Editorial: Nerds!!!

Here is a dumb rant from someone on Massively.com about how much they want MMOs to go back to the pre-2005 mindset (read: the Dark Ages). The various Rift fora are filled with these dinosaurs, throwbacks to Everquest and The Realm, longing for the glory days they know they cannot have back.

But why? At least Jef Reahard gives a coherent explanation of just why he is so upset by online gaming’s newfound accessibility:

[T]he real issue here has nothing to do with classism and everything to do with a nerd pastime going mainstream and subsequently being stripped of what made it magical in the first place.

Aha.

These are the same people that got upset when Wizards of the Coast simplified the long-held Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rulesets into the Third Edition… and when the Third Edition players got all bitchy about the Fourth Edition. They had fun with the old and so became convinced that nothing else would be fun, ever.

This is what I call Nerd Love Theory.

Nerds
Nerds...

Nerds are socially awkward people that had bad formative years, mostly in adolescence, where what they desired (sex, and lots of it) was often denied to them by the cruel vagaries of life. These people “grow up” (somewhat) into nerdy adults, who are still denied what they desire (sex, though less of it, along with money, power, prestige, adventure, social stability, economic stability, learning, expertise… the list goes on) because they lack the social acumen to navigate a world where such skills are required.

Enter escapist hobbies, like comic books, role-playing games, video games, et cetera. These things salve the roughened psyche of the nerd. Here, it is OK to be a wage-slave stringing together corporate computer networks for executives that mock the nerd as soon as he leaves the boardroom where the executives will soon take an important phone call, because as soon as our nerd returns to his dingy basement beneath his parents’ home, his Thorigor, the Orc Barbarian from Darkbadia, and with is Mighty Axe of Infernal Bloodletting, he rules over an empire of wailing peasants from atop his throne of skulls crafted lovingly from macrame and the souls of his enemies.

Old-style MMORPGs did not reward skill; they rewarded vast amounts of time that could be sunk into playing them. The hobby that our Nerd so desperately Loves was something he could be good at with minimal skill. Even an annoying online game, such as a FPS multiplayer map as is found in dudebro Halo heaven, requires skill to progress, not merely time. World of Warcraft, the current whipping boy for “lol game iz too easy!!!” idiocy, still requires skill to play at the highest echelons of play. After all, how many guilds worldwide have managed to kill the heroic-only boss of this tier of raiding? Less than 10,000, the last time I looked. Less than 10,000 out of a game that has over 12 million subscribers. Clearly, if there are ultra-nerds that want to play the game and be the biggest Billy Bad Ass on the block, the potential is there…

So why do these grizzled veterans of the Nerd Love sagas not “nerd up” and jump in with top-tier raiding guilds in World of Warcraft or Aion or other popular MMOs?

Because somewhere along the way, the outer adult Nerd did realize that it was time to grow up. The inner Nerd may be stuck in Mom’s basement, but the outer Nerd got a respectable job, a mortgage, a house, and probably a few kids to support. He goes to work in the morning, and can only squeeze in an hour or two of gaming at night after the kids are in bed while his wife reads on the couch. The outer Nerd does not have the things that the inner Nerd still desires: the power, the prestige, the success. But that is OK, because none of us really have those things. Avarice and greed begets only more avarice and greed. Even CEOs and the ultra-rich and the leaders of nations still have bad days; they still have to take a shit after they eat. They still have to deal with the petty annoyances that the rest of us do, and they are just as unsatisfied with the things they have because satisfaction cannot be grasped through having the most of something, whether it is earthly political power of the most “leet” gear in EverQuest. Status is what we make of it, and has no more wider importance in the world than what we attach to it.

Nerds!
Nerds!

So the casual player who finally gets a crafted epic in WoW and the world-class raider that got a server-first kill on Cho’gall are equal in their own eyes: they have achieved some arbitrary goal and can now feel “good” about themselves, because they can proudly display the product of their action. The “good feeling” or value that was created is a distillation of time and effort spent, of skills acquired.

