Occasionally, my realities collide, and I find gaming inspiration in strange places.
My daughter, Coraline, was born earlier this summer (which should partly explain why I’ve been quiet here lately), and consequently I’ve been consumed by the joy of consulting parenting blogs when I’m awake at 4 in the morning. This is how I bumped into Alfie Kohn’s new book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child, in which he challenges widely held but scientifically unsound beliefs about child rearing. The myth that seemed relevant to gamers can be paraphrased as follows:
Kids these days are spoiled, lazy, overentitled, and narcissistic. Everything is handed to them on a silver platter: good grades, trophies, and gold stars. Back in the old days, kids weren’t coddled and praised; they were disciplined. They learned self-reliance and grit and everyone did NOT win.
If you’re an MMO gamer, you’ve no doubt heard a similar tale of woe from veterans of the old days.
MMO gamers these days are spoiled, lazy, overentitled, and narcissistic. Everything is handed to them on a silver platter: gear, achievements, and levels. Back in the old days, gamers weren’t coddled and praised; they were disciplined. They learned self-reliance and grit and everyone did NOT win.
Kohn’s core argument against this myth is two-fold, and as I hope to prove, relevant to the MMO industry.
First, there’s no actual evidence that “kids these days” are more spoiled or lazy or what have you than kids in any other generation. It’s merely conventional wisdom that feels good and sounds credible but isn’t actually true. In fact, it appears to be something that every generation believes about those who come after it (just ask the “Greatest Generation” about those hippie slackers known as the Baby Boomers). Therefore, we probably shouldn’t embrace this or any other such self-serving generational platitudes. Similarly, unproven but comfortable myths about “lazy gamers” abound in internet comment sections and should likewise be dismissed.
Second, the idea that “spoiling” children makes them unfit adults (and that self-esteem can be built only through hardship) is a conservative belief (Kohn likens it to an unquestioned “Protestant work ethic“) deeply rooted in many cultures and espoused by both right- and left-wing parents. It’s also a belief unsupported by scientific studies. In fact, “tough love” can have a negative effect. As Kohn explains it,
“What best prepares kids to deal with failure is not earlier failure, but earlier success. A great deal of psychological research shows that when kids are left to fail, first of all, the main message they take away is that their parent could have helped them but didn’t. And, second, that he or she is incapable of dealing with challenges, so kids come often to see themselves as failures and then they avoid more challenging situations as a result. So, the idea that if kids stumble and screw up, they’re gonna pick themselves up and dust themselves off and say, ‘By golly, now I have the skills and determination to try even harder next time!’ could charitably be described as a conservative fairy tale.”
In other words, practicing failure isn’t a sure-fire way to build self-esteem. In fact, it apparently does just the opposite. It also appears to condition children to believe that their victories are sweet only when they are accompanied by someone else’s failure. Of course, Kohn is talking about children, whose brains and emotions and relationships are still developing, not the average gamer, who is (let’s assume for the sake of argument) already a well-adjusted adult. I don’t think there’s any danger that a normal adult is going to freak out that the devs don’t love him anymore when he loses a MOBA match! But even as I say that, I think of Roguelikes, whose goal is to kill a character randomly and without mercy, to condition you to expect repeated and dehumanizing failure regardless of your efforts, as if to crush your morale and dare you to give up so that it can mock you, creating a strangely sadistic relationship between player and developer.
What about giving the “losers” of a game a trophy? Isn’t “everybody wins” ruining society (and in my argument, MMOs)? Nope. Kohn says that kids who get a runners-up trinket will turn out just fine, but the people obsessed with ensuring someone always loses are a concern:
“Why does this drive people to fits of rage when obviously the kids know who won the game? It is critically important [to some adults] to reward success and to make sure that lack of success goes conspicuously unrewarded. We can’t even give them something that looks like a reward! […] The idea among some people is that no one, even a child, should ever get anything desirable without it’s being conditioned on the child having done something to deserve it.”
In other words, the problem isn’t that “losers” — the 8-year-olds who lose a soccer match, the PvPers who lose a battleground — receive a token for having participated. They know they lost. No token reward will fully erase the sting. The problem is that hyper-competitive individuals aren’t satisfied until the losers are beaten into the dirt and forced to eat it, to better elevate the winners. And this is evident not just in sports-ragey parents but in gamers whose personal self-esteem is motivated by and predicated on an equivalent crash in a rival’s morale. (Just think about the sort of people who believe a “loser” buying epic gear with money instead of with grind or luck or time “cheapens” their experience. They are happy only when no one else can have the shiny they have.)
That’s not a generational war or bad parenting; that’s just poor sportsmanship, period, and it certainly explains at least part of our genre’s fixation on MOBAs and level ladders and gear systems, as well as classic MMO gamers’ desire to return to (what are perceived to be) the harsh and brutal character-building games of yesteryear. For that matter, it explains developer and player infatuation with combat-oriented murder simulators to the near-exclusion of cooperative gameplay that is not framed competitively (example: WildStar turning innocuous co-op PvE dungeon-running into competitive races against other teams).
I won’t go so far as to suggest, as Kohn does, that encouraging kids to participate in competitions with winners and losers might actually be a bad idea; it’s not the games that are the problem but the cultural baggage we bind to them and the disturbing lessons we encourage them to convey. And I also won’t argue that MMOs haven’t changed at all in the past two decades. They have, but not because gamers new to the market are lazy or entitled or accustomed to having their every stumble rewarded with a trophy; after all, the developers making today’s MMOs are old-school gamers themselves, and most will gladly proclaim that they are making the games they want to play.
I do submit that perception of what MMOs are has shifted such that many of the older and poorly developed mechanics that incidentally served the playstyles of old-core gamers have been discarded as simply undesirable or even insulting to the playerbase (and here I speak of mechanics I’ve criticized at length like waiting on boats and traversing the world by foot for corpse retrieval). The rejection of gameplay elements that were frustratingly punitive or gratuitously time-wastey rather than genuinely challenging is a black mark on neither the genre nor the generation.
I also submit that perception of what MMOs should be has shifted such that they can no longer be what they once were, “mere” virtual worlds and virtual non-games where people could roleplay and live and explore and experience an environment. The genre is now structured to support a hierarchy of winners and losers, poised to paste the label “spoiled gamer” on anyone who prefers to leisurely enjoy a world or activity rather than be subjected to grueling tests of willpower, as if those represented praiseworthy skill or even, skies forbid, “fun.” From my vantage point, the only thing that’s spoiled is the genre itself.