MY FIRST STEPS into the world of Azeroth were tentative ones.
I was pretty sure I'd be all right—I was, after all, a badass, hot elf chick with purple skin, pointy ears, and a tight ass, and I possessed a few magic spells and weapons with which to defend myself. I wasn't scared of the other inhabitants of Azeroth, either—the twilight-infused glade I first found myself in seemed like a pretty good neighborhood. Nor was I hesitant of my own skills—if push came to shove, I was fairly confident I could defend myself from both the creepy spiders and puma-like felines that prowled the shadows beneath the giant trees.
What I was scared of is the same thing I get wussed out about whenever I fill up my flask or think about taking drugs. I'm obsessive-compulsive and completist enough that the threat of addiction is always hanging over my head. (AA meetings! Withdrawals! Social stigma!) And my first steps into Azeroth, I knew, could very well make me hopelessly addicted to a videogame.
Bigger than New Zealand
Azeroth, for those not in the know, is the fictional fantasy world—filled with lithe elves, swarthy dwarves, looming monsters, and brave humans—where Blizzard Entertainment's massive videogame World of Warcraft (commonly known as WoW) takes place. Released a year ago, it's what's known in geek world as an MMORPG—a massively multi-player online role-playing game. Think of it as a bigger, grander, cooler version of Dungeons & Dragons—but instead of four nerds crammed around a basement table with notebooks and a 20-sided die, WoW has millions of players worldwide, each playing from their computers, interacting with each other and taking part in quests—killing monsters, exploring regions, and paying Blizzard a monthly fee to do so.
WoW isn't the only MMORPG (or MMO), nor is it the first. But it is the most successful and important. MMOs first took off with 1999's similarly themed EverQuest, which was quickly dubbed "EverCrack" for its addictive nature. Star Wars, The Matrix, and superhero-themed MMOs have since launched, but none compare to the popularity and scope of the WoW phenomenon.
Aside from countless websites devoted to the game, WoW has also spawned an atlas, a soundtrack, a behind-the-scenes DVD, and addiction support groups. There are databases of Azeroth-centric trivia, lore, and fanfic. There are barbeques and other real-life gatherings where online players get together in real life. (Not to mention real-life dates and weddings of those who fall in love after meeting in the game.) Dave Chappelle, in his first standup gig since he left his Comedy Central show and went all crazy, reportedly cited WoW as one of the things he'd been up to during his self-imposed exile. And WoW has already burst into real-world economics—like EverQuest players before them, many WoW players sell and buy virtual goods for real money on eBay. As of now, WoW has more than 4,500,000 players worldwide. So: Azeroth has more residents than New Zealand.
Welcome to Azeroth, Bitch
In the hardcore world of online gaming (there's nothing quite like getting viciously mocked by a 14-year-old as he takes you out in Halo 2 on Xbox Live), it's a pleasant surprise to find that the inhabitants of Azeroth are—almost across the board—pretty friendly and cool. Maybe this is because of the game's inherent structure, which necessitates cooperation and discourse between players. You want to take down a dragon or stage a raid on an Azerothian town? Good luck on your own, chump. But join a guild—in which you'll meet and fight with other players, some of who will lead your party or heal you—and you'll have a chance.
But while World of Warcraft is a community-driven game, I'm still me—which means that when I was first approached by a fellow Night Elf looking to join up to kill some pesky monsters, I did exactly what I'd do in my socially challenged real life: I made a few weak hand gestures, tried to look friendly, awkwardly thanked him for his offer, and then got nervous and ran away. Even more than the suburbia simulation of The Sims or the open-ended chaos enabled by Grand Theft Auto, WoW allowed my virtual self to be, for better or worse, a fairly true representation of my real self. (Except for the whole pointy ears/purple ass thing.)
Warcraft Stole My Husband
With a virtual land as huge as Azeroth's, and with such fun gameplay, it's easy to see how one could get addicted to World of Warcraft. But if I had gotten addicted, at least I wouldn't be alone.
Toronto resident Sherry Myrow is a moderator on the Yahoo! Group "World of Warcraft Widows," and she also runs Gamerwidow.com, an online support group for those whose loved ones have gotten sucked into virtual worlds—especially MMOs, and especially WoW.
"I speak from experience," Myrow says, talking about how her husband got hooked on WoW. "I hated eating alone, and I'd talk to him and he wouldn't even register that I was talking. He didn't even notice how absorbed he was. We were arguing a lot. And so he thought it might be a good idea to get me into the game.
"So I started playing," Myrow wryly adds. "And I got very addicted. One session, I think I played 12 hours straight. I stopped answering phone calls. I stopped cleaning. I stopped paying my bills. I just ignored life."
She made the decision to quit—cold turkey—and shortly afterward started up Gamerwidow.com. (Myrow hasn't totally left the game, though—she doesn't have the heart to delete her Azerothian alter ego).
Gamerwidow.com has around 400 registered members—widows, widowers, parents, siblings, and even WoW players themselves, all of whom console each other and exchange strategies on WoW addiction.
"A gamer is a gamer, and you can't change that," Myrow concludes. "But as long as they can hit pause, as long as they can stop and step away from the game when they need to, let them play."
In downtown Portland, Kris Robison runs art gallery/videogame spot Backspace with his brother, Eric, where WoW is "the biggest game right now." Robison says, "It transcends all social boundaries. Indie kids are playing it, and nerds of course are playing it. But I've got 45-year-old businessmen coming in on their lunch breaks to play an hour of it as well."
Robison remembers one 21-year-old customer who got hooked on the game.
"This guy came in here one night, and started playing it," Robison says. "I came in the next day and he was still playing. He was going to the Art Institute, [but] he would just come in after school and play for like six, seven hours. Pretty soon I'd see him when we opened, at 7 am. And [he'd stay until] we'd close at 2 am. There was one point when we found out that he'd spent $200 in real money on eBay for [Warcraft] gold, so he could buy all his [in-game] gear. And I was like 'Holy shit! This is getting out of hand.' 'Cause he was spending $25 a day here, every day—so this is great for business, but there are ethical boundaries that me and my brother definitely try to maintain."
The Robisons weren't sure what to do—and by the time they talked to their WoW-crazy customer about his obsession, "It was too late. Like six weeks into it, we found out he'd already dropped out of school. And he wasn't looking for a job—he was just playing WoW here all the time.
"The saddest part of the story is he ended up moving back home," Robison says. "And his dad buys him a computer, sets him up in the basement with an internet connection. And I talk to these guys [at Backspace] who play, and they see him [in the game], and that's all he does is play World of Warcraft. He's still playing."
Pulling the Plug
My fears of getting addicted to gallivanting around Azeroth proved to be pretty legit. Unquestionably, it's a stunning game—vast in scope and scale, with impressive visuals and a rich fictional backstory. The gameplay itself is easy to learn and challenging, and in my two-month playing period, I often found myself gladly staying up into the wee hours, trading off a horrible, yawn-filled workday for the chance to earn a few more pixilated trinkets.
But while it became clear how easily I could become addicted, it also seemed kind of like a big commitment: In order to really succeed in Warcraft, I'd need to devote hours every night to the game, do nothing else on weekends other than WoW quests, and say goodbye to my real-life friends and girlfriend so that I could spend more time with other players online and maybe join a guild. And that's a lot of work. In short, I discovered that my tendency for obsessiveness is balanced out by the fact that I'm pretty damn lazy when it comes to actually sitting down and accomplishing stuff. Even in videogames, and even when the stuff to accomplish is rad shit like killing dragons.
Yet I can't think of anything more telling of how immersive and open-ended Warcraft's world is than the fact it perfectly replicated my real-life impulses and tendencies. Just like in real life, in the World of Warcraft, I was my own worst enemy when it came to accomplishment and commitment—skinny white kid or purple Night Elf, I was still me. But like Myrow, I didn't have the heart to fully delete my character, nor could I wipe the game from my iBook's hard drive. I might not want to live in Azeroth, but I'm already looking forward to the occasional vacation.