But…I wanna be a hero in MMOs!

Wolfshead published an interesting article yesterday in which he questions heroism in current, popular MMOs and criticizes the player base’s need to feel like heroes all the time. And I do see an issue with spoiling your gaming audience very much myself; the overkill of things ultimately undermining all their value.

However, if you were to go as far as to say that the player’s wish for heroism in WoW & Co. was wrong or somehow the wrong thing asked of the wrong genre, a detrimental thing even, I would very much have to disagree with that premise. The wish that drives us to certain books or movies, drives us into playing online games too and it’s neither wrong nor sad wanting to feel like a hero in MMOs. In fact I wouldn’t be playing them if that wasn’t part of the deal.

I want to be a hero if nothing else

In one passage, Wolfshead questions the “by proxy”-effect that attracts “normal people” to the more heroic: those iconic, shiny beings that lead seemingly exciting and perfect lives under a public eye, celebrities of all flavors but also countless fictional characters, protagonists of movies, books, comics or video games. Virtual or not, they represent virtues and qualities we wish we had and for a short moment they lend us a little piece of that imaginary glamour which can be addictive enough to turn a fan into a die-hard groupie, following his idol around the globe for 5 minutes of VIP-pass glory.

People cult has always been big for this reason; if you can’t lead a so-called glamorous life yourself, at least you can watch those that do with envy or admiration. Nevermind that other, less presentable side of the coin – the pressure such people bend under, the non-existent social life, the fake friends, the complete sell-out of privacy, the uppers and downers to keep them steady on their feet. If we can’t be shiny, someone has to be. And it better be so.

I’d like to think that I have a good life, a better life in fact than most, no matter how easily forgotten. The fact that I’m writing this article on my internet-blog, in my free time on my warm bed, is testimony to such blessed privilege. I’m also no person for people cult which I find silly regarding celebrities and disgusting in politics, to name two more popular, public phenomena. Maybe it’s because looks rarely impress me and I never feel particularly inferior to or in awe of anyone on grounds of mere social status, looks or titles. While we’re at it: Royalty is a joke. Thanks for listening!

I’ve always had a soft side for fictional heroes though; those had the power to inspire me beyond all limits, be they from classic novels, hero or fairy tales, sometimes even an RPG. I have confessed before how I carry quotes around in my head and how that adds meaning to life for me at times. Yep, I am that normal a person. And if you liked to measure me, then yes I probably have a boring and “uneventful” life. I sit behind a desk everyday, like millions do, I (struggle to) pay taxes, I feed my (lazy) cats. The weekend is the highlight of my average week and if it includes a BBQ with old friends and a good glass of red, I am happy. If my partner still brings me flowers out of the blue after so many years (or remembers anniversaries *gasp*), I am fucking euphoric.

I don’t slay dragons and I don’t save the princess like the heroes in my stories do. I still do the dishes by hand instead of wiggling a finger. And God knows, I’d make for a lousy adventurer – I wouldn’t get through the first wood without hopelessly getting lost (been there, done that) and I’d be halfway through my provisions by noon. So just sometimes, I wish I was a bit more like my heroes; a little bit more than myself. Sometimes I long for the epic and magical in my everyday life. And you know what: that’s okay. It’s neither sad nor “desperate” – it’s just life. Unpretentious and real, Mr. Thoreau. That doesn’t make it any less of a life, maybe it just makes me honest a person.

…That’s why we love stories and lose ourselves in them, that’s why we get absorbed watching the Lord of the Rings for the 10th time (extended), that’s why we play mighty warriors and dark mages in games: it’s called escapism. Mankind has done it for thousands of years, in furs, on smokey incense, with bone and dice. So yes, I want to be a hero in my MMOs; I don’t want to play accountant and write reports with my pen on planet reality. I want epic skills, I want to be powerful and kick some magic ass with a flaming sword!

If I can’t be a hero in a game I play so utterly, what’s the goddamn point???

The dragon – hero equation

There’s an article I wrote some time ago, early into this blog, that I keep coming back to like a broken record (I apologize at this point). It’s the never ending story of game difficulty level vs. meaning in MMOs, cost vs. reward and how they are opposites that rely strongly on each other to survive in perpetual balance. Hard-won victories last forever – easy rewards mean little no matter how purple they are. There is no adventure, nor real heroism where there are no struggles and challenges to face; your book’s protagonist is hardly a hero if he has no fears and demons to overcome, no dragons to slay.

