Paper vs. Pixels. Part 1: Why I don’t play World of Warcraft

Despite his love of books, Aiden indulged in the occasional video game. Most of them were Martin’s—guns, robots, and tanks vaporizing whatever monsters moved before the reticule. Aiden favored sword-wielding and spellcraft, but those games were difficult to find. His mother located one as freeware from a seldom-surfed website.
His warrior dodged and flipped in burdened armor, cleaving with a blade that never wore down or chipped. The hero’s meal was some generic ration devoured in a single swallow and supplying energy for another twelve hours of continuous movement. Wounds sustained vanished with a moon’s pass.
His hero’s clothes were comfortable. The romance was always easy and willing. The woman the champion had won over was a meagerly decent falsehood with long lines of exposed skin and the brassiere of a medieval dominatrix. She never complained of the wind or rain. She fell at the hero’s feet when the programmer deemed it appropriate. Mortality was as quickly placated as one’s finger moving to the hotkey. Castles were an hour’s walk apart. Money was unproblematic, acquired from the bellies of wandering beasts.
Before leaving, Martin reached a foot across to the machine’s power supply and turned it off. “Marty!” Aiden screamed. Martin laughed as he was chased from the room. The hero and his world waited patiently for Aiden’s return. The sprite never complained to its god about the lack of refrigerators, central heating, or proper medicine.

Amethyst – Aiden’s Way

* * *

Several years ago, one of my closest friends informed me he was no longer going to be attending our weekly D&D game. Apparently his then girlfriend (now wife) thought the game was stupid and didn’t approve of him playing it. However, she did and does encourage World of Warcraft, which she also plays. Although it’s entirely possible that this was just a power play on her part, I’m still going to acknowledge the hypocrisy.

With the deluge of players signing up for online RPGs every day, it would be a safe assumption that traditional pen & paper games would soon go the way of the snow leopard. This could be cyclical, as I remember when role playing games were circling the drain in the 90s. But the 80s and the 90s didn’t have World of Warcraft to contend with. When WOW took the world by cloudkill, I’d begun to doubt the future of pen & paper role playing.

I admit I don’t play WOW but not because of some moral reason. My battles with weight (won, by the way) do indicate certain self-control issues. I refuse to smoke and I never drink, well aware that addictions can take root quickly if left unchecked. When I play a game, I require it to have an ending, lest I may play it to literal exhaustion. Mass Effect was wrapped in a week after forty hours, two weeks with Dragon Age at seventy hours. I need my games to have an ending, a finale no matter how bittersweet that closes the book and allows a moment of reflection. Even if I want the game to continue as my addiction stipulates, my sanity demands that it end. Most MMOs never have an end, only a point of indifference. And I don’t consider having a plethora of pearlescent guns a climax.

You do get value for your money. A combat driven first person shooter usually lasts between six and ten hours, with some unfortunate charlatans trying to snake-oil their way with games that last only four or five (I’m looking at you, Homefront). WOW is pervasive with content ever present. This brings up another issue, repetition. MMOs can be very repetitive. I stopped Borderlands when I hit the top level. The desire to find better weapons just for the sake of acquiring them never interested me. I also like experiencing in depth stories where one character or a small group of heroes are the focus of said story, something seldom seen with online gaming. In these communities, even the greatest warriors are but one cog in a massive Fritz Lang ziggurat where accomplishments are steamrolled by players more committed. I enjoy being special, even if it’s contained in my own private universe. It’s called being an introvert.

I refused to follow my friends into WOW and quickly became an outcast among them. I’m not sure how my weekly gaming sessions survived, but they did. I lost friends permanently to the online multiverse. In time, many came back to D&D. Digital and paper gaming have been moving side by side for decades, and I still believe they will do so for decades to come. Nobody believed that Wii Sports would kill tennis or Gran Turismo would kill car racing. Yet, some critics still profess that paper gaming is a novelty, offered by fewer companies each year as customers move onto more modern digital distractions. This equates paper gaming to a ball and cup. Yet I see Warhammer still towering in the miniature market despite digital alternatives like Dawn of War.

The last trophy locked in a plier -like kung-fu grip by paper gaming is the adaptive story–a game players can affect and alter, even to the extent of changing the entire world by the end of it (yes, there are exception, which I’ll go into next time). This is not a common practice in paper gaming and is reserved for more proficient campaign masters. All my reasons for disliking online role playing games have been personal up until now, mostly rooted in my dislike for games without a defined ending and the encouragement of player versus player conflict—the latter I have never enjoyed. However, this does leave the one issue sure to garner a response…Online game worlds have no actual story.

