Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I Talk to the Laz Gastronomique about WoW, Racist 14-Year-Olds, and the Crack Rock

Despite my steadily increasing knowledge of the gaming landscape, there's a huge hole in my experience when it comes to the MMOs. I know that there are these games you play on your PC, where you go online with other people and “raid” things for “loot.” Based on my extensive research into the burgeoning field of MMO design (read: watching that one episode of South Park) have also learned that that collecting wolf pelts is also a common pasttime.

So I decided to talk to my friend Laz, in the hope that she would deign to enlighten the heathen about MMOs. Aside from being one of the most brilliant human beings on the planet, Laz is a World of Warcraft enthusiast and the author of the witty and delicious blog “The Laz Gastronomique.” (Note to readers: join us in making every week spicy asian soup week.) She graciously took some time off from publishing articles about brain science in top-flight academic journals to share a wealth of info, and a picture of her WoW avatar Ennui, with me. Enjoy!

Q: So, on a post a while back you asked whether I was aware of "all the research showing that playing lots of video games can actually alter your brain in various ways." What's the empirical data say about the way games affect the brain?

So, I went onto google scholar to make sure I had my facts straight before I answered this question, and I discovered that the study I was thinking of when I said this hasn't actually been published yet. The reason I know about said unpublished study is that I participated in it 2 summers ago as a favor to a friend in the department; apparently he was having difficulty finding caucasian females between the ages of 18 and 30 who played more than 8 hours of video games per week. I and my freakishly oversized corpus callosum were happy to help a brother out.

I imagine that if his study ever does get published, the reason it will get published is that it will show some kind of correlation between brain volume (I would guess prefrontal? or white matter? hard to say in advance) and video game expertise. What has already been shown is that playing lots of video games can actually improve (in the case of younger adults) or preserve and remediate (in the case of older adults) various types of cognitive function such as visual attention and executive control. This is not a very surprising result (hardly even up to the high standards of a video gaming blog) because it falls into the category of "if you use your brain, your brain will be better at doing the things you use it for." I think that the only reason these papers showing the positive effects of playing lots of video games even get published, given that what they say tends to be old news from a theoretical standpoint, is that they piss off oldsters who don't want their kids to play so many goddamn video games-- making this type of study potentially more interesting and controversial than similar types of studies showing that organized quilting improves cognitive function in old people (those actually exist!).

Q: A lot of MMOs have tried to replicate the magic of Wow, but they've all failed. Why is it that WoW is so much more successful than all its competitors?

At this point I've read so much about Why Wow is Awesome that it's hard to disentangle the opinions of others from my own. One suggestion that I think Tycho Brahe made that makes a lot of sense to me is that wow has such a huge head start now it's impossible for any competitor to catch up. I've sunk what, a million hours into making my various wow characters? Am I going to give up stalking Void Reaver in Tempest's Keep with my party of 25 epic guildies now so I can go hit rats with a stick in a forest that is still buggy because it hasn't been effectively beta tested yet using an interface that I don't understand and causes me to die every 3 minutes? No way, Jose. In order to wrench players away from WoW's iron grip, a potential new MMO is going to have to have a better interface, better graphics, better reward system, better character class, better anything than WoW has, but that's going to be hard to come up with now that WoW has been streamlining and improving itself with such a huge user base for so many years.

A second potential reason that I've heard professed is that the reward system in WoW is just perfectly tuned to our frail mostly-still-reptile cognitive systems, so that we can't but help ourselves from playing. I put less stock in this reason, because I know what kind of people end up doing cognitive research for video game companies and they tend to be the kind of people that got PhDs out of playing video games 6 hours a day because their advisors felt sorry for them. However, in my own experience with WoW I do have those moments of "oh my god, just one more hour, I need to farm enough iridescent pearls to make those exceptional gloves for my alt" or "oh my god just one more try at Lurker we'll get him this time and then the looooooooootttzzzz"

At some level though, the best answer to this question is just that wow is awesome! It's interface is easy to use for beginners and infinitely customizable for experts. The graphics are beautiful, have lots of variation, and run smoothly. The quests are fun, and if you don't like quests you can kill other players, and if you don't like either of those you can farm for resources, and if you don't like any of that you can just fly around on your wind rider and take it all in (as I do), or (as my 14 year old guild mates seem to enjoy) stand in one of the cities and alternately undress yourself and dance around or stand there in your epic armor and wait for the n00bs to admire you.

Q: Yeah, so what is the deal with epic loot?

LOOOOTTTTTTTTZZZZZZZZZ!!! Ok. So in WoW, there are various qualities of loot. In ascending order of awesomeness, there's your "vendor trash" (e.g., dilapidated cloth gloves), your "greens" (e.g., Epaulets of the Whale), your "blues" (e.g., Apexis Cloak) and your EPIC LOOTS (e.g., THE SUN EATER). Of course, the more awesome the loot is the rarer it is and the harder to get it is. Your really really epic lootz come off hard bosses that you need your guild to help you kill. Wearing epic loot has all kinds of awesome consequences. First, of course, it ups your stats (see, for example, my epic 2136 bonus healz). Second, it looks awesome, so not only does it make your character look cooler, it also signals to all the n00bs walking around Orgrimmar that you are 3l33t. Third, it enables you to move up in the kind of instances and bosses you are ready to take on. Even in a guild with lots of level 70s, there is lots of content that is way too hard to tackle without a pretty high tier of epic gear. It gets to be in your high level raiding guilds that everyone knows what gear everyone else is trying to get and what bosses have to be killed go get it. So you go do this epic 15 minute boss fight, and you down the boss and feel awesome because it was hard and maybe you couldn't do it last week because the guild wasn't firing on the strategy needed to be successful, and then you go over and loot the corpse and see the loots there and often there will be either a big cheer--if the loot someone needed dropped-- or groans of despair-- if low quality loot or loot that everyone already has dropped.

