Games with Friends on a Saturday Night

With much excitement I received this CD key to a closed alpha online game. It’s part of a franchise I’ve loved, with a brand that cares about its impact. The alpha is very, very good. Even without the leveling system. Even without the unlockables, consumables, or the customizables. It might eventually hearken back to Counter-Strike or AVP2, a place to meet friends on a Saturday night. The problem is it’s difficult to stop. Part of that is me. In 30 years I’ve played too much, about every way you can play too much. So I’m going to be susceptible. There are also a few ways (I’ve argued for almost a decade) that games can challenge our self-control. That distinction between what a game does, and what a person does, is important. There’s only so much a designer can worry about, with an individual’s susceptibilities. It’s why Blizzard, just before their Burning Crusade expansion, talked at a GDC roundtable about not ruining gameplay for the players without issues. And then they phased out 40-person raids. It was a good change. In some of my research, a preference for that grittier, more hardcore raiding held a statistically-significant relationship with reported behaviors like loss of sleep, missing meals, jeopardizing a job or relationship. That is, the functional problems that typically come to mind when we’re talking addiction. World of Warcraft launched with another feature, probably the most emblematic, of how designers can reward players for breaking up their play. In their rested XP system, the longer you’re logged out, the more you build up a bonus to experience gain. It’s effective because of the direct contextual link between the “work” of adventure and rest. What’s surprising to me isn’t how successful or lauded it was by players or developers, but why we don’t see creative extensions of it everywhere. Granted I don’t focus on phone games, so totally might not know good examples, but I’m surprised never to have seen a focused rest system (rewards for getting in and getting out quickly), or a deep rest system (rewarding players for not visiting too often in a given day). If you can keep players from feeling obliged to check a game every few minutes, or from feeling forced into huge daily binge visits, in certain reward contexts this is going to help players to have a much improved experience of your brand. If you can get context that explains why we powerlevel a certain game, or constantly check a specific app, you can design in rewards that cushion that. You can - like Warcraft - make elegant changes to encourage balance. So then, very promising F2P Game, some thoughts: 1. You don’t need to use the World-of-Tanks-style tiered meta leveling. Leveling can happen in game (WoW), in the meta (WoT) or as a hybrid (LoL), but I’m not sure that WoT’s flashy green dress fits on you. Like WoT, not all of your tiered grinds are very fun. Unlocking some of your stuff gives me these cold flashbacks to grinding the AMX 40. Just google that grind, and you’ll get page after page of bitter. What kills me is that your actual game parts are a joy. When you use that tiered meta and tie in months worth of compulsive design? Those will be some painful grinds. Upcoming F2P Game has a proven track record of making fun, balanced games. Chess, say, doesn’t have the same strategic depth if you can buy a slightly better pawn. 2. You already designed in the kinds of customizable characters that are the bread and butter for games like League of Legends. For just one example, those could all be unlockable champions with themed customizations. You’ve already designed those elements into the alpha. Making characters the foundation, rather than unforgiving grinds, it’s a path that’s been proven. 3. There are also already systems in place for customizing the unlocked stuff at different tiers. Aesthetic equippable items aren’t exactly built in to your meta chart yet, but identical pieces are in your game. It would be a significant, but not a monumental graphics/programming task to add them. At very conservative estimates it takes 750 hours of gameplay for one single top-tier tank in the World-of-Tanks-style meta. By comparison, I’m used to spending maybe 25-40 on the other games in your franchise. And besides, there's stellar content in the low tiers that a meta would bury. That would be a shame. There’s one last reason not to bring some of this into your beta. A healthy majority of the players I know take one look at grinds this invested and say, “I know what that is. No thanks.” As is, Upcoming F2P Game might still be the next CS, or AVP2, or LoL. Something I want to play with friends on a Saturday night. So long as my friends can grind.


Married on a Pirate Ship

The goblin auctioneers of Booty Bay were kind enough to help me get the ring to Bepbep, though she was careful not to wear it. First we’d need a good, old-fashioned wedding on a pirate ship. Nothing less, Bep insisted, would suffice. This only hardened my resolve, my ironclad commitment to this enemy combatant I'd met minutes ago. Love at first sight – as unlikely as they come – between a human priest named Bepbep, and a rotting, jawless rogue named Hawtgrrlirl. Invitations were sent.

Bep’s boyfriend Space, sadly, would not attend.

It just so happened that a pirate ship was free, in a secluded cove to the South of the rolling hills of the Arathi Basin. Bep was beautiful, with her frilly blue pirate hat, white dress, and scimitar. I, the undead groom, wore a tuxedo and a Gnomish mind-control helmet. I invited a few friends: Recrimination, a Vietnamese-American living in San Francisco, and Piroshky, that old, reliable Russian main tank. Most of Bep’s friends came from a notorious social guild Horde-side: Zombie Puppy Fun Times; many of these players lived in her hometown. Bep’s Maid of Honor and real-life best friend – the particularly not-to-be-fucked-with attack hugger Nika – would, two years later, wind up being the first person from the World of Warcraft I’d meet in person. Bep's Horde-side friend Unctuous would preside over the seaside ceremony. Because many screenshots were saved – World of Warcraft making me both groom and wedding photographer – I know that the text looked a bit like this:

[Unctuous] says: We are gathered here in the sight of God and the GM's and in the presence of these witnesses,

[Hawtgrrlirl] says: afk bio
You are now AFK: bio

[Unctuous] says: To Join Hawtgrrlirl and Bepbep in Holy Matrimony.
[Unctuous] says: which is an honorable estate, instituted by Jeff Caplan in the time of Closed Beta, signifying to us the mystical union which is between Bep and Her RP'ing fetish. 

Unctuous points at you.

[Unctuous] says: Hawtgrrlirl, do you take Bepbep to be your in-game wife?
[Unctuous] says: To Quest and to Grind, at Full HP or Out of Mana, to Level and Rank, till logging do you part?

You are no longer AFK.
[Hawtgrrlirl] says: Damn straight!
[Hawtgrrlirl] says: I do.

The rest of the ceremony was in Common, the language of the Alliance. At best a jumble. I recall one or two bits like:

[Preest] says: [Common] faergas ador.

Until she equipped the ring.

There were showers of flower petals: which players could save from Valentine’s Day events; as well, the guests cast wide columns of white light: holdovers from a Warcraft holiday based on Lunar celebrations. We stood together, an Undead Rogue, a Human Priest, in love, joined despite all boundaries. And since no self-respecting World of Warcraft funeral or wedding would be complete without a violent surprise attack from the opposing faction, Alliance players swept down on us like Valkyries riding from Valhalla.

The Zombie Puppy Fun Times players were the first to go, flattened like dough under a rolling pin. Fast as I could, I swapped out the tuxedo for some hard-won PvP gear. Recriminations was killed, then Piroshky. Because my lovely bride, Bepbep, was also Alliance, she could but watch as her festively dressed high-seas wedding guests one-by-one were ejected into the game's temporary afterlife. The tuxedo-clad groom brought down all but one of the attackers, and then was the last to be slain. 

Cool wedding.



