Are MMORPGs even games? Way back in the depths of the genre at the end of the 20th century, game makers often called what they created "virtual worlds." As such, the goal of the developers of these virtual worlds was to create a world simulation in which a player would willingly stay in for years. Games, on the other hand, have four components: goals, rules, challenge, and interaction. The Canadian philosopher Professor Bernard Suits is credited with one of the best definitions of what constitutes a game:
"To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude]."When I think of games, one of the defining features is the game itself sets goals that define winning. In chess, the victory condition is killing your opponent's king (although players don't actually kill the king because rulers back in the day objected to regicide). In football (either the round or egg-shaped ball version), the side that scores the most points wins. Do such victory conditions exist in MMORPGs?
The answer is yes and no. In games considered "themepark" MMORPGs, players can reach the end of the content. Most MMORPGs I've played have two natural end points where players can feel they have "won". The first is reaching the level cap. For many, once a character can no longer progress, why play the game any longer? The game is essentially beaten. A second group would dispute that judgement. For them, a game is not finished until the highest level content is defeated. Both the level cap and defeating the game's baddest bad guy are natural stopping points.
In my own history, I stopped playing Vanilla WoW after reaching the level cap and finding the available content unsatisfying. In Everquest 2, I stopped playing in The Shadow Odyssey expansion. After my guild disintegrated, I stopped playing after reaching the level cap of 80, acquiring the maximum number of alternate achievement points, reaching max level in all crafting classes, and completing all the solo content. In both Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic, I reached the level cap and finished the main story arc in the base games. When I left EQ2, GW2, and SW:TOR, I felt like I had completed, or "won", the games. My exit from World of Warcraft was more like, "I'll never do that again."
A sandbox MMORPG like EVE Online is a little bit different. The game does not have character levels, thus avoiding the trap of needing to provide players with purpose after reaching the level cap. Also, the nature of PvE in EVE does not lend itself into the creation of a story arc where rescuing a damsel in distress makes one feel like the game is complete. As for PvP, no matter how many ships a player kills, the game will never flash a "Game Over" screen or animation.
Up until now, I never bothered thinking about winning an MMORPG, mostly because I've always thought the G in MMORPG is a lie. When I travel through an MMORPG, I enjoy the journey to the destination, whether that is reaching the highest character levels or finishing the main story line. I guess I see MMORPGs more as an entertainment experience more like a book or movie rather than a game. And if a player reaches one of the natural ending spots, the developers will eventually expand the experience. I just have to decide whether I want to stick around for the sequel. So despite thinking about the subject for a couple of days, I still don't believe in "winning" an MMORPG.