It seems so simple, so obvious. “Yes, of course it’s good to take a break,” you say, nodding along with me. “Just as soon as I get my Tier 9 Sword, Epic Firetruck, and Gleeful Gnome Pet, I’ll do that. Though, I should really wait until my Tier 10 Sword and Mega-Epic Firetruck… and then help my guildies get theirs.”
The big difference, he says, is that online games are social. And players keep playing to maintain social contacts, and also to maintain social position.
The thing about MMOGs is that we don’t play them by ourselves. We play them with other people. Hang out in any kind of social space long enough, and you start to identify peers. Whether it’s your guild, random people on your friends list, or just the familiar names in trade chat, your MMOG eventually feels like your third place. Like a corner bar, it’s a place where you can go hang out and have fun with some familiar faces in a low-stress environment.
Unlike the corner bar, though, MMOGs focus very heavily on a strict track of progression and growth. If you duck out for a week, your character stays put, and everyone else keeps going. There’s a very real competition in online games to “Keep up with the Joneses,” even if you’re always just chasing the Joneses around. Not only do you have the lure of your personal progression — you also have the motivation to keep going “because everyone else is.” Not quitting becomes a test of solidarity. Everyone keeps playing as much as they do (however much it is) because that’s how much the people they see as their peers play.
The ability to mentor helps this quite a bit, but it isn’t a cure-all. Often, I’ve seen people choose character classes based on, “what do we need?” They want to make a strong positive contribution to the welfare of the social group. And if they are successful, it accords them some status within that group. But that status won’t be maintained if they stop playing. To some, that place of importance gives them a sense of responsibility to the other players who have helped them.
For example, when you log on, and guildies say, “Tolly, we’re so glad you’re here, we need you to mez for us in Maiden’s Chamber” it’s a powerful incentive to log in again.
Even if Zelda said to you, “Link, I’m glad you’re back! I need you to save me and save the world!” every time you logged in, we know that there’s not really a person there, but a scriptwriter. It isn’t the same.