(7/17/2015) Pretty sure the blog is going to skip forward a few sections, maybe even to the parts on architectural space. I'm not completely sure whether it's disliking some of the academic bits, or just being really in love with the story bits. Community is a place where I've got literally decades of online game stories to share, seven years of WoW alone. I think that the wedding story captures it, and maybe that's the problem. It's really hard to one up a pirate wedding.

Maybe I want to write more - beyond what even got into In Play - about the little stories. These game friends pop up everywhere in the book, just like they popped up in League of Legends earlier tonight. I feel like there's something in the chapter that I failed to say about the power and the beauty of that. 

‘Tis new to thee

My first World of Warcraft wife and I had an unlikely meeting.

Not far away, players smothered each other in blankets of ice and fire, or filled each other with arrows and bullets, or hit one another with axes and daggers and all sorts of Very Dangerous Things. We were supposed to be killing each other.

I saw her dancing, this human female priest named ‘Bepbep,’ and could not resist the urge to abject goofiness. My grisly undead character was a decomposing wreck, missing a jaw, along with most the graying flesh around his elbows. His name was ‘Hawtgrrlirl.’ I’d been playing him, now and then, when my healer wasn’t needed by the Eternity Dragoons, my very serious raid guild.

Since Hawtgrrlirl was a rogue, he could sneak past the other humans and dwarves and elves that liked to attack things. It was doable. Getting closer, I noticed that Bepbep’s guild – which appeared as text under her name – read . This advertised a certain willingness to be silly. To cast the spell ‘mind control’ (MC) purely so that she could improve (Buff) the fortitude of enemy combatants (me and my rotting brethren)! She lived up to that name, and cast mind control the moment I left the safety and total invisibility which rogues can find in midday shadows. So it was that before I could make another move, I was under her power. She buffed me, and resumed the dance.

We danced.

The killers killed.

In these early days, humans couldn’t speak to the undead. The words literally got garbled. The game, and especially this cutthroat server, encouraged either attack or escape. Dance gave odder players a classy sort of way to give a firm middle finger to Warcraft's restrictions. To find common ground.

A few more odd bits of game humor with Bepbep – weird gestures, messing with the killers who came to kill me – and suddenly I was getting messages from another Horde character named “Space.” Space – I’d later find – was Bep's real-world boyfriend… Sitting at the computer next to her in California. Being Horde (like me!) he could pass along Bepbep's non-garbled messages. The banter (presumably unedited by the faithful boyfriend) was stellar. Somebody floated the idea of in-game marriage. Space provided me with her terms:

“She’ll be needing The Rock,” he typed.

To which I replied, “Done and done.”

The Rock (A Warcraft item with the description: “It’s huge!”) was one of those odd novelties you come across in the vastness of the hundreds of hours it took to reach level 60. It cost 100 gold. The most expensive wedding ring in the game, at that point. 100 gold bought a lot. Bought things that might give a more serious-minded raiding character an edge. That’s nice, but –

You can’t put a price on awesome.


Intro to Pt.5: Community



"There is a message contained in the true role-playing game. It is the message of the difficulty in surviving alone, and the folly of trying to profit from the loss of others. The inability of any lone individual to successfully cope with every challenge is evident in RPGs and reflects life."

-Gary Gygax

‘Tis new to thee
Married on a Pirate Ship
Hands Off the Loot
Dragon PUGs
Heinously Graduated
Fifty Gold Repair
Nerds of Quality



Guess I'm still doing this thing. This posting-my-book-at-random-intervals thing. 

At least the Gygax quote is good. 



It’s easy to misread Abraham Maslow, in part because of how easy it is to read the brightly colored food-pyramid style charts of needs people draw up. But he’s not just talking about the people who hit the top, and start searching for their Soul’s Purpose, though I’m sure he doesn’t mind the folks who do (he’s most assuredly one of them). It’s just, not everyone who satisfies every basic need feels the overwhelming urge to go out and change the world. They could be completely boring, unspectacular people. They could be swarthy assholes. Not everyone wants to be a prizewinning physicist or an accomplished writer.

Rather, satisfying all the needs on the pyramid gives a human permission to, according to Maslow, “just be.”

Called B-people in his notes, he was mainly contrasting them to folks who suffered some kind of deprivation on one of the five levels. Someone who goes hungry too long, especially in their childhood, might freak out if the cupboard is looking a little bare. The five levels of the pyramid get more severe, and overriding, the closer to the foundation we get. Take that same person, who’d been deprived of food as a child, and starve them in a locked room for a week. Do that to practically anyone, and they will officially have food on the mind. Then deprive them of air for a minute straight, and the food gets to be a less pressing concern. The more base need: breathing, it takes over. It overwhelms.

One of my favorite metaphors for problems in gaming comes from Dr. Jerald Block, a psychiatrist who consulted with the FBI’s task force on the Columbine shooting. He recalled a specific day in his medschool residency, where two patients came into the ER having lost roughly the same amount of blood. One had multiple gunshot wounds; he came in strapped to a gurney and screaming. The other walked in off the street. The second man had suffered some kind of internal injury that had, over a period of months, very gradually taken him to the point where he could barely function. He had no idea why.

Block called problematic computer use a “Slow Bleed.” A subtle de-skilling that, left long enough, could be just as serious and severe as major depression, anxiety, eating disorders, really any major mental health issue.

Some game realities turn our attention towards a separate set of needs, built out to consume tremendous amounts of our time in compulsive grinds. They invite us to abandon similar needs in another reality, sometimes to the point of deprivation. The quality or thoughtfulness we give our job, the attention we give to our family, the non-toxicity of our food, even our ability to play better games, suffers. Especially given that games can make certain rewards into great achievements, they really can fulfill our dreams. They really can, in that reality, satisfy. It can be possible to, in that reality, “just be.” Which can make it all the harder to find balance in all of our worlds.

It might also give us the confidence to try, where before, all we ever saw on Earth were impossible obstacles. Either way, it helps to eat.

It may also help to not live with your parents. I say from much personal experience.


So here we were, 40 beleaguered players split into two groups (20 on one side, 19 on another), waiting another ten minutes for Nilhouse to run through a city of insectoid goo and egyptianesque bugs. As soon as he got in line, these two streams of 20 started to run, perfectly-spaced from one another, into The Final Room, the chamber where C'thun's all-seeing sixty-foot-tall eye bulged over the top of pulsating fleshy tentacles and black smoke. For a moment, it was ballet. Synchronized digital running, a fifteen-minute fight, perfected over the course of months. Sleeze the Warrior got too close to the guy in front of him, which triggered the giant eye to send a lightning bolt careening at his face.

Killing us all.

The trick to getting inside is not standing too close to the person in front of you, and trusting the person behind you. Not the easiest thing in the world, if they've been subbed out at the last minute.

Ezbake sneered, “Focus, cocksuckers! On my mark!”

Followed by a mystery bong hitter.

Then laser beams would shoot from the gaping eye in the center of the huge, black underground temple. Anyone hit would probably live, if barely. But then the laser would arc to any other player too close to that first guy. Since it did double damage to the second guy, their chances of living were pretty small. If it hit a third person, it doubled its damage again, so that third person was more or less assured destruction. Ever since our first attempt, where the fucking laser had arced to near every single one of us, ultimately doing something like four million damage to the last recipient, the importance of experience had been made pretty plain.

