Are MMORPGs games?

Yeah…I know! It seems kinda like a ridiculous question doesn’t it? But it’s a hurdle I’ve had to overcome lately and thought I’d share my amateur academic conclusions with you!

Ever since I read Salen and Zimmerman’s definition of what a game is…I’ve been smitten by it!
“A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in a quantifiable outcome” (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004).

I’ve always, however, had a problem with excluding ‘fun’. Fair enough, Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun really takes care of that, by proving that these attributes are actually fun. But I’ll get back to that at a later point – the thought is still not fully developed in my dark dust infested mind of messy infinite stupid thoughts.

But this is where I start to have problems! They also introduce Johann Huizinga‘s ‘Magic Circle’ (1955) to describe our state of mind and being as we are playing a game. “In a very basic sense, the magic circle of a game is where the game takes place”. Salen and Zimmerman’s definitions seem to indicate that we leave all ‘real world’ rules behind, as we step into another ‘magic’ rule system. A game is then another ‘world’ where there are different rules of space, existence and play. The player agrees to these rules when entering the ‘magic circle’. But what about games that are “a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” but the players themselves have the freedom to make their own rules as well? Are they then creating their own meta game outside of this definition? The amazing Edward Castronova, who defines MMORPGs as synthetic worlds (at least that’s my impression) eloquently describes them like so:
“The synthetic world is an organism surrounded by a barrier. Within the barrier, life proceeds according to all kinds of fantasy rules involving space flight, fireballs, invisibility, and so on. Outside the barrier life proceeds according to the ordinary rules. The membrane is the “magic circle” within which the rules are different (Huizinga 1938/1950). The membrane can be considered a shield of sorts, protecting because it is necessary that everyone who goes there adhere to the different set of rules. In the case of synthetic worlds, however, this membrane is actually quite porous. Indeed it cannot be sealed completely; people are crossing it all the time in both directions, carrying their behavioural assumptions and attitudes with them. As a result, the valuation of things in cyberspace becomes enmeshed in the valuation of things outside cyberspace”. (Castronova, 2005).
As much as I love the ‘synthetic world’ definition, I feel it’s missing a few things as well. It’s really almost perfect! But gameplay kinda gets lost in it. It is my contention that these MMORPGs are in fact playgrounds, not games. In a playground you find several ‘systems’ of play and you freely (or not so freely) enter into them, but you never leave yourself behind, outside the gates of the playground. Your body, soul and mind come with you into the playground, but there are certain rules that attain specifically to the playground space. The same is true of MMORPGs. We bring our emotions and mind with us into MMORPGs, these are not left behind and are frequently used in the actual gameplay. MMORPGs are playgrounds that contain traditional (what an odd word to use) gameplay elements, just as the seesaw and swings are available for play in children’s playgrounds, so is gameplay in MMORPGs.

“MMORPGs are not a new form of play as much as a new communication medium that affords new forms of social identity and social interaction” – Nick Yee, 2006

Although the fabulous Mr. Yee makes a relevant point, I don’t really agree with him either. Most MMORPGs still have the ‘gaming’ factor. It has indeed become ‘a new communication medium’ but only through the act of playing. Although it is highly possible to enter MMORPGs and focus on the social factor, the act of gameplay is required! One can take on a new identity, but only within the strictest limits of the game space (and beyond).

Lost? Yeah…I know, I’ve pretty much managed to confuse myself as well!

I suppose what I’m really trying to say is that MMORPGs go way beyond any definition of ‘game’, but they still include gameplay. Therefore I choose to define them more as a playground that has gameplay elements built into it! There’s just so much going on in these worlds (jepp…definately believe they are worlds) and the experience is way more immersive than ‘just playing a game’. The communication is real and something that we bring with us. The wonderful creativity of these gamers is real…their choices are real…there’s just too much reality going on for it just to be gameplay.

Urgh! Who am I kidding? I don’t really know what the hell I’m on about!


8 thoughts on “Are MMORPGs games?

  1. A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in a quantifiable outcome”. Doesn’t MMORPG’s really break with the last part of this quote? The “result in a quantifiable outcome” part? I watched my brother play World of Warcraft the ather day, and I asked him what the point of the game was, and he told me, “to get better”. The point of chess is obviously to win. The point of a platform game is to complete all the levels, the point of a strategy game will be to conquer everything, but what is the point of a MMORPG? Interaction, and improving skills, to accomplish what? I just don’t get it. I guess it is like playing a fantasy game with dolls or action figures or Lego or whatever, it is, as you mention, more of a playground than a game. And if you define MMORPG’s as a virtual playground instead of a game, then I can understand why so many people play it. It is not that different from when my five-year-old daughter have her friend over to play, and they make a fantacy world, and establish rules for the game, and then play for as long as they want. MMORPG = playground for grown-ups?

  2. The point of WoW is to “get better” – that’s just adorable!! Excellent answer! When it comes to the quantifiable outcome, Salen and Zimmerman reflect that in the case of MMORPGs, there’s several outcomes. There’s always a goal your striving for. In WoW it’s a quest or you want to attain that supermystic power sword. And I guess I kinda agree with them…you’re always working towards an outcome in MMORPGs, it’s not like you’re just wandering around fighting whatever comes near you with no meaning.

  3. He he, then I guess my brother hasn’t got the point of the game quite yet, has he… he was just wandering around killing whatever he could see…

  4. As I write in my Philosophical Investigations:”Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? — Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ “-but look and see whether there is anything common to all. — For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! — “… might save you a whole lot of trouble …

  5. My oh my! What a privilege to have a blogger come from beyond the grave to give me helpful advice! It’s an interesting point…definately a valid one. But at the same time…I feel the obstacles of language are important to analyse! We need to know what the hell we’re talking about, before we can even begin to analyse! That’s my opinion, at least! For example…most people define Second Life as an MMORPG – but are extremely passionate on refusing the definition ‘game’. And then we have different gamers who are very protective of the whole ‘magic circle’ thing, screaming “It’s just a game!” (I don’t mean SL but other MMORPG gamers)Anyways…thanks for steering me in your direction!

  6. Who knows where to download XRumer 5.0 Palladium? Help, please. All recommend this program to effectively advertise on the Internet, this is the best program!

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