An MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game is played on the internet, set in a virtual world in which many people are playing and interacting with at the same time. talking tom hack in North America, certainly the most talked about MMO, is World of Warcraft, however, there are several MMO games targeted at and marketed to children; recently I started reading about these “kid-friendly” MMOs and I started to wonder what impact an MMO would have on children and their creativity.
There are several MMOs out there for kids. There are free versions (free-to-play) and subscription versions, but they’re all built around one principle: MMO games can make BIG money. How do they do this? They are experts at creating an atmosphere that gets you to open your wallet and they employ psychological tools that promote addictive behavior. Many adults have a hard time spotting this, how can you expect your kids to?
MMO games – The Financial Cost
Most MMO games have a tiered system, a free portion and a payed portion. How these two sections of the game interact depends on the financial structure of the game. There are two primary and distinct strategies a company could try to use:
One is the monthly subscription model. In this model, to enjoy the full game you have to pay a monthly fee. Often this means the free portion of the game is time-limited; you can download the game, play for the trial period and once it’s over, you’ll have to pay to keep playing. Alternately, you might be able to keep playing the free game, but to unlock better features, new experiences, and places to explore you must be a subscribing member. Basically, while using the free/trail version it will take more effort and time to reach the same goals as a subscribing member, if it’s at all possible. The game will typically remind you, as often as possible, that your life and gaming experience would be easier if you just send them some money. This latter model is the one employed by Toontown, an MMO published by Disney and marketed to kids.
The other is the Microtransaction model. In this system, the game does not have a monthly fee but they offer options to buy credits (with real money) that you can spend in the game for bonuses. The “Coins” feature on Facebook games is an example of this – sometimes, game play is not affected by these items and they are only for the people who want bragging rights, but usually they do affect the game and give great advantages to those willing to pay for them. The term Microtransaction refers to the fact that typically these purchases are small typically ranging from five dollars down to just a few cents – small enough to seem small, big enough to add up quickly.
The attitude and culture of “keeping up with the Joneses” is something that MMO games actively encourage, whether it is having the latest and greatest weapon, a special limited edition item, or giving awards to the top players. It encourages players to play longer and pay more money.
MMO games and Creativity
There is very little true creativity in MMO games. They are carefully designed to keep you playing for as long as possible, often doing the same repetitive tasks over and over again to gain money, experience, or to meet some other in-game goal. There might be some problem-solving in-game but, within the confines of the game, there is a limit to how complex a problem can be and a limit to how creative the solution might be. There are so many other more creative activities kids can be doing!
MMO games and Addictive Behavior
There are many strategies used by MMO game makers that you should be worried about. Possibly the most common task in MMOs is “farming” in which you need to collect a number of objects to turn in for a reward. You collect 20 blue stars, turn them in to receive a shiny silver button, and move on to collecting 20 red squares so you can get your shiny gold button.