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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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle