THINK ABOUT WHAT GAMING LOOKED LIKE 20 YEARS AGO
It’s 1999 and you are sitting at your Pentium 133. You double-click that EQ icon on your Windows 98 desktop and the wait begins.The dial-up modem connects, the loading screens tell you to “please wait”, and you... well, you are just hanging out pondering the universe. Once the system has done its thing, you are in their world now (tm). So what’s the first thing you do? /friends or perhaps /who.
That person you grouped with last week is on, and not too far away. /tell “Hey, hows it going? Up for a trip to North Karana to hunt some griffons?” You get the response, “For sure! Hold on I’m just at EC. I’ll get a port and be right there.” You group up, hunt some some griffons together, all the while chatting about the game, life, whatever.
Now, if you were really ambitious, perhaps you had ICQ connected and could also be chatting with your guild all the while. You were engaged in the game and the community. Remember getting a phone call while playing EQ? No, neither do I. Perhaps this was because your dial-up modem monopolized the phone line but, more likely, you just ignored it because you were focused on the task at hand. When it came time to log off, you said your farewells, perhaps added some folks to your friends list or guild, and reflected on the time spent.
CONSIDER THE MODERN EXPERIENCE
Now consider the modern experience. You double-click that desktop icon and wait for the client to update. While that is going on, you are checking your phone for Twitter, Instagram and Facebook posts. Perhaps you are watching a Twitch stream in another window or on your second monitor. The game opens and you’re good to go, so you put the phone down and minimize your other windows (but don’t close them). The second monitor still has the stream going or perhaps it’s now your Discord channel.
After clicking through the multiple daily quests alerts, cash shop sales, and news items, you check to see who’s online. That person you grouped with last week is on and not too far away. You message them asking if they are interested in grouping. Their status is set to busy though, so you don’t expect a reply. You set your status to LFG and decide to run around killing some stuff while you wait. During that time, you take breaks to watch a video on YouTube about the quests in the zone. You open your browser to get a map of the zone and alt-tab between the game and the map. All the while, you are getting alerts from your Discord or Twitch chat and notifications from your phone.
After solo questing for 20 minutes with no reply from your acquaintance, you look at general chat to see if anyone is grouping up or in need of your skills. Someone shouts, “LF DPS quick run.” You /tell “Sure, invite me.” Accepting a teleport, you arrive at your newfound group’s location and the group heads in to the zone. You ask, “Hey, how’s it going?” The response is “Good.” You do your best to keep up with the group as they tear through the dungeon. There isn’t time to strike up a conversation and the run is complete before you know it. “Thanks, cya later” is the only other communication from your group and you are back to soloing. Bored, you log off and decide to watch someone else play the game on Twitch.
THE AGE OF DISTRACTIONS
Our lives are ruled by distractions these days and it is extremely hard to do just one thing at a time any more. We don’t focus and are rarely present in the moment. The examples above are from an MMO perspective but, really, this can be applied to any gaming (or non-gaming) situation. My belief is that MMOs are particularly vulnerable to this, which is why we have not had a slow, challenging, and community focused MMO in a long time. The age of distractions has killed our favourite genre. Here are three reasons why MMOs have been the victim of our attention deprived, modern lifestyles.
1. Challenge Requires Concentration. This seems basic enough. Gaming has always been about overcoming artificially imposed barriers to achieve a defined goal. To overcome significantly difficult challenges, even the best of us have to have to be able to dedicate some mental resources to the task. Most people need to block outside stimuli to really get the most out of their grey matter. To illustrate, I have a love/hate relationship with Hearthstone, the collectible card game by Blizzard. I love that when I focus, plan and think three moves ahead, I usually win. When the conditions allow me to do this, it feels good (in addition to the escapism this provides, but more on that later). If I play Hearthstone on the couch with the TV on, or try to have a conversation at the same time, I usually lose. MMOs have adapted to the culture of distraction by becoming games that allow for you to be interacting with a Twitch audience, watching a video on YouTube, or even cooking a meal at the same time. My son plays League of Legends, and often I will see him watching another match while playing his own (which is usually followed by groans of frustration when his match doesn’t go his way). An MMO that doesn’t present a challenge offers none of the social rewards of accomplishing feats of teamwork, group strategy or cohesion. In essence, they stop being MMOs.
