One Night in Azeroth

I can put my finger on exactly when I got addicted: the first time I traveled on the back of a flying gryphon. I saw the full moon rising over the ocean, the purple and green trees of Teldrassil disappearing behind me as I flew in to Auberdine, looking down on ant-sized players fighting rabid grizzly bears in the forest.

World of Warcraft

I’m on Zoram’s Strand and this lvl 23 Tauren son of a bitch is camping me. Every time I steer my soul back into my body and rezz he takes advantage of my low health and ganks me without mercy. As I’m going down for the fifth time I send out a call on Local Defense, then steer my will o’wisp soul back from the rezzy point to my corpse. Just when I get to my body I see them thundering through the purple fields like the cavalry: a Shaman, a Warrior, and a Hunter, and they pwn that smug Tauren all over the glade. I rezz just in time to sink my kris into his back and he goes down like a ton of pixilated bricks and we’re off, running through the field, taking lazy leaps and rolls like a group of fighter jets. Someone says “LFG Sleeper Awakens” and we all click yes, and we’re off to escort the Druid Bearclaw through contested territories to Maestra’s Post, my comrades and I. Carsickness, Gangrene, Isoceles, and NancyReagan running through the woods with murder on our minds and digital sunlight on our faces. I’m playing World of Warcraft and I’ve never been happier.

World of Warcraft is a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) that drops you into the middle of a fantasy world and asks you to kill monsters. You choose to be a good guy (Alliance) or a bad guy (Horde), build a character, and enter a virtual 3-D world called Azeroth that is really, really big. Virtual worlds have existed for as long as computers have been around, but WoW‘s size stands out. Two continents divided into 50 or so regions, each region with its own inhabitants, landscapes, towns, and villages. There are 19 major dungeons, over 100 micro-dungeons, 6 major cities, 100 small towns, and 2000 quests you can undertake, depending on your race, profession, level, where you go, and who you talk to. If you’re a powergamer (someone whose goal is to accrue treasure and never stops to smell the roses) it will take you around 115 hours of nonstop play to top out with an experience level of 60. But in virtual worlds it’s the number of players, not the virtual geography, that makes gameplay complex and fun. With 5.5 million players on 500 different servers (known as realms) around the world, WoW trumps every other MMORPG and then some—if it was a country it would be larger than New Zealand and Puerto Rico combined.

While the point is ostensibly to kill monsters and go on quests, players spend time in Azeroth in all sorts of ways. Some fish full time and sell what they catch; others make electronic clothes for other players, design software patches that let them play nude, hang out and gossip with friends, Google-map the terrain, or celebrate weddings and funerals. You’d need a degree to understand all the ways the economy’s been massaged and manipulated. The game is full of arbitrageurs who take advantage of the different market prices for goods between the cities of Azeroth; smugglers who sell unattainable items in remote locations using an array of low-level “mule” characters; and players who work the auction houses like Wall Street commodities traders. Two industrious players tried unsuccessfully to start a bank in Azeroth to compete with the game’s official bank; these same players had previously bought out one Azerothian auction house’s entire stock and flipped it for a profit.

And, like alchemy, there are ways to spin digital gold into real-world cash. Search “warcraft” on eBay and you’ll find yourself in a virtual slave market: you can buy a level 60 undead Warlock with a tier 2 raiding set for $440, or a duo of a high-level Mage and a low-level twink character for a mere $76. But the real money is in gold farms—companies where workers play WoW in shifts, earning gold and other items that their bosses resell for real-world money. Gold farms have sprung up all over the world, for every MMORPG and in various sizes, from mom-and-pop operations to established gray-market companies like IGE, which issues regular press releases and has former child actor Brock Pierce (“The Mighty Ducks”) as its CEO.

Gamers are notoriously critical of gold farmers, and regard the people who use their services as cheaters who pay for advancement with their credit cards rather than earning it through hard play. The most notorious gold farms are in Eastern Europe and China, and so anti-Chinese sentiment is common in WoW. Some players will refuse to group with players who demonstrate an incomplete grasp of English, assuming that they’re Chinese gold farmers, despite the fact that WoW has devoted over 300 servers to the Chinese market alone. In some games Chinese players are slaughtered en masse the second they’re identified.