And this is where me and Wolfshead agree completely: the doom of easy and numerous rewards in this genre we love so much, the loss of depth, adventures and stories because we get fed so much candy we lose all tolerance for downtimes , for exclusive content with high requirements and earning our passage. Along with that, a sort of baffling player self-entitlement, no doubt bred in MMOs like WoW that have overdone it on access, balance and fast rewards.

I don’t think that wanting to be a hero in games has any part in these issues though, I really don’t. In fact, I’d turn the table and say that it’s exactly because of this excess that there can’t be any heroes in today’s WoW (as opposed to there being superheroes everywhere) and that’s what’s leaving so many players feeling slightly unfulfilled – how could they not be in the absence of hard requirements and obstacles to make for such a title? It’s really hard to be a pioneer under such circumstances. And that’s what actually makes me sad and desperate. 

In the end I’d rather be me

We all long to be a hero at times. Maybe we even wonder: if life ever gave us the chance to a moment of lasting pathos, would we be brave enough? In video games and MMOs especially, that are so much about escaping, adventuring and immersion, we get to re-invent ourselves a little and unlike to just reading a story, we get to be interactive. Our real lives might be “average”, but in Azeroth we hurl firebolts at our foes. On our way to work, we cringe at our reflection in the morning mirror, but at night that elvish cloak and sparkling armor sit just tight.

And I know, I might never write that novel that keeps robbing me of my sleep. I might never be able to afford that fairy hut or spooky castle I would call a home. And I might just have to accept one day that neither love nor friendship are as perfect nor epic in this life as they always are in the best of stories, the ones which spoil us so utterly with hopeless ideals early on in our lives. And just maybe that’s a good thing too; because the epic and tragic lie close together and usually come at great cost. Just like heroism comes with high risk and hardship. We are not always ready for what we wish for.

Just maybe, a normal, “uneventful” life is not so bad after all. And being that hobby hero at night – in virtual worlds where death isn’t permanent and dragon’s breath is made of pixels. I like things that way.

18 comments

  1. You’d think the mundane life would be too plain and boring to be turned into a game, and yet The Sims does just that, lets me wash my virtual dishes.

    But you’re right, we like our grand stories. Sturm und Drang! We’ve been craving them for centuries and will continue to do so.

  2. Ahhhh…yes. I used to love reading Goethe and Schiller, long live Sturm und Drang! =P

    And you’re quite right; there is enough fascination in washing the laundry and feeding the cats to make for other games. I was mostly responding to the more general tone in Wolfshead’s article that I found a bit dismissive in places – I agree with the main underlying issue, but I choose my angle slightly different. my life might be ‘normal’ yeah and I actually choose normal gladly.

    no wrong in virtual heroism or even shiny rewards; imo the main issue is that these things are so numerous and easily acquired (in WoW). I find that an important distinction to make.

  3. Aww well said Syl :) Nothing wrong with daydreaming..
    If someone offered me superpowers tomorrow, no way I’d actually take them.. oh the pressure :)

  4. There is nothing wrong with the idea of being a big fancy Internet Dragon slaying hero, but I for one would like the choice to be something that people would consider mundane.

    Some days I want to log onto City of Heroes and be a Hero sort of like Cpt. America. Other days I open up Terraria and mine stone so I can built a neat house.

    Basically, I agree with the idea that there is nothing wrong with being the hero and it is fantastically fun to do so in a game. But we can’t turn on our heads and say nobody should be just a Blacksmith either.

  5. The thing is.. I would _totally_ abuse invisible. I just wouldn’t trust myself with it. I’m afraid if someone did give me superpowers I’d use them for evil, not be Superman. And then my massive feelings of guilt would kick in, and I’d be Emogirl because I couldn’t save _everyone_ :)

    Yeah, invisible is kind of appealing.. the one I wouldn’t be able to resist is controlled time travel though :)

  6. What bugs me about MMOs is that they aren’t a good place to be a hero. There are altogether too many heroes, and the very nature of heroism undermines the stories that the devs try to tell. Why is Cairne really, truly dead? Because the world doesn’t work the same way for NPCs as it does for PCs. The underlying fiction of a world of player heroes just tears apart the fabric of a cohesive game world, even as the crucial NPCs try valiantly to make their way in the world.