Once inside, the room was bigger, but there were 40 of us. And that first laser could fire off any time. Which got problematic, when C'thun also created an entire wall of red lasers that he rotated 360 degrees. A trick that would melt anyone who so much as tapped the thing.

Giant eye-stalks also sprung up from the ground, and needed to be killed fast, lest they do that extra bit of damage when that main laser hit, very nearly killing someone.

To say nothing of the giant fucking Eye Deity in the middle of the room.

It was rumored that taking him down would require about 15 solid minutes of fighting. No fucking up, no dying, playing at the very top of your game for 15 intense minutes. These days it's considered courteous to pay a visit to youtube, and watch someone else die to all a monster's lethal little quirks. That way, when you're in it for the first time you're not, say, trying to jump through a big red wall of lasers. When we were fighting C'thun, the Eternity Dragoons were among the very first guilds to see some of these bosses. Those that were ahead of us (on other servers) weren't exactly publishing notes. They weren't sharing the love because it was a big fucking race. To be the first, worldwide, to take down C'thun would be A Big Deal. Even being the first on our server would be something. On some level, we didn't really know what would work and what wouldn't. Part of what we tried came from word of mouth – friends of friends on other servers – people anywhere on the internet with an idea of how to kill this ugly son of a bitch.

This time, I knew something was different when C'thun swallowed me.

My first thought was, well fuck. They'd told me what to do if I got swallowed. I hadn't been listening. I knew that even as a very squishy, very weak healer, I was expected to actually kill something. It was a pretty big deal. That I was standing next to the beating heart of this digital god. At first I balked, spending all my mana just keeping myself from being dissolved by his stomach acid.

Fucking attack it someone shouted over voice chat. Maybe they were talking to me? So I start. And I do absolutely, positively, zero noticeable damage. Then I realize I'm nearly dead. I heal myself more. I'm about to die. I had a one-in-forty chance of getting sucked in here. The fight's almost over, and we've made it as far as we ever had. A few of us are already dead, and I really shouldn't die. I've got the ability to bring a more useful player back to life. Suddenly Sleeze the damage-dealing warrior is in here with me. He's hacking at this thing in the center of C'thun, and I'm ejected back out into the fight. I make it another couple minutes.

This is the farthest we've ever come. I think it's been longer than 15 minutes, but nobody is sure. Everyone is nearly dead, including C'thun. I resurrect someone. I get cornered by an eye stalk. With a shriveling feeling in my stomach, I watch as my character falls out of the fight – dead.

And a few seconds later, I watch as C'thun sinks down into a pool of his own steaming, black blood.

As one, the Dragoons erupt into the upper decibels. It sounds like a football game, forty people bellowing. The elation of six, six whole months working on this City of Ahn'Qiraj, two on C'thun himself. It's over. It paid off. We did it. We're the first in our class. It's done.

I join in, scream a little, and hear my parents stir.

Then remember I’m not in Hawaiʻi anymore.

Then look around, and have the curious thought that the room seems vaguely familiar. It’s pretty dark, really, but the computer monitor lights up the general shape. I take off my headphones, and it’s quiet enough that my ears ring. I think it’s been three months since I lived in Hawaiʻi, but I’m still not quite officially graduated. And then I think,

I’m right back where I started.

Which lasts a couple moments, before I’m back at C’thun’s smoking corpse, posing like some sunburned fisherman in front of a gutted trophy marlin.


Though Warcraft traditionally hasn’t allowed the open trading of USD or Euros for their gold (a practice called RMT, real money trade) RMT has been a longtime selling point in games like Linden Labs’s Second Life. Players spend real money on shirts and angel wings and comically oversized strapons, and the sellers can use that currency to pay their monthly fees. Games like FarmVille take it a step farther. It’s part of what Bogost was critiquing, when he let Cow Clicker players pay real money to skip the four hours they’d normally need to wait before clicking their cows.

It’s also part of what Zynga CEO Mark Pincus meant when he said, at a conference, “I did every horrible thing in the book to – just to get revenues right away.” He wasn’t only talking about the compulsion loops built into the game, or telling players they were donating to charity (and taking a healthy chunk from that). It was the big green button they could push at any time, to skip it all. They could literally pay to not have to play the game. They might also spend their time taking arduous online surveys, for the privilege of more activity points in an arduous game.

In Cow Clicker, Bogost calls optionalism the choice between rote acts and, “delegation or, more often, spending cash money.”

Since the rapture of Bogost’s cows, even in the last couple of years, optionalism has become a major trend such that the only game expected to be a major challenge to Warcraft’s supremacy: Star Wars: The Old Republic, switched from charging players modest monthly fees (the Warcraft method), to “Free-to-Play.” They allowed new players to create a few characters for free, and level them up, but functionality like in-game email and player-to-player sales, all that requires that you spend a little cash. You want to level up super ultra fast? You have the option to spend dollars. Want the speeder bike with a 500-banthapower engine, to travel the drudgerous distances? You have the option to spend dollars. Sadly, the only thing that distinguished the game from every other “WoW-killer” MMO, or even Warcraft itself, was the game’s in-depth stories. Which became free. The rest of the game might have looked like Star Wars, but it played almost exactly like Warcraft. Only now all the grinds, embedding, and other painful bullshit had been strewn with deadfall money pits and cash landmines.

We didn’t need that. Warcraft was bad enough.

Epic Mount

Gold is always at a premium in the World of Warcraft. I guess it’s sort of like the rest of life that way. Generalized reinforcer par excellence, and all. In 2005, even 100 gold could buy a tremendous amount, for the raider looking to boost their power. As much as I joke about it, even I, paragon of laziness, spent a couple hours out fishing in the oceans outside Gadgetzan, farming rare voodoo essences in Winterspring, and scraping up ghoul drool in the Plaguelands. A couple hours, for every night of full raiding. Buying gold would have been faster.

Especially for an epic mount. Every Joe Blow had his 100 gold mount. The riding tiger, or giant wolf, or flaming black shadow steed. The 1000 gold one was a bit harder. The Eternity Dragoons all had theirs, of course. They flew by me at high speed, as we all made our way to the raid entrance. I’d catch up eventually, usually to some loud sighs.

You could always buy gold from the Chinese farmers. The 2010 documentary Gold Farmers tracks hundreds of Chinese youths, starting with a shot of a whitewashed office space in Zhe Jiang Province, and eventually showing cramped, dark buildings where young men walk around shirtless, in boxer shorts. One farmer estimates 500,000 professional gamers, in China. One farm owner says, “Gradually we have developed to more than 100 computers and more than 200 workers. This is just medium size in this industry.”

The farmers talk about the scarcity of work in China. One says, “I used to work at a zipper factory… this one offers free food and bed.” He worked Warcraft from 8AM to 8PM. It was easy to ID the farmers from the comfort of a Hawaiʻian dorm room, they’d just be in the same spot, killing the same thing, for hours on end. One farmer noted, “Because this is his job and there is pressure from the boss, he has to stay there. If some other players come to that spot, then he has no choice but to fight with them.”  I’d killed my share, usually only if they were hogging some specific tiger, whose mystic claw I needed for Mighty Epic Quest #73.

