Why Do I Play Games?

This question has been percolating about my brain a bit of late. At least since mid-July in fact. Because The Gaming Diaries covered it then and I’d already been trying to work out just why it was — if games were truly an escape, or a way to relax — that my time spent with them fell through the floor when it might otherwise seem such an escape was so desperately needed.

With Blaugust 2019 officially into ‘Getting to know you’ week, it seems like the perfect time to tackle it.

I think when I left my comment on The Gaming Diaries’ post on the matter, I was looking at it a little too black and white. I don’t think the fact that I have a tendency to pull away from games during times of turmoil really invalidates the reasons I hold for playing them otherwise. Rather, I think there is a limit beyond which games shouldn’t be used as the answer.

A realisation that would have seen me in much greater stead had I realised it earlier in life, no doubt.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a little here — I’ll come back to this. First; what do I believe are the reasons I play games?

To De-stress, Decompress and Relax

I’m not an extrovert. I just play one on TV in day-to-day life. Work in particular.

It’s a necessary part of managing and being part of a functional team. But come time to go home, I’m very much ready for some recharge time. To let the issues of the day — whatever they happened to be — slough off into a corner somewhere to be forgotten for a while.

Of course there are family commitments as well so this isn’t always possible during the week. And I can manage that without going crazy pretty well.

But! My Sundays are sacred. No going out bar super special circumstances or emergencies. Not for any religious reasons — but rather for mental well being and ensuring I’ve properly recharged my social-energy batteries before Monday arrives.

Gaming is the main vehicle in which I achieve that recharge.

Social Connectivity

Seemingly in direct contradiction to the prior point — but my friends and I don’t get to visit each other in real life as frequently as we would otherwise like to these days.

We have children, partners, busy jobs and all that other carry on that comes with ‘adulting’.

God I miss some of the people I met in this game. (Asheron’s Call 1)

Instant online connectivity and the ability to share a hobby without spending 40+ minutes travel in either direction is a huge boon.

Over the years I’ve certainly changed my online social habits. And at least in the context of MMOs, I’ve become more and more closed off from creating new meaningful relationships. I now think this is in large part because I approach most games as a ‘BYO friends’.

The blogging community is sort of game-adjacent for the purposes of this discussion, but one enables the other and I’m incredibly thankful for that.

Occasionally, to be Challenged

Both Rakuno and TheRoyalFamily recently spoke to challenging games by and large not being for them.

I understand the point of view, and while I’m not overly keen to admit this — generally I’m in the same boat. I’d much rather the game provide me with the perception of being challenged than actually taking me out back for a swift kick up the backside.

Nooo! Not THIS much challenge! D: (Dark Souls 2: Ruin Sentinels)

Although if a game doesn’t offer even the slightest amount of resistance, then this can be a turn-off too. I ultimately stopped playing Ni No Kuni II for this reason. I believe they’ve since patched in a harder difficulty to address this, but for me at least — the damage is done.

Like Rakuno acknowledged though — there are exceptions. A couple of them we even have in common, namely the Dark Souls series and Monster Hunter: World. Both games quite happy to give you a rapid and repeated what-for. But when the right mood strikes, taking on this challenge — and ultimately beating it — is really quite the rush.

Circling Back Around to the ‘Limits’ of Gaming, then?

Where to start… I guess first, while this actually isn’t the ‘confessions’ style post I was inspired to do by Quin’s Museum of Bad Behaviour post, it could well do a good job of pretending to be. That post is still coming though.

You see, one of my prior blogs was called ‘Modicum of Gaming’. It was so named because some years before that blog, there was a time when I applied very little control to the hours I spent whiling away in some MMO or another. University — and everything else — for a time was taking a backseat, to say the least.

In fact it might be better to say we didn’t even occupy the same vehicle much of the time.

The idea for that blog came about when I happened to capture a random but powerful thought. ‘I don’t want my kids to ever game like I did.’ The follow-up thought for the blog then being to ensure the better balance I’d found was maintained over the long term.

