D&D Victorious or When Did Life Become About Leveling Up?

I’m trying to scale back on my Facebook time. As I said in an earlier post, I find the site curiously addictive, but I think I let things get a little out of hand. (Thank god Scrabulous went away — talk about a time sink!)

Anyway, all the time I’ve spent on Facebook got me confused and enthused about something:

When did life — I mean REAL life, not game life — become all about “leveling up”?

Dungeons & Dragons really has taken over the world, in ways Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson never could have predicted.

Sure, there’s always been an element in life of “I make more money than you do, so I win!” or “My house is bigger than yours” or “My car goes faster than yours (not that I’ll ever see that kind of speed in real life).”

But what’s really brought home for me the reality of “Life as Leveling” is the ascendancy of Facebook and, to a lesser extent, World of Warcraft (a pastime I gave up a while back — though the lovely wife, Caroline, is still well and truly hooked, keeping it in the forefront of my thinking).

WoW‘s D&D-ness is obvious. Yeah, yeah, it’s all about community. Sure, it’s about cooperating with friends to accomplish goals together. Whatever. Cut past all the stuff and nonsense and it’s about “I’m level 70 and you’re not.” It’s about achieving vicariously, virtually, a “level” of success most of us will never achieve in life. And then, most important, it’s about lording it over our friends.

In other words, WoW‘s a little obvious in its game-ness (it’s a game, after all!) and in its D&D-ness. But Facebook… Ah, Facebook. That’s something different. It has its non-leveling uses, to be sure. It is a useful tool for keeping in touch with friends and reconnecting with schoolmates you haven’t thought about in years. But let’s be honest — if that was it, would millions of us care? We could accomplish most of that by writing letters or picking up a phone. Facebook offers far, far more than that — and that “more” is D&D-ness.

Facebook turns community into currency. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had over the last few months that sound something like this:

“Darn. You have more friends than me.”

“How did you get to be level 54 in Packrat?”

How much money do you have in Parking Wars?”

“Damn. I’m only ranked 10,000,000 in the world in the movie quiz.”

Much of the Facebook experience (like World of Warcraft and, let’s not forget, high school) is about status. And status, in this case, is measured in concrete terms not unlike a traditional roleplaying game.

I realize I’m sounding pretty negative about this but, mostly, I find this phenomenon odd — and oddly comforting. I mean, at least leveling is a mechanism I understand, unlike a lot of social stuff.

And speaking of social stuff, would someone please clue me in on Facebook etiquette? I’m thinking specifically about all the folks you’ve never heard of who want to be your friend. My first instinct is to say, “Sure, let’s be virtual friends.” What’s the harm in establishing a virtual connection with a fan or with a friend of a friend of a friend? But then I start thinking about the fact that accepting someone you don’t know gives that someone access to the profiles of every other someone you know and that kind of freaks me out. So what do you do? Ignore folks you don’t know and look like a jerk or a snob? Let everyone into the fold and dilute the value of “true” friendship (or as close at you can get online)? I’m kerflummoxed. Help!

Beyond that, I’m still wrestling with whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing (or just a thing) that the world — at least the part of it on Facebook — knows I’m having lunch with my sister at the Museum of Modern Art in New York… or awake at 2 a.m. stealing stuff from my wife and friends in Packrat… or just generally feeling good about myself…

Bottom line — I get World of Warcraft. It’s a game. You play it. You level up. You get cool stuff. It has a social component lacking from singleplayer games. Rah, rah, rah. Not so different from games of thousands of years ago. Facebook, though… Facebook, this thing I don’t quite understand, is a real agent of change in the world. And I don’t have a handle on the rules of this non-game. Still, I’m enjoying playing. So far.


14 Responses to “D&D Victorious or When Did Life Become About Leveling Up?”

  1. Mike Arthur Says:

    Personally I don’t add others who I haven’t met (or consider a friend from online). Everyone I’ve added I would stop in the street and say “hello” to if I saw them and I expect they’d do the same.