The gold is often bought by Americans and Europeans – typically via PayPal transactions – then delivered on burner Warcraft characters. If you’re a well-off programmer making eighty bucks an hour at your day job, maybe it makes sense to buy gold. Skip a little farming, here and there. Even though it’s strongly prohibited in the legal agreements you click “agree” on, before you can play. Even though your accounts could possibly be obliterated for the infraction.

A few months after my escapades with the Dragoons, and C’thun, a 31-year-old Manhattan woman reportedly sold her body over Craigslist, for the 5,000 Warcraft gold required to pick up one of the coveted flying mounts. By the going rate of farmed gold, on her server, it was probably three to four hundred US dollars worth.

Journalists had a lot of fun with their headlines, like, The Oldest Profession in the World Catches up with MMO Worlds, and Escort Quest. Her original Craigslist ad, much embellished by various good citizens of the internet, read, “Hello I need 5000 world of gold for my epic flying mount. In return you can mount me.”

I guess we pick and choose our grinds.



I first met Jesse Schell on a busy sidewalk in San Francisco, where he asks our group, near-ecstatically, “Have you played Wushu Turtle?”

“No!” says my friend, feeding on Schell’s seemingly bottomless enthusiasm.

“Guess who has turtles?!” He reaches into his pocket and presents a handful of little toy reptiles.

The rules are pretty simple. Everyone puts a turtle on the back of one hand, and the goal is to de-turtle other players. The catch, is that you can’t touch the hand that’s got the turtle resting atop it. This game was cool. Jesse and my friend wind up almost falling into a busy city street, they’re so engrossed, and finding the turtles afterward winds up being a game unto itself. Schell once worked as a Disney Imagineer, brainstorming their rides. So it’s neat that he made up Wushu Turtle one day, while waiting in lines at Disneyland with his daughter.  The game was so cool, that the next day I bought my very own turtles, and have since taught it to co-workers, game designers, and other patient friends.

I have played a good amount of Wushu Turtle, but I’m still terrible at it.

In Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell lists – as one of the three major reasons for game designers to plan strong community engagement – what epidemiologists call the “period of contagion.”

The personal recommendation of a friend is the most influential factor when purchasing a game. Game designer Will Wright once pointed out that if we truly believe that interest in a game spreads like a virus, it makes sense to study epidemiology. And one thing that we know from epidemiology is that when the period of contagion doubles, the number of people who catch the disease can increase by ten times. “Catching the disease” in our case means buying the game. But what does “period of contagion” for a game mean? Is it the time when a player is so excited about a game that they are talking about it constantly with everyone they know. Players who become part of a game community are likely to “stay contagious” for a long time, as the game will become a deeper part of their lives, giving them a lot to talk about. 

In the hands of a man like Schell – who is thought of as one of the kindest, and most ethical game designers now living – epidemiology just helps us to spread the word about fun, thoughtful games. There is a useful side to it, which should be thoughtfully understood. Just like twitter promotions for good books, or street teams for indie record labels. He seeks to describe what other developers are exploring, so that he can give them a sort of academic categorization.

Raph Koster – an adorably geeky game designer who attends Very Fancy Conferences in hoodies and dad jeans – has written convincingly that in one way or another, all of his games are about creating glue. They’re about bringing people together, whereas he spent his childhood moving from place to place. Something which made me tear up a little, when he blogged about it. Koster, you see, had been the creative lead for Star Wars Galaxies. The game that had gotten me close enough to online friends that I’d finally feel comfortable meeting Diablo, Squatch, and company. Sometimes games encourage a kind of high-fidelity communication – in the face of digital danger and risk – which we might never encounter elsewhere in the world.

Sometimes, online games are the best kind of glue.

But Schell and Koster aren’t the only ones making them. Whether those other designers lack their skill, elegance, or ethics, Ian Bogost writes, in his Cow Clicker, that in some games, friends aren’t really friends. In something like FarmVille, the people you enjoy are reduced to “mere resources” to what have you done for me lately? In the time of 40-man raiding, you’d better not be late. Not ever.

And it’s getting to be something that players pay attention to. Whether they explain to their good buddies exactly why they’re quitting or not, the social pressures of poor social embedding can strain friendships to the breaking point. Though, unfortunately, for the time being this avoidance usually only happens after the jaws of life have pulled us from our first collision. We have to have experienced this brand of road hazard before we can swerve. Ham-handed social embedding still works on people who don’t want to let down their friends, but it’s an experience we rarely enjoy repeating.

Nilhouse Had a Daughter, Apparently

Nilhouse always showed up an hour late because of his fucking job (but he was probably a fucking liar). 39 other regulars could figure out how to show up, and yet we always wound up replacing Nilhouse the priest with some incompetent or another. They never worked out.

Especially not in the last couple of boss fights.

We'd fought through the sickly, goo-crusted halls of the city of Ahn'Qiraj. Learned the weaknesses of the towering, self-cloning boss monster living on the surface of the city. Fought our way inside, slaying scarab-like royalty in the caverns below ground. We'd slain a chitinous princess, who'd flown around a room, slaughtering us repeatedly for a week. The giant Anubis-faced bug guardians, the centipede boss, both “on farm,” meaning easy enough that we could harvest loot from their steaming corpses and move on.

Killing the Twin Emperors, that required a surgeon’s precision, with accompanying competent nurses and support staff. We needed that rat bastard Nilhouse. Figuring out the Twin Emps, and their far less impressive minions, had held us up for a few weeks. Worse, every week your progress would be reset. Even if you'd finished the epic fight against the Twin Emps, even if you'd gotten to gaze into this last luscious room, getting one sweet glimpse at the C’thun, the house-sized, gazing eye at the heart of all this bullshit, if you didn't kill him by the end of the week – all those other bosses came back to life. And The Cold was catching up to us. So when every other priest couldn’t help but fuck up, we really weren’t in the mood to hear about his daughter’s ballerina recital.

We had to get past the Twin Emps, before we could resume practicing C'thun.

Thus far we'd all invested about 5 months of work, easily 40 hours a week – if not 60 – all working up to this one fight. Our stinking selves, stewing in sweaty seats, eating god-knows-what while we stare at computer monitors for eight hours straight. Don’t broadcast your wailing baby behind you. Let your fucking Cujos out of the house before we start. And for the love of shit, please oh please, be on time for the raid.



Dr. George Vaillant studied one group of 237 male Harvard Graduates for decades – a group of men which included President John F. Kennedy and longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee – and observed that not a single one lived a life without, “a full share of difficulty and private despair.” Called The Grant Study, the lives of these men inspired Vaillant’s classic psychological texts on alcoholism, aging well, and coping. The public-at-large – gamers included – might understand how the body reacts to breast cancer, mononucleosis, and a broken leg, but recovering from mental illness can still seem a bit arcane. This is where games shine, I think. They have a lot to teach us about good and bad coping.

Vaillant writes, “for centuries fever and pus were synonymous with disease, yet they are actually the body’s adaptive response to invading bacteria. If complications do not occur, such responses are normal; it is the external infection that is unusual.” So it was with coping. These inner processes reflected the human ability to be creative, in the face of extreme outside conflict. Vaillant was ever amazed by coping mechanisms, writing that, “I can not explain why specific defenses emerge and not others. In my opinion, the origin of defenses is as multidetermined as the origins of humor and art.” But he could observe which defenses cropped up, mining his specific terminology from – among others – Sigmund and Anna Freud.