My main character is all tricked out in almost full PvE epic loot, with the exception of a blue cloak that is actually one of the top 5 or 10 healer cloaks in the game despite being blue.

Q: I tend to be really wary of playing games online with other people, but I get this sense that in WoW it works out for the best, even if you're a antisocial person like myself. How does it happen.

You know, even with all my years of psychological training I really don't know how it works either. This summer my friends got ENDLESS amusement out of my stories of what 14 year old boys had said to me in wow the night before, and after they got done wiping the tears of mirth from their eyes, professed amazement that I, a woman who is known to be able to clear out a room if a foolish male inhabitant of that room implies that I don't understand football, would not only put up with being told that I was a whore for dating a black man by a 14 year old from Georgia, but then sign up to go raiding with him the next day (that actually happened!) So I've thought about this alot, and the best explanation I can come up with is that the sheer addictive force of wow, and the need to party up with other players after a certain point, overcomes almost any interpersonal obstacles. I'm like you, I don't really like playing games with other people either: the last 5 or so of my diablo ii builds were all characters who could at least in theory solo baal on hell (zoomancer whuuutttt!) specifically for the reason that I didn't want to have to play with anyone else. In fact, my main wow build was also originally a character type that could easily solo all the single player content in the game (disc. priest).

But after a few thousand hours of solo play, I came up against the barrier that I just could not advance my character any further without partying up. I had started to almost be burnt out on WoW at that point, because I was really at a point in the reward structure where I would spend 100 hours collecting badges or whatever and only get an incremental increase in my statz. Then I randomly agreed to heal an instance for this 14 year old kid who was the guild leader of my first guild, kingg kobras [sic] (now dissolved.) OH MY GOD. After that first day healing the mechanaar, it was like I had gone from powdered coke to rock. HOLY SHIT. My heart is like racing now just thinking about it. Wow was a brand new game. I had thought I was addicted to wow before that, but I didn't even know what addiction was. Once you join a guild, no matter how fucking annoying the 14 year olds in the guild are, how stupid, misogynist, sex obsesseed, you somehow manage to get over all that because if you stay guilded with them you can play this whole other game that is even better than the one you already loved. You all of a sudden have access to all this content and loot that you didn't before. You NEED them, and they NEED you, and that co-dependency makes it possible to put up with a lot.

It's also the case that, just as in life, you can find people who are more or less annoying to play with. So even though kingg kobras was mostly populated by racist 14 y.o.s, there were a few other (relatively) normal adults who I ended up playing with almost exclusively (although the 14 y.o.s would regularly eavesdrop on our voice channel to hear us talk about lesbians.)

Q: I know that you own a PS3 and a Gamecube, last I checked. What is your favorite console game?


I thought and thought about this, and decided there was nothing for it but to tell the truth and be embarassed. I think that my all time favorite console game is probably super mario world for the super nintendo. Wow, did I love that game. I loved it so much! I still love it. That was one of the first games that I ever really played as a kid, so my love for it has this element of childhood wonder in there that no game I will ever play as an adult will have. I don't really even know what about it I love so much. It's colorful, and cute, and a side scroller (dear game developers: please make more side scrollers. I hate sandboxes and will not buy them. Love, laz), and you can figure out all the controls in 2 seconds but not be able to beat the game for weeks and weeks. My hallmates actually dug up some old super nintendos at one point in college, and I wasn't the only person who put aside our hall gamecube and ps2 and xbox to play super mario world exclusively for about a month.

In the "modern" era, I love mario kart double dash and also lego star wars (the original trilogy version... I do NOT see getting to play as jar jar as an enducement to play a video game and have therefore never even finished the prequel version.) I don't get to play double dash the "right way" any more because I can't abide enough of the other graduate students to let 7 of them into my home to get drunk and play double dash, so I haven't played that in a while. Lego star wars I actually liked enough on the gamecube to buy again for my ps3 (in retrospect I don't know why I did that, but it does make it so I don't have to switch my consoles in and out of my tv as much, and I guess I do get to play it "in hd" or whatever now.) It has this great unlockable level where all you do is run around and collect studs. This is a great level because for the whole rest of the game, there is this tension in ever level built around whether or not you will collect enough studs to gain "true jedi" status, and a relief of that tension every time you pick a stud up and hear that stud collection noise. Then in the unlocked level, you just get to go around collecting studs as any character you want (I usually choose ghost obi-wan kenobi) with no enemies for like 20 minutes, and hear that stud collection noise over and over again. Ahhhhhhhh.


Q: Which Springer-Verlag Graduate Text in Mathematics are you? I'm “Introduction to Knot Theory.”

It's interesting to note that I had actually already taken this quiz a long time ago, and been told I was graduate string theory. At the time I took it, from what myself and my cohort at MIT could determine, graduate string theory was the only possible result of the quiz. I took the quiz again this morning, and was happy to discover that both I and the quiz had matured: now I am told that I am Categories for the Working Mathematician.

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