Two years ago on this day, a second life I’d been living came to an end when I stopped playing World of Warcraft. Up until that point, I’d spent over 3600 hours1 inhabiting that world over the course of almost 4 years. During that time I quit playing five times–for 33, 21, 19, 250, and then 138 days–before inevitably coming back. Not counting those periods, my time in Azeroth (the game’s world) averaged out to about 26 hours per week, a part-time job’s worth but a good deal less than the average American spends watching television2.
If you’re unfamiliar, World of Warcraft is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). For context, take out the “O” and you’ve got a pretty good description of human life. You install it on a computer, create a character, choose a role–perhaps a brawny warrior, stealthy rogue, or arcane mage, among others–and enter a multifaceted world where you’re mostly free to do whatever you want. True to form, there are monsters to slay and treasures to collect, but there are plenty of ways to interact without actually “playing the game”. If you want to make a fortune speculating in the auction house economy, make a name telling jokes on the city-wide chat channels, or perilously take in the sights within enemy territory, you’re free to do all that. It was pretty fun.
Except when it wasn’t. Those five times I quit playing–it wasn’t that I got bored and decided to do something else. More often, it was that I’d play for 30 hours over the course of a weekend, look at my pale, stubbled face in the mirror, and delete the game in disgust. And then of course download it again a few weeks or months later. I never saw it this way, but while my characters were battling computer-generated monsters in the World of Warcraft, I myself was battling…well, something. A game? My brain? Myself? I’m still not sure.
I began playing WoW (as the initiated refer to it) in my junior year of college. I made a lot of friends my freshman year thanks to the ridiculous array of social events at school3, but as the years carried on I had a harder time meeting people. I felt isolated and began missing my friends back home. I knew some of them played WoW and I mostly made fun of them for it. But while I was home for spring break in 2007, a friend let me create a character on his account: a hunter. I shot some things with arrows, completed some quests, and even trained a pet to follow me around. But better yet, I was part of a guild–a group of players on the same side–that included many of my back-home friends. I could chat with them while playing and we could help each other out. A few days later, I signed up for my own account.
The learning curve was steep, but that only encouraged me. (It’s the same motivation that would lead me to pick up programming as a career.) Early on, the motivation had a social flavor. With their head start my friends were all at a higher level than I was, so I played constantly in order to catch up and join them on quests and in dungeons. The advancement itself was a powerful motivator as well. I did alright in school, but my coursework in philosophy and comparative literature had me reading difficult books and writing nebulously about them, over and over, and I doubted whether I was really getting anywhere. This contrasted sharply with the lustrous “New Level Achieved!” message I would see on the screen every day or two in WoW, and with it a measure of additional power over the game and other players.
It’s hard to say when exactly my playing became unhealthy, but I gradually began spending more of my free time playing (and when I couldn’t play, such as at work, reading and thinking about) World of Warcraft. Sensitive to this change, I immediately began to rationalize it. It was just a diversion, I thought, like television but more active and interesting. And I didn’t have much money in college. Why spend $15 going to the movies when the same sum would pay for an entire month of WoW? But the simplest, easiest justification was always the reason I began playing in the first place: my friends. How bad could something be if we all did it–if we had fun together doing it?
And to be honest, there were some moments of real exultation. When you’re “leveling up” in the game and something gets difficult, you can always come back later when you’re at a higher level and it’ll be easier. But once your character reaches the maximum level, as my friends and I did before long, there are challenges that can only be met by practicing and working together. Much of my time in World of Warcraft was spent this way, chatting with my guild mates over a headset while we tried, over and over, week after week, to get a boss fight right. Each of us would slowly get better, faster, more intuitive at our individual roles, and as a team we’d improve our coordination and communication. And then, one night…
I remember with preternatural clarity my greatest moment in the World of Warcraft. Nine of my friends and I were progressing through what was at the time the game’s most difficult dungeon, Icecrown Citadel. For weeks, we’d been trying to defeat a boss named Festergut. It was hard to get everyone online at the same time, so we’d schedule these weekly “raids”. We’d talk strategy as we looked forward to them, spend hours preparing potions and scrolls to aid us, and do repetitive quests over and over to earn the gold to buy whatever slightly superior equipment would give us an edge. The social obligation was palpable: nobody wanted to be the one who showed up unprepared and wasted everyone else’s time. And yet, week after week, even with the best preparation, small mistakes would be our undoing.
