Realms of the Unreal

One of the first documentaries I watched is called In the Realms of the Unreal. It’s about Henry Darger, a recluse who, unknown to everyone around him, made a massive amount of art and literature about a group of girls called the Vivian Girls and their war against a hostile child enslaving nation. Darger is hailed as an “outsider artist”-someone who makes lasting art yet is completely out of the intellectual and creative class.

He also was mentally ill.

The reason why I mention him, is because for him, his mental illness manifested in many ways: in his art, in an obsession with the weather, in compulsive churchgoing. These things absorbed him, but kept him isolated. What worries me is that for many, MMOs are becoming similar coping mechanisms, and their grinding, rote gameplay acts on that and attracts people who should by many means be into therapy or dealing with issues.

A study referenced in this news article indicated that there may be a higher level of depression for both hardcore and roleplaying players. In my own informal experience, I’ve known at least 3 people suffering from forms of it in games, some very severe. I’ve heard of more, and I wonder how many other people can share the same response.

One of the three people I knew recently. She is an attractive, intelligent woman that is an excellent roleplayer who suffers from borderline personality disorder. It’s a form of mental illness that manifests in extreme mood swings and fear of abandonment, to wild degrees. One minute they are loving and caring, the next very bitter and hateful, often swinging from both extremes in quick succession. I fell for her and had to break it off because of this: the fears of abandonment and demands for time are too extreme, and even the slightest thing may be a personal attack and start endless fights. Medication can’t help it.

What worries me is that the sort of half-life an MMO gives can keep people hidden and isolated. The heartbreaking thing about Henry Darger is that no one knew him: he was so reclusive people couldn’t agree on even what he is like. While MMOs offer somewhat of a community, in many ways they are like what I would call a Darger trap: something that ensnares interest and isolates people from the greater world at large and hides any problems.

My first darksider post is this: while people tout virtual worlds’ benefits for education, they really don’t see that they warehouse a lot of people too. I think about that girl, and feel loss, because I had to leave her. The greater loss is though that no one knew why she acted the way she did, and I wonder how many people play like her: “I play this because I have nothing else.”

5 Responses to Realms of the Unreal

  1. Tesh says:

    To me, a good question might be: “How many people are made *worse* by MMOs, compared to how many people are made *better* by MMOs?”

    I can’t help but think that the balance probably isn’t leaning to the better side.

    Also, what about the follow up? If these MMOs (or games in general) are, in the balance, more deleterious than helpful, do we try to chase their potential and make them better, or cut our losses and try to staunch the tide? I’m not sure that we can stuff the genie back in the bottle, and a case can be made that it’s best to work with what we have and try to make things better.

  2. Dblade says:

    Reading Psychochild’s post in his blog about moral game design I was thinking about that. Even among healthy people there’s a strong case that MMOs alone really don’t help: people spend hours doing a more complex form of solitaire, and even more trying to increase an imaginary statistic by a few points.

    I don’t think in the sense of my post you can make them better. MMOs really are a skinner box, and the manipulation of numbers and rote play is as central to them as guns to a FPS.

  3. Tesh says:

    True enough.

    What about an MMO that isn’t in the DIKU mold? Say, one that’s more Team Fortress 2 PvE without the skinner progression?

    I know, I know, some will argue that it’s not a “true” MMO at that point, but perhaps that could capture some of the “teamwork” gaming that seems to be one of the positive aspects of these things.

  4. Dblade says:

    You could do it, if the experience was engaging enough. I’m reminded of perfect dark, where you could set up AI agents to fight co-op with a bud. Expand it to a larger scale and it could be fun, but persistence comes into play. You really don’t need a world for that.

    I don’t know. Maybe some of the non-traditional MMOs like racing ones may hold the key.

  5. Tesh says:

    I haven’t played it, but doesn’t Global Agency dig a little into that? Say, TF2 but the notion of fighting with your Agency (guild) for control of terrain. There’s a persistent world that’s a layer of strategy as opposed to the tactical combat of day to day play.

    …I’m not sure what incentives there are for controlling terrain, but I’m sure that you could do something with it, making *place* important somehow.

    What would you take from racing MMOs? What sort of teamwork can you find there? I’m all for noncombat MMO investigation.

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