This post is part of a series that addresses the needs of the parent who “just doesn’t get video games.” I’m here to catch you up, Clueless Parent!
MMOs—or massively multiplayer online games—are games that millions of people play, all together, inside the virtual world of the game. They are a bit difficult to understand if you’ve never played one. They are also a source of anxiety for parents who worry their kids are talking to strangers or becoming too invested in the game world. The first step in alleviating some of that anxiety is getting the hang of what MMOs really are and why people play them.
What MMO Actually Means
Massively multiplayer online games (sometimes called “massively multiplayer online role-playing games,” or MMORPGs) have to fit a series of requirements before they can be called as such.
First, they must be online. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re playing through an Internet browser (though some MMOs are browser games), but rather that you must be connected to the Internet to play. In fact, there typically is no way to play an MMO if you aren’t online. This differs from many other games, where there may be a part of the game that can be played online with other people, but where the rest can be played without an Internet connection.
The reason MMOs must be online at all times is that they are massively multiplayer. At any given time there could be thousands or even hundreds of thousands of players in the game all at one time. If one player logs out of the game and leaves, those thousands of other players will still be able to play—players who leave will simply disappear from that world until they log in once more. We call this a “persistent world,” because no matter how many players are actually logged in, the world will persist. The game does not pause if the player leaves.
How To Play an MMO
Most MMOs start with an account. The first step is to create the account (the account is usually what you pay for; i.e., each purchased game comes with one account). Next, you can create a character, or several! Now, there’s something you have to keep in mind, and that is that two people can’t play on the same account at the same time. When you’re buying a game that you would like to play with your family, you should know that if you want your family members to be able to play together, you’ll need more than one account, not just more than one character.
(I’ll put on my fashionista hat here: You can think of each account as a person. That person might have lots of different outfits, but they can never wear more than one outfit at a time. With two accounts, you have two people and can wear two different outfits at once. The outfits are the characters, and the game itself is a fashion show.)
Basically, sharing an account will be more cost-effective, but if the goal is to play together, you’ll need to spend a little more. It’s totally possible to enjoy the game without actively playing together, but it takes a little more work—and potentially some arguments about whose turn it is to use the account.
Most MMOs offer a great deal of choice when it comes to making a character for yourself. You usually start out with some basics—what job class you want to be (e.g., Wizard, Sniper, Herbalist) and race (e.g., alien, elf, werewolf). Typically you can also customize your appearance to some degree and choose a name.
Next are character stats and abilities. Some of these are based on your class and race, while others are hand-picked. Some games allow you to choose these at the very start, while others give you this option later on, perhaps after earning some points in the game.
Character stats (also called attributes) can be thought of as strengths—a high dexterity stat, for example, will often yield a character who is better at dodging attacks, while a high magic stat will make that character better at performing spells. Abilities are more specific than stats. There is an almost infinite amount of abilities out there—invisibility could be one, while a spell to raise an army of skeletons might be another. The ability to use a bow and arrow might be yet another.
Finally, many (though not all) MMOs allow you to clothe and arm your characters. In a fantasy MMO, this might mean giving them a sword and shield and a full set of plate armor. Different items can give your character special abilities or stats and might change their appearance slightly as well.
Basically what this all comes down to is that every character in an MMO is an individual. Because there are so many players and so many characters out there all “living” in the same world, we need to a) be able to tell them apart and b) allow them to team up with one another based on skill sets and traits that work well together.
Teams, Groups, and Guilds
One of the main draws of MMOs is that players can play with one another in the same universe. There are a number of ways this can play out, so to speak.
Every game sets up groups differently. There are even different words for groups in different games, which I admit can make it confusing. Some MMOs have specific (sometimes very large) groups that players can become a part of. It’s sort of like finding your own neighborhood or joining a club. In World of Warcraft, these are called Guilds. Some Guilds are location-based, while others are identity-based. Some Guilds are made up of people who are friends in real life, and others are completely random. You might find a Guild with only Washington-based mothers of twins, or a Guild for people who play only in the early hours of the morning.
Some games set up a group-finding channel so that players can easily put together expeditions. Some even have a cue that will randomly pair players with a group of the right makeup. And, in most MMOs, it’s also possible to play solo. I am largely a solo player, though I’ve dabbled in group dynamics. I pretty much just enjoy the camaraderie of having people around me while I play.
The main takeaway from this is that MMOs, by virtue of being massively multiplayer online games, will expose players to a diverse group of people, for better or for worse. I’ve met wonderful friends and obnoxious trolls this way. Some players have even found their spouses through online play. It’s really just like any other public space where interaction occurs, but with the caveat that in an MMO you don’t always know who it is you’re interacting with.*
*Mandatory reminder that the vast majority of players—whether or not they’re being honest about themselves—are just there to have fun. Stranger danger is extremely uncommon, and in fact kids have much more to be wary of when it comes to people they know offline. That said, it’s very important to assess the age appropriateness of games and to discuss with kids what types of information is okay or not okay to share with strangers and what types of interactions are warning signs.
Most MMOs give players the option to talk to one another. You can do this with text or with actual voice via a microphone. Chat is an indispensable tool in MMOs, because it would be near impossible to have fun playing with others if you couldn’t communicate with them. Chat is also great as a way to make friends and practice teamwork and leadership skills. However, it’s important to note that the anonymity that MMOs grant players can make for some difficult or uncomfortable situations. Misogyny, homophobia, and racism can and do occur in many online games. Some game communities are much better at handling these issues than others, and the gaming community in a larger sense is making efforts to create a more inclusive and positive culture. It’s a good idea to talk to younger players about what’s okay and what isn’t, especially when it comes to sportsmanship and bad language. Now! Onto the mechanics.
