Warcrack: The Second Coming

Hello, my name is Cashmere and I’m a level 63 druid herbalist/alchemist.

Hello, my name is Elizabeth Cho and I’m a recovering World of Warcraft addict.

Warcraft is an undeniable pop culture phenomenon. It’s been ballyhooed and hoo-haed in various newspapers, magazines and earned a lampoon by South Park. The New York Times has flattered it with multiple articles and even a ‘WOOT’ – an exclamation of unadulterated joy. Warcraft has been criticized for its craze-inducing addictive qualities: the effects of which are Warcraft widows, lost jobs, social lives gone bad, creating invalid shut-ins who shirk all else but Warcraft, playing several hours at a time, easily 16 hours in a row.

So, a quick explanation for those of you of you who’ve never shopped the auction house in Ironforge nor ridden the gryphon through the Outlands…

Warcraft is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game played by over eight million people worldwide. Servers host thousands of players at once, who interact and form a micro cosmos called World of Warcraft. An epic battle between the Alliance (the good) and the Horde (the bad & the ugly) divide the camp immediately; players choose either faction and create unique alter-ego characters from a selection of the usual suspects; elves, humans, dwarves, undead, orcs, etc. Players further customize their characters by choosing classes; warriors, mages, priests, warlocks, etc. The goal is to make your character thrive. You start out as a weakling and advance through quests, developing your character from level 1 to 60.

Quests are as ordinary as collecting scraps of metal or as challenging as killing a succession of increasingly difficult “bosses”, like fire-breathing dragons with their mini-me minions. As you succeed through these steps, you win money, weapons, and clothing that confer special powers, for example the “Piccolo of the Flaming Fire”, a magical flute that compels everyone nearby to break spontaneously into dance to hilarious effect. Players collaborate with each other in instances or dungeons, which are difficult enough to require a five, sometimes 10-man, even 40-man groups to complete. And as you play, you add dimension to your character by joining guilds (a group of people who like to play together, with a team shirt, no less) and developing his or her trade as a tailor, an alchemist, an engineer, cook, weaponsmith, among many others. One can even run a tidy enterprise by selling your services (lock picking? Ask a rogue!) or items (enchanted gloves) to other players in an ebay-esque auction house system.

I started playing the game nearly two years ago because my friend Kenji introduced it to me and my boyfriend at the time. It seemed harmless and even dorky, designed for people into sci-fi and Lord of the Rings – and I certainly wasn’t one of those people. I had played many videogames before — Atari, Sega, Nintendo, Playstation, etc, having grown up as the only girl in a three boy household; I thought nothing of this newfangled game. Oh, how I greatly underestimated its powers. Nothing could have adequately prepared me for the enslaving lure of Warcrack.

My boyfriend and I ended up breaking up over that game. Because I refused to stop playing. As interest turned to fascination and transformed into addiction, I began to act in all sorts of irrational yet characteristic ways drug addicts and alcoholics behave, e.g., I lied about my usage, denied I had a problem, put off finding a job (I was unemployed at the time), stopped spending time with friends and family, played 20 hours at a stretch to bring my character up just one more level. I breathed a sigh of relief when I attained level 60, the cap, knowing that my mania could now rest.

All this changed when in January of this year when Burning Crusade, the expansion pack was released. Burning Crusade allowed players to reach level 70, and offered two new races (the slinky Blood elves and the dragon-like Draenei) from which players can develop new characters, and a new continent to explore, with thousands of quests to complete and dungeons to conquer. It’s like introducing alcoholics to a new version of Grey Goose that gives that pleasant buzz faster, longer and abolishes hangovers. You can imagine then, the trepidation and heady anticipation I felt as I faced the release of Burning Crusade, a.k.a. “The Second Coming of Warcrack”. I thought of the Spanish subjunctive phrase, Ojalá (If Allah is willing, let it be so). Would I be able to resist? Did I want to? I was plunged into an existential quandary.

Minutes later, I gave in. With trembling hands, I received the Burning Crusade box from the storeclerk. With this purchase, I am exploring the nature of addiction and finding out the seductive lure of Warcraft for one particular player: me.

Is ‘Once an addict, always an addict’ true, I wondered? Is Warcraft madness a manifestation of addictive personalities or is it a natural consequence of coming into contact with something so addictive? Perhaps certain people are more prone to addiction, because their lives lack something not even a puppy can fulfill. Are Warcraft players lonely, disconnected people who become dependent on the social matrix and virtual life that Warcraft offers? That’s the reigning stereotype of Warcraft player and I’m its counterexample. I’m a happy girl in my 20s with many friends, diverse interests and a successful career. I have never had other common addictions — caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, recreational drugs, etc. So why was I so helplessly addicted to Warcraft?

I would like to suggest that it’s because Warcraft presents an alternate reality so compelling that it is preferable to the “reality” we live in. These compelling elements of the game drive people into love and madness:

Warcraft is beautiful to behold.

Warcraft is an extremely social game.

Warcraft improves upon reality.

This last point is about human nature, rather than Warcraft:

Investment’s a bitch.

Warcraft’s environment is beautifully designed. It truly gives the player the thrill of escapism: from the lush jungles of Stranglethorne Vale to the dread and wonder of entering the lava-filled fortress of Blackrock Mountains. After the end of many a hard day, I relaxed on the beach in Darkshore, listening to the waves and fishing for rare stonescale eels. Flying on a gryphon from flight point to flight point offers the player a good chance to marvel at the exotic landscape and also to bio (bathroom break). Upon the launch of Burning Crusade, millions of players went to Outlands, the new continent, just to run around and explore like they had when the Warcraft originally released in 2004. There were many dumbfounded players, admiring the surreal landscape of planets, aurora borealis, and ethereal moonlight, their reverie occasionally marred by the big-fanged orcs chasing them.

A game can be beautiful to behold, but more importantly, to hold and to keep, it has to be engaging. Unlike most videogames which are a solitary occupation of you against the computer, Warcraft thrives on communication and teamwork. In Warcraft, as in the real world, it’s about who you know. It is in fact a very social game that requires patience, negotiation, developing and maintaining business relationships and friendships. The first thing I do when I log on is to check to see if any of my friends are online, so that I might quest with them. Questing together is both more efficient as well as fun – you get to chat with each other using Warcraft’s messaging system.

I’m an example of someone who’s used my friendships strategically to become powerful quickly – I’ve impressed my guild by leveling from 20-50 by playing a mere 120 hours in a sleepless week. I’ve met a variety of ‘real’ people on Warcraft: a soldier stationed in Iraq, a female punk-rocker from San Francisco, a 12-year-old wunderkind from Minnesota, graduating early from high school. I’ve also been able to keep in touch with my international high school friends who are scattered all over the world but convene in Warcraft to play together and catch up.

Warcraft encourages this socialization. The existence of far too difficult dungeons with overpowered creeps (monsters) compel players to form groups to defeat powerful enemies. Groups become very specific, to the point where a five-man group requires a healer who will keep you alive, a tank (played by a warrior or someone with high armour points), a multi-tasking, shape shifting druid, a rogue with high damage per second (dps) ratings, a mage for powerful spell attacks. Playing in groups requires diplomacy and true teamwork, similar to the workplace. Feelings get hurt, incompetent leaders will get you killed, and ninja-ing (stealing someone’s rightful loot from the creep they’ve just offed) will get you blacklisted.

Warcraft seeks to build community by celebrating holidays, such as Valentine’s Day and New Years. The most popular areas, such as Ironforge and Undercity have decorations put up during these holidays, and virtual candies, love charms, and fireworks abound. Another example of this community building is the contests; every Sunday, a fishing contest takes place in the pirate town of Booty Bay, awarding bragging rights and a special hat that enhances fishing abilities.