If the shit going on in life is atrociously bad, and support is utterly lacking, people sometimes develop the most intense of the coping mechanisms: the psychotic. The paranoid delusions, denial, and gross distortions of reality. It might be tempting to assume a hardcore raider as having something like denial, if they quite literally reject certain parts of their lives. Sometimes the opposite is true. In games, a lot of the thefts, sexist or racist trolling, and general shitty behavior gets justified as a-okay, since “the game isn’t real.”

To Vaillant, immature mechanisms were the step up from the psychotic, but they still bespoke problems with intimacy. They were the escape of fantasy, projection, hypochondria, and passive-aggression. They’re hard to improve, though it’s possible given time, a therapist’s help, friendly interventions, and getting better people into our lives.

Schizoid fantasy – the tendency to fall headlong into books, TV, and other escapes – is I think tricky for games because it’s so common everywhere. We all have our safe places, and in my experience the harshest critics to gaming drop exponentially more time and cash in their lives as barflies, foodies, and serial Vegas vacationers. I’d venture that the “escape” we spend so much time chiding comes in two flavors, one of which probably deserves to get sorted more on the level of mature coping. I take my cue here from Jane McGonigal, and her 2013 Game Developer’s Conference talk, There is No Escape. She differentiated between escape for self-expansion, and escape for self-suppression. In the former, we might drop into games for a little energizing fun, but as life gets more challenging, we play less. We still take care of things. In the latter, when life gets harder, play becomes a downward spiral. We play rather than fix things. This is probably my favorite way to differentiate where escape moves from being healthy, and useful, to where it starts to drag us down. Whether you’re getting lit at the local dive, or diving into the depths of Ahn’Qiraj.

In projection, we attribute our own prejudices and intimacy problems on others. We assume that the raid leader is abrasive, when we’re the one barking more than a dockload of sea lions. Hypochondria transforms unbearable aggression, intimacy, or loneliness into physical pain. Passive-aggression is openly redirecting anger towards others onto yourself, typically with less than stellar results. Acting out probably figures into some of what Jane is talking about with escape, though it is a separate extra layer. It involves impulsive motor behavior, or throwing tempers, or failure by way of drugs, perversion, and/or excess fuckuppery, just so we don’t need to be aware of something unconscious and bothersome.

Such ridiculousness will turn other people off to being around you – no matter what world you’re in – but to a far lesser degree than the psychotic.

Neurotic defenses were to Vaillant healthy enough, and common in folks acclimatizing to the stress of everyday life. Intellectualization is overthinking for the sake of not acting. We isolate, rationalize, ritualize, distract ourselves with busywork, and use magical thinking in order to not actually do anything about whatever’s bothering us. Repression is that aggravating, “oh, darn, I forgot” that we sometimes get from the people in our lives.

Displacement is taking strong feelings, and then pinning them on someone or something we don’t care about so much. Hostile jokes and caricature, prejudice, we’re getting it out of our system in a place where it feels safer. Finally, there’s dissociation, where we drastically change who we are, our own identity, so we don’t have to deal with certain of life’s bullshit. It can be a sudden devil-may-care-attitude, or abandoning responsibility, just for a little while. Vaillant writes that, “Dissociation is more comprehensible to others than distortion, more considerate of others, and less prolonged than acting out.”

Finally, mature coping is the realm of those who can balance the world, the people in it, and their own bad selves. Altruism, be it through philanthropy, service to others, or just our showing up for the friend in need, is instinctually gratifying. Humor, to Vaillant, “lets you call a spade a spade” – it was a way to express the underlying, oft-ugly truth of a thing – to the inclusion and enjoyment of all parties. Suppression was the conscious to mostly-conscious decision to not pay attention to bullshit. It included, “looking for silver linings, minimizing acknowledged discomfort, employing a stiff upper lip, and deliberately postponing but not avoiding.” Anticipation was the sometimes-harsh shoring of defenses, in “anticipation of death or surgery, separation,” or to accommodate the difficult leaps advised by a psychotherapist. Sublimation, the last of the mechanisms described in Adaptation to Life, comes when we act on our inner desires in healthy ways. Our, “expressing aggression through pleasurable games, sports, and hobbies” or perhaps romance, “during a real courtship.” Making good art was Vaillant’s “classic example.” Sublimation pours our efforts into the pursuits we care about, and the results can be grand.

Near the end of Adaptation to Life, Vaillant goes to the home of a Grant Study participant whom he gives the moniker, “Alan Poe.” Vaillant says that the bedraggled guy reminds him of either a tug captain, or a French Resistance Leader. The man lived on almost nothing, frankly chatted about the benefits of rampant alcoholism, and would later blithely say of Vaillant’s early book drafts,

“…the end judgments, the final assessments, seem simplistic. As I read over the material, they seem to come down to having a good income, a stable family, reasonable job satisfaction, a capacity to love, and a capacity to play.” That a person, “either copes satisfactorily by mastering his life, or he limps along.” Alan Poe asked Vaillant, further along in the letter, “What’s the difference between a guy who at his final conscious moments before death has a nostalgic grin on his face as if to say, “Boy, I sure squeezed that lemon” and the other man who fights for every last breath in an effort to turn time back to some nagging unfinished business?”  This changed the course of Vaillant’s research. It showed him that maybe good living was just a balancing act.

Random misfortune or poor choices might lead to a broken leg, but that big cast could also be the mark of some scintillating hiking, biking, or asskicking. We need to let that heal, but it’s just as important to get back out there, to live.

“Anxiety and depression,” writes Vaillant, “like blisters and fractures, become the price of a venturesome life. In daring to live and grow up, we create disparities in our inner balance between conscience and instinct, and between that precarious balance and the people we love. True, doctors can lance boils and desensitize phobias, remove cinders and anesthetize anxiety. But much of psychiatry, like much of medicine, becomes simply supporting natural healing processes.”

It’s not about being blindingly happy, at all times. Some of the “happiest” aging gentlemen in the Grant Study only fit in that category because they’ve never taken the time to look at their lives. They seem to have rated the most happy, in standardized tests, because they took life’s lemon without ever really inspecting it. Alan Poe’s response was to take a lemon and squeeze. Not just dutifully eat it, to keep from getting scurvy. He didn’t just cope, to get by, to keep contented.

Alan Poe sat at one extreme, but he’s a reminder of that curious balance to be struck, between coping with blisters, fractures, or compulsions, and having the unhinged fun that creates them in the first place.

Mooncloth Boots

It was four AM in my Hawaiʻian dorm, and I’d been killing stunted manbears since midnight. As a break from writing a thesis about excessive gaming. Ironically enough, after scoring the most powerful hat and pants in the game – during that first week of raiding – for weeks thereafter a pair of decent boots eluded me.

If I became “Friendly” with a tribe of bear people called the “Timbermaw” (by killing roughly 1,000 of their “corrupted” brethren, who bore bone-chilling names like “Gardener” and “Pathfinder”) I could get my hands on “Mooncloth Boots.” They weren’t the greatest, but the Eternity Dragoons were constantly teasing me for sporting a pair of particularly weak-ass boots.

