Sunday, 3 April 2011

How 'World Of Warcraft' Ruined My Life

Back in 2009 I wrote about how I had started to play the so-called Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, 'World of Warcraft'.  My early views of the hazards of playing the game were posted back in July 2009:   I am still playing it, probably even more because with me being long-term unemployed, losing my house and having no clear idea of where I am going to end up, escapism is vital.  During the Depression of the 1930s and the mass unemployment of the 1980s, consumption of alcohol and tobacco increased and funerals became more elaborate (if you have had a grim life people feel they need to give you a good send off, just witness any funeral in Mile End or Poplar in East London).  People seek escape and I am not exempt from that.

Of course, computer games of any kind have the danger of becoming addictive and you finding the hours passing by quickly.  Rather than doing the housework or the shopping, instead you keep playing even into the early hours of the morning.  With a game like 'World of Warcraft' in which there is not just a single character progressing down a chain of missions, but you can go and produce things like weapons or clothing and market them or go on quests for rewards or duel with other players or take part in the regular seasonal events, such as around the Solstice or Valentine's Day, there is even more to keep you engaged.  You can have up to 50 different characters so even if you tire of running around as a troll hunter you can log on and be a werewolf druid in a different location.  To stop players tiring of the settings and quests, periodically those running the game, a US company called Blizzard, recreate their world.  In December 2010 they launched 'Cataclysm' which saw regions of their world flooded, some split apart by earthquakes or volcanoes and new areas appear from the sea; new races were introduced and players could now rise up to level 85 rather than 80.  There were numerous new missions and even new skills that players could train in.  The game is always evolving and sometimes this is for gameplay reasons (such as no longer needing to buy ammunition for bows and guns or putting more mail boxes in certain cities) and sometimes to develop new storylines.  In such a fantasy continent there has to be lots of drama, invasions and betrayals.

This is all great.  Though I do not always agree with the changes made, and smaller updates and alterations come between the big relaunches like Cataclysm, it certainly keeps my interest which is why I am still playing it 20 months after I started.  The key problem for me and what makes me keep thinking I should turn away from the whole thing, is the people.  Of course, many of them are teenagers, you expect that with any computer-based game.  However, there are also older people with partners and children and work to go to.  Certain 'guilds' only permit people over 18 to participate in their group.  The range of nationalities is diverse.  There are different servers for the main language groups of Europe (and others for China and many for the USA), so being located in the UK I do not mix with French or German or Italian speakers.  However, the British server does have players from many minor states across Europe especially the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark, but also Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece.  I quite enjoy playing with people from such diverse backgrounds.  Though English is the language for the server once in a while people go off into Dutch or Danish and some guilds intentionally recruit people of a specific nationality.  Of course, in this age of semi-literacy among English speakers, a lot of the online discussion is in fact in a hybrid of text speak and simply bad spelling.  'LFG' - Looking for Group, 'JC' - Jewel crafter; one of the professions you can study and the whole range of smilies; 'OMFG' for 'Oh My Fucking God' seems unnecessarily hyperbolic in its anger/condemnation.  However, new terms develop simply because so few people seem to be able to spell, 'Rogue' (a character class) is always rendered as 'Rouge' and now 'give' has been replaced when it is a demand by 'geif' which seems to be turning into some form of German.  Again, being a man in his forties, I recognise that with the English language changing far more sharply between my generation and the one that is following than between my generation and that of my parents or even my grandparents, I am happy to accept that when online I need to use a different language.  I can type far faster than the bulk of the gamers, so accept the need for abbreviations.

What is more of a challenge is not really how discussion is had but what is said and beyond that, the behaviour of the people it betrays.  Someone said that the 'World of Warcraft' was like a Gold Rush town in California of the 1840s.  This is unsurprising, people are doing missions and fighting monsters to win magic items and gain gold.  With such funds they become better fighters or magic users and get access to higher level areas and so on.  This is the basic dynamics of numerous fantasy fighting computer games.  The problem is that many of the people gamers are interacting with are not computer generated they are people with feelings.  In the game two warriors with the same equipment will be equally matched and in combat it comes down to luck and which combination of buttons you press.  A well-equipped person playing for 3 months could beat someone who has been playing the game for 5 years, though the latter generally pretends his/her knowledge somehow makes them stronger.  In fact people who have that attitude often lose because they have no flexibility in their thinking.  So, how do you show you are 'better' than the derided 'newbies' or 'noobs' as it is typically abbreviated to?

