A group of warriors in the World of Warcraft. Image: Screenshot
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Some of my best friends call me Strawberry: the friendships I made and lost playing World of Warcraft

What began as an addictive game soon became more than that – and it was the friendships, not the quests, that kept players coming back for more.

Do you ever think back to the first time you met someone you later grew to love?

Thinking back to the first time a friend showed me World of Warcraft ("WoW") it feels a little like that. I didn't realise I was looking at something that would take up huge amounts of my time, give me tremendous amounts of pleasure, but also be something I would regret getting involved in.

When I saw the devotion WoW bred in friends, it worried me. I'd never seen anyone play a computer game with that sort of intensity before. People were breaking up with girlfriends, missing university classes, not leaving their houses for days. I decided to start playing, see what all the fuss was about. I liked it. I liked it a lot. But I’d missed one critical thing.

I logged on, and started playing in a big bad scary world full of dragons and monsters. Not that I was seeing any of those big dragons or monsters.

You see, WoW is fundamentally a team game.

Trying to go solo, you will often be tortured to death and eaten by scavenging pygmy fish-men - just as you would be in real life if they came for you with their tiny stone spears and incredibly frustrating nets. This is somewhat difficult to take, the first few times it happens. You're playing a computer game. You're the hero, right?

No.

You are one small part of a much greater whole. If you want to save the kingdom from the evil pirates, you can't go in single-handed and kill them all like in every other game. If you try to take those pirates on by yourself, their slave miners will beat you to death with their bare hands before you get within 100 yards of a single blouse-wearing, parrot-loving sea dog. You need at least four friends to come with you. Oh - and this is crucial - none of those friends can be shit.

Because if they are shit, then they are unquestionably more of a liability than an asset. Now, when you're fighting evil pirates, then five of you may do. But if you're fighting a giant god made of lava, or a really big dragon masquerading as the Queen, or a giant tentacle monster which shoots lasers from its million sanity-blasting eyes, then you needed 40 people. Generally, while your actual contribution to a fight drops off in a 40 person thing, the potential for one fool to ruin everything remains roughly the same.

So, you not only need to find friends, you need to find lots of friends. And they need to be bloody good at the game as well, otherwise you will never get anywhere. That's one area in which computer games are unlike any other type of media. Imagine you're reading a novel, and when you get to chapter three, and there's a test which says: "Are you sure you're getting the complex interplay of character, setting and tone? If not, go back and start again". In WoW it's even worse than normal - imagine being in a book group where you can't move on until all 40 people understand chapter four of Wide Sargasso Sea.

So, I started to develop friendships based entirely on WoW, with people I’d never met in real life, who frequently lived in different countries, who I had nothing in common with other than a desire to see monsters die and epic magic items drop. I ruthlessly cut real life friends dead as too unskilled to waste my time with, and played with people who I'd never met, who I knew by names like Lovelorn, or Arthran or Kenjy or Seraphiel. People knew me by my character’s name - Strawberry (“Straw” for short).

It was certainly odd having a second, entirely virtual life, with a completely ridiculous assumed name. But there I was, night after night, rushing home from work and staying up all night talking and laughing and winning with people I only knew in a fantasy world.

We were a pretty hardcore group, playing for three or four full evenings a week, on top of all the preparation we had to do. You see, to fight the biggest monsters, you needed the best possible stuff. That means hundreds of hours together, doing everything from picking magic tubers, fishing up magic wish-granting crayfish even committing a seemingly endless genocide on a particular sub race of bear-men

We did have a great time doing it. It still brings a smile to my face to think of the precious first kills of particularly hard bosses - the moment of “nerdgasm”, when the giant monster dies for the first time, and everyone would holler and shriek with joy over the radio.

It wasn’t just friendships either - for some people it became much more. Several friends from our group are now married, and at there’s at least one child that I know who wouldn’t have been born without WoW.

But it wasn't always good. Occasionally, we'd spend literally weeks dying time after time while some people got their act together. In real life, I cried as I delivered the eulogy at a WoW friend's funeral. But most of the time, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Over time, I came to realise that I didn’t enjoy playing the game very much – what I enjoyed was the friendships I’d made in it. The gameplay had got me hooked initially, but the solid bonds kept me coming back.

I poured hundreds of hours into the game – my “time played” stat on my main character is 86 days, 17 hours, and 8 minutes. That’s calculated by hours actually playing – so it’s probably about 250 full working days. Practically a year of my life. When you realise there were often 40 of us playing together, it’s a huge investment of human capital in nothing.

The amount of time we all sunk into the game gives me serious pause. I could have done something – practically anything – else and it would have been more productive. In that time, I could have easily written a novel, but I didn’t. I worry when my generation is old, we’ll look back, have created no great art, but say “well, we did do really well at some great video games”.

Eventually, we all drifted apart, mostly for real life reasons to do with not having enough time to play a computer game semi-professionally. I have played it a little since, but it's just not the same any more. It feels hollow. Empty. The reasons I found it fulfilling - the people - just aren't there anymore. Some of us have met up in person and we still enjoy each other's company, but without the game, the glue that held us all together, the friendships aren't what they were. 

Looking back on my experience of WoW now, from a distance of six years, it seems like I'm remembering a good but ultimately dysfunctional love affair - in the sense that the emotions are similar. Ridiculous perhaps, comparing the two, but I can't help but feel that my time in WoW was sometimes frustrating, sometimes infuriating, but largely fun. It’s the ex I see at a party and have an awkward chat with, rather than the ex I avoid at all costs.

Ultimately, I suppose nothing that makes you a dozen life-long friends can be a waste of time, can it? Even if when I call a picture of them to mind, it’s an image of a pixelated elf or dwarf or gnome I see, not a human face.

This piece forms part of our Social Media Week. Click here to read the introduction, and here to see the other pieces in the series.

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition