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Opinion: The Real Point Of World Of Warcraft

What's the point of the world's biggest MMO? In an opinion piece, 'game anthropologist' Michael Walbridge undertakes the daunting task of summarizing World of Warcraft's social environment in its entirety -- is the game a 'beta for real life?'

Michael Walbridge, Blogger

August 26, 2008

5 Min Read

[At Gamasutra sister weblog GameSetWatch, 'The Game Anthropologist' column tackles gaming communities -- most recently, Michael Walbridge undertakes the daunting task of summarizing World of Warcraft's social environment in its entirety.] "Oh no, not another article about World of Warcraft. Tired of hearing about it." If you've ever thought that, stop reading. You won't find this interesting. Some of you still are reading, though, and we both know why that is: because the topic is humongous. World of Warcraft has spawned at least two books of published essays. One of them has an entire chapter on the most mundane of the most mundane -- fishing. World of Warcraft also generates entire blogs and sites dedicated to its many, many corners, doubtless due to its ability to be an entirely different experience from person to person. The beginning gamer who plays WoW as one of his first games learns this quickly, and the opportunity for intelligent observation equals insight into an entire country. Take a comment from a non-official WoW forum: "At 70, you can choose from one of three factions: Raider, PVP, and Casual. You then blame the other two factions for 'ruining the game.'" Only an MMO that is as large as WoW can present such a diversity of players -- people -- and in so doing, make it apparent that video games can be a setting for social interaction, larger than life. You can meet another player and that player can feel, unlike the ones you regularly play with, like someone from another country, another world, another clique. Even the division of the players into over 100 servers still leaves your own cities populated with people who make themselves authority figures, public artists, savants, professionals, entrepreneurs, professors, thieves, beggars, preachers, and thugs. All who play it, know it. Welcome To The Real World....(Of Warcraft) And that is the curious thing about WoW -- it doesn't quite feel like a game, and not just because of the grinding. It's very easy to forget that what you're doing is playing a video game. This is what makes WoW so different in the video game world in every way imaginable, including its business model, finance and profits, aesthetics, social environment and culture. To some, there are video games and there is World of Warcraft -- and that can be either an insult or a compliment. As I've been hinting, however, there is more to WoW than its hugeness. There is a common theme, one that testifies both to its greatness and its shallowness, its "just-a-game-ness." Even though there is a maximum level, there is still a lot of work to be done, ways to become better and more powerful. Ways to become powerful? Isn't it just one way to become powerful? Powerful gear? Glowing weapons? Purple armor? Epic lewtz? Well, yeah, you got me there. Multiple routes, but one destination. And that's what makes World of Warcraft the same for everyone: anyone who wants to play it seriously and long-term must subscribe to a standardized measure of success and play by such rules. The result is that unlike other multiplayer games, there is no fun in losing. It's funny to watch other people lose, but it's not funny to actually lose. In player-versus-player, you are usually frustrated due to teammates; in a raid, you are frustrated due to the mistakes of others leading to a lack of your progress in the game (or, conversely, you causing everyone else's lack of progress). If you accidentally overspend, that's literally weekend time you can't get back. If the materials you need from the auction house have experienced a spike, you have to wait for the market to send prices downward, or you overspend. And no matter where you die, it always costs money, honor, and time waiting to be resurrected, whether you walk or not. He Who Dies With The Best Loot - Wins And that's the point: the world of WoW is inherently, if unintentionally, materialistic. It's the rat-race, it's climbing the ladder, it's who has the best clothes in the world of fashion, who has the most money in the world of business, the most honor and acclaim amongst professors, authors, scientists, and other creators, all simplified into stats in the form of armor and weapons. And in the real world, the only glory, respect, or honor that is guaranteed to gain universal recognition is also just as simple. You may accuse me of being unfair to Blizzard, or of being too critical of the way the real world is. I'm not here to describe Blizzard or what they've intended. I'm here to examine the people who play one of their games, and what that game's rules proscribe for its society. And those rules are: 1. Success is your only option. 2. If your lack of success is harmful to others' success, admit your fault(s) and work to improve. Some might say the materialism and shallow behavior one often sees in WoW is due to the volume of high-school and college students and adolescents. But it goes further than that. Workplace coworkers are usually a type of family with its own rules; family members at the home are often like workplaces, with power struggles and competing ambitions. Guild drama involving married couples and people over the age of 30 occur, too. Of course, there are still parts of WoW's world that we have to figure out for ourselves -- what's meaningful? How do we choose to relate to others? Do we want to break the rules? When, how? Society itself can't, shouldn't, and won't decide those things for us unless we let it. Neither will World of Warcraft. You mean just like real life, just like work, just like dealing with people in open, public society? Yes. But here, the successes are easier and more common, and the failures have weaker consequences. If there's anything about World of Warcraft you don't get, just remember--it's a beta for real life.

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