    As for the “game” part, I don’t know if I get that. Perhaps it is when you start using Facebook but for me it’s just a tool for keeping in touch with friends I don’t get to see often, see and share pictures from parties and other events in my life and for networking with people.

    Interesting blog post though, thanks for it!

  2. tymo Says:

    My experience of Facebook is very different. I’ve only very rarely heard conversations like those. I think the ‘more’ Facebook offers is all in convenience. Mass mailing has never been quite so easy, a quick scan of a profile and a wall post can skip you an awkward phone conversation, a message can skip you the price of a stamp and a walk to the post box, etc. Then again I don’t know anyone who seriously dabbles in the point-based applications or talks about friend counts, so there maybe an element I’m missing. When FB adds a new “salary” field to the “info” tab, then we’re talking…

    As for how to deal with fan adds, there’s a good and easy solution to that. Click the ‘friends’ button in the top bar, then on the left column click “Make A New List” and call it “fans” or “stalkers” or somesuch. Then add everyone you don’t know onto that list, and when you get friend invitations you can add them to that group straight away. You can associate whatever privacy settings you want with just that group using the Settings -> Privacy Settings options so they don’t even have to see your friend list if you don’t want them to. Also, people you add don’t gain any privileges with regards to seeing your friend’s profiles – their profiles are always as private or public as they choose them to be regardless of whether you are their mutual friend.

    Good to see you blogging again by the way!

  3. edweird Says:

    That’s the thing though… Facebook IS a game, or at least it’s more or less designed to immerse and engage the user in activities such as comparing and changing stats, group activities and minigames in exactly the same way as an MMORPG. I hadn’t thought of the site in this way until you made the comparison here. It’s certainly the case, and largely why it’s addictive.

    There may be a practical use for it – getting in contact with people, quickly and easily – but the vast, vast majority of the hours spent on the site are clocked up by people ‘playing the game’.

  4. destoo Says:

    A lot of things in life has always been, for me, about leveling up. I don’t always hear the final fantasy fanfare when I achieve something, but sometimes I do catch myself whistling it. And looking back, I can see that a lot of useless personal stuff I achieved was driven by that sole notion of 1-upping myself.

    my next goal: see you at migs in a few weeks. I’ll definitely play the full fanfare for that event!

  5. kriza Says:

    I love all your games, you panting, sweating bag of meat and bones!
    Never got into the social thing, rss reader is pretty much all I need. So I don’t thing the world is ending anytime soon 😉
    I’m leveling up my baby son now, maybe just a few implants..

  6. cantburnamelody Says:

    Thanks for an interesting post, Warren – definitely food for thought.

    And like other commentors, I haven’t had the “leveling up” experience in facebook, though I do feel closer to folks than I did pre-Facebook, even if we never interact. Maybe I enjoy keeping tabs on acquaintances – heck, my wife just likes seeing friend’s baby pictures, ha. Convenience seems to be the operative word for me as well.

    Finally, I don’t know if you read these comments much, but here goes. I’m not sure if you remember me, but I’m the graduate student camera guy from last fall. Just wanted to let you know that we’re close to getting those lectures back online for download – I know they’ve been bootleged to Sheol and back, but we hope to offer them in podcast form soon.

  7. vanexelfan Says:

    Your post exemplifies the diversity that Facebook has, and thus it’s appeal.

    I use it for walling, mailing (more ‘fun’ than email?) and photo-sharing. Some of my favourite moments on the site have come from one person commenting on a photo, and the exposure that image has gained through different circles of friends. It brings people together.

    I don’t care about who has the more friends. In fact, sometimes I may associate too many friends as being a negative connotation. Apart from the movies, I mostly try to avoid the apps. Leveling up is definitely not what Facebook is about for me.

    But then, I don’t like World of Warcraft, either.

