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Is Warcraft Escapist Entertainment?

On any given day, in my Twitter feed and on Facebook, you can just about guarantee that somebody, somewhere will be having some kind of argument over Warcraft. Last week this happened over something and a friend of mine jumped in to remind the individual giving the other person a hard time that maybe, in these tough times both mentally and physically for many people, perhaps we could allow people to enjoy their experience simply as escapism and be done with it.

 

This had me thinking now for several days because the last time I truly remember being lost in a Warcraft-related plot line was back at the Wrathgate in Northrend. They were simpler times back then, for so many reasons, and in those days I only had a blog to describe how I felt. There was no instantly posting reactions to Twitter, nor the chance for me to go to Facebook Live and create an ‘Alt Reacts to the Wrathgate’ video. A lot has changed in twelve years, and the simplicity of interaction inside the UI has very definitely failed to remain static.

As we get older, it is often argued that our ability to lose ourselves in ‘childish’ things diminishes, and that escapism becomes increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of external hardship. Except there are those that will counter, with some justification, that this is exactly why you need games like Warcraft. When it’s been a horrendous day at work or college and you just want to let off steam, that’s what Azeroth is for… except increasingly for a proportion of my social media feed, this is no longer the case.

Warcraft Escapist Entertainment

Those who are truly enjoying the escapist nature of the MMO aren’t posting to my feeds anymore. I know they still play, but for many the toxic nature of social media in the current climate means that they stay away from that method of socialization or are curating their feeds to such an extent that the negativity simply never reaches them. There are groups who now concentrate purely on helping like-minded individuals and won’t cast their nets any wider than a well-vetted and clearly non-confrontational group of players. In effect, people are returning to Guilds and smaller groups to create a new form of curated escapism, leaving those online and in high-profile areas, such as Twitter, to fight it out among themselves.

Somebody mentioned to me privately last week that he thought that some people are simply using the platform to make a noise over things that aren’t as important as their own exposure; I’d love to be able to agree with this, but that’s not the reason people pull out soapboxes or engineer high profile exits from the game. Many of these people do genuinely care about what they see as perceived shortcomings, and it is now proven that if you can get your message across in 140 character chunks, the developers will listen to a well-reasoned argument.

The counter to this comes from several other, long-term players who accept that, because this is a game, taking this deconstruction of designs and systems to a level of seriousness where you’re posting daily on what’s wrong and demanding it be fixed shows that some don’t care about escapism, only criticism. That by definition also goes for those people like me who no longer lose themselves in the minutiae of gameplay and look at a bigger picture. Those who think the cerebral assessment of gaming is more satisfying that total immersion in a cracking plot.

Warcraft Escapist Entertainment

Part of my problem with such escapism comes with already knowing how 7.2 ends before it even begins. Once upon a time you didn’t know what was coming in an Expansion, and then it became fashionable to data mine the client before it went live to ascertain what needed to be prepared for. However it isn’t just that fundamental change that breaks the fourth wall between players and reality, there’s so much more now to consider outside what used to be, in essence, a journey from one place to another with a ton of distraction in between.

There is the issue of the journey itself to consider first. Although some are very interested in the manner in which you travel to max level, most raiders would rather that happened really fast the first time. That means the way your character’s class abilities operate is far more important than which NPC kills who in the next patch, despite what some people might argue is required for narrative motivation along the way.

In Warlords, everybody agreed quite early on that without escapism and immersion all you had was a series of repetitive tasks with no real justification. Now that the pendulum has swung the other way and there’s complaints about too much work for not enough reward, there’s still people complaining that people need escapism. If that comes from living a class fantasy that they feel the designers aren’t upholding then there will be conflict. This time around, however, nobody can really decide on one real area where the MMO fails. This effectively means it’s quite difficult to paint Legion as being anything other than an unqualified success.

Warcraft Escapist Entertainment

Warcraft right now has everything players have asked of it over the last 12 years or more. There is true escapism if you allow yourself to become a part of the story; my Leatherworking quest sequence and almost ‘spiritual’ journey to discover the Highmountain’s approach to crafting was a true revelation. I think of all the things I’ve done in Azeroth, nothing has resonated quite so intimately with me since at least Burning Crusade. However, I know others who detest what their Professions have asked of them and that there’s no love lost in ignoring them completely and moving on. Here is where the biggest single problem lies.

This game isn’t designed by us. It may resonate within us, and there may be elements that touch the individual, but ultimately everybody’s asked to buy into a version of ‘fantasy’ created by someone else. If you are able to find a commonality with the designers, so much the better, and the vast range of ‘class fantasy’ on offer allows at least some wiggle room for those with the ability to be flexible. For many players, it doesn’t matter anyway what version of reality is presented, they’ll just play the game as what it is, a game. Nothing matters except beating bosses and being with their mates, and I for one can attest that the simple, less emotionally invested approach is one sure fire way of maintaining sanity when your real life is particularly fraught.

If you’re prepared to play this way and lose yourself within pixels then that’s brilliant, but with the way Warcraft is now inextricably linked to social media, streaming and increasingly eSports, there is less and less blurring of the lines between what you’ll live with for lore, and what you need to do to play well. More and more the nuts and bolts of character, setting and motivation is secondary to faster leveling, better gearing and less mucking about at lower levels. Given the choice between escapism and practicality when you raid three hours, twice a week and the rest of your time is spent grinding for raid supplies and AP… an illusion of immersion will be quite enough, for a surprising number of players.

Warcraft Escapist Entertainment

I had a little exchange after my Warcraft Minimalism post, and it made me realize that for some people, there is only one way to ever ‘play’ a game and that is well, above everything else. That can be, of course, an incredibly subjective definition, and if you ask my mate Stone, who’s run the Ironman Challenge website for years, he’ll tell you there’s a ton of ways just to do 1-100 without any proper armor and weapons before you even start factoring in mobs. What’s right isn’t for the designers to define, they only tell you what is correct if you play what they’ve produced.

Those of us who don’t tow the ‘official’ line, in the end, aren’t really bothered about escapism or immersion anyway. My enjoyment is what matters most of all, above all of those other consideration, and when I spend night after night listening to other people bicker about what matters most to them… well, it can be really easy to see why some people never integrated Twitter into their UI at 6.1. Why would you need the ability to post a selfie of yourself into social media when all that matters is using the time you have online in a productive fashion? Does it really matter what you take as escapism when all the time you have is to log on, do some World Quests and then log off again?

The real world matters to me a great deal right now, as is the case with many other players. As a result, my game time is perhaps more important than at any other time since I started playing in Azeroth. Yes, it can be escapism, but never at the cost of understanding the true reality behind the gameplay. What everybody could do now is more understanding and tolerance, and I’m very much including myself in that.

Let gaming be enjoyment, and not a focus for discord… and no, I don’t mean the chat client.

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