Status is clearly important.  People aim to reach that level 85.  However, this can take weeks and months and while your character is rising through the ranks, how do you show you are better than the others around you?  It is by making divisions.  In many ways whilst 'World of Warcraft' is like California of the 1840s it is also like London society of the 1840s, snobbery is rife.  People put out a call to get a group of assorted characters together in order to attack a castle or run through some caves, fighting monsters.  Now, of course, the opponents are of differing levels depending on the location and so a level 10 warrior would die quickly if fighting level 20 dragons.  However, the person soliciting recruits does not stop there in separating out the volunteers, s/he insists that they have equipment of a certain rating, their 'gear score' has to be so high or they are 'kicked' from the group.  They are commanded to go to a location for inspection, i.e. a player looks at all the equipment the character has.  Many players simply preen around the centres of the big cities showing off what they have like so many peacocks or prostitutes.   Those volunteering rather than preening are grilled about their 'dps', from damage per second, how much damage their weapons or spells can inflict.  If it falls below some arbitrarily set figure then the person is refused.  Now that level 85 is the peak, recruitment advertisements in the game often say 'level 85s only' even when going off to a level 70 dungeon.  At level 83 I asked if I could join in as my damage and spells were only a little lower than the level 85 set and, of course, I was refused. 

Once you have got through the equipment inspection, you have to have your 'achievements' checked.  This is the list of successful missions and quests that you have already completed.  If you have not been felt to have achieved enough already, again you are refused.  This is a chicken-and-egg situation, because people often volunteer so that they can win an achievement, and yet because they do not have it, they are refused.  A lot of this reflects the lack of maturity of thinking on the part of the recruiters, no matter what age they actually are.  Even if you recruit a group yourself you are quite likely to find a member leaving mid-way through some battle because s/he feels the rest of the group is not up to scratch.  Even more criteria are piled on to segregate and demean other players.  One is speed.  There are no benefits for charging through a castle quickly.  In fact you often find if you do this then some monsters appear out of a room behind you that you have rushed by and start attacking you from behind.  However, warriors, paladins, death knights, the physical attack people, are very impatient and charge on.  If they upset a whole room of monsters and die due to rushing through it, then, of course, they blame everyone else for being pathetic.  These people should be compelled to play games such as the paper-based 'Dungeons and Dragons' role-playing game and know that to succeed in such fantasy settings bravado has to be tempered with caution and forward planning.

This brings us to 'tactics'.  'Must know tactics' is another criteria often set for volunteers to groups.  This does not mean how best to use your character's particular weapons or spells, but precisely where to stand in a castle room when a specific monster attacks.  Again, of course, if you have never done that mission before then how are you supposed to know that.  If you are even a little wrong then you get a long lecture about how wrong and stupid you are.  In addition, everyone thinks their tactics are the only feasible ones and any alternatives are derided.  This is often how arguments start out in groups.  I have done the same missions with differing groups all insisting that their tactics are the only correct ones and if you do anything different then you are kicked out.  There is a sense of a single truth.  It is not surprising that numerous wiki pages and websites have been created to provide players with very precise details about what to buy and where to stand in a particular room of a particular castle or cave.  Like most computer game players I use walkthroughs and other resources that are not part of the game.  However, because specific knowledge is used to denigrate other players, you end up having to read as much as if you were doing an Open University course, just so you do not 'blunder' when you go on a mission.  You ask for help in the game and are told you must be an idiot for even asking, because, of course, to any intelligent person, the answer is obvious or are told to go off and open up numerous webpages outside the system.  The reason for this is supposed superior knowledge is the only real way that one player can make themselves seem superior to another.

Pride in your achievements is a fair trait.  However, the sense that anything you have achieved or know (however wrongly in fact that information might be) should be constantly used to put down others as vocally as it is in the game is unnecessarily nasty, but seems to be a constant behaviour in the game.  I suppose this is a reflection of our contemporary society, especially in the UK: you can only get on in life if you not only eliminate potential rivals but you humiliate them too.

If assistance is offered it is never in a constructive way, it is patronising.  I might expect too much of the average 'World of Warcraft' player to know the difference.  It is great to share knowledge, tell people about bargains in the auction house or how to get through a new mission or quest.  However, that is never enough.  The bulk of players who share information (and they in themselves are a small minority) want you to abase yourself before their greatness and acknowledge that you were stupid until they decided to pity you and shower you with their grace.  Trying to find a specific trainer I asked for help and one player decided to advise me.  Initially I was grateful.  However, he felt he had to lead me through the city and if I said something which disagreed with how he saw the world he went 'WRONG' at me in the text.  The one useful function is 'Ignore' which blocks communication from certain characters if you choose.  Unfortunately it does not block it from specific players and I have had some switching from character to character, pursuing me across the continents of the game repeatedly telling me how wrong or stupid I am until I have blocked every character they can spring on me.  Then they send me messages in the in-game postal system continuing their diatribe.

