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It’s only a game – or is it?

One newbie player’s experience in the virtual world

HOW do you react when you see someone sitting for hours at a computer, busy playing a game, or when you pass by a gaming centre and see rows of teenagers playing digital games, oblivious of their surroundings? Or do you think that it may be better for our youth to be spending time playing games than to be roaming the streets where they may meet up with bad company?

In 2003, about 73 per cent of teenagers surveyed played digital games. It is an easy bet that today the number of children and teenagers playing these games has increased. For the young players, games can be many things – a
means of relieving stress, a way to meet and socialise with online friends, an avenue to experiment with different
identities, and an experience of alternative reality.

One 15-year-old declared that without digital games, he would be a “nerd”. Another declared that she is learning so much from playing games that her life would be less exciting without them. But if you are a parent with children who are playing such games, it is very likely that you are concerned about the amount of time they are spending on it.

This begs the question – are games good or bad? Regardless of the inconclusive research evidence and continuous arguments and debates, digital games are here to stay. The fact remains that games are a billion-dollar industry.

There is a one-billion-dollar investment over 10 years to help gaming industries in Singapore. Not only did Singapore host the international World Cyber Games event in November 2005, there are plans to host more of such international events. Some schools have already established cyber games clubs as part of their co-curricular activities.

Others are contemplating setting up such clubs, if only to keep their students away from gaming centres.

Back to the more personal level, I am inspired to write this article because of parents I have met who expressed their worries that their children (more It’s only a game – or is it? One newbie player’s experience in the virtual world often sons than daughters) may become “addicted”. One mother told me that she was very glad at first, that her husband had decided to play Maple Story (a very popular online role-playing game) with her young son to help instil in him some form of discipline or self-control, but instead of one “addict”, she now has the problem of two!

So, last December, I decided that I had to learn about video games – in particular, Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG) – massive because there are millions of players all over the world who have subscribed to such games. I had to learn by playing a game myself – hands-on, and not just by reading journal articles on the studies conducted on players. I had to become a player myself. So, this article is about my personal experience of playing World of Warcraft, an MMORPG with 6 million players, more than our population of 4 million!


‘Regardless of the inconclusive research evidence and continuous arguments and debates, digital games are here to stay.’

I hope to share with readers, especially parents, why playing an MMORPG is so captivating, and why it is so hard to stop playing such a game. Maybe, better communication and relationships can result with such an understanding.

Imagine that you are a character in the world of Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring, or C. S. Lewis’ The Narnia Chronicles – the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and that you become an active member of the story which is continually evolving, and in which you play a role in deciding many of its outcomes. Games are like living novels with continuing narratives that have numerous plots and subplots which form part of your adventures.

In the World of Warcraft, my gamecharacter, Emdea, like all characters, has many missions or quests to undertake.

Quests tend to be part of a chain in the narrative, and having completed one quest, the desire to complete the next one is very strong. It is easy to become “addicted” in the relentless pursuit of quests and the attainment of higher and higher levels in the game.

Often, Emdea has only one or two more items left to complete the quest, or is close to reaching the next level, and it seems such a shame to stop when she is so close to reaching her goal. At times, because of miscalculation or underestimation of my enemies’ strengths, Emdea is killed and I become frustrated with my game play to have allowed this. I feel I have to continue playing in order to have the satisfaction of having redressed the situation.

Then there are quests that cannot be completed alone. When Emdea is engaged in a group quest, she plays the important role of helping the other players when they wounded in the fight. There is a strong obligation to reciprocate and help the others even when she has completed her quests, so I have to keep playing until my group members have achieved their goals.

Sometimes, the opportunity of playing with group members of a higher level presents itself. This means Emdea would be able to accomplish higher level quests much sooner. Now, it would be such a pity if she declined the invitation to play with such a group!

Over the weeks, I developed friendships, looking forward to ‘meeting’ my online friends and chatting about our work, our families, and anything under the sun. At times, I find that my friends have reached higher levels and are therefore on higher level quests. Thus, I am motivated to achieve as close a level as possible to that of Overcat, Bili and Holymn so as to keep up and maintain Emdea’s relationship with them.

When Emdea is not on quest, she may be journeying to a new territory. The 3-D graphics in the game are so realistic that the desire to explore the new landscape is strong. The newly discovered places appear on the map which helps Emdea to find characters and places required in the quests. Hence, there is a tendency to “set the stage” before the next play session so that when I next log on, Emdea can proceed straight away to achieve her goals.

In playing video games, there is a distinction between being “engaged” (highly involved) and being “addicted” and when one has crossed the line from being “engaged” to becoming “addicted”, although what constitutes “addiction” is not well understood and is the subject of much research.

Nevertheless, what proactive steps can a player take before this line is crossed? How do I extricate myself from the game and return from the exciting virtual environment, so full of adventures and challenges, to the mundane real world of responsibilities?

A few lessons learnt from playing World of Warcraft may help:

■ Set targets and time limit to achieve the quests to be accomplished. Before playing, I decide what quests I would like to complete and, if I have limited time, choose quests that I can complete by myself. At higher levels, quests become harder to achieve so targets should be adjusted to what is achievable given the time limit set.

■ Tell online friends or group members ahead how much time I will spend in the game, so that if the quest is too
long, I can leave the group without offending anyone.

If they need my skills in the game, telling them in advance gives them the opportunity to invite another player with similar skills so that they have a back-up, and I won’t feel obligated to stay on and help.

■ Maintain interests in hobbies and get new real life quests. Writing this article for Methodist Message is one such quest!

To players, virtual reality is really an alternative “reality” because the game world offers another experience, albeit in a world of fantasy, but your character soon becomes part of your identity. James Gee, who has written widely on games an learning, states that players project onto their virtual characters an identity that is based on their own selves.

Mr Nicholas Yee, who has researched on MMORPGs echoes this, and adds that games are “places where alternate
identities are conceived and explored. They are parallel worlds where cultures, economics and societies are being created.

They are environments where the relationships that form and the derived experiences can rival those of the physical world. They are platforms for social science research. They are places where people fall in love, get married, elect governors, attend poetry readings, start pharmaceutical business, and even commit genocide. Whatever MMORPGs are, or will become, one thing is clear. They are not just games.”

But life is certainly more than games, and as Christians, we certainly have much more important quests!

Dr Angeline Khoo, Associate Professor at the National Institute of Education, is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.

Make plans to attend a two-day conference on ‘A Christian’s Response to Addiction’ at Mrs Lee Choon Guan Concert Hall, ACS (Barker Road) on June 23 & 24, 2006. Call 6478-4716 or log on to www.mws.org.sg