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World of Warcraft: The Social Network

World of Warcraft

Twelve million people. A population whose growth has seen a great deal of resistance due to the looming negative reputation that hangs over its head, as twelve million is the number of people who happily log onto World of Warcraft’s servers on any given day. This is a game whose players are often stereotyped as addicts. An uninformed misconception that, in actuality, should have nothing to do with World of Warcraft, but is instead ignorantly tacked onto the image of anyone who enjoys playing video games at all. The truth of the matter is that the average World of Warcraft player is no different than the everyman you have your morning tea with, and could benefit from this alternative social network in more ways than his skeptical world is willing to admit.

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I know what you might be thinking, and yes, I have been enjoying World of Warcraft for nearly six years, playing the ‘vanilla’ format of the game, before any of Blizzard’s three expansions hit shelves and irreversibly changed it, for better or worse. Although the point I’m aiming to make may only represent one side of the argument, during that same span of time the game has afforded me lessons of humility and teamwork, provided a dear friend out of an insightful woman who oversees her child’s play experience, and has allowed me to keep in close contact with a friend whose military career may very well have alienated him from the rest of the pack. What’s at stake here is a game’s reputation – one that’s been falsely at the mercy of naysayers for far too long. That’s why evidence of the contrary has become necessary, and why these simple facts and memories, resulting from personal experiences, will hopefully reveal angles of the game that were potentially hidden from mainstream view.

Pay to play

It’s been a common complaint, thrown back in the face of World of Warcraft since the day its first credit cards were charged: “Why should I have to pay a fee for something that I’ve already paid for?” The answer is a frustratingly obvious one: Similar to a magazine subscription or downloadable content, a medium that continues to serve changing and evolving material must also continue to make a profit from those new materials, unlike the video games whose contents, like their price-tags, remain static.

It was during my earlier days of playing World of Warcraft that I was recruited to be put in charge of a guild, and maintain a very large group of players at any given time. This meant coordination, respect, and a willingness to accept what each individual person wanted from their playing experience. Though there are many groups of people who successfully come together to challenge the more difficult aspect of the game, this was a role that I ultimately failed at. What I lacked was respect, and the knowledge that players, and people, progress in different ways and respond to different forms of communication and criticism. Though at the time it was a difficult lesson to swallow, years later I’ve realized how invaluable an experience it was.

The problem was that I had tasted power and yearned to maintain it. These people had started out as strangers and slowly became a second family, one whose respect became a valuable token, but I was repulsed by my failure, and was reluctant to admit that it might have been the wrong time in my life to assume the role of alpha dog. The transition was an uneasy one, a truth about the stage of my personal development that I was unprepared to accept with humility. Looking back, though disappointing as it was, the experience taught me how to take criticism, how to hit the ground running, and the qualities that are necessary of a good leader. I learned how to play off my weaknesses and turn them into strengths through trial and error.

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Shortly after this realization, I met a woman whose ideas differed greatly from my own. She would become an invaluable friend whose parenting methods, interests in literature, and personal experiences were ones that I felt compelled to explore, even as another dear friend departed for a career with the military. He would become a member of this long-distance relationship, birthed but not necessarily sustained by the forum that World of Warcraft made available to me, similar to the way that any other social network is intended to function and benefit people who are separated by space and time.

The former was introduced to me through her son, a brilliant child (12 at the time) with a staggering level of social adaptability and awareness while engaged with an adult crowd – certainly not a skill I could brag about at twelve years old, playing Pokémon Red with my rival sibling and generally trying to avoid the complexities of adult interactions. Being comfortable biting back at someone twice your age, as they jest about your youth, while carrying the taxing responsibility of having two dozen other players rely on you as part of a unit was a feat I would grow to respect the young man for. It wasn’t long before I learned that he was cut from the same cloth as his mother, whose stance on homeschooling would spark a relationship that lead to philosophical discussions, poetry editing, and resource sharing. Four years later we’re mailing textbooks to each other, and the rest is pleasant history.

