Tuesday, December 7, 2010

World of Warcraft and the New Social Dynamic

World of Warcraft has over twelve million subscribers (“Subscriber Base Reaches 12 Million Worldwide” 1). The population of Azeroth is that of a small nation and it’s still receiving new immigrants daily, or are they refuges? Video games, after all, have always been thought of as a form of escapism, but how much escapism is in a game where the majority of game-play revolves around interacting with other people? These interactions aren’t always shallow either. People who first met on World of Warcraft have ended up forming lasting relationships and, in some cases, even marrying. While few people would think of games as the hobby of recluses and the socially inept anymore, how many people would be willing to believe that such strong relationships can be formed through a video game? Ignorance of the nuances of this trend could lead to turmoil between friends and family that could otherwise be avoided. That is why this growing form of social interaction can’t be ignored or defined by simple stereotypes any longer.

            This idea, that video games can spark and even nurture relationships, is an unusual idea even to people who play video games. The reason for this is that different games support different types of communication. Games that don't require as much time and dedication to play have a distinctly different social experience than those that do, like World of Warcraft, Second Life, etc. The latter games tend to have several features that encourage or require social interaction between individuals (player-ran markets/economies, guilds/groups, and dungeons/levels that require the collaborated effort of several people to complete). People tend to have interactions with the same people as a result of these factors. This provides the groundwork for people to get to know each other and do things together on a regular basis. This makes the idea of friendship sound possible, but how can this relate to face to face interaction?

         Dr. Mark Kline is a psychologist who writes articles for a website called The Escapist, a website devoted to the video game community as a whole. An individual recently sent an email asking why his parents seem to think it's impossible to have a deep, meaningful relationship when most of the interactions in said relationship take place over the internet or within a video game. In response, he said “I think you're absolutely right that people of your parents' generation (of whom am I probably one) have an instinctive discomfort with this. It seems inadequate and alien to us. How could you really know or trust someone who lives hundreds of miles away that you may have never met in person or in some cases never even laid eyes on? We are also constantly regaled with horror stories about pedophiles and murderers who find their victims through the internet. While these risks are real, and I certainly advise caution in developing online relationships with people you don't really know, I think they are highly over-emphasized by a media hungry for sensational lurid stories that attract a lot of eyeballs” (Kline 2). In another article, he stated that “Parents are naturally skeptical because they don't see how playing a game on the internet could really be "hanging out with your friends," but for growing numbers of kids, that's just what it is” (Kline 1). So, to a number of kids, meeting up with their friends after school in the city square of Stormwind (a major city in World of Warcraft), is no different than meeting up at the local Taco Bell.

     Then why not meet up at the local Dell Taco? What is the appeal of going to a video game for social interaction? What makes it unique? Mr. Kline remarks to an email “This is a nice statement about the tremendous benefits the internet and gaming can offer to people who find themselves isolated socially or geographically. You can find people elsewhere on this planet with whom you might have something in common and you can build meaningful and significant relationships with some of them“ (Kline 2). First off, people who meet while playing these video games already have something in common, the video game. This promise of common ground is very appealing to those who find it hard to find people who share their hobbies. It can also be appealing for those who have a history of hardships in relationships or suffer from anxiety, providing for them a comfortable environment to ease back into the social setting. It also provides an activity for friends and family to take part in when there is a great distance between them. 
          It wouldn't be fair to only focus on the positive aspects of this growing social trend. One of the most glaring flaws is that these long-distance forms of communication lack the subtle nuances of expression and verbal tone present in face to face interactions. Many gamers communicate verbally through programs like Vent out of the necessity of quick responses in dungeons, thus allowing for nuances in tone to be heard. Some games allow a player's avatar to portray simple expressions, but this can't replicate the depth of expressions produced by the human face and body. Another complaint is that video games don't provide the variety of activities available in close-distance relationships. After all, there are only so many ways you can kill a computer program. MMORPGS have this covered. Many MMORPGS are built around universes that are very deep and complex. This results in many MMORPGS having holidays, as the World of Warcraft Lunar Festival (“Events Calender” 1), fairs, and other events to provide a variety of activities for friends to enjoy. A creative group can even create their own events if they so wish.

      This trend will continue to gain momentum, but this isn't a bad thing. Indeed, this trend will provide several possibilities that were not as available previously, such as allowing our friends who live thousands mile away to stand right beside us as we battle goblins, gnolls, and gorgons. It would be a waste to look at this as intrinsically inferior to other social settings, and to avoid it outright. Instead it should be seen as a unique social setting, with unique advantages and disadvantages. We should take advantage of all the possibilities this new social avenue provides us. Now raiding the Icecrown Citadel (“World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King” 1), can stand alongside grabbing lunch at Denny's and going to see the Dodgers as something to be enjoyed by friends and family, strengthening relationships and sparking new friendships. 
Works Cited

n.p. “World of Warcraft Subscriber Base Reaches 12 Million Worldwide” http://us.blizzard.com/en-us/company/press/pressreleases.html?101007. Blizzard, Oct 7, 2010. Web.
Kline, Mark. “Ask Dr. Mark #2”. http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/columns/ask-dr-mark/7747-Ask-Dr-Mark-2.2 . Escapist Magazine, 1 Jul 2010. Web.
Kline, Mark “Ask Dr. Mark #8”. http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/columns/ask-dr-mark/8147-Ask-Dr-Mark-8 . Escapist Magazine. 23 September 2010. Web.
n.p. “World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King”. http://www.wowwiki.com/World_of_Warcraft:_Wrath_of_the_Lich_King. WowWiki, n. d. Web.
n.p. “Events Calender”. http://www.worldofwarcraft.com/info/events/calendar/. World of Warcraft. n.d.

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