Any game can provide a few hours of escape from the daily grind, but there's something special about MMOs that seems to make them more comforting places to be. Certainly MMOs are manufactured to give a sense of solid progress as you play, a fairness that the unpredictability of real life often can't deliver, but there has to be more to it. Do the music and ambient sounds in EverQuest II's virtual forests and glens produce the same reaction as walking through a real life wood? Likewise, does EVE Online trick us into slowing down, and is spending time in a virtual world just more appealing than slogging along in the real one?
In this opinion piece, I look at some of the most relaxing areas and activities I've found in MMOs and try to figure out what makes them tick.
The Oakmyst Forest in EverQuest II
People pay good money for CDs of seaside, jungle, and forest sounds to relax to, but when you think about it, many MMOs can give those same experiences for free and with fully 3-D audio. One of my favourite things to put on in the background while programming is EverQuest II, not for its gameplay but for its environmental sounds and music tracks. Perhaps the best spot for relaxing in is the Oakmyst Forest in Qeynos, under the waterfall next to some frogs. I can sometimes be found sitting idly on the rock there, chilling out to the sound of the water and local wildlife.
When I'm after a dose of nostalgia, I turn the music up and go for a run around the zones adjoining Qeynos. EverQuest II was my first big fantasy MMO, so a trip through Antonnica and the Thundering Steppes has massive nostalgic appeal for me. Age of Conan's Tortage has the same effect, and I think for me it's the music and environmental audio that does the trick. This kind of makes sense as both EverQuest II and Age of Conan have spectacular soundtracks and first-rate 3-D audio engines. Readers of our Jukebox Heroes column often report similar nostalgia brought on by the music in their favourite games.
Reading asteroids in EVE Online
Mining is often cited as the single most boring experience in EVE Online, and yet every day you'll find players in asteroid belts across the game hoovering up rocks. Oddly enough, I think the fact that mining is boring is what actually draws people to it; It's a slow, methodical activity that requires very little interaction and gives you time to do other things like reading a book or chatting idly to friends. The same can happen on long freighter trips, slow PvP roams, territorial warfare battles when the defender doesn't show up, and pirate gatecamps.
There's nothing stopping you from catching up on The Hobbit or talking politics in corp chat at any time, but mining or another largely passive activity will add a small incentive to take a break. Suddenly your downtime doesn't feel like wasted time any more because it's been made more productive; The Hobbit goes from being 300 pages to 300 million ISK, and Lord of the Rings will pay for a bunch of new PvP ships. Most MMOs don't have many activities you can progress at without really paying attention, so however boring it may be, mining in EVE Online really does serve a useful purpose.
Just chilling out in Orgrimmar
When you think about it, persistent online worlds are designed to be inviting places to visit because otherwise we would be irritated by the games and play less. I'm sure we've all got games that we can only play for an hour or two before they lose their appeal, but MMOs thrive on keeping us playing for a long time. It makes sense then that just hanging out in a social gathering place in your favourite online game can be a very relaxing experience. My old World of Warcraft guild leader Tinabeans used to burn off the frustration of a failed raid by just hanging out in Orgrimmar and chatting with random people.
Part of what draws us to log into MMOs regularly is the feeling that we belong to a community and that our absences would be missed. We join guilds and corporations, take up roles like Raid Leader and Recruitment Officer, and make real friendships with people we may never have met. We also become quite proud of our online gaming achievements because a job well done is usually highly rewarded. MMOs are designed to reward us for playing in the long-term because that's how they make money, but as a consequence, they give us a sense of accomplishment and make us form new social connections. They've accidentally become a fantastic way to de-stress, especially if you feel as if your real life isn't under control.
WoW guild leader Tinabeans, who to this day pays for a subscription just to sit in the middle of Orgrimmar on a purple birdy mount:
"I'm not the sort who would turn on a CD full of whale sounds to get in touch with my inner Zen, but I happily sit in the middle of Orgrimmar, enjoying the sounds of the bustling city and watching the virtual world roll by. I actually choose to log in and sit in Org while chatting to my in-game buddies because it is one of the best ways I have to unwind. There is a fluidity to an in-game city's hustle and bustle that can't be replicated by a sound CD that becomes repetitive over time, because there is an ever-changing human input that adds a real variance to the sounds and sights of the city."