Interestingly, Blizzard tries to engineer the game so as to promote a better level of co-operation between the players.  You can block swear words to eliminate the harshest abuse, interestingly 'Nazi' counts as a swearword but 'wanker' does not, probably due to the game originating in the USA.  Racism does sometimes break through.  Periodically people condemn non-English speakers struggling to phrase things correctly, which is laughable given how many errors they put in their own writing.  However, it is mob rule and if the bulk of players spell 'rogue' as 'rouge' that is acceptable in a way errors from someone using English as their second or third language is not permitted.  A lot of general public dialogue seems to be as if it was between a group of drunken football supporters watching a match in a pub.  The rules can shift quickly, but always to their advantage in denigrating other players not deemed to be part of the mob. 

The sense that it 'that's the way it is, you cannot question it' is all pervasive.  I have seen that phrase or variations of it banded around.  Once I saw a discussion about so-called 'twinking' when people with characters who have a lot of money send it to their lower level ones to raise them quickly through the levels without much effort (sounds familiar behaviour to anyone who lives or works in the UK).  Someone questioned if this was the right way to behave and whether it was fair on other players.  Rather than put forward a reasoned argument for continuing the practice, the response was, 'it happens, live with it' and the player was condemned even for questioning it.  I know it is a game, but these basic assumptions are carried out into the real world and you do wonder if the regimes in Tunisia or Egypt had changed if the bulk of the population had had that attitude.  Perhaps British complacency and pervasive self-righteousness is what makes us behave this way.  It does not seem healthy in a game, let alone real life.  The worst case was a discussion about Hitler.  I have no idea why it came up in the game.  Some realms of the game insist you only speak about in-game things others start debating the football match or the weather or Michael Jackson's death.  What alarmed me was the view that 'well he sorted out the Jewish problem' which seemed accepted without question.  I started pointing out that any 'Jewish problem' had simply been an invention of the Nazis anyway, and yet was being taken here as something that everyone knew and accepted.  I was barred from the game for three days for participating in an off-topic political discussion, but I was proud to be for challenging lazy, dangerous, Fascist assumptions.

To earn money in the game many players auction off unwanted items through one of the auction houses.  This is a bit like eBay fantasy style.  When fighting monsters you are quite likely to pick up armour or weapons or food or even scraps of fur or rock that you have no use for.  Someone else might just need that item to improve their armour or make something using a profession skill like blacksmithing or leatherworking.  You are not supposed to make a loss but the prices many people set are ridiculous.  I remember having a level 20 character, who was recovering tens of pieces of silver from his quests.  I looked to buy a pair of boots from the auction house.  The best pair for my level was a level 19 pair of boots, but the cost was 799 gold pieces.  There are 10 copper pieces in 1 silver piece and 10 silver pieces in 1 gold piece.  I would be unable to afford them until I was many levels higher and by then their strength and certainly any magic on them would be too feeble for the kind of monster I would then be fighting.  Hyperinflation is a real problem in the game which makes it very discouraging when bringing on a new character.  It is exacerbated by 'gold sellers' criminals who sell gold in the game for real pounds or euros.  This allows some players to simply buy their characters everything they need rather than having to earn it the way most players do.  The gold sellers put software into the sysem which creates 'mining robots' or 'collecting robots' which go round scooping up the raw materials in the game, faster than any players can and then they auction it to raise game gold to sell to players.  Of course, this is illegal, but because status-hungry players indulge in it, it helps upset the balance of the game play.

Hyperinflation always generates excessive behaviour.  A key problem is even if the collection 'bots are not around high level characters go into low level areas, able to move around on mounts far faster than anyone of the appropriate level can do, and mines or collects all the raw materials to then take them back to sell them at incredibly high prices leaving the poor low level characters with nothing to practice their skills working on or to make any money themselves.  Very quickly you have an elite of very high level characters whether migrated from another realm or who have bought their standing, simply selling to each other at very high prices, leaving poor lower level characters without a high level character to supply them, struggling to advance.  Guilds are supposed to help lower level characters advance, but as I consider below, this does not really work either.

