Not that anyone’s asked, and, note! a major disclaimer: I haven’t played WoW Classic yet.
But I’m finding myself having a lot of thoughts germinating now that WoW Classic has come out, and I thought I should write them down and I suppose share now that I’ve written them.
Also note that as I wrote this, it sort of became a mini-reflection or revisit on themes from my book, Leet Noobs, about the early days of WoW and learning therein. Leet Noobs came out of my dissertation on how learning in WoW (esp. wrt to raiding Molten Core) was culturally mediated, and expertise was marked by a refinement of the arrangement or orchestration of sociomaterial objects to help one succeed. (Find it on Amazon if you want. Or email me and I can tell you where to find a pirated PDF because fuck if I care anymore.)
For me, the early days of WoW was like the Wild West (a romanticized version of it) where it was still finding itself–where players were finding themselves. They were establishing norms, social etiquette, and ways of being while basically discovering how the game works. It was really exciting to explore this new world with people and to try to establish a community and set standards for how we would govern and treat each other.
WoW came on the heels of EverQuest (and DoAC, AC, UO, and a whole bunch of others) and many players came from these old-school MMOs. A lot of them were into fantasy role-play. I suspect one of the reasons why WoW was so successful… like an order of magnitude more successful than EQ!… was because it was Blizzard, which had a track record of highly polished games (Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo). So you’ve got this mix of old-school RPGers who want some autonomy in how society is formed and Blizzard fans who may not have been as much into role-play and politics and more into the ludic systems (or, cynically: numbers, leveling, grinding, loot, and theorycrafting).
From my perspective (and a lot of this is covered Leet Noobs), in 2005 and 2006, there was a sizable shift in the culture of the game, a movement from role-play as performative identity to role-play as literally filling a role in the tank, healer, dps triangle. Early addons used to facilitate in-character role-play were eclipsed by addons used to facilitate surveillance and quantifiable performance measures. (cf. TL Taylor’s articles in Games and Culture circa mid-2000s)
Which I suppose begs the questions: How are addons handled in WoW Classic? Is threat meter a thing from the getgo? If I remember right, it took a year and some change (WoW came out in November 2004 and Kenco’s Threat Meter came out in Feb 2006) for us to figure out how threat worked: that it was a cumulative quantifiable score that persisted for the duration of a fight. Figuring this out really highlighted the shift from just messing around to performance and efficient raiding. So, for those of you playing, is threat meter a thing in WoW Classic?
The days since the early days of WoW
How quaint my research seems to me now that we are (supposedly) post-gamergate, (supposedly) post-Riot toxicity, (supposedly) post-2016 elections, and dealing with the alt-right, a global rise in xenophobia and populism, and basically a world that doesn’t make sense except in the most absurdist of fictions. Escaping into WoW Classic seems like an irresponsible act for me personally because I know how much of a time commitment the early days were, and, if that’s what I’m trying to get back to, I suppose I have obligations now to engage in the IRL world more directly to address injustices and fight for what’s right. I mean, don’t I? (And yet, at the same time, of course, I advocate for living slow and being proud of expert serious leisure, but I think it’s only insofar as the belief that through introspective play we make a better world by understanding the human condition, i.e. each other.)
A return to role-play?
I truly believe that lasting friendships and deeply meaningful experiences are potentials with new WoW. (Though that’s true of any game. Fortnite’s a third space, after all.)
And perhaps WoW Classic signals a return to role-playing and a backlash against surveillance culture. The Blizzard statements to the press sure seem focused on story and phased content, right? But that’s what happened in the early days, too. WoW’s website was always about epic story this and omg plot twist that. But as soon as you started playing, it was clearly not *really* a game about story but about leveling and efficiency.
I’ve moved on, too
And then there’s where I am now versus back then. Back during the early days of MMO research (TL Taylor, Constance Steinkuehler, Bonnie Nardi, Games & Culture, The WoW Reader and the Europeans, the Canadians, Terra Nova, Julian Dibbell, Ted Castronova, Thomas Malaby, Tim Burke, Ta Nehisi Coates, State of Play, AoIR… all of it), I felt on top of the world, following in all these amazing scholars’ footsteps. I was engaged and useful.
Then, after years on the market, it seemed clear that the academy and its machinery was much colder about my relevance. Meanwhile, newer scholars had more to say that I fully admit seems more relevant in terms of social commentary: more critical, more about addressing toxicity and masculinity and misogyny and homophobia and fat shaming and transphobia and all of it. My research, by contrast, was just a look at learning in games, instrumentalizing assessment, and the death of a “well-played game.” Why did I ever think American (and global) education could learn from an account of situated expertise from an MMO? Why did I ever think a Comm department or Anthro department cared about learning when there’re fucking injustices to fight?
So, yeah, my nostalgia is full of wonder, hanging out and having fun, and exploration…
It’s Chuck Norris jokes, Barrens chat, the rhythmic undulations of open-world PvP. It’s 22242223222, pally shields, and Thoguht Cutthroat, the accidental hero and layabout.
But it’s also full of grief (and griefing) and melancholy that’s tied into how the game and the culture around the game seemed actively engaged in distancing itself from those early days. And it’s all tied into how all that social networking and capital production didn’t land me an academic position that valued my contributions to this field of study.
So, yeah, I probably will pick it up at some point. I have some serious FOMO, seeing my aca friends picking up the game, coordinating servers, etc. The crazy thought occurred to me that I should write a Leet Noobs 2, comparing what’s different now from back then. But then I remember that the first book took 7 years, and I’ve gotten about $150 out of it and no TT job so why bother?
Don’t feel sorry for me, though. I mean, my life is pretty good right now. I love my job (even though the pay is crap and it’s only part time), and this huge weight was lifted off me when I decided to not pursue line items for my CV anymore. The reason I’d join WoW now is to hang out and have fun, which, I suppose, I’ve been arguing for all along.