I spent a decade of my life on a different planet. Well, part-time.
It’s been several months since my last visit to Azeroth or Draenor, the two worlds featured in World of Warcraft (WoW), Blizzard Entertainment’s massively multiplayer role-playing game. I miss it a little bit, but in much the same way that I miss my childhood or my home state. There are always mixed feelings. After all, if I liked it that much, why would I have traded it for something new?
At my absolute worst (best?), I probably spent a few hours a day playing WoW, bringing one or more virtual characters to life in the shared stories presented by the game: ridding a forest of clear-cutting invaders, defending a port city from pirates and bandits, attacking the fortress of a tyrant dragon lord, searching for the cure to a plague, uncovering (and foiling) a plot to destroy the world, and so on. Many days, I’d be lucky to spend a few minutes playing, but on weekends or when the family was away, I might stay “logged on” for as much as half a day, pushing hard for some goal or other.
For the record, I haven’t traded WoW for a new game. Instead, I’ve traded it for a whole set of new (and old) activities: hobbies, household chores I’d been neglecting, more sleep, a welcome return to reading fiction. I wasn’t a big-time video-gamer when I was growing up. I’ve never been very interested in console gaming, and it wasn’t until my thirties that I started spending a significant amount of time computer gaming. So what happened? It may sound strange, but in my case, I believe video-gaming–WoW in particular–was a coping strategy. I’m pretty sure there were two things that drove me to my need for a coping strategy: a management-focused job and parenting.
The thing about video games is, they’re predictable. Even a game as wide-open, free-form, complex and immersive as WoW is much simpler than real life. There are only so many things one’s character can do: only so many choices for skills, equipment, professions, and quests. The styles of play are pretty well-known: you can specialize in fighting the game environment, fighting other game-players, gathering resources, crafting items, seeking out and following quests, or amassing the most epic/legendary equipment or items. You can pursue more esoteric goals, such as visiting every nook and cranny of the virtual world or obtaining complete collections of related items (every single page of Hemet Nessingwary’s hunting journal). There are only so many things that can go wrong in these pursuits. Once you get your bearings, you can make progress at any of these goals simply by maintaining persistence. It all comes down to how much time you’re willing to spend.
For a middle-aged man in a profession that emphasizes breaking new ground and exploring the unknown, and just entering the arena of parenting and all that entails, a game like WoW is perfect. It’s complex enough to give the illusion of activity, but limited enough to be predictable. It creates a sense that the world is manageable: finite, achievable, controllable. Qualities that real life, decidedly, is not.
If someone in WoW won’t stop talking to you, you can use the game’s interface to ignore them. Real or virtual, they just SHUT UP. If it turns out that the NPCs who hold a certain item you want are too difficult to defeat, you can probably find something almost as good (or better) somewhere else. You might even be able to buy the item, or one like it, for real-world cash, which many people do when they hit a wall. When one of your characters hits the limit of his or her achievements, you can stop playing him or her and begin a whole new virtual life in a different part of the world, with different skills and goals. Best of all, if you’re simply bored or aren’t enjoying yourself, you can LOG OFF and return to the real world for a while. Everything will be there exactly as you left it when you come back, even if it is days, months, or years later. Sounds pretty good, huh?
It is, in fact, a highly appealing alternative when real life is complicated, stressful, unfathomable, and overwhelming. Like when you work with real people. On real problems. Problems that no one has solved before, because if they had, you wouldn’t be bothering with them! And it’s a welcome diversion when you have kids: who bring with them their own new worlds full of quests, challenges, creation and destruction, accomplishments and failures, triumphs and defeats. And whom you can’t simply tell to shut up, or log out of.