Back on the Warcrack: Your brain on games

Okay, I admit it, I’m weak.

When I saw that press release, I shuddered, and rapidly pressed ‘delete’. I’ve been through all that before, learned and grown as a human being and gained the strength to resist.

After all, didn’t I give up smoking cold turkey, and when my brave companions fell and failed one after another, I stood strong. I’ve stopped drinking to excess, reduced my intake of caffeine and sugar, and moderated some of the more dubious practices picked up during adolescence.

Every day, in every way, I refine the perfection that is me.

Deathwing

Every way that is, except for one. My obsessive nature has in the past damaged relationships, killed my chances with women and left me lacking in certain social tools that other people seem to take for granted. It’s left me with a treasure trove of functionally worthless information, and a smattering of skill in multiple disciplines but a mastery of none. And in a society where increasingly each person comes to have a symbolic meaning mostly made up of their profession and speciality, that leaves me without a great deal in the way of career validation.

Strangely, it’s the mad urge to devote all time and thought to a single all-consuming goal that makes me capable of feats of willpower like overcoming addiction. The truth is, I’m no better than anybody else at refusing temptation. I simply know that, like a kid staring at the flickering lights and colours on a TV screen while unaware of the looming humanoids around it, presented with a new toy I am likely to forget any imprinted habit or bodily craving.

So what is the process that generates so much satisfaction?

The best way I can describe it is the pleasure of tidiness — lists checked, achievements reached, options explored, knowledge sorted, filed and categorised.

Which brings us neatly to World of Warcraft, surely the ultimate expression of the pathological need to see the world (or indeed the game world) as a series of patterns to be solved. Take a gander at the size and level of detail of the WoWWiki. Poke around the forums for any length of time, and sample the arguments over raiding builds, min/maxing or boss strategy. The depth of the commitment to master and archive impresses me, certainly more than the bare nuts and bolts of the game itself.

Worgen Mage in Firelands Hatchery

The opportunities for tidying are immense. For a start, all of those critters running around loose need clearing away with a nice healthy fireball. That list of quests helpfully appended to the left edge of my monitor need concluding, and then those NPCs with the strange disease that causes an exclamation mark to appear above their bonce need rescuing.

If that’s not enough to keep you engaged, there’s always good old fashioned gear envy. The next quest reward has stats that are that fraction of a point better, or it comes in a nicer shade of blue. Blizzard clearly understand this, and by making the best items parts of tiered sets, they can keep their happy lab rats running the same instanced dungeon until it loses all meaning.

And it’s got hold of me again.

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