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Why are MMOs so addictive?

Some modern MMOs are so full of money-grubbing mechanisms that it is okay to steer clear of them.

diablo immortal
Image: Blizzard

The word “addictive” has become very ugly within the gaming community, just like the words “Freemium” and “Pay to win.”

These days, when we think of something being addictive, we think of the stories we hear about kids spending on their parents’ credit cards, or grown adults stealing from companies to fund their loot box addictions. Yet, addictive used to mean something else. 

It used to mean a game you couldn’t put down. It used to mean staying up until 4 AM and wondering if you should even bother going to bed. It used to mean dreaming about a game while at school or at work, and quickly rushing to play it when you got home.

Some modern MMOs are so full of money-grubbing mechanisms that it is okay to steer clear of them. But, what of the old-fashioned variety of “Addictiveness?” What makes an MMO so appealing to a certain subset of our population?

The World is Often Cruel and Unforgiving

Let us start with the most profound reason why MMOs are so popular. They represent an imaginary world that offers fair escapism from the real world.

For some people, the world is often cruel and unforgiving. For other people, the daily routine and the daily real-life grind have made the world dull. MMOs offer a fair amount of escapism without the real-world drawing too near.

Perhaps one of the best games of the PS4 and Xbox One era was Red Dead Redemption 2. Yet, for some people, it edged ever so slightly close to reality to be enjoyable.

red dead redemption 2
Image: KnowTechie

It wasn’t the emotional story or the graphic violence. It was the hunting parts. When you hunted animals, they ran away in pain, they screamed, and you had to watch them being graphically skinned.

Even though these are just drawings in three dimensions, they were just a little too realistic for some. There are no popular MMO games that are realistic (in any sense of the word).

The closest was perhaps Conan, and that was hardly realistic (unless most slave rings are built with pre-installed slaves on them).

When the world is unforgiving and cruel or has become a little dull and grainy, then MMOs are a great escape.

Actions Equal Progress and a Sense of Achievement

Some people feel that MMOs and the whole Japanese RPG style gameplay is so addictive because it helps people feel achievement wherein their real life they feel none.

This has been inflated by the many addictive game mechanics that modern games hold, in which the level-up sound has an almost Pavlovian conditioning effect.

The reality of the issue is far more simple. People who have plenty of achievements in their lives are still able to become addicted to MMOs and RPG-style games. What matters is that actions equal progress. Actions equal achievement. 

immortals fenyx rising game
Image: Ubisoft

One of the biggest issues with depression and addiction is that they are related to control. If people feel they have no control over their lives, they fall into depression (aggression turned inwards), or they fall into addiction.

In their addiction, they seek control by doing “Something.” In essence, their thirst is quenched both by the addictive act and by the fact that their subconscious feels as if they are doing something to regain control.

All of this relates to MMOs in a big way because it is one of a genre of games where action can equal a strong sense of achievement.

One of the biggest complaints of almost any modern addictive game is that a course of action may lead to a non-reversible regression e.g. the loss of insight in Bloodborne or the loss of humanities in Dark Souls 2

This feeling of loss is often what breaks a person’s addiction because it is removing control from their hands. In simple terms, MMO games allow people to take any action in order to gain a reward (even if the reward is only XP), and that is all the addictive mind needs to quench its thirst. 

It is The Ultimate LARP With Friends

borderlands 3
Image: KnowTechie

The reason why games like Borderlands are so popular is not that they offer groundbreaking content (because they don’t) and it is not because the loot-grind is amazing (because it isn’t).

The biggest draw of the Borderlands games, and perhaps one of the things they should be most praised for, is their local coop and online coop.

Being able to sit with your friends, family, or lover and play a game is the ultimate LARP (Live Action Role-Playing) recreation. Children do the same in the playground, and now they can do it as adults.

Instead of running around with a stick saying “Bang bang” as you play war, instead of make-believe, you have digitally rendered make-believe in an environment that you can all share at the same time.

Local Co-op does a lot to help elevate games beyond mere fun. Local multiplayer coop games like “Don’t Starve Together”, “Rocket League” and “Borderlands” are much better and much more fun because anything is more fun with your friends and family.

It is Not The Game’s Grinding Loop

For the longest time, people claiming to be intelligent have claimed that the grinding loop is what makes a game addictive.

Most games, especially Ubisoft sandboxes and games like Borderlands, have had great success with the grinding loop. Yet, why haven’t equally grindy games like “The Division” done as well?

A game’s grinding loop is not what makes it interesting or addictive. Rogue-lite games or procedurally-generated game content could be potentially grinded forever, and yet these fall out of favor fast. If the grinding loop were so addictive, it would work all the time instead of most of the time.

division 2 scenery
Image: Josiah Motley / KnowTechie

Many game designers and journalists fail to realize that the grinding loop is only a part of the process. It is a means to an end. We may enjoy those means, just like we enjoy driving, but it all starts to lose its meaning if we don’t feel we are getting somewhere.

The reason why the bottom always falls out of Ubisoft sandboxes is that once you have grinded for all the skills and such, everything else becomes a little less fun. It is great grinding your way up to the best sniper rifle, but when you are taking out bases without trying, it just becomes boring.

Does Buying Success Break Addiction?

Sadly it does not. The money-grubbing companies that offer paid loot boxes are well aware that people who are addicted to a game will pay whatever they can in order to get their fix.

Paid loot boxes are predatory and play on the addictive urge while offering potentially nothing of any in-game value. We can all agree that paid loot boxes are a horrible thing, and yet the loot box mechanic itself can elevate a game.

For example, in “Oxygen Not Included,” the game only became interesting when free care packages were randomly rolled into the game. The same is true of free cargo pod drops in “Rimworld.” 

final fantasy vii with cloud and aerith
Image: Square Enix

Even paid items and currency are okay in some cases. For example, if you have been playing Final Fantasy 14, and you need a little FF14 Gil so you can quickly buy something before running off to work, then that is more of a convenience service than a game-breaker or addictive mechanic.

It is when these “paid conveniences” become part of the money-grubbing policy that it becomes a problem.

Such as when they made “Middle-earth: Shadow of War” and before you could end the game you had to re-defend all your captured lands, but you needed to do it against enemies that were 20 levels above yours.

So you had to buy higher-level upgrades with real money in order to average another 80 hours of grind. Or, when Surge 2 made the LootScan Exe a paid DLC, it was the only way to avoid picking up all the loot manually. Those types of convenience payments of real money are predatory and just plain wrong.

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Chris has been blogging since the early days of the internet. He primarily focuses on topics related to tech, business, marketing, and pretty much anything else that revolves around tech. When he's not writing, you can find him noodling around on a guitar or cooking up a mean storm for friends and family.

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