Home > Mentality, Other MMOs, Uncategorized > Self-Expression, or The Illusion Of Freedom

Self-Expression, or The Illusion Of Freedom

August 14, 2012

As I half-ponder, half-plan my return to SW:TOR, the usual fundamental gaming questions arise. What shall I do on my next logon? What goals remain, are they reachable by multiple alternative paths, and in what order should they be pursued?

Were I currently part of an active guild, strong suggestions would present themselves immediately, based on the needs of others. During the server transition phase, however, my gameplay will be self-directed and socially mercenary in nature. Not strictly congruous with the nature of my Jedi Guardian character, but quite acceptable to the man at the keyboard.

Things To Do, or immediately accessible content, are at the heart of an MMO’s quality. The lack of endgame content (not something I’ve observed to be the case) is frequently cited as one of the major causes of SW:TOR’s popularity falling short of expectations. Perhaps the greatest change to WoW in Mists of Pandaria is diversification of things to do at level cap. And, of course, the distinctive and rejuvenating feature of sandboxes and PvP-centric MMOs is the treatment of players and player activity as content.

I always feel a twinge of disgust whenever I see this question approached from a purely consumptive perspective, as in: the player needs to chomp through a certain quantity of content that triggers adequate dopamine release at every stage, lest he feel that his oh-so-precious money has been ill-spent. For some reason unknown to me, this attitude afflicts MMOs more than most other affiliations. Few people would consider rescinding their loyalties to the Washington Nationals, Burnley or Auxerre just because of losing streaks, relegations and small hopes of league trophies.

It is a pity, because I do think that many people experiencing the MMO malaise we see everywhere would get more out of their games if they treated them less like bowls of content and more like toolkits for self-expression. It is perfectly legitimate to reject a particular set of tools as unsuitable, but once adopted, it is foolish to blame the tools for one’s failure to do anything rewarding with them.

One might object to this and ask: what self-expression? In most themeparks, there is a fairly short list of available activities: questing to level, questing at level cap for pertinent benefits, small group instancing, raiding, gathering-crafting and exploration. Also instanced group PvP and world PvP, the latter usually unrewarded unless happening in special cordoned-off areas. That’s about it. More or less end of story. Honourable mention goes to the economic metagame, which can be too complex in some games to pigeonhole in this way, but it does not threaten the point I am making.

From the standpoint of self-expression, it would be easy to proclaim sandboxes superior. Indeed, the absolute limits are gone and the freedom is incomparable. However, the relative limits are about the same. The vast majority of players are still steered by the game systems into a very finite set of particular activities. In UO, for every Rainz, there were thousands of people going through the same motions of skilling up, crafting, house-decorating and optimising for ganking or for survival. And so it went all the way down to EVE, whose primary activities are describable roughly in themepark terms, even by writers passionately insistent on the difference. One’s hi-sec economic activities, incursion fleet, wormhole, PvP roam, batphone rush and so forth are not particularly different from those of another player and his corporation. One fits one’s Drake or Tengu in the same long-established optimal way as everyone else. The rest is an aspirational mirage on the horizon which only a tiny percentage of players ever make their reality.

Gevlon’s recent experience, incidentally, is quite illustrative of the mirage: the green misanthrope heard of the freedom and imagined that, with his detachment and skill at social engineering, he could rock New Eden to the core. He invented creative, half-informed schemes which were repeatedly cut down to size by his commenters and field reality, until he distilled his choices to a themepark-like array of well-worn, standard EVE activities. In the end, it turns out he had been able to do a greater number of unique and interesting things in WoW, the on-rails themepark than in EVE, the sky’s-the-limit sandbox.

No, self-expression as I use it here does not mean doing something no one else has ever done. It means doing something many other people have also done, in your own way, with your friends, coloured by your own personality and principles, making your own memories. Even if it is just a Deadmines run, there are many like it, but this one’s mine. Content is a means to that end, not the end in itself. Instead of whining that the MMO offers only adventures in portraiture, paint the Mona Lisa.