Killing Furbolg was dangerous. Not because the Furbolg themselves were any particular worry. It was dangerous because at any time, goodie-goodie Dwarves or Elves could swoop down, securing this scant resource, catching a Furbolg grinder mid-battle. Having a semi competent buddy helped everything go faster, and it gave some slight protection against ambush. When a rogue-class character offered to join me, I was all too happy to have the company.

We didn’t talk much, in that first hour. After that, he started by name-dropping some of the rare gear he had on his alternate characters. A greatsword called Ashkandi, on his warrior, nearly everything he’d need for the legendary mace: Sulfuras, Hand of Ragnaros. Full tier-one armor on his priest and shaman characters. I had tier two hat and pants, which were strictly better, but tier one meant he’d been at this roughly a year longer than me. Once he was level 60, he’d switch this rogue away from the random leveling guild it was in now. No-name guilds usually have one or two wealthy players who suppose they’re ‘mentoring’ lowbies (who often, like this player, are all too happy to take their gifts and goodwill before a swift exit). He’d switch to his main guild soon, and they’d have this rogue geared out in a few weeks. This rogue would be his main character. He said he loved it.

Then he started talking about his personal life.

He was Australian, had just turned seventeen, and had stopped attending school a couple weeks before. His mother had no way to force him. He played twenty hours a day, which struck a little close to home. For another half hour, while we wiped out Furbolg on a clockwork schedule, I just listened.
His home life sucked, or at least, couldn’t hold a candle to his raid life. He was making fundamental changes to his living arrangements, he said, so that finishing high school wouldn’t be necessary. He didn’t mention what he’d do for money. Maybe a classmate had a spare room, he didn’t say. It did sound like he’d be living with his guildmates.

For a long while, just meditatively killing these oversized Ewoks, it bothered me that I didn’t know quite what to say. There aren’t any magic words. And I hadn’t been researching games or dependency for long. When I told him to finish school, that it was important, he finished killing one last Furbolg, then politely excused himself. After a few hours grinding together we parted ways, and I never saw him again.

I never could quite forget that.

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Next: Coping >>

Destroyed Time

In 2010, Ian Bogost created the game Cow Clicker as a way of poking fun at FarmVille, Zynga’s social game which at the time boasted tens of millions of active players. Observing that in these games, all you did was click, pay for the privilege of clicking more, and pay for the occasional decorative item, he made a game that simply had cows. Every four hours, you could click your cow. It would moo. If you wanted to click it before the four hours were up, you could pay for that. If you wanted specialty cows (which included oily BP cows, shimmering gilded bovines, and a Hello Kitty style Hello Cow) you could pay for those too.

On September 7, 2011, disappointed at having made more profit on Cow Clicker than all the rest of his tremendously thoughtful oeuvre put together, he finally raptured the cows into the great milky beyond.

Cow Clicker still exists, as an app, though its cows remain in our hearts and memories only.
In a blog post, also called Cow Clicker, Bogost outlined his frustration with social games. He wrote that games like FarmVille didn’t merely consume our time, they destroyed it. “Social games so covet our time that they abuse us while we are away from them, through obligation, worry, and dread over missed opportunities.”

While Skyrim might take some folks nearly a hundred hours to finish, while some gamers might drop hundreds more trying out Deity games of Civilization V, online games are always there. Waiting for the player’s august return. Those games never end, not after a hundred hours. Not after a thousand.

When games mix attractive rewards, compulsive design, and a disregard for the value of a player’s time, they create grinds.

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Next: Mooncloth Boots >>

Five Years

World of Warcraft often gets described as, “a job I wasn’t getting paid for.” That statement signals to Anna DiNoto – probably the most competent young clinician I’ve met – that a client’s gaming has very likely welcomed some brand of pathology. It’s also one of the more common things you’ll hear from daily raiders.

When the Dragoons kicked into high gear – seven days a week and 8-15 hours a day – things went past job. It was a life that didn’t feed me. An entirely separate existence that ran sidealong to every life I’d known, including the other games in that life. When I finally re-emerged in a (mostly) final manner, five years later, I had five years of culture to catch up on. Books, movies, games, news about the world.

That existence became everything.

The frenetic race to be first to Nefarian, the black dragon at the end of Blackwing Lair, finished in my first few weeks with the Dragoons. We didn’t win. On our server – still one of the largest – first went to a professionally-sponsored Alliance guild. Paid gamers. First was still up for grabs Horde side, but The Cold, our server’s longtime top Hordies, were working on Nef, and the Dragoons still had three bosses to figure out before we’d even lay eyes on him. Blackwing Lair was a big place; we were more interested in beating Grisly Retribution for the #2 spot, making us look welcoming to skilled defectors for the next big race.

World First

This being late 2005, first had come and gone a few times. The black dragon Onyxia was dead a thousand times over, as was Ragnaros the Firelord. The Dragoons only visited those two to “farm,” slog through 2-6 hours of fighting they'd slogged through for half a year, just to reach that one last bountiful fight, with its weekly harvest of two always-random, always-coveted items. My very first week, each just happened to be Druid items, my items. The most powerful hat and pants in the game. My first week. None of the more senior Druids needed them. And should you, oh dear reader, think that hats and pants are trifle things, that this is all just a bit silly, do consider these things were valued at about a hundred bucks each. They were, at the time, the aforementioned “game actualizing rewards.” And since those mighty monsters had been guarding Druid-based treasure, it meant that the comparable items for Shamans, Warriors, and so on (and everyone else who'd been in the guild for substantially longer than a week) did not “drop.” That is to say, didn’t magically arrive – fitted and ready-to-wear – at the feet of the monster. After some choice refrains as to my sexual preference, expectations for attendance and punctuality were made crystal clear.

“You ass belongs to Eternity Dragoons now, faggot,” said the guild master.

The gear is what makes the World of Warcraft endgame such an ingenious and ingenuous grind. From the first level to the last, you go from maybe a few hundred hit points, to many thousands. And there’s nearly always better gear, to make those numbers higher. Likewise, your damage, ability to heal, and armor are sometimes improved exponentially, if the right hat and pants drop this week.

Usually, it was just a handful of the most snarling badass players out of our 40 – wearing the fanciest of gear – who were doing the lion’s share of the damage, healing, and tanking. Some days I’d never see them sleep. They’d be out in the snows of Winterspring, collecting powerful oils from the anal glands of invisible white tigers, or luring out great white sharks in Azshara, with questionably-gotten chum. Or just grinding for the latest hot item, for good ole’ gold. So when I got these hugely coveted items in my first week, my relative inexperience maybe mattered less. It’s just that somewhat more was expected of me.



Sometimes, games are the stories showing us who we want to be, and how to get there. They’re like any good book, song, or movie character in that respect. At other times, we get lost in the points and places and ponies. I think that it’s best explained by Abraham Maslow’s handy graphical pyramid chart of human needs.

Sort of like the food pyramid, you’ve got foundational needs at the bottom, like breathing and eating. Maslow wrote that we wouldn’t strive for much, "if our stomachs were empty most of the time, or if we were continually dying of thirst, or if we were continually threatened by an always impending catastrophe…"After those are sorted, we’ll look for security in employment, resources, health, that sort of thing. In the rough middle of the pyramid comes friends and family. After that, Maslow suspected we’d look for achievement and self-respect. Finally, if all that’s taken care of, we’d seek to “self-actualize.” We’d look for those goals that made life really worth living. Art, understanding, learning to develop ourselves in ways that might be fairly unique to us. It might be finding our “flow experience.” It might just be figuring out why we’re around.