    Player heroes make fine sense in single player games, since the world can be molded to the narrative of what a single player might do. The DIKU grind and multiplayerness of an MMO really undermine the nature of heroism.

    Of course, if you throw out the huge power differential and make NPCs play by the same rules as PCs, things could get interesting. In other words, if these games were more like worlds where heroism were merely possible instead of all but assured, I think heroism might have more value.

  7. Coincidentally, I think what I said about balance and what you say about heroes share a similarity – that’s it’s the striving for it that matters.

    I don’t think any of us expect to suddenly be swept off to some adventure where we suddenly perform in our (my) out of shape body feats of heroism. I think, though, as you say, that our wanting to be a little more like our heroes improves who we are. Perhaps it provides a little more confidence in an otherwise shaky situation, maybe it allows us to stand up for something we believe in, even if it’s on a smaller-than-world-changing scale, or maybe it gives us courage to turn off the bedside lamp after we watch a horror movie (that’s more my wife than me), but whatever the case, it improves our self.

    Whatever the case is, access to heroism is never a detriment. How we interpret that access may be, but that’s on us, not the genre.

    Great post!

  8. There’s a distinction between having fantastic powers, having the opportunity for heroic actions, and being called a “hero”. I think the main thing that Wolfshead is against is the default assumption that the player is always the hero, the center of attention, particularly when it practically requires a focus on a solo player.

    Let’s take a look at those escapist stories we all love. Would LotR be as great if it were just Frodo trudging along to dispose of The One Ring? Not really. Not only Sam, but the stories of Aragorn, Elrond, Gandalf, and the others are what elevate LotR from childish fancy to epic tale. Hell, just look at Sam and see how for most of the story he’s basically dragged along without doing anything as flashy heroic as reforging a lost sword or commanding the dead, but he has his own quiet heroism and is there at the right place at the right time to make all the difference.

    I think that’s what a lot of people are pining for. A bit less quest giver handing out The One Ring to ever Chosen One who noticed the glowing punctuation over the head, and a bit more opportunities for real heroism whether we’re the future king, the poor guy hauling the cursed ring to enemy territory, or just the good friend who is there to lend the right words to the ringbearer at the right time to truly win the day and make an epic difference.

  9. @StrawFellow

    I completely agree with that. I wonder though, is there a pressure not to be “just a blacksmith” in today’s MMOs – are we forced to be superheroes in epics instead?

    I’d certainly like to get back to a more balanced and ‘mundane’ game progression, as you called it; today’s overkill is bad on nearly every level (epic gear and epic status should be something special). however, I also know that while WoW for example leaves little space for players to do or be something else, there are also a great many players who choose to go overboard wherever they can. so I guess it’s the question of what was first: the egg or the chicken?

    @Issy
    Time travel! =O
    now there’s a scary thought! ever since I saw that Simpsons episode where Homer wrecks reality by killing a jurassic mosquito, I am more than weary of such things, too much can go wrong! /fear

    @Tesh
    “if these games were more like worlds where heroism were merely possible instead of all but assured, I think heroism might have more value.”

    Definitely. it’s a matter of how rare and special you allow it to be. the thing is, in today’s MMOs there is no willingness to deal with high requirements and the potential to miss out any aspect of content. accessibility kills heroism, in a nutshell. you can’t have it both ways.

    I think we have two definitions of ‘hero’ in this discussion by the way, I haven’t exactly been plain on it (Brian points it out in his comment), I realize. ^^
    I don’t ask to be the ‘superhero’ all the time, but I consider myself a hero/adventurer in the MMOs I play, already due to setting and the ‘potential’ content I can experience. if the game only ever offered me to run around in rags and have no special powers, I would dislike that just as much as the other extreme. but I certainly expect the world, its npcs and mobs to outclass me often enough. the crux lies in balance.

  10. @Stubborn
    Thank you! :) and indeed, the access needs to be there; I’d say it is up to the game though how high or low the benchmarks are being set. it’s a very tricky line to tread and right now nobody is managing it to my satisfaction.

