I have written previously about my lack of success in getting on one of the major social networking sites, Second Life, but it remains an area of interest to me. I was introduced to the World of Warcraft system by the woman who lives in my house. It has been running since 1994 and is what in the old days we would have called a MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) though the acronyms have grown since then and according to Wikipedia it is a MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game), which in itself sounds like a beast from a Tolkien novel. Currently it has over 11.5 million subscribers making it a virtual country with a population more than many in Europe. You cannot interact with all of those players, because there are a variety of servers, parallel versions of the world. In Europe I know there is a French and a German server for players from those locations; the British server also hosts players from the Netherlands, Scandinavia and it appears, Poland, but the language tends to be English with some Scandinavian dialogue. When I say English, in fact, unless you know text speak, it might as well be a foreign language. This is unsurprising as when battling a dragon it can be tough to write grammatically correct sentences at the same time.
As the titles Dungeon and RPG suggest, the game owes a lot to the paper-and-dice based role-playing games of the 1970s-80s though they are still played now, they are less popular than when I was young. Many of the type of people who would have been avid 'Dungeons & Dragons' (D&D) fans twenty-five years ago are now on World of Warcraft (WoW), and some of us from those days are in it too. The basic premise is that you explore ruins, caves, dungeons, castles and battle with fantastical creatures and aggressive people to steal gold and artefacts. As you fight and discover, you gain Experience Points and rise in levels so getting access to higher abilities and even better equipment. As in the RPGs of old, you play a role, hence the name. You name the character and select the class, the types in WoW are like those of D&D: spellcasters - mages, warlocks, shamans, priests and druids and other types such as warriors, rogues and hunters. Each has their own special skills and can use different weapons and armour. You can tailor you face, your skin tone and general appearance and even get shaves and haircuts in the game. The avatars of female characters tend to be elegant, sometimes even sexy and the male characters either robust or mean looking.
There are also professions. Your character can become a tailor or a leatherworker or a blacksmith or an engineer or an alchemist and so on. Some players ignore these skills, but there can be a satisfaction in getting a raw commodity and creating an impressive robe or potion and of course all of the output can be sold or used by players, for example, weapons, armour, health potions, etc. The level of technology is like that of the PC game, 'Arcanum of Steamworks and Magic Obscura' (2001). There is magic but there is also flintlock guns, steampunk motorbikes and even dynamite alongside the longbows, skeletal horses and fire spells. The continents are linked by Zeppelins but within a continent you can fly from town to town on the back of a giant bat or a manticore. Players can also learn cooking, fishing and first aid and it is fascinating how many different fish you can catch in the seas and lakes and the range of recipes available. Each food has different characteristics usually to help boost health or mana (spell energy).
There are races that you can play, very much in the Tolkienesque genre: humans, dwarfs, gnomes, night elves, blood elves, orcs, trolls and undead. There are two races not from that kind of background, the Draenei, huge humanoid aliens from a different planet to Azeroth where the game is set and the ones I find most imaginative, the Taurens, large bovine humanoids very much in the style of Amerindian culture. Again the races have different strengths and weaknesses. One interesting element is the culture as shown by their homes and their accents. As noted, the Tauren live in tepees in areas looking like the plains, the Rockies and the mesas of North America. The trolls are clearly influenced by Jamaican and other Caribbean cultures and they live in sunny tropical locations. Most comic are the goblins, who you cannot play, but turn up as traders and engineers across Azeroth and all speak in New York taxi driver argot. Anyway, some of this draws on stereotypes but does make an effort to move a little away from the standard swords-and-sorcery elements. Many of the creatures are out of a range of Western mythologies, so there are centaurs, manticores and things like giant spiders and scorpions as well as simply ferocious wild animals like rheas, lions, wolves, bears and gorillas. Dinosaurs also survive, some as mounts for player characters. There are raptors and herbivores (some with the ability to fire lightning bolts, so very fantastical). Some creatures, such as the razormanes, who are humanoid boar-like people seem unique to the game, though I do remember some similar race from the 'Runequest' RPG of the 1980s.
