I didn’t really take notice World of Warcraft until my friends started disappearing.One by one they seemed to drop silently from my social circle, among whose survivors their departure was reported with the solemn warrant of a war film.

“What happened to Eric?”

[a beat]

“He didn’t make it…”

Where once with friends I shared a lively early-20s nightlife, one replete with drinks and movies and early-morning hours spent in smoky diners, stinking of a post-Bacchanalian haze, I grew to find instead a phone unburdened of voicemail, and weekends grown spare and quiet.In a matter of mere months, my pack had thinned considerably – its members evilly culled by the enticements of a night spent staring into a computer screen, navigating a cheerful sprite from one fantasy dungeon to another.

Being no stranger to the occasional weekend lost to an engrossing video game (for who doesn’t love shooting someone in the face and not getting arrested for it), I had certainly heard of World of Warcraft: a familiar intellectual property (to those in the dweeby gamer know), broadcast via the internet into a persistent virtual universe.The World of Warcraft is a place wherein one assumes the avatar of some fantasy race – your standard lineup of elves and dwarves and boring old humans, peppered occasionally with something fresh, like a cowman (which, I bewilderingly admit, I cannot help but love) – and tromps about the cyber-world stabbing pixilated bad guys and casting colorfully destructive spells.One chooses a class or profession – a beefy, iron-clad warrior, for instance, or a shadowy rogue, or a moody, necromancing warlock – and proceeds to spend their time unearthing the secret talents of this class, becoming as a result a beefier, iron-claddier warrior, a shadowyer rogue, etcetera.

In truth, I could understand the appeal of this.I’ve always had the desire to explore a new world – the less realistic the better.In my own travels to other countries, no matter how great my delight, I’ve always been left feeling somewhat underwhelmed.Reality, no matter how alien or exotic, is still just reality.In my post-college trip to Italy I discovered that, despite the lush almost agonizing beauty of that place, Italians ultimately go about their day just as Americans do – only on scooters, and with more time designated for drinks and sex.

WoW promised me verdant, sultry jungles of long-eared, elven pinup girls, and dusty steppes through which ethereal, cow-person shaman would sweep and graze, raising their hooves high and lowing ancient runic incantations to the firmament. In WoW, people ride giant tigers into battle for glory and honor. In my world, the real world, I drive a car to a convenience store to buy diet coke.The very thought of something different caused my inner poindexter to jump and shout with specky glee.But upon discovering that one would actually have to pay a monthly fee to play, my frugality overtook my desire for mock-adventure, and I decided that WoW would be one world I’d avoid exploring.

Over the weeks and months that passed, my friends descended even further into their new, better world.When I did see or speak to them, our conversations would often turn to the grand places they’d left behind, or the quest they’d been forced to postpone.They grew wan and stringy in appearance, looking more and more like the addicts they were becoming.And like addicts, they continued to proselytize, desperate to share their experience with whomever they could find – even going so far as to offer me a free hit.

“Oh dude, comeon, you’ve got to try it.It’s like the greatest thing ever.You can sign up for a trial account.Ten free days!I can invite you into my guild, and we can hang out!”

Over time, like the friend of an addict, despite the glaring evidence to the contrary, their zeal began to erode my stuffy, sober refusal. My late-night internet wanderings – which before would lead me to Wikipedia entries on abstruse philosophical concepts I couldn’t possibly understand, or Youtube streams of videos of people singing to their dogs – began to lead me nearer their world.

I’d read game reviews – multiple times – and debate the finer points of each critique with no one at all.

I’d sift through gameplay shots, and wonder the name of each and every monster and beastie that glowered in frame.

I even started to read the WoW message boards.

This, of course, is the hardest thing to admit.

I began to experience a yearning I hadn’t felt since childhood, one that always came when walking through a shopping mall or a toy store with my parents.There, tantalizingly nestled in some glass case, would rest some thing – a toy or game or bauble I’d want more than anything.Why, I wouldn’t know.I’d only know that I wanted it, and that by the decree of a stern, older voice, I wasn’t allowed to have it.Which, of course, made it all the more necessary to acquire.

My inner-Dad, that mature voice that tells me to go to bed at a reasonable hour, or to not have that second bowl of ice cream, lectured endlessly within my skull.You’re in grad school, Andrew.You don’t need something else to keep you from your work.Save your money.Read a book.Go outside and play – it’s nice out there.And yet the rest of me – the all-but-whole of me – pressed its face upon the pane, hungry and aching with desire.

With each night that passed, I became more and more an observer of WoW, but refrained from ever being a participant.Rather, like a cyber-anthropologist (an e-nthropologist?), I merely sifted through the behavior and data and developed theories.

I went on like this for a month or so.And then one night, with the arbitrary abruptness that colors all of life’s bad decisions, I signed up for a free trial.

I downloaded the game onto my computer on a Friday night, my weekends barren and free anyway, and after a protracted installation, and amid the blooming fanfare of trumpets and drums, the game flared to life on my computer screen.

And with that, I took my first awkward steps into what would be a yearlong obsession with the World of Warcraft.

To Be Continued in Part II:The Earth Was Without Form…

 

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For the last six years, Andrew Panebianco has worked as a roving humanities professor in Philadelphia. He received his MA in writing studies from Saint Joseph’s University and his MFA in creative nonfiction from Antioch LA. He is the section head for CNF at The Splinter Generation. He lives in New Jersey (which isn’t remotely as awful as television would have you believe) and can most often be found drowning in research for his first book on burial and funeral culture. He posts occasionally on his own blog, http://eugenicsbeginswithyou.wordpress.com, the contents of which might bore or horrify you. Or both.

