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The importance of items has been a part of the fantasy world for as long as there has been fantasy. What would the King Arthur story be without "Excalibur" or the Hobbit/LOTR without "The Ring", Frodo's Mithril Vest, or Aragorn's sword "Anduril, Flame of the West". Gear has always had it's place in fantasy.
Gear also has it's place in more modern times as well...we all know what a certain "weapon" did for WWII.
In today's MMORPG's gear is simply a form of advancement for your character. Whether you gain a level, or get new boots, it's simply a way to raise your stats to make your character more powerful. But it also says something about you as a player and your experience in the game.
In WoW, for example, once you reach max level, gear is the last form of advancement and also a clue to others what content you have done.
Here is a fact we cannot avoid: By design, you simply cannot do some content without gear that is appropriate for the dungeon you are doing. Of course, at the end of an expansion, you could get away with doing ICC in white gear since most of your raid will be fully geared. Although, it's most likely you will not be picked unless they are friends who choose to 'carry you'.
The reason that gear has become a debate is because it has lead to a sad form of elitism. The 'nitpicky-ness' that has formed in the genre has created a backlash against the importance of gear. There is a logic to this however, which I will try to explain my views on:
To set the record straight, I'd like to clarify what gear says and doesn't say about a player:
What your gear says about you:
1. Gear shows that you have the needed stats to pull your weight in a dungeon/raid. This is by design. There is a progression in most endgame for MMORPG's where the introductory level gear is not sufficient to do the harder content. They want you to go in order (i.e. in WoW hit 80, heroics, then raids). It doesn't always work this way, but this is the design. This design, according to the developers, is carried out in Cataclysm as well.
2. Gear shows that you've completed certain content which show you are experienced in your class. "But wait, I had good enough gear for that dungeon and they still didn't pick me because I didn't have a 9000+ gearscore!" That's because the people running that dungeon have no idea if you can play or not and would rather not waste time learning if you are good or if you are a noob that wipes raids. They want to ensure that your gear is so good that it can possibly make up for your possible lack of skills. I'm not defending this mindset, but it's what happens.
What your gear does not say about you:
1. Gear does not show your intelligence or lack thereof. ...at least not at first! If you are a dps class and you have healing gear on, you need some lessons. Don't be offended if you suddenly discover that you are incorrectly geared...just work on fixing it. We all need to learn sometime. Lack of gear doesn't mean you aren't a smart person or that you aren't capable of learning. Good players will direct newer players to the resources that will help them get what they need. But still, as a raid leader, if you keep showing up week after week with the same issue...there's a problem. Everyone else cared enough to get the right stats...you need to also.
2. Gear does not show your skill at playing your class. I'll never forget zoning into Halls of Reflection to see the tank in all greens. We all laughed...and expected to die. We didn't die, in fact the run went very smoothly thanks to our incredible healer (the tank was taking huge spikes of damage). The tank said "see, I told you we could do it...who needs gear?" We partially agreed with him. He was a skilled tank and played very well. But, had we not had the strong healer it most likely would have been a different story. Ok...yes YOU know you are a good player, the problem is that other people don't. Your gear does not show how good you are at playing your class, but sadly most folks just aren't willing to take your word for it.
In conclusion, I'm not defending the elitism that has risen among gamers, but I'm simply explaining it. I work 50+ hours a week and have 3 kids at home. I've never had a problem preparing my character for endgame content...perhaps not as fast as others but I still get there. I study my class and make sure I'm prepared (as anyone would do for war). When I screw up, I take criticism well. Because gear has become such an issue, some people are hyper-sensitive and overreact at the first sign of "you need xxx gear". Gear has always been a part of the fantasy/modern world...and always will be.