The Existential Gamer

I’m away from DDO during the season of Lent. This is a saved post I’ve compiled while I’m away. This post may or may not contain sensitive subject matter unsuitable for some minds (specifically, religion).

Reader discretion advised.

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One mob? One quarterstaff, then.

This is a spoon.

We all know of many veteran DDO players that have completed mighty deeds. They’ve beaten almost everything in the game, and on the highest difficulties or with some clever tricks.

But once you’ve made yourself the best killing machine you can be in DDO and have conquered all, what else is there?

Maybe a week of being away from DDO is making me stir-crazy, but I don’t think so.

Going Deeper

Games are escapism, yes. But what if it becomes too real to your mind?

We know of the story in The Matrix, a near-perfect virtual reality of the world, built to placate humanity. But, as the story unfolds, we learn that the Matrix works like any advanced operating system. You can’t leave it up forever before errors accrue and the system must be restarted. And the stabilizing element of the Matrix, the ability to choice, ultimately causes the system’s slow degradation. An Anomaly appears, who becomes Choice Incarnate, that destabilizes the system even more. That’s Neo. And he wasn’t the only One, as the story goes.

For those who choose reality, you may wake up and challenge the unreality.

A similar notion is found in the film Inception, where some people go to sleep for hours because they accept the dream as their permanent reality now. In that story, some go to sleep to wake up.)

But the dreamers in Inception can’t take anything back from their experience. And the escapees from The Matrix are fighting a cyclical battle they have been fated to lose, definitively, five times before. And only One man knows the secret and can break the cycle. Else, mankind  is locked in a continuous state of imprisonment. The people of Zion don’t realize that the Machines has always kept them under a form of control and have destroyed them each time the Matrix had to be restarted.

For many that escaped, the real world is so frightening that they regret leaving that virtual cage, that virtual life. They felt they could accomplish or feel more safe — or at least seem to feel more accomplished and safe — in the Matrix than in the real world.

The Search for…Something

I connected this notion to the easily found complaints on the DDO forums about the quality of the game.

  • When is there going to be an “end-game” battle?
  • I should be able to solo any raid.
  • This game is too easy.
  • Why are they nerfing (insert item here)
  • It’s time to (insert appallingly tough suggestion/monster/quest here)

Now, I’m neither the worse nor best player in the game. But I question about the ultimate motivations of some players. I’ve toyed with these motivation before with a player character type test.

If you are trying to attain “ultimate power” in a game, being able to crush any challenge you find (by yourself or with compatriots), then what is left for you to do?

These players are asking for their world to expand with them. But is this a natural way to think about life?

Game worlds aren’t true worlds. Even if you had the combined intellects of Einstein, Leonardo, Hawking, Sun-Tzu, Eisenhower and Alexander the Great in a perfect fighter amalgamation of Hercules, Legolas and Aragorn, Luke Skywalker and Steven Strange, combined with the wealth and equipment of Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Reed Richards, you could not possibly find and beat every challenge that the real world can present to you.

The real world is an infinite battle because it continually evolves, whether you want it or not, or whether you’re ready for it to do so.

A game world has a start and an end. There is repetition and respawning and reincarnation to simulate a cycle of life. But life in DDO, WoW and every other MMO can only present a static bubble of a world in need. A game, by definition, is a form of simulation. Ultimately, you can predict its behavior, and anticipate most events. An experienced gamer becomes quasi-omniscient. That’s why many players become bored, especially if they have a one-track mind in terms of playing only one tactical avenue of a MMO.

And even if a game could better simulate reality, there are plenty of new, confused and disoriented players in the game that strongly implies that games should have a limit in size. Else, the game world would be just as terrifying as trying to make your way in the real world, and would discourage you from coming back.

For this and more logical reasons of coding and server size and bandwidth, there are a finite series of challenges to a game. There are difficulties to turn up the challenge level of these quests and raids, but it is quite possible to beat every single one of them. Doing that gains you a +6 tome of your choice. Sir Geoff of Hanna and Gamer Girl pulled this off recently.

But…after you vanquish everything and at the highest level of play, what is there left to do?

Maybe a better question for the Gamer That Beats Everything is “What are you searching for?”

Meditation

I’m not going to be so arrogant as to presume that I know the psychology of these people who ask for more from DDO on the forums. So, I’m not going to try to answer what these players are truly seeking as they play.

But I can ask myself this question.

During this time away from the game during the season of Lent, I’m asking myself why I played DDO in the first place. Is this the only place where I feel like I “accomplish” something, especially if my work or home chores don’t yield a real, genuine accomplishment that I get paid actual money for completing?

