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Self-Help? on Game and Player


Michael Ubaldi  //  October 8, 2007

On leaving people to their own fun.


egard: an op-ed article "World of Warcraft Teaches the Wrong Things" by Street Fighter virtuoso David Sirlin. World of Warcraft is game developer Blizzard Entertainment's popular Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game, or MMORPG, inviting players to lead their own fantasy characters through an expansive online realm on open-ended adventures with thousands of other players simultaneously — a costumed scavenger hunt of a video game whose seductive nature has been compared to that of the casino slot machine.

Sirlin had better revise his article lest too many readers decide that it should in fact be titled "World of Warcraft Not Conducive to David Sirlin's Personal Achievement, and Reasons Therefor." In quoting Justice Potter Stewart and Raph Koster to place "fun" in relative terms, Sirlin would deprive himself of his primary argument insofar as "fun," not "work," is subjective. If it is legal and ethical and not meant to be serious, whose business is anyone's frivolity? Yet that is not what Sirlin does: he tells us that "fun" cannot be had without efficiency or purpose — and not just for him, but everyone.

Sirlin identifies himself as an "introvert." Fine. But by his own description he is in fact one particular kind of introvert, a directive and exclusory introvert who is driven by efficiency, competence and achievement — and susceptible, when theorizing on sociology, to projection.

That lack of perception directs Sirlin's principal criticism of World of Warcraft: Blizzard's apparent value of participation, especially commitment of time, over that of singular accomplishments. Sirlin calls it "absurd," which he can, and claims that it "has no connection to anything [he] does in real life," which is probably true. Now, what about everybody else? What does Sirlin think of volunteer organizations, where time and energy is invested not for the sake of dividend or profile, but philanthropy? Or fraternal orders, or congregations, or parishes; wherein older members, when they pass on, are revealed to have quietly attended for fifty, sixty, seventy years? What does Sirlin make of seniority, tenure, or pension? Meritocracy is good; but it is an ideal, and it must contend with the tangible social values of loyalty and commitment.

Sirlin derogates inefficient use of time through the example of a commercial artist who boasts a fast turnaround. The artist generates "ten times more value than an artist of average skill" no matter how long the lesser artist works, he says; and that is true. But Sirlin implies that skill equals speed, prima facie — and that is baloney. Most crafts require periods of abeyance. Oil paint glazing is applied in successive coats, clay dries, plants mature, meat marinates. While the "grind" process of MMORPG leveling may be onerous Sirlin doesn't acknowledge the absence of meritocratic shortcuts in a five-lap race or a marathon. Nor does he seem to know what often constitutes a day of fishing.

World of Warcraft encourages cooperation between groups of players, institutionalizing it with associative guilds — and Sirlin condemns all this with the kind of weird absolutism of Ayn Rand and her (patently ironic) sycophants. His defense is introversion — but it is not so much that as it is pertinacious individualism. And worse still is his insistence on playing a team sport alone. "This game is marginalizing my entire personality type," he pleads. For Heaven's sake, Sirlin, don't play the game. Ah, but what about the great many "brainwashed"? Sirlin's determinism can't save them — yet if that were realistic, all gamers would always play MMORPGs. And they don't. Sirlin's Little Johnny will stay away from World of Warcraft's crowds if he doesn't care for them.

There are some curious errors in definition and contradictions in logic. Sirlin applies the words "tactics" and "strategy" to explanations interchangeably, further softening his argument. They are not synonyms. Tactics is the use of immediate surroundings through methods that suit the moment to meet short-term objectives; strategy is precise, detailed, sagacious and logically coherent planning to meet a long-term objective. Street Fighter is purely tactical; the essence of strategy is a turn-based game. World of Warcraft is probably somewhere in between, but Sirlin hardly helps us with that. Sirlin decries Blizzard's terms of service which proscribe certain activities and expressions, even though "there is an in-game language filter, to say nothing of free speech" — when in fact it is the First Amendment that constitutionally guarantees a private entity like Blizzard to regulate its commercial affairs as it wishes. And, finally, we are reminded that World of Warcraft only contravenes Raph Koster's definition of "fun," at the same time Sirlin promises to personally take action and efface alternate definitions of "fun," at the same time Sirlin evangelizes self-reliance.

There is nothing universally appealing about MMORPGs. I find them boring and consumptive. But I haven't a bone to pick, like Sirlin, who typed up a fustian screed when he should have been extruding his frustration in an off-broadway game of Street Fighter. Mr. Sirlin: smash buttons, not paradigms.

(This article was originally published on Figure Concord on February 24, 2006.)

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