Could 'Diablo 3's' worst feature save lives?

“Diablo 3” simultaneously asks quite a bit and very little of its players. On the one extreme, anyone can quickly master the incessant mouse-clicking needed to defeat its gruesome monsters. On the other end, the game requires a persistent “always-on” Internet connection, regardless of whether you plan on interacting with anyone.

A great deal of the criticism of the game emanates from the fact that its design hinges on being constantly online to play, leading to petitions and calls for Blizzard to patch the game with an “offline mode.”

Mike Morhaime, president and co-founder of Blizzard posted on the company’s forums addressing a multitude of topics, among them the always-on requirement. Morhaime writes, “I fully understand the desire to play Diablo III offline; however, Diablo III was designed from the beginning to be an online game that can be enjoyed with friends, and the always-online requirement is the best way for us to support that design.”

Meanwhile, possibly two people have died in conjunction with marathon sessions of “Diablo 3.” Last week, an 18 year-old collapsed and eventually died after 40 hours of consecutive gameplay at an Internet cafe. Shortly after the game’s release, it was nebulously reported that a 32 year-old Gameranx contributor’s death was linked to a three-day “Diablo 3” binge.

The reasons Morhaime gives for the required connection focuses on gameplay, digital rights management and maintaining the integrity of the company's overall vision. If Blizzard is going to use the Internet requirement to monitor things like cheating, piracy and financial fraud, could it stand to reason that they could also use the always-on feature to help players moderate their time spent playing?

It’s not an easy question to broach nor a comfortable one to answer. Personal responsibility certainly plays a role in responsible gaming habits, but the one adjective every review of “Diablo 3” tends to reach for is “addictive.” Addicts are often alone in their struggle, especially addicts playing a game alone in an apartment or an Internet cafe. While it may impinge on a gamer’s “freedom,” people cannot play 40 hours straight of a game if you simply make it technologically impossible. Of course, it’s a lot to ask of a private enterprise to cut paying customers off.

If Blizzard already has live data on every single player online, it seems like it would be technologically simple to boot off players who are connected for, say, 24 hours consecutively for a few hours to take an enforced break. While it crosses very real “big brother” lines, the existing requirement for a connection and the player’s mandatory deference to Blizzard’s servers would make such a move a smaller step than usual.

The company’s statement to The Mirror after the death in Taiwan is fairly standard boilerplate for such an event, but it does carry an interesting message about where the company stands on self-regulation.

“While we recognise that it's ultimately up to each individual or their parent or guardian to determine playing habits,” it reads, “we feel that moderation is clearly important, and that a person's day-to-day life should take precedence over any form of entertainment.”

Perhaps Blizzard asks too much of its customers by requiring persistent connection to their servers to play what is ostensibly a single-player game, but there’s no going back from that road. “Diablo 3” smashed every PC game sales record there is in spite of the Internet requirement. The game will continue to sell with or without a “safety net” for compulsive gamers. Blizzard could, if they chose, effectively make sure nobody played its game for a biologically unsafe amount of time. Whether the company should, or would want to, is a different question entirely.

Like any question of personal choice and consumerism where government legislation is non-existent, ultimately it is up to the company to decide how much it trusts its customers. Clearly, Blizzard doesn’t trust players enough to allow them offline access to the game, but for the moment, it trusts them enough to decide if they want to play past the point of enjoyment and into compulsion.

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