WoW is a game. People “play” it. When tempers flare or someone loses out on a particularly special piece of gear, one can hear, “chill out, it’s just a game” with some frequency. Non-players goggle at the idea that anyone would choose to devote many, many hours a day to “some game”.
Yet I am not alone in feeling guilt about “slacking” in my WoW play. I apologize for being too-long absent; I feel obligated to take seriously promises to play a certain night at a certain time; I acknowledge that I haven’t been keeping up my responsibility to participate; when people quit, they generally announce they will do so, and receive questions, objections, and laments in response.
Why might this be?
When I encounter the “it’s just a game” sentiment, my first response (albeit usually unspoken) is either, “then again isn’t everything?” or, “it’s more than that.” My thinking has always been that a space like WoW is more than a game, or that it is a game just like anything we do (work, email, family dinner, going out ot a bar). I think of “a game” as, frankly, a proxy for “something that doesn’t matter.” I belive this is the sense in which it is being used when folks admonish”it’s just a game” in response to tantrums about gear or getting killed or other epic failures. “Stop caring so much,” this scolding seems to say, “a game doesn’t deserve your emotion.”
This, of course, is what I disagree with. WoW is more than a game in this sense because it is a real space, an important space, one which real people are building relationships, establishing goals, seeking accomplishments, developing skills. WoW is “just a game” as much as basketball is “just a game.” Of course, there are casual players who indeed do not invest much, but the bulk of the people I interact with in WoW are more akin to a serious basketball league, dare I say even akin to professional basketball players in some cases? (well, except, without the money and exercise)
“Games” and play are vital to us as human beings. We need to feel a part of something, and games often provide a context to invest and learn and grow that issatisfying is a very different way than, say, working as a receptionist or as a college professor. There’s a reason why Robert Putnam lamented that we are “bowling alone” when he worried we were losing our democratic structures. Notice he didn’t title his book “working alone.” The organizations we are a part of bring us in contact with others, provide space to understand each other, give us something other than work to feel good about. (Although he does note that we are, indeed, working alone more and more, as well.)
For Putnam, this is about social capital – the social status, respect, skills, and knowledge that serve as tools in social interaction. He says that because we are bowling alone too much, “our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.” Basically, social capital has value, and we need it.
So when I play WoW less – when I slack in my WoWly duties – I am not investing in those space, those friendships, those connections, and yes, that gear, skills, and knowledge that make me a better and more desirable player. I want to be a desireable player because I am playing with real people, who care about what goes on in that space, just as you want me to keep up my basketball practice so I can be a good teammate and we can win the championship.
You might still be flabbergasted at the idea that gear with purple titles and knowing just precisely how to click little lightning bolt icons is somehow valuable to me. Well, that’s probably because you aren’t part of this particular bowling league, as it were. Instead, maybe you’re proud of the fact you have a mean forehand in tennis, or can run very quickly in circles around town, or know the King’s Gambit. In those spheres, or others, you have gained social capital. Most of that stuff is useless in WoW, just as knowing how to kite a mob is pretty useless in chess.
Perhaps a major objection to investing in WoW as a hobby of sorts rather than, say, biking, is because it’s rather sendintary. And yes, I suffer for that. But it’s funny how few people wonder why in the world someone would sit in place for hours to become a master chess player or a connsumate blogger or model train builder. Sitting in one place to invest in my social capital isn’t really the core objection.
I would suggest that it’s because those latter activities have social capital that translates into typical American society far more easily than WoW. And that notion deserves a post of its own, so perhaps that will be tomorrow’s musing.