April 11, 2012 by justingroot
I’ve wondered whether I would enjoy World of Warcraft (WoW) for as long as I’ve been a gamer. I was always afraid to try it out for fear of becoming addicted, so the prospect of playing it in class was simultaneously exciting and terrifying.
After having experienced the game firsthand, I have realized that I have nothing to fear. It’s not that I don’t understand World of Warcraft’s appeal, or that I don’t think I would enjoy playing it at a high level — it’s just that it doesn’t engross me the way other games do, and I would never have the patience to make it to level 20, let alone 85.
I’d always heard that WoW was little more than a string of menial, repetitive quests like “kill 6 fledgling hippogriffs,” “collect 4 mantis roots” and “talk to Lord Horace von Bjirkski in the next town over,” but I always shrugged off such assertions as exaggerative. Having played the game, I now know just how true these accusations are. I’ve played the opening missions of three separate characters, and they all started out with a series of “kill 6 baddies” quests.
What strikes me about WoW is that it is almost more of a “lean-back” than a “lean-forward” activity. We discussed the distinction in class — a “lean-back” medium like television is a passive activity that demands significantly less involvement than a “lean-forward” activity like, say, the computer FPS CounterStrike. WoW is not a game that seems to demand your full attention. In fact, I wrote the first part of this paper while playing WoW — that is, while clicking over into the other window occasionally to set my character slashing away at another target, or to toggle “auto-run” and let him start making the dreary trudge back to whoever gave him his quest in the first place.
As your character gains levels in World of Warcraft, he or she unlocks new skills and abilities that must be used to survive increasingly challenging battles. That being said, no matter how high one’s level becomes, elements of the game still remain monotonous. A friend of mine who used to be quite the WoW enthusiast told me that he would often spend the “down time” in-game — for instance, hours spent flying across the entire continent to reach the other side — with the window minimized as he worked on his homework. In this case, it seems like WoW differs from our traditional perception of video games in that it can and does go on without player input in certain circumstances — much like the movie that continues running when you leave the room.
My game of choice, Starcraft II, could not be more different from WoW, which is amazing considering that both games are produced by the same company (Blizzard Entertainment). For all its merits, though, there are times when I could not stand to play another Starcraft game. It’s the epitome of a “lean-forward” activity — a game in which a single moment of distraction or inattention can determine the outcome of an entire match. After a session of Starcraft games, what I really want is a way to relax, and that’s what WoW seems to offer.
One thing I don’t think WoW would ever offer is full immersion. One of the most important aspects of immersion is the perception that one’s actions have an effect on the in-game environment — and that illusion is conspicuously absent in WoW. It doesn’t matter how many “Bristleback Invaders” one kills — they will always respawn in the same spots a few moments later to resume their lethargic “invading.” It is impossible to feel as if one is having a meaningful effect on the diegetic world when everything one does is reverted within a minute or two, and it doesn’t help to have a gaggle of other heroes running around competing for the same quests.
Nor was the narrative of the game at all important in my World of Warcraft experience. I have come to believe that NO ONE actually reads the quest descriptions, which does not bode well for the creation of a believable and immersive world. No one who takes up a quest in World of Warcraft actually cares why they are slaughtering the monsters they’re slaughtering — they do it because they’re told to, and because they want the reward at the end of the quest.
I’d like to contrast the mindlessness of WoW’s quests with another one of my RPG experiences: The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Near the beginning of the game, you are sent to rescue the city Kvatch from a demonic infestation. Once you’ve destroyed the portal to the demonic realm and cleared the city of its invaders, they vanish once and for all from Kvatch. Here you have a tangible outcome of an action in the game — completing the quest changes the game environment permanently. When other characters in the game subsequently refer to you as the “Hero of Kvatch,” you believe it and feel honored. On the contrast, if, in WoW, non-player characters referred to you as the “Hero of Tutorial Town,” you wouldn’t put any weight in their words, since you know Tutorial Town was just as bad off when you left it as it was when you found it.
All in all, while I think that WoW could function as a excellent “chill” game, I don’t think it could ever be as immersive as titles like Starcraft II, which demands the player’s full attention, or Elder Scrolls RPG games, which construct a world in which the player’s actions have tangible and permanent consequences.