Because that earlier sort of uncontrolled behaviour? That is what using games as an escape can look like.

Now I know, I know- most of the time ‘escape’ is simply being used as a stand in for ‘relax’, or not meant in any fashion more intense than the way one can ‘escape’ with a good book. And that’s fine. I think my brain understands this colloquial difference.

But to this day — seemingly unconsciously until I went through the effort of unpacking it all — there is a certain threshold of seriousness after which I don’t believe games are the right answer, even just for relaxation or temporary escape. Better in these circumstances to face it more directly, have the necessary discussions and get past it that way.

Perhaps I can call this a sign of maturity — in fact, I shall.

Looka’me, supes mature! ;)

Nostalgia and Moving On

Sometimes I feel a bit… Old. Especially when I make realisations like this one: I could probably wax nostalgic about waxing nostalgic. Not quite what we’re here for today though. Isey started a conversation, wondering why nostalgia works. He reaches a conclusion in his post that it might be to do with taking a snapshot in time and freezing it as a memento of the surrounding life conditions and the feelings they evoke.

There is a recognition that we can’t — in most respects — freeze time. But in the context of games and the likes of Project 99 to a greater or lesser extent, you actually can. Here, we might be able to take some control. It’s worth taking a look at the Isey’s whole post for additional context, too.

Asheron’s Call. My own usual trip down MMO-memory lane. (Image Source: Asheron’s Call Archive)

I’m not entirely sure Isey’s conclusion holds true for me. At first, I was sure it didn’t actually. But upon further reflection, there might be an element of this.

Sure, I can recall aspects of my life from the times spent gaming. With some very vivid snapshots in time recalled in short-form but otherwise very complete narrative form even. I remember well my room, it’s layout and contents, the anticipation of the loading/patching ‘tubes’ of loading up Asheron’s Call.

I remember when I had moved out into my first flat and was downloading the Shadowbane beta client (All 600+MB of it) on 28.8k dial-up. And then having it not work. (The Shadowbane beta was very rough.)

These experiences were objectively bad. Long waits. Things not working. Yet even though this is something I recognise looking back at those times now? Yeah, I remember them fondly. In a sort of, ‘I was there’ and ‘Look how far we’ve come’ type way. More about the ‘cred’ of being there ‘back in the day’ than anything else, I think.

But that’s the experiences surrounding the games.

What About the Nostalgia in Actually Playing?

One principle of nostalgia that typically holds true for me is that I need to have experienced the specific ‘thing’ (TV show, game, movie, whatever it is) when it was current.

I get essentially nil nostalgic value out of experiencing something from the same timeframe, even if it is almost identical in look, execution and general approach to something else I did experience at the time.

A good example of this is the ol’ Sierra adventure games. I played and loved the ever-loving heck out of the Quest for Glory series.1 There was a time when I was playing through these every year or two. Yet I never played the King’s Quest or Space Quest games when they were current. I once thought to try them out but I bounced off them almost immediately. My love for QFG remained untarnished, but there was no getting on board with KQ and SQ.

The same holds true of MMOs. You couldn’t pay me enough to spend any serious time in Project 99 from all I’ve heard. Two weeks on a single camp? Level percentages in measured in turn by their own percentages? *Gack*

In an alternate timeline where I played EQ instead of Asheron’s Call though I could imagine being all over it. Or at least… I would love to have the option to be all over it. To know it still existed and that I could jump in at any time and revisit the world I’d known.

“…a stroll around the old neighborhood is plenty. It’s like stopping off in the village where I grew up. Sometimes I do that, when I pass by on my way to somewhere else. Take a wander round, see what’s changed. What hasn’t. Yet. Then back in the car and move on.”

