The pre-release discourse for Classic WoW shows people are desperate for a sense of community. But why is that search leading them to a 15 year old game exactly?
Blizzard has announced they are going to release Classic WoW, a version of Word of Warcraft that has long been inaccessible. It’s the game as originally released, but without any expansions or alterations to the gameplay. It will be the first time people have been able to access this content in about twelve years, and the first time the vanilla world, unmodified, will be accessible in almost ten years.
For people like me, who used to play WoW extensively, it will feel nice going back to a world that shaped my adolescence. Growing up, I spent more time in WoW’s world of Azeroth than anywhere else, except my home and high school (if you were to take the game world as a “place”). When I was at home, I played WoW. When I went to friend’s houses, we played WoW. When my friends and I did something else, we talked about WoW.
Personally, this is what Classic WoW means to me: it means playing a game I put thousands of hours into again with some of my friends from high school.
However, if you look around at the pre-release discourse about this game, you’ll see people harping on the same thing: community. People constantly say that Classic WoW had a better sense of community than the current game, which it did – it had a better community than maybe any game, ever.
Throughout the years, Blizzard has modified almost everything about the game, and many of those changes have been about streamlining gameplay accessibility, to sacrifice community. For example, back in the day it was often a huge chore finding a group for a dungeon, because you were pulling from a relatively small pool of people on the server. This was changed to a Looking for Group feature, which would pair you with random people from random servers, eliminating the ability to know your server-mates by name. The old version, although much more of a chore, depended heavily on socializing with peers.
I have more memorable community interactions playing WoW than any other game. So I totally understand why “community” – which isn’t even a formal feature in the game – is so desired from WoW. But it does speak to a societal problem that so many people are coming to Classic WoW as a means of experiencing a community.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with playing a game for community, and World of Warcraft is probably the best game to do so. But it’s worth examining why so many grown men are longing for a social experience from their teenage years, some of them even moreso than the game itself.
For one, it’s kind of impossible to separate the social experiences from my teenage years and the game itself. Like I said, it’s what my friends and I did when we hung out. We would usually have a computer, and then a tv and xbox. Two or three of us would play XBox, while the other would play WoW. The whole time we’d be talking about WoW. I remember so many days during summer shooting hoops in the driveway, or sitting in the bed of a parked truck, just talking about WoW the whole time.
I have so many memories from WoW that feel engrained in me differently than my memory of other games. For example, when I started, I met someone who wanted to quest with me, but also wanted to LARP. We leveled together along time, and were kind of close, but eventually they went to an RP server. I remember being in a guild with this dude who went to Penn State who was pretty cool. I remember seeing the people with the best gear, or in the biggest raiding guilds, in Orgrimmar repeatedly and being impressed.
On the server Tichondrius, there was a Horde character named Alea. She had her own guild, and was well-known for calling people “hun” in trade chat. Her guild also adapted saying “hun,” speaking like her to others. This made Alea a celebrity on the Tichondrius server Horde side. Meanwhile, there was an Alliance character named Steelballa who was equally notorious on the Alliance side. Both were fairly well-known on both sides, due to their activity on the WoW forums.
So, both characters organized an in-game wedding, to be held at Gurubashi Arena, the only area in the game where you can kill anyone. I went, and the arena was absolutely swamped with people. The framerate dropped to barely nothing, and my screen froze into fits and starts of a blurry mass of players killing each other. The server kept crashing for many people. It was pure chaos, and yet, it was exhilarating because it was created within a game we all played, with people we played with, making an emergent socio-ludic (ludic meaning, pertaining to gameplay) situation within that context.
I could go into more little moments, but won’t bore anyone with details. These types of interactions are the foundation of WoW. Without this, the game is very repetitive, simplistic, and boring. The game mechanics are enhanced, and exist side-by-side with the social elements. Without the social element, you’re playing an elaborate clicker game (boring), and without the gameplay element, you’re playing a very rudimentary chat room with a graphic interface (boring).
I’ve pointed out how World of Warcraft is a great avenue for social interactions. For a game, it’s actually a rewarding way to make social connections. For me, personally, my biggest social motivation to play WoW, is a lot of my friends from back home will be playing, and I played with them growing up. But, I’m not motivated to find a new community, or meet new people. That is something that motivates many of the people who’re excited for WoW Classic however.