Blizzard's steps mean that you need groups to run through 'instances' and 'raids' specific missions in castles or caves or wherever that gives good rewards.  Generally you cannot do it alone.  However, as seen above this actually promotes division rather than collaboration.  They encourage 'guilds', collectives of players focused on one or two activities in the game.  You get a guild 'tabard' showing the logo of the guild and access to a guild bank where items can easily be shared between players.  With Cataclysm Blizzard added other features, cheaper repairs to armour and weapons, access to greater funds, specific items, available to guilds that were thriving and successful.  The basic idea is that players help each other and more experienced players and higher level characters help lower-level characters.  Of course, you can be very experienced and yet be starting a new character among the 50 you are permitted to have, though you still seem to be treated as if you are new to the game as a whole.  The guild system does not really work.  There are some decent guilds.  The woman in my house is a member of one, but I have not been able to find one that is like that.

On any given server there are tens of versions of the world, each with a specific name, so that you do not get tens of thousands of people trying to move through the same area mining for ore or picking specific herbs.  When a 'realm' has too many players, people are offered free 'migration' to a new less populated realm.  This does mean you can have hundreds of people in the same 'place' who cannot see each other as they are on different versions.  Nowadays, random groups can be assembled automatically from across realms on the same server and it can be interesting to talk to people who generally play on an alternative version of the world to the one you are on.  Factors such as the cost of items sold by other players, how crowded certain locations get and even the tone of discussion in the realm can vary greatly.

The other element Blizzard introduced to guilds with Cataclysm was that they could attain levels by their members completing missions and other achievements.  I think the idea was to encourage people to become guild members, but it has completely back-fired and has simply added a new aspect to snobbery.  As in real history, large guilds that can offer their members lots of facilities prosper.  There is the snobbery 'I am in a level 10 guild, oh, but you are only in a level 5 guild, you must be a poor player, no-one else clearly wants you'.  As in our society exclusive clubs are yet another way to segregate players.  They have strict entrance criteria and anyone who does not fit with their arbitrary rules or does not carry out their designate tasks in time or simply is no longer liked, is excluded.  Some US companies take into consideration if prospective employees have run guilds on 'World of Warcraft', but from how most are run, the only kind of organisation such experience would really suit you for is working in the mafia.

Blizzard tries hard to encourage players not to behave in the cut-throat way so many do.  The 'hints' when you log on often advise players to be polite when playing with others and encourage them not simply to open a trade with a player or try to duel with them before actually talking with them.  However, walking through a city my character is quite liable to be repeatedly challenged or offered some trade with absolutely no dialogue.  You can see why many of us become 'backwoodsmen' keeping our characters in the less populated areas of the world.  Generally the whole feel from the players I encounter is that somehow conservative if not Nazi values have become the norm.  A lot of discussion is misogynistic.  I suppose you would expect this in a game about battling monsters, but there are female characters and female opponents.  Yet, a female character is often dismissed, even though a level 10 female warrior is no weaker than a level 10 male warrior in the game.  Of course, just because a character is female or male does not mean the player is too; yet that is the assumption so patronising of female characters is quickly translated into patronising of female players.  Some of the races are very glamourous, especially the elves and their accentuated femininity for the females, with tight fitting clothes, large breasts, slender waists, long hair and often large earrings, does not help.  However, saying this, troll and even orc females have a certain elegance but certainly a strength about them.  When you come across male characters named things like 'Hymenripper' then you have a sense that misogynism is not really challenged.

How 'World of Warcraft' ruined my life was not because I spent so long playing it and neglected other hobbies such as writing fiction or swimming.  What it has alarmingly shown me is that the norms of the next generation are focused on segregation of society by status.  That status has to be maintained rigidly by codes and that those outside have to be regularly humiliated.  The best the ordinary person can hope for is to give up their dignity and be told patronisingly how wrong they are and try to ape their 'betters' in the vain hope of being accepted.  It is a society in which people grab all the resources they can and shut out those coming on after them out of the opportunity of advancing themselves unless they can pay.  It is a society which is discriminatory to women who are assumed to be weak and interestingly that it is demeaning to accept assistance from a woman, no matter what your own gender.  It is a society in which bad language is used to show your level of anger at the 'stupidity' of people who have views different to your own.  It is a society in which you always believe you not have the correct answer but the only possible answer.  It is a society in which things should not be challenged and to even dare to question them opens you up to attack.  What I have seen in 'World of Warcraft' players is the very worst of British society distilled.  The government with all its plans for a very stratified society with opportunities for the few and people all 'knowing their place' should look to 'World of Warcraft' players for their footsoldiers.  These people have the perfect attitude to fill the ranks of the 'little Hitlers' that any authoritarian regime thrives on.  'World of Warcraft' ruined my life by not offering me the escape that I yearned for, but rather shoving the worst of everything I encounter in real life forcefully into my face every time I log on.

1 comment:

Kiso said...

that is a one hell of the text