Bhagpuss (2019), Two Weeks in Another Camp: Everquest (Inventory Full)

Bhagpuss nailed it for me with this. Although the gaming equivalent might be weeks or a month — this was how I was treating Asheron’s Call before it’s shut down at the start of 2017. It was a place to visit, look around, remember the history fondly. Play a little. Smile. Move on.

Missing Connections

Source: Game On Aus — MMORPG Memory Lane Part 3

He’s absolutely right about the modern approach to MMORPG gaming on PC. Compared to the original experience, what we enjoy today is adulterated, fractured, incomplete.

Bhagpuss (2019), There Is No Mystery Left (Inventory Full)

This was said in response to Pete’s post on the topic of finding a happy balance between computer and console gaming. How he is able to achieve a better degree of immersion on console by power of the fact that there isn’t the same ready access to a second monitor, filled with social media ticking by, ready at a moment’s notice to be flicked through.

I know what Pete is talking about, as I’m exactly the same. My second monitor will have some mix of Discord, Twitter and general browsing pages up. Sometimes even a TV show. I find these ‘distractions’ to be a welcome part of the PC gaming experience, though. So I don’t find this breaking of immersion as problematic.

But it did start my mind down another track entirely.

Changes to Social Interaction in MMOs in the Absence of Social Media

I’ve talked about changes in social interaction before, but then I was tackling a perceived shift in my priorities and loss of even openness to forming relationships in MMOs or games fullstop. I attributed this in part to the shifting nature of the games themselves, without much of a look at the external factors.

And to clarify, in this context perhaps actually I less mean ‘Social Media’ as it is understood today and more mean a lack of any ubiquitous communication platform upon which you could aggregate your social contacts.

The effect of this being, as Bhagpuss also said, “…turn-of-the-century MMORPGs were the social media of their day.”

Certainly in my experience, this meant that the relationships you formed — even the close ones — remained exclusively in the confines of the MMO itself, for me this being Asheron’s Call. There didn’t seem to be any real extension of communication to email, or any of the Instant Messenger clients which were starting to pop up in that era.

I looked it up to confirm when writing my comment on Bhagpuss’ post, ICQ came out in November ’96 — so even if not by ’98 when I started into the beta of Asheron’s Call, then certainly by the release late ’99 or shortly after I would have been using it.

So WHY Did I Not Save Those Connections?

I struggle with this question, looking back on things with hindsight. There were friends made, relationships established, that at the time meant a great deal to me. I would now give a great deal to have a do-over in which I didn’t let those contacts slide.

But I don’t recall ever making the effort to ensure the communication could exist standalone from Asheron’s Call itself.

One theory I have is, as I alluded to above, a lack of a ubiquitous platform on which to actually achieve this. I was using ICQ, but this was not common place. Instant Messenger had not taken off as a mainstream concept yet. Then when it later did, there was AIM, ICQ, MSN and any number of others.

Another is that I was simply young and foolish. I was 16 in ’99 when Asheron’s Call entered Retail. I very likely didn’t even give any thought to the possibility of a need to secure channels of communication outside of the game. Asheron’s Call was forever. For me. For you. For everyone.

But some people did drift from the game. People could pass first to days without being /seen, to weeks, to months. There was no Facebook, so those remaining could only speculate on what might have occurred. Sometimes I was the one who would take days, weeks or even months away.

Especially after the transition from Beta to Retail where I had two groups of my friends split and make different decisions on server to play on. My core group decided on Darktide (the PvP server) whereas quite a number of my other friends were going to stay on a PvE server.

I had good intentions of splitting my playtime, but ultimately Darktide won out and my visitation on Morningthaw became more and more sporadic, with less and less of my friend’s list around each time.

Some of those losses are actively painful, and I wonder whether that might also have been at least a tiny contributing factor to my stance on social interaction in MMOs today?

In any case — I am curious, for anyone else who might’ve played back during the EQ / AC / UO era of MMOs, was this your experience too? Or did you make more of an effort to secure communication channels separate from the games? Or was this simply not a concern?


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