It’s not exactly canon for the psych research, but I’d venture that just looking for a self-actualizing behavior, having that luxury, probably puts us at or near the top of the pyramid. The Search is probably just as important as figuring out The Thing. But once we find it, well. That’s powerful. That can, legitimately, make a lack of food or safety less pressing.

Games can conveniently hand-deliver some of our uppermost needs. By giving us cognitively tangible realities, with their own culture, their own context, and other living people (embodied however they might be) they impose their own pyramids. When we move between any two worlds, one set of needs can overshadow another. Certain things in games – say, just learning to move around, learning how to keep your account from getting deactivated – these things satisfy that lowest foundation. Next, in good online games, basic competency leads pretty quickly to social engagement. We find a group, and a place to belong. Or at least, ways to bring our existing groups in. As we build up, progress, maybe even collect the occasional achievement, we build up the near-top level of the pyramid: esteem.

The capstone quests, rewards and recognitions are probably the most enjoyable, and therefore the most likely to drive grinds. They’re what I’d call game-actualizing rewards. Traditionally it’s beating the game. Often that’s augmented with achievements, for instance a Steam recognition – visible to all your friends – for beating it on the highest difficulty level. Harder in some games than others. In Sid Meyer’s Civilization V, even the games set to the easiest, fastest modes can take six to twenty hours. “Marathon” games might last seventy. About 1.2% of all players have beaten the game on the highest difficulty: “Deity.” In the World of Warcraft, players will raid endlessly for the small chances on very powerful items, or very adorable pets.

A deep self-actualization isn’t the same thing as tricking out your facebook profile, or an in-game character. It could certainly do things for friendships and your esteem in the community, and that’s not nothing. It’s just that game-actualizing rewards have the same problem as automatic flow. Everything’s been laid out for you. Legitimate self-actualization – in games or anywhere else – involves a decision. You decide for yourself what’s at the top of the pyramid.

Games helped me to find meaning in very personal ways, but usually not when I was too busy thinking about a purple glowing sword.


Scheduling Conflicts

It was probably an appropriate portent of the sustained disaster to come, that my first serious raid would piss off the ol' roommates.

That was fine. It was, after all, part and parcel to allying myself with these choicest of deviants. Collecting your garden variety games data was easy. Any ten-year-old could putter around until they miraculously arrived at level sixty. But there wasn’t much solid research on what it felt like to raid. To do it with the people who made it their lives. The Hell's Angels of the virtual world, that one prurient percent that demanded a special brand of lifestyle.

But only a handful qualify, and what self-disrespecting biker invites (unironically) the university researcher on a moped? For weeks I’d tried to get an invite to one of a few guilds with the real clout: those forty or so individuals among thousands, sometimes all the millions playing Warcraft, with the honor of being first. First to successfully destroy the nastiest, most vitriolic black dragons or molten-hammer-wielding gods. Since a new finish line for first arrived every half-year or so – from the black dragon Onyxia to Ragnaros the Firelord, from Nefarian to C’thun, and Kel’Thuzad – the first to kill them would hold that title, and respect associated with being the best, for months. A Worldwide First – or sometimes even Server First, on large enough servers – meant a new life of professional gaming, minor nerd celebrity and product endorsements for game developers and high-end consumer electronics. On smaller servers, first endowed a guild with permanent respect, an invitation to join is suddenly A Big Deal.

Piroshky, an old guildmate, could get me an invite. The quiet Russian had risen to the hallowed position of main tank in our server's number two Horde guild, the Eternity Dragoons. Despite having a guild name which evoked imagery of sparkles and ponies, they were big news. Making a run at #1, Horde-side, on one of the thirteen original World of Warcraft servers. They needed a healer, and Piroshky had some pull. He’d gotten me an invite at 9PM – for a teaser – a mini tryout-raid in a place called Zul’Gurub. But at 9:45, my roommates were still clawing to keep me.

Rewind to dinner at around 5PM, where conversation predictably turned to Warcraft. Curtains draw that old familiar glaze over the eye of every non-gamer in our social group. The spunky Palauan, a blonde California girl, and one of South Korea's rare non-gaming males. It was in those throes of WoW cant that self-declared “Lawful-Evil” roommate, Pat, and his soft-spoken, rotund Asian friend Kai, appraise me like famished cannibals. “So you’re totally going to help us get the three gemstones we need for the Unadorned Seal of Ascension to unlock Upper Blackrock Spire, right Neils? Should take a couple hours?” “Bro, at most. Yo, Neils, you healin’ us rite?” “Umm, I've got this tryout, at 9, so I need to be there on time. For science.” “Haha, yeah whatever won’t take but two hours. But like, that ain’t actually part of your degree rite chief?” “Actually, it is part of my degree. It is research. For science?”

It should be mentioned that sitting through LBRS – their desired night's destination – was not unlike undergoing an unanaesthetized root canal. With neither of them certified for the operation. At 8:30, not halfway done and three hours in, half a dozen healers had (understandably) declined my friendly invitation to replace me mid-procedure. At 9, Piroshky urged me not to hurry, that they were still waiting on three or four guildmates. No big.

At this point Kai types, “Yeah, good thing you’re stayin. Get to see where your loyalties lie.”

At 9:30, the Eternity Dragoons raid was forming up. No need to freak out, said Piroshky, but you should definitely wrap up with the roomies.

“Hey guys,” I type, “That tryout is starting. I've got a replacement for the dude who left (because you are both bad at games). Were any of you able to find a healer? In the last hour?”

“We ain't ask nobody. Wait the FUCK, you LEAVING?” types Kai.

In person he typically says nothing, preferring instead to stare intensely from shadowy corners. Though he did later showboat that comment, and similar choice tidbits of the night's discourse, by saying jovially, “Haha, how you like my dark leader personality?” Pat, one room away and fond of turning light conversation to interpersonal vivisection, had hardly typed or spoken once we'd logged on. Eking in on 9:45, Piroshky said that someone from The Dragoons was about to instantaneously summon me to this Zul’Gurub tryout raid.

“So that’s how it’s gonna be?” Asks dark leader Kai.

“Uhh, yep!” I type,

And vanish into a spray of light. Not classy gamer etiquette, conducive to smooth sailing at cafeteria time, or good for my spoke in the wheels of MMO karma, but fuck it. One must heed the call of rational inquiry. And mind-controlling voodoo skull piles. And aquatic Godzilla knock-off novelty bosses. And every other new and wonderful thing I saw in Zul'Gurub that night. In the tryouts I’d handily outheal the competition, but more importantly I'd impressed Piroshky’s friends, officers in Eternity Dragoons (ironically enough because of how long I'd manned a sinking ship in LBRS).

That night set me up to experience, first hand, the race to be the very best in the World of Warcraft.



