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.

Photo: Getty
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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem