Mistakes Were Made: A Recovering WoW Addict's Relapse and Retrospection
I've long viewed the span between my freshman year of college and my eventual move to Seattle as a kind of dark time. Not "dark" insofar as unpleasant, or unhappy. Rather, they were dark because my life revolved around one central point, an abyss that consumed much, if not all, of my free time.
The abyss I refer to was World of Warcraft.
Many readers will immediately understand my plight. Once it arrived on the scene in 2004, WoW became the gold standard for all massively multiplayer RPGs. Millions had subscribed shortly after launch, which increased the scale beyond any prior MMO. So rapid was its growth that the game began to bleed into popular culture. Attire was crafted, TV shows and films made passing references (or in one case, devoted an entire episode to the phenomenon), and Blizzard launched their own convention fueled almost solely on the game’s popularity. Even for a company with an already dedicated fanbase and industry-wide acclaim, World of Warcraft represented a seismic shift, a kind of success that evades anticipation. It was a hit.
The game seemed like a point of unity to many gamers, a banner under which to rally. Like so many niche pursuits WoW had (and still has) an internal vocabulary, which enabled instant, sometimes vapid, communication between any two players. Real friends could be made on one’s server -- online relationships stronger than many thought was possible. But the game’s massive following meant that this vocabulary was adaptable to the real world. Conversations could be started (and, in some cases, awkward conversations made bearable) with a simple exchange such as "What server do you play on? Horde or Alliance?"
It was a different story among outsiders. For all its media attention World of Warcraft never truly jumped the gap, and it failed to bridge geek/gamer culture with the mainstream. If anything the stereotype of the ambition-lacking resident of mom’s basement was cemented as a trope, with WoW replacing the popular 1980s scapegoat Dungeons and Dragons. This perception was not without merit - I did, in fact, play for a span while living in such a space.
To an extent WoW even alienated other gamers and so-called nerds. Those non-insiders found chatter about raids, factions or classes incessant and irritating - a point that my friends did not hesitate to drive home. It happened countless times within the gaming community: Half of a social circle would be consumed by Azeroth while the rest wondered why their friends no longer attended social gatherings or played any other games. In my own case, some of the rifts caused by WoW took years to heal. To this day my brother reacts with open hostility to the mere mention of the Warcraft franchise.
Honestly, I can’t blame him. One could describe my time playing WoW as bizarre or excessive, and either description would be a gross understatement. My first contact with the game was the open beta, which I thought would only be a curious examination of a new entry in a beloved franchise. Because the beta had a hard time limit my interest ended with its conclusion. But I was intrigued enough to the point that the next encounter would not be so flippant. Around December 2004, not long after the game’s launch, a friend offered to share their account, a common practice among my friends at the time. I graciously accepted, and with another friend from my college dorms we created a character that we three could share, and each of us took turns dabbling in what seemed to be innocent, innocuous exploration.
A month later I had taken financial custody over the account. It became mine, and mine only.
My downward spiral began after the purchase. The road to level 60 was long and leisurely -- while most of my waking hours were spent playing, a lot of remaining time was occupied by talking to other players on the role-playing (RP) server another friend had selected. I chatted in-character with friendly players, snarled with hostility at enemy guilds (while talking about plotlines with them in out-of-character channels), and even wrote fiction about my character's backstory.
Yes, I became one of those people.
Once I finally reached level 60 I moved to the raiding scene. Weekdays were used to gather materials and gear, talk strategy and talent specs, and on occasion face down the bosses that spawned periodically outside of instances. Almost every weekend passed with me holed up in my friend’s apartment. Minutes turned into hours, and hours were poured raiding Onyxia’s Lair, Molten Core and later Blackwing Lair. The action only stopped to shove Taco Bell into our faces.
My non-virtual obligations suffered, as you might have guessed. I more or less stopped going to class, appearing only for exams or to try and explain my absences to the professors. I was fired from a campus job watching the computer labs for playing while on-shift. I was hardly social, only seeing my friends who also played or my parents when they came to check up on me.
Once, while at lunch with my folks, I rambled on about WoW incessantly and attempted to describe the intricate events in Azeroth to them. Though I missed it at the time, their faces were stuck in an expression of mixed fear and concern -- feelings most definitely justified.
World of Warcraft changed the trajectory of my life; whether the net effect was positive or otherwise is debatable. Yet my experiences weren't entirely negative: while the pre-expansion era of "vanilla" WoW was particularly unhealthy for me, I played Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm in a much saner fashion -- which is probably why its spell over me broke after the latter's release. Few games have such a satisfying multiplayer dungeon-running aspect to them, and so there’s a bit of fond memory attached to my questing.
But most importantly WoW introduced me to a number of dear friends -- I live with two of them today.
Residing alongside ex-junkies comes with a bit of mild danger. The possibility always exists that someone will fondly remember a satisfying boss fight (i.e., Ragnaros), or an old guildmate ("hey, remember Tangoroa?"), and before too long we’re talking one another down from re-subscribing.
One such occasion occurred recently, when my housemate Sandra expressed a bit of nostalgic longing.
"I want to play vanilla," she proclaimed. "Just WoW the way it was before the expansions. Does Blizzard have any vanilla servers?"
"Well, no," I responded, "but there’s a way to do that."
"What do you have to do?" Sandra asked.
A couple hours later I had registered us on an unofficial, instant level 60 "Blizzlike" private server, and had begun downloading World of Warcraft 1.12.1 -- the final version of the game before its first expansion, The Burning Crusade.
