For those of you who do know about WoW, you know how truly rarely someone can claim the description of "ex-WoW player." It's been almost two years since I stopped playing and when I played, I played only once a week, for approximately 4 - 7 hours. I was not, even at the height of my involvement with WoW, what you would call a "typical" player.
You know what? It turns out it doesn't matter how much or how little I played WoW; I still wake up some nights in the middle of the night thinking "I need to go fishing at Menethil Harbor" or "Maybe I could just hang out in Westfall for a little while and mine..." It is, I imagine, similar to what any ex-addict might experience in the middle of his or her night, too. And yes, since quitting, I have read the articles about the theory of gaming addiction and how the game coders specifically design their games to promote a multilevel addiction experience--whether that be adrenaline or Pavlovian click/reward or achievement or fame or all of that and more.
But I think the authors of those articles failed to mention why all of that works, even on people like me: the extremely atypical WoW player.
We're all very disgruntled. That rather goes without saying and, really, applies to every single human being. Who amongst us feels completely in control and powerful about every aspect of his or her life? No one, that's who. If you can find one human being anywhere on this planet who feels right in his/her skin 100% of the time, don't--under any circumstances--tell anyone. That poor person would be hunted down and eradicated before you could whimper "What have I done?" and then where would we all be?
Regarding WoW, though, it caters to several specific types of disgruntled persons.
First are the people whose lives lack structure, clarity, and predictable punishment and reward in proportions that would be a comfort. Basically, me, though the structure, clarity and measurements of punishment and reward in my personal life have stabilized wonderfully comparative to when I first started playing WoW. Unfortunately, I also happen to be very sensitive to the structure, clarity, and measurements of punishment/reward in my wider communities, specifically the national and world political environment, and it is that dysfunctional mess that I believe has me waking up in the middle of the night, pining for Stormwind City and Ironforge.
There's no mystery here. WoW (the non-PvP, non-Guild, casual player option) offers standard factions, clearly demarcated, coupled with mathematically-inspired quests where action X always results in consequence Y. I often adventured solo or worked with very small groups of fellow players who shared a (short-term) goal or who were my friends in real life. Though the actual play (how many shots will it take to kill that stupid Kobold miner this time?) varied, the quests did not. Kill this many X and receive Y. Collect X [insert item here] and give them to NPC Y and move on to the next quest after collecting your just reward. In between quests, use that hard-won gold you've earned to shop for prettier or more useful A, B, C, or D. Or, if you'd rather, learn a skill. Put it to use and earn more gold. Spend that gold on even prettier or even more useful A, B, C, or D.
One of the reasons I left Wow was because I eventually realized there were only so many ways a casual, non-PvP player could experience these equations in the game. When I finally analyzed my expenditure of time and effort versus the perceived (game-based) and actual (real life) reward, the game came up WOEFULLY short.
I sat in a chair, alone, in my apartment, for 4 - 7 hours every weekend, clicking a mouse button. The game-based reward was negligible; 4 - 7 hours of game play a week barely registers as a blip in the MMORPG world. I could neither amass enough gold or the number of levels required to lull me into a sense of achievement. The real life reward was flat nil. In fact, it was negative. I was not physically active, not engaging in social bonding, nor improving my knowledge or my skill-base. I was barely engaging in critical thinking. And yet, it is exactly that lovely, boring, thoughtless predictability that I still sometimes crave, if only to remind me that--somewhere, no matter how fantastical--X + Y will always equal Z.
I wish the real world worked that way, too. I want to go to work, do dishes, fold laundry, make dinner, love my girlfriend and our kitties, sleep 6-ish hours a night every night of the week and have those accomplishments always equal X "gold" and result in nothing unexpected. But real life gives us chaos and the unknown and the unforeseeable in varying measure so that you can do all of those real life "quest tasks" and still end up with a blown carburetor or H1N1 or a parking ticket or--on the other hand--an unexpected refund check or a visit from a long-lost friend or flowers for no reason. Life, by definition, is unpredictable. Which makes predictable scenarios very seductive to those of us who suffer a certain amount of existential discomfort with the unpredictability of life, no matter how well we seem to dispense with it every day.
