A lumbering warrior clad in iron and swinging an ax comes into view from beyond crumbling castle walls and piles of fallen enemies. He is ready to join his clan and head into battle. No fear, no regrets. This is what he has been waiting for all day. Charged with the mission to commit and conquer, a group of tightly woven creatures gather together to take on beasts of mythic proportions. A wand-wielding mage, a powerful wizard and a massive warrior take their places for the ultimate battle. With masks of analog text and screen names that only hint at their true identities, anonymity is their true weapon.
Griffin Edwards, 17, a shy, glasses-wearing high school senior, has been playing World of Warcraft (WoW) since seventh grade. He has seen many iterations of the classic role-playing game originally released in 2004. With new expansion packs added every few years to keep players coming back, the game has grown with its fans.
This fantastic world, in which a player can become anything, tends to attract kindred spirits—those seeking an alternative reality where the problems of their real lives don’t exist. “I felt a little helpless when I was in school because I got picked on, but then in WoW I felt like I could be a total badass,” Edwards says. “The character I made is a Tauren warrior, so it’s a giant bulky thing with huge armor and a giant ax. So it was maybe a little bit of overcompensation.”
But Edwards didn’t just escape into the game; the game became part of his real life too, complete with community. Because WoW is designed to integrate team work, in the form of guilds, it fosters prolonged connections between players. This means that staying in touch with acquaintances, friends, and significant others on WoW is essential—just as it is in any world.
Gaming researcher Chennan Liu, Ph.D., sees gaming as a portion of people’s online lives, which complement the world they inhabit offline. “With the technology development, people can live very well with diverse online resources,” says Liu, an assistant professor of social work at Renmin University of China in Beijing.
Charlie Kuykendall, 24, an apprentice electrician, has been playing WoW for almost eight years. What began as just another online game soon became a way to cope with his social anxiety. A self-proclaimed “hobbyist,” Kuykendall has invested more time into this fantasy world than the average gamer, and has found the structure of the game facilitates connections between those who play intensely. Daily WoW alerts and guild updates appear on his smart phone, allowing him to interact with virtual friends from all over the world whether he’s at home, at work or on the train.
Kuykendall credits WoW for helping him make new friends. He has joined guilds, and even created some, in the process achieving the kind of community-building he finds difficult offline. “The recruitment process is really difficult,” he admits. “There are too many groups that are looking for people.” For many players, this is a welcome contrast to their experiences in the real world.
Not all the guilds last, in part because the real world has a way of leaking into the game as well. Often a raid team—a group of players whose goal is to work together to beat a boss or level—will lose members because players leave for real-life reasons: changing careers, or starting a family.
Because of this, some guilds are selective about whom they accept. Much like employers, guild officers and raid leaders will interview promising guild members. “They even Skype call them if necessary, “ says Kuykendall.
Although conversations between players often center on planning their next raid or venting about the latest expansion, interaction can often take a step into the real world. Edwards recalls when he first started playing WoW in middle school, one member of his guild became what he calls his “WoW mom,” and the two of them talked about issues completely unrelated to the actual game play.
“I could talk to her but I couldn’t talk to my actual mom about it. Me and my mom are close, but I don tknow why I couldn’t tell it to her,” Edwards says.
At one point, their roles essentially reversed. Edwards’ WoW mom confided in him that she was having an online affair and thinking about meeting the man in person. Although he was still a pre-teen, Edwards advised her to stay with her husband and family and work it out. The two are still in touch, and Edwards says his WoW mom and her husband are happily together.
Tyler Pace, a Ph.D. candidate in Human-Computer Interaction and Design at Indiana University, says social interactions like these were not planned into WoW, but “more like a motivation born out of the mundane.”
“Players would start to reach out to other people that they might see in the game. Like, ‘We’re both bored to tears, why don’t we start something together?’” Pace says.
However, Pace notes, the structure of WoW encourages relationships to form. Video game designers include forms of communication, promote interaction on game forums and prompt forming relationships with activities designed to encourage teamwork. He has found that the relationships that form mirror the relationships offline: friends, parents and children, and siblings. These relationships strengthen the guilds and keep players coming back not just for the game itself, but for the people with whom they interact.
Pace finds this aspect of WoW intriguing and surprising. “They will always find a new and interesting way to take the thing you have provided to them, be it a game or a website, and use it for ways you n