to consider me for freelance work. The next month, I wrote something for him. He paid me a week after I submitted the invoice. I mean, that's simplifying it, though there you go.
You beat someone at chess, and you feel appropriately smarter than them for a while. You beat them twice, you start to wonder why they get paid more than you at their job.
What the players of the game were doing was using real-life as part of the game. Really, real-life is part of any game that's worth playing. You beat someone at chess, and you feel appropriately smarter than them for a while. You beat them twice, you start to wonder why they get paid more than you at their job. A little bit of introspection occurs. Someone beats you at chess, and you wonder why.
You make a friend. You guys get along great. You mention you play Pokemon. He asks his mom to buy him a DS so he can play Pokemon with you.
You play Pokemon at school with some kid. You and him become friends. Twenty years later, you're playing golf with a client.
You work with a guy. You smoke outside in front of the building sometimes. The guy mentions he's been playing Monster Hunter. That's all you need to start playing Monster Hunter yourself. You have something new to do while you smoke.
You like Final Fantasy XI. You don't like the people you see playing it. You ask some friends you like to start playing with you. The world is neat to look at, and you guys can continue talking about what you were talking about while you play the game just as easily as you could do it without the game. The game is a glorified chat-room.
In someone else's other dimension — in Dimension Else — the game is a spreadsheet you share with other people through the magic of computer graphics.
They're in the game to make the numbers go up. They're there to help other people get those numbers to go up. They're helping other people's numbers go up because it helps their own numbers go up. Those other people are helping other people help their numbers go up because helping people helps their numbers go up. It's viruses sucking on viruses.
When you meet these people in the real world, you earn a point that entitles you to get more things and receive more numbers in the fictional world. Of course, you can be friends if you want. Though what makes a friend, really, in a situation like that? The clearer side of human nature, frankly, weirds me out right now. Say you meet a girl who has a boyfriend. She's engaged to him. She's been dating him for five years. She has sex with you. She's made a promise to marry him, and she's cheating on him. She says she's going to break up with him and marry you. You don't know if she's ever done this before. Even if she tells you it's the first time, you'll be damned if you can't imagine the possibility of a second time. This is what I mean by a collapsing spiritual economy. For centuries, we've had the phrase about there never blooming "honor among thieves". We can say it's as hard to find "niceness among jerks".
We have to remember, here, that anonymity doesn't make people jerks. It only makes jerks comfortable about themselves.
The next inspiring example has to do with an exploit some players discovered in Final Fantasy XI. It goes like this: players needed 50,000 of an item called Alexandrite. Certain enemies dropped Alexandrite. Sometimes a random number generator would give you more or less Alexandrite at the time of these enemies dropping it. In a certain quest, you could find many of this enemy, meaning possibility for much Alexandrite.
In Final Fantasy XI, up to six players can form a "party". Three "parties" can form an "alliance". You can have as many as 18 members and as few as five in an alliance. Having an alliance in this specific mission made it so that the enemies dropped, on the average, three times as much Alexandrite as they would, random number generator notwithstanding, drop during a normal run-through of the mission. So — and here's the part I'm not clear about — you could fight this enemy as an alliance — easier than killing it as a party — and disband the party before the enemy died. This would result in three times as much of the desired item for each member of each party.
I think. I'm not too clear on all the particulars — just that it involved disbanding before killing the monster, and Getting More Items for everyone as a result. And all the players are working together, anyway, right? So it's for some greater good, as far as the group is concerned.
Well, it was an exploit, nonetheless. Square-Enix had crafted an atmosphere, a world, and its economy. They wanted to control the amount of this item available. They didn't want, for example, people selling mass quantities of this item. They wanted to be able to look at marketplaces and see money flowing freely. They didn't want subscribers to be able to pay third parties real money in the real world for fake quantities of some fake thing to make them enjoy the game more. They wanted the subscribers who wanted the items to pay for the items with the dollars they pay for months of subscriber time, not with dollars paid to someone else who is obtaining this item through a concerted group effort.
It all smacks of the Stanford Prison Experiment, my friend says. Put people in a hostile environment, and they will start acting like jerks near-instantly, with astounding frequency. This says little of the people who are fully aware that their environment is masterminding their behavior.
When Square-Enix permanently banned some players making use of the hastily explained exploit above, some players appealed their banning by insisting that they honestly did not know the exploit was cheating.
On the one hand, my friend insists that, when the Japanese players discovered this exploit, they kept it secret. It was a month before, coincidentally, American players discovered it. On one forum, my friend says, he followed with interest as moderators immediately deleted any thread or post or banned any user who mentioned any keywords related to the exploit. It's someone at Square-Enix's job to keep an eye on exploit rumors making the rounds in communities, and squash the exploits when possible. This might mean patching the game, or banning users, or both.