But what’s really nice about Warcraft is not how it emulates reality but how it enhances it. There are few punishments offered in Warcraft. The ‘real’ punishments come from the outside world as you become further disassociated with it (you lose your job, your friends, your boyfriend, etc.). In terms of rewards, there are just too many to resist. First of all, there’s the social matrix. Respect comes naturally as you attain a higher level. You have friends who greet you the minute you log in. Best of all: death is only an inconvenience. When you die (and you will die in this game — whether by misjudging the distance required for safe landing or by picking a fight with a monster of much higher level) all you have to do is run back to your body to live again. Or even better, if you have a healer among you, he or she can rez (resurrect) you on the spot. You have the endless opportunity to correct your mistakes with no institutional memory or bias, with no one to second guess your competency. In Warcraft you have a genuine opportunity to learn from your mistakes.

Furthermore, in Warcraft, your efforts are recognized and immediately rewarded. Your every effort translates directly into success, while in the real world, this is seldom the case. When you finish a quest, the quest-giver rewards you with high-level gear – I received Jerkin of the Untamed Spirit, a highly coveted piece. In reality, you may work at a dead-end job for years and still not afford the house you live in. In Warcraft, the more you “grind” (work at leveling your character) the faster you’ll attain a higher level and become richer and more powerful. And really, how different is that from our “real” desires that have us obsessing over loft apartments in Manhattan, designer clothing, this season’s Louis Vuitton handbag, the latest Audi TT?

Which brings me to my final point: investment is a bitch. From the beginning of time, people have loved progress and developments. That’s why television programs like LOST have a third season. People in Warcraft get very attached to and identify with their online personas. It’s significant that players can customize their character: through appearance, specialization, accessories and abilities. I’m attached to Cashmere. She’s a druid who has healing powers and can transform herself into a panther that stealth attacks, a superfast leopard, a warrior-like bear, and lately, a moonkin (resembles a turkey-bear with antlers) who has the armor of a warrior and the spellcasting ability of a mage. The druid class is perfect for me: it complements my own dilettantish tendencies well. Who’s to say I’m not more like Cashmere, who earned her first mount (100 gold, back then an enormous sum) by getting tips in Ironforge for her risqué elven maiden dance moves?

Warcraft can seem so destructive because it is so seductive; it is distracting from the real world pressures and all-consuming because it provides you with an alternate life. Once you invest in this game, any backward movement feels like devolution and destruction. A sinking ship that you’ve created is still the ship you lovingly put together, panel by panel. Deserting it would be like forsaking yourself. In the quasi-anonymity that Warcraft confers, people can feel freer to be themselves without feeling judged by society who may deem them computer nerds and losers who lack social-skills. They can try out different behaviors in a mostly consequence-free, learning environment. People can express themselves while taking part in a complex social matrix.

Warcraft has interrupted my life and it is so pleasant an interloper that it compelled me to stop investing in other aspects of my life. I’ve last-minute fibbed to friends whom I’ve made plans with in order to stay at home and play with my other friends online. I’ve told myself, oh, just one more hour, and extended my game playing into 6-7 hours, when sleep would have better served me for a challenging work day ahead. Yesterday, I pushed my puppy off my lap, face first, when he came up for a cuddle. He couldn’t know that I was in Hellfire Ramparts as the only healer. The sole thought reverberating through my head was, We’re gonna wipe!!!

There is tremendous excitement at immersing myself in Burning Crusade this new, improved world of Warcrack. Yet there’s a profound sadness creeping up on me, too. I’m realizing that I don’t have the time to start a new character, as I would want to, from level 1. In the end, it depends on which world one prefers to invest in; the real one or in the virtual one. I chose the “real world”, even if “real” is a debatable concept, since how much you invest in time and Warcraft money, and invest in creating your character, friendships, etc., makes a world seeming more real than the real one, and gives the Warcraft world visceral dimension. That’s the beauty and complexity of Warcraft; it’s a social organism. As any half-serious World of Warcraft player will tell you: it’s not just a game, it’s a way of life.