Ge Jin, a PhD student in California, has been making a documentary about gold farmers in China. The gold farms he shoots do have a sweatshop quality to them, with dozens of young men packed into rooms with computers in front and bunkbeds in the back, but they more closely resemble anonymous strip-mall offices. The gold farmers Jin speaks with are either young men who live at home and can’t find a good job or peasants who’ve come in from the countryside and are astonished that they can earn a living playing a game. And they are all, ultimately, gamers. Many also play in the same virtual worlds where they work, and stories abound of Chinese gold farmers lending a hand to non-farming players in trouble.

“Although they have to work-slash-play for 12 hours a day,” says Ge Jin of the farmers he interviewed, “they take pride in what they achieve and they seem eager to escape into a virtual reality richer, brighter, and more exciting than their impoverished real world lives.” In July, Blizzard, the company that created WoW, banned the accounts of 59,000 players who had purchased items from gold farms, effectively removing 22 million gold pieces from the WoW economy. At the going rate, that’s $4 million in real money.

Then there are the players who are devoted to seeing just how much fun they can wring out of the landscape. Base-jumping groups have formed, where players find the highest spots in Azeroth and leap out into space, trying to land on tiny targets far below. Others engage in less noble pursuits, known as griefing, which involve everything from camping (lurking around a player you’ve just killed, waiting for them to revive, and then killing them again) to boss training (provoking a high-level monster to follow you back to a city, where it promptly decimates dozens of low-level characters). It’s a tiny copy of the real world and, like the real world, it’s unpredictable. The WoW design team operates under the maxim, “No matter how smart you think you are, it doesn’t mean anything until 1 million players try it.”

Blizzard had 250 employees when the game launched. These days it has 1000. Their North American servers require over 300 full-time game masters to ride herd, figuring out who’s a bot (a character avatar controlled by a software program that plays the game automatically), dealing with griefers, and keeping the public chat as inoffensive as possible. When a new patch with fresh content is downloaded to the game, the design team spends patch day in a “war room,” toggling from server to server and hotfixing bugs and exploits as soon as players discover them. Despite all this, there are still surprises, like the Corrupted Blood plague.

It started when the designers decided to spice things up for players who had reached a level where they could go anywhere and kill anything. A new dungeon opened, and a boss named Hakkar the Soulflayer was introduced. Hakkar was a sore loser, and when he was killed he hit the person who killed him with a spell called Corrupted Blood that dealt heavy damage for 10 seconds, and could be passed along to other players like a virus. The designers had meant for it to stay in the dungeon, but the code contained a bug that made it able to travel. The high-level players who were hit soon figured out a new game they could play: spread the plague.

They infected themselves and took the plague back to one of the major cities, where it tore through lower-level characters like a bad oyster. The effects were devastating, most notably in the dwarven city of IronForge, where hundreds of lower-level players congregate. NPCs—computer-controlled characters who sell goods, assign quests, and give directions—became carriers, passing Corrupted Blood on to players who logged in hours later. In less than a day, half the players on the server were infected, and the virtual streets became clogged with virtual corpses.

Blizzard’s designers tried to quarantine players, but gamers don’t like to be told what to do, and they quickly spread the plague throughout Azeroth. Rumors flew like lightning, gamers hid their avatars in the hills outside Ironforge to avoid infection, and some logged out completely while waiting for the problem to be solved. Blizzard wasn’t able to find an in-game solution and instead resorted to a hotfix and server restarts. They were mortified by their screw-up, but they were even more shocked at the reaction: players loved it.

Getting into World of Warcraft takes some commitment. Fifty minutes to load the five game disks, an hour to install an update download, forty-five minutes to install a patch, twenty minutes to create an account, and then three licensing agreements and two terms of use to slog through. Finally, I’m in: I can create a character. I select a Night Elf, the WoW hottie of choice. Night Elves dress skimpily, and more than one player has commented on their “jiggle” factor. All the characters in WoW can break into dance: Dwarves do a Cossack barynya, Night Elf males do a Michael Jackson impersonation, and Night Elf females dance like they work at Scores. I decide to play a girl because I’ve read that other players are nicer to female characters (over half of which are digital transvestites), and I name her Nancyreagan because who doesn’t like Nancy Reagan?

I’m teleported into the game and immediately I want to teleport out again. The default mode of travel in WoW is a brisk jog, and the starting point for Night Elves is a screaming chaos of jogging, bouncing character avatars, like Central Park on a Sunday afternoon, all screaming “Let’s fite naked” and “lol.” Elfwoman runs up to me and asks if I want to join her group. Clutching at any hint of meaningful interaction, I click “yes” and suddenly she’s spamming me with “Buy gOld coMe shop at www.cheapwowgoods.com 4 all ur WoW needs.” I unjoin so fast my fingers blister.

