Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
CC2K’s Pop Culture Professor takes a look at the fascinating World of Warcraft.
Earlier this month, World of Warcraft announced they’d hit 12 million subscriptions: that’s 12 million people actively playing, or the population of a not so small country. The recent surge in active players accompanies the announcement of a release date for the Cataclysm expansion, which will, like expansions before it, extend the level cap and allow players to reach new powers. However, while previous expansions tweaked When Cataclysm hits, we won’t be playing the same game we purchased six years ago. We might even be playing a better game.
For those who’ve never played MMOs, the obsession can be hard to understand. Logging on to his server in WoW a player can transform himself almost instantaneously from a scrawny geek with glasses into an Orcish warrior. As a warrior, he shouts battle cries of “For the Horde!” as he protects his allies while taking the lead in a raid on a puny human village or centaur encampment. He surrounds himself with his fellow guildsmen, other members of the “Panda Attack!” allegiance, sending messages both of strategy and of simple discussion back and forth through the game interface. His enemies may be other players filling the races of elves, dwarves, gnomes, and humans in the opposing faction, or they may simply be computer generated creatures fulfilling their routine purposes. Physically, the players are scattered across the globe, each in his or her own individual home at a computer terminal. But that space is irrelevant, forgotten: the focus is on the shared virtual space.
I got an email today advertising one of the many services aimed at avid players of WoW: “In preparation of the cataclysmic changes brought to Azeroth, preserve a snapshot of your hero wielding the finest gear from Northrend before venturing forth into the upcoming expansion seeking new armor and weapons. Order a custom statue or bust of your character today before the cataclysm changes you forever.” Check it out here.
Of course, “preserving” your character takes a little more than a statue–even if that statue costs $130 and uses fabulous 3D printing technology. The Cataclysm changes already in operation have in many cases transformed the way characters play in fundamental ways, and the expansion itself promises to reboot the world–completely transforming every avatar, and their world. Anyone who has been playing since the launch of Warcraft has invested over a thousand dollars in the game, but they have no say in these changes. When you buy a single-player game, or even a traditional multiplayer game, you get to keep playing that game forever–ok, for as long as you can keep track of the CD and copyright code and convince a computer to run it. If a company releases an expansion pack and you don’t want it, you can keep playing the original game without anything changing. MMOs, on the other hand, are in continual flux. When we purchase an MMO, we don’t know what the game we’re buying will look like in a year–or if the servers will even be running.
Yes, that’s the other side of MMOs: death. Not in-game death, which is usually painless in MMOs–experiments with “permanent death” in MMOs have never found a large fanbase, perhaps in part because the idea of an internet connection lag-out costing you weeks or months of play progress is too painful for most players to contemplate. The only true death comes with the death of the game. The day the servers die, it won’t matter how many hours you’ve spent or what quests you’ve left undone.
It seems silly to talk about the death of WoW when the game is more populated than ever before: yet even the release of Cataclysm comes with its own type of death, the death of the world players have known. In its place will rise something new, but that too will see its end–the web is littered with the remains of MMOs past whose servers have seen their final shut down. Some of these worlds experience brief resurrection–Myst Uru, for instance, passed on the code for their servers to fans so the world could rise again–but the reality of these games is that they occupy virtual real estate, more easily
Even my financial investment as a since-launch WoW players pales in significance to that made by some residents of other virtual spaces–Second Life, with its system of exchange between in-game currency and “real” money, has stakeholders who’ve invested liberally in their virtual mansions.
Virtual objects have always stood for real money and time–just because they are more easily abandoned than physical structures doesn’t make them so easily forgotten. When I was younger, Artificial Life games were just taking off. Creatures — a tiny brown Norn that followed my cursor around the screen after weeks of bonding. She learned my name. With games like Kinectimals now on their way, Bast looks primitive, but when my mother accidentally deleted all the files I was devastated. I never played the game again. Like an avatar on a server, the data of these virtual creatures was easy to erase, and near impossible to completely reconstruct.
The nature of MMOs requires spaces of communal contract with minimal individual control–in that sense, it is perhaps as close to the real world as the virtual can get. The 12 million players in WoW are essentially taxpayers supporting a shared infrastructure, with other authority-makers deciding everything from how the institutions will take shape to what role individuals can have within the world. The Figureprints ad in my inbox promises a snapshot–a captured moment in the life of an avatar, the same as any photograph in the albums of Facebook, a saved fragment of another life experienced but impossible to relive.