Lately I’ve been thrashing out posts with my brain distinctly in the back seat, hoping that what results will at least be a little entertaining, but mostly benefiting from some much-needed mindlessness after a busy end to this calendar year. Cataclysm’s release has afforded a new opportunity for some low brainpower enjoyment, but now that’s getting to the stage where I have to think a lot more about what I’m doing – and where I am at risk of playing rather too much if I’m not careful. Questing, for me, is tiring and thus something I can’t handle it for more than a few hours at a time. But when you reach the endgame, the simple universal goal of XP disappears and the game branches out in all sorts of directions.
Suddenly the vastness of the World of Warcraft lies at your character’s proverbial feet and the only limiting factor is time. Time to finish levelling those professions, or perhaps recoup some gold through dailies or farming! Maybe you’d like to work on increasing your character’s reputation with a few factions. Gear is important, so you could queue for a normal or a heroic instance, or even join a raid. Maybe a battleground? Find an arena partner? Try some world PvP in Tol Barad! Develop an offspec, and gear it up! Maybe even start levelling your alt? Or, as in my case… all of the above.
Questing, especially in Cataclysm, is linear and simple even if you break it up with instance runs or profession levelling. The endgame is an explosion of opportunity and necessity. I think in the endgame, WoW becomes less like a story you’re participating in and more like a job you’re taking pride in. This won’t be true for everyone, but for me? Yeah, definitely. I can only “relax” so much: WoW is such a powerful draw for me precisely because it feels like I can goof off and accomplish something ‘productive’ at the same time. A heady mix. And for me, it came the day after my final exam this year.
Here I should probably explain a little bit about CFS, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. This is a name given to a type of medical diagnosis based not so much on a distinct pathology but on absence of evidence for anything else. Nobody (yet) knows what exactly causes CFS (also known as M.E., or less charitably as “yuppie flu”) or even if the various diagnoses labelled as such are the same condition at all. People diagnosed with CFS therefore have varying degrees of impairment, but one relatively common factor is fluctuation of the condition over time – sometimes caused by outside factors, and sometimes just as part of the way it seems to work.
When someone with CFS does something ‘big’, it usually ‘sets them back’ a bit as a result. So in my case, I spent most of November researching a rather difficult topic that’s also quite close to my heart, and at the end of the month had to switch tracks to study for an exam. I was having an “up” period, where I had more energy than usual and less random pain, so I was able to get a lot of work done. In November, Scotland saw its heaviest and earliest winter snowfall in something like 30 years, and as I’m on the outskirts of the city and dependant on the car for transport, I ended up shovelling the driveway repeatedly in the first week of that snowfall. It was glorious, the most physical work I’ve done in a very long time and incredibly satisfying. I went out and got warm chocolate chip cookies, then came home and made some tea while I did the Stormwind dailies and messed around with Power Auras. It was a good week!
The next Monday was my exam, and we had another massive snowfall that morning. My trains were cancelled so I had to drive into town in the rush hour and terrible conditions, exhausting me before I’d even sat down for my exam. I gave everything I had left into that paper, and then – well, then I had to get home. A journey of around 10 miles which normally takes 20 minutes required three hours that afternoon, including half an hour of digging through snow and ice to get the car the last 20 yards up my street (with the timely and blessed help of some wonderful neighbours, thank you both so very much). That was the night Cataclysm was launched in Europe, and I joined my friends for the event with pretty much nothing left, my tanks entirely on empty. If you’re familiar with spoon theory, I had used up all my spoons for the day, and the next day, and the next, and well, all the spoons I could imagine for the foreseeable future. Ambling through the Shattering wasn’t just a lifestyle choice, it was a physical and emotional necessity.
In the run up towards Christmas, Cataclysm served as a necessary refuge, a place to hide and regain some strength, slowly and cautiously and always with an eye on the upcoming ‘holiday’. Trying to get back into the research groove during this time was necessary but totally futile – until, as I regained some of those “spoons”, I began to arrive at the endgame and find I was starting to need its more job-like features to keep me interested. And in WoW’s strange convergence of total freedom and rigid necessity, I have been able to start to flex some of those mental muscles which have basically lain dormant all through December.
The total freedom of WoW is that your time is really your own, and what you choose to do with your character is entirely up to you. The rigid necessity is that ultimately all things in WoW have a prerequisite, which is usually a combination of gear level and something-else level. Example: Tehila, my PvP mage, is working towards Baradin Wardens reputation to finally get a flying mount that isn’t a wee-coloured Jamie Oliver drake – she is, somehow, the only level 80+ character I have who doesn’t have a flashy ride. This requires exalted reputation plus 200 commendations, which are gained from daily quests and victories in Tol Barad PvP. The daily quests award a fixed number of both, but you can double the amount you earn in a day if you capture Tol Barad itself. This requires victory in the world PvP event (which awards even more commendations), which benefits from gear, which is obtained by honour, which is best earned through battlegrounds, which I actually rather enjoy after that whole incident with the pants.
And so the threads of the game’s multiplicity of goals intertwine to create a scenario in which my mage could happily spend her entire day doing battlegrounds, Tol Barad battles and daily quests.
This is, of course, both fantastic and terrible. It’s great to have something to do – as I hope I’ve made clear above – but terrible to realise you could basically pour away your entire day into something ultimately rather pyrrhic if you’re not attentive. At this stage of Cataclym’s release, there is basically everything to do – rep to farm, gear to acquire, professions to fill in, rating to build up, and raids to progress, to name but a few. I’d also add to that, in my case, old friends to enjoy spending time with again after a (somewhat brief) break. How different from the last few months of Wrath.
I could use an alarmist word like ‘addictive’ here. Maybe it’d be accurate. But I can’t make that judgement for anyone except myself. And for me, yes there is something narcotic about it all, but if I’m to be medicated then WoW seems a rather better way to accomplish it than some of the options available to me, and the risk of overdose rather less severe. WoW is helping me get back on my feet even while I’m spending most of the day on my bottom, and when I start to take it too far it exhausts me enough that I realise it’s time to stop.
Thus the mindlessness which I needed from WoW is receding into the past, an artefact of the launch of a new expansion unlikely to be fully reclaimed until we’re all coasting through heroics in our ilevel 400 epics waiting for patch 4.3 to bring us something new to do. In its place is a tense and heady brilliance of opportunity and necessity which may be exactly what I need right now, yet also exactly what I can’t afford to have too much of. My health is still in a total mess, to the point that I can’t imagine getting started on my next assignment. But through the imperfect and often frustrating world of Warcraft I can at least take steps which in real life are still impossible.
Blogging, as it happens, seems to fill a similar sort of role, and this post owes a lot to Wugan’s “WoW as a Refuge” post from September: I’d again like to thank him for what he wrote there.