The Grind

Grinds come with three assumptions: that the work is fairly menial or obvious, that we’re working towards a specific reward, and that it’s killing our time with fire. As opposed to life, where we assume a certain blandness in the daily grind and the nine-to-five grind, games which don’t want to be branded as flaccid failures are typically designed with human pleasure in mind. Add feral raiders to the mix, and you might as well strap a futuristic nuclear rocket to the grind’s back, laughing maniacally when a containment tube bursts, showering toxic levels of radiation on any and all it touches.

In games, the rewards can be anything imaginable. At any Game Developer's Conference, there are usually at least two presentations dealing with statistically-verified psychological methods for making resonant rewards. Especially for retention (read: keeping player at computer, preferably meeting your company's monetization goals). Equally important is the pacing, the scheduling of reward. We’ll get to B.F. Skinner's well-known box – where a pigeon or rat is cajoled with a food pellet every 10 lever presses, then every 100, then every 1000 or so presses – and free will seems to evaporate as the animals press that one lever at astonishing rates.

When you combine rewards designed to feel truly epic, truly meaningful, with schedules that involve a dozen buttons to press, in thousands of unique patterns, you're close. When the payoffs for those rewards come only after weeks, months, or years of investment, great job! You have a grind.

I did walk away from my years in Galaxies and Warcraft having met a lot of great people, going after swords and armor and whatever else. But I don’t remember a whole lot about the quests. Mostly they were just little puzzle pieces in the grind. And we’re talking something like five years in Warcraft. In three hours, the game Dear Esther gave me chills.

The indie game developer Jon Blow made a comment that I’ve always enjoyed, likening the length of games to abduction,

A movie can give you a satisfying experience in 2 hours. A painting or a sculpture can give you a satisfying experience in 10 minutes. A song can give you a satisfying experience in 3 minutes...Gamers seem to praise games for being addicting, but doesn’t that feel a bit like Stockholm syndrome? If you spend 20 hours playing a game, but the good parts could have been condensed into 3, then didn’t you just waste 17 hours?

The design of a beautiful experience has a lot to do with how you arrange rewards, you might even say that the two are intertwined. But in some games it's clear that art – or even fun – wasn't so high a priority on a developer's list as retention. Joseph Campbell once warned against that kind of repetition, in literature. That, "the story tradition becomes so narrowed that, like an artery that is clogged, the heart begins to starve."

Game mechanics have Things to Teach, but we can’t get those things if we only ever use one bountiful recipe. Past a certain threshold, where certain games are best described in the language of human manipulation, they threaten their players personally. In our ability balance games with life. Developers might spend years building grinds. Publishers might spend half the budget on PR, to cleverly hawk grinds. Gamers may even spend thousands of hours clicking grinds. The only magic we find in them, we find in our fellow abductees.

Even though, at raid time, they can be the lobsters pulling us back down into the boiling pot.


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Next: Scheduling Conflicts >>

Raiding, and Other Acts of God

40-man raids were a bitch. You try herding a highly-skilled, unpaid work force of forty human beings onto their computers for fifty hours a week. Do it for two months straight – on the same adrenaline-incinerating, brain-draining, repetitive failures – all trying to kill the same fleshy eye-beast nobody actually cares that much about.

It was absolute, cankerous, black-hearted evil. Which ranked it among those rare pleasures that lift off from the realm of guilty, transforming themselves into something more. Rabid pleasure? Unhinged and questionably sane pleasure?

At that point, it didn’t really matter.

I would soon join a hardcore raid guild: the throbbing shaft in the World of Warcraft. Full to bursting with those lenient miscreants who grind like nobody’s watching. The vast majority of these were unemployed men. There were two women, I was told, though they seemed invariably to suffer from the harassment-mitigating “microphone problems.”

There was Ezbake, our belligerent guild leader. He directed us like the drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket. There was the near-silent Piroshky, the Russian National living in New York City on an expired student visa. He was the main tank, meaning that of the forty people in a raid, the menageries of monsters we fought would focus their swords, claws, oozes and bad breath on Piroshky. Gehenna, rated as one of the best damage-dealing rogues in North America, was a black man living with his mother in Louisiana. One of our best-outfitted healers, Nilhouse, had just defected to us from an older guild, Grisly Retribution. I quickly learned, in the Dragoons, this was the constant worry: that doling out too much loot to any one player would get them picked up by Grisly Retribution, or even The Cold, hardcore raid guilds presumably depraved as us.

Little did I suspect that this patchwork of improbable demographics would lead me down such a delightfully dark path. That alongside their sloppy racism, sexism, petty selfishness, and blunt force ignorance, we would share one pristine moment. The kind that stands out, in a life.

Right, well, first there was the Act of God. I’d been so good in Hawaiʻi. My roommates gamed, they’d all picked up World of Warcraft the day it came out. I’d gone without a computer for months, using campus computer labs where necessary, enjoying mischievous shenanigans with my fellow studentry, in the sunshine. Then it came; Wakiki suffered its worst flooding in 80 years. That trickling little stream outside our dorm had turned into class-5 rapids, an unfordable, biologically hazardous, brown-and-white hell torrent that came within five feet of our dorm. The geriatric electrical system was the first to go, sending portions, and finally the whole of our campus into nightmarish darkness. Ancient archival maps, heirlooms of the Hawaiʻian islands, were being spread out and across the campus mall, floating in a hearty stew of desks, chairs, and an unknowable number of books.

Even after a long Thanksgiving holiday weekend, every campus computer lab I knew of still closed indefinitely, many of the computers washed out for good – I suddenly seemed the most backwards asshole on this island. “Not even a goddamned cellphone? Who does he think he is?”

I needed a computer. Nothing but a custom-built speed beast with blinking blue LED lights and World of Warcraft would do.


Into to Pt4: Manipulation



"An ex-drug-dealer (now a video game industry powerbrain) once told me that he doesn’t understand why people buy heroin. The heroin peddler isn’t even doing heroin. Like him or not, when you hear Cliff Bleszinski talk about Gears of War, he sounds — in a good way — like a weed dealer. He sounds like he endorses what he is selling. When you’re in a room with social games guys, the “I never touch the stuff” attitude is so thick you’ll need a box cutter to breathe properly."

-Tim Rogers, Who Killed Videogames? A Ghost Story

Raiding, and Other Acts of God
The Grind
Scheduling Conflicts
World First
Five Years
Destroyed Time
Mooncloth Boots
Nilhouse Had a Daughter, Apparently
Epic Mount



(4/17/15) I've been less busy writing about games, and more making them. Prototyping them, anyway. 

I'd written out this big theoretical model for the game experience after In Play, and someone that I respect suggested that I shelve it, then make some games. Then another person that I respect said the same thing. So that's what I've been doing, alongside actual research with actual academics at the University of Washington and some talks at Seattle Children's Hospital. Now, a few months later, Games & Culture is interested in the paper and I have some specific game prototypes that have me excitable. 

NDAs are coming due on a few other projects that I'm pretty excited to talk on, but for now I want to post about the opposite of fun. I saw on twitter that there was a blog poking at the line between engagement and manipulation. So I decided to start up posting bits of the book, specifically the stuff on human manipulation. 

There's also a half-finished piece on Sunless Sea, about Samuel Beckett and the questionable value of having behavioral dings and grinds in a game about delicious text. I'm not sure whether I'll finish it. I like Failbetter and the real estate they've claimed. I want them to build something grand on that spot. 

We'll see.