Fortunately, having chosen a female avatar pays off. Guys follow me around and kill things for me, saying “hi” and “np” (no problem). Later in the game there will be instances of outrageous flirting, and at one point a low-level dwarf tries to impress me by doing a lewd dance against my leg and telling me, “My other character is a lvl 23 orc hunter,” which in WoW is like saying, “My other car is a Cadillac.”

When I log off I do a double-take at the time: I’ve been playing for six hours. My eyes are red and my right hand is cramped into the movement-button claw. As I fall asleep the endless scrolling pixels of the forest floor unspool behind my closed eyes. This is the beginning. From now on, WoW will suck up my time like a vacuum cleaner.

I can put my finger on exactly when I got addicted: the first time I traveled on the back of a flying gryphon. I saw the full moon rising over the ocean, the purple and green trees of Teldrassil disappearing behind me as I flew in to Auberdine, looking down on ant-sized players fighting rabid grizzly bears in the forest. Outside my window the watery sun was struggling to break through the 5am haze, a bedraggled pigeon was breathing its last on my windowsill, and a car alarm had been going off for the last hour, but I didn’t notice any of it. Not when I was in Azeroth.

But WoW got boring fast. By level 16 I was sick of fighting nuisance monsters and gathering treasure while teaching myself how to skin animals and make little boots and gloves. Then one day I ran into “Contested Territory” where enemy players lived. They slaughtered me with relish. It’s one thing to fight tight little packets of code; it’s another to be checking your mail at a trading post and have six high-level Horde players slam into town and kill everyone, including you, and then spit on your corpse. My blood was pumping. My ears were ringing, I couldn’t wait to get back online. I tried to log in late Sunday night and, maddeningly, I wasn’t alone: 328 people were queued up ahead of me.

Besides the chat channels, there are two ways to interact in WoW: grouping and guilds. Groups are temporary alliances between players, and commitment is minimal. Guilds are larger, more formal groups with officers and a leader. Members wear a guild tabard, and you’ll occasionally stumble across their avatars kneeling in front of a higher-level player in a super-serious initiation ceremony.

WoW has a pop culture, too. One player-made WoW video has been downloaded so many times that its star, Leeroy Jenkins, was a clue on College Jeopardy last year. There’s WoW fan fiction, WoW pornography, and you can find a wedding video from an in-game ceremony featuring over 100 guests, an exchange of vows, and a processional march and fireworks. There are also funerals.

Over the Chinese National Day holidays last year, a young Chinese player named Snowly died after playing WoW in an internet cafe for 56 straight hours. His family refused to speak to the press, but his guildmates said he was preparing to attempt a particularly difficult instance dungeon, and he seems to have died of exhaustion with possible complications from dehydration. The few details available (usually misidentifying Snowly as a young woman) raced across the internet and resulted in the passage of legally mandated gaming time limits for online games in China. Meanwhile, Snowly’s guildmates gathered within the game and held a funeral for their friend. An obsession with WoW had caused Snowly’s death, but the game also gave his friends a place to memorialize him. Gathering their avatars in the same virtual space and bowing their heads felt emotionally appropriate. It felt real.

According to the law, though, Azeroth isn’t real. When Qiu Chengwei, a Chinese gamer playing “Legend of Mir 3,” a fantasy MMORPG, asked his friend to hold onto a virtual sword for him, the friend turned around and sold it. Qiu went to the police but they could do nothing—legally, the sword didn’t exist. Most countries, America included, do not recognize virtual worlds as actual property. They are chattel belonging to the companies that created them. Read the terms of use and you see it spelled out clearly: everything within the game is the property of the designers, not the players. Try telling that to Qiu. Enraged over losing what he viewed as a valuable possession, he stabbed his friend to death.

I’m hiding in WoW. This is very easy to do. My body is at the kitchen table in my apartment, but my mind is in Azeroth. I’m hiding there from fights with my wife, from work, from deadlines, from money worries—and I’m not unhappy about this in the slightest. In fact, I wish I could stay here. If you decide to play WoW intensively then you quickly discover that you’re leading two lives. In one life you’re struggling, worried about your job and your relationships. You can’t tell if people like you and they probably don’t. You can invest all of your effort into a project only to see it never pay off.

