MMORPGs and Existentialism: What online gaming can teach you about Philosophy

Whether your game is Final Fantasy XI (or XIV), World of Warcraft, Eve Online, or any one of a number of growing massive-multiplayer-online-role-playing-games, then you know how enjoyable these games can be. For those who don’t play these games, the idea of spending hours, upon days, upon months in front of a computer monitor or laptop screen presents itself as murky at best. Like it or not though, these games have made bank on their aptitude of capturing the human condition in their own respective worlds. Tapping into the core of the human condition, they provide the user with all that we lust after: Desire, Purpose, Freedom, and Power. Today I’m going to take a break from the hardcore philosophy talk, and give a personal piece on Existentialism and MMORPGs.

Introduction (skip if you are familiar with MMORPGS)

Let’s break down what an MMORPG is. RPG stands for Role Playing Game. The idea is to assume the role of usually one character and play through a story or series of events in order to beat the game. Final Fantasy is best known for its intricate story and plots, filled with magic, mystery and romantic accents. Games like Final Fantasy have been around since the dawn of video gaming.

On the other hand, MMO Stands for Massive Multiplayer Online, which of course just means what it says. So, MMORPGS require the player to assume some role in a virtual world with thousands, or even millions of other players.

Being in the World……..of Warcraft.

[I’ll use WoW as a reference for most of what will be discussed because of its popularity.] Philosopher Martin Heideggar explained the act of  “being in the world” with the word Dasein. Dasein is the state of being-in-the-world as a result of a human agent acting within his environment. What if, though, that environment was virtual? What if you were experiencing that virtual environment, via a subject in that virtual world? Because of this, I like to think of playing games like WoW as Being-in-the-world and Being-in-the-World-of-Warcraft at the same time. It is the latter that I shall be discussing from here on out. The reason that these games are good at causing these shifts unlike any other game is because of one feature that sets them apart from other games, application of human freewill. When playing the game, one has the choice to do virtually whatever they want, or don’t want. As an example, I could encounter someone in WoW who is facing an enemy, but not doing so well. In fact, I have the chance to heal them and save them from death. If I choose to heal them I could save that player a good amount of time and frustration, but if I have better things to do, I could pass him and go about on my merry way. The fact is that games like these place you in a virtual world with thousands of thinking agents who are all acting independently.

Desire, Vanity and Power

I think if there is one thing that most players desire out of their game it is power. As you work through these games for long enough, you can become quite powerful. It is usually that lust for power and strength that drives most WoW players to become so addicted. When one becomes an unstoppable force, able to thwart anything in his path, it proves how good he is and how powerful he has become. That very same will to power is one of Nietzsche’s central concepts. He asserted that all humans desire to obtain power, and more importantly, exercise that power and dominate others.

Another key factor in most of these games is vanity. Usually, players begin their journey as a character with minor appearance choices. As they work their way up the ladder, they will have access to all sorts of intricate items and accessories to make themselves, in a manner of speaking, more “bad-ass.” In Eve Online, Players take control of space ships and meander around the universe molding their character the way in which they choose. But, of course, you certainly don’t start out with the biggest baddest ship on the market. Just like in real life where celebrities are idolized for their “bling” the same is the case in most MMORPGs.


These games do one thing well that even reality can’t seem to offer. In a world where people are constantly questioning what the meaning of everything is, MMORPGs give you direction. Sure, it’s not reality, but these games offer a sense of purpose, especially when you’re immersed in the story, or lore, of the game. Most Existentialists agree with either two things, A) There is no purpose to life, or B) The purpose of like is what you make it. When faced with such ideas, it almost becomes obvious why one invests a lot of time playing these games. You get the satisfaction of fulfilling a purpose unlike any you would be able to face in reality.

Sartre’s  “Situation” and how it applies

The “situation” is an idea thought up by Jean-Paul Sartre. This idea stems from the misunderstood concept of freedom. Sartre explains that freedom is simply the constant struggle between our ability to choose and the obstacles that stand in our way. So, in reality, we’re never really completely free. There are always obstacles in our path that must be conquered in order to move forward. Moment-to-moment, no matter how large or small, we are confronted with a choice:  “Do I want eggs for breakfast? Damn, I’m out of eggs. Perhaps I will have cereal. What happened to the bowls? Ah, they are all dirty. I am going to have to wash one now.” It seems trivial, but from the minute we’re awake we begin to confront these obstacles.

The same is the case for MMORPGs, which I think serve as a perfect microcosm of “The Situation”. You are given what appears to be the ability to freely choose your path, but even here “The Situation” is in constant motion. In games like WoW, and Final Fantasy XI, you are constrained by your level, your class, your location and your alignment. There are many obstacles you must pass in order to move forward. Whether you like it or not, you’re not totally free. In fact, most of what you can and cannot do is outlined by the games designs. One can’t strap on the best quality equipment at level one and start dominating the world. You have to spend time crossing obstacles like quests to gain experience, creating an income to obtain certain items, and dealing with trigger happy players who would love nothing more than to track you down and take you out.