You can kill the monsters, beasts, people but they 're-seed' meaning that within some set time they will come alive again to enable another player to complete their mission by killing them or you to try again if you failed before. Sometimes the re-seeding happens very fast. I was looting the corpse of one opponent only to find him standing over his own body trying again to kill me. Even player characters never die entirely. You find your spirit at a nearby graveyard and either resurrect there or find your corpse and get back into it, with penalties in either case. Sometimes in a tough area you can resurrect again only to be killed almost immediately. Also some graveyards are far apart and you can spend an evening as a ghost running across the landscape constantly trying to get back to your body!
There are many NPCs (Non-Player Characters) in all sorts of forms. They act as traders, trainers in various skills and to assign you missions. You do not have to interact with any human players to play in WoW as there are missions across the world appropriate for different levels. Different regions have monsters and creatures of different levels, so if you are starting out you do not face level 40 or even level 20 monsters until you are ready. Missions involve collecting artefacts, delivering messages, carrying out assassinations. Some of these revolve around the politics of Azeroth which is divided into two main camps: Alliance (humans, gnomes, dwarfs, night elves, draenei) and Horde (undead, orcs, trolls, blood elves and taurens) with camps and bases across the continents with no clear frontline. There are also racial battles such as between the tauren and the kolkars (centaurs). For me it is interesting to get involved in the politics of the place. There is also a nature vs. industry battle going on with the Venture Mining Co. despoiling areas of the plains and especially the forests and some missions are to try and stop them. In particular the taurens with their Amerindian culture, shamans and druids emphasise the environmental aspects.
One really winning element of the game is the landscape that your avatar can run or ride or drive around or fly over. You can adventure across every kind of setting from frozen wastes to forests of European or North American style to the veldt or badlands or desert or tropical islands. They are well realised. You can stand on a mountain top in the Barrens (very like the veldt of Africa) and watch the sunset. It rains, there are misty days and so on in different locations. The cities are incredibly imaginative too, ones I have visited (I play as Horde characters, it is the Goth influence) include in the ruins of a city, in sandy caves and atop mesas, connected by rope bridges. Each has its own culture and are really beautifully rendered with different districts for various traders and trainers to buy that vital sack to carry your loot or where you can learn to smelt mithril or whatever you need. It costs money and there is the standard D&D currency of copper, silver and gold, though simplified to 100:1 rise at each step.
In most regions there are also 'instances' which are like classic 'dungeons' from RPGs and these are for groups to attack and have numerous corridors and rooms to explore and there is, of course treasure and artefacts to loot as well as experience to gain. Now, these are very like the kind of missions done with the paper-and-dice RPGs. You need a balanced team with fighters, magic users, healers, etc. and generally you need to collaborate if you are going to survive. You can join a guild, a kind of club, with its own communications channels. There are trade and general channels. Guilds have insignia and a tabard. Guilds vary, some consist of friends from the real world, some of people from a particular country (especially the Dutch and Scandinavians who probably feel outnumbered by British players), some have a focus on fun and many have a focus on getting their members to rise through the levels very quickly. There is a technique called 'boosting' in which a very high level character (the current highest level is 80) leads the way and simply slaughters everything that moves leaving the lower-level characters to pick up the experience points and the treasure. I have participated in one of these, not knowing it was going to be like that (you often get invited to go on a mission especially if you character can 'tank', i.e. is a tough warrior or can heal) and it was really tedious, I might have risen in standing, but simply by being the equivalent of a refuse man tidying up after the carnage. High characters can be good to help you out, but when there is no challenge there is no fun. However, for many players getting high level characters is the prime goal. The fact that being able to buy software that gives you gold in the game for money in the real world, and allows you to easily complete missions shows how far people are obssessed with 'levelling', i.e. raising up their characters.