The second disgruntled type catered to by WoW is the person who feels powerless in one or more areas of his/her real life. For example, someone who feels oppressed or inadequate or "less than" on a daily basis, either in physical prowess, physical attractiveness, intelligence, leadership capabilities, etc. These disgruntled types care less about the predictability of the questing and gravitate more toward PvP battling or the Guild-membership model of WoW. These are the people who either crave the chaotic anarchy of leveling up as a PvP character just so he or she can mindlessly kill other PvP characters more quickly or they are the people who crave building the most powerful team of characters so that they can "win" the game (assuming that raiding the final boss--whoever that is this month--is considered the "win scenario.")
These are the grinders, who play incessantly to level their characters up to the highest achievable level (again--whatever level that happens to be this month), who farm gold in order to buy the best armor and weapons, who basically do everything in their power to create the most perfect being in the game so he or she can either destroy other "perfect" characters or join with them to "win" the game. Their perceived (game-based) and actual (real life) reward are nearly one in the same because so much of their real life is taken up by game play as to be almost indistinguishable from it. These are the people who continue to voice-chat with their guilds in their off-WoW chat clients while they wait out Blizzard's regularly-scheduled maintenance downtime. These are the people who sometimes die from dehydration or other game-induced injuries--or so the media would have us believe. These are the "true believers."
And I get it. I do. I really do.
When I first started this post, I knew where I wanted to go with it. I wanted to level an indictment against a world that would a) make us all feel so powerless and then b) give us a way to waste what precious time we have clicking a mouse button in search of redemption. I even waxed a little ridiculous, thinking how great it would be if there was a game that logged your real life achievements and gave you validation for those. Like a game of the Sims, but not. You'd get points and validation for finding a job for yourself instead of a little animated character. The computer would tell you what a good job you were doing.
But, if you're like me, you don't lack in validation. You get it with some regularity from your parents, your partners, your children, your friends, your co-workers, your teachers, your pets, etc., etc. If you're really lucky, you get a little from yourself, too. The problem is, we're taught not to believe it. We're taught to dismiss it, to ignore it, to be suspicious of it. We're taught to invalidate whatever validation we get. Which then makes us feel powerless or less than or unregarded. Which then makes us disgruntled. Which then sends us to anonymous fantasy worlds in which we hope to recoup our losses.
I don't need a computer to tell me that I'm doing a good job or that I've achieved something wonderful. I need to tell myself that--and I need to believe it.
No, the world is not perfect. I'm 60 pounds overweight, I often feel unattractive, I don't have a colon anymore, and food and I have a very love-hate relationship (I love it and it hates me). There's never enough time or money or motivation to get everything that needs to be done, done. I'm not considered equal under the law in my own country and the world seems to be imploding on every level it possibly can.
But I'm in love with a beautiful woman who loves me back, fiercely, and we have a home and a family and all the necessities. I was able to walk 1.5 miles today at lunch under a cloudless, Northern California sky, accompanied by butterflies and bluebirds, and at the end was a bag of tiny, cow-shaped chocolate cookies that were only 100 calories. I have parents and siblings and nieces and nephews and aunts and uncles and cousins who love me and friends all over the world. I do good work for a wonderful University and I love doing it. My co-workers are generous, happy, decent people and they believe in teamwork and validation. Yesterday, my management team gave me yellow roses for working the weekend. I have a brain and a heart and relationship with God that is mine alone and not something that I would ever hold over someone else. I smile and do so often.
So the next time I have the urge to visit Stormwind City or Ironforge, I think I'll kiss my girlfriend or organize the kitchen or pet the cats instead. And I'll tell myself that's okay.
Because it really is.
::wondering if MMRLRPG has already been taken::