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Playing Better with Others

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Somehow, an ‘MMORPG’ has turned me into a more ‘hardcore’ player. Could the social aspect be all that’s to blame?

I am not a particularly ‘hardcore’ gamer. Only a handful of the games in my collection have ever inspired me to shoot for utter completion. By this I mean that I do not usually chase high scores; nor do I often scour the world around me for every item in a collection, or work at new tactics for a game.

My favoured definition of a ‘hardcore’ gamer is their ability to play the same game over and over, applying different tactics so that they might achieve competitive levels of mastery over it. I have never managed this despite years of respectful enthusiasm for real-time strategy (RTS) games, and a fanatical devotion to a handful of other titles too. Command & Conquer: Generals, Dune 2000 and Advance Wars all sit unfinished because of my inability to develop new tactics when the designers want me to. No, I much prefer to find my niche play style and to follow it steadfastly.

I realised my distinct stubbornness when reading James Paul Gee’s essays on games and education. He’s suggested that level designers will purposefully set tasks which force players to re-think the skills which have lasted them since the start of play. Applying them to a new puzzle in a new way mirrors the way educators will encourage students to challenge their curricula, helping to build an even deeper understanding of those skills. I have of course done this at the individual puzzle level to complete various games, such as by realising a double-jump can also unleash a different form of attack. These sorts of puzzle devices frustrate me most of all, despite my knowing what they’re used for now. Tackling one obstacle in a bull-headed fashion only to realise suddenly that my gun can perform x function has cost many games a penalty time-out upon my dusty shelves.

One game seems not to have done this however, and that is World of Warcraft. I first tried the game only last year, playing an undead rogue on a European server. I played for about two months before drifting away briefly, to re-emerge on American realms. I opted not for a rogue here, but for a warlock which, for those not initiated with the game, took me from a ‘beat ’em up’, combo style of play with stealth and sharp attacks, to a magic-wielding character able to shoot from afar and command a small minion to help fight. I’m not sure why I decided to leave my comfort zone with the rogue class and move on to warlocks, but the change was a good one and helped me find what may still be my strongest class.

What I found remarkable was how my dabbling in different classes didn’t end there. Hunter, paladin, priest, druid.. the ‘alts’ (alternative characters) racked up, and as my characters grew to a point they could help out in multi-user dungeon instances, such as through my guild, I realised that I was now making a real effort to learn how this game was best played. It benefited me to know what a priest was and was not capable of, and how a tank might go about performing what the designers felt were their strong points in order to ensure our group of characters would triumph.

This hardcore attribute seems a bit of a ‘no-brainer’. Learn how best to play the game, and you are more likely to succeed in its trials. Given that these trials and levelling up are amongst the key features of the so-called ‘RPG’ genre, it therefore stands that such behaviour is expected of me. Still it flies in the face of my more established play style, and indeed as games sit unfinished still upon my shelf, I wonder if really, the social aspect is all that’s changed me.

Could it be that peer pressure, the act of enjoying time with friends, or the encouragement to show off one’s skills at the very least is what turned me from casual-but-enthusiastic to hardcore? I’ve written before about how I think World of Warcraft has tapped right into my obsessive-compulsive vices, but something in wanting to enjoy a raid experience with all my friends still alive and able to join in does seem to have given me that ambition to really understand the game at a deeper level. Has anyone else perhaps felt this?