Have I become some kind of attention-whore with this blog and compiling the guides?

As I said, it’s important to know the real world from the game world, and not to put too much energy into the unreal if it doesn’t benefit the Real.

I know one reason why I play, and it leaves a little chill in me when I contemplate it.

The real world is scary. The real world is harder than any adventure any game can dream. The game worlds are safer. Yet I have the power to avoid things I don’t want to encounter while inside that world.

But while the game worlds provide a little adrenaline and satisfaction in puzzle solving or strategy, it’s still ultimately unsatisfying because game worlds cannot come close to reaching the level of complexity and difficulty that the labors of the real world throw at us everyday. I don’t have to worry about mundane things such as eating, or sleeping, or shelter, or taxes.

But then, the game world doesn’t leave you with soul-crushing events that can persist until you die and/or are penniless.

The game world, if used improperly, can be a temptation that makes you try to avoid the “game” of the real world. Temptations rarely lead us to fortunate results.

Nietzsche said “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”  Is that really true in the game world? Generally, yes. Dying requires you to examine your strategy and gear, and to adjust them to fight and win the next time. But the real world often doesn’t provide a second chance. It’s a true “permadeath” challenge. No wiki. No “developer” or “game master” to call up when you’re stuck.

(Or is there a Game Master? For me, yes, there is. But like Turbine’s GMs, I don’t always get a direct answer with Him, and what answers I might here back may be quite cryptic.)

If you win at objectives in the real world, satisfaction is certainly more fulfilling, I think. It’s the difficulty levels we often can’t handle. There’s some training you might get in the quest “Changing the Diaper of Despair” if you had younger siblings or cousins. And there are guides to buy for many of life’s challenges, and some may get you by.

But who wants to get into an Epic Elite version of “Divorce Dungeon”? How can you train for that? I did that once. I barely came out of it with much of anything. Certainly didn’t feel victorious. French-kissing a kobold would’ve been more pleasurable than that experience.

Gamers place themselves in a strange existence. Game worlds may be ultimately too easy, while the challenges of the real world are ultimately too hard. And game worlds can provide an unhealthy realm of escapism. Human weakness tends to pick the path of least resistance.

Do we choose to live in the Matrix? Do we choose to go deeper in the dream? Do we prefer the worlds of the simulacrum? And at what expense?

While I believe in the Resurrection of the Body and an after-life, as a living person today, this belief sometimes presents only a hollow and terrifying consolation. That’s a natural, human reaction. We are conditioned to seek a foundation, an assurance, a result whereby our reason can feel pleased. I simultaneously reject the reality of the unreal, the simulacra, while trying to enjoy the panacea while inside it.

In the case of the after-life, I think I’m only freaked out because I think I’ve not studied my “class” game manuals sufficiently or listened to enough advice from veteran players in the Game of Life.

The real world does have similar broad objectives that parallel game themes.

  1. Enter the world.
  2. Learn how the world works.
  3. Help others as you would like to be helped.
  4. Don’t let fear stop you from doing what you can.
  5. Die well with a list of things accomplished.

But the real world adds one objective that the game world won’t do.

  • Don’t expect to take any accomplishments or worth with you as you go to the next world, or even think that your efforts gained you “points” in the next life.

I think this Lenten season, of being away from the game worlds and playing the game of Reality alone, is training me more horrifying well than I imagined.

There is a spoon, in reality. We only fake not having a spoon as gamers. You haven’t chosen the red pill, as Neo did. You’re choosing to stay in the virtual world, where all you accomplish disappears when the last servers are powered down, someday.

We’re far from superhuman in the real world. Yet we have to face every encounter with ratty gear (if we’re lucky), limited skill, expensive alternatives, limited praise, staggering odds, and sometimes only one shot at success.

I submit that my Diety gives me power and strength as I level up. But anyone with faith can tell you that you’re often given skills and gifts for which you can’t immediately identify, much less have any idea how to wield.

I choose Lent to force me to take the red pill.

In Gaming, Never Tell Me the Odds!

This game is a simulation. Simulations have rules. Some rules can be bent. Others can be broken. A few need to be ignored completely.

This game is a simulation. Simulations have rules. Some rules can be bent. Others can be broken. A few need to be ignored completely.

I promised that I wouldn’t go raving about the Henshin Mystic again. And I won’t.

Normally I also space out my posts to allow stuff to sink in and not to hog the OurDDO blog feed.

But a recent post in the thread that discusses why the Henshin Mystic class should be revamped led me to a curious epiphany about DDO and the players that inhabit it that I had to write about.

Here’s the post’s content, so you needn’t click on the link unless you’d like to (re)read the entire thread.

