I spent a bit of time in the last post explaining why I think the MMO formula jives with executive function disorders and other neurodivergent conditions. Today let’s hone in on my lifelong (or so it feels) obsession with The Lord of the Rings Online.
First and foremost, I’m obsessed with LOTRO because I love Middle-earth. The reason for this is deep and difficult to explain in what’s intended to be a short post. But all of Tolkien’s stuff touches on all the things that are dear to me: myth, cosmogeny, heroism, medieval history, nature, eucatastrophe, hope, food, drink, spirituality, and so much more. The Middle-earth legendarium, with LOTR being the foremost complete example of it, contains within itself nearly all those things that cut to the depths of my soul. Tolkien liked to butt against the critics who said his work was escapist: “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?”
And that is the feeling I get when I read The Lord of the Rings and, sometimes, when I play LOTRO.
To bring it back to inattention, Dr Tracey Marks offers that the ADHD brain needs some combination of four things to fully engage with any given task: interest, urgency, novelty, and (appropriate) challenge. So LOTRO, being a faithful adaptation of my favorite literary work, has built within it latent interest and novelty. Even when the “gamey” bit of the game gets stale, I still simply enjoy being in Middle-earth.
The element of finding a correct degree of challenge is there as well! If I simply cannot get focused, then mucking about in Mirkwood, bashing orcs and spiders, requires almost no work on my part. Compared to, say, a shmup or competitive card game or guitar playing or writing, LOTRO lets me feel a sense of accomplishment and reward even when my mental faculties are on the wane.
And apart from the novelty of the setting, the diverse number of activities available in LOTRO keeps things spicy. If I’m tired of leveling, I can go explore or craft or just hang around in the Shire or decorate my house. There’s literally always something to do.
It’s also a safe place let my task hopping go wild. I don’t like it — I’d rather have one character doing all the things and be laser-focused on this or any other task — but it’s just not realistic. So if there’s any place to not work on focus and to-do lists, it’s this game.
Finally is the question of habit. Building up a habit is constant work but once it is in place, even with the hazards of inattention lurking around, it can be maintained. I struggle to keep this up with healthier things like writing and exercise, but it’s relatively easy with gaming. However, even within my game time, I tend to hop from thing to thing. The intrinsic novelty of LOTRO and its design, described above and in the last post, along with other attractions I’ve built along the way (a good kinship, community involvement, ocassional streaming and podcasting) all mean that LOTRO has a kind of foothold on my attention and interest.
I finish by wondering aloud: how does this model apply to stuff I don’t really want to do? Most recently, middle grades math has been the thing. For some reason the novelty and interest appeared recently. I want to change things up in my career and I finally feel I’m in a place, mentally, to “get” math at a deeper level. The issue has since then become challenge. There are elements, yes even of math for 12 year olds, that is too challenging for me. So revving up the hill has been hard but after summiting a few times thanks to a Khan academy habit, the dopamine to be hitting and it is almost as elating as gaming. Almost.