On September the 25 2012, the world changed again. No, not our one. The World of Warcraft. After all, it’s not every day your level cap rises, an all new class becomes playable and an entirely new sentient race emerges from the lands of Pandaria, namely the anthropomorphic Pandaren race of… err… pandas.
Before I continue, it’s time for a bit of full disclosure: I’ve never actually played World of Warcraft (or WoW as it’s affectionately known by its vast swathes of subscribers). To be honest, the concept of it terrifies me. The illimitable, perpetually online fantasy adventure which, as of August 2012, has 9.1 million subscribers across the globe, has carried with it a social stigma that emerged even before divorce papers started citing ‘WoW addiction’ as reasonable grounds for separation. A MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game), on a fundamental, ideological level, promises the epitome of escapism within a videogame where the only prerequisite asked of the player is a willingness to submit to its gargantuan volume of content.
In a way, World of Warcraft is more than a videogame; it is a language, a continent and a religion. It evokes discourse filled with acronyms, terms and numbers which the uninitiated cannot possibly begin to decipher. While not even the allure of bamboo-wielding, battle-hardened pandas can convince me to surrender my time to the subcultural behemoth, I can, however, relate to the appeal and the resulting effect.
I mention this because recently it came to light that the US Democratic candidate for District 25 in Maine, New England, is partial to masquerading as a virtual orc in the world of Azeroth.
State Senate candidate Colleen Lachowicz was vilified by her opposition over the revelation and comments attributed to her in her mohawk-sporting-rogue guise were swiftly characterized as being “crude, vicious and violent”.
The Republican party’s smear campaign has even collated Lachowicz’s in-game comments and virtual profile in the form of the website Colleen’s World, an act justified by the mantra: “Maine needs a State Senator that lives in the real world, not in Colleen’s fantasy world”.
In places the website borders on preposterousness. Highlighting Lachowicz’s use of the term ‘teabag’ as a potential source of offense is particularly absurd to anyone who has ever played Halo at some point in their life. Regardless of your position on Lachowicz’s hobby of choice, this kind of public reaction isn’t atypical.
Gaming researcher Ladan Cockshut alluded to the ignominy that can surround the medium by revealing that for those of a vocational background associated with public responsibility, disclosing a passion for videogames can often lead to “a degree of apology or embarrassment”.
Personally, the assumption that the in-game tendencies of an individual - especially within the generic standards of high fantasy – reflect the respectability of their profession is puerile. This is of course subject to a degree of context. I wouldn’t, for example, object to the defamation of someone’s character should they have considerable experience playing a Japanese rape-sim. So why then does the idea of a potential US senator harmlessly frolicking about as a level 85 orc under the moniker Santiaga still leave me feeling a little uneasy?
The perils of addiction
The honest reason puts me in the middle of a bit of a personal quandary. Back when Wow-developer Blizzard released their long-awaited dungeon crawler Diablo III in May, there was a specific term used in reviews, often in an approving tone.
Expansive, minutely-detailed and polished to an unthinkable degree, the third title polarized its ardent fans and critics on many subjects, but on one point everyone came to a harmonious consensus: it’s very, very addictive experience. In the lexicon of videogame discourse, when something is addictive it represents value for money.
The logic goes that when the prospect of a prolonged (or in WoW’s case infinite) state of escapism is achievable, this is a uniformly positive attribute. Conversely, in everyday life, when something is described as addictive it is almost exclusively used in a derogatory context. Videogame addiction is a pet subject for the medium’s detractors and while baseless claims about the addictive properties of videogames can often be dismissed as spurious nonsense, I doubt any person who would describe themselves as a gamer could honestly say they haven’t obliviously pulled an antisocial all-nighter at some junction in their gaming career. I know I can’t.
As a recent victim of the rinse-repeat-reward, Skinner box-esque charm of Mass Effect 3’s co-op multiplayer mode, I can’t claim any moral high ground on the debate surrounding the validity of the term ‘videogame addiction’. Furthermore, while I don’t believe that engrossing oneself in the endless quarrels within the world of Azeroth is necessarily indicative of someone being unreliable and immature, a videogame developed with the ultimate aim being to effectively absorb the absolute attention of its subject is something I find discouraging considering the medium’s position in society; especially in an age where physical, tangible experiences are increasingly outweighed by those in the hyperreal technological realm.
Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps it’s relatively easy to consistently differentiate between immersion and addiction while roaming uncharted lands with a party of online friends. But, for an advocate of story-driven, atmospheric, progressive experiences within an evolving medium, the prospect of a repetitive grind of functional content completely outweighing the emotional, intellectual context of the experience seems to me to be something of a regression. In short, there’s nothing wrong with being a rat in Skinner’s box, as long as you remember to think outside of it on occasion.
*Correction: this article was edited on 19th October to remove the suggestion that a Camden Councillor claimed to possess the highest ranked World of Warcraft character in the UK. He claimed to have the highest ranked character for an elected UK politician.