When ‘World of Warcraft’ Is an Escape—and a Memorial

And then, the Alliance stormed through the hills. A guild called Serenity Now caught wind of the event and came in droves. They rained down arrows and lightning bolts, hellfire. They smote the funeral-goers down, waited for them to resurrect, and murdered them again. The attendees tried to fight back but they were outnumbered. In a moment, the funeral became a war zone. And in days, story of the onslaught spread around the world, through hearsay on forums and YouTube clips, even a news article here or there.

The immediate take was that this was a travesty, condoned in the Player vs. Player boundaries of the game, but despicable at its core. But now I wonder if that’s what the woman would have wanted. To become part of the lore, a legend discussed and debated, remembered and misremembered years later. To bring people together, by their love or their cruelty, some way. What more could one want from a video game.

But this game has changed. Beyond the floating debris in the Barrens, World of Warcraft had been redesigned to support less social play. Taking on dungeons had once meant intense preparation: Kano and I would shout “LFG” (looking for group) into regional chat forums, repeating it over hours until we found other people doing the same; traveling together across a continent or two to those dungeons; and slaying boss after boss, often wiping out and starting again. The people we found would stick with us afterwards; monsters were hard to kill and questing together ensured fewer deaths. After years of playing, we formed a tight band of friends, all gathered digitally, who would talk about everything from their parents’ divorce to football practice. When we leveled up, we congratulated each other like it was a birthday.

But now, the game is efficient. A dungeon finder tool enters you into a queue of other dungeon goers, and when enough people queue, you teleport there together. The monsters die easy. And the experience points come quick. When I level up now, I burst with gold light and it’s quiet.

I flew into Orgrimmar, the capital city of the Horde, and I saw more Ashes of Al’ar, purple beams everywhere. I asked one of the riders where they got this, and they told me they bought it in one of the in-game markets for 40,000 gold— or about seven dollars, if you charged your credit card for an in-game voucher.

I wanted Azeroth as it was, where gold wasn’t for sale and every achievement from a mount to a level up was something incredible, ground out over days and months, that demanded you sacrifice relationships and build new ones. Something deeper than seven bucks. So, I left that world, too. I installed World of Warcraft Classic, Blizzard’s pixel-for-pixel restoration of the game as it existed in 2006, when the gold and XP came slow, when you died easy, when you had to call others for backup, but in the grind your world and Azeroth became indistinguishable. “Immersive” is selling the experience short. As I remember my childhood with Kano, I don’t remember looking at a screen; I remember our avatars as ourselves, wandering the planet.

In Classic, I created a new character, a fresh level 1 Undead mage. Slinging frostbolts at bats and wolves in the night, more memories came back. I found myself slipping into a familiar trance— a fugue state killing one monster after another, loosening my grip on time, walking by foot from this town to the next, dying and walking as a spirit back to my corpse, resurrecting again and again.

I skipped meals to play with Kano uninterrupted. It was during those trances that we spoke the most. Forgot what our fingers were doing and we talked crushes and things unrequited. We talked about how to show a girl that you liked her (you make eye contact, and you have to smile). We stumbled into a discovery of the word cum when we tried an abbreviated way of telling each other to come over and help out—and the game’s built-in censors turned the verb into a row asterisks. I called my dad over to ask him why that was. He looked me in the eyes, straight-faced, and said, “Must be a bug.”

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