World of Warcraft: is it all you think it is?

Image credit: Foec Kann via Flickr

The public conviction that WoW – and massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) in general – are a compulsive habit, to be guiltily satisfied or resisted and overcome, I think, stems from an anxiety and lack of understanding about new forms of sociality. People in general, but especially non-gamers can’t seem to fathom that playing a game can be a social activity.Thankfully, increasingly few think like this, as the current generation has grown up around gaming. The popular image, which you hear spouted on the old (dying and obsolete) media – that is television, radio, the newspapers – of basement isolation is a myth, more apt to describe the average gamer back in the days when the hobbyists reigned, when owning a computer was odd and somewhat suspect. Of course, it was a gross generalisation even then. For everyone I was close to in WoW, the solo experience of the game was, at best, a way to pass the time; at worst, utterly joyless.

The thing that kept me – and all of us – coming back was the community around the game. I played on a roleplaying (RP) server. To clarify, that means that (in the beginning and in theory, at least) you were supposed to play in character (IC), and more or less according to the official ‘lore’ (the canon of the Warcraft series) with the intended effect being that the whole thing resembled an ongoing collective improvisation on a massive scale. Although some players of course didn’t take this entirely to heart, the RP was an important part of the experience for us. Of course, we weren’t IC all the time, and spent most of our time out of character (OOC) in private chat channels. We’d also chat OOC while we were RPing in the public channels. Enduring friendships were established. What seems to baffle people who have never made a friend they’ve never met is that those friendships can be as real and engaging, and emotionally satisfying – and potentially damaging, when they go wrong – as any made face-to-face.

When you say this, people may assume that you’ve never had a ‘real’ friend to compare it to. They could be forgiven for holding this assumption, I suppose: if you’re not used to communicating in text, and in real time, you probably can’t imagine the nuance of personality and idiosyncrasy that can be expressed by people to whom it comes naturally. I have a friend in Norway – I’m his best man now, though I’d never met him in person – whom I’ve been speaking to for almost 10 years. We have our own little idiolect. The same is true of all the people I’ve known well online, including two boyfriends, one of them current, who visits every summer: much as your voice and your general comportment subtly change depending on your company, you tend to adopt a certain idiom of (textual) speech with your online friends. In the absence of body language, without facial expression, you figure out how to make writing do the same work.

If there’s anything compulsive about MMOs, it’s definitely the relationships above anything else. There are better (and much more addictive) single-player games out there, and thousands of them. But for me, at least, the gameplay has never been the focus; but rather who I’ve been sharing it with. I have made friends through WoW, who have lived all over Europe, whom I’d known for years and whom I’d abandon no sooner than the ones I’d met in person.

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