I'd never thought about this before today — and I didn't have to.
My friend says that the fact that the players were keeping it secret indicates that they knew it was an exploit.
The players insist that they didn't want word getting out because they thought it was merely a "secret"; they didn't want other players to know the secret, and enjoy the same success they were enjoying.
Maybe either one of these is the kind of thing you wouldn't want someone doing in a perfect world. It's two sins — apathy and arrogance — rolled into one, in different quantities each way.
Then, I think about the argument that the players thought that the supposed exploit was something they were, in fact, supposed to do, or even entitled to do:
Games ask us to do weird things, sometimes. Sometimes they let us do weird things. Sometimes, they let us do many things in a given situation, and only the weird one is the thing that work.
A perfect and relevant example involves obtaining the character "Mog" in Final Fantasy VI. At one point less than halfway through the game, your characters use a key to unlock a room in the town of Narshe. Inside the room is a werewolf character, previously seen imprisoned in a castle basement. He steals the contents of a treasure chest. Your characters startle him. He runs away. You go outside, and you can see him rounding the corner. You chase him up to the hills, to the cliff from the very first scene in the game. He's standing on the edge of a cliff with the character Mog in his arms. He says that if you take one step closer he's going to kill Mog. You take a step closer. He says he's serious. Your character takes a step back automatically. You keep trying to step forward, and he keeps saying he's serious, and your character keeps stepping backward automatically. What are you supposed to do, here? When I first played the game, I thought maybe I had to have the character Locke in my party. Locke and Mog meet briefly and fight together at the beginning of the game. Mog helps Locke rescue Terra. Maybe Locke is compelled to help Mog, so if he's your party leader, he'll jump out and do something. Also, Locke is a thief, and so is this werewolf guy. Maybe they'll have a boss fight. Well, I didn't have Locke in my party, so I left and went back to the airship to put Locke into my party. I went back to the hills with Locke in the lead. I took a step forward. The wolf said he was serious, and Locke stepped back. I thought, "Huh?" I then thought, maybe I need Terra at the lead. Maybe she'll use her supernatural powers to help Mog because Mog helped her. I opened the menu, went to the character-order-changing screen, pressed the cursor down once, and suddenly — the game pulled control away from me. The menu screen canceled out automatically. Mog slipped away from the wolf. He kicked the wolf over the cliff.
This is the only point in the game — and in any Final Fantasy game — that the game will forcefully pull you out of a menu. Opening the menu is, in fact, the only solution to this "puzzle". What's the reason for it? Does opening the menu mean the characters are having a conversation about the situation, which distracts the captor just long enough for the captive to break free? It's the damnedest thing.
On these occasions, and with this kind of befuddling lesson, Square — and videogames — raised their children. So maybe we grow up considering system-breaking and exploits part of the game.
They then accuse Square-Enix, saying "Square-Enix probably don't play their own games". There it is.
Then, when the debate is getting ready for bed, someone says, you know, needing fifty thousand of an item just to make a weapon a little bit stronger is kind of ridiculous. They then accuse Square-Enix, saying "Square-Enix probably don't play their own games". There it is. And there's the answer: of course they don't. How can you make something so huge and be able to play it? It'd be like trying to beat yourself at Tic-Tac-Toe: it'd involve giving up, and no one would understand the moment you fail to learn how to trick yourself.
My friend says he enjoys the atmosphere of the game. Maybe these serious-business hardcore players enjoy the atmosphere as well. Maybe they don't feel compelled to talk about it with anyone, even themselves. Is this unhealthy? Maybe they have jobs and wives. Maybe they buy their kids wonderful mountains of Christmas presents every year. Maybe they love that game so much they don't know they want to share it. You know what they say: sometimes, people ruin everything. Actually, I don't know if "they" say that. I know I say that.
My impression of PC gaming — and maybe it's unfair that I let it color my impression of MMORPGs — is from a memory of Baldur's Gate. This memory is from so long ago that it might as well be a dream. In the middle of a particularly hard fight, after having not saved my game for 10 miraculous minutes in which I obtained some Wonderful Things, I found myself getting hammered by an otherwise inconsequential monster. I contemplated the curve and snaggle of the dungeon I'd traipsed to get this far, and I decided I might be stumped for resources on the way out. I paused the game. I accessed the options menu. I decreased the difficulty. I unpaused the game. I bested the monsters. I got out of the dungeon. I increased the difficulty back up to where it had been.
