I do some of my “best” thinking when I find myself doing some of the most mundane activities – washing dishes, folding clothes, showering (we’ll leave that one where it is…), or shoveling snow from my 150′ driveway. As much as I need a boot in the seat to get out there and do it, I actually enjoy shoveling that snow, especially at night. Everyone keeps telling me to get a snowblower, but I just can’t seem to motivate in that direction. (It would destroy my little pool of sanctuary; there’s something about snow at night – the entire world is “muted”, the snowfall seems to go on forever in every direction, and I get a rare moment of peace and quiet.)
A few nights ago, it occurred to me that some of the most fun, and particularly some of the best roleplaying, I’ve experienced in MMOs has been during some of the most mundane activities. Or perhaps I should say, “non-combat activities”. Which, compared to combat, can seem fairly mundane; no less fun (in many cases), just less dynamic.
When it comes to group combat scenarios, it seems like everyone just gets down to “business”. We’re all still having fun, and often can even hold general conversations about any given topic. But the focus is pretty much on the task at hand – putting down some fiend or another, or tackling a group challenge. Unless you have a very dedicated group of roleplayers, adding the complexity of maintaining a fictitious persona on top of everything else is probably just a little too much to ask.
On the other hand, when we’re able to sit back and relax and take things at our own pace, the social aspects come to the fore. Activities such as crafting, interior design (housing), and festivals and celebrations all allow us to focus on the people and the world around us, not just on the target that needs killing. This, I think, is why people still point to systems within certain games as truly spectacular; housing in Everquest 2, crafting in the original Star Wars Galaxies, and festivals in LotRO. In APB, perhaps the worst design and launch of an MMO to date, the customization system was lauded as, far and away, the best mechanic; it helps that the action side of the game was so poor and prone to cheating, but still – those tools were amazing.
Interactivity is key; the ability to work with and influence the world outside of killing its inhabitants is the biggest step towards both encouraging the kinds of social interactions that build community, and empowering players to create their own memorable experiences. It allows us to express ourselves creatively, both personally and interpersonally. We can’t spend all our time fighting; even digital people need downtime.