The “Psychology” of an MMO Player
Before we start I’d like to make it clear that I do not have any formal qualifications in psychology. If you want specific details of research into MMO player psychology, the I would urge you to look to more academic source. For the sake of this post, I shall be using the term “psychology” figuratively. As people do in everyday parlance. In this case it is meant to refer to the motivations and foibles of the MMO gamer. Okay, that's the legal disclaimer out of the way. Let us continue with a finely-honed dissection of the topic in hand, bolstered by that impeachable source of verification, namely anecdotal evidence.
If you ask people what motivates them to play an MMO you will receive a multitude of different answers. Here are a few that are fairly common. I'm sure you could all add more to the list.
- The social interaction and the community. Be it friends or a kinship/guild.
- Grouping, raiding and completing content communally.
- Competitive play, PVP and league tables.
- The persistent worlds and the opportunity to explore and be immersed.
- The franchise associated with the MMO in question.
- Helping others and contributing to the general community.
Players bring a lot of passion to the games they play and the MMO genre is no exception. You only have to look at the postings on most MMO related forums and subreddits to see how seriously some players take it. The amount of dedication that is poured in to fansites, blogs and podcasts is staggering at times. I know of individuals that see the games they play as vehicles for their own personal values, ethics and ideologies. They organise, nurture and try to engage with all. Yet despite these noble aspirations, the two most fundamental driving forces for most players are either to have fun or to play competitively.
Let’s start with fun. It sounds like a very simple concept. However, we all experience it in a different fashion and it is a conduit to other emotions and motivations which are also unique to the individual. For me, I see games as an amusing diversion. However, that is not to say I see them as trivial. I complete tasks for a reward or I simply compete against myself or others. I also enjoy a good narrative. These are all essential sources of fun for me. I take a very straight forward "quid pro quo" attitude towards gaming. However, for others, fun may be derived from more complex motivations.
Competition is a very strong human trait. Western culture focuses on it heavily and often enshrines it in all aspects of society. It is therefore a prevalent facet of many MMOs and attracts a substantial player base. However, the pleasure of competing is often overshadowed by the perceived benefits of succeeding and on occasions public displays of pride. For some players there is the “winning at all costs” mindsets and the idea that it says something very specific about you as an individual. Ego and vanity are very strong motivators. This is endemic in the FPS and co-op genres and also manifests itself in MMOs, especially in the PVP side of any game. Bragging rights and posing requires another important ingredient. An audience. Something that the communal nature of MMOs provides.
The community itself offers a vast array of involvement and potential sources of fun. For some gamers due to their real-world obligations, it can become a surrogate social life in itself. As I mentioned earlier, this community offers an environment in which they can have a tangible impact and act as a force for good, unlike in the real world. I do not like the term "care bear", as its purpose is ultimately pejorative. However, it cannot be denied that MMOs do attract a lot of people who thrive on the social interaction and are compelled to help and support their fellow players. It is these very factors that defines the point of playing for them.
Because the mainstream success of video games, the gaming industry is naturally chasing the most lucrative demographic group. This is the casual gamer, although exactly what the parameters of that term are, remains hotly debated. However, negative attitudes towards gamers persists as do stereotypes. For many non-gamers, they erroneously think that those that do play MMOs and the like are not engaging with their fellow man. There is also the condescending attitude that because your leisure activity does not take place in a physical environment, that it is devoid of any merit. These are naturally erroneous and flawed ideas, but they often come up, despite the reality being the complete opposite.
To try and compensate against this sort of misinformation, there have been recent studies and reports that try to overstate the benefits of social gaming. I will happily concede the point that gaming does require players to use certain real-life skills, such a team building, communication and organisation, but to hail them as problem solving über talented collectives, that can tackle the world’s problems is a stretch. It is therefore important to keep a sense of perspective on gaming and to pretty much treat it as any other sort of leisure activity. Being a hero in the realm of Tamriel does not make you one in real life. However, nor should it pigeon-hole you as a nut.
So, it in conclusion, it would seem that despite some common factors relating to engagement and enjoyment, it is very difficult to come up with a simple set of rules that define the psychology of an MMO player or indeed any type of gamer. It should also be remembered that gamers often have other interests and mainstream pastimes such as sport, music or art. Gaming is not the sole defining factor of their non-working life. It is simply their leisure activity of choice, and as such should be afforded the same sort or regard as equivalent real world activities such as sport.