Dixon on MMORPGs: Are They Really That Bad?

In the course of his discussion of the rise of streaming services in Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, author Wheeler Winston Dixon takes issue with a particular subset of the gaming industry, MMORPGs. Dixon looks to Wikipedia in defining MMORPGS for his readers (the article seems to have been edited since he accessed it):

“massively multiplayer online role-playing games are large multiuser games that take place in perpetual [my emphasis] online worlds with hundreds or thousands of other players. MMORPGs can also include computer role-playing games in which each player controls an avatar that interacts with other players, completes tasks to gain experience and acquires items.”

Dixon takes a rather dismal view and at times quite judgmental view of MMORPGs, citing them as “addictive to much of the population. I don’t think this is a good thing.” (85) Dixon is not wrong to claim that MMOs can become an addiction consuming many hours of their users’ lives. One need not look far for stories of how MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft have negatively impacted the lives of many players. Despite the very real problems fostered by MMOs, however, Dixon’s argument read to me as excessively judgmental and dismissive of the individuals who play games such as World of Warcraft.

In a passage I found particularly disagreeable, Dixon deems that “The attraction [of MMORPGs], presumably, is that your own life is so empty that anyplace is better than where you really are.” (Dixon 85) Dixon’s statement reeks of gross generalization, particularly given the sheer size of the World of Warcraft playerbase. Dixon very specifically notes that the active World of Warcraft playerbase encompassed over 10 million individuals at the time of writing. World of Warcraft players span many demographics and many nations; pigeonholing all ten million players as sad, lonely outcasts in need of escapism seems misguided at best and actively harmful at worst.

While I by no means intend to suggest that MMORPGs do not offer a means of escape from an unsatisfying life for some players, Dixon overlooks other potential motivations for play in his desire to vilify the genre. Many players are quite capable of simply enjoying the gameplay of an MMO without needing an escape from reality. While I am not an avid MMO player myself, I have played some on occasion. I consider myself quite pleased with my real-world life and have no desire to escape into Azeroth, or any of the myriad other fantasy realms brought to life by MMORPGs. I enjoy the gameplay of certain MMOs as well as the ability to play cooperatively with real-life friends

Dixon charges that MMORPGs aim to ensnare players, luring them away from their lives in the real world in favor of the digital experience. Again, he’s not wrong; the end goal of any MMORPG is of course to retain users in order to derive greater profit. Most MMORPGs operate on one of two models. Some, like World of Warcraft, utilize a pay-to-play monthly subscription model, while increasingly many turn to the ascendant free-to-play (F2P) model where players install the game for free and have access to a variety of revenue-generating microtransactions, much like in-app purchases for iPhone games. Both models aim to compel players into sticking with the game long-term. I was somewhat puzzled, however, by Dixon’s assertion that the MMORPG’s desire to breed reliance on a fantasy world represents a potentially much more alarming form of escapism than that already offered by television. While consumers of television adopt a more passive role than players of MMORPGs, broadcast and cable networks have every reason to want viewers to do nothing but view their programs, just as the MMORPG developer seeks to keep users playing. Television can be switched off, as Dixon says, but so can my computer, and barring that I can certainly close the game. Consumption of MMORPGs can result in dangerous levels of escapism, but MMORPGs offer a level of social engagement and interaction which cannot be replicated via the act of watching television. Nor do these interactions simply vanish when the player exits the game, as Dixon asserts; many MMORPG players participate in the game alongside real-life friends, friends sometimes made through social interactions in the game.

Both mediums of entertainment have benefits and drawbacks, yet Dixon focuses rather excessively on the potential harm of MMOs, going so far as to present a near-apocalyptic virtual reality scenario depicted by Charles Eric Maine in his 1921 novel Escapement, while glossing over the same potential for escapism and the construction of fantasy worlds inherent in film and television. One need only glance at Fanfiction.net or Deviantart to see ample evidence that television and film also hold the power to suck users into a realm of escapist fantasy.

MMORPGs hold great potential to destabilize and exploit the lives of their players, and by no means do I wish to gloss over the very real problems these games can cause. Dixon is right to raise alarm bells in regards to the end goal of MMORPGs, and we must be ever mindful of the seductive power of these games as the notion of virtual reality becomes increasingly popular with the gaming industry. However, a more nuanced approach to the genre must be taken. Dismissing MMORPGs as simple escapism for social failures undercuts both the problems and benefits of the genre, and does players both socially fit and maladjusted a disservice. Just like streaming, MMORPGs don’t seem to be going anywhere. We would do well to attempt to understand their impact on our society in more depth.


Dixon, Wheeler Winston. Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access. University Press of Kentucky, 2013.
Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by Everaldo Coelho and YellowIcon.


  1. A Voice says:

    (1) People with addictive personalities will latch onto all sorts of things, but mainly things that they are interested in or really like. It’s inappropriate for this sort of thing to go missed in an apologetic or attack, however it seems to always go missed and is remarkably frustrating because an important caveat is missed.

    (2) A number of people play video games, not just mmorpgs, because they fail to find real meaning in their lives. That’s not pathetic. The world is far too cruel because people wilfully choose to act in a way that demonstrates they don’t care about other people. However, escapism for this reason can compel people to enter all sorts of hobbies quite deeply, from fixing cars to reading books, where people can say ‘well, life sucks, but when I’m doing X all of that bad shit just melts away.’

    (3) People play mmorpgs over other video games, I would contend, for three primary reasons: sustainability of a virtual world, escape and openness to meaningfully interacting with other people who prima facie share similar interests. To the first, a number of people have played a fantastic rpg that they just didn’t want to end and a mmorpg gives them the opportunity for that to not be the case: the game set in the world you like doesn’t really end. To the second, I glossed this in (2). To the third, it’s really no different then going to an event with people who share similar interests, however in a mmorpg it’s much easier to talk to people about something without being awkward. You do a few quests, a dungeon run and perhaps start talking.

    (4) The questions shouldn’t be if mmorpgs are bad for people, but rather are the games that claim to represent the genre any good, why and why not. This is what is constantly lost over sensationalism. Instead of talking about the medium as such, it’s merits and flaws, there’s too much talk by those outside and even those inside about ‘it’s good to play video games’ and ‘it’s not good to play video games’.

  2. One of the things that Dixon seems to ignore is that while you are playing an MMORPG, you are interacting with other people – while you’re sitting on your duff watching the boob tube, social interaction is usually nil. I’m sorry, this guy sounds like a total tool – apparently from some of the statements made, this was written a while back.

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