Random Encounters: A Three Year Vacation

NE staring area

By Allen

It’s 10AM, Saturday, 2008. I get up, and nobody in the house is awake. I quickly eat my breakfast and sneak downstairs. I open a few curtains, and make my way to the family computer. As it powers on, I usually use the bathroom or fiddle with my not-so-smartphone. I have scant few desktop icons. iTunes, Chrome, and a folder or two. First thing’s first; time to check the gaming news. At the time, it was Kotaku and 1UP, with Giant Bomb replacing both of them in later years. But I’m really skimming the article titles. What I really came down for, and what is going to occupy most of my afternoon…is World of Warcraft.

This was my life for about three years. Or at least, the part of it that took the most time. I still remember parts of it in detail, but the quotidian activities are lost to time. I was at my dad’s doctor’s appointment, waiting in the reception room with my mother and sister. I had seen the ads for World of Warcraft on TV, with celebrities voicing over their in-game avatars’ adventures. It seemed strange, unique, and fascinating, but I had never tried it. The monthly fee was a pretty big hurdle at the time, because I was too young to work, and my parents wanted me to spend money on more important ventures. It feels strange looking back and seeing money as the reason not to play a game, and not social obligations or personal skill. I had played the two day trial as a Night Elf Warrior, and it seemed to barely give a taste of the grand world I was about to explore. My mom was surprisingly easy to convince that $30 every two months for one game was a good idea, and it was in that office that the seed of my greatest gaming experiences began.

Let’s be clear, I had plenty of MMORPG experience under my belt, but it was mostly relegated to the free-to-play Japanese variety. I restarted World of Warcraft as a Druid, feeling that it fit my preference to be a healing caster type. I also made one character of every race only to see the other starting areas. I never thought those worlds were connected, or completely persistent. I still remember the intro cinematic ending with a live pan of the starting area, and seeing other players cavorting around was mind-boggling. There’s a whole world in here! And it’s all mine to explore. It was a simultaneously empowering and sobering experience, since I knew everyone else felt similarly powerful. The early game was your typical RPG fare: grinding for levels, powering through quests, and equipping loot. It was a fairly lonely period, with barely any incentive to work with or battle other players. As my character crossed the seas to the main continent, I finally had more group quests and people to do them with. I started seeing regulars, and my friends list grew slowly. Eventually, I approached the level cap, and knew that I had to purchase Burning Crusade, the first expansion, to continue leveling and keeping up with these friends. It really is a brilliant system that Blizzard created, where they let you form these bonds with random strangers right around the time where you need to buy more game to play with them.

I immediately bought the expansion, and made my way to The Outlands, a mysterious, otherworldly series of zones ripe with adventure. At this point, the hindsight provided by my seasoned compatriots meant that I knew which areas to visit, and which to ignore. I had even convinced a real life friend of mine to play. It’s easy to tell someone “This game/movie/show is good, go consume it”. But what’s hard is telling them to devote months of their life to it. Since neither my friend nor I had a lot going on besides school, we were both ready to give ourselves up to this virtual paradise. The first time we met in-game was amazing because, for once, I wasn’t the loser. I was the towering elf in glowing tree armor with a staff and a hot-bar full of spells. I loved that boost of confidence, and it was the main reason I put leveling up on hold to speed my friend through the pre-expansion content. We slayed bosses together, abused the emote system to hilarious results, and got to enjoy the experience cooperatively. Eventually, our characters evened out enough that I could keep questing, and it was merely a leap and a bound away until I was onto yet another expansion.

And then again. Except, this time, we had a guild. A group of like-minded people with seemingly endless play time, and no real-world voices or faces to attribute to them. They were all their characters, unbounded by reality and work. I had a friend who went by the name Oldskool in the game, who was in the same grade as my friend and I, and was interested in playing at our slower pace. We hunted monsters, escaped high-level players (called “gankers”, referring to their frequent “ganking” of us lower-level players), and prepared for the endgame. Raids, which were only playable at the level cap, were some of the best times I’ve had in a video game. They required multiple, coordinated players all playing their roles, and navigating dungeons for high-end gear. It was a privilege to be invited to a raid, and it required scheduling and actual verbal communication. I finally could associate everybody in the guild with voices, and not simply characters. Everybody was incredibly friendly, and it felt amazing to be part of something that huge.

But the honeymoon period was over. Eventually, I made more and more real life friends. I played less, and my guild slowly disbanded. At that point, I was nothing but a virtual wanderer, doing repeatable quests and trying to be a better player. But the world had aged past me. I got up one morning, turned on my World of Warcraft-centric podcast, and logged in one more time. I was flying around as a crow (as Druids are wont to do), and asking in the guild chat if anybody wanted to do anything. Anything at all. Even a brief conversation. Not a single person. Oldskool had quit long ago, my friend was playing less than I was, and it seemed like the journey was coming to a close. I said goodbye in chat, which was met with barely any response, and I flew back to the starting area. I removed all my character’s gear, laid down on a peaceful bench, and logged off.

I went back a few years ago. Someone had offered me the opportunity to play on their account with a new character (my old one had been deactivated, and I lost the password). But it never was the same. Even after another expansion and a greatly accelerated leveling curve, I couldn’t bear to reach the cap again. I was a senior in high school, and I had better things to do. The moment I realized I wasn’t going back was the day I had played for two hours, sat back in my chair, and said to myself “None of those two hours were FUN”. As soon as it wasn’t fun, I was out.

I replaced all that time played with other games, which since then have been replaced with things like going outside and hanging out with my friends. But sometimes I yearn for those times. Real life took a backseat, food and sustenance was an afterthought, and it was all about clicking that shiny “ENTER WORLD” button, only to be immediately greeted by all my Internet friends. I don’t regret any of it, but I’m incredibly glad that I was able to make the transition from such a singularly engrossing experience to a fulfilling, multi-faceted life. Maybe I was compensating for a lack of social skills. Maybe I was making excuses to not do exercise. But I knew that, when I was in Azeroth, I was somewhere familiar. Somewhere I could call home.

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