I’d made a huge mistake.
The night I finished the install I logged in and began kitting out my 60 mage -- talents, skill training and basic gear are all provided -- and set about making my way to to a higher-level zone to earn some coin. Gold, amusingly, is not provided. "Huh, yeah, this is the same as it was," I said to myself. Given this new context, it was funny to think I spent so much time in Azeroth.
It was surreal to return to the game as it existed in its heyday, a little like returning to one’s high school if it were abandoned. The form and structure are all exactly as I remember from a semester’s worth of sleepless nights. Everything is in its right place: Orgrimmar, the Undercity, Blackrock Mountain, Silithus and the Dark Portal are all there. The character animations are unchanged while the spell effects are rooted in memory. Half of the facts I've forgotten, like how to queue for battlegrounds and where to get instance keys.
But other things are impossible to forget, acts of reflex I can’t shake; which creatures are susceptible to snares and polymorphs, how to run the bridges in Thunder Bluff without being dismounted and the range of a frost nova. Odds are good that I’ll never quite forget a lot of it.
The problem is that the world is...empty. Private server populations are a small fraction of the average server population in the game’s heyday, or even now as paying subscribers slowly decline. Without the hustle and bustle of other players (or at very least my friends, Internet or otherwise) and without the diversion of dungeons or raids the experience is threadbare. For years I have said aloud to skeptical friends that World of Warcraft is only an average game, something I repeat to myself as a kind of mantra. Though I never realized just how true that statement would be once the veneer of the game fell away via isolation.
I arrived in a higher-level zone, and with a wistful sigh, targeted an enemy creature with a frostbolt.
Then I noticed it was 2 AM.
Time is the inherent danger of WoW. Benign as it may seem, as mediocre as it can be, it can also be the gaming equivalent of salvia -- sapping the player's desire to do almost anything else. The game embodies the brain-rotting effect that conservative groups love to attribute to videogames as a whole. For a time in my life World of Warcraft was the only game I played for precisely this reason. It was easier to play than other games. It was easier than going to class. It was easier to sit idle in-game -- wasting hours between dungeons or quests -- than it was to be idle in my pit of a dorm room.
It was easier than real life.
Even in my much less dismal present, even with this clunky and obsolete version of the game, I found myself logging in just to be logged in. To some extent I must be reacting to a kind of nostalgia for the time I spent in the game, but it doesn't hurt that WoW takes no thought or effort to idle around by burning time in one of the game’s thousands of minor diversions.
Sandra gave up on the pursuit almost immediately, but I kept logging in for a few days. Effectively I played the game like a single-player title. It felt like a reflex, one hardly given any thought, even as I played WoW's quite-mediocre version of capture the flag in Warsong Gulch. A moment of lucidity led me to a dangerous line of thinking: what if this entrapping somatization is still present in the current version game? With a surreptitious glance to make sure my housemates weren't paying attention, I logged into my Battle.net account and activated my 10 day Mists of Pandaria trial (the game's fourth and most-current expansion) and started downloading the client.
So continued my relapse.
I’d like to claim that modern World of Warcraft is a different animal from its vanilla version. The classes have changed substantially, with the exception of the fire-specced mage I've played since the game’s start, the world map has expanded several times and vanilla continents were revised to allow flying mounts. Every aspect of the game has been streamlined, repackaged, offered at six difficulty settings and made accessible to players of any skill level or background.
And yet despite these streamlining efforts WoW is largely the same game, a victim of its familiar draining effect. It’s fun, sure, but more than that it’s easy and effortless to fall in and lose hours. The game’s subscription numbers have declined in recent years, but it’s never been overtaken by a competitor. I believe that to be a tribute to its design as no other MMO I've played -- and there have been a few -- felt so even, so inviting and so smooth. No other MMO allowed you to so easily hemorrhage time with reckless abandon. That kind of uniqueness is, honestly, a good thing.
There was a moment when I identified World of Warcraft;s hold over me, and determined why I don’t play it now. Well, technically I knew it all along, but it came into focus during one specific moment.
I was flying around Blackrock Mountain, driven there by some aimless memory. John, my other housemate and former WoW friend, was home. He rolled his chair over to watch from behind my shoulder. I expected him to chuckle and poke fun at me with a comment on my continued playing of the game before returning to his computer.
Instead he asked, "Can you still get into Molten Core?"
"I don’t know," I answered. "Probably?"
We spent the next few hours reminiscing while I ran my character around solo in a cavern that once required 39 other people to navigate. As I wandered into more vintage dungeons we chatted about the bosses, their mechanics and which of them would be possible for me to beat alone (fun fact: it’s all of them). More than that we talked about the time of our lives before we lived together, when we were just disembodied voices attached to polygonal figures.
World of Warcraft consumed a notable chunk of my life -- nearly 192 days of playtime, at least, which doesn't account for playtime adjustments caused by server-transferred characters. That’s time I won’t get back, a point of resentment for many former players. But I did get something for my time -- bonds of friendship that continue to outlast the game itself. For all the trouble the game may have caused me in the past, the absurdity and duration of my pursuit, I can’t regret it.
Will my addictive personality cause me to cave and re-subscribe? Probably not. I don’t really feel like I need to now that I've revisited my former addiction.
The trip back was good, and I can rest assured that my mage will be waiting for me the next time I feel like visiting. I've got a lot going on in my life these days.
But now, at least, I won’t look back on those times as "dark." They may have been unhealthy, but in the end I think I came out ahead.