2. Community Requires Patience. People are complicated creatures. Developing and maintaining relationships isn’t easy, and doesn’t happen overnight. In the age of Facebook friends, followers, and subs, we seem to have a lot of relationships and communities (the substance of such is a debate for another article). All of them are constantly vying for our attention. Update your status, post your current mood, don’t let your subs down by not streaming or interacting today. I often think we have become good at doing a lot of things while doing nothing at all. To try and maintain these relationships in the age of distraction foregoes community development. We just don’t have time to forge a few deep, meaningful communities anymore so we try to replace them with lots of less meaningful ones. The problem is there are just too many of them and we are stretched too thin. MMOs have suffered from this greatly, as there is simply not enough of our attention left to invest in any one community. We hop around from game to game, community to community, wanting the bonds and benefits of community, to little avail. We want to be a part of it all, yet trying to do so causes us to be less a part of everything.
3. Slowing Down Means Missing Out. I am not a monk sitting on top of a mountain contemplating the nature of existence (although that sounds nice). I lead a busy life and it can be easy to try and cram in as much entertainment as possible. When we game these days, we want to feel like we are accomplishing something. This is only exacerbated by incredible backlogs of Steam sale games, mobile “gaming” experiences, and the constant attention seeking ads we are bombarded with. Our ‘to do’ lists now include in-game achievements and daily quests. We have to check-off those boxes before we can relax. In my life, I noticed this trend a long time ago and I have made a conscious effort to be present in the moment as much as possible; not only if games but in life in general (meditation helps a lot). Now when I sit down at the computer I have intention. I leave the ‘shoulds’ and the pressure of ‘making progress’ behind. I am there to have an experience, not to get things done. I try to remember that the game works for me; I don’t work for the game. MMOs have become premised on the converse. Somewhere along the line, MMO developers realized that keeping up with the Joneses translates into more money by way of pay to win items, shortcuts, and those addictive dopamine hits we get from checking off our daily tasks. Ever tried going back to a modern MMO that you haven’t played in a long time? Good luck. Perhaps it’s just me but never have I felt so overwhelmed by changes, updates, and pop-up notifications as I did while trying to get back into Guild Wars 2 after a year or so away. Slowing down in modern MMOs is just not viable if you want to maintain any enjoyment of the game.
So where does that leave us? If none of the above bothers you or this is exactly what you want out of your gaming experiences, then you are living in the ideal time. However, for me, it is time for a renaissance in the MMO experience.
WILL PANTHEON DELIVER?
Everything we know about Pantheon to date suggests there is an acknowledgement of these issues and a will to change the template. It is my sincere hope that Visionary Realms sticks to their vision of a slower, challenging, community-focused MMO.
If they do their part, we the community must do ours. This will be an exercise in self-discipline. Here is how I am taking this on.
Build community by engaging with other Pantheon fans. Specifically, build rapport with a few people and start a regular dialogue on one or two shared points of interest.
Focus on Pantheon. Learn the lore. Talk about the issues. Invest your time.
Meditate. I know it’s not for everyone. Just try taking two minutes before you boot up your next game to close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
Do one thing at a time. When you are gaming, just game. Put the phone out of reach, close your other windows, and leave the world behind.
Rediscover challenge. Aim high and don’t be afraid to fail (insert inspirational poster here). But seriously, play a game that pushes your cognitive abilities or skills to the limit.
FINDING FOCUS AND REDISCOVERING…
If this sounds preachy, that’s because it is. Perhaps we need to be woken up from the age of distraction to find our focus and, in the process, find what made MMOs the unique experience that they once were.
Therek is a contributor for Pantheon Rising. He is an avid gamer and writer, creating fictional short stories about Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen. Outside of gaming, he spends his days raising two teenage boys, traveling with is wife, and playing bass guitar. Follow him @PantheonWe