Half the WAR (and other) blogging world sang the blues throughout October, while trying earnestly to both define and defend what we think of as “fun,” why we’re not having it, and what could be done to improve it. I am no exception, and while I’ve been pondering the elusive “fun” thing for some time, this particular post is prompted by Pete-Dragonchasers’ comment that our expectations have a lot to do with how we experience something.
There’s no question that expectations influence experience — if I expect a dentist visit to be frightening and stressful, it’s much likelier to be so than if I go in without telling myself it’ll be the equivalent of half an hour in hell. It’s only a matter of influence, and most of us don’t control ourselves well enough to turn a root canal into an enjoyable experience, but social and leisure interactions are far more subject to how we approach them. If you go to a party expecting to hate it, you most likely will, and vice-versa.
This is very much true for games, since our experience of how “fun” they are tends to be almost entirely subjective. We can dissect bugs and implementations and whatnot on a mostly objective level, but the final analysis of “was it fun?” depends far more on hard to define yet easy to experience factors. I’ve said before that a clunky UI will make me moan and groan about a game for ages, but is unlikely to drive me away entirely if my enjoyment remains high despite the problems. That tipping point of fun/not-fun is different for everyone, and the factors that tip it aren’t identical for us all either. (As an aside, expecting a games company to ever get that tipping point 100% right for 100% of the players is naive in the extreme, as well as impossible.)
Such nebulous considerations aside, however, I wonder if we — as a gaming community — are becoming too strait-jacketed in terms of what we consider to be “fun.” Experience and personality combine to create a person’s expectations at a given point in time. So, back in 2000 when I first patched Asheron’s Call (only took a couple of days) and created that first character, I had no idea what to expect; I had no expectations. Everything was new, everything was fun. Being human, new almost always equals fun. A decade down the line, I’ve had my fun defined for me in fairly standard ways: do quests, run around, kill stuff, receive rewards. There’s no arguing that the kill-loot-level paradigm is in any way new in MMOs (or the tabletop games they emulate), no matter what slight differences might exist in its implementation.
There’s a point at which we become blind to the fact that not-new can still equal fun. I don’t throw away my books once I’ve read them, just because they’re not new anymore; in fact, there are many that I regularly re-read and enjoy a little differently each time. Is that because I don’t expect The Lord of the Rings to magically be Tarzan Of the Apes next time I open the cover? Why do we expect each new game in a given genre to be radically different, radically NEW, despite all the information available? It’s not like these games are entirely shrouded in mystery prior to their release. We can argue for a new paradigm or a new implementation, but expecting it from a game we already know to do things in a certain way is silly.
I’m not saying we should lower our high expectations of MMOs, because I think striving for excellence is essential, especially in an industry that appears to have taken the “timesink = money” paradigm beyond the bounds of all reason. I do think we might want to take a moment to examine exactly what we expect when we log into a game, or even to examine why we expect what we do. If our expectations are unreasonable given what we know of the game and our experience of it so far, then it’s time to either reconsider those expectations or look for a game that will fit them more closely.
It’s unreasonable to keep our expectations as they are and somehow hope that the game will magically change to be what we want, next time we open the cover. Providing feedback so that games may become better is fine, and in fact essential — but logging in thinking a game will suddenly be different will ONLY work if our own expectations are different.
It is also unreasonable to expect a game to provide elements that only the player can provide, such as social interaction. A game can facilitate (or hamper) social elements like friendship and community, but there’s no earthly way it can create them. It’s a game. People interact with people. If I’m expecting to have a sociable time when I log in, I can’t blame the game if I’m unwilling to actually take the time to talk, or if the other people online don’t want to talk. I can bitch about how difficult the chat system makes things and how walking and talking are ridiculously difficult in WAR because of how the chat focus works, or how the game wasn’t good enough to keep sufficient players, but expecting to somehow achieve social interaction without personal effort — silly.
Maybe games are to blame for creating such unreasonable expectations but again, we’re not automata; we can examine what we expect from things and adjust our expectations accordingly. Th ething that’s bothered me most in many of the blogosphere posts lately is this apparent belief that anything I expect is reasonable because I expect it, and out of my control. Bollocks. I control my expectations, and can alter them at need, and using disappointed expectations to slam a game is both facile and fallatious.
No MMO will ever come close to the experiences we had during the first MMO we played; that’s the whole point and definition of first experiences. Like any other activity, however (I know what you’re thinking!), practice can lead to different and even better experiences. Just so long as we stop expecting every new MMO to be like that first MMO — that ship has long sailed, and it ain’t coming back. More to the point, maybe we should start expecting what we did back then, which was very little. Maybe that way we’ll relearn how to be in the moment and have fun — or leave if we realise we’re not having fun.
Having expectations is human and unavoidable, but we can choose to accept what comes our way despite what we mentally plan for ahead of time. If we log on and don’t have fun, we should log off. If we log on and have a different kind of fun than we expected, we should be smart enough to recognise it as fun instead of bitching and moaning about how it wasn’t the fun we wanted.
You can’t always choose what happens to you, even in MMOs, but you sure as hell can choose how you react to it.