Sunday, July 4, 2010

how i learned to stop worrying and not love WoW

on the first-ever boat on the Turalyon server from Menethil Harbor to the Howling Fjord, November 12th, 2008

Sometime around a year ago was the last time I logged into World of Warcraft.

My history with the game goes back to the first week it was live to the general public, in December 2004. Despite my love of computer games, especially role-playing games, I had never played an MMO (massively multiplayer online game) before. Not Everquest, not Dark Age of Camelot, not Star Wars Galaxies, nothin'. But for whatever reason, I wanted to give World of Warcraft (WoW) a spin.

For the next year and a half, WoW became my primary hobby. The game was more fun and addictive than I had even imagined. At first, I wasn't that enamored with the idea of interacting with and teaming up with other players, or joining a "guild," which just sounded silly. But within a month or so, I was making friends and could also see the advantages of working cooperatively with other players. And a couple of months after that, I had actually started my own guild. Quelle suprise!

But in mid-2006, I quit the game. There were two major factors:

(1) Being a GuildMaster (GM) was wearing me out. In those pre-Burning Crusade days, you needed forty - count 'em, forty - players to do endgame raiding and advance in the game. At first, our tiny, happy guild kept losing players who would join up with us to learn the game and level their characters, then as soon as they hit level 60 (the pre-BC cap), depart for a "raiding guild" so they could get cool stuff and continue progressing in the game. So then I and the other guild leaders decided that we should try to become an endgame-type guild, so we stepped up recruiting and formed a partnership with another guild to get the forty people we'd need to raid Molten Core and beyond.

While this was the only decision we could make if we wanted to be more than a happy fun leveling guild, it went all Treasure of the Sierra Madre in a hurry, especially after we stated taking out Molten Core bosses and having good stuff to divvy up. People argued about the loot reward system. Touchy personalities jostled for key positions like main tank, puller, and raid leader. People bitched about not being on the raid list even though these same people failed to sign up in a timely fashion. And, most weirdly, a lot of folks who had carped endlessly about us not doing endgame content would make themselves unavailable or be playing alts during our endgame raids. So performing this balancing act became a big ol' dose of No Fun every weekend, and my hobby was no longer bringing me pleasure.

(2) My girlfriend at the time hated WoW. Or rather, she hated me playing it. (Her young adult son also played, and she didn't seem to mind that.) Never mind that it was a long-distance relationship, so it wasn't like she was coming home to me leading a party around Blackrock Depths while dishes piled up in the sink. Or that I never took away any time that I could spend with her and gave it to the game - in fact, I'd drop everything at the prospect of a phone call or visit. In the end, I think she viewed WoW as a competitor for my attention, even though it really was no competition for her at all.

But anyway, #1 and #2 combined to suck all the joy out of a great game, so I finally put my account on hold and left the game entirely in May 2006.

During the next thirteen months, the tempestuous long-distance relationship ran its stormy course, and in April 2007, I began dating the woman who'd become my second wife. In June of that year, my youngest sister and I took a trip to Dallas. She brought with her a belated birthday present: World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, the first expansion for the game. She and her husband had gotten hooked on the game in 2006, around the time that I was quitting, and the gift came with the caveat that I would be reactivating my account and moving my upper-level characters to her server.

I had some trepidations about playing again, especially since I had just started a new, promising relationship, and had just exited a relationship where the game caused problems. But I took the unexpected gift as a sign that I should just go with what life was handing me, so I jumped right back in as soon as I returned from the Dallas trip.

And the results were nothing but good. Now WoW time became family time, and I got to connect with my youngest sister, my brother-in-law, and to a lesser extent, my oldest sister and her long-time boyfriend by playing the game. I also think I managed to balance work, WoW, and my healthy new not-long-distance relationship. My new girlfriend was a chef and had a job where she generally worked from 2 PM through 10 or 11 PM five days a week. I only played WoW on evenings when she worked, and this seemed to satisfy all parties. My sister's guild was very reminiscent of my old happy fun guild: mostly nice, smart, fun folks who were good company in guild chat and made playing the game worthwhile. Plus she and two other folks were the co-guild masters, so the burden of leadership wasn't mine and I could feel free just to play.

This situation prevailed through my girlfriend and I both losing our jobs within the space of a couple of months in 2008, us moving in together and getting married, and me getting a new job in retail in October 2008. The retail job was supposedly a day shift joint, but from late 2008 through the first half of 2009, it turned out to be mostly closing shifts (2:30 or 3:30 PM through 11 PM or 12 AM). So I ended up playing on off-days, or, on work days, from breakfast until I had to get ready to leave for work, and super late night when I was back from work and too wired to sleep. My wife was usually asleep or close to it by the time I'd get home at night, so, again, the game took little or no time away from the two of us.

So why'd I leave WoW a year ago if I was having such a great time playing? Strangely, it wasn't intentional per se, it just kind of happened. Around this time last year (July 2009), my work schedule changed and I began working days as promised, instead of nights. One of my initial thoughts was, honest to goodness, "hurrah! Now I can have more time for WoW - I can raid every night instead of just certain ones!" Seriously, I thought this would lead to me spending more time in Azeroth, and the prospect delighted me.

However, what actually happened was this: My wife and I were suddenly on the same schedule for the first time ever. Every night, we were having dinner together and spending the evening watching TV and talking to each other, like a couple ought to be doing.

Suddenly, playing WoW didn't seem nearly as attractive. I really thought during those first few weeks that the next day would be the day I'd get the itch and log back in, knock out a big batch of daily quests, and reconnect with my WoW friends.

Weeks and months went by, and that day never came.

I feel the need to add that none of this came from spousal pressure, explicit or implied. My wife has always been cool with the game, and we always worked together to plan around scheduled in-game events like guild raids. (Before you can ask: She has zero interest in WoW and would never ever be interested in playing it, alongside me or not.) The only time we even had words about WoW was one Saturday or Sunday when she and I were supposed to go run some errands in the late afternoon, and a Stratholme jaunt turned into a crazy revolving-cast all-day thing and I lost track of time. Day turned to night without me even noticing, and if I were on the other end of that, I'd be a little steamed too. I'm completely sure that if tomorrow I decided to start playing again, she'd be fine with that, wish me well, and help me maximize my time there.

Anyway, as you've seen, this post isn't a fanatical screed about the addictive nature of MMOs and how they destroy your "real life." My 2007-2009 return to WoW was rewarding and fun, and I enjoyed almost every minute in the game, especially spending time with distant family and building new relationships. Having fun and being with people you like is as "real" and "worthwhile" as it gets, and WoW provided massive quantities of both for me.

However, something even more worthwhile is an evening at home on the sofa with the wife and puppies. And I'm not willing to take time away from that, at least not now. I miss flying around Northrend trying to beat jackass thieves to herb and mine nodes, and evenings of endless in-jokes in Naxxramas, but right now I'm exactly where I need to be.