Some of my friends have been spending an alarming portion of their free time with the "massively multiplayer online role-playing game" World of Warcraft. In this game, players create alternative identities for themselves and go adventuring with (or against) hundreds of thousands of gamers all over the world, most of them staying up way past their bedtimes. I recently convinced myself that the best way to engage these game-besotted friends of mine was not to tear them away from their computers, but to follow them down the rabbit hole into Warcraft. It wasn't a hard sell; I was itching for an excuse to let myself get lost in this game's not-so-little universe.
Walking through the gates of Ironforge, I stopped dead in my tracks and gaped at the impossibly high ceiling of the underground city. I had already been playing World of Warcraft for a couple of days, but passing through those giant stone gates and seeing the crowds milling about, I felt like I was finally getting started for real. Had I a hat, I might have tossed it into the air, like Mary Richards at the Crystal Court. Maybe I was just excited to get out of the snow; when I started playing the game, it had planted me in Coldridge Valley, a wintry enclave designed to give new players a relatively safe place to learn how the game works. That's all well and good, but as a rule, I prefer the weather in my escapist fantasy video games to vary slightly from the unending cold I have to deal with in real life.
Luckily for me (and my Seasonal Affective Disorder), the game's world has no shortage of climates to choose from. After spending some time in cavernous Ironforge, I moved on to another, sunnier city via subterranean commuter rail (World of Warcraft's gnomes, in addition to looking like the love-children of a hobbit and a lawn ornament, have a knack for building low-cost public transit). From the vaguely medieval Europelike Stormwind, I headed out to explore new areas and found myself questing in the autumnal farmlands of Westfall. World of Warcraft is driven by quests. Talking to various characters (the computer-controlled variety, not fellow players) allows you to pick up odd jobs, such as retrieving a stolen package from a pack of thieves or hunting wolves in a nearby forest. In Westfall, the quests mostly involved rescuing the local farmers from marauding bandits and out-of-control farm equipment that had turned their otherwise pastoral wheat fields into battlefields.
Here's where the game started to feel less like an escape and more like actual work: After spending hours dismantling harvest golems and offing bandits, I received a few pieces of silver with which I could buy better equipment to enable me to finish more difficult jobs. Like Martha Stewart and the Chautauqua Institution, World of Warcraft wants you to spend your leisure time working even harder than you do at your day job. Just when the virtual grind was beginning to wear on me, though, I was rescued by a friend of mine, who invited me to come wander with him for a while. The appeal of online role-playing games like World of Warcraft and EverQuest is supposed to lie in the idea of playing with strangers from all over the world. But when you get right down to it, it's a lot more fun to play with people you already know, even if the people you already know suddenly look like six-foot-tall elves.
I liked The Lord of the Rings as much as anyone else, but sword-and-sorcery role playing in the Dungeons & Dragons tradition has never been a turn-on for me. It was a relief to discover that the term "role playing" is used very loosely in games like this; my friend wasn't pretending to be a six-foot-tall elf, I wasn't pretending to be a female warlock, and that 14-year-old kid over there shouting in incomprehensible Netspeak certainly wasn't pretending to be a crusading paladin. We were all just playing as ourselves, albeit with silly costumes. Why have such a stick up my butt about working so hard at it?
Freshly unburdened by the need to do whatever menial jobs the game dictated, I was able to go back to what I enjoyed most about World of Warcraft: simply exploring the variety of locales the game has to offer. I crossed the ocean, and from the port took a ride on a gryphon (yes, the game uses mythical birds as taxis) clear across the continent to the opposite coast. As I flew low over the ground, the terrain below me kept changing, from seashore to jungle, from forest to veldt, from mountain to desert. When I landed, I started walking back the way I came to get a closer look. I'm still just getting started.