So, I was considering a crazy max Wis DC-based Monk. Henshin of course. Before I took the plunge I put together a spreadsheet outlining my DCs…it was very eye opening.

With a 50 Wis, which may not be MAX, but is pretty damn high…some real deficiencies are highlighted (I probably got some of these a little wrong):
Ki Bolt, Reflex, DC 50
Incinerating Wave, Reflex, DC 50
Cauldron of Flame, Reflex, DC 50
Various Finishing Moves, Fort / Ref / Will, DC 53

That’s it?! PLUS the Henshin ones are Reflex so will be Evaded…? Ugh.

Ok, well, I’ll have to be GMoF for those Ki blast ability thingies too:
Orchid Blossom, Reflex, DC 48
Drifting Lotus, Reflex, DC 48
A Scattering of Petals, Fort, DC 58
Everything is Nothing, Fort, DC 58

Ok, cool…ASoP and EiN I can work with of course…but damn, really?! Another two low DC Reflex abilities? For crying out loud…

Why would I bother when I could:
Quivering Palm, Fort, DC 64 (with an Improved Sunder prep for +3 more DC)
Stunning Fist, Fort, DC 68 (maybe with Improved Sunder for +3 DC)
Kukan-Do, Will, DC 59 (with only a 20 Cha)
Unbalancing Strike, Ref, DC 64 (Sneak Attacks! Works on bosses!)

Yeah, I’m really gonna need a solid way to get another +10 DC on those weak abilities before I can consider using them.

I commend Spencerian for actually playing it through, but I looked at those numbers and just had to walk away…

I’m not centering that poster out. But it’s a good reflection of the sentiment or mindset that gets overused in the game of late, and seen quite a bit in the forums for both the right and the wrong reasons.

Let’s break things down to three kinds of DDO player that I see here.

The Button Masher

This player might come from a console or arcade gaming world where you have limited but powerful gear while playing a protagonist or anti-hero, roving here and there, destroying and/or solving things to achieve a goal. Such games emphasize what the gear does as a device in the game (“Use boomerang to activate switch”) rather than the object’s specific caliber or metric as it relates to damage. Player characters don’t generally grow in power except from acquisition of gear or key quest objectives. Action is continuous and strategy and puzzles are common. Examples include The Legend of Zelda series, the Halo games, and the Metroid series.

When these players are introduced to RPG games like DDO, they initially enter in with a mix of confusion with things such as ability stats. After punching in some numbers, they have great enthusiasm to play at first. But their joy turns to frustration quickly when simply bashing your sword against something isn’t enough to survive, much less succeed, as their ability and skills are improperly set to the increasing challenges of the game.

Button mashers don’t initially comprehend the analytical knowledge in character design and gear mechanics as well as game mechanics and strategy common in all RPGs until they decide to ask and study for themselves.

The Pen And Paper Tactician

"Your character is the sum of a remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent to the programming of this game. You are the eventuality of an anomaly, which despite my sincerest efforts I have been unable to eliminate from what is otherwise a harmony of mathematical precision. While it remains a burden assiduously avoided, it is not unexpected, and thus not beyond a measure of control. Which has led you, inexorably, here." Like the Architect, some ignore the WHY and ignore the human element.

“Your character is the sum of a remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent to the programming of this game. You are the eventuality of an anomaly, which despite my sincerest efforts I have been unable to eliminate from what is otherwise a harmony of mathematical precision.” Like the Architect, some underestimate the magic and unpredictability of the human element.

This player has played one or more desktop table games quite a bit at some point in their lives. If they aren’t playing Dungeons & Dragons, the board game, they’ve latched onto many, many other pen-and-paper games where flashy graphics don’t exist and the internal visualization of imaginations around a table, surrounded by fellow players, runs at maximum density.

With a dungeon-master (or game master) guiding the players and setting the stage and environment, the players create characters from a wide selection of traditional roles with ability scores, skills, attacks, and gear.

During adventures, they use dice to determine success and failure based on difficulty saves to skills and abilities such a high Strength or Dexterity. (Most of us who play DDO can feel a very familiar pattern here, naturally.)

While DDO’s game mechanics rely heavily on similar principles from its pen-and-paper version, there’s a point where this tactical precision causes a dissonance when pen-and-paper information becomes some odd sort of oracle that predicts success or failure based only on the difficulty checks or a few variations of abilities, while ignoring the unique human element found in live-action gameplay and not in turn-based desktop play. Character planners. Crafting planners. Puzzle solvers. Wikis. Forum threads that crunch the numbers. Messages of dissent and condemnation (without ever rolling up and playing that character live) come from queries that illustrate the poor statistical odds of your spell power and difficulty checks. Portents of doom are given to you that predict that your character will be gravely underpowered in high-level play.

