World of Warcraft (WoW) came out in Europe in February 2005. I started playing it a month earlier during the final beta test phase, and I kept playing it for about four years straight – except when I was doing my student exchange in Malaysia in 2006. However, even at that time I was eagerly looking forward to the first big expansion (The Burning Crusade) to come out, and I was following WoW news sites and watching WoW videos created by other gamers.
All in all, I was rather hardcore about the whole thing: I was the founder and leader of one of the best guilds – a group of players organized to work together – on the server in which I played. Eventually we merged with another guild so we could achieve more together, and we did. We became the first ones on the whole server to beat most of the toughest opponents in the game. I also wanted to give up my position as a leader because it got simply too tiring to run the whole thing and to deal with egomaniacs, who for some reason seem to be particularly attracted to multiplayer online games…
What finally stopped me playing WoW for good is actually rather embarrassing. In the end of 2008 I was becoming more and more fed up with the game. I had graduated a year and a half earlier and was working full-time. What I didn’t want was to come home after work and play a game that started to feel like work, too. I felt obliged to play it. Then I finally realized after a period of denial that I was not getting any enjoyment out of it anymore, but instead it was making me anxious and frustrated.
I figured that I might enjoy certain aspects of the game (mainly player vs. player combat, in which the players fight against each other in teams instead of trying to beat the computer controlled opponents) if only I had a different character class. At the time of writing there are 10 different classes one can choose from, with each having unique abilities and a different “role” to play: some are good at dealing damage, while some heal others or are able to withstand damage. All characters also have a host of supporting, more situational abilities. Unfortunately the one I played at the time was a definite underdog in player vs. player combat, which was one of the reasons for my frustration with the game.
After I stopped playing, I started to really realize just how huge time-sucking vacuum the game is. As I put WoW behind me I shifted my focus on other things, took the concept of character development – where you play your character in the game and develop its skills, get better equipment and more abilities – and started applying it to myself. I began developing my skills and abilities for real: I read books and blogs to acquire knowledge, and I fixed my diet and exercise habits to become fit.
Ever since I stopped playing the game and started to focus on the real me instead, I’ve been pondering why is it that these kinds of games are so addictive? How come there are people so immersed in playing them, that they even forget to eat and sleep?
First of all, I don’t think many people get to really experience feelings of success or accomplishment in their daily lives. We tend to move through our existence in mindless drudgery; wake up in the morning, go to work or school, and for the rest of the time try to keep ourselves entertained. And I think here is the key: why bother trying to achieve something big and meaningful, when it’s safe and secure to live a dull life and grasp moments of instant gratification by watching tv and playing video games?
This is what we’ve been conditioned to do since we were kids. We’ve been lulled into settling for this safe and secure life which doesn’t provide opportunities for personal growth, and we rarely even know how to look for those opportunities. After all, personal growth is a scary thing to do. It means facing and really getting to know yourself, your own shortcomings, your desires, and accepting and embracing them. It means getting out of your comfort zone and putting your psyche in the line of fire; something will change or shift and you will not be the same person as you were before. Something dies, and something is born anew.
A lot of adults are living their lives in a state of continuing adolescence. There’s no need to really take responsibility. You can forget about the feeling of incompleteness – why you might be unhappy or feel like your life has very little meaning – by simply turning on the TV or logging into an online game where you can be the hero; destroyer of evil and protector of good! But what if we didn’t have television? What if we didn’t have computer games or Internet? How would you then spend your time? What would you do to get your buzz? To feel like you’ve accomplished something?
It’s not only the feeling of achieving something that makes online games addictive. There is the social aspect as well. The game world has its own rules and measures of success – for example in WoW being able to beat a tough opponent before anyone else in the game is a source of pride and prestige. There are competitive aspects beneath the surface, and I happen to be a rather competitive person by nature, so for me it became important to be one of the best in the game – and I ended up playing a lot to get to that point.
In offline games it doesn’t matter so much how well you play because similar social aspects and competitiveness are missing, but online you want to show the others just how good you are and how much you have achieved. Like I said, in that world you can be the hero. You can be someone.
The problem is that you are someone only as long as you play the game. Outside people don’t know about your achievements in the game world. Outside there are different rules and different measures of success. So when you are not playing the game anymore you may not have much to celebrate. I feel like I was in a limbo for the two years when I played WoW intensely. I feel like my life was on hold; I was just doing my work, and then spent the rest of my time immersed in the game world.
But I guess you can cheat yourself only long enough before reality kicks in – and when it does, it does it hard. Then you stop and think “What the hell am I doing… Is this how I want to spend my limited time on the face of the Earth?”
I think a big difference between achieving things in the real world and in these online games is that in the games there is a much more limited set of rules, and the games are designed in a way that everyone can feel like the hero of the day. You know from the get-go what you need to do to progress, and the more you progress the better you feel. A bond is born between the real you and your avatar in the game world.
Life, on the other hand, is not so simple and we’ve been receiving mixed signals since we were kids about what we should do and have to feel happy. We’ve been conditioned to believe that education, good job, house, car, marriage, and children is what life’s all about, but there are numerous people who have all that and yet they are miserable. So maybe we’ve been lied to. Maybe there is something else that will make you feel like your life has a purpose, a meaning, or a direction and that you are being congruent to that purpose and living it.
Finding that purpose is by no means an easy task. And there is no Gandalf that will come and tell you that you need to pack your things, travel to Mordor, and throw The One Ring into the Mount Doom. You can read every self-help book there is, which will likely provide you with good tools, but in the end you’re still on your own when it comes to figuring out what your life will be about.
In the game world you know all the time what you should be doing to get to the next level, but in real life you don’t. In the game world you have a direction where you’re heading to and you know where it will take you. In real life it’s much more difficult to find something even remotely like that and you can never be sure where you will end up, or what surprises are in store for you.
Now, what if you knew yourself well enough to realize what you want to achieve in life? What if you had a grand vision you know would benefit the rest of the humanity and make you feel like your life has meaning? And what if there was a system, or a toolset that provides you with a sense of direction, telling you what steps you need to take and what you need to do to get closer to your grand vision? What if – in the same way you’re guided through the game world – you could receive similar guidance in real life enabling you to realize your potential?
Wouldn’t that be something!