Years later, I was in Korea. I was in an internet cafe. I used a password for an account I'd shared with my ex-girlfriend. I loaded up our shared hardcore sorceress. A "hardcore" character is a character that is deleted if it dies once. She had been at level 79 when we broke up. She was at level 93 that day, years later. I hadn't played the game in a while. I joined a game with a hardcore barbarian on level 94. We formed a party and went into the wild. We were playing on the US East server, and I was in Korea. Lag happened. The lag ended. The kid had left my party and killed me cold. I felt about as awful as I did about decreasing the difficulty in Baldur's Gate that day.
Years later still, there's Fable II. It lets me say ugly things to fake people. Someone says "Hello, there!" I can respond with "Hello, citizen!" or some non-profane equivalent of "Fuck you, asshole!" I wonder who would, given the option, decide to be a jerk to a person who wasn't even real, just to see their three-word fake reaction of dejected rejection. Peter Molyneux once expressed disbelief that 98% of players decided to play the part of the paragon of goodguyness in Fable. The sequel sometimes sees your acts of kindness snowball into world-darkening evil. You loan a beggar money, and he grows up to become the head of some demon church, for example. The game teaches the player to expect the worst in people real and fake, by making some fake person special example.
Whether you've ever killed a person or not in cold blood in real life is irrelevant in the face of the question of whether or not you'd think it was funny or fun to do it in a game simulation. There's a good chance that being a jerk in a game, even to a fake person controlled by a computer script, makes you absolutely, definitely a real jerk in real life.
And what about the people who see a YouTube video that's not of, say, something objectively objectionable — like, say, someone kicking a puppy — and decide to click the "dislike" button? Maybe it's a video of some kid just shredding some metal guitar. What does that say about someone who clicks the "dislike" button on something like that?
Breaking an established bond of trust on a dime to kill someone in a PC game is called "griefing". The PC gaming community's tendency to reduce a lifetime's worth of inexplicable hatred to a one-syllable verb-word like "grief" is chilling.
Then there are the hateful comments on the YouTube page for the video preview of this documentary about Chinese gold farmers. These people despise and resent the Chinese gold farmers. They call them dishonest. They call them crooks. They make fun of their relative poverty. Maybe these Chinese gold-farmers sometimes hack their way into accounts. A lot of them don't. Let's put that aside a moment. Where does the dishonesty — or, at least, the weirdness — start? Maybe it starts when a company employed in the business of creating entertainment takes it upon themselves to make something that, maybe, they should be able to predict is going to be something that some people are going to dislike a large portion of experiencing, to such a razor-edge that they're willing to pay someone else to do that part for them. Maybe it starts with making the combat in your game about fighting things so slow-paced it takes you hours upon hours to level up and get strong enough to do anything, so that players will pay the monthly subscription fee as many times as you can get them to.
I think about how PCs killed arcades. It's not enough to play skee-ball; killing realistic-graphicked people is fun. It's not enough to win — or learn from losing — at fighting games; it's easier to make your numbers bigger in an RPG, and mean it when you tell someone you'll never meet that you're better than them.
My friend says I should try designing an MMORPG, knowing nothing about the experience of playing them. He says they're all "inbred", now. It's not a case of too many cooks in the kitchen — it's a case of cooks only hanging out with cooks.
I say, I don't know anything about MMORPGs, and I can't begin to consider the depth of the experience of balancing one.
"I guess I'd start by making a game I'd actually want to play." I pause. "Or, I guess I'd make no game at all."
I cite the old Buddhist platitude: if literally everyone became a monk, growing his or her own food and devoting twenty-four hours a day to praying for peace, it would be simply be impossible for war to exist.
I ask my friend if he can think of any concrete example of any one situation where he believes his having played Final Fantasy XI made him better equipped to handle something social in a real-world stage. He thinks about it. Then he says he doesn't know. I tell him, "You're a lot easier to talk to now than you were that first time I met you." I suppose he believes me. He says it's been a lot of things.
Then he says, at the risk of sounding cheesy, that Final Fantasy XI has, more or less, equipped him with a genuine desire to be optimistic.
He says he's learned the reward of the surprise when someone, in reality, is not a jerk. He talks about the Milgram experiment, where many test subjects delivered what they believed were near-fatal electric shocks to an actor posing as a test subject who is vocal about his heart condition, simply because the rules of the test dictated they had to punish certain behaviors. Most of the subjects went on fake-shocking the actor until he was playing dead. They all expressed the same signs of nervousness and incredulousness. They were all, ultimately, human. Only 35% insisted that the test be stopped. Only one subject insisted that the experiment not go on past the very first mention of the actor's heart condition.
"I don't know if I'm management material," my friend says, "and I don't know if this makes me or doesn't make me management material, though I want to appeal to the best in people."