A lot of people I find mistake a good setting for a good story. You can have the basic skeleton of a story mated onto an amazing setting or an amazing story paired with a routine setting (like any number of crime dramas). Fantasy and science fiction stories often feel they can tack on the most tedious and uninspired of plots as long as there’s a worthy setting to build upon. But settings alone don’t make a story and many MMOs have settings and conflict but no real story. Even Matrix Online—claiming to have an evolving arc—was only a pale miniscule reflection of its filmed predecessor. And Warcraft after so many years contains far too many fan service machinations and role playing clichés to be considered a genuine or even a serious setting. This doesn’t even take into account that most online worlds, Warcraft included, are incredibly unrealistic, even by fantasy standards. Fantasy world like the ones seen in the minds of great writers must measure up to internal logic. The worlds, however fantastic, still must be able to operate on realistic levels. There must be a worker class; there must be an environment relatively safe enough to produce food. Even many of the Final Fantasies fail to measure up with this simple constraint, but at least they have stories (a few are even good).

As my friends try to make an argument that WOW has a good setting, I always follow up and ask them what they did with their character this week. Eight out of ten times, they were grinding Gnomeregan, Auchindoun, or any number of dungeons on the slim chance that one monster might drop a piece of equipment that may be slightly better than the one you have, still assuming you are up on the queue to receive it. The other two out of ten times, they were killing random mobs in order to save up the money to grind the aforementioned instances.


Next time, I’ll talk about why Mass Effect may the best game that could never exist…


Chris Dias

Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.

4 thoughts on “Paper vs. Pixels. Part 1: Why I don’t play World of Warcraft

  • April 19, 2011 at 5:33 am

    I completely agree with your sentiments about the eventual end of an MMO being indifference. The funny thing is, I have gamer ADD, so if a game is longer than 5 or 6 hours, this usually means I won’t finish it. (Yes, I have finished Mass Effect–a rare moment where I had enough free time, and the game was engaging enough to keep my attention.)

    I think you missed two other things that World of Warcraft does well: exploration and sense of achievement.

    The environments of WoW are beautiful. I play with my wife, and we both take great joy in seeing what is around the next corner. Deep caverns, lush jungles, sweeping tundras, and haunted forests create a sense of wonder. The designers have even placed interesting sights for explorers to come across. Ancient statues, lonely grave markers, and even the petrified corpse of an ancient god are hiding in the wilderness if you look for them. This is something that we can achieve in our tabletop games, but rarely in such vivid detail.

    You mention grinding an instance for the best gear, or grinding monsters for money. I can honestly say that I have done neither. Part of what keeps me playing the game is a sense of achievement. Not just the event of gaining a level, but the new choices and new game mechanics that it can introduce. My biggest excitement, and thus reward, is when I reach a new level and can pick up a new spell or ability. I can easily spend the next 20 or 30 minutes playing with the new ability, judging its effects, and trying to find out how it fits into my strategies and style of play. This is something I think 4ed D&D can be lauded for, as each level brings an interesting decision that lends new mechanical options to your toolbox.

    In the end, I agree with you; tabletop games will never go away. There is a great deal of creative fluidity in a tabletop game that video games are still far from capturing. Because of that fact there is also a much more intense and immediate social interaction at the table because players must invest part of their creativity. In other words, tabletop games make me ask “what if?” and then play with the results, where in video games someone else has already asked “what if?” and then we get to play with the results.

  • April 19, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Odd that you mention exploration and achievement. With exploration, I love games that offer that, but with WOW, nothing it ever presented ever–excuse the choice of words–wowed me…not in a Ico or Mass Effect 2 sort of way. Grinding is optional but it often doesn’t appear so, at least with the dozen or so people I know that play MMOs. In the end though, my disdain for PVP and my dislike for controlling a character with virtually no possibility of wordly influence are the prevailing factors.
    To enforce another point, I have started a few MMOs. In one case, playing EVE Online, I spend an hour constructing a character, modifying stats, and designing a character image. I got my spacecraft and rolled out of dock. The first thing I did when under control of my ship was turn around…and see the six identical ships that exited after me in intervening seconds. After messing around for two hours, I found it unrelentingly boring and quit…

  • April 19, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    I guess the reason to play a game is always very personal, and for me the difference between the two experiences is very plain; wow is played with friends with a goal of playing perfectly amongst set constraints, rpgs are played to create something new and to socialise directly. The two forms of entertainment are delivering different types of fun – and I love that I can do either or both from time to time.

    An MMO will likely never offer the player the option to create something new or special. An rpg should be doing this frequently. One has very limited choices but a huge palete of visual material, the other is limitless but has to be imagined.

    Over the years I’ve stopped doing both at one time or another. RPGs are harder to play casually. MMOs are a timesink that you can chip away at casually but won’t satisfy if you’re after a deep experience. The value of competition is also totally different for each too.

    You’re writing kind of leads you toward looking for a deep experience where you have leverage and can affect a personal imprint on the setting. Makes sense that an mmo would be a hard sell.

    Nice post, it made me think.

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