A long-time World of Warcraft player reflects on playing the game in the current historical moment.
I have been playing World of Warcraft since 2007, and while I was never the kind of dedicated gamer who raids endgame content, the rhythm of the game—its quests and tasks, expansions and updates, community and gossip—has shaped much of my life over the past decade and a half. World of Warcraft is a massive multiplayer online game created by Blizzard, which was first released in November of 2004 and has since been through eight major expansions that have added new content to the game world. Although its popularity has declined from its height of 10 million players globally, millions of people still log on to the digital world of Azeroth every day.
My connection to the game is both personal and professional. My first publication was a review of Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader. My master’s thesis examined language use, gender performance, and community in a World of Warcraft guild. I presented my research at the 2011 MLA Convention. I attended an art exhibition on the game and, when finances finally allowed, BlizzCon, the annual fan convention for all things Blizzard. I introduced my sister, mother, and father to the game, and our weekly family game nights have united us across miles and time zones. When my sister spent three years in Japan, it connected us across hemispheres. For our 15th wedding anniversary, my husband, who also plays the game, made us a game version of the achievement to celebrate (Figure 1).
Partly because I had been playing the game for so long, I received invites to both the alpha and beta releases of the seventh expansion, Battle for Azeroth. As someone who works with words, most of my bug reports were about typos and grammatical errors in the quest text—I even sent in a long note about the use of the subjunctive tense in British and American English. I have no idea if my mini-essay was ever read, but I like to think that somewhere in Blizzard headquarters, I’m known as “The Verb-Tense Player.” When I received an invite to the beta for the newest expansion, Shadowlands, in the spring of 2020, I was excited to explore the new content (and submit even more notes about lexical irregularities).
At first, I thought the pandemic would mean even more gaming time. Working from home meant no commute or after-hours events. My region’s stay-at-home orders also meant that the only place I really went was the grocery store. But instead, I found myself struggling to find any interest in logging in. I spent a few days exploring the Shadowlands and then largely stopped playing. Now that everything is experienced through a computer—my job, my family, my friends—the thought of experiencing a world that exists solely on the computer has lost much of its appeal.
As the pandemic drags on, the line between “real” and “virtual” continues to blur. My mother’s face on the computer screen is as real as her game avatar’s. My best friend is only a voice on the phone. I watch the news—on yet another screen—to see a reality-show president backed by internet conspiracy theories causing real-world harm. The narrative of fantastic heroes battling against overwhelming odds has been mobilized to lionize frontline healthcare workers while simultaneously eliding their needs as flesh-and-blood human beings.
Originally an escape from mundane reality, the game world and the technological tools I use to access it have become inextricably linked with the global trauma of current events. Instead of a portal to fantastic adventure, turning on my computer has become a daily reminder of our grim reality.
I still meet my family for our weekly game nights, but our sessions are shorter and our conversations include updates on our health—both physical and emotional. As a student of history, I know that we will eventually emerge from this dark historical moment. But I also know that our world—its people, its stories, its hopes and dreams—will be forever changed.