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January 14, 2008
Bob Hoose
Wearying of WoW

Wearying of WoW

"It's an Online Game Thing!" is a 5-part online series that explores the nooks and crannies of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) and the rest of the Internet gaming world. This is Part 2.

The dust rises in the air as my exotic fraternity of orcs, trolls and other dark creatures shamble and stomp their well-armored way out of the cave's depths. We had raided a winding labyrinth full of savage creatures, battled with precision and fulfilled our assigned quests with more than enough sword slashing, magic casting and treasure ransacking to go around.

I flex a never-tiring sinewy forearm and hoorah the victory to a nearby friend, a large guy looking something like a buffalo standing on two tree-trunk legs and wielding a war ax that's a second cousin to a battleship anchor. He surprises me by twirling in a little boogie-woogie dance (a strange but oddly fitting reaction).

What a battle. What fun. What a night. With a grin, I glance away from the computer monitor and sit up with a shock because my watch informs me that it hasn't been night for a while now. It's officially morning ... and I've got an editorial meeting in a couple of hours.

Welcome to the universe of Massively Multiplayer Online Games. It's an online cosmos with an abundance of fantasy-filled Web games that are as close as your nearest computer and only an Internet click away. Your choices are myriad with exotic titles such as EverQuest and Ultima.

The particular field of dreams I spent all night (and more than a few days) exploring is a digital land called World of Warcraft (otherwise known as WoW in gamer speak). Over 8 million players pony up $15 a month to populate this world and seek monster-slaying glory. They hail from every walk of life: doctors, CEOs, bartenders, moms, soldiers, students, retirees. Average Joes and Janes who create an alter ego hero from the ranks of two opposing factions, the Alliance (humans, elves, dwarfs, etc.) and the Horde (trolls, orcs, the undead and the generally yucky).

After gaining their battle footing they all eventually join up with a group of like-minded adventurers known as a guild. And together their new brotherhood strives to conquer each epic challenge and dungeon puzzle that WoW can throw at them.

Learning to Be
Now, if you're scratching your head over why seemingly average, normal folks would be drawn to such virtual escapism, you're not alone. Online gaming tends to be regarded by many as idle dawdling at best and as an isolating destroyer of brain cells at worst. And the very fact that these games are all about putting aside reality and playing a fantasy role seems enough to raise questions about how healthy the pursuit may be.

In his own defense, an avid gamer will point to the fact that games are a part of our culture. After all, people guiltlessly relax with a game of chess or a round of golf all the time. And as for role-playing, don't we often change roles in life—son to father, student to teacher? Our symbolic gamer friend might argue that we gain the best understanding of life itself from our ever-changing roles and perspectives.

And since he's on a roll, he'd probably go on to tell you that some experts believe a number of good things happen during all that keyboard-tapping, mouse-moving recreation. IBM, for example, put a lot of time and money into researching how online gaming can actually produce better leaders and managers. It turns out there's something called "accidental learning" that takes place when gamers rally together and face a monstrous task. They're learning to be rather than learning about, which IBM believes is real-world training a manager can apply directly to the workplace. Not that the title of "Level 62 Dwarfen Mage" will be a résumé booster, but the play might very well be a plus. One WoW denizen put it this way:

"It gave me a lot of confidence—after all, if you can lead a 60-person complex raid, how hard can it be to organize a team meeting?"

On Your Mark, Get Set, Mingle!
Online gaming can also be a place of unexpected social interaction. I recently spoke with two adult friends who work together during the day and quest together from their respective homes in the evening. Stories abound of ogres and blood elves meeting online from halfway around the world, becoming good buddies and, in some cases, even falling in love before ever meeting in person. Time writer Paul Coates, in his article "Confessions of a 30-Year-Old Gamer," explains:

"What I came to understand was that WoW was not necessarily an escape, but a surrogate for a community that is harder and harder to find in the real world. ... In my 20s, I built a shocking amount of community around illicit substances and bars. But with age and a child, that was no longer as attractive or even possible. Into that void, I brought WoW, which instantly connected me with the world—not just mine, but others I could never have imagined or found on my own."

WoW does prod players toward positive outcomes by offering them immersive, fanciful environments that encourage cooperative friendships—friendships that bridge the gaps between race, age and gender. Gamers step into this virtual environment and can throw aside the worries of real-world bills, responsibilities and self-doubts, and stride confidently to the next attainable battle with the aid of kith and kin. In addition, the game's level-up system motivates players to tackle increasingly difficult challenges—challenges that only the strong can face. And each new accomplishment yields the treasures of improved skills and more powerful, heroic weapons.

On Your Mark, Get Set, Stop?
The very elements that keep players coming back for more, however, can also be the bits that make it hard for some to leave again, as fun becomes passion, passion becomes commitment and commitment sometimes becomes obsession. The enticing incentives of loyal camaraderie and victorious reward are two reasons that World of Warcraft earned its derogatory nickname WarCrack.

It's commonly understood among serious gamers that a player needs to put in at least 12 hours a week to be of any real help to his guild and a "good guildie" is expected to be there seven days a week for four or more hours at a pop. That's the equivalent of a second career, but it's the only way to gain status and keep pace with your group. Wired writer Joi Ito spoke of his own WoW devotion:

"I started playing a year ago and have become custodian of We Know, a guild of about 250 people worldwide. ... We assemble in-game to mount epic six-hour raids that require some members to wake at 4 a.m. and others to stay up all night. ... We stay in touch using online forums, a wiki, blogs and a mailing list—plus a group voice chat, which I've connected to my home stereo so I can hear the guild's banter while I'm cooking dinner. I have never been this addicted to anything before. My other hobbies are gone. My daily blogging regimen has taken a hit. And my social life revolves more and more around friends in the game."

Add in the fact that there is no end to this game—every time you reach a point of victory another aspect unfolds—and you've got a potential formula for trouble. There are manifold stories of overenthusiastic gamers reaping that trouble in their marriages, with their family and friends, with work and even with their health. (A number of people have reportedly died after refusing to stop play long enough to find food and water.)

Look at it this way: A regular exercise program is good for you. Working out eight hours a day, not so much. Taking a brisk swim can be refreshing. Refusing to leave the lake is a problem.

I Want My MMOG
MMOGs such as World of Warcraft and EverQuest are supposed to be recreation, not an all-encompassing obsession. Scripture says that the enlightened spiritual man appraises all things. Those words are appropriate here. Discerning how something can impact your life and dealing with it in moderation is always a good course of action. For my part, I decided I needed to quit playing WoW because it wanted more of my time than I was capable of giving. (And my editor agreed!) I realized that, while it was fun, walking away wasn't such a great loss.

Of course, our hypothetical gaming friend, who was so recently waxing eloquent on the merits of WoW, is probably declaring me an idiot even as I write this. "There's no such thing as MMOG addiction," he's saying. "Maybe some people get a little too caught up in this sort of thing, but not me!" And he may be at least partly right. It's possible, dear reader, that he and you will never have to deal with game addiction even if video games are your hobby of choice. However, addictions are real. And far too many gamers have, without question, fallen into that trap. I once heard someone say, "There are exceptions to every rule ... but you're probably not one of them." Those seem like pretty appropriate words, too.

In Part 3, matters of the heart and the soul take the fore as we investigate the spiritual side of not just WoW, but of online gaming in general.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Opining on Online Gaming