  8. Matthias Worch Says:

    This is something I’ve noticed as well, and it seems to become an ever-increasing main ingredient of web-based communities. I remember starting out building my LinkedIn a while agonetwork, and how rabid I was getting about “collecting” contacts. It got to the point where I had to laugh at myself – and I changed all new invite request to “I would like to add you to my Pokemoooo… LinkedIn network. Gotta catch them all!” Because isn’t that what LinkedIn (and Facebook, I would guess?) is about? 90% status, 10% actual networking.

  9. Links 2008-09-16 - Adam Crowe Says:

    […] Warren Spector’s blog — D&D Victorious or When Did Life Become About Leveling Up? "… what’s really brought home for me the reality of “Life as Leveling” is the ascendancy of Facebook and, to a lesser extent, World of Warcraft . Much of the Facebook experience (like World of Warcraft and, let’s not forget, high school) is about status. And status, in this case, is measured in concrete terms not unlike a traditional roleplaying game. I realize I’m sounding pretty negative about this but, mostly, I find this phenomenon odd — and oddly comforting. I mean, at least leveling is a mechanism I understand, unlike a lot of social stuff." — Hehe. […]

  10. chrisbateman Says:

    Warren: I have to admit, Facebook scares the bejeebus out of me! I’m quite happy to pump my nonsense into my blog, which allows people to read what I’m rambling about, and which I run as a “non-fiction role-playing game” for my regulars, but I draw the line at a nongame of social connection. I prefer to read about such phenomena rather than participate! 🙂

    But I want to observe (without giving away too much about my current research, which I am sadly not allowed to share yet) that real life was *always* about D&D (or, if you prefer, D&D and its predecessors was simply real life mathematically quantised). The internet has intensified this, brought it more into focus, but – as you allude to here – the forces behind this are as old as mammals, if not older.

    Best wishes!

  11. Dusan Writer’s Metaverse » Life as Levelling Up Says:

    […] From Warren Spector: […]

  12. Jenny Says:


    great post…I look forward to reading more! thanks alot!…

  13. delkend Says:

    Facebook is a phenomenon like ‘Myspace’ was; like many virtual links of modern society it is some kind of substitute to physical links
    ” See Warren Spector is friend !
    _he doesn’t even know you” .

    In Facebook’s options you can make groups and allow only close friends and family to access infos; your close friends have to configure options so only friends of their can access their profile AND see their friend list, so none of your fans can access more than your profile.

    The more you hide to fans the more crazy they can get 😉 !

  14. rukednous Says:

    ” I realize I’m sounding pretty negative about this but, mostly, I find this phenomenon odd — and oddly comforting. I mean, at least leveling is a mechanism I understand, unlike a lot of social stuff. ”

    That’s funny, because it’s something I sort of think of from the opposite direction. I like how games take some sort of real life circumstance, like going to jail, and turn it into missing a few turns. The D&D stat system, and RPGs in general, are the same kind of silly, simplified ways of making real stuff quantifiable so that it can be represented in a game format, in a little fictional universe inside a computer. Sometimes with our more complex narrative games we end up with morally simplistic systems, or mediocre, cynical and unsatisfying ones.

    The facebook stuff is weird to me because some of the games seem kind of funny, but they take that gamey abstraction that traditional games apply to
    fictional settings and put it in a place where it seems to have
    relevance to your actual interpersonal relationships. It actually makes me more uncomfortable, because while I don’t mind playing around in somebody’s algorithmic construct, if it’s mixing with my real life, it seems kind of out of place. I don’t really want something that purports to be some kind of whuffie that indicates better than money what my social value is. That sounds yucky, plus most of those apps seem to demand more interaction than I frankly am willing to give.

    My early good facebook memories were of seeing just how many pleasant acquaintances I had, and then to see who knew who– especially in that neat-to-look-at-once visualization with the clusters of friend-representing circles. That was pretty cool, and facebook continues to offer a laid-back, nonthreatening way of keeping in touch with nodding acquaintances and friends of friends, which I appreciate.

    Wow, I sound like a facebook party-pooper…

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