Why World of Warcraft matters

A feature written on the 5th anniversary of World of Warcraft, first published on the Prospect magazine website, November 2009

I believe that World of Warcraft matters. Exactly how and why it matters, though, can be hard to get at from the outside; much of what reaches the mainstream media is a muddle of scandals, statistics and pseudo-scientific scraps. So I’d like to take a few moments to recall just what it was like to play this game for the first time five years ago, in the company of an old friend who had managed to wheedle both of our ways onto the game’s American servers in time for launch—and why, five years on, the character I created then is still soldiering on through the northern reaches of the world’s most famous unreal destination.

What struck us, first of all, was just how much it felt like a world: huge, organic, inviting exploration. There were lakes, mountains, rivers, forests, cliffs, towns, cities, and lots of things to squash, splatter, maim and generally exterminate for the sake of various rewards. What struck us shortly after this was that, although there was a game here to be played, there was also an awful lot more to it than simply playing and trying to win. My friend had chosen to play a dwarf warrior as his first character but, unlike any other game we’d encountered before, there was no sense in which he was that character. As far as World of Warcraft was concerned, he was himself, and just happened to be strolling around a vast cartoon world in the guise of an aggressive dwarf. And that was much more interesting, because it meant that—for the first time any of us had known—you could actually be yourself while playing. In fact, you could be all sorts of things that your self didn’t normally manage.

My friend, for instance, could give free rein to his love of abuse. He’d team up with other players, and they’d happily talk trash for hours while batting the odd boar on the head with an axe. Soon enough, he got invited to join a guild, where his trash talking began to assume legendary proportions. I, meanwhile, had begun to play the character of a troll rogue and had discovered that I quite enjoyed talking about books with the people I met online. That, and confusing them by quoting inappropriate lines from films at apposite moments. The game allowed it. The game positively encouraged it, with its lovingly detailed mélange of pop-cultural parodies, fantasy scenarios and media cross-references (my favourite is the gruff big game hunter Hemet Nesingwary, a none-too-subtle anagram). You could take it as seriously or as lightly as you liked. And, when the action got frantic, you and the people you’d met up with just half an hour ago would find yourselves forging a whole new kind of friendship in the fires of virtual adversity. There were even members of the opposite sex in there—and much older people, and people from places you’d never even heard of. Everyone was equally welcome, and everyone was equal on the level playing field of a virtual world. All distinction was to be earned.

Plus, it wasn’t really possible to lose. No death was final, no cause ever entirely lost. To all intents and purposes, the game was endless: even after a few hundred hours of hard slog had raised your character to the maximum level allowable, you could always start another one, or explore a new region of endgame content, or wait for the makers Blizzard to patch up the world of Azeroth and generate some fresh content. Or you could just swagger around a capital city clad in eye-wateringly valuable armour and weapons, and watch the newbies follow you around and beg for help with their own quests. And, of course, you could debate the rights and wrongs of everything from what robes went best with a particular haircut to the balance of power between different classes of player in the endless online forums surrounding the game.

World of Warcraft matters for all sorts of reasons, but perhaps above all because it did all of this much better than anything else around, or than anyone had really thought possible. There were other massively multiplayer games before it, and there have been plenty since; some are wonderful, some very popular. But WoW was the bridgehead through which a sub-culture rudely inserted itself into the mainstream of cultural life. It has proved—with hard, unarguable numbers (12m players, over $1bn of annual revenues)—that playing videogames is a very serious kind of fun for many, many people. And it has proved that this kind of fun is bound up with a number of other trends that are worth taking seriously.

The study of virtual economics wasn’t born around WoW, but the notion that there can be such a thing as a billion-dollar international market in buying and selling unreal goods has gained common currency through it. WoW has now become a shorthand for the observation that real and virtual worlds can compete for allegiance in people’s lives—with potentially troubling consequences. But playing a game with strangers can also be one of the most eye-opening ways in which it’s possible to meet someone (my wife and I now regularly visit members of our in-game guild on the east coast of the US). And then there’s the whole culture that has grown up around it. I defy anyone who has played WoW not to hurt themselves laughing at this particular episode of South Park—or anyone who hasn’t to understand a single thing about it. The gulf between those who do and don’t know what playing a video game is like is now one of the most telling cultural fractures around; and it’s thanks in large part to WoW that it’s no longer clear which is the more dignified side to be standing on.