In which I actually do think of the children

5 min read

A friend asks me, not judgmentally but apropos of nothing, “What kind of parents will World of WarCraft players be?”

Besides absent, you mean? Well. There are those people who seem to feel that having a child is the ultimate in avatarism – that is, that same impulse that keeps people paying Blizzard $14 a month so they can point at their character and say “look how awesome” is clearly operational in child-rearing amongst stage mothers and other railroaders, with the showbiz auditions and/or med schools and law careers of their children taking the place of elite-level mounts. The rest of the MMORPG phenomenon is harder to map to parenting on these terms, and truthfully, I don’t find parents in particular very interesting. I mean, I like my own parents fine, they’re interesting. And yours are too, I’m sure; look, that’s not what I meant by “particular,” really, I just – oh, just go to the next paragraph already.

See, parents are only one of the many conduits through which kids learn to be human beings. Teachers are another big one, and television is too. And now, yep, computers, networks and games are a huge and growing part of it. So let’s switch gears completely and talk about the psychology of achievement, and the way WoW and games like it (reaching all the way back to the roots of Dungeons and Dragons in the late ’70s) exploit our basic drive for status.

A friend who wishes to remain anonymous puts it this way, in a post about friends who get nothing done due to a WoW habit:

And I extend my loathing to Blizzard, which must know exactly what it’s doing, too, since they work so hard on making that nothing feel like something. Not just through game design, but through emphasis on a meta-game that helps assure its addicts that it is a meaningful activity, a dynamic social interaction, a shared artwork that all its players participate in. I declare this to be a colorful icing of bullshit that masks the endless grinding, the overlapping missions, the constant pleasurable stimulus to the I’m-getting-better-and-stronger register that is the heart of MMORPG play and the reason that it’s very easy to keep at it for hours and hours.

(Emphasis mine.) Huzzah, psychology of non-achievement. On which subject: here’s a book called Generation Me (found via danah), all about the pitfalls of a self-esteem-focused educational system. Which sounds like a terrible thesis, at least if you’re a card-carrying member of the nurturant-parent moral model like I am. But that’s just the fallacy of the excluded middle rearing its head: as a comment on that Amazon page says, self-esteem is great and necessary for kids, when it’s based on an actual achievement – something to feel good about yourself for. It’s when self-esteem for its own sake is the prize you put your eyes on that problems start to result.

How do we bring this back around to WoW? I’m thinking it might – might – be materially better to base children’s self-esteem on virtual achievement than on no achievement at all. Replace the methodology of self-esteem at all costs (although I don’t think this methodology is really all that common anymore – at least, if they used it on me, I didn’t notice! *rimshot*) with a somewhat safe, controllable online environment in which kids can “achieve” things and build up their sense of themselves (where your “sense of yourself” literally equates to your on-screen avatar).

I mean, this’d be totally execution-dependent; for starters, if you don’t want kids to see right through the supposed achieveyness of it, thereby potentially taking you right back to square one, then you’ll have to make sure the environment in which they’re achieving things is also a tool they can feel in control of to some degree, that they have input into and help create. I’m thinking here of the desks from Ender’s Game – windows into a virtual reality that reflects the issues, fears and drives of the child who interacts with it. In short, the “colorful icing of bullshit” to which my friend referred will have to be made real. We’re obviously still a long way from that, but I think that with their emphasis on distributed story-building instead of concentrating a game’s story in the hands of the author-referee, story games are waving a hand in the general direction.

Just to drift further, a final thought: it is said (not by me, necessarily; I’m persuaded but not convinced) that men’s ways of talking tend to emphasize status differences between people, whereas women’s ways of talking emphasize connections between people. The gaming lineage that runs from D&D to WoW: all about status. By going back to the tabletop and starting to figure out how to make the game about designing the game world together, are we now inventing an entirely new, more connection-rich – and therefore more essentially female – tradition of gaming? (Boy, is this one a can of worms. I’ll have to expand on this in another post; and yes, I’ll find you a link about that central status-vs.-connection argument when I do.)