But for some, the Inner Nerd will not be silenced. The Inner Nerd still loves the feeling of the Hobby that came to dominate a part of the Inner Nerd’s formative years. Like a drug addict questing for that mythical first-time high, the Inner Nerd will not relinquish the dream. And the Inner Nerd tells the Outer Nerd these lies, that things really were so much better before everyone else got wise to how cool this hobby could be, and Inner Nerd was king among a subculture. And so the Outer Nerd writes diatribes about how good things used to be and how everyone is ruining his fun by having fun of their own.

This is the same subcultural exclusivity phenomenon one finds among any identifiable subculture: hipsters, for example, are routinely mocked for it, although I can think of several other handy examples, like goths. When one becomes king of a relatively small group through manipulation of esoteric knowledge common only to that subculture, it can be an effective substitute for that person’s own lack of efficacy in the wider world. This same practice happens in academia, as Lusipurr can attest, where students and professors rush to carve themselves out a niche just small enough that they can claim expertise. In fact, I conjecture, this happens in all walks of life and everything because it is a drab fucking prospect to realize that no matter how good we get at something, someone will always be better, know more, or do more, and thus we will never truly matter in the cosmic scope of things…

And so we tell ourselves comforting lies, like the Inner Nerd tells the Outer Nerd, and we hope that those lies are true, and romanticize about the “good old days” when things really were better, before too many people started crowding in on our little niche and it got hard to feel super-special about ourselves.

Nerds!!!
Nerds!!!

But things never are as bad as we believe. And wishing for things to return to the idealized former state betrays a sickening nihilism about the possibility of new horizons. People cling to this pablum like security blankets, because psychologically, that is what ideas like “pre-2005 MMOs were better because they were a niche nerd hobby and I fucking conquered that beat” are. They are comforting things people can hold on to so as to avoid the realization that their “hobby” is meaningless, mindless nothing that adds nothing to their life but pure, simple, unadulterated enjoyment of life.

And until they realize that not only is that enough, but that it is absolutely essential to happiness, as my good buddy and touchstone Bernard Suits said, they will be doomed to this same nihilistic cycle. Put that in your Friedrich Nietzsche and eternally recur it.

13 comments

  1. That’s a pretty eloquent way of saying “quit bitching about shit that doesn’t matter”, and I agree with a lot of it.

    Indeed, I was leading my gaming group in 4th Edition D&D antagonism from the moment I heard it was coming out in 2008. But I mellowed out… I read the ruleset and it is a solid, well-balanced system, even if it is a bit bland.

  2. The first image bears an uncanny resemblance to Lusipurr, its a little scary actually.

    For the most part, I agree with this article. Change to anything, nerdy or not, is inevitable and along with it will be the horde of whiners that bitch about how the previous way of doing things was better. Deny as we may, we nerds have too many moments where we act like geriatric old men, screaming for the young kids with their baggy pants and their bebop music to get off our lawns. (Yes Lusipurr, I’m looking directly at you.)

    However, if something becomes too popular, then a certain point is reached where the nerd’s fear becomes justified. Its not just arbitrary change that they are making a big deal over, but glaring change that does significantly modify the material from what it originally was, and you see this happening more and more as things get more popular. Developers become greedy and no longer want to make something nerdy as an escape, they want to get more people and thus more money, so the pandering begins.

    I should leave Squeenix alone, we use them for target practice so much, but they’re just such a good example. In the 1990s (if 2005 was the dark ages, does this make the 90s prehistoric?) Square-sans-Enix was spectacular. Not only were they producing great Final Fantasy games, but their other titles like Xenogears, Vagrant Story, and Parasite Eve were all good games too. Fast forward to now, and what do we have? Dissidia Duodecim, where Final Fantasy has been strapped down, had its throat cut open, and allowed to bleed out into a button-mashing one-on-one fighting game, where not only are the characters stripped of any value, but of their clothing too (but Aya really isn’t meant to be sexy, srsly guys we mean it). And bleeding from the jugular isn’t enough, their method of promotion has been to make a series of other slices to bleed out little useless pieces of information at a time.

