Game Culture, Gamers, Play

Standing in the Fire: On Becoming Leet

One of the most intriguing things I discovered through my dissertation research was the different ways the women I interviewed played MMORPGs.*  It wasn’t a total surprise that not all of them were raiders, or engaged in end-game content or high-level dungeons.  I knew there were plenty of people that looked at MMOs as less solitary versions of “sandbox” games; those players who collect pets or level multiple alts, or who find role playing and creating back stories for their characters the most compelling reasons to enter the world.

This, of course, forced me to consider my own gaming approach.  My gaming history, which I discuss in the first chapter of my dissertation in greater length, started with a role playing game: Zork.  I spent hours exploring the underground empire, mapping and losing my way, and fighting Grues.  But I never felt compelled to “finish” the game.  I never had that drive to know the end of the story or finish the game content.

As I reflect on this now, I can see this idea through much of the gaming that I did later, although there were a few exceptions.  I vividly remember finishing Myst, feeling so powerful knowing I had completed even the most difficult puzzles, and then waiting with baited breath as Riven came out.  Even the later versions of Zork held the same appeal for me, and again I enjoyed getting to the end of the game.

When I started playing World of Warcraft, about six months before I started my Ph.D. program, I didn’t really understand the basic ideas behind any kind of end goal.  It was quite by accident that I ran my first dungeon, having been asked by someone else playing in the same zone to join a group running the Deadmines.  I remember feeling nervous as we entered, worried that I would fail the group since I knew my tanking skills were less than stellar.

Somehow that nervous feeling about being in a group, being relied upon to play well, never left me and colored my experience of all MMOs.  Through the interviews, I listened to many tales of epic wins and great success.  A clear theme through the interviews was the power almost all the players felt within the game, regardless of what kind of play they engaged in.

But it left me wondering what it might be like to be in a group that completed an epic raid, 25 people working together to the same end goal.  What would that experience be like?  How would I feel?  Could I experience that same sense of power I had when I finished a game on my own? Would it be more or less intense because I had to play with other people?

After months of playing, of learning my class (warlock) more carefully, of reading and researching and watching videos of other people play, and running endless versions of the same dungeons trying to get that one, last piece of gear I needed to up my item level, I finally got the chance to run a 25 person raid and take down Deathwing, the epic bad guy in the latest expansion of the game (Cataclysm).  It wasn’t pretty; many of the group, formed with the new raid finder within days of its release, were new to the raid and didn’t know the mechanics.  It took several wipes (where all 25 of us died) to finally reach the end.

It was, however, an amazing rush.  To see the progress the group made as a whole, even as we were being resurrected back from our dead bodies, there was sense that we were learning how to work as a unit.  There were a few people easily frustrated at the failures but just as many making jokes about how at least many of us got a new achievement when we died, most importantly “Stood in the Fire.”

I finished this raid with two guild mates, friends that I often game with, and it took a while for all three of us to come to this revelation.  Yes, it was madness, yes running a raid with the raid finder can be grueling, but look at what we just did.  We killed Deathwing.  We stood in the fire.  Did we get burned? Yes, but it was so worth it.

Lots of people these days talk about how gamers are great problem solvers and there is plenty of evidence to back that up.  Fewer people talk about the emotional aspects of gaming; perhaps, because they are less easy to quantify and measure.  Facing my fear in game, that sense of possibly letting the group down or being deemed “not good enough” changed how I see myself and reaffirmed that I am able, online and offline, to face my fears.

* I discuss the categories of gamers I discovered and some of my other findings in the second episode of my new podcast.

4 thoughts on “Standing in the Fire: On Becoming Leet”

  1. Very interesting post, Regina. Through all my years of playing in MMOs, I’ve never played end-game, either. But I know the feeling you describe.

    In one of the earlier games I played, Neocron, I was lucky enough to be accepted into a guild that was a hard-core RP guild. We were very highly structured, and anyone caught in even a single instance of OOC activity (“out of character” activity) were severely disciplined, even kicked from the group. Perhaps most wonderfully, we had an agreement with the developers, that the items we manufactured in a group would be sold to and then by NPC (“non-player character”) stores, earning us income. If we maintained absolute RP immersion, the developers allowed us special storefronts, and other perks.

    But beyond this, the leaders of our guild became leaders of the community, filling political positions and hammering out alliances and hostilities. Neocron was a PvP (“player vs player”) playground, and KOS (“kill on sight”) designations were meted out in a ruthless and single-minded fashion. Slights against even the weakest of a guild’s members could start an all-out war.

    And for a normally non-aggressive, peacenik person like me (even my playing style tends towards questing and exploring), it was glorious! I was never a key player, but my contributions to the guild – both in social strategy and firepower – was valuable. The backstory of my character was rich and deep; it had to be, in order to fully appreciate the gameplay. And when our guild came back from a “rumble” successfully, it was a complete and total rush.

    I’ve had other experiences like this – where what I accomplished ingame gave immense satisfaction in my personal life, and how I viewed myself. I can honestly say that my gaming has allowed me to be a more confident person in my walking world, although I also realize that my non-gaming friends would either not understand, or would roll their eyes in hearing such sentiment.

  2. I’ve been trying ti figure out, and maybe you can help me shed some light or at least some thinking on this, Wren, why it is that gaming is looked down on or even frowned upon a place of agency by non-gamers. I understand that not everyone has the same kind of experience gaming that I have and don’t have the same history and enjoyment that I’ve gotten from gaming.

    But what is it about gaming that makes success there less socially acceptable? I don’t knit or scrapbook or do crafts of any kind, but I know lots of people who love to knit and feel the same kind of rush of completion I describe above when they finish a new and challenging project. Or, even better, I have tons of friends that are runners and run marathons, something I think borders on crazy. But I whole heartedly appreciate the success and power they feel when they finish a run.

    I’ve often thought it’s because video gaming is new or that MMOs are different types of game play than sitting alone with a console or a desktop computer and gaming. But I don’t think there is much weight to that now. Games have been around too long and the stereotypes are being challenged. Maybe I should just take this as a sign that my work needs to continue.

  3. It might be that gamers have nothing to show for their efforts. There’s no physical product: a scrapbook, tomatoes from a garden, etc. Athletes have been made into a product. They’ve been accepted for their accomplishments for centuries. I enjoy watching sports but the notoriety these people get is ridiculous.

    So maybe it’s because gaming is not taken seriously as a hobby or job. “It’s a game.” Yes. And so is football. So does it lose value because it’s not a good spectator sport? Do you only get benefit from it if you are part of the culture?

  4. I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve never really been drawn to the gaming events that mimic sporting events – like the Starcraft competitions or even the short lived Miss Video Game. Part of what draws me to gaming, and part of what I love about the people that I play with, is the sense of camaraderie and the need we have to work together. Competition kinds kills that. Those gamers have trophies but it doesn’t make their successes any more significant than mine are, IMHO.

    I do think there is something to the dismissive nature of “it’s a game” and the relation to childhood that is a connotation of “playing a game.” I guess that I think the paradigm around gaming needs to change but that’s pretty much what I signed up for. 🙂

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