For a while now I’ve said that if I had any artistic ability at all I would publish a web comic. *ahem* That is, any drawing ability. There are a handful of web comics that I’ve stumbled across at one time or another and ended up spending an afternoon or even an entire Sunday “catching up” on archived panels. I don’t know what it is about the medium that I like so much. I never really read comic books as a kid. Maybe I’m just compensating for that lack of comics in my life?
At any rate, I find myself not only wanting to meet some of the amazing people that produce these comics but also to create my own. One idea in particular that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is a web comic detailing my experience playing World of Warcraft.
I’ve been playing WoW for the past…oh…5 years now? I’ve taken a couple of breaks in that time – lulls between the dying breaths of one expansion and the next, busy summers, etc. – but by and large I’ve been involved with the game for about that long. I started playing with a buddy of mine when we were poking around looking for an MMO to play. We tried out a handful of different MMOs – EVE Online, Dark Age of Camelot – but when we inevitably ended up logging into the biggest MMO out there, it was completely different. WoW just did everything right. It was visually better than any other fantasy-based MMO that we’d tried at the time, and what’s more it was just plain fun to play.
My buddy quit playing after maybe a couple of months. This probably begs the question of why I continued to play. Well, at first I was at least hooked enough on the game itself to want to keep exploring and leveling my toon.
Then I joined a guild.
I’ve said for a long time now that sort of the “secret sauce” to WoW is “come for the game, stay for the people”, and that’s really the reason I still play today. Sure, I still enjoy leveling up, killing dragons, and getting loot (although not as much as I once did). But the real reason I play is that WoW became (for me) what it started out as to begin with – a vehicle for me to spend time with my friend. Only now it’s friends (plural).
Let me be clear here that when I say “friends” I mean friends. I’m not talking about “my ‘online friends'” (as differentiated from “my ‘RL friends'”). This isn’t like those people you passed once in the hallway in high school and several years later decided to “friend” on Facebook. Incidentally, I am friends with quite a few of my guildies on Facebook. I have some of their phone numbers and talk/IM/txt a handful of them on a daily basis. I know what’s going on in their lives, what they’re up to this weekend, what their kids did in school today. In a lot of cases, the only thing keeping us from going out and grabbing a beer on weekends is physical distance.
So my web comic about WoW wouldn’t strictly be about WoW. It would be about playing a game with a bunch of friends that just happen to have a common interest in killing bosses and getting loot. …which puts me back to: Now, if only I could draw…
I read a great piece yesterday about the death of video games. If you’re a gamer, relax – games aren’t going anywhere any time soon (I don’t think). However, this article is something you should be paying attention to.
The article’s main focus was “casual” online games that have some kind of monetization strategy built around purchasing in-game currency with real dollars (think: Zynga). In addition to being entertaining and insightful, it paints a pretty grim picture in which the future of gaming is decided in the board room by suits who don’t give a shit about making entertainig games. These games that cater exclusively to “gamers” that have been conditioned to understand “games” as this type of microtransaction-based drivel. It’s more-or-less an insidious sort of psychological manipulation that says “How can I addict people to my game as much as possible to ensure that they’re going to continue to play and, perhaps some day, pay me $5 or $10 for what is essentially nothing.”
Now I’ll admit that I’ve played these kinds of games. I was into Mafia Wars for a while, as well as a handful of nerdier variants that involved swords and spells and whatnot. (Note that I never played fucking Farmville.) …and then one day I gave them all up. Just quit cold turkey, deleted all my accounts, and never looked back. I understand the obsessive sort of time suck that these games can be. …but that’s not what I think the real problem here is. The real problem is the “conditioned” part that I mentioned above. The real danger – at least for anyone who enjoys playing genuinely enjoyable games – is when the market for the real games ends up being impacted by these pseduo-games because the players every game to be “like what I play on Facebook.” In short, it is training gamers to like shitty games. And that just won’t do.
Now, you may say “But how is this different from any other game? They don’t give you anything in return for your money, either. This seems a bit like splitting hairs…” Well, if you’re saying that then you aren’t a gamer, so let’s break this down into something that might hit a little closer to the mark for you: movies. Or sports. Or, perhaps, ballet. None of these things gives a direct return on investment. However, I don’t think I need to argue very hard to make the point that entertainment – in whatever form – does have value. Now suppose that instead of the entertainment you’d come to expect, someone decided that it would be better monetized by breaking it up into small chunks that only take a minute or so to “enjoy” and adding some form of hook that makes it maximally addictive. For the movie example, suppose you can watch it on your iPhone in 2 minute increments, each of which ends in a cliffhanger…and you can’t watch the next part until you’ve either (a) waited 5 minutes, (b) payed a dollar, or (c) texted all your friends and told them to watch the “movie”, too.
Now suppose that a huge amount of people – say, everyone on Facebook – started getting hooked on “mini-movies” by Mynga, Inc. Suppose it’s enough to sway the motion picture industry to start thinking “Hey, let’s start making all our movies that way – these Mynga guys are making a killing!”
Yeah. This is what they’re doing to games.
Computers are amazing machines. Add networks to computers and they become powerful tools for doing useful things; without being able to communicate with one another, their utility is pretty limited. In a strange twist of irony, add The Interwebitubes to the computers and the networks and they become powerful tools for not doing things. Couple impressive computing power with multi-tasking and an amount of information that is infinite in terms of human capacity to consume even a small portion of it and you’ve created a Distraction Machine. Now litter those Machines around your home and office, put that Machine on a device small enough to fit in your pocket, and you’ve got a recipe for spending the rest of your days dying of slow wankery – both in the literal and the figurative sense.
All kinds of articles, blog posts, and other kinds of things have been written about this constant distraction that is the Internet, and that’s all well and good; if we can understand and describe the problem then maybe we can hope to combat it. But what I’m more interested in is its impact on RL.* Now we can argue all day whether things on the Internet – games, writing, relationships – are more or less “real” than things in RL. I’ll only say in passing that I would argue that they absolutely are. (If you disagree with me, let me know how it goes when you call up Visa and tell them you think your account should be credited because “things on the Internet ‘don’t count'”.) When I say I’m interested in the Internet’s impact on RL, I mean the state of distraction that seems to extend beyond my time at the keyboard.
Simply put: I feel that I’ve lost the ability to focus. I mean really focus. There was a time when I could get caught up in a project or a book or a conversation and really stick with it. Not just give the illusion of paying attention while my mind is elsewhere, I mean actually engage my whole self in that thing in its entirety. I don’t think I’ve lost this ability completely – I still occassionally get wrapped up in a novel and end up reading “just one more chapter” until it’s 4AM. However, my capacity for doing so is certainly diminished. Now, I don’t mean to villainize the Internet as the sole cause of this. I’m getting older, I have bills to pay and “things to worry about”, I probably drink more than I should…all contributing factors. But when I have to bust out Ommwriter to block out everything else on the screen in order to write three paragraphs of text, it seems like there might be a problem. Writing code – something I used to be really good at immersing myself in, whether I was objectively good at it or not – is something I haven’t even been able to focus on lately. Something is amiss.
At any rate, I’d like to try an experiment. I think…I hope…that writing might be able to help me get back to where I need to be, focus-wise. So I’m going to try it. I’m still trying to work out the details of how much to write, how often, should it be made public, and all of that. I’m thinking something along the lines of “500 words per day”. Every day. I’ll let you know how it goes (hopefully). 🙂
* RL – “real life”, as it pertains generally to “Things *Not* On the Internet”
Note: I would probable be remiss if I didn’t include some attribution to Seth Godin’s post about “talker’s block” as inspiration for this and subsequent posts. So here it is.