In your other life you know who you are because it says so just below your name: you’re an Undead Warlock. If you make an effort you will be rewarded with treasure, and by advancing through levels. If you help someone out they say “ty.” You can be a hero, make a difference, kill monsters. It beats writing reviews of Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and Little Man.

I can feel the deadlines whizzing by my head but that just makes me feel worse and so I play more Warcraft to feel better. There’s a constant feeling that things are going to get really cool in just five minutes, just over this hill, just after this quest, just on this next level. There are so many different ways to advance that at any given moment you’re about to improve your character in some way. And so you keep playing. And playing. And playing. A long time ago I did some interviews with gaming addicts and was horrified by stories of lives ruined by gaming. It sounded like hysteria to me, but after blowing two deadlines and almost screwing up a business arrangement because I couldn’t tear myself away to send a fax, it didn’t sound like hysteria anymore. It sounded like me.

In Korea and China the government supports the serious treatment of gaming addiction, but in the US it’s up to informal groups like OLGANON (Online Gamers Anonymous) and Warcraft Widows to offer online support for people whose loved ones have vanished down the digital rabbit hole. Their stories are heartbreaking. A husband missing his child’s first step because his guild is about to raid. A wife being punched by a husband who’s on tenterhooks after playing for almost 24 hours straight. Parents living with a kid who no longer talks to anyone but stays in his room playing Warcraft all day. People sneaking behind their spouses’ backs to purchase a better computer in order to minimize lag, running up credit-card debt they can’t pay off. Living two lives takes a toll.

But despite its novelty value, gaming addiction isn’t much of a story. Some people enjoy beer, other people can’t handle it, but hardly anyone believes it should be illegal. And the people who play MMORPGs like WoW are not the shut-ins and antisocial outcasts we might imagine. According to researcher Nick Yee, their average age is 26 (only 25% of them are teenagers) and half of them work full time. 36% are married, and 80% play with someone they know—friends belong to the same guild, husbands and wives play together.

Non-gamers want to know what on earth these people are doing on their computers when they could be out at a party or meeting people. The short answer is that they are out at a party, meeting people. Any way you measure it, the social life of the average American has collapsed since the 1950s. We’re not going out, we’re not participating in our communities, we’re not socializing in nearly the numbers we used to. Mostly what we’re doing is watching TV. Dmitri Williams, a social sciences professor at the University of Illinois, sees WoW as a game that provides social interaction to an audience hungry for company. To him, games like WoW are a bridging experience, providing a way for people to meet. And while the depth of their interaction—their bonding, so to speak—isn’t as deep as it might be in a real-life meeting, he’s found that over time friendships do deepen and bonding does take place. As an added bonus, according to Nick Yee’s surveys, the average WoW player spends 22 hours a week in Azeroth, but only around 7 hours watching TV, compared to the national average of 29.

I played WoW for one month and logged close to 120 hours of gameplay. Almost everything I had thought about WoW had turned out to be wrong. What ate up other players’ time wasn’t just killing monsters and buying swag but showing off that swag to friends and negotiating complicated interpersonal dramas. These were people who were choosing a new way of relating to one another, but I couldn’t, and didn’t want to, navigate it as nimbly as they did. I had in-game friends, people I grouped with on a regular basis, but I also had real-world commitments, and I was lousy at balancing the two. On more than one occasion I logged on “for a half hour” only to look up and find that two hours had vanished down the rabbit hole. If I wanted to get serious about WoW I needed to join a guild, but lurking on message boards and reading about the various guild dramas made it feel like more work than pleasure. I decided to quit.

On my last night I logged in at 3am. The server was practically empty, and when I came across a couple of other players we clung to one another like shipwreck survivors. Our interaction consisted mostly of emoticons and ungrammatical sentence fragments, but it was better than nothing—and at 3am, ‘nothing’ was the alternative. We played through a couple of quests together, then decided to call it a night. “Good group,” Zocharay said as we disbanded. Scyllis headed south and Zocharay and I ran in the same direction for a while before she peeled off to the east. A wave of sadness passed over me as I watched her vanish in the distance and I couldn’t help it. I stopped running and typed: “/wave.”

“Nancyreagan waves to Zocharay.” the computer said.

A second passed. Then:

“Zocharay waves to Nancyreagan.”

Each of us was alone, but for a few hours that night in Azeroth, neither of us was lonely.1

  1. Special thanks to everyone at TerraNova for all their assistance. And thanks to BlizzPlanet. 

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