The latter, a dear friend for years, would depart for a career with the military in lands unknown. Now, the intricate web of relationships that we had made as a team in the game became the saving grace for a friendship that yearned for more of an interaction than emails or photographs could provide. The ache was lessened and the distance closed knowing that we would continue to shout excitedly at each other through microphones when our two-versus-two encounters went well or awry. Through this medium, I knew when he was struggling, when he was proud of himself, or when he wanted little more than to return home, long before the off photograph or text message could ever tell me. It sounds bizarre, but sometimes punching an elf in the face can say more than words ever could.

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The perceived issue with World of Warcraft is similar to the problem that plagues many time-consuming hobbies: addiction, and often times, solitude. Many people who have taken a passionate position against Blizzard’s behemoth of an online game look back and refer to the common skit performed by the idealized girlfriend, whose formerly affectionate love interest has all but abandoned her, choosing to clock a few more hours in-game before his body forces him into an unhealthy and exhausted submission. We’ve all seen it, we’ve all heard it, but the issue with this argument and many like it is a lack of true consideration of the problem.

What Jane Doe’s boyfriend suffers from is not the seductive siren call of a cursed video game, but a lack of proper moderation skills, a chemical addiction to adrenaline endorphins, or a social withdrawal inclination – none of which have given rise to a similarly defined opposition to model building, roller coaster riding, or spending hours of solitude in the library, all of which induce or indicate similar symptoms. Unfortunately, World of Warcraft’s enormous fan base sets it up as an ideal scapegoat, the target of frustrations revolving around social and disciplinary inadequacies that have in the past, sought out similarly large, popularized cushions to rest the blame on (Dungeons and Dragons). Wrestle the common catch phrase out of its comfortable station, and do hate the player, not the game.

It’s interesting then, that the hugely acknowledged social network, Facebook, has reached half a billion subscribers and seems immune to the same stereotypical afflictions that have plagued World of Warcraft since its debut. That isn’t to say that Facebook hasn’t been the target of similar online addiction campaigns, but “add me on Facebook” is worlds less likely to yield the same horrendous results as “do you play World of Warcraft?”. This is a community that boasts one quarter of a billion members logging onto the site on any given day and has reached a grand total of seven hundred billion minutes logged on per month. One might argue in response that Facebook brings people together, that it employs imagery to emphasize a person’s personality and that it encourages a web of social interaction and meeting that a video game couldn’t possibly hope to match. This is of course, false. Consider the difference between the person you know at home and that same person at a bar, donning a persona tailored specifically to fit their desire to live a life separate from the one they’ve grown accustomed to. Socially, little difference exists between this persona and any other kind. ‘Image’ has been a powerful interaction asset since the masquerade ball, and continues to appeal to the audience that seeks an experience akin to the excitement of Halloween.

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World of Warcraft houses a number of positive similarities to other social networks, including an engaged character customization process that isn’t much different than customizing a wall or a virtual suite to match an owner’s tastes or desired personality implication. From there, an active community of members who are free to speak and act as they like. Access to a guild – a large, organized group of players with similar aspirations in mind – provides the player with even more opportunities to engage in discussion, debate, or strategics, depending on the type of guild (or group, for you Facebook fans) that the player chooses to join. These can be groups focused on roleplaying, player-versus-player, or raiding progression (teaming up to combat difficult enemy encounters), all of which demand a high level of communication, teamwork, and planning. There simply isn’t any other way to successfully progress. Since the game’s launch in 2004, community and interaction has been an aspect of the game that is difficult to avoid even if you try to, and it goes without saying, the player you thought was hoarding hours of ‘alone time’ has most likely been engaged in some form of communication since the moment they sat down, whether they’re playing online or off, reading strategies or the opinions and advice of fellow players on the net. World of Warcraft thrives on community.

Try not to dismiss the possibilities that World of Warcraft offers as a community. Nobody’s asking you to dive in and subscribe to the same interests that anyone else holds, but instead, consider how social webs like Facebook have affected and in many cases benefitted relationships that might not have existed without. Then ask yourself how many differences truly exist between the five hundred million people who check their ‘wall’ every second day, and the twelve million that partake in a different flavour of the same social networking. You may find yourself with few convincing answers.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2008.

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