Video game addiction is definitionally a controversial subject, given that there’s disagreement over whether such a thing even exists. If we separate the clinical concept from the colloquial usage of the term, we’re more likely to be able to come to general agreement. Everyone has known someone (assuming you haven’t been the someone) who, at one point or another, spent way too much time buried in a game and way too little engaged with the world around them.
Most recently, discussions on video game addiction and inappropriate player retention techniques have focused on issues like the use of microtransactions and loot crates. Players have a variety of concerns surrounding these issues, including the use of gambling mechanics to generate revenue and increase customer engagement. The question of whether MMORPGs are overly addictive is the sort of topic that was being debated more widely about a decade ago.
It felt nearly retro to see the headline “World of Warcraft Changed Video Games and Wrecked Lives” go by at Vice. It’s a topic with some personal resonance for me. The article describes what happened to several people who describe themselves or their loved ones as World of Warcraft addicts who played and engaged with the game to a much greater degree than was healthy.
Why Are MMO’s Easy to Get ‘Stuck’ In?
Multiple people Vice spoke to identified World of Warcraft as offering a supportive community for various identity issues or life struggles they were going through at the time, even if they often felt that their own relationship with the game had fundamentally been an unhappy one. This dovetails with my own thinking. While I never allowed World of Warcraft to take over my own life, I played a great deal of the game during some tumultuous and difficult years. I participated in the PvP grind that the Vice article discusses and wear my “Commander” tag to this day. I saw people become colloquially “addicted” to WoW, in the sense that WoW became central to their lives. It’s not that everybody quits their job and becomes a full-time player, so much as being able to count on people to show up around 6 PM and hang around until 10-11 PM, 5-7 nights a week.
Vice’s article hints at part of the reason why this happens: community. Players in WoW self-sort themselves into guilds for the purposes of raiding endgame dungeons and (more rarely) for PvP. It’s not uncommon, at this point, for long-time WoW players to have real-world friendships that have transcended the game. While I am not in regular contact with the vast majority of people I played WoW with, I remain friends with a double-digit group of people that I met solely as a result of our mutual travels through Azeroth.
But WoW didn’t just offer a community. It offers a chance to succeed publicly, to be recognized for that achievement, and to feel as though you are making a positive contribution to something larger than yourself. Leading a group of 25-40 people through a series of choreographed fights while they variously alt-tab, argue, bio break, check Thottbot, check YouTube, get distracted, make food, kill random trash, and occasionally kill bosses felt like an achievement at the end of the night, especially if you’d refrained from throttling the guild leader after he speculated that we should just give all the caster DPS loot to mages by default in the middle of a raid.
Most of the addiction stories that Vice recounts are from earlier in WoW’s history, when the game required a significantly higher time commitment than it does today. That’s one reason why the second parts of my WoW leveling comparison haven’t appeared yet. It’s not that I haven’t logged time in-game, it’s that the amount of time required to level goes up substantially in Classic, while Retail remains a comparative sprint. One of the reasons why people used to log more time in WoW is that WoW used to require it in order for you to be truly successful. In the Classic era, you couldn’t make enough gold from raiding to support the cost of raiding in an endgame progression guild — you had to play the game on top of that.
It’s this combination that I think made WoW (and MMOs in general) “addictive” in ways that a single-player RPG like Skyrim or Dragon Age: Origins really isn’t. First, you’re interacting and socializing with a group of friends you’ve generally chosen to play with. Second, you’re actually working at something that requires some dedication and commitment to succeed. You didn’t have to be a great player to wind up in endgame gear, but a good progression guild had standards and demanded that people show up on-time with buffs on and ready to play. Maybe your clever use of Divine Protection kept the main healer alive when a fear caught the main tank off-guard. Maybe you knew how to stance dance to maximize rage generation. Maybe you were the Druid with a fast-fingered battle rez or the hunter who could always be relied on to handle an add or take Drak for a walk. Maybe you’re the rogue tank who makes snarky comments about how well you can hang with plate wearers and then winds up splattered down the side of Blackrock Mountain.
(I never said all these comparisons were going to be complimentary).
Regardless of the role you played, being good at WoW offered social interaction and validation in a way that a single-player game doesn’t. It was difficult enough to “feel” like work in some psychologically important ways, without being so hard as to represent a challenge on par with the pits and snares of everyday interaction.
Should Blizzard Have Made WoW Less Addictive?
