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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump