Sunday, November 30, 2008

Farewell, Cruel World (Of Warcraft)- Part 2

Or, In Which I kind of Intellectualize Nonsense.

Here we go with ten reasons the time I spent on WOW was not a complete waste. This is a mammoth post, I'm warning you right now. Stay hydrated and don't be afraid to stop and rest.

1. Exposure to types of people you might not otherwise come in contact with.

One of the best things about Warcraft is that it exposes you to all different kinds of people. You first get to know them through playing the game together. Only if that works out well do you start to learn about their personal lives and beliefs. You already have a basis of mutual appreciation and cooperation before any points of ideological schism are revealed, so when they do come out, you both have an incentive to just let them go. Personal compatibility can trump even the most deeply held belief systems in this game. Not always, obviously. There are some angry, close-minded people here as everywhere who do not hesitate to personally attack anyone with an opposing belief. But I think they are a minority. It sounds crazy, but this game really does foster tolerance in many people.

My only Republican friends are in Warcraft. My only uber-religious friends are in Warcraft (including more than one pastor, for crying out loud). My only military friends are in Warcraft (its big for soldiers in Iraq). In my real life, I would have a really, really hard time getting past these things. Sometimes it still is hard- there have been some really tough moments for me where I couldn't help but lose respect for people I had been friends with. But on the whole this was a really positive experience. Its too easy dehumanize or radicalize the "other side" and any chance we get to see the real people behind an ideology is important.

2. Social Fucking Darwinism.

So you have this wide variety of people. Different backgrounds, different personalities, different levels of social development. But all these people have to work together towards common goals. That means if you're a tantrum-throwing 10 year old (or 30 year old), a racist epithet-spewing psycho, an inane babbler or a plain 'ol incompetent (these are the most common), no one is going to want to work with you. The world is small- reputations get around. If you can't find a group that wants to play with you, you're going to get frozen out of alot of the content. Yeah, the lowest common denominator-types will find each other eventually, but how effective are they gonna be at getting anything done? Think, for example, of a guild full of twelve year olds with ADHD. Yeah, not so much.

This means there is a pretty overt socialization process, which I think can be beneficial for some people. Here's a great example: Darco's son is fourteen. When he started playing, he was twelve and prone yelling nonsense in general and guild chat. He and his friends were particularly amused by spamming things like "kittens r cute!" over and over and over. Not relevant (to anything) and it mucks up people's chat windows. They got kicked out of their guild. Darco's son decided he wanted to actually play the game- we talked to him about appropriate "public" behavior and let him in our guild on probation. At the time I quit, he was one of our best players and most mature members. Unlike virtually all other areas of life, Warcraft is a chance for kids to interact with adults on an even footing. Some, like Darco's son, rise to the occasion and really accelerate some aspects of social development such as teamwork and conflict management.

3. If nothing else, Warcraft is an awesome microcosm for studying social interaction.

All of the servers/realms are isolated from each other, so you have multiple data pools with the same input stimuli (ie the game itself). The variables are the inhabitants of each server. It would be really interesting to study the evolution and norms of all of the different realms. Additionally, many servers are dominated by one or two nationalities (mostly determined by language and time zones) which adds an interesting real-life cultural comparison to the mix. I've done almost all my playing on one server, but I am guessing there would be alot of variation. Probably someone's doctoral dissertation has already covered all of this.

And there's political/governance parallels! Within a server, you can see not only equitable interactions (between players), but deomcracies and oligopolies (within most guilds), international relations (between guilds) and even authoritarianism (Blizzard). Yep, reps of Blizz are in the game and policing it. They are infallible, all-powerful and their weapon is exile, temporary or permanent. But sometimes, the little people rise up...

You see, like the Chinese Communist Party, Blizzard's primary concern is order and the smooth running of the system. But there is a glaring weak spot: server overload. The game just can't handle too many active toons in one place at one time. So when people want to make themselves heard, they protest until the server crashes. And then? Repression!

Here's a screenshot from a protest a few years ago:

People were upset about class inequality (I know, so commie!)- specifically, the plight of the warrior class. They organized in battlegrounds, the only method of cross-server communication, and decided to "meet" on a specific server by making new level 1 characters there. They got naked (attention grabbing, duh) and piled up in that Tiananmen Square of WOW, the Ironforge auction house. Blizzard moderators showed up and ordered the crowd to disperse, citing "disruption of game play."

Accounts were suspended left and right, hoses and tear gas and dogs oh my! But too late! All those naked toons brought down the whole server.

4. Ditto, economics.

Walking into Warcraft is like Econ 101 comes alive! Supply, demand, division of labor, ricardian trade models, speculation, inflation- its all here! WOW is an auction-based economy, allowing extreme price elasticity and quick adaptations to changes in supply and demand which makes it easy to track changes over time and cause-effect. Its simpler than the real world, but still involves real human choice and real utility.

