ADHD and the MMO

Been a while.

Good, and you?

Niceties thus complete, I will remind you that some time ago I mused on the intersection of executive function deficiency and shoot ’em up games. I think those points largely hold. Even though shmups present as frenetic and engaging, that is strictly superficial. The mythological “squirrel” understanding of ADHD persists, in part because it is true in some cases, but that kind of frogging from shiny to shiny isn’t exactly how it works. The overall sense of focus required to play shmups properly is a true challenge, one I have not really had the mental bandwidth to overcome lately (being in the mushy, rhythmless summertime doesn’t help).

And yet I am playing my beloved LOTRO more than ever. It’s downright distracting, as I’ve been sandbagged from other projects by the overwhelming desire to make silly LOTRO content.

Presently I am on vacation. Where? You don’t need to know.

I doxx myself enough around here.

My laptop tagged along and I’ve had time to dapple a bit of LOTRO into my day. My brother being with us, and also being a gamer, noticed and said, “Man I wish I could commit to a game like that.”

And it got me thinking: how am I able to maintain my LOTRO habit while so many other hobbies, from various game genres to writing to hiking, simply blink off my proverbial radar as if they had never existed?

The answer, I think, is heckin’ complicated as usual.

It’s manifold wrinkles are further compounded by the unique position The Lord of the Rings Online has in my life, so I think we should begin by looking at the MMO genre of game as a whole then jump into Middle-earth.

Historically, the online RPG has been a favorite of mine for a very long time. The appeal of inhabiting a fantasy world has appealed since I first learned of Meridian 59 and then Everquest many, many, many years ago, likely motivated by my love of fantasy. Who would not want to exist as a warrior or troll or what-have-you? Not me, and certainly not me at age 12 I can tell you that much.

So though my dedication to the genre, even to LOTRO, has waxed and waned in my adult years, it’s still a genre I consistently enjoyed and identified with.

Why, especially if we are casting the light of ADHD on this mystery?

One thing I know about myself and the effect of this disorder on my behavior is that I am straight up dopamine chaser. Whatever sounds fun or appealing at the moment has the potential to completely override everything else in front of me. Generally this does not play out as me making one choice among many; it’s more akin to those other options winking out of the universe for a short while because that one thing is all I want, even if it is going to wink out itself in a day or two. This is colloquially known as hyperfocus and is a common report among the neurodiverse.

What makes it easy for an MMO to become the object of such hyperfocus, even against other games?

Venturing a guess, MMO’s are low-risk and high-reward even among the generally low-risk activity of video gaming. I say low-risk because compared to other life activities and hobbies, it’s generally cheap, engaging, novel, and safe.

For when you log on to an MMO, the design of the game itself is generally not very challenging. Difficult group content aside, these games are built to showcase beautiful, visually pleasing environments and lure you into simple tasks that reward you with new items, interesting story beats, character improvement or customization, and fresh experiences.

I will likely break each of these down in a fresh essay another time, so let me end with one last thought.

Ignoring for a moment its potentially abusive and predatory application, the design of the MMO (perfected, in my opinion, by the advent of mobile and “f2p” games) is an ingenious feedback loop. Quest, resolution, reward. Seeing the numbers increase, enjoying the flash and fanfare when you improve, watching tasks resolve, is (generally) the key to the ADHD brain. It’s a perpetual drip of dopamine that is hard to resist.

Sticking with an MMO is a different story, but the overall design is just right for my type of engagement. And once I’m engaged and focused it feels so good that it’s hard to stop.

I’ll speak more to the specific application of this idea to The Lord of the Rings Online soon, but for now I think this a start.


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