Change can be weird. Sometimes you plan for it, prepare for it, see it coming a mile down the road – and other times it blindsides you like an ice cube wedgie at 3 in the morning. But some residual chilliness aside, most of the time the changes we deal with are not nearly so dramatic. Case in point: I’ve been a ‘WoW player’ for 5 years now – quite mind-boggling when I stop to think about it. My reasons for playing have changed substantially over that time, but I’ve always remained a ‘WoW player’. The game has been a part of my life in various small or large ways continuously since August 2005, and while it’s never defined me I’ve always felt like I help to define it – because the social and ‘sandbox’* nature of the game has always led me to feel more comfortable conceptualising it in terms of its community, the players themselves, rather than its buts and nolts. And I’ve always been a part of that community in some sense, increasingly so since I first spent a frustrating evening downloading a gig and a half of patches so I could log on and find the friend I’d bought the game in order to spend time with.
Always – until now. For the first time since I began playing I really feel disconnected from the game community which I’ve become so used to. Changes are rolling by on MMO-Champion and I’m barely keeping up with the major stuff, whereas before I could recount a blow-by-blow of changes to the most obscure spec you could think of in each beta or PTR build. Bloggers are writing scads of posts which I’d normally gobble up, but instead Google Reader’s “you have this many unread posts” number has reached the middle hundreds and keeps going up. I’ve gone from browsing several forums and posting regularly to struggling to keep track of one or two threads on a single site. I guess with Cataclysm so close and patch 4.0.1 out, the game is probably moving faster now than it has at any time previously – and I’ve managed to pick this time to “take a break”.
I’ve never felt so disconnected.
The worst part of it is the separation from my guild and other in-game friends, who I’m used to seeing on an almost daily basis but haven’t spent any quality time with for weeks. At first the feeling of isolation from people who’ve become almost as familiar as flat-mates was almost crushing, but now I’m getting worryingly used to it. The WoW community is a powerful drug – perhaps I was suffering withdrawal and am now officially detoxed? But I still miss them, to the point where they’re the major reason I want to keep playing WoW. Possibly, right now, the only reason. When you’ve played almost non-stop for 5 years, that’s a scary thing to say.
It hasn’t come as a shock to me that these relationships are the main reason I still play World of Warcraft, as I’ve been focused on the communal nature of the game pretty much since day one. I was seduced for a while by the levelling and the acquisition of items, by the gameplay and the thrill of the vast shared world to explore – but those things faded away and it was the social space that remained. What disturbs me now is that all the other things that I really did enjoy about WoW even recently have since faded to such a barely perceptible dimness that I’m having trouble even remembering them. And the irony is, I didn’t stop playing because I wasn’t enjoying the game – when I stopped, I was still having a really great time.
Because, as with the third type of change about which I rambled in the opening sentences, this sort of snuck up on me unexpectedly and was so subtle that I was kept from even noticing a change had taken place for some time. I knew I may have to take a short break from raiding to deal with RL stuff, so the first few weeks where I wasn’t raiding didn’t come as a surprise, though I had expected to be raiding less rather than not raiding at all. Logging in less was also an expected side-effect of having less energy to commit to the game, so that passed me by unnoticed. Patch 4 was released as widely anticipated and I had planned to avoid the game for a few days after it launched, while all the inane /trade banter died down and the servers recovered from everyone logging in and screaming at broken addons. Then I was just too busy to log in and sort out my own addons, then I didn’t have the energy, then I eventually began to realise that I didn’t actually have the desire.
Space and context
The title of this post is “disconnection” because that really sums up how I feel about WoW at the moment. There’s a disconnect between what it was to me and what it is to me now, which I can’t really explain and am not entirely comfortable with. I don’t have a problem with quitting WoW or taking a break or playing more or less or anything like that, and as with anything else in life my interest in WoW has always had its troughs and peaks… but throughout I’ve always remained a “WoW player”, someone interested enough in the game for its own sake to log back in, and I always thought if I stopped playing altogether it’d be for a well-considered reason. I don’t want to stop just because I took a break for a month and couldn’t think of a good reason to come back.
The major disconnect, however, is the relationships which I am cut off from by not playing the game. Sure, many of my friends in WoW are also people I’ve met in person, or at least talked to on the phone, and most of those who don’t fall into either of those categories but are important to me are on my facebook friends list (woefully unused) or in my email address book. But without WoW, many of these friendships don’t have a space or a context. You may be very close to your student flat-mate while you share a room (notwithstanding that annoying thing he does with his socks) but may struggle to relate when you move to different parts of the country and suddenly find that your paths no longer cross. Or you may have lots to talk about with your colleague during lunch break but find that when you get a job at the technology firm across the street while she continues to work in finance that friendship just becomes so much more awkward and halting as you lose that shared experience.
If I try hard enough I can remember things I enjoy(ed) about WoW, and even get a little bit excited about playing again. I make the effort to try because I really don’t want to lose the space and context for those relationships just yet. But to stoke that fire I need to play the game, and logging in at the moment is like climbing a high wall. A high wall studded with protruding nails and those annoying chips of paint which get under your fingertips, and leaning slightly towards you so that as you get near the top you fear it might collapse and bury you in brick and whitewash. Um. But yes. To start with, for all my characters which I’d like to play even a little, I need to set up or tweak talents, glyphs, toolbars, gear sets, reforging, gemming, enchanting and re-setup a vast swathe of addons as well as replacing some out of date ones – and this is with a fairly minimalist approach, just doing enough that I can enjoy the game without necessarily being great at it. I also need to get used to the changes to game mechanics and UI as well as new/changed addons, which have made the game “window” require a high amount of concentration and thought compared to the second-nature my old UI and setup was. I also need to relearn a vast amount of game mechanics either first- or second-hand, and it’s never easy to go from being great at something to being rubbish at it.
The worst part is that there’s no guarantee if I go through all that I’ll be a happy, contented WoW player again – there’s not even any guarantee that the friendships that motivate me to try will last much longer in the old context and space anyway. I suspect I’m not the only one considering changes in the build-up to Cataclysm’s release. There’s an odd sort of whiff of innocence lost about all this which I can’t quite pin down but which manages to add to the generally disturbing nature of the whole business, and it all feels rather petty and silly.
The crowning irony of all this is that WoW has been something of a refuge for me in the past couple of years, a place where I can still be useful and capable despite deterioration in my health, and a place where I can still have an active social life despite severe curtailing of my ability and opportunity to get out the house. Now a point has been reached where even playing WoW – even remaining an integrated part of the WoW community – is just a bridge too far and forced this unexpected break. I fear if I get too disconnected, I’ll lose that refuge for when I need it again. But at the moment WoW is something I have had to take refuge from rather than refuge in, and I don’t know when or how that will change. The transition from connected, “online” life to disconnected, “offline” life was so subtly sudden and unexpected that I have no reason to imagine the reverse might be any different.
*Yes, as Razz will no doubt be very quick to point out, I know WoW is not a “sandbox” game design – my meaning here is just to emphasise the extent to which your game time is what you make of it by how you choose to play, with whom, when, and so forth.