And even more than the social/political aspect, the independence of servers makes for interesting economic study. Why is a given item more expensive on one server than another? Why does one server experience more inflation than another? A particularly industrious gamer with alot of time on their hands can explain price variations in one item. The economy is small enough that one person farming can singlehandedly hold down the price. For some people, manipulating the economy and making money is the best part of the game.

There is also a variation in base price levels, if the common whinging of "this server is so expeeeeeeensive! /cry" are any indication. Controlling for server population size, this means a) money is easier to get on some servers, b) servers value time differently (ie if a server has a strong raiding population, it might have lower prices because people devote less time to farming) and/or c) some social/psychological influence operating differently within the populations.

WOW currency, items and characters are also traded on the real life market (particularly through sites like ebay), which adds another dimension to the study and ascription of value.

5. Tee hee its like a secret language.

There is so much jargon in this game. Yeah, some of it derives from leetspeak and early programming and and anyone with a cell phone and a texting plan can understand it (acronyms galore), but alot of it is game-specific. I'm not even going to bother getting into it, but if you're interested check out this glossary.

There's also a plethora of inside jokes, some of which, to my great amusement, spill over into the mainstream.

Admittedly, I think it was a collegiate edition...but still.

There was also the famous episode of South Park, "Make Love, Not Warcraft". (click to watch)

6. Socializing in your pajamas.

Y'know, sometimes you just don't want to leave the house. Maybe work sucked, maybe its cold and rainy. Maybe you just ate like a pound of jellybeans and the thought of putting on pants is...insurmountable. What are you to do? Well, alot of people watch TV. While TV does create a shared cultural experience and some of it is actually good and thought-provoking, most is just nonsense and every bit as repetitive as WOW. Law & Order (or whatever iteration its on now), I am looking at you. But WOW keeps your brain a bit more engaged than the boob tube. You are performing tasks. Yes, some are pretty brainless, but many require real concentration and skill. And even when you're doing the most menial repetitive bullshit, you're still in contact with people.

7. This shit is like a job.

Darco and I started out as noobs sans guild, then we joined one as simple cogs in the machine, so to speak. But by the time I quit, we were co-guild masters of a guild with over 200 members. In normal jobs, most people are called "managers" if they have responsibility over a whopping three or so people. Moreover, all those people they are managing are there for the same reason, are paid to be there, and know what is expected of them. Not so in Warcraft, let me tell you.

Apart from bridging the different personalities, ages and backgrounds, people are looking for different things in the game. Some are casual- just looking for friendship and a fun game. Some are hardcore and play ALL THE TIME and want to get to the endgame content asap. Some are kind of insane about loot and gear upgrades. Some are just happy to progress through content. These differences in goals, obviously, lead to differences in opinion about the way a guild should be run. And EVERYONE has an opinion about how a guild should be run. Unsurprisingly, few are willing to step up to take responsibility or make changes happen. So we have to walk a seriously thankless tightrope between these camps and try to keep everyone happy.

Since I've been an officer, I've been a coach (for the incompetents), a babysitter, a psychologist (a surprising number of people look for advice and consolation about real life issues in the game), a battle strategist, a mediator, a lawyer, an Alcoholics Anonymous and/or Planned Parenthood counselor, a banker, a parole officer, a hiring officer etc etc etc. We have meetings (with agendas!) as officers and as a guild. We have votes. We plan and institute reforms. I made TWO websites. Seriously, its a job that took up more time than my actual job. I damn well feel like I should be able to put this on my resume. I could defend my role in the game as relevent leadership experience in any job interview. But I'm not going to cause, y'know, I would actually want to get the job.

8. Tangible rewards.

So that thing in my previous post about constant, incremental rewards? There's a reason that's effective: it feels pretty good. There's alot in life that we can't control, and rewards for a job well done (let alone for effort) can't be counted on. And hey, its better for someone who fears the uncertainty in their life to look for control in a game than in, say, trying to prevent two people of the same sex from marrying.

9. It's cheap.

Seriously, have you seen the price of movie tickets lately? Fuck that shit. And heaven help you if you want to go to the actual theater for opera/plays/ballet/symphony. If you're not a student, you might be looking at $100 a ticket. At $15 a month, Warcraft is cheaper than cable TV. Hell, I'm surprised I haven't seen an MMORPG-themed "recessionista" article in the NYT styles section yet. As an aside, NYT, I love you, but those pieces are laughably out of touch.

10. Real, honest-to-goodness FRIENDS.

Yeah, sappy, but the hardest part of quitting was saying goodbye to the friends I made in that game. I've got emails and cell #s, but the game was our primary basis for interaction. I doubt we'll stay in close touch and that's very sad.

Really though, you meet some great people in Warcraft. And for some people that spills over into lasting real life relationships- friendship, sexin', even marriage. And I think that's pretty cool.


  1. nicely summarized.

  2. Wow! I never looked at it THAT way before...I think I'm going to go out to the store and buy it! Right now! Seriously! Haha...but I'm actually serious that I can't wait to see you and Darco on (the day after) Christmas. We should go skiing probably

  3. I don't know that you should not mention your Guild Mastership as a resume star, at least on your "recreations." Check this out, for example: