World of Warcraft has transformed the way we think about videogames and popular culture. But it's also helped to change the way we think about ourselvesby Tom Chatfield / November 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
It’s five years today since the world’s most famous computer game, World of Warcraft, began. And I’m both proud and slightly embarrassed to say that I’ve been there since the beginning, in the company of friends, an ever-shifting circle of guild-mates and my wife (who has asked me to point out that she’s considerably better at the game than I am)—something I’ve written about in a little more detail on our blog.
I believe that World of Warcraft matters. Exactly how and why it matters, though, can be hard to get at from the outside; much of what reaches the mainstream media is a muddle of scandals, statistics and pseudo-scientific scraps. So I’d like to take a few moments to recall just what it was like to play this game for the first time five years ago, in the company of an old friend who had managed to wheedle both of our ways onto the game’s American servers in time for launch—and why, five years on, the character I created then is still soldiering on through the northern reaches of the world’s most famous unreal destination.
What struck us, first of all, was just how much it felt like a world: huge, organic, inviting exploration. There were lakes, mountains, rivers, forests, cliffs, towns, cities, and lots of things to squash, splatter, maim and generally exterminate for the sake of various rewards. What struck us shortly after this was that, although there was a game here to be played, there was also an awful lot more to it than simply playing and trying to win. My friend had chosen to play a dwarf warrior as his first character but, unlike any other game we’d encountered before, there was no sense in which he was that character. As far as World of Warcraft was concerned, he was himself, and just happened to be strolling around a vast cartoon world in the guise of an aggressive dwarf. And that was much more interesting, because it mea…