(Note that this is a really rambling and wordy and possibly pointless piece. I was in that mood. :) )

People play. Critters play.

I like reading about animal play (link to online article thanks to Wikipedia), because it helps focus thinking about people-play (and because it’s interesting in itself).

Play is, sometimes, doing stuff that usually matters, but doing it in a context where it doesn’t, in fact, matter. Two cubs pouncing on each other in the manner of predator and prey, even though neither is going to eat the other. Two small armies struggling to control a patch of land, even though at the end of the game neither one will actually own the football field.

In World of Warcraft, the structure of your typical five-person dungeon party roughly parallels the structure of the traditional family group:

  • The tank, like the traditional father, stands between the party and the monsters, and takes their attacks onto himself,
  • The healer, like the traditional mother, supports the tank (and, when necessary, the rest of the party), healing wounds, curing disease, making sure that everyone is doing well,
  • The DPS, like traditional children, attempt to cause as much damage as possible, using knives, guns, explosives, wild animals, and demons summoned from the netherworld.

All of WoW is play, in general, because it doesn’t matter; no one is really going to die. But DPS matters the least. In a few cases, like when the Lich King is slowly slowly coming after the party in the Halls of Reflection instance, and the walls of ice won’t go down to let you all run away until the DPS have killed all the swarming undead, your DPS had better be good and fast or you’ll wipe. But in general, like in the crypt under the Scarlet Monastery Graveyard, when Bloodmage Thalnos is waving his arms around and not really being paticularly dangerous to anyone at all, the DPS can take their time, as long as the Tank and Healer are doing their jobs; there’s no rush and no pressure. A DPS can go AFK there (PDQ!), and the others will just have to work a little longer to finish the instance.

As a rogue, Spennix is pure DPS; she sneaks in there and stabs things in the back while the tank is shouting and looking shiny in order to hold their attention. Except in, say, Halls of Reflection, it doesn’t really matter how well she does; if she has a bad day and keeps facing the wrong way and not stabbing the monsters much, the other DPS will take care of it, and probably no one will even notice unless someone’s watching a damage-meter add-on.

As a soloing rogue, Spennix is even more just playing; she’s level 80 now, which is the highest possible level (until the next expansion comes out), she has pretty good gear, she has tons of neat mounts, and so really nothing that she does matters much even in game terms. She can play around, say, doing favors for the Sha’tari Skyguard, with an eye on eventually getting one of those cool flying mounts, but if that doesn’t happen today / this month, that’s fine.

Recently I’ve been playing tanks and healers more. It’s interesting! Definitely a different set of skills. I have a human priest, “Holy” specialization, healer, at like level 34 as of this writing (here he is!), and a Draenei paladin, “Protection” spec, tank, slightly lower level (here). Both of them are currently doing Scarlet Monastery Graveyard over and over and over and over (that being just about the only instance available to low-30’s characters).

Healing and tanking are both fun. They are also, in some limited sense, less playful than DPSing; because what you do matters more.

There’s only one tank, and only one healer, and if you’re it and you mess up, the party’s likely to die. If the tank doesn’t hold the attention of the monsters, and they decide to (say) kill the healer, it’s often All Over. And if the healer doesn’t keep the tank healed, and the tank dies, the monsters will then eat up everyone else. Not always, but often. Even usually.

There are lots of bad tanks; the typical bad tank will either not be able to (or not even know they are supposed to) hold aggro, or will rush madly on ahead without making sure that the healer is ready, or both, and get everyone killed. And then, typically, blame everyone else for not keeping up, or for distracting the monsters.

There are fewer bad healers, but there are some. Usually it’s just a matter of not having good judgement about how much to heal the tank and when, either letting the tank die from insufficient healing, or running out of mana from too much healing (followed quickly by the tank dying from a sudden complete lack of healing).

I don’t, of course, want to be either of those! So when I’m tanking or healing, there’s responsibility. What the tank or healer does matters, with respect to the success of the party (although the success of the party does not itself matter, in any particularly significant sense).

So perhaps it’s that DPS is playing even in the context of play, whereas the tank and the healer aren’t playing in that context (although the context itself is play).

How much is Second Life play? What matters, and what doesn’t matter? What is the context?

The questions remind me of a classic Sophrosyne Stenvaag piece about the pricing of virtual goods. If we’re playing, just having a good time, and it doesn’t really matter, than sure charging basically nothing (100 Linden Dollars, for instance, is about US$0.40) for a piece of clothing or a device is perfectly reasonable. But if it does matter, if people want to have virtual businesses that sell virtual goods in a sort of real-life “value for money” way that one could actually live off of, then giving away stuff so cheap is undercutting those people, and maybe that matters,.

People matter. In both WoW and SL, people matter. It’s okay to kill members of the other faction in WoW, because that’s part of the play; but it’s not so okay to promise to show up for a raid at a certain time and then casually not do that, or to tell X what Y said about them, even though you promised Y that you wouldn’t. The fact that X is a Blood-elf Warlock and Y is an Orc Warrior doesn’t negate any of that stuff.

(Some people consider SL to be a place where all sorts of things don’t matter, including some very people-things. More than once Girl Dale has had some total stranger propose random fornication, and on the proposition being refused had the stranger say “why not? it is only a game!”. Boys are weird.)

People need to play, like to play. I, in particular, need to play, want to play, when I get home in the evening, especially if the day has been particularly bruising. I like to play on long weekends, relaxing with maybe some milk and cookies and my laptop, between naps and chores.

Tanking and healing in WoW is fun and interesting, but it’s less playful and less relaxing. Sitting up in my lab in the sky in SL and making random odd things is pretty much pure play; it doesn’t matter at all whether or not it works. Keeping up four or five IMs while having a deep conversation with one or two people in virtual person all at the same time and not wanting to offend any of them by cutting them off, while trying to decide which of three or five party and event and visit invitations to accept, is less relaxing, because those people do matter, and I don’t want any of them to feel bad, and I really do want to talk to them all at once, because they are all fascinating. And I don’t want to miss any of the parties!

At this point some of my SL friends, and You Know Who You Are, are thinking “oh, Dale’s saying that I should leave him alone and stop IMing him all the time”, but that’s not what I’m saying at all! I’m just saying that you matter to me; I’m not saying that that’s a bad thing. In fact it’s a very good thing!

Play is good, but having things matter is also good. I like that SL is a place to play, but if it was only a place to play it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting and significant. (It would, in a way, be more like WoW, which is really only a place to play for me, because I’ve never gotten deep into Serious Raiding Guilds or anything, and I don’t know anyone there really well; I just cook and fish and fight monsters.)

When I’m in a pure relaxing-and-playing mood, I’m more likely to play Spennix than Brothersteve or Spaenorus. I may also be more likely, these days, to play WoW than SL; or if I do go into SL, it may be on my secret antisocial building alt. On the other hand, healing and tanking are fun and interesting things to do when I’m feeling a bit more, what, ambitious in my play. And talking to all of the marvelous current and future friends in SL is one of my very favorite things to do, ever.

And that’s exactly because it matters. :)