I will game: Anatomy of MMO addiction

I look into the strange characteristics of MMORPG games that make them so absurdly addictive.

Will Greenwald
4 min read

The average video game can give you anywhere from eight to 80 hours of solid, fun playtime. You pick it up, pop it in, play it until you're done, and put it away (or trade it in for far too little in-store credit). Some games can pull in gamers for far more time. They're called MMOs, massively multiplayer online games, and they offer a persistent online world for gamers to explore and conquer with each other. They're the digital equivalent of crack, and can easily turn the eight-to-80 hour playtime of a normal game into an easy 800 hours of obsession.

World of Warcraft comes to mind, but it's hardly the first. The crystal meth of WoW was preceded years before by the cocaine of Everquest, the LSD of Ultima Online, and even the opium of text-based MUDs. MMOs have gotten some major changes over time, but every one has shared some common features that make them undeniably addictive. These features are often very subtle, but they're the reasons I've seen friends of mine go on 72-hour marathon benders in Everquest, eight-hour blinkless raids in World of Warcraft, and 20-month burns on Ultima Online.

I have to confess that I'm a recovering MMO addict. I got hooked on World of Warcraft and quit the game three times before it finally took. I've been free of buffs and loot for eight months now. Before that, I dabbled in City of Heroes, Anarchy Online, and even an old, obscure sci-fi MMO called Earth and Beyond. I've been playing with Lord of the Rings Online lately, but I have it under control. Really. Honest.

Anyway, now that that's out of the way, here are the secrets to just how MMOs hook people in so thoroughly. I can't explain why or how, but these commonalities are what turn a normal, well-adjusted gamer into a sleepless online junkie.

Mad loot: Nobody knows why, but one of the strongest draws in an MMO is collecting stuff. Whether killing countless nameless goblins for a randomly dropped magical helmet or going on an obscenely long mining quest to get the materials for a flaming orange sword, you will go to any length to get the best items. In WoW, a raid of 20 to 40 people will spend hours in a dungeon just for the chance that one or two of their members will get one of the items to let them get into an even bigger dungeon with more items.

Exploration: A single-player game only offers you so many places to go. Even in huge, sprawling, role-playing games, you're going to eventually hit a wall of plot and geography. Expansions and patches can help add content, but they don't offer nearly as much ground to cover as MMOs. Whether it's a zone that requires a level 70 character or a raid dungeon that requires forty level 70 characters, you will feel compelled to see it all.

Camaraderie: It's easy to give up on single-player games after a while because you run out of things to do. Even in normal multiplayer games, you can turn them off after a while when everyone's tired and doesn't want to protect the base/capture the flag/kill each other anymore. A big enough MMO guild can ensure that there will always be a handful of friends online and ready to adventure with you, no matter what time it is. These friends make it all the more difficult to stop playing, whether it's for the night to get some sleep, or forever because you don't want to pay the monthly fee anymore.

The monthly fee: Strange as it might sound, paying a company $10 to $15 to play its game only makes that game more addictive. Single-player games mean you can still put them down for months at a time, and pick them up when you feel like it. When Blizzard or Sony or NCSoft is charging you every month, you feel a need to play the game, to justify the money. And when you justify playing because of the money, you end up justifying the money to play it. After all, a $50 game can only offer eight to 80 hours of fun; $15 per month for 80 to 160 hours of fun every month is a steal, right?

Being all you can be: Maxing out in characteristics is one of the biggest draws in the game. You start by getting your levels up to the cap, but you can't stop there. Now your level 60 character needs to max out his levels in crafting. Now your level 60 character has 300 points in mining and blacksmithing. But that's still not enough. You still can't go everywhere and get all the great items unless all the factions like you. So now your high-level master craftsman needs to become exalted to all friendly factions. But then an expansion comes out. Now the level cap is 70, the profession cap is 375, and there are twice as many friendly factions. Time to get to work again.

Know the warning signs of addiction when playing any MMO. They can be fun, they can also be dangerous. Now if you don't mind me, I need to get my level 70 Blood Elf warlock up to Revered with the Thrallmar so I can transmute skyfire diamonds.

Just kidding. Really. I'm not putting my WoW discs back in. I'm not. I'm not...