- World of Warcraft: The Murloc is the Message
About 11.5 million people all over the world play Blizzard Entertainment’s massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft. The enormous electronic framework this game rests upon, data residing on servers worldwide and software installed on the PCs of all those subscribers, gives new meaning to Henri Wittmann’s 1970s concept of “narrative algorithms”—because there really are algorithms, and these millions of algorithms are the underpinnings for narremes of a sort. Games played on computers and gaming systems are now a bigger business, dollar-wise, than motion pictures. As entertainment by subscription, the MMORPG is growing as periodicals decline, by profit measures, number of subscribers and time spent on gameplay. Games have achieved this dominance in entertainment by offering only the value of being a pleasant way to pass an hour (or many hours) of free time.
Marshall McLuhan, mistrusted for decades in much of academe, recently dubbed the “patron saint” of Wired magazine by its young editors, in the 1960s described (non-electronic) games as “dramatic models of our psychological lives providing release of particular tensions” (1964, 237). “For fun or games to be welcome,” McLuhan writes, “they must convey an echo of workaday life” (238). (McLuhan also refers freely to “leisure” time, but the reader will find useful for game study the distinction between leisure and recreation made by Sebastian De Grazia in Of Time, Work, and Leisure: true leisure is time for contemplation, the fertile matrix of civilization; games provide merely recreation—the occupations that heal the raveled mind from its exertions).
In early fall the great city of Ironforge hosts a massive beer festival. The perspective on my screen reels a bit from all the virtual alcohol my character has consumed. When, riding, I leave the stone road for a shortcut over snow-covered ground—it is always snow-covered in Dun Morogh, the dwarves’ mountain homeland—the sound of my ram’s hoofbeats is muffled by the snow. A starry night over this winterland is a rather fine sight, as is the sunset over the mountains that separate Loch Modan from the swamp to its north (!), and the full moon (again, north) over Stormwind City. [End Page 205] Computer games are making inexorable steps toward aesthetic value, though their beauty right now exists only by comparison with their two-dimensional predecessors. What might it be like decades from now when these little landscapes are truly worth looking at?
Andrew Burn and Diane Carr describe the gameplay of a MMORPG as “unavoidably public” (Carr, Buckingham, Burn, and Schott 2006, 103), and McLuhan refers to games as “collective rather than private dramatizations of inner life” (McLuhan 1964, 237); however, the experience can be self-tailored to be quite solitary at times, certainly with greater ease than when inhabiting a real-life public space. The individuality of the player’s experience comes in the interactions with others, in groups formed to complete quests, in guild arrangements in which players cooperate to help newer recruits “level,” to improve their gear, and to reach end game. (I have not reached end game in World of Warcraft despite playing for four years; it is too time-consuming.) MMORPG gameplay requires simultaneous attention to skill development, quest completion, and earning gold for necessary purchases through sale of gathered resources or performed services; battlegrounds, dungeon instances, raids, and player-vs.-player encounters are optional but form a great part of the enjoyment for many players. To play well requires intense attention to player statistics, both teamwork and leadership skills, and knowledge of how best to use the subtleties of a particular class of character.
Each character class has a different combat modality: a priest can’t use a blade weapon; a paladin can’t use a ranged weapon like a gun or crossbow; a rogue can pick pockets and use poisons. The choice of one’s character is a choice among stealth, skill, and damage-dealing by spells or brute force. WoW is a different game to different players; some competitive types like to gear up and fight the opposing faction, while others concentrate on questing and...