Games vs. Reality

I was reading Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun and something caught my attention. A quote: The only real difference between games and reality is that the stakes are lower with games.

Interestingly, this statement is becoming progressively less true over time. For example, the extremely successful Diablo franchise offered, among other things, a (“hardcore”) mode of play in which character death was permanent. People who opted for hardcore mode played in constant fear of the single mistake that would end their character (which may have survived through hundreds of hours of gameplay.) For them, every moment in-game was deadly serious.

MMORPGs have taken in-game consequence to the next level; not by introducing permanent death (in general, recent generations of MMOs have made death less punishing, not more), but by creating an environment in which the social consequences of your actions may be severe. As in real life, poor teamwork, cheating, etc in an MMORPG can cause people to avoid and/or badmouth you in the future. As social systems in some MMORPGs continue to evolve, this will become an increasingly powerful phenomenon with very real consequences for players.

The emotional connection that people have to their virtual characters and pets is quite strong. It’s remarkable to see descriptions or video clips of the elaborate rites that some people go through (in-game and out-of-game) when finally quitting an MMORPG. They lay their virtual pets to rest in the same way they might a real dog or cat. They quit their character with as much regret as they might quit a failed romantic relationship.

Of course, Raph knows all this. He was almost certainly talking about stakes in the broader sense; i.e. when you go mountain climbing, there’s a very real possibility that some accident could kill you. There’s a real chance you’ll wreck your car every time you test yourself by driving aggressively (or drive at all, for that matter!) So what he wrote is true, for the most part. I just felt a counterpoint was worthwhile.

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