But, why are nerds so fixated on this part – on getting a digital community? Presumably, people can find a more enriched sense of community elsewhere. Or at the very least, their social life in WoW could merely be a supplement to their otherwise normal social lives. Like, if you simply enjoy games that include interacting with others.
The reason why nerds are fixated with the social elements of WoW is simple: they don’t have any other social life. And that’s not to be mean to nerds (if my gushing about World of Warcraft hasn’t tipped you off). The truth is, most Americans are highly socially isolated, and this is exemplified in nerds.
Under capitalism, we’re conditioned to relate socially through commodities. We make friends by relating to them based on commodities we like. We communicate through commodities. We buy commodities frivolously because we feel compelled to. In fact, the entire capitalist political project depends on commodifying things, because the capitalist class needs to establish the wage labor-commodity production process, which is how they accumulate profit.
This means that methods through which people could interact are now buried behind commodification, and the capitalist process. Not only that, but new ways to interact socially have been invented, in order for a capitalist to benefit from it. The point of all of this is, commodities are ubiquitous and they inform the way we engage with the world and others, in such a deep way, that we can hardly even see the depth and extent.
So capitalism actively alienates us from people around us, by burying potential social relations behind economic gatekeeping. And when we do interact with others, it’s often not in an”organic” way, because we are interacting in a way compatible with commodities.
But then, why am I picking on video game nerds specifically? The reason is nerds predate the hyper-commodity culture we currently live in. Commodity culture is a necessary feature of capitalism, all the way back to Marx. But, it has been accelerated and reformatted due to modern technology.
Nerds, as we currently conceive them, date back to the 80s. They’re the forerunners of our current mode of commodity culture. Nerds, then, were vacuous, antisocial fanatics of pop culture. The prototype for this subculture dates back to the 30s-50s with pulp novels and magazines. But nerds, as we conceive them, depend on modern technology that amplifies the isolation and alienation that lays underneath the pop culture fanaticism.
Video game nerds build a world around themselves where they retreat into games, because that’s the most comfortable thing in their life. It’s escapism par excellence. It’s not just “escaping” into a Jane Austen novel or “escaping” into a movie, it’s escaping into a world, that you digitally live in.
Then, let’s say you discover WoW. Maybe your brother finds out about it from friends, and then you tell your friends about it. Before you know it, a dozen people you know play the game, and they spend the majority of their free time playing after school.
Then, before you know it you spend virtually all of your free time playing this game. You play with your friends, and you even made lots of virtual friends. When you leave the World of Warcraft, the analog world begins to feel overwhelming and confusing. You can’t just google search quests. There aren’t secret systems and mechanics you can learn that underlie the world (at least, not in the simple and learnable way that exists in video games).
Now imagine similar processes, that include other social elements like: social alienation, or at least general social awkwardness, compounded with the natural drifting away from friends that happens in adulthood, mixed with retreating to video games to decompress after a long day.
All of these dynamics cause nerds to be an exemplary subculture of the social alienation that is more generally rampant in a heavily commodified capitalist political economy. Because, unlike other subcultures, which are often more dynamic, and usually more rooted in ideology or a specific worldview, nerd culture is wholly and utterly consumed within commodification.
Not to get to Marcusean (imposing psychoanalysis on political economies), but nerd culture is the replacement of the blanket, crib, and pacifier commodities with more sophisticated economies. It’s when you wean yourself off of child-appeasing commodities by moving on to different commodities, for older kids.
This leaves nerds at a point where their main source of entertainment, which their lives in many ways revolves around, also offers them some semblance of a community. And since their lives are already intimately wrapped up in their commodity subculture, it ends up working out well, having a community wrapped in.
The community aspect of WoW is strong, and gives people a level of socialization that they otherwise might not get. At the same time though, people shouldn’t be clamoring to play a game, primarily for the community. To me, that indicates there’s a big barrier between people and forming realer, more meaningful relationships in real life, and a lot of those barriers happen because of the way commodities are thrusted on us.