12 responses to “The Why of Warcraft – Part I: In 
the Beginning…”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    You have explained the pull of this other world phenomenon so well, Andrew.

    I have lost a brother and a father to its curse.

    My father sends me indecipherable text messages sometimes and I have to wonder if the virtual world has crept over its borders and begun to penetrate this one.

    They stay up all night. They seem inordinately proud of the names their avatars have (Joe). Apparently this is key because there are no numbers after Joe which signifies some importance. I have no idea why.

    I do try to look interested because as with any addiction, if I don’t support them, I’ll end up losing them!!

    Great piece. Looking forward to part two…

  2. Andrew Panebianco says:

    It’s frightening, isn’t it? I suppose it’s no different than any form of fantasy… but still. There’s something surreal about the hold it has on people. And on so many. I think WoW’s number of subscribers is above ten million people.

    Ten. Million.

    (I. Think.)

    Eek.

  3. Oh no, so how long have you been at it?

    I’ve never done it, have never done ANY video game (seriously). But have observed my friend’s young kid doing it. The thing that seemed cool about it, was that this kid was interacting with married couples in Montreal, single women in Frankfurt, a twenty-something dude in New Jersey. I like things that bring disparate groups of people together.

  4. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    Andrew! Where’ve you been? I’ve been eagerly awaiting something Panebianco-ish ever since the plunger story. So, I was once so obsessed with Pac Man as a little kid that I developed insomnia (I couldn’t get that effing tune out of my head! Sometimes it still haunts me) and was treated for carpal tunnel syndrome. Not an exaggeration. This is how I know I must stay far, far away from gaming of any sort. I very nearly fell off the wagon when I bought Mario Karts for my daughter, and now I’m hoping your WOW series won’t finally lure me in.

    • Andrew Panebianco says:

      Well… without going into too much detail… my personal life had a killer meltdown, then my hard drive had an even more killer meltdown, and then the new semester started, so most of my time these days has been spent reading student essays and considering the fine art of defenestration.

      But I’m back now.

      I have a deep psychic connection to Ms Pac-Man. There was a cabinet in my local diner that I trained on. It got so that I could anticipate the ghosites’ every turn. I fell in love with her, I think. Her power, her poise, that smart little bow. Le sigh.

      There’s an old tabletop cabinet in this great bar in Philadelphia. It’s a bar that lets its patrons smoke, too. It’s 1PM where I am right now. Do you think it’d be awfully disgusting if I were to head into the city and spend the rest of my day smoking cigarettes, eating power pellets and drinking Miller High Life?

      That would make me gross… wouldn’t it?

  5. I find this whole subculture fascinating, I guess because I willfully know nothing about it. All I need is one more obsession, the main reason I stopped playing video games when they took the Tempest machine from the 7-11 near my house in 1986. There’s this entire incredibly detailed and creative underworld that is a huge part of people lives and that I blithely gloss over every day. Sort of like Mormonism. It’s hard enough to find time to write as it is. Sadly, I enjoy reading about other people being sucked into the maw, though.

    • Andrew Panebianco says:

      Isn’t it? I think there’s something important to be learned from it… just from the sheer number of people who play it. What are they looking to gain from it? And if they’re not – then what’s the thing that holds them so enthralled? The success of this franchise makes it metaphorically significant… at least in my weird, wet brain, it does.

  6. MVL says:

    I’m glad to see writing about this! I’ve been waxing philosophic about it myself and have my own experiences with the massive multiplayer online world. My thrifty pragmatism has prevented me from joining in but I’ve seen it and directly experienced the affects of people sucked into it.

    My main summary here is that these are games that don’t have an ending. That feels problematic to me, there is no ultimate goal to achieve.

    Now, I admit, I still play Diablo 2 occasionally so the draw of WoW has been there. I am über dork and I love all the Fallout Games and even have the new one on pre-order. So I’m no stranger to the geeky suck in and I get utterly game obsessed when I find the one that fits… until I hit a wall or the highest level or just find it’s too repetitive or often I realize just how much I need to get done around the house or in my creative life and how it’s suffered. Usually this is about 2 – 4 weeks. The game with an ending or that becomes repetitive is important to me – I know I can’t “handle” something like WoW or Lord of the Rings Online, etc.

    Can’t wait to read the rest of your story!

    • Andrew Panebianco says:

      Thanks for your comment! Believe me, I have every intention of investigating the eerie, existential depths that this game leads to.

      I used to play video games when I was younger, so some of what you mention sounds familiar. But, as I’ve gotten older (I’m currently cleaving to the last shreds of my 20s, staring terrified at the long dark path toward middle-age) they’ve generally been unable to hold my interest. Maybe a game of Mario Kart or something if while at a friend’s house. I have a console system… but never use it. It’s just an expensive, dusty paperweight now. I’d get rid of it… but it would only make me feel older to do so. I’d have to replace it with something that better bespoke my age. A fancy lamp or something. I’m just not ready to do that yet.

      Still, I don’t share some people’s intolerance of videogames. It always irks me when people claim to be above others’ interests – no matter how snarky my descriptions of WoW may be (or become). However one gets their jollies (provided it doesn’t entail children or farm animals) is fine by me.

      Personally, I’d rather play a video game than watch a sporting event.

      Though, I’d also rather eat my own foot than watch sports… so that’s not saying much.

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