OH NOES.

You see where I’m going here.

My gameplay style fits my character class. It’s all about balance to achieve enlightenment, stability and, of course, perfecting that superior mystical practice of kicking ass. Many others that play, too, realize that we should follow a middle path.

The Gamer

The gamer has been around. They’ve played consoles. They might have played arcade games if they’re old like me. Dabbled in pen-and-paper games once, perhaps, or have played them quite a bit. All in all, they enjoyed something from each. They surely have generated a preference to a particular type of game or game style, or might find their fun in the diversity.

The gamer has learned that mashing buttons wildly on a console game won’t work, but mashing buttons in a specific pattern gets results. When they roll up a pen-and-paper character, the gamer might find it more important to have a good team of friends that don’t take the specific character stats too seriously or question the dungeon master’s campaign too harshly.

When things go pear-shaped, he loves the fun you get from the fallout, especially if the dungeon master takes the cue, gives the party an out to save themselves, even if it’s going to cost them their loot, experience, or their dignity. PnP gamers enjoy the adventure over the number-crunching and the odds.

Most importantly, while the gamer never goes in unprepared, he’ll never shy away from an opportunity. Despite the odds based on other player calculations, the type of folks in the party or the difficulty of the fight ahead, they sometimes just go with the flow and see what happens.

The gamer’s experience means that they’ll likely take a character that should not survive in a high-difficulty quest, based on probability demonstrated in the many variables one could roll up,  and (with good resource management and teamwork) not only survive but emerge triumphant.

It’s a Game, Silly

Never tell a good gamer the odds. They'll only defy them.

Never tell a good gamer the odds. They’ll only defy them.

I speak from a bit of authority. I have a Bachelors of Science in Parks and Recreation. Yep. I have a college degree in playing.

It’s important not to overdo the math in game play. When the math goes overboard in the right way in recreation, you get the scariest but safest roller-coasters that pull more G’s than some jet fighters, making you feel like death is coming around the next drop but leaving you safe and sound at ride’s end. That’s a principle known as apparent risk.

When the math heads in too draconian a path, you get stoic, Vulcanized probability, devoid of the human dynamic, which is often naturally unpredictable. The flavor of the gaming moment, the sense of adventure, is lost in over-number crunching, of application of tactics without regard for what trouble the party’s rogue can stir up, despite being in a quest where combat is more prevalent than trapfinding.

While it’s important to study the numbers in DDO to ensure you have enough of this and enough of that, nothing in number crunching will ever substitute for experience and certainly not in simply trying something out. I’m not only speaking of the experience in confirming that a tactic will work reliably based on the math, but sometimes just going into an adventure and telling the numbers to go frak themselves.

In that mindset, LEERRRROY…JEEENNKIINS had it right. He had a damned good time (although he went about it in the wrong way) and he even had some good chicken while in play.

While Leeroy did move before thinking, his party showed a bit of dispassionate overthinking. Not in their expected goals, but perhaps in a distillation of that very moment before play, and even during the chaos that Leeroy started. Gaming is not just measured in success or failure, but in the pleasure of the moment.

I have a personal example. Some time ago, my guild had just completed a Shroud run and were looting the chests. As I completed looting one chest, I hear a distinctive whine I’ve only heard in a couple of quests–the sound of something charging up and not in a good way.

One of our guild’s most reliable, enjoyable and incredible players, who specializes well in party healing, had decided to drink a Potion of Wonder. These things have random effects. Recently, the devs thought it was funny to add “detonation pack” as one effect.

Most of the party was blown to kingdom come by the Shroud altar. It took a few moments of confusion before the party realized what happened and erupted. Not with anger or threats or rage, but bursts of laughter and disbelief.

No amount of cold calculations can anticipate the fun our party experienced by getting blown up real good. As a reward that all of us took back that night, none of my other guildmates will EVER let that player live it down during later raids while we buff up, eternally memorializing his decision by reminding all players to drink future Potions of Wonder at a minimum safe distance.

I’m determined to go back to that thread with a video or a completion screenshot with my Epic Mystic, triumphant in some Epic Elite quest, with a significant amount of slain enemies and few to no deaths of my own. I’ll have Quintessica dance a jig.

But I’ll have a smile on my face as well. Not because I showed up the naysayers, but because I had a damned good time trying not to die, or managing to win despite the odds.

Win brilliantly. Die gloriously. Fun, always. Hope you get blown up good real soon.