    @Brian
    Very well said. there is very little room for such a variety in heroism in current MMOs. heroism is strictly defined over endgame/raids and gear pretty much and those aren’t even particularly hard to access. things are far from how I’d personally like them to be.

    you justly pointed out the differences in two ‘hero’ definitions too; I am aware of it which is why I emphasized that I understand Wolfshead’s basic message and agree with it too (I have been an avid reader of his for a long time). I still felt that in some places of the article and the following comments, the very human dream of being a hero was put in a bad light, as if that was factoring into the general issue (which is where I would differ). So this post is my attempt to distinguish the two.

  11. “Maybe it’s because looks rarely impress me”

    thanks for adding an exception in my case.

    muahahaha… *run and hide

    theB

  12. It’s nearly impossible to be truly heroic in any game, though. TO be heroic means to exceed your capabilities and those around you, to go the extra mile, to put yourself willingly in great danger for the benefit of others, and to forsake your own glory for the greater good. The people we look up to as heroes in real life do exactly that.

    Mechanics like the spirit healer render that meaningless. Yes, there’s a minor repair bill for death, but imagine if there wasn’t. Would you willingly play the way you do if at level 84 with 96% XP, you died and had to reroll?

    Part of the reason we also feel unfulfilled is that franky, we’ve devalued our heroes in every other medium, yet are desperate for them. Superman is now as flawed as we are, chasing after a married woman, Batman’s darker than ever, and our real life heroes spend most of their days avoiding a news media ruthlessly trying to dismantle them to sell the latest pulp on the news-stand. We lack heroes in real life, we devalue our other fictional ones, and our one escape provides no opportunity for real heroism.

  13. I basically had the exact opposite problem and I think that is where one of the biggest pitfalls lie in portraying the player as a hero too much.

    While I know that this is in no way intended as such (the Lich King basically calls us ‘teh bestest d00ds evar’) and that for almost every other player this (probably) lays differently, the fact can’t be denied that we just aren’t the protagonists of this story. Those roles have been put aside by the Thralls, Malfurions and and Varians of Azeroth.

    I got the feeling that all my efforts would be nullified by going into history in WoW lore in a sentence along the lines of ‘… and together with many of the heroes of Azeroth …’
    I overcame this problem by seeing my role in the world differently.
    We, the players, aren’t so much heroes in the traditional sense but more like adventurers with powers beyond that of normal beings, who help the make the world a better place due to a sense of righteousness and for a small fee, good willing mercenaries if you will ;). I know this takes a bit of imagination but I’ve since enjoyed my time in WoW much more.

    My name doesn’t have to be stated along the likes of Thrall or Malfurion because I, my character, simply does not care. I just simply did what had to be done and now you better show me something shiny and purple.

    I play on an RP server and while I don’t actively rp I like my toons to have a backstory with a bit of substance and it helps me feel more immersed with the world around me.

    /long comment is long

  14. @Christopher
    That is a very dark way of looking at things, but I get what you’re trying to say. I’m not sure I agree that we have no heroes anymore, I think the world is full of quiet heroism, it’s just not usually found in the spotlight.
    as for games, I think it goes into what Brian mentioned as well – there’s 2 ways of looking at heroism; I don’t ask to be the unbeatable super-hero, but I ask for escapism and some magic for my alter egos in MMOs.

    @Bana
    That’s right, the real heroes in WoW are found in its lore, they’re not us numerous players. you can rename it if you like, and call us adventurers then – it doesn’t really change anything for me (or what I ask from the game). I never found it an issue personally that there are thousands of people on my server sharing the same ‘story’ as myself – I never paid attention to that. I always felt like an important and special figure in the story, not just like ‘some citizen’ of that world. I already am some citizen irl.. maybe I just need a little pathos every now and then. ;)

  15. I have nothing against the point you’re trying to make and I understand what you’re getting at. Reading back on my comment maybe I could’ve worded it less vague.

    What I meant to say was people who do feel either too much or too little heroic might regain a bit of joy in the game they invest so much time and money in if they approached it differently.

    I’m always in for enhancing my experience in new and interesting ways. That being said, I firmly stand against exploiting bugs and glitches for anything other than exploring, just so you know. ;)

    On the topic of superpowers, I’d LOVE to be able to control time and space at will. I would also never entrust myself with that power if I could help it. :P

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