We talk some more about "Glengarry Glen Ross" — about "this watch cost more than your car". I say that if you want to appeal to the best in people, you need to keep the company small. You need to sell things to people who want them. You need to be comfortable with the kind of life you can buy for selling just one thing to lots of people.
We talk about Zynga a bit. Have scientists declared it a fact yet that those guys are evil? Like, can Webster's Dictionary use "evil" in the text of the entry for "Zynga"?
Are "PC games" becoming things like FarmVille? Is FarmVille sneaking into the back window of the "MMORPG"?
Yesterday, I looked up the girl the evil kids pushed in the mud in kindergarten, in Kansas. She had a weird name. Her parents were hippies. The beginning of her first name sounded like the word "roach". By the beginning of the school year, she was going by her middle name. She had told me she was going to marry me someday. Well, there she is, on Facebook. She's married to someone else. I don't blame her for lying. I'm not going to send her a friend request. Her info page is public. She lives in LA. She's got big boobs and she's pretty. She looks like she works in a law office. I look at her wall. It's public. She plays a lot of FarmVille. This isn't a surprise, and it isn't sad. My friend's ex-girlfriend, who friended me after he and she split amicably, plays a lot of FarmVille. A friend of mine killed herself, a long time ago. Two of her friends are my Facebook friends today. One of them plays FarmVille, and is always trying to help me with my butterfly collection.
I don't have a butterfly collection.
I wouldn't know what to do with one.
Another friend said a friend of a friend died, recently. His friend's mother took over his Facebook page. She was sending mass messages to all of his Facebook friends about the charity she'd set up in the name of preventing future incidents of whatever undisclosed reason he died. She sends messages about the funeral, and about a special wake for his Facebook friends. My friend is at a bar, talking to a girl, when his phone buzzes. He opens it up, and it says "New Facebook message from: [Dead Person's Name]". He wants to unfriend the person right there. Talking to a girl — talking, maybe, about The Future, he's got The Past in his hand. This is how I feel when I realize that people I knew before I had pubic hair are now playing FarmVille. I don't want to forget them — I'd like them to forget themselves from me.
It's a dark, weird feeling.
My friend asks me about designing an MMORPG fueled by righteousness. I reply, glibly: "Foursquare."
Then I say, "Minecraft". I'm probably not wrong. Why do people level up in Final Fantasy XI? Why did thirteen-year-old me insist on chopping down grass and trees incessantly in order to always be carrying 999 rupees in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past? It's probably the same thing. Ultimately, when we've solved the overlying puzzle of the experience, we need to generate context for continuing to enjoy it. We are clinging to a scrap of what we had first considered important. The game, in this case, is "about" enjoying it. The game is different from, say, a film, in that it requires our input in order for it to continue. If you walk out on a movie, it plays itself to the end. A game doesn't. So if we love the experience of playing a game, it's hard to remember why unless we generate some context to continue loving it. So we have the grass-slashing and aimless wandering and heart-piece-collecting completionism of Zelda, and the level-grinding of an MMO. Minecraft, however, is merely a game about building things. It's fun to build things. It's fun to watch people build things. It's fun to help people build things. You don't show people the cool house you bought to put on your farm; you show them the unique thing you made. You're not, so to speak, covering a real band's songs in Guitar Hero. You're making your own thing. The experience of playing it is fascinating. You might not be creative when you start playing. It might make you creative. I recently sat at a table of game designers talking casually about working some "game rules" into Minecraft. Someone mentioned a "long-term conflict model". I felt a little weird when I tried to think about that. I figured — and I said so — that it would be the "next big thing", and I wouldn't like it anymore.
MMORPGs are virtual anatomy-measuring contests. Facebook games are virtual anatomy-measuring contests with one of the dozen layers of abstraction — the full-screen, 3D, dynamic world — removed. "Games" and "Life" will converge any year now. Before we know it, someone will figure out how to declare, objectively, who's "better" at Twitter — the person with 6,000 followers and 12,000 tweets, or the person with 1,600 followers and 1,000 tweets. Someone will write a Facebook app that can immediately presuppose the opinions of a trillion imaginary teenagers, and tell you which of two photographs of two different men is more attractive. Critical thinking and resourcefulness will finally eclipse recall of learned information as the key measure of intelligence. You know, in elementary school, they didn't let us use a calculator during a math test. That's like telling a journalist he's not allowed to use the internet to look up the gross national product of Bolivia.
At some point, we'll all have to start playing chess again, or no one will know who is better than anyone else at anything.
Nonchalantly, out of the blue, I come up with the closest either of us will get to an answer tonight:
"If you want a decent, righteous, just MMORPG, get the team who made Street Fighter III: Third Strike to make it. I'd trust them."
I think we can call this case solved, then.