I’ve never played World of Warcraft. Not a single minute of it. To this day, I still don’t quite understand it. But I’m trying to change that. Or rather, I’ve been trying over the past several months. Last year WoW celebrated its 10th anniversary. In 2004, the game materialized, and it became a game that, following popular opinion, seemed to change gaming. In a matter of just a few years, WoW became the catalyst of discussions surrounding online gaming, gaming communities, gaming camaraderie, gaming addiction, gaming hatred, and gaming parody (i.e. Leeroy Jenkins). Today, despite some apparent dips in subscriber numbers, WoW continues to draw plenty of attention.
What business do I have writing about a game I’ve never played? Not much, really. But since you’re already here, maybe thanks to my (misplaced) goading, I’ll tell you that I’m actually not here to talk about WoW the game, its sprawling worlds and wars. I’m here to tell a story (well, another story) about rejection, ignorance, understanding, and acceptance.
When WoW was released in late November 2004, I was in a strange place with life. I had recently turned in the final component of my graduate thesis and was on the verge of completing my masters program. All my imaginary sites were set on returning to the real world as a big shot with a fancy degree in hand, ready to make all the money. In reality, I was holding down two jobs, one related to my studies and one not, and we were planning a move (that got delayed…twice). Games were the farthest pursuits — I simply didn’t have the time to indulge. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t yearn. In fact, our limited leisure time was often spent perusing the aisles of a nearby big box electronics store. That’s where I first saw a game called “World of Warcraft.” I vaguely remembered the TV ads upon seeing the game box. And I simply identified it as a computer game, and I didn’t play games on computers, if I played at all.
For the next few years, WoW remained little more than a footnote, a thing that occasionally popped up on review shows and game news sites…as well as the mainstream news itself. And if you only ever watched the mainstream news, then you might have though that WoW was something to decry in the name of “the addict.” For a time, WoW and “gaming addiction” lit up the news circuit. Stories abounded of people sinking millions of hours into “guilds” and “raids” and other mindless fantasy. WoW broke up families, destroyed relationships and careers, and was made akin to a plague upon humanity. Hence, it and its players became subject to ridicule and caricature. This I know because for a time, I sat on *that* side of the fence.
I didn’t outwardly make fun of WoW or its people, but I hardly defended it as a reasonable activity. In so many conversations I derided the game and blatantly professed that I just didn’t understand how someone could devote so much time to a single game. How someone could enjoy as game enough to utterly ignore the outside world? It just didn’t make sense to me. (Quite possibly, I was a little jealous…) And then, through mutual friends, I met a real world WoW player; here I’ll call him “Mr. L.” Can’t say I ever learned much about him, because outside of the one face-to-face meeting, the only time I saw, or rather heard Mr. L, was when he was playing WoW. Over the course of the summer of 2007, the time that Mr. L remained a temporary roommate of my friends, I never saw his face again. But I frequently heard him yelling into a microphone about this boss or that battle, or just generally yelling about server problems, long queues, and insufferable load times. I never saw him leave his room, eat, or be social with his roommates. Based only on my knowledge of Mr. L., could it have been that all the things they said about WoW were true?
After my experience with Mr. L, I was sure that I would never have anything to do with WoW. Part of me felt bad for Mr. L. because of all the life he was missing out on. And part of me, frankly, was in awe because I didn’t think I could ever muster enough willpower to become so devoted to a single game. (My own swift addiction to Mass Effect a few years later changed my views on the latter issue forever.) But despite my mixed feelings, for which I’m sure Blizzard deeply cared, it was apparent that WoW wasn’t going anywhere. In fact, the ad campaign for the expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, what with all the celebrities in tow, only seemed to cement its place in gaming.
So I watched WoW grow from the sidelines. I watched as new expansions Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria broke sales figures and opened up the game to new crops of players. I continued to resign to the “WoW is not for me” side of things, but my thoughts on addled players and wasted lives softened. Because, well…because by then I had found my way back to gaming and had re-developed my own obsessions.
I’ll admit that WoW remains something of a mystery to me, but I’ve come to learn that for many players, it’s more than just questing and battles. It is family, it is safe, and it is home. One thing that’s really helped me get to this point of understanding is the game blogging community. Last year, for reasons I can’t quite explain, I started following a number of WoW and MMO blogs. And I became hooked on reading about their alien yet familiar-feeling experiences in worlds more vast than I could imagine. (Shoutout to Mr. Murphy of Murf Versus, because I think the MMO delving began, in part, with his writings.) Through this, I came discovered a project by Alternative Chat called “10 Years :: 10 Questions” documenting player’s WoW experiences. (It’s a five-part series, and here are the links to get to Episode 1, Episode 2, and Episode 3.) If you’ve ever thought ill of WoW, or perhaps not thought of it at all, this series will open your eyes. I know has mine.
Today, I no longer secretly compartmentalize people who play games. Sure there always going to be niches and cliques that gamers will fall into, or willingly call themselves part of, but the fact of the matter is that we all play, and that’s what’s important. Though I will probably remain on the sidelines when it comes to World of Warcraft and other MMOs, that doesn’t mean I can’t and shouldn’t admire their players, learn about the games, and enjoy reading about gameplay that I do and don’t fully understand.