    I will admit that many various instances of change-based nerd rage on my behalf are probably unnecessary and just the feeble cries echoing from the well of nostalgia. Yes, my nostalgia is a small child dropped into a well. But there does come a point where “the good ol’ days were better” is justified, its the distinction between the two that is more difficult to define.

  3. But see, even non-enthusiasts (which is a way of saying non-nerds) find things like Square’s recent choices to be frustrating and ruining a good thing.

    My main gripe, was here with several MMO communities in particular, WoW, Rift, and the Massively.com writer that somehow wanted to go back to bad simply because when it was bad no one else wanted to play and he got to be top dog. It would be like asking Square to go back to pre-ATB battle because someone had the fastest Final Fantasy speedrun.

    When MMOs were a niche game that only a few people played, to be “best” all one had to do was give up a normal, healthy human life. EverQuest _required_ that people group up to _anything_ past like, level 3. But people were not ordinarily inclined to group up with someone that might have to say 10 minutes later, “Oh, baby’s crying. Be right back.” So the only way to make friends in the game and experience any content was to be online nearly constantly and whore yourself out to anyone that would have you. The game harshly penalized negative things (like dying) so the focus was heavily, heavily on very slow, conservative play that never really staked out much risk.

    Which is great if you are a college student living off ramen with a part-time job and lots of free time to play a game for 10-12 hours a day. I am sure you can get some nifty, nearly-unique experiences that way because let’s face it, the amount of people that could do that are small. And this kind of attitude is the same type of attitude people have when they are obsessed with a zero-sum view of life. If someone else is having fun doing the same thing they are, their own enjoyment of the experience is lessened.

    So consider modern MMOs: the focus is on accessibility and letting people who are willing to devote a rather small amount of time (10 hours or so a week) see what’s really in the game. The old-school people who put in 10 hours a day are still there, but they just get to do stuff first. Eventually, people who put in 10 hours a week “catch up” to them in terms of stuff done and rewards received, and they feel this cheapens their experience.

    I’ve spoken about this in the past, and my solution would be to add more exclusive, optional high-end content, the equivalent of difficult side-quests with awesome rewards. That way, the super-hardcore have something to do while the rest of us are catching up, that soothes their need for exclusivity, which is the path most developers are taking, and most people are happy with the arrangement. But every once in a while you get a guy who writes the linked article that says, “no, no, it was all better before we let normal people play with our toys, time to take them and go home.” Which annoys me.

  4. Accessibility in MMOs is a positive boon as long as the game doesn’t become so user-friendly that it turns into Farmville. There ought be SOME expectation of serious input and skill, otherwise it’s not really a game at all, is it?

    The trick is striking a balance.

    However, one thing this article says is that success in YE OLDEN DAYS was not a matter of skill, but rather of mere time investment. I’m certain that is not true. An example of an old (but still current, somehow) game is FFXI, where not only was a time investment required, but SUBSTANTIAL skill was needed.

    And if I lived in an ideal world where I had infinite time, I would preserve that experience forever, because it provided a unique, amazing, immersive experience that still trumps anything I have ever seen anywhere else, and does so by a considerable margin. But, by today’s standards, the game is unplayable–not because of the time investment or the progression (both of which have been repeatedly adjusted until now it is practically on par with WoW), but because of the harshness of the learning curve and the relative difficulty of getting started, which makes bringing new people in nigh-impossible. The time is no longer an issue; rather, the amount of knowledge needed to play effectively is unnecessarily burdensome for any new player.

    I think any serious FFXI player (someone who has actually played the whole game, through L.75) with a firm grasp of reality will agree with this assessment. We absolutely love it, we think it is the best game ever made, but we’d be hard pressed to recommend it to someone to play as a new player.

  5. YOUR AXE AND STICK WILL BE HAD TODAY OR TOMORROW AFTERNOON. I am unfortunately still in the process of setting up my household, which is much harder without an army of servants… or even the help of my wife, who has thumbed her nose at tradition and gone to work outside the home so that we can, you know, eat.

    If I get enough done to log on tonight before the raid, I will transfer them to you then. If not, tomorrow afternoon it is.

    Also, there is a large learning curve to play effectively in any game. Any idiot can pick up a copy of WoW and make it to level 85, and as long as they play a DPS role, not screw everything up too badly when running dungeons. But as anyone who has ever played with a bad healer or bad tank can attest, those experiences rank near the bottom. And it’s not all simply dense class mechanics that require a spreadsheet. Something as simple as not using your “turn left” and “turn right” keys to move, but using mouse movements and strafing can be the difference between an effective player and an ineffective one.

    The difference between WoW and FFXI isn’t the learning curve (which I would say is probably only slightly in WoW’s favor) but rather the transparency of information. WoW’s information is not only readily available via in-game menus (such as stat weights being displayed in your character window, along with their associated changes on gameplay) but the entire user-interface is perfectly moddable. Which means all those system functions that can remain hidden if the interface is not moddable have to be open. If there’s a threat calculation, in order for an addon to show it, that data must be accessible in game, for example. This means that you can arrive to play WoW with a battery of ways of displaying information that is hidden in other games. WoW presents all information up front to the user, and lets her decide what is important to playing and what is not (I, for instance, hide my threat meters; I know that, as a tank, if it’s not attacking me, that’s bad).

    WoW’s community is also good about sharing boss kill strategies and keeping individual bits of gameplay down to manageable sizes. I recall hearing of 18-hour NM kill attempts in FFXI, which is staggering. If my guild asked me to spend more than 3-4 hours on a single boss in a new tier of raiding content, I would get suspicious. I think a ten minute boss fight is stressful. But being able to block out most of a single day just to try to kill one boss that will not die for hours? That’s too large of a time commitment for anyone but Japanese gamers and college-student-aged nerds.

  6. Well, part of what made that boss specific was that it was an optional encounter within a larger part of optional content which was itself in the optional endgame matter. It wasn’t the equivalent of a boss in a raid. It was meant to be a unique challenge.

    As for 18-hour NM kill attempts, I can’t imagine something like that outside of Absolute Virtue (see above), unless the people involved didn’t know what they were doing or were underlevelled. The longest battles I have ever personally witnessed or heard on GOOD account is around 45m.

    I suspect the long times stated have more to do with multiple attempts.

    Also keep in mind that combat in FFXI is significantly slower than in WoW.

  7. No one likes having their niche hobbies become trendy and mainstream. If these nerds really are as socially inept as you suggest, then I can see how MMO’s burgeoning social network properties could ruin it for them. Back in the day they could converse with a handful of other mouthbreathing basement mages, now they have to negotiate social interactions with functional human beings, and suddenly they are back in high school again. Once again they’re at the bottom of the heap due to their poor communication skills, the pastime which once empowered them now leaves them feeling devalued, and all the changes being made to the genre are exclusively to the benefit of their social superiors.

    Such is life, but I can see why they would wish to return to the old days.

    I also think that Jenifer makes an excellent point, once something becomes too popular publishers will start making it generic. The nerdrage at the newfound trendiness of their once exclusive province is probably no different than the resentment that I harbour the casual gamers and Soccor Moms who ruined the Wii and are in the process of wrecking the industry. The people that I mention will not understand this, because all the changes being made are done so to the benefit of their particular set of tastes, to them I would appear to wish a return to the industry dark ages, before the advent of the Sims and Cooking Mamma revolutionized gaming … …

  8. The 18 hour FFXI fight was the BeyondTheLimitation Linkshell (guild) fighting Pandemonium Warden. It was a flying goat man that had a dozen “lamps” (burning skulls on magmatic rock looking candlesticks). After killing the lamps it would change shape and be accompannied by different lamps of some theme. SE has since made the fight doable by reducing the number of forms from over 9,000 to like 15 or something.

    The longest fight I’ve ever been involved with in FFXI was a very slow Kirin fight that took about three hours. Absolute Virtue is killable now with the level cap raised to 90, but he’s still a little tricky.

    I personally wouldn’t recommend somebody new pick up FFXI unless they had a friend willing to get them at or near the level 90 cap helping them. Which could be done in a day or two. All endgame is now the past three mini-expansions basically. Everything previous is outdated.

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