Spoiler Content: Spoiler Free!
Alright, I have a deep, dark secret that I tell everyone. I used to be a huge World of Warcraft (WoW) player. Not the standard “play all day, every day” type of player, no, my parents’ draconian computer-time limits prevented that. What defined my WoW experience was thinking. Nearly every moment of the day I would be thinking about this world, through articles, books, websites, YouTube videos, whatever. WoW, essentially, was my real world. Now this was during middle school for me, when my real life was at its lowest and WoW was at its height, so it was the perfect time for me to become engrossed in this world. Through lawn mowing, extorting money from my siblings, babysitting for my parents’ friends, whatever, I was able to scrounge up the $15 every month to play the game. For thirty minutes a day, and a glorious hour on weekends, I was exactly where I wanted to be. Every other moment of my life was lived in anticipation of those thirty to sixty minutes. It was the first game to completely consume for my existence, but it did it differently than any game ever has. When I finally got my hands on Bioshock Infinite, that was all I did for like three days, all I could talk about, all I could think about. But, a few days later, it had worn off. I still loved the game, but it wasn’t an all-consuming force. In the weeks before Mass Effect 3 came out, I was constantly nerding out about the game, and for a week, Mass Effect *was* my life. It consumed my every waking moment. I think that this is the mark of a truly great game, that it creates a world you want to live in, and, through the constant experience of separating yourself from reality, you can live there at will. All it would take in middle school was for me to sit down in class, and let my mind slip into Azeroth, and I was no longer sitting in a class that I hated surrounded by a room full of sadistic assholes, I was climbing to the top of Icecrown Citadel, runeblade grasped tightly in hand, ready to do battle with the Lich King. WoW, Mass Effect, Bioshock, and other games like them, can do that to me.
I think that something we, as geeks, practice is this process of divorcing ourselves from reality, though most people lose this ability as they grow older. Children are always living in fantasy worlds, because they are still trying to get a grip on the real one. Adults, with that real world clearly defined, don’t seem to have the same capacity as children to escape. But for geeks (nerds, dorks, whatever), that ability is almost a requirement for surviving a social structure that isn’t made for us. When we were younger, we don’t find much comfort in people and the real world, because we were rejected for liking swords and sorcery instead of footballs and baseballs. In order to escape the drudgery, and often torment, of real life, we used fantasy worlds in place of our own. I dove into new worlds when I was a kid, worlds that I was not old enough to understand fully, but was imaginative enough to explore. I fell in love with R.A. Salvatore’s brilliant novel Homeland, chronicling the life of a dark elf, Drizzt Do’Urden, as he struggled to deal with a world filled with vicious, self-serving and hateful families trying to gain as much power as they could at the expense of others. At the time, the magic and fantasy setting made me love the world, and the author wove the fabric of this new universe with such artful precision that I never wanted to leave. Today, I now hold that book in the highest esteem because I can see some of Drizzt’s struggle against dark elves and spider gods as sort of similar to my world, without all the flair and window dressing. It is one of the finest examples of world building I have ever seen.
So, that brings this all back to WoW. WoW isn’t a particularly well designed game, it doesn’t have a brilliantly written story exploring powerful ideas or interesting characters. It doesn’t have game mechanics that create a consistent feel or aesthetic enhanced by the world around it. All in all, it is a fairly repetitive game, without much true merit to it. The story, while interesting, doesn’t go much beyond standard high fantasy.
But for some reason I fell in love with that game. The environments were so varied and interesting that I lost myself in them. Playing with others was okay, but it detracted from my main focus: I was exploring a new world. The depths of Azeroth were lush and detailed, and I couldn’t bring myself to leave them. There was a magic to it, and maybe it was just childlike nostalgia, but is that really a bad reason to like something? Atmosphere can make a bad game great, and even though WoW’s gameplay is normal and simplistic, I still remember the chills that went down my spine from Tirion Fordring and Arthas Menethil’s duel outside the Light’s Hope Chapel. Years of substantially better written games such as Mass Effect, Bioshock or Gone Home have done little to diminish that thrill. Something about that vanilla fantasy world and the absolute purity with which it is executed appeals to me in a way that no other game can. While I no longer fear the real world the way I did when I first picked up my copy of The Warcraft Battle Chest in 2006, logging in to this game gives me an excuse to return to my childhood, leave the world behind, and instead live in the incredible world of Azeroth.
WoW is today a pretty bad game in comparison to the myriad of titles I’ve played in the years since, but those experiences will remain powerful to me. WoW is still a game I can enjoy, even if just from an observer’s perspective. It is, at its core, beautiful.