Loved this bit from John Scalzi about how Straight White Males are playing the game of life at its easiest setting (a much more sensible and less-loaded metaphor than the idea of privilege–though you’d never know it from looking at the comments.) He’s absolutely spot-on about how some people simply got the luck of the roll, and are therefore playing life with a character that’s basically way over-leveled compared to everyone else. And because many of these people believe that There Can Be Only One winner in this game, they’re merrily using that unearned advanced level to get in the way of everyone else who’s just trying to have fun and earn a few experience points.
Aside from the issue of needing to educate some of these folks that no, they didn’t actually earn the advantages they were born with, and therefore have no actual ownership over the position they gain from them, there’s also the problem of educating them as to why they shouldn’t be barreling ahead, regardless of who gets left in their dust.
This, I think, is another area where the life-as-RPG metaphor can help. Some games have only one endgame prize, and everyone else really is competition, or, at best, just temporary allies to be discarded when they’re no longer useful. “Life: The MMO” isn’t one of those. It’s simply an adventure in which everyone gets to work toward their own goals, with no actual winners. It does, however, have the potential for a whole lot of losers, if people, mistakenly believing they’re playing another kind of game, act as if all those other players are hostiles who are out to keep them away from the big treasure chest on the mountain. There are some limited resources in this game, yes–arable land, etc.–but generally speaking, if we’re working together and not trying to amass and hoard resources just for the sake of having them, there’s room for all of us, and we can all have a good time–just as we do in some of the gaming world’s best MMOs.
For the unfamiliar: MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) are a class of adventure game in which one plays a character in a world in which many of the other characters are also real humans, playing at the same time. The most famous of these is World of Warcraft, which I’ve not personally played, but I’ve played tons of others (Ultima Online, Everquest, Asheron’s Call and, most recently, The Lord of the Rings Online, which I’ve been playing on and off for about five years. Also planning to look into the Game of Thrones MMO that just came out today.)
Like the tabletop RPGs (Dungeons and Dragons, etc.) from which these games were birthed, the basic premise is that one creates a character with a certain set of features, or “stats.” Each character starts out with a certain number of points that can be distributed as one would like, to favor certain characteristics: strength, stamina, agility, etc. Different combinations of these stats are ideally suited to different kinds of playing styles. Someone favoring fast action with a small weapon might prefer to have high agility, whereas someone who wants to wield a massive axe, to kill evil beasties with one blow, would want a lot of strength. Then you launch your character out into the world to go adventuring, earning more points along the way to improve your character’s abilities.
Most MMOs–at least the ones that are actually fun to play–don’t have a single endgame goal that one has to compete with others to achieve. Gameplay is ongoing and pervasive, rather than being a time- or turn-limited adventure with a beginning, middle and end, so it makes no sense to have a single prize that only those who start the game at launch and play continuously can ever hope to win. In LOTRO, for instance, there are several boss-level quests that one can go on, but there isn’t any bonus for completing them before or better than anyone else. The goal is simply to have fun exploring the world, doing quests (often with other people–called a fellowship, in this game) and fighting against the forces of darkness, so to speak. Personal goals can be anything from getting crafting skills perfected to getting the highest level in the game to walking around like a shiny peacock in some awesome-looking armor. This particular game does have a player-vs-player (PvP) area, but the gameplay for most of the world is cooperation with other players to achieve mutual goals. You can solo play, if you’re not terribly social, but things go faster and better when you’re working with others whose skills complement yours. My primary character, for instance, has quite a lot of damage dealing skills she uses when she’s on her own, but she’s also a hardcore healer. When she’s working with others, she keeps them healthy while they do the damage. In turn, there’s a class that can take a lot of damage, and those players help steer the attention away from the healer so she can keep everyone else alive. Yay, everyone wins–and has fun in the process.
The people who designed this game specifically wanted to avoid some of the pitfalls of earlier MMOs. Most of those early ones were pretty rough, because so many players weren’t playing the game, per se, but were in it just to make everyone else’s gameplay less fun. They were doing things like camping loot or creature spawns (hanging out in an area with valuable things, and taking them before other people could get them), directly killing or inciting hostiles to kill other players, throwing in a killing blow on a creature when it was mostly dead to steal the experience points that rightly belonged to someone else, etc. In addition to eliminating PvP entirely, but for that one area, LOTRO’s designers also did things like not giving XP to high-level players killing low-level creatures, and ensuring that resource spawns were plentiful, so there was no need to camp them. Sure, people whose gameplaying goal was to make everyone else miserable didn’t like this–and went off to play other things–but everyone else left over has had a far more enjoyable experience, because we’re not constantly looking over our shoulders, wondering if a fellow player is a potential ally or someone we need to fear even more than the orcs.
In real life, there aren’t nearly as many nice protections for us against the sociopaths who get off on ruining things for everyone else. But we do have some. Law, government, community action, etc., all help us work together to keep those rogue players from making the rest of us miserable. But it’s impossible to keep those creeps under control if we’re unwilling to cooperate.
And that’s where the acknowledgement of being overleveled comes in. As a high-level player, my healer can go pretty much whereever she wants, and on occasion will go into some lower-level areas to get resources for some lower-level alt characters. But I don’t camp spawns, I don’t try to kill steal, and I don’t otherwise get in the way of people who are the appropriate level for that area. On the contrary, if I see someone who’s struggling, and I know I can help them out by throwing in a few heals or taking some hostile heat off of them as they’re running away, half-dead, then I do so. Likewise, I’m happy to fellow with lower-level players from time to time to help them level up. If there’s time, I’ll ask before helping–some people are trying to gain skills on their own, and thus extra help isn’t needed–but when I can help, and someone wants me to, I do. It does absolutely nothing to get in the way of advancing my own goals, and actually makes playing the game more fun. And who knows? Maybe when that character has leveled up, he or she will come save me someday.
Too many people not only believe that they’re lone wolves who need no-one else’s help, but actually think that all those other people are just roadblocks. When you view the world as if everyone’s an enemy, you’re not generally going to be predisposed to helping, even if the people in question are weaker than you and no actual threat. But that’s simply not the game we’re all playing. This isn’t Mortal Kombat. This isn’t an FPS. This isn’t a game in which we can only win if everyone else loses. Yes, it pays to be wary and cover your own ass, because there are other people out there who can hurt you, but that requires defense–not offense. You don’t have to destroy everyone else–regardless of whether they’re posing a real threat–just to stay safe. If you’re struggling, by all means, save yourself. As they say on the airplane, secure your own mask before assisting others. But don’t think that just because you’re not on the top of the heap that means you’re losing, and don’t think that you’re entitled to use any advantage you have–even unearned ones–to get there. The top of that heap really is big enough for all of us. Giving someone else the occasional hand up to get there won’t cause you to come crashing down. Life’s a game we can all play together. Really.