Wednesday 29 June 2011

Value the acorn as much as the oak.

So I’ve spent the past few days in Lord of the Rings Online getting wood. Collecting wood, even. I haven’t been getting wood, I’ve been collecting wood. Collecting actual wood, well not actual wood, virtual wood, just not euphemistic wood (actual or virtual), because that would be weird and messy.

I’m not usually one for crafting, but I find myself of a completionist mindset with respect to my Warden, possessed of a sudden desire to fill in all the blanks, like one of those sticker books we used to have at school as kids, where we’d buy packets of stickers at the weekend and take any repeated ones in to school to swap with other kids for those stickers we still needed. There’d always be this intense frenzy of dealing in the school playground at lunchtime, like the floor of a stock exchange, as fifty miniature Gordon Gekkos desperately attempted to trade for the rare missing stickers they needed to complete their collection. Once you’d completed your sticker book you would, of course, bring it in to school and show it off for a day, before discarding it indolently to the bottom of a cupboard, never to be opened again. It was a curious craze which was never about the actual stickers or the book, but about the status of having reached The Completion Event. Often the books would have informative text that went beneath each sticker, telling you all about the footballer, or dinosaur, or doll on display, but many kids never read that text; most kids barely even registered the picture on the stickers, generally storing just enough information to instantly recognise it as one they still needed, so that they could quickly order a halt to the progress of the child standing opposite them, who was rifling through a deck of swaps with the alarming dexterity and speed of a Las Vegas croupier. This probably saved a lot of children from being mentally scarred for life back in my day when Garbage Pail Kids was one of the more popular brands, an album of images that my subconscious identifies as being part of the set of stickers I used to collect, but which my conscious mind looks on with bemused revulsion as I marvel at the grotesque carnival of imagery that I used to merrily deal with as a child.

Thank goodness we’ve all grown up and those crazy days are gone: of frantically accruing pointless and essentially worthless objects for no other reason than to impress our peers or to sate some genetically hard-wired hunter-gatherer instinct, all the while paying through the nose for the privilege.

Where was I? Ah yes, I was attempting to regale you with a tale of frantic accruement of non-euphemistic virtual wood in LotRO. Gathering is definitely one of those many tasks in an MMO where the reward and pleasure is found in The Completion Event rather than the task itself. It’s the danger many MMOs run with regard to content, where the players become focused only on the achievement of completing the task, rather than enjoyment of the task itself; sometimes this is because the task itself is dull, such as having to gather resources outside of the incidental collection that occurs as part of normal questing, and sometimes it’s because the players have optimised the enjoyment out of the task in order to maximise their reward, generally by minimising their time to the next completion event. That’s why, in part, the first ten levels of any MMO are so compelling and enjoyable even when the game itself isn’t new to the player, because completion events are fired in rapid succession into the pleasure centre of the player’s brain – it’s that hit of crack cocaine when the body has a well developed tolerance to the powder from years of abuse. Much like swapping stickers at school, there is still pleasure to be had in hunting the completion event, that lip-licking anticipation and dry-mouthed focus on the chase as the time spent grinding out the achievement draws to a close, but the actual task itself was never really designed with entertainment in mind.

Of course the most fun to be had with collecting stickers was buying the official packets from the shops, tearing them open and savouring the unforgettable smell of fresh print, forcing the token stick of gum into the only small recess in your bulging cheeks not already packed with sticky pink goo, then sorting through the new stickers, placing them in piles of ‘needs’ and ‘swaps’, before slapping the new stickers haphazardly into their numbered slots in your collection, and then totalling the empty slots and seeing how much closer you were to your goal. Swapping was often tedious, and involved interaction with characters whom you might otherwise try to avoid, but the only alternative was to pay money for more packets of stickers, where the odds would increasingly grow against you finding the stickers you needed as your collection grew in size. Some kids would attempt this –with parents obviously willing to fund such an approach– and you would see them walking around with stacks of unwanted stickers taller than they were, still searching, however, for those one or two cards that had eluded their purchasing power.

So I’m back to collecting wood, listening to podcasts and generally distracting myself and finding ways to entertain myself while I do it, the goal is worthwhile, but in-between listening to Mock the Week, The Now Show and The Infinite Monkey Cage, I can’t help but wonder if some of the elements of these games that we play could perhaps be designed to be more entertaining themselves, rather than a means to an end. Then again, I probably wouldn’t feel the need to go to the shop and buy another packet of stickers if swapping them was made fun in its own right.

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