The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Virtual Worlds: Where Anyone — and Everyone — can be a Hero

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor

ImageWhen I started out playing my first Massive Multiplayer Online Game, Asheron’s Call, my immediate family bought three copies: I was in high school at the time, and my parents and I decided to move from Diablo-esque games to the big time. We weren’t alone: my cousin, uncle, and aunt all joined up too. We occasionally teamed up with other players, people who weren’t members of the Salter clan, but mostly these games became our family past-time. They live far away in Florida, so actually seeing them often would have been quite a feat while a weekly (or more) night of Asheron’s Call–and later Asheron’s Call 2, Anarchy Online, and now World of Warcraft–is much easier to arrange. We’d started as single-player gamers exploring dungeons alone, and now, with the rise of virtual worlds, we could suddenly be heroes together. The Salter clan could be a team ala The Incredibles.

Watching the media discovering the virtual worlds of Warcraft and Second Life, it’s easy to think there’s something very new going on in this world of massively multiplayer gaming. Actually, these ideas are as old as the Internet itself (which is to say, not very old at all). The predecessors to these fully three-dimensional environments opened the door to more unassuming worlds, first constructed only from text and ideas. These games, Multi-User Dungeons or “MUDs”, still exist today: you can log in and join a social world building stories of fantasy and conquest. But these worlds, and the object-oriented dungeons—MOOs—that followed them never gained popularity outside of small niche markets. Those were games for geeks and nerds, the sort of person who builds his own computer and goes to sci-fi and fantasy conventions. It wasn’t until the descendents of those games, now with flashy graphics and fully realized elf-babes, that the idea of playing in a virtual world became “cool.”

In 1997, the first massive multiplayer game that could live up to its name and support a number of players fighting rabbits and dragons together entered the scene: Ultima Online. Ultima, backed by the brilliant designer of the Ultima role-playing series Richard Garriott, took an established gaming universe of heroes and moral quests and expanded it to form a full medieval style society with Garriott ruler of it all as “Lord British.” Two other big releases followed suit: Everquest, affectionately dubbed Evercrack, and Asheron’s Call, my family’s game of choice, which would become Microsoft’s big push at the virtual world market. All of these games seemed to be standard geek fare allowing for wish-fulfillment fantasies of life as a sorcerer or knight in shining armor to be lived out from the home computer system with the added bonus of a growing virtual world as audience to one’s great deeds.

There’s a lot that’s similar about these early games, and about the games that rule the MMO scene today. This is part of the complaint about MMOs: usually it becomes Dungeons and Dragons Gone Digital. Given that, there’s been a lot of interest in games that deviate from that model, but most of those haven’t been successful on the same scale. Final Fantasy’s attempt at an online game never really took off in the US, and the Star Wars game failed to account for the fact that everyone playing wanted to be a Jedi, not a dancer or tradesman or even ordinary thug. Anarchy Online is a mid-era game–between those early days and the domination of World of Warcraft–that tried for a science fiction model, but everything was painfully generic to the point where it was just a D&D game stirred in with a bit of Star Wars and cyberpunk.

Yet World of Warcraft rose to indisputable dominance with millions of players using those same familiar models of dragons, dungeons, and elves. While the pastime of sitting in a basement with a group of friends gathered around a table covered with dice and maps to live out an imagined fantasy story is reserved for a social group often subject to mocking, the pastime of living out a fantasy life in the luscious 3D environment is now a common one. South Park’s even taken its jibes at Warcraft in an episode featuring the game, and The Simpsons subjected Marge and Bart to addiction to virtual worlds in the past. As for me, I’m content to spend my evenings as a blonde and bitchy Blood Elf priestess named Daumara, or occasionally a punk-rock Troll shaman named Serapis. I’m not very good with weaponry but there’s a certain satisfaction in the ability to kill people by waving my hands and chanting.

Logging on to a server, or society, in the massive multiplayer online role-playing game of World of Warcraft, 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. In virtual space, continual battle between opposing factions emerges from tensions within the collective. Out in the real world two rival players can pass each other on the street and not even know to acknowledge the other. The terms of the interactions are entirely different.

But this is a description merely of what World of Warcraft allows: social interactions; questing; fighting; essentially, living in a virtual space. This does not answer the question of what World of Warcraft is, and why it matters. At the most pragmatic level, the answer is obvious: World of Warcraft is a computer game, where players interact in manners governed at least in part by a set of preprogrammed rules while working in an environment virtually constructed and designed for their diversion. However, when these interactions are looked at as a whole system, what emerges is an entire network of language customs, social expectations, friendships and guild networks, and a feeling of shared time passing as the society evolves. This is no longer dismissible as “just a game:” it is a culture of its own.


Getting your ass kicked by this behemoth is actually pretty embarrassing since there’s probably a 90-pound, pimply-faced teen under there. Ouch.

World of Warcraft is rightly part of the daily life of millions of users who’ve made Horde vs. Alliance warfare our own cause. This collective experience of the players is the key differential between the World of Warcraft experience and the traditional experience of a text, film, or other type of story. Readers of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are all experiencing the same text, but their experiences are not infringing upon one another’s. Romeo and Juliet is not a limited resource: the balcony scene does not become inaccessible because billions of other readers have reached it first, or simultaneously. The decision of one reader to rip out pages in his own copy of the work doesn’t remove them for others. If one reader gets frustrated and walks away in the middle of the text, his absence doesn’t diminish or impact the other readers in the least. The experiences are individual. This is the same type of experience as that of players of a single player game: the iteration of the universe is their own, and they are the ones impacting and changing it.

Players of Warcraft deal with all aspects of a world–they fight over limited resources, from ore to cloth. They can only sometimes communicate with each other: not just because of language barriers brought over from the “real world”, but also because of the language barriers imposed by the game itself [members of opposing sides cannot talk–it makes the battle more vicious to deal with a voiceless and ruthless enemy]. Then they compete over resources from our world, as a server can crash under the strain of hundreds of players gathering for a raid or a city can move at a snail’s pace as players mob the auction house like shoppers at the mall the day after Thanksgiving.

In short, players of Warcraft get many of the pleasures of a real world—and many of the problems. But it’s worth it for the opportunity to be Hero—or occasionally Villainess, as I’ve found as a Blood Elf taking quests to invent new poisons and watching the tortured deaths of the human enemies. Out in the “real world,” death is a Big Deal, and experimenting with moral choice means more than a trip to the spirit healer for a quickie resurrection. In the confines of virtual space, heroes and villains can play.