Tuesday 21 April 2009

World of Warcraft is The Loneliest Road

For all that it is called a massively multiplayer online game, World of Warcraft is a surprisingly solitary experience. Obviously there are thousands of other people in your world with you, but to play WoW – to enjoy WoW – is to become absorbed in your avatar. You can’t touch, bump into, or otherwise interact with other players without the aid of a spell or weapon. Even public chat via the “say” command, which displays as a speech bubble from your character, leaves no lasting trace of its existence. The spoken word is as ephemeral as the players themselves, and they avoid walking through each other, spread out in group raid photos, to avoid breaking the illusion that they are actually in the world with other players.

WoW remains the most embodied and immuring game I have ever played. Every action and interaction is mediated through your avatar. The story of WoW is your story and it is reflected in every quest text and every suggested goal. You see the world through the prism of your character and while the viewpoint of above and behind gives the illusion of an objective view of Azeroth, you cannot escape the invisible ties that bind you to your character.

You also can’t make other people play better, level up quicker, or keep pace along side you. Anyone who has played for longer than a few minutes knows that all it takes is a little bit of extra time spent questing or grinding to find that your friend who was once the same level as you is now far below (or beyond) your abilities, becoming another cloud of dust on the horizon, another runner in front or behind you on the road. Any attempts to “slow down” the inexorable pull towards the level cap (and beyond, with item acquisition and stat improvement), that elusive goal of perfection and ultimate attainment, are irresistible short of outright rejection. Waiting around for someone else feels like 'wasted time' in the WoW paradigm, and so you’re back to square one. Back to a single player game and grinding alone on trolls in Stranglethorn Vale in the hope of one day reaching the peak at level 60, 70, 80.

Dominic and I tried it a couple of times, first on our original toons (both were Warlocks; I was Daverick, he was Marcos) and then later with our alternatives. By then I was onto Davethree (literally named as such) and he was a Warrior. Dominic was a Paladin. We spent a fantastic afternoon one day in the twilight days of ’07 working together on quests as per the instructions in the popular Jame’s Leveling Guide. He enjoyed collecting a number of enemies on himself while I swung a selection of large swords at them.

That afternoon we fought trolls, goblins, tigers, panthers, crocodiles and other players and enjoyed the simple pleasure of having each other’s company. We were glad not to have to travel that section of the loneliest road alone. Inevitably though, school and other commitments made him log off for a while and an abundance of time left me to plod along by myself. I rapidly out-leveled him.

We met up again, months down the track. By then I was 70, and he was still 68. Getting keyed and geared for Karazhan was my goal while he was still grinding mobs in Blade’s Edge, focusing on the inexorable accumulation of experience points. The loneliest road took us to 70 separately and resisted our best efforts and resolutions to “stick together”.

Tolkien placed these words into the mouth of Bilbo Baggins;

"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door," he used to say. "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to."

World of Warcraft will do more than sweep you away. Like an overflowing river that has burst its banks, it stands ready to break apart the group of unwary travellers that attempt to cross it. The current will carry them downstream for miles one by one - how far it carries them wil be governed by how well they can swim. I was a WoW player and I was carried off by myself for 18 months. How about you?


This post was inspired by the recent discussion of World of Warcraft and the addicting nature of some videogames on the Idle Thumbs podcast – episode 25 ‘pause theme from battletoads’.


Tim D said...

I don't think you can just generalise 11 million's online experience based on your personal experience. I for one am the complete opposite. Myself and a close friend leveled our first characters from 1-60 together.
Of course, there were some times where one would overtake the other and leapfrog occured, but for the most part questing and grinding occured together. Not to mention the copious amounts of time at the level cap, teaming up in PvP and PvE. If it weren't for the actual interraction with my real life friends as players, I would've stopped playing WoW a long time ago.

Ben Abraham said...

Yeah I totally played WoW as a social game - this piece is probably meant more as a commentary on the fact that the unconscious (peer pressure perhaps?) push to "level-up" works against it's more sociable nature.

I don't think anyone would deny that the main game is about acquisition and improvement. There is no room for backwards motion - WoW is a straight line of leveling up, and then later of improving stats and gear. Not that you have to play it that way, but that's what the core mechanics support and encourage, and this piece was about the effect that has.

Obviously, it is what it is and it's still hugely successful as you point out (seriously are they really up to 11 million subs' now?! Man!) in spite of, or perhaps because of, these traits.

Thanks for reading and adding your comment, Tim. =)

Nels Anderson said...

I had the WoW needle in my arm from launch until about a month before the first expansion. It started out with myself and two friends playing together, but one quickly sprinted ahead. He'd still come back and help us out from time to time, but it wasn't quite the same.

My other friend and I didn't coordinate our schedules enough to play together every time, we remained +/- a few levels of each other. We could still run an instance together when we were both online.

The game was actually growing pretty long in the tooth when I hit 60, but then I joined a relatively serious raiding guild and the game practically started all over again. Both of my original friends ended up in different guilds and we ended up chatting more than actually playing together (although we'd sometime unite for BGs and the like).

I think part of the reason why invested players gravitate towards raiding is it provides a structure for playing together. Being at the level cap and having raids scheduled for a specific day/time resolve the issues of having to play alone.

I don't really miss the game though. Jerry from PA described WoW very aptly when it said it makes you feel like an adulterer if you ever play anything else. It got to the point where I wasn't alright with that being my *only* game (plus I was in grad school and had a thesis to write).

Jorge Albor said...

I played WoW for a very long time, and still have a few good friends who play constantly. But with less time to play, the time it takes to catch up and be of comparable skill is astronomical.

At this point, my WoW compatriots are tackling the hardest raid dungeons and I'm still level 75. My account is active because I have a strange resistance to cutting off ties forever. At that point, I cannot even entertain the idea of partaking in that very rewarding social play again.

Anonymous said...

Ben, that's a fantastic analysis of your experience with WoW.. that's exactly how I've felt playing a lot of MMO's prior to WoW.. the in-game experiences are 'solitary' in the end, even socially. But particular to WoW is how transitory experiences are - the world never really changes as the player activity. It's "persistent" but not really "dynamic". I find that idea fascinating... many MUDs predating WoW by 10-20 years have been transformable in some way (ie. purchase a house, scrawl a note on a tree, etc) and that really changes the nature of the game. Perhaps that is why WoW feels so solitary - it is a virtual world that (in many ways) collapses when we log out.

Great stuff. Any chance that I could quote your work in my doctoral thesis? I'm doing a phenomenology of video games, and this is ripe stuff for digging into! Just the right piece to get my juices flowing on a monday.

Ben Abraham said...

Hey Chris,

Wow, I'd be honoured to be quoted in your doctoral thesis. =)

I can't say that I'm sure it'd be of any use for your subject but my own undergrad thesis on music in games had some more of my own experiences and reactions with games, if you're looking for some slightly more 'academic' references.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely! Will contact you via email :)

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