Finally having set the background I come to my main point. Of course where WoW goes beyond PC games is that even with the richness of the various NPCs, you get to play with real people from across your country and other countries. However, as has often been noted, for all the fantasy names and the avatars, in the online environment people in fact reveal their real selves and that is in part what is alarming. If I had got into Second Life then I might have had personal confirmation of this fact sooner, but it has been in WoW that I have found it out myself. I think this fact first came to popular attention with the PC game, 'Black & White' (2001) in which players played a god running various primitive settlements and it soon became apparent that however hard you tried to dissemble how the people ended up would reflect your personality. I do not know if this kind of thing is used in scientific analysis but it does seem to work.
It is interesting how, even when packaged in a fantasy setting, the real you comes out. My girlfriend notes that when I play with her online I always step into protect her or heal her character. I find she runs off in a random direction without telling me and I am uncertain what her intentions are. As in real life, her character will not be constrained. It is all via computer, but the behaviour mirrors who we are in reality. Interestingly one of the greatest controversies in WoW was in January 2006 around gay guilds for characters and Blizzard had to drop its condemnation of such guilds.
In WoW you have to remember that whilst players are drawn from all ages and both genders, the bulk of participants are as they were for the paper-and-dice RPGs of the 1980s, teenaged boys. There is nothing wrong with that. I had rather they played WoW that shoplift or take drugs. However, with them in predominance it tends to soil the collaborative nature that Blizzard, the producers of WoW want to foster. It is striking that when you log on you get a 'tip' about play, sometimes this is technical, but often the Blizzard include a homily such as 'a little kindness goes a long way' or 'if you talk to someone before trying to trade or invite them to join a group, they are more like to do so'. To explain, 'trading' and 'inviting' are technical functions rather than dialogue. However, the fact that such tips turn up so commonly reflects the terse, demanding nature of many players. Reflect on the teenaged male players. They probably lack self-esteem in the real world, put down by society, their teachers and parents, and yet in WoW they can be a level 80 Death Knight called Ikillyouall and ride around on a dinosaur with a huge sword. They can extol their knowledge and show up older players. They can bully without ever facing consequences, they are literally immortal. No wonder they are obsessed by raising themselves to the highest level as quickly as possible and set up guilds, often with very strict rules, to achieve this. When you meet a lower-level character the player will often quickly tell you 'this may only be level 20, but I have four level 80 characters already' to show you that they must know more than you.
This sort of behaviour has always occurred in RPGs, I remember back in the early 1980s running a 'dungeon' in D&D for friends' low-level characters, but of course one boy with a level 4 character happened to have befriended a gold dragon, only the most powerful monster in that version of the game. His name was Jason Comfort, ironic because he was one of the most unpleasant people I have ever met. Last I heard he was with the RAF; just so I know I get the right one as there seem to be scores of them out there with that name. He insisted on bringing it to an adventure which was for far lower level characters than that dragon and wiped out everything with ease. He loved lauding it over the other players and demanded they behave in a certain way, even forcing one to sacrifice himself. So, this behaviour has always been around. I suppose what makes it worse, whereas in the past a boy like Jason would be one among a few, now they can band together through the wonders of the internet and that seems to make them feel that their behaviour is vindicated and thus 'right'.
Where tensions reach the highest level is in the 'instances' as the rewards are so much higher and there are often items that cannot be secured or bought anywhere else. When the fighting has stopped and the bodies are looted, special items are rolled for among the players, through and automatic system. You can 'Pass' if it is an item you have no interest in, you can select 'Need' or 'Greed' which has a bearing on the outcome. As you can imagine this causes immense tension. Of course the bulk of items could be traded later between characters (there are also auction houses in the cities, funnily very much like eBay but in medieval setting), but for many players that is too late.