Most of these ideas are a work in progress to me, but I was happy to share with you what I’ve been thinking. I feel that the world of MMORPGs could offer a lot in the field of human nature and Existentialism. It’s surely a topic I will continue to research. Until next time…

Posted in Philosophy.


  1. hello joseph, nice article, how goes the research? i believe the next step in awarness that mmorpgs conjured is the fact that the daily lifes that we lead are accually virtual as well. Money, career, educational progress, are all principly the same structured parameters as the agents in mmorpgs. The cunning ability of humans to believe other humans causes us to think that the style of reality is somewhat different. Small example on the spot is how a minimum wage worker eats the same junk that a highly paid manager eats, while the satisfaction or rather the state of pleasure that is aquired from that meal will rather be measured by what the agent’s apetite for greater income. i find it difficult to expalin even on a simple example but likewise in wow at lvl 1 and at lvl 85? is it now? the action which the agent activates is one and the same, dps,dps,dps (damage per second). only that at lvl one your agent will cause 10 dps and at maxlvl 100000 dps, so here too the numbers might have changed and the picture might have changed but the state of pleasure is determined by how much apetite there is for even more. while this said the human condition of apetite requires clarification, apetite: the desire to advance, to become stronger, to increase the parameter. The problem in reality of which the minimum wage worker eats is that none of his desired parameters become stronger by the fact that he is eating, on the contrary it costs him money for which he will feel discomfort every time that he spents hard earned money on food. But, the manager however conducts business meetings around the same meal and here the state of eating gives access to more money so the meal feeds not only the physical stomach but also the VIRTUAL apetite for a certain parameter becoming greater.

    this subject is not very discussed online or anywhere else because of its perceptive difficulty. I would like to suggest that virtual world designers will be the icon of the 21st century.

  2. Thank you for the comment ilia! I appreciate your interest and your remarks. I agree, many of the aspects of our lives are virtual. For example, the entire institution of capitalism has us playing all sorts of different roles to acquire pleasure. You hit the nail on the head in equating appetite satisfaction of different level workers to that of different levels of characters on WoW. The appetite for these pleasures remains the same, and despite the particular position, the subject will always hunger for more.

    To answer your question I have been rather busy as of late, and researching this further has certainly been on my to do list. Several of the more troubling aspects of this subject have to do with Death in games like these, and what the preference of a specific race/class/faction etc… means for the subject in both the digital and real world. Now that things have calmed down, I’ll surely be looking into this further.



  3. Hey joseph, im glad your back. I have acually been looking for a while for someone with a phylosophical view on virtuall gaming. For some reason its not a very popular manner of thinking. I believe in the potential that virtual gaming posseses, but to have a fundamental understanding in how to design such a thing one must have a phylosophical afflicion with the subject or else it will be like shooting darts in the dark. With so many companies making online games which seem to have all the software tools that they require, why is it that so little achieve that rare virtual existance? it looks like the big ones are using bussiness analytics to determine which course of action will thrive the most, im not sure where that can lead to.

    I always like thinking that a mmorpg is only as good as the number of ways to get stronger (money,xp,gear,guild,…) but the term “get stronger” is simply put the execution of action withing the virtual world which will make the hero less likely to experience death. Death in phylosophy is the first subject to be discussed, and same goes for virtuall gaming if considering that it is the source for the motive to “get stronger”. Sounds great and all but unfortunately non of the big ones devised the aspect of death in such a manner. If death can be undone with but a click of a button with no consequences but a time hindrance, then the hero (agent) is “getting stronger” against time? and if in a grinding state time is just the fuel that is required then all that means that the hero is getting stronger then himself. Just becoming more time efficiant is not a very instigating virtual world. Which explains the time expiration for mmorpgs.

    When eq2 came out around the same time that wow came out, it promised to be a much better mmorpg with much better graphics and a bigger world. They had so many races that it looked more like Tekken online, you could acually chose a panda race! and all their huge world was devided into many identical parts for each race. So the main question behind any race/class/faction choise is it different on a fundamental level or is it just a different picture?

    I am trying to figure out the reason behind the boundries that each virtual world design seems to have. At some point the hero becomes so strong that the world throu which he developed doesnt serve a purpose anymore so a new world with completely different scales has to be made for the state of a hero, if the devs decide to avoid making a new world then inevitably they have to incorporate grinding aspects so that the hero will never reach such a state. In wow they like to create a whole new world each time that the old one has been conqured, which is why the parameters leep in a matter of four month of playing from 10 dps to 100000 dps, while lineage 2 prefer the latter and the grinding is just unberable takes two weeks of constant grinding of a certain mob until the hero is strong enogh to advance by a little, in half a year one could go from 10 dps to 2000 dps, a very bright contrast between the two. I am not sure i support any of the designs and i refuse to believe that there isnt a third option around this problem.

    • I hope Joe won’t mind my stepping in here–I’m more of a gamer than a philosopher–, but I do have some thoughts and questions.

      By virtual games, do you mean virtual reality or virtual worlds such as Second Life? Virtual reality and worlds are both beginning to really take off: ARGs and motion sensor gaming (like Kinect) give a greater sense of physical self within the game. Likewise, virtual worlds give a greater sense of mental and emotional self within a game (e.g. you create a character that can do whatever he/she wants, ergo the character becomes a pixelated manifestation of your inner desires). A virtual existence in terms of physical AND mental realities though? I think we’re just not there yet technologically. Most ARGs are incredibly simplistic with redundant actions done through a phone. Most MMOs like Second Life require sitting in front of a computer for a ridiculous amount of time. We’re just not quite there yet.

      In terms of MMORPGs, while we certainly can learn philosophical elements from them as Joe has clearly illustrated in his post, ultimately gaming companies are businesses. They need to appeal to the mass market and–as Joe and I are describing on another post–the mass market, I believe, is leaning towards Min/Maxers: people who want a quick and easy (and frequently lazy) way to the top of the charts. They are not as concerned with an immersive character/story driven environment and–really–if you want to replicate the real world, I think we need people to be more interested in those elements. Each one of us has a story and are a “character” (As Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players.”) although we frequently do not think of it in those terms. We are taught that we are to “win” games, not simply play them to learn more of ourselves, society, etc. As such, I think the issues stem less from the MMORPGs (which are really just catering to audience desires) and more from the general populous’s perception and interaction of games as a whole.

      As I said, I’m not really the philosopher here, so I’d like to see what Joe has to say, particularly on the topic of death in gaming.

  4. Kelly, how fortunate you are for not being a philosopher of mmorpgs and virtual worlds as such. For it is truly an affliction, one that must be procured in order to achieve greater understanding for the reason behind our adaptation to virtuality. To clear some issues up, most women playing online that i had the pleasure to interact with do so with the sentimental nuances for interaction, character customization, storyline elements, freind list guilds and such. Seems to me, and maybe im wrong that women are acually aware of whats going on in virtual worlds and that those happenings are important in the catagories of things placed above. When im talking about a virtual connection however it has no reference to the structure of the game, meaning i dont care if its motion, mouse, or in our daily lifes. By world i mean anything that has the properties lined up according to the purpose of “get stronger” it might be your vocation or an online game, usually when i work 12 hours a day i have no desire to connect and advance my charachter a couple of lvls because they are both virtual worlds for me. Virtuality meaning that the world engulfs me entirly and capture all my senses and faculties to a point that i exist only by the causes of that world.

    i would have to dissagree with almost everything that you said ofter the question about virtuality. Motion sensors is just a cool toy nothing more it doesnt serve as an effective tool, cause the goal of a tool that connects between physical to virtual is to be as insignificant as posible such as mouse control which rains supreme.
    I absolutly cannot do whatever he/she wants as you said in any so called within a game, because if i do not dissconect my desires then i cannot connect virtualy. The psychological state that is required in order for me to connect virtualy to something is not a manifastaion of freedom but rather submiting to the rules and causes that the world is constructed on-example: I must grind and zerg and rush quest,xp gain, parameter increase in whatever means available in the game, if i walk around and look at the preaty sky that the designers put then i wont achieve much. The path for the charachter has been written ahead and there is no point to contest that path but connect to it like connecting to a book perhaps.
    The last point about how the market is controling the virtual designes is a very difficult subject because of the research that it requires, hence my deepest (cannt seem to find the word that synonyms with support/cheer) for joe and kelly for the thought put into the subject and their personal affliction. however i refuse to believe that this is all that there is to the development of virtual worlds as presented by wow from blizard the currently #1. the bussiness analytics is nothing more then a hindrance for the potention of virtual designs.

    • Ah, mea culpa. I misunderstood your use of virtuality; I apologize.

      That said, I think a lot of your theories stem from something I said before–we are taught to “win” games, most aptly due to our tendency to act within a “survival-of-the-fittest” mentality in life. The illustration I attempted to make is that you have the CHOICE to just roam around and look at the pretty sky. You do not need to have a drive and be successful if you don’t want to and, truly, the same goes for “real life.” How many people have you met that are simply lazy, unmotivated, and don’t accomplish much in life? And are perfectly satisfied with that? I have seen many, and this fits with the idea of those looking at the sky, or, most commonly termed, “Casual gamers.”