It would be a mistake to pretend people weren’t asking this question 10-14 years ago. Everquest had already been nicknamed “Evercrack” before WoW hit the scene. Nor do I recall Blizzard taking enormous pains to help people disconnect from WoW, though there were a few hint messages that would pop up in-game from time to time reminding players to take a break and only enjoy the game in moderation. It’s worth asking, yes, if Blizzard could have done more than it did. But it’s also worth remembering that MMOs were a lot newer than they are now, with smaller playerbases. World of Warcraft was the game that popularized the MMO genre like no other title ever had.
It’s easy to forget now, but in 2004, Blizzard was the new kid trying to break into the market. I still remember reading head-to-head comparisons of WoW versus Everquest 2, some of which predicted that WoW would be the game to fall by the wayside as Everquest 2 took over EQ1’s built-in player base. The other facet of the conversation that’s easy to lose is that World of Warcraft was hailed at launch for requiring less grinding and being more accessible to individuals than any MMO had been before. Blizzard set out to make a game that was easier for people to play, with less frustrating roadblocks and readily accessible fun.
Vice brings up the WoW PvP grind as an example of a place where the game took a catastrophic wrong turn, and I’ll tell you, they aren’t wrong about that. The PvP of original WoW was an extreme grind. Unhealthily so. But it’s also a system that Blizzard modified even before The Burning Crusade launched, before dumping it altogether. This aspect of the game was gone, never to return, by 2007. Classic WoW might recreate that system, but it does so at the explicit request of the player base.
The problem with declaring that Blizzard should have made WoW less addictive in the run-up to launch in 2004 is that it assumes game designers have a perfect understanding themselves of where that line is or that it’s easy to parse such information from the mountains of player feedback that millions of first-time MMO players were churning out. Blizzard was attempting to build a game that would meet the expected requirements of players who wanted a “hardcore” experience against those from “casual” players that wanted the game to be more accessible. The other term for casual players was “filthy casuals,” which gives you some idea how much these two groups of people got along with each other. From its launch, however, WoW moved consistently in one direction — towards making it easier for people to play for smaller amounts of time.
I think it’s much fairer to criticize WoW and Blizzard for the degree to which they acknowledged that some WoW players did have problems with addiction as the game moved forward, or even to argue that the game could have included features intended to check on players who were playing too much as time went on. At the same time, virtually every change Blizzard has made over the past 15 years has been aimed at making it faster to play WoW. The PvP grind? Gone for well over a decade. Reputation grinds? Much faster. Unlocking major abilities like flying and mounts? Happens much quicker in the game. You don’t even need to visit trainers to learn skills any longer. The game has been categorically overhauled to make it faster and easier to play, and these changes haven’t all been dumped in at one point — the game began evolving in this direction in 2004 and it hasn’t really stopped at any point.
Ultimately, I found the Vice piece somewhat frustrating — not because I doubt that WoW had a negative impact on people’s lives, but because it doesn’t really engage with the fact that World of Warcraft was, ultimately, a product of its time and designed the way it was in part to meet the demands of its own player base. It doesn’t engage with the fact that much was learned in the gaming industry as a result of World of Warcraft or that the game as it exists today is, in a very meaningful sense, not the title that it was in 2004. It doesn’t really engage with the difficult question of how to help people who get hooked into video games (or any other form of entertainment). It doesn’t touch on the fact that compared with the modern era’s loot crates and microtransactions, the idea that people would spend insane amounts of time grinding Dark Iron rep or killing mobs in PvP purely for in-game rewards comes off as rather quaint and self-assured.
That’s one thing about WoW Classic that I intended to put into its own article but that I’ll pull out for this one. WoW Classic is confident in its willingness to ask you to spend time doing things. It doesn’t ask you to buy microtransactions to speed things along. It doesn’t advertise the ability to purchase six Onyxia Death Tokens to get more chances at her loot drops on your next kill. It just… takes a while. Far from trying to climb in your pockets and rifle them for spare change, WoW Classic says, “This is going to take a while. Let’s have some fun along the way.” World of Warcraft Classic is striking to play partly because it exists in an era before game developers treated player time investment as a monetizable commodity.
There are more nuanced ways to explore the question of why people are drawn into MMO worlds than Vice has engaged in here — questions that range beyond the mechanics of the game and explore the social aspects that draw people together. Some of the people Vice spoke to clearly touched on these issues with discussions of identity and finding like-minded communities of players. The topic is more complicated than this treatment ultimately addressed.