Many of the hard levellers do no professions so do not understand that to make a potion or a piece of armour often needs an exotic range of ingredients. I clicked 'Need' for a piece of moss agate, a semi-precious stone used in metalworking worth a few silver and it was as if I had gone round these players houses and insulted their mothers. I offered to pay anyone for any item they felt I had 'Need'ed wrongly. Something similar happened on another mission and I was accused of being a 'ninja' looter, because again I had put 'Need' for some armour. Being the only warrior in the party it seemed not unusual that I should ask for armour or weapons that only my character could use. However, clearly that broke etiquette, more of that in a moment. Being called a 'ninja' looter means you are condemned by other players who will not go on missions with you. I asked if they wanted me to leave the instance if they felt so badly and they said not to. In fact I had 'Pass'ed on the bulk of the items and of course dared not touch any others and I realised that had been the point. The players who moan the most and condemn others are the greediest taking everything they can even if they cannot use, simply to sell off later. In some cases a player who takes an item the party leader wants, sometimes by simply clicking the wrong key, finds themselves dumped out of the instance. I suppose it is unsurprising that when mixing with teenagers you find them squabbling like children.
A lot of the dialogue goes on in text speak. Players have to type in to speak to each other, so this is no surprise. OK is reduced to 'k' and ready to 'r'; 'omfg' is popular to get around the system's built in swearword detector. A lot of smilies are used, again no surprise. Capital letters seem unknown to many players and a lot of discussions can become a string of consonants. If you cannot keep up or use full sentences for clarity (often necessary when planning tactics) you are condemned. In fact there is very little tolerance of difference. Everyone is expected to know how these players see things and if they do not they are patronised. 'Noob' from newbie, i.e. a newcomer is another insult, that is hardly likely to endear players not having played for the past 3-4 years. There is similar intolerance for players who have slow internet connection or have characters that do not hare around. As a warrior with a full suit of chainmail armour of course my character moves slower than a rogue in leather or a mage in cloth robes. Yet you are expected to be constantly at the front. There is no thought of the differences and any reference to them is taken as an insult or you somehow trying to trick the other players.
Of course, at the end of the day, it is only a game and the items are just electrons, though many players treat it almost as if was reality. It is an environment of constant warfare, disease and brutality like any pseudo-medieval setting, so I suppose in such a context you would expect selfishness. However, what is more worrying, aside from reducing the enjoyment of newcomers, is how behaviour in the game reflects so badly on the behaviour of these numerous players in real life. It is clear that greed is dominant and that it is seen as far more legitimate than need. Furthermone anyone even questioning that greed let alone contesting it is seen as illegitimate and offensive in trying to curtail the person's taking of everything. There is no sense that there can be negotiation and trading even though the system has such easy facilities for these things. They seem to entirely miss the point that collaboration actually helps you win through better than a lot of clashing egos.
Boastfulness, an easy access to wealth and rewards without effort, intolerance of any difference, unwillingness to listen to explanation all seem to be the expected norm. Of course, they need my character, otherwise they would not bother trying to recruit me to help, but there is no sense at all of quid pro quo, I am to be their servant and if I question that, they eject me. Given the numerous tips about behaviour provided by Blizzard it is clear they would prefer collaborative activity; partly because they know if newcomers feel they are entering into a hostile environment they will leave, as happens to people bullied in Second Life, and for the company that damages their revenue.
Of course there are good people in WoW and if you look carefully you will find guilds that promote the fact that much of the fun comes from the participation rather than a hard nosed drive to reach level 80 in a fortnight. Doing so means you miss out on the interest of a very complex fantasy world to explore and the interactions that are possible in what is a game but concealed beneath that is actually a very vibrant social network. Yes, it is escapist, but that is nice. If you are downtrodden in the real world, it can be good to take out your frustration killing a giant scorpion. However, what I also think it reveals, if we did not already know it anyway from driving on the UK's roads, is that a lot of young men are terribly rude, greedy, hugely ambitious, intolerant and self-obsessed and I am not keen to be an elderly person in a country where these men will be in charge very soon.