WoW Classic and the limits of nostalgia

WoW Classic is a game centered on nostalgia, but it’s impossible to completely replicate the original game. In the same way, American politics is currently motivated by nostalgia for times that will never exist again.

Christian Patterson
2020-04-17
Underground Mall

WoW Classic released August 2019. It was a perfect recreation of World of Warcraft, before they added any expansions. Phase 4 out of 6 is almost here, as Blizzard releases the content in a staggered way, mirroring the way they released the content of the original game. Blizzard took careful care to give people the same sensations that made them love WoW to begin with, down to specific details like when game patches went live. They recreated the vanilla WoW experience as perfectly as they could, in any way they could.

[For the purposes of this post Classic WoW or WoW Classic refers to the re-release of WoW. Vanilla WoW refers to the original version of WoW]

And yet, WoW Classic looked different from vanilla World of Warcraft. Before WoW Classic came out, I wrote a long post called “WoW Classic and gamer’s search for community“. In it, I wrote it was remarkable that the pre-release hype for WoW Classic revolved around people wanting a sense of community in a game.

In Wow Classic, there’s a greater sense of community than most online games. But the way that community manifested was different than the way it manifested in vanilla WoW. Because there were many factors around the game that were different, but had nothing to do with the core substance of the game. Because of this, it shows the limits of nostalgia, because when the nostalgia object returns, it’s never the same that it used to be. WoW Classic is an especially strong example of this, because its ostensibly identical, yet so much of the game depends on social and user-created elements, which have now changed.

Then, I’ll conclude by pulling out, and looking at what we can take from nostalgia more broadly, particularly as it applies to the 2020 election.

There are four main reasons WoW Classic is different than vanilla WoW. The first is that addons are much better and fleshed out then they used to be. Using addons to supplement gameplay is much more common, useful, and basically expected. There were addons in vanilla WoW, they were just less ubiquitous.

The second biggest change is streaming. There are dozens and dozens of WoW streamers. This changes the way people approach the game. They can see what other people do and emulate it. They form sub-communities based around what streams they watch. In fact, there’s at least one server that is a designated “streamer” server.

Third, there’s simply a much higher access to information. Back in the day, to do a quest you had to go to a website called Thotbott. The information was user provided, and you would often find quests with little or insufficient information. There’s now an abundance of information about WoW all over the internet, and there was over a decade of time to help generate information about how WoW works.

And fourth, people are simply much more skilled now. When WoW Classic came out, there were guilds who beat the Molten Core, the first major raid, in about a week. That would be absolutely unheard of in vanilla WoW, and was only possible because they optimized their group in every possible way.

All of these things, plus some other things, has made the subjective experience of playing a near-identical game into something different.

This isn’t a World of Warcraft blog, it’s a blog about society, so I don’t want to get into game details too much. But I have a couple small example to show how these minor changes consequently completely alter the content of the game.

Back in the day, if you were leveling solo, and trying to go fast, the best class to play was hunter. They’re the strongest class in terms of killing one enemy, by yourself.

But people have tested, min/maxed, and calculated the most efficient way to level. And now, mages are the best class at solo leveling, by far, if you use their particular abilities in very particular ways. Mages can basically infinitely grind through enemies, but only efficiently after years of experimenting and min/maxing.

Similarly, back in the day when you joined a group in WoW, there was one tank (who takes the damage), one healer (who heals the tank), and three DPS (who do the killing). This is the standard dungeon dynamic, and it’s still very commonly used.

By 2019, there was more focus, and more ability to focus, on optimization. The classic tank-healer-DPS is still the standard especially if you’re playing with strangers, or are casual. But there’s multiple ways to group now, and some of them are much more efficient if done right than the traditional way.

I won’t get into anymore details about it, you get the idea: as people learned more about the game, between it’s first release and re-release, the game changed. People are not playing the same version of World of Warcraft that they played in 2004, and it’s not only because of minor tweaks to mechanics.

WoW Classic tells us a lot about societal nostalgia. Namely, we can look to WoW Classic and see why when nostalgia is fulfilled generally, it is never what you remember. That’s almost embedded into the meaning of nostalgia; it warps and morphs over time.

This is even more true with with broader cultural and social nostalgia, as opposed to personal or emotional nostalgia. Imagine personal nostalgia, like reminiscing about a gal you went steady with back in the day. That nostalgia is between two people, and it is more intimately known. It doesn’t warp as much over time, as reminiscing about life in the 1950s or 60s, or even older time periods than that.

Last election, Trump ran on nostalgia. This election Biden is running on nostalgia. But both of them are running it differently.

In 2016, Trump ran on “Make America Great Again”. Although this is about as explicit of a nostalgic political expression as one can get, it’s nostalgic for an idealized past, that never existed, and never will exist.

“Make America Great Again” is a future-facing nostalgia, where one idealized the past, and then tries to create that idealization. MAGA looks to both the past and future, ignoring the present.

Trump may not (or may…) be a fascist, but even if he isn’t, the MAGA movement, and what it stands for, is very much in line with fascistic movements in the past, and signals the beginning of what will blossom more and more into a full-on fascist movement.

Fascist movements have traditionally always idealized the past, and wanted to “re-“implement that past. And since that imagined past is imagined, and therefore materially unobtainable or unsustainable, leads to their self-destruction.

In this way, the end goal of what MAGA represents is also based in an imagined past that can’t happen: everyone being white, living in either urban penthouses or suburban developments, driving big trucks or taking lyft, with a fully insular economy, the US wholly dependent on its own manufacturing etc. That world will never exist, and a system that attempts to create that world will ultimately defeat itself, after causing innumerable amounts of suffering along the way.

Joe Biden’s nostalgia is similar but different. His campaign slogan is “Restore the soul of America”. I’ve rarely heard that slogan, and had to look up what his slogan specifically was, but every time Biden is on tv (not very often), he’s constantly gesturing towards the past, specifically right before Trump got elected.

In this way, Biden’s nostalgia is for a more tangible future than Trump’s. Paradoxically, Biden is advocating for the status quo, while also advocating for a past status quo. He thinks Trump is an anomaly, and once he loses, everything will go back to normal.

On the one hand, Biden’s nostalgic past seems more obtainable than Trump’s, because in theory, it wouldn’t be that hard to just reverse all off Trump’s policies and *poof* everything is back to normal. On the other hand, Biden’s imagined past is just as unrealistic as Trump’s. We are never going back to the US before Trump.

Trump wasn’t out of the blue, he was overdue. He is the logical conclusion to American neoliberal capitalism, and the Trump movement is going to continue dominating the republican party. From my experience, some democrats seem to think that the republican party under Trump is on the verge of exploding, and they’re sabotaging themselves or something. However, they clearly have more consolidated power than they have for a long time.

What’s the takeaway from this?

The takeaway is that the structure of WoW didn’t change when it went from its vanilla form to Classic WoW.

However, World of Warcraft is an ecosystem of systems. It’s not just the game system, it’s an online game with millions of players, so it overlaps heavily with social, political, economic, and cultural systems. As broader societal systems change, as they always do over time, the game can consequently never be the same. Those societal, and other, changes are represented by the fact that people play the game completely differently in some ways than it used to be played.

Reality isn’t different. When it comes to political nostalgia, the past can’t be replicated. Even if you make a facsimile of a political system or policy that once existed, it still will no longer exist in the same way, because not everything can be a facsimile of something from the past.

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