      In WoW, there are plenty of casual gamers. Take an example: I got my 60+ year old father to play WoW. He’s not computer savvy, not good with the mouse and such, but he enjoyed the game. He played for about three months, got to–maybe?–level 20 and quit due to his work schedule affecting his ability to play. I would hardly say he achieved much, but he enjoyed looking around the world, doing quests here and there, reading the lore, and the like. He did not abide by the unwritten rule of the game: Rush to 85 and PvP or Raid. Yet that does not negate his experience or interaction with the game.

      It seems as if what you are proclaiming is we must form some sort of “tabula rasa” when entering a game, and the game fills in the slate–we play only by the laws (both written and unwritten) of the game. I believe the opposite. I believe who we are as a PERSON dictates the rules we create for ourselves in the game (e.g. As someone who identifies with D&D’s “lawful good” code of conduct, most of my characters are do-gooders and spiritual. My husband, who aligns as “true neutral,” has no qualms using death magics when it benefits him, whereas I wouldn’t.). Ergo, we are not truly disconnecting ourselves, but creating a re-manifestation of ourselves and our inner desires. The boys who play female characters are yet another example–they manifest their sexual and aesthetic desires through their avatar. The list goes on and on.

      Now, in terms of the working/playing and the similarities between these virtual realms causing a disdain almost for the progressive leveling, I can understand that. There are certainly days I don’t want to play. But something I find interesting is that–if my husband and I work the same amount of hours–he’d rather come home and play the game, and I would not. I’m curious as to whether job type affects our reactions in that way, or if it is more due to personality types. Unfortunately, we don’t particularly have the resources to research that. 🙂

      Last thing: I totally agree with you that I think the economic factors hinder the possibility for greater virtual designs. But that’s life, right?

      And perhaps the synonym you were looking for was “appreciation”?

  5. Very well kelly, took me a while but i think im understanding. very possibly if you have a wide spectrum of test subjects to investigate the state and reason for one’s playing habits, then you should encounter what would seem like people that play mmorpgs in order to manifest themselves into a communitive reality. Eventually such people might find a goal of topping charts which is just an instinct if that is what you meant by relating “survival of the fittests” however the philosophy of virtual worlds is hidden in the finner threads of this fabric. We must (and i dont recommend it) open our minds metaphorically ofcoarse, and think more objectively, how so? suppose your not the human which observing others using your own faculities, instead you are some being that sees only forces that make people do stuff. Now suppose a certain someone from your vast gamer community is engaging in the most bloodthirsty combat of their life, there is only one apparant source for the force or the reason for which they are playing. that is their own life, and how does that fit with the rest of the actions done by that person. From what we know which has become very obvious, people tend to act in order to achieve
    the basics 1) food, sex, family
    the cultural 2) wealth, fame, power
    the emotional 3) love, and fear
    these can be discussed renamed repositioned whatever thats not the point. The point is that our world ,if seen through forces, is built in a certain uncompletely unknown way where we do things for a reason. And as you might have observed your fellow freinds have a reason within life in order to play mmorpgs, which is why when they are playing mmorpgs they are still living their life by the rules that this world is based on. Your fellow gamers probably still crave all those things, which to my experience are always half full/empty no matter what you do. And those cravings are constantly demanding to persue happiness in this manner, so the forces seems to really be coming from life, but is it now?
    This particular thought im trying to make into a point is very ellusive, and my simple ordinary means seem unworthy so ill just quote the following.
    “only the most exceptional people become aware of the matrix. Those that learn it exists must posses a rare degree of intuition, sensetivity, and a questioning nature” – animatrix world record. Is it possible that a reason for playing an mmorpg has originated inside the virtual world itself? wont a gamer acting upon this reason be in a sence free from the cravings of reality? what if? I dare not say.

  6. “You get the satisfaction of fulfilling a purpose unlike any you would be able to face in reality.”
    I agree that the purpose is unlike any other faced in reality, however if that purpose is better is a very different question.
    better for yourself: no, unhealthy if anything, not to mention unnatural and destructive
    Better for your entertainment: no, i played my fair share of Diablo 2, but spending any more when Diablo 3 comes out i will consider a waste, can you sense my addiction.
    BTW life IS what you make it, it make be pointless in the longrun past your life, but might as well pretend it’s not and kick ass

  7. I like to compare life to the popular video game known as “The Sims”, which allows you to control various aspects of your character’s life. The task of balancing your characters attributes, traits, behavior, attitude, and more relate to life. I would research this game somewhat if you have not.

    Another popular game that introduced me to existentialism was “Star Ocean ‘Til the End of Time”. If you do not have the time or resources to play through this playstation 2 game, i would at least recommend watching the last boss battle and ending to this game.

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