I’ve been grinding levels and my teeth.

Within all the lurid details of my past, that time I lived somewhere other than California, I played World of Warcraft for exactly 9 months. The image of gestation isn’t wasted on me; during this time I dropped out of college, surviving depression and shoring up the courage to transition. “It’s not really a transition, I’m just doing what I want” I would say, I didn’t like being anything other than ‘myself.’ I stopped playing WoW because, when I finally made it to max level, and the real game began, my friends told me I had to play a certain way if we wanted to do well in the endgame. It began my long bitterness with MMOs, where classes were like genders and races and sexualities and everyone expected you to act a certain way, or you couldn’t get along. For next couple years I would be routinely disappointed by the games I played, confused, as I used to love video games, but now with these new eyes, open, they look different now.

Here I am though, killing scorpids and raptors and remembering The Barrens Chat. My good friend convinced me to play one some free trial time, and it’s served as, basically, a chat room for us to sit in while we grind away at the usual MMO scene. It’s hard to stomach sometimes, being in probably the most popular and profitable video game while having more atypical design sensibilities. The game has lots of text I don’t even read, I typically don’t even know what I’m doing most of the time, just going from quest marker to quest marker, hitting my hotkeys, 1, 2, 1, 3, 2, and loot. Catch the attention of another monster and repeat. I look more for yellow dots on my minimap than the painfully constructed world before me, hoping to find herbs to mill or fish to fillet. My character was a panda creature, and the entire imagining of it and its story is unabashed orientalism. There are constant streams of crap in general chats and the design seems warped to accommodate even more simplicity than I remember. Everything felt very Video Game.

Yet I find myself at peace. My brain is mostly turned off and I’m just going through motions. I could ignore my stomach grumbling, the images of past partners, the growing pile of clothes on my chair, if I just kept hitting 1, 2, 1, 3, 2. It is rare for my mind to quiet; my bay area friends fluster at my incompatibility with yoga. The more I go to therapy, the more I realize that I’ve struggled with illness a large portion of my life. I keep saying to my therapist, I just need stability, a base, a head above water, just something to quiet everything so I can think.

As a designer, and critic, or maybe just as a critical person, I resist things that turn off my thinking. It was so archetypal, the ‘just for entertainment’ feeling, and justification for so much fluff. I gravitate towards complication, contrast, the surprising. A feeling of intensity and intimacy. There isn’t much intimate about the badlands of WoW, hearing cartoonish Caribbean accents from trolls. Except, my friend is also there, at least, we join a party but never are the in same location, just use it to talk, to know that company exists.

When I think about games evangelism about WoW, it focuses on people collaborating to solve problems, to take down big challenges. That people create large communities for the common goal of accomplishment, not just mere entertainment. This echoes out on how designers of all sorts try to incorporate lessons from games into solving offline issues, basically turning it as much into WoW as they can. But I’m finding that this game serves a different purpose for me. I lament how I moved to the bay area once social media and location-based apps really entrenched themselves into popular enough use that people need a good reason to be with each other. Apps and many online services make everything on-demand, so you don’t have to go anywhere, it just comes to you. So it seems like most people only socialize in the places they happen to be at, rather than creating contexts for socializing to happen at any regular rate. I admit to being a part of it, moving away from home means my friend and I don’t talk as often. So WoW is providing that context, for now, maybe a little boost, to give this awareness. I said to her it felt like we were reading different books on the same coach, and at first that seems so silly, why would a person need that, but actually, it turns out it’s something I’ve craved for a very long time.

Times like these remind me how play seems trivial when relegated to something you do in your free time. There were a couple of times I had to edit out the term ‘real life,’ because games often cleave apart reality from play. WoW won’t ever amuse me enough to pay for it, because there’s enough work in it to not feel entertained, becoming a compulsion. Rather, I look at it as being a part of life, a context that allows people to be together. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter what you’re doing, just that there’s a base to return to. So maybe an MMO being ‘just a glorified chat room’ isn’t really something to scoff at, maybe it’s even a better reason than entertainment. Blurring the lines between work and game, through resting and maintaining social relationships. Strangely calming, even while artistic ideals inside me resist. It’s possible this doesn’t need special attention really, but I don’t really see much writing on recovery, on actually bonding with others. Just incidental memories evoked by games. I’m curious about the contexts we’re invited to, that we need, for changing social needs, for becoming more ourselves.

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