World of Warcraft — A case of identity tourism?

World of Warcraft, created by Blizzard Entertainment, is the single most successful MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) ever produced. The game now has more than 12-million subscribers, each of whom pays not only for the boxed software but also a monthly subscription that averages at about €13.

At the heart of the game is an avatar created by the user that starts at Level 1 and can cap at Level 85. Each level takes longer to reach the further you progress, but with each level your avatar gains power, new skills and abilities, and new opportunities for in-game exploration.

It’s perhaps a testament to the game’s depth of immersion that so many players end up taking Warcraft to heart. Their avatar really becomes a veiled extension of themselves, allowing the opportunity of toying with new identities and roles that would otherwise not be possible in real life, crossing the boundaries of race, gender and class. And it works only because the game is by nature socially interactive: it’s a universe that’s meant to be shared with other people and the quest-lines and objectives that one encounters constantly encourage this.

But I know a fair number of players for whom Warcraft has moved from role-play to real-life replacement. They count their online player-friends as their only friends. An in-game friend recently told me that he went out on a date recently (his first in years), but the conversation fell flat because he was musing the whole evening what tactical rotations he could use for his warrior character. He said he felt anxious that his date hadn’t worked out, but quickly sidelined his feelings by immersing himself in the virtual environment once more.

Stories like these abound. A few years ago, a woman went on the Tyra Banks show to share her outrage at her husband missing their child’s birth because he had to complete some achievements and quests on Warcraft. Teenagers have dropped out of school, men and women have sacrificed jobs and marriages (the so called “Warcraft widows”), and some seem to have attempted murder. In 2008, Zhenghao Shen stabbed his friend in the head and almost severed one of his fingers when his friend asked him to turn down the volume on his Warcraft game. When Shen’s friend confronted him physically, Shen responded with a knife blade.

I think it’s unfair to blame Warcraft for this kind of anti-social behaviour, which would patently suggest existing psychosocial problems, but it does force one to consider whether these intensively immersive game environments can fuel these conditions. Here’s a post that cropped up in the Warcraft game forum recently:

WTF BLIZZ!! Why in the @#%!ing world is my shadowfiend hitting for 1.5k!? It’s a @#%!ing 5 minute cooldown and yet you seriously f*** felt it was overpowered!? For @#%!s sake! Does blizz not realize that–other than our dots–its pretty much the only f*** way to get any real damage on someone in arenas, because of course we can’t f*** hardcast 99% of any f*** match cause of all the god damn interrupts, melee #@@@*!s, or people running around pillars!@#%! YOU BLIZZ!!! (Goblitron, level 85 priest)

Angry much? You don’t need to understand gaming jargon to appreciate how seriously offended this user feels at what he believes is an oversight around the current mechanics of his class. Isn’t he taking things just a bit too seriously? Perhaps. Part of the issue seems to be that Warcraft demands a fairly large time investment in the avatars you create: some players will have been working on their character since the game’s inception seven years ago, so for them to feel under-resourced by the designers in any current patch can fast turn into anger.

It’s one of the dangers of large-scale MMO’s like Warcraft, Rift, or Runescape: they’re so compelling because their universe is so convincing and much of the game interaction occurs on in real-time. But that’s precisely what makes them spaces of potential isolation from reality, where “identity tourism” as it’s often called almost transforms into a new form of reality where the self is completely invested in this imaginary world. My advice: step away from the computer when the blades start coming out. But then it’s already too late.



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