There are typically “channels” that players use to talk to each other. If you form a team with three other members, your team might have its own channel so that no one else can see their messages. There may also be a worldwide channel (or several of varying types), as well as the ability to send a private message to a single person.
With voice chat, channels are a must—there is no universal voice chat, for obvious reasons. Voice chat also removes one level of barrier between the person and the game, something that should definitely be taken into account, especially when young people are involved. However, voice chat can be extremely useful in a fast-paced environment where players don’t want to take the time to type something out (or read their teammate’s messages). The final thing to take into consideration with voice chat is that—and this is from experience—it’s impossible to keep it quiet in a family room. You can use all the headphones you want, but if the player is excited and yelling into the mic, it’s going to be noisy.
The third form of chat is actually not chat at all. It’s called emoting. Many MMOs give players the ability to have their character perform an action, such as waving, bowing, or hopping up and down, and other players can see this. It can actually get quite creative. In World of Warcraft, the two warring factions can’t actually chat with one another (they don’t speak the same language), so the only way to really communicate with a player from another faction is to emote. If I have no desire to fight with the enemy player, I can wave at them, then bow. If they wave back, then start dancing, and I begin dancing with them, we’ve communicated to each other that we’re both peaceful. I’ve run entire missions with enemy players this way. It’s a great exercise in communication skills, and it’s incredible fun as well.
How currency works in an MMO depends entirely on the game.
Paying for access is the first hurdle. Some games have monthly subscriptions, while others might only charge you once once for the game itself and let you play for free from then on. Some are entirely free. Access to the game might not be the only thing you’re paying for, though.
Most MMOs have an in-game currency (gold, or creds, or…any number of made-up names). This is an entirely imaginary currency, theoretically with no real-world value. I can gather 20,000 gold in the game and the only thing it means for me is that I can buy 20,000 gold worth of armor or potions from a magician. I say theoretically because there is an industry surrounding players trading in-game currency for real currency. If I really wanted to, I could take my 20,000 gold pieces and sell them on eBay for $10—it’s a completely digital transaction, with the gold being passed from one account to another. A vast majority of players just play for fun, but some make a living off selling in-game currency. It’s called Gold Farming, and it is typically against the rules. (Note: It’s also possible to buy accounts, characters, or items like weapons or armor on eBay, but this tends to be a shady practice.)
There are some MMOs that have frameworks in place for legal spending of physical money. Much like spending 99 cents for an extra turn in a mobile game, it usually comes down to lots of small but unnecessary expenses that some players feel improve the experience.
No matter what type of spending is possible in the game you or your family is playing, it’s a good idea to do a bit of research. I definitely suggest talking to teens about what spending is appropriate and okay with you, even if it’s their own money.
Most MMOs are, by nature, role-playing games. (This is where the acronym “MMORPG” comes from—massively multiplayer online role-playing game.) Because there are so many people in the game, it’s important to be able to distinguish one from the other, whether by appearance, skill sets, the role they play in that world, or all of the above. It’s a lot of fun to customize your own personal characters and breathe life into them. Some people like to play as themselves, while others make up a new persona—someone bolder, braver, or snarkier. Someone who’s questioning some aspect of themselves (say, their sexuality) will adopt that persona fully just to find out what it’s like. It can be a wonderful experience to become someone you’ve always wanted to be—a leader, a superhero, or someone with a team of friends who respect you. Many people find that those qualities can translate to real life simply by virtue of having tried them out in an MMO.
I know that this may set off some warning bells for parents. Who are your kids really interacting with? If anyone can be anyone, how do you know the game isn’t filled with predators and liars? And it’s true. There may be a handful of bad guys out there. The main thing to keep in mind is that the vast majority of players, even if they are lying about their true identities, aren’t doing it maliciously. I, for example, have pretended to be a housewife with a crying child (as a ploy to escape a bad group), a boy (to see what it was like to not be a girl), and a prom queen (because I honestly just wanted to be a prom queen). In reality I was a mousy 16-year-old girl who liked making up stories. It’s really important to talk to kids about red flags to watch out for. You should also remind them periodically that they don’t know who they’re actually talking to and that they should never share passwords or home addresses or last names, etc. But you can also ease your fears a bit by recognizing that kids are actually safer talking to strangers in an MMO than they are in almost any other situation.
Intense immersion isn’t always a good thing, of course. It’s easy to get overly attached to a world like this, even to the point of unhealthiness. Pathological gaming is an issue for some people—especially people who are suffering from depression, anxiety, or social problems like bullying or extreme shyness. It’s not that the game creates these problems. It’s more that kids who are, for example, bullied for their appearance or terribly nervous about bad grades can play an MMO where nobody can see them, and since they’re good at the game, feelings of inadequacy are alleviated. Most people who game pathologically (a small minority of players) grow out of it when these underlying issues are addressed, but it is important for parents to keep an eye on things. It’s also important to keep in mind that even playing a lot doesn’t necessarily indicate pathological gaming—it may simply be that kids are playing the game as they would a sport (hanging out with friends, honing skills), and simply haven’t developed a good sense of when to stop.
Why We Play
Mostly? It’s just a lot of fun. But it’s also (or can be, anyway) extremely social. You can make friends and acquaintances and play with them from the safety and comfort of your house. That means the game is always changing, depending on who you’re playing with. Most MMOs are large, with lots of places to visit and plenty of quests to do. It’s an entire world of real people, fantastical stories, and interesting things. If you’ve ever wanted to visit Narnia or Middle Earth with your friends, you can understand the draw.