When you’re fighting a boss, victory typically looks a lot like defeat until it isn’t. Everyone is focused on their roles, adjusting to the chaos when they can, calling out for help when they can’t. For my part, I was a damage-dealer, laying as much hurt on Festergut as I could (in the form of an elaborate rhythm of button-presses) while adhering to the choreography required by this particular battle. This time, I was in a state of flow. I was hitting the right buttons almost without thought, and it showed: I was at the top of the charts, doing more damage than anyone else4, and more than I ever had or would. We defeated Festergut that night, and my guild mates patted me on the back and even awarded me a piece of the boss’s treasure.
It seems silly, but at the time I felt like Michael Jordan on a breakaway: a creature in his element, at peak performance. I was just a guy pressing buttons on a keyboard: the boss, the treasure–they were all just bits and pixels. But the focus, the teamwork, and the feeling of potential were all very real. And yet, for the many moments like that one, there were the others that came when I turned off the computer, sometimes at 2am when I had a paper due the next morning that I hadn’t started. Or when I’d disappoint my girlfriend by forgetting to plan anything for Valentine’s Day because my in-game to-do list was more pressing than my real-life one. But worse than all that was the way it felt, in moments of dissatisfaction with the game and myself, that I wanted to stop playing, had tried to stop playing, and couldn’t.
Of course, I did stop playing on five separate occasions, all for weeks or months at a time. But sooner or later, the game’s gravity would prevail. One reason for this was the fool’s “sunk cost” miscalculation: I felt like I’d already invested so much time in the game, how could I quit and render all of that experience meaningless? Another is simply that WoW offered the same psychological rewards as real-life pursuits–stimulation, accomplishment, camaraderie–but much more readily. Life is hard, and WoW was easy. Those times I stopped playing, I’d try earnestly to throw myself into schoolwork and socialization, to be the person I constantly felt WoW was holding me back from being. But I struggled with difficult theories and my own stubborn shyness. Inevitably, the feelings of powerlessness would pile up–made worse by the apparent evidence that it wasn’t WoW holding me back but my own inadequacy–and I would surrender. And each time, my guild mates would welcome me warmly, my fingers would remember their training, and I would marshal in that game a familiar efficacy that had no real-world equal.
This is what World of Warcraft was to me, right up until it wasn’t. My first attempt at explaining why I finally left would come a few months after quitting for good in something I wrote here on my twenty-fifth birthday. In it, I decided that it was a kind of awakening to what it is I wanted from life that finally got me to stop playing. Looking back, that’s mostly right, but I missed then a key detail that has made all the difference: I replaced gaming with reading and writing on this website. World of Warcraft had so much pull on me because it gave me short-term goals around which to structure my life, something I lacked otherwise. Sure, I wanted to graduate from college and get a job and all that, but those intentions were never pressing enough to change my behavior. World of Warcraft on the other hand was much more insistent: to keep up I had daily quests to complete, weekly raids with my guild, and seasonal in-game events each month or so with unique, can’t-miss rewards. When I stopped playing for the sixth and final time, I started this blog, a self-imposed claim on my time to replace the one I’d given up. Taking the place of quests and raids were books to read, drafts to refine, and, above all else, that longed-for sense of real, evident progress as my post count climbed.
And yet, even writing feels almost too much like a game. It’s so easy to pick some metric–be it “level” or post count, number of Facebook friends or balance in a bank account–to stand in as a handy measurement of one’s well-being, one’s progress in a life that keeps no score. And this can even be useful so long as we pick the right things to measure. But still, there is always the danger of making an idol of the metric: of excelling at a game, or writing, of making connections or money for its own sake, instead of the actually valuable but immeasurable thing–success, wisdom, love, security–for which it stands.
Having looked back with scouring eyes, I’m almost surprised to realize that I don’t regret my time in World of Warcraft. But those 3600 hours comprise a full 1.5% of my life–2.3% of my time awake–and had I spent them otherwise, I’d not be the person, for better or worse, that I am today. And I’m not sure I could forget them if I tried. Two years later, I can’t walk through the high-rises of Stuyvesant Town without recalling the towering mesas of Thousand Needles on the Island of Kalimdor in Azeroth.
3,628 hours to be exact, calculated by logging in as each of my characters, typing “/played” to see the total time logged on each character, and summing the results. I added 48 hours (a conservative estimate) for the characters I had deleted and whose time logged was thus inaccessible. ↩
Milk and Cookies Club? Ah, NYU… ↩
Over 13,000 damage per second. But, you know, no big deal. ↩