Infancy and Pioneering

Those who know me are well aware that I love waxing nostalgic about anything and everything. Being so proficient, I recognize that in 99.9% of cases doing so accomplishes nothing but to idealistically color one's perception of past events and thus unintentionally skew one's measures of current times. The practice remains enjoyable, widespread, and just as flawed as ever.

As an example, on a semi-frequent basis one can find blog entries, comments and forum threads remembering the Good Ol' Days (TM) of World of Warcraft. The general themes of such posts lament of loss of said days, citing a "men were real men" paradigm and how ridiculously easy the game has since become. In conclusion, all said posts wish for the return of some particular element from the bygone era; the consensus is that through years of patches and improvements Blizzard has watered down the various elements such that the game, while being technically better, has been diminished. Logical, but flawed.

Overlooked in these throwbacks to the "Golden Age" is an understanding of social elements, how they were influenced by the old game mechanics, and how they have evolved. Blizzard's technical changes are a near zero factor in this matter. The cause, source, and mechanism for the watering down of the game are all the same, the players themselves. The changes that watered down the game were cultural changes.

This is actually a story common to all video games with a competitive element. At the dawn and infancy of a game all players are effectively equal and without advantage. During this period many "fruitless" activities are pursued because in the purity of the times they are fun and unspoiled.

However, over time pioneers naturally begin to learn the ins and outs of the game and take advantage. While initially small, the power conferred by this knowledge becomes impossible to ignore by the other players. The knowledge of the pioneers is spread to the rest of the population in a self-correcting attempt to return to the days of equal skill and opportunity, but the Good Ol' Days of innocence have ended.

From that day forward the culture becomes inevitably focused upon optimization and anticipation. Whether or not the game changes the pioneers continue their work, discovering new knowledge and taking advantage from it. The game becomes an arms race of sorts, who can acquire knowledge first and milk the advantage for all it's worth before everyone else catches on? Equilibrium is effectively lost forever.

What the nostalgic long for (though they often fail to realize) is not a return to the mechanics of the old era, but to the culture born out of innocence of those (or any) mechanics. Such a culture allows players to excel or remain contentedly average if they wish with no stigmas or negative repercussions.

Unfortunately, this is an impossible wish; innocence lost is lost forever. Like Dallben the culture is irrevocably changed, and with it the players.

Even when Blizzard releases a new game in the genre, or some other company produces a suitable offering, the mindset and skills that the players will bring have already changed. Though I may try to revel in the innocent exploration of a new game or new content, I am forever bound now to instinctually seek the optimal path and quickest advantage. I can no more change this than I can return to the playful oblivious youth I once was.

As joyous as those days of infancy were, nostalgia dangerously makes one see the worst in the current era. The rewards for exploring wisdom are bittersweet, but worth the toil.


360 Trooper said...

Maybe I'm misreading, but it sounds less like a loss of innocence and more like a loss of advantage. From your description, it seems that people are complaining about the days when they had some advantageous knowledge that few beyond a privileged elite had. By complaining the game is too easy they are complaining that more people are aware of this knowledge and they are not special anymore. That's like if I started complaining that not enough Death Knights are dumb enough to be wearing spell power gear. I'd call it the "Prodigy's Lament" if I'd ever heard a child prodigy complain about it (which I haven't). Child prodigies often are shockingly intelligent at a young age, but grow more and more average as the years pass. This, to me, sounds like a variation. Some players found knowledge that gave them an edge over other players, but it has since become common knowledge and the edge is lost. Not that I'm complaining. I'll min-max the hell out of a game character, but there's a certain unpleasantness about those who complain about losing a privilege that is supposed to be open to everyone.

Matoushin said...

It's probably less you misreading and more my very bad writing skills.

What you cited is one of three parts of the equation. We have the players which you mentioned, lamenting the loss of their easy advantage. We also have the players who lament that the bar was raised as they'd rather have played casually without all the stigma that arose.

But most important is the unifying factor between the two. It isn't the knowledge itself, but the cultural shift to valuing the knowledge that is the ultimate object of lament.

That might not have been as clear as I would have liked from the post itself.