Treadmilling. It’s a concept I absolutely detest. Introduced several years ago as a video game mechanic, I’ve realized that the ideas behind the concept of treadmilling are increasingly applicable to how many of us live our daily lives. Not only is it an accepted part of western society, it is promoted as the preferred way to live. Okay, at this point, I’m sure I’ve lost nearly all of you, so let me give you a little background which will help me explain:
The most successful (in terms of revenue-generating) type of video games on the market these days are games known as Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (or MMORPGs). The developers of MMORPGs create an enormous world where hundreds to thousands of people can be online in the same space at the same time, interacting with each other and with a virtual world. In theory, the concept is wonderful – real people are much more fun to interact with than virtual, programmed characters, so playing a game online with other people should be a more fulfilling experience than playing a game alone.
In actuality, MMORPGs have devolved into huge wastes of time for people as they feel compelled to put more and more time into the games. People easily get addicted to them. Here’s why:
MMORPGs are a persistent, dynamic world, and employees of the game publisher work continuously to update the games and create new parts of the world for players to explore. By constantly updating these virtual worlds, the game publishers are able to charge their customers a monthly fee – often as much as $15 a month – to keep playing. But in order to keep players coming back, and keep them playing, the game needs to constantly present new challenges to the player, and present new reasons for the player to want to keep playing. This is where treadmilling comes in.
When you begin to play an MMORPG, your character is not very powerful, is not experienced, and his equipment is weak. In order to progress through the game, it is necessary to spend time doing the same tasks over and over to, in effect, “build up” your character. Eventually, he becomes stronger, finds or buys better equipment, and overall becomes more powerful.
What do you do with your stronger, better equipped character? Your stronger, better equipped character now can go into tougher regions and kill more difficult enemies. So you travel there, and kill those enemies, so that you can get even stronger and get even better equipment. And with this stronger character you can go to new regions, to kill different enemies, to get even better gear, and make your character look even cooler… so you can kill even tougher enemies. Treadmilling. You run as fast as you can, and work as hard as you can, but in effect you are staying in the same place, and are not really changing anything substantial.
Okay, I think you get the idea. That’s the treadmill. You work hard so you can “level up” and get better stuff… but this just fuels the process of wanting more for your character, and wanting even better stuff. Having other people online just fuels the desire to become a better character, because there is status involved in having great gear, and being powerful. In the end though, most people become dissatisfied with this game, realizing it brings them no lasting fulfillment. Many people quit after long periods of playing, wondering what the point was of trying to acquire all that stuff, and of attaining some sort of status just to show off to their peers.
For a while I played World of Warcraft, the world’s most populated MMORPG (and one of the most addicting.) Eventually, I realized I was being driven to play by the treadmilling mechanic, and when I understood how ridiculous it felt to be manipulated by the game creators in this way, I quit.
Treadmilling doesn’t just exist in MMORPGs, however. It exists in real life. We see it every day. Buy the huge tv so you can impress your friends. Work longer hours so you can get promoted and make more money… so you can just barely qualify for that loan on a house. But, now that you have the house, don’t you want a nice car too? Just take out a home equity line of credit. Only, make sure you work even harder to get a promotion so you can pay for all of this. Don’t you realize it’s all the American Dream?
I find it to be insidious, yet it is hard to fight off the messages we hear over and over, every day in newsprint and on television. The thought of having all the trappings of “the good life” is appealing, and the idea that we can have them now (on credit) is very seductive. Of course we are all seeing these days how unsustainable that system is in the long term.
I think it’s time for us to look down, and if we are running frantically along that treadmill, maybe decide to step off of it.