Tao Plays: World of Warcraft Classic
WoW Classic: Levels 1 - 30
As I reactivated my subscription, downloaded the Battle.net launcher and prepared to jump into WoW classic, I messaged some old online friends through Steam. I hadn’t chatted to these guys for a decade. They responded warmly and instantly. We had made friends through World of Warcraft shortly after the game was released in 2004. Initially in one of those big guilds that will take anybody, then in a smaller breakaway guild with just the good eggs. From age 13 to age 18, at first intensely and then sporadically, I got to know these people through avatars and monikers, dungeons and quests. Although there was the occasional voice chat (I still impersonate my character’s name being said in a thick northern accent), their personalities were conveyed almost entirely through messages. It was these messages that appeared on my screen, bringing with them a wave of strange emotion and nostalgia. The words matched their characters as I remembered them, and it was as though over ten years nothing had changed.
Classic was less of an event for them, as they had continued to play on and off in the intervening years. It was unlikely they would join me, but I felt excited to see if I could recreate that sense of comradery with other people; to find out if I could still enjoy socialising with strangers through the game; and if it still had the same power to draw me in that it did when I was a teenager. I say excited, I also felt a weird sense of guilt, and the weight of society’s view that I am a loser for playing this game. I thought about staying in to go raiding rather than fooling around outside with my friends. I thought about doing no GCSE and A-level revision. I thought about the fact that I am currently unemployed and somewhat directionless. Whilst all of these things were and are my choice, they still get thrown into the cauldron of what it means to re-enter a world that consumed two hundred or so days of my time. For those unfamiliar with the phrase ‘/played’, that’s at least 4,800 hours.
I rolled a troll priest, chose the PvE realm that I liked the name of most, and logged in. Back to killing boars, 2004 style. The general chat window was filled with people being goofy and exchanging reminiscences. Somehow, this place had begun before the internet had all the answers. I think many of the people slowly running around me were trying to roleplay that time. I saw question after question asking for advice on all aspects of the game, from quest locations to equipment and crafting. A quick search would no doubt have done the trick, but there seemed to be an unspoken agreement that this collaboration was a part of playing the game. I strolled smiling through my first ten levels. I loved how co-operative everyone was. For the simplest tasks every other player seemed to want to group up. Many times I would arrive just after a tough encounter had been dealt with by another group, only for them to offer to stick around to help me with it as well. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I remember WoW being mostly filled with people who were forced to work together for personal gain, rather than working together just for fun.
These positive experiences continued into The Barrens, a notorious Horde questing zone where everyone spends a big chunk of their time. Every evening I would meet new people, group up, and complete multiple quests. However, I never formed any lasting bonds, and we would always eventually go our separate ways. I thought it was jokes that some people complained about slow spawn times for enemies, and having to run long distances. Lads, this is literally what you’ve signed up for. You can’t say you weren’t forewarned. Most people were returnees of some form or another, but I did meet a few young people who were playing for the first time (and loving it). These people were more like the players I remembered, itching to level up and make progress. The old hands were just taking their time and soaking up the vibes. ‘Enjoy the grind’ became a kind of knowing farewell amongst players: yes we all understand this is a questionable use of our time, but we’re doing it anyway.
It was after my first run through Wailing Caverns, a dungeon in The Barrens, that I felt the ultimate level of satisfaction the game can give you. I have read that people are hardwired to enjoy synchronised group activities, such as marching in unison or playing music together. With no research whatsoever, I’m going to claim that dungeons in WoW prod this same bit of our brains. None of us really cared all that much about the loot we were finding, or the levels we were gaining. Blizzard’s intricate dopamine reward systems paled in comparison to a more basic activity: pushing buttons together to make something happen. It didn’t hurt that one member of our group was fairly inept, whilst the rest of us whispered lighthearted critiques behind his back. The experience catered for my caveperson instincts, and sprinkled on a bit of casual social intrigue for good measure. After completing the dungeon, with a full party wipe to make it authentic, I joined the guild that three of my party members were in. These three would end up being the closest I’d get to good online friends in WoW classic.
I continued to enjoy doing dungeons, and made several runs through all of the ones accessible to me through levels 1 to 30. I patiently watched some tense discussions play out in our guild chat, as one person in particular seemed to be making it his mission to troll the world. Spend any time on the internet and you’ll know the sort. I was tempted to leave the guild after he said some fairly offensive things, but instead I turned on my social work head and tried to think about his feelings and motivations. I remember there were always difficult people who used the game as a forum for their discontent, and not necessarily in a constructive way. However, in the otherwise serene world of Classic, he stood out like a Tauren in Ironforge. I let the drama play out, and took it as a reminder of how our online spaces can reflect real differences in circumstance, without the systems which (usually) keep everyone orderly.
Once I hit level 30 I logged out. I hadn’t planned on leaving it there, but I had a growing sense of the game taking up more and more of my time. It wasn’t so much that I felt my time could be better spent, or that it was a waste of time, just a realisation that whilst I was playing WoW Classic, I would not touch any other games. The times between those great dungeon experiences would get longer as the time between levels increased. In a world where all things could be pursued infinitely and without constraint, there is no doubt in my mind that I would continue to play. However, in this world there are other things I would rather be doing. I always defended my teenage self for playing World of Warcraft. After fifty more hours, I still defend him. If it’s a world you want to be in, all the power to you, and enjoy the grind.