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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism