By Abe Rose
Online role-playing games have allowed thousands of players from all walks of life the chance to interact with one another through virtual avatars. All names are anonymous, and all perceptions of gender and race are chosen by the player. You can be perceived however you wish to be perceived. Some people choose to be troll warriors, paladin dwarves, kung-fu pandas, you name it. When I stepped into the World of Warcraft, I saw all the many possibilities of what I could become in a fantasy world. I ultimately decided on this:
While other people were obsessed with getting the newest armor rewards from defeating the most difficult bosses, I would scour the back alley thrift shops like Macklemore. The way that people played the end-game raids that took up to forty people to coordinate an attack on a boss really stressed me out. Like a corporate CEO, the raid leader would give all sorts of commands to the crew, and would expect everyone to read up on the corporation’s plan forward. It seemed like it would demand an eight-hour work day to execute the coordinated effort. I never saw the point of going through all that when only the top 1% would reap all the benefits from the hard work from the 99%. I saw these poor workers slaving away for a chance to get expensive armor when, really, they could have found something reasonably priced at the Ironforge flea markets.
The whole idea of playing in a fantasy world with other people dressed as orcs and trolls was so silly to me that I could have cared less about playing the game as it was meant to be played. What thrilled me the most was collecting different outfits for my digital Barbie doll. Outside of video games, I hate shopping for clothes. I hate having to keep up with fashion. If it weren’t for society’s draconian values, I would just fig-leaf it all day. But for some odd reason, finding the coolest outfits was all I cared about in World of Warcraft. By the time I hit level 40 and joined up with others in a dungeon group, I was expected to do my other game job that didn’t require fashion expertise. “Come on, warrior, do the tanking! My A-O-E spells are causing way too much D-P-S and now I have too much aggro!” What the hell is this guy talking about? What’s aggro? I was way too busy collecting outfits up until now to pay attention.
But a good question to ask is this: Would I have been this obsessed with finding all the different outfits if the game were not played with other people? The answer would be no. If people never saw you, would you really care about how presentable you looked? Everything I dressed in was for an audience. So, I often had fun with this and did things like dress up like a vendor, stand right next to other vendors in the auction house, and watch a lot of confused players try to click on my avatar and say things like, “Why isn’t the vendor working when I click on him?!”
Apparently, the Emperor Zhengde of the Ming Dynasty liked to do something similar. He had a portion of the Imperial Palace redesigned to look like a market, and forced everyone to play pretend with him. If they refused, he would execute them. He would have loved this game.
I’ve found that games are more fun when you use your own expectations of how the game should be played. The best way to play this game is with an avant-garde approach. I once created a Tauren named “deadcow” just so I could take it to Stormwind City, and have it immediately be killed by approaching guards. This would take a long time, as every time I would resurrect I could only run a few feet before being killed again. After hours, I would finally make it to the Stormwind Auction House. And again, I would be immediately killed. But this time, instead of resurrecting, I would just leave the character there. So whenever people walked into the Auction House, they would have to walk by a dead cow.
After about a week, the server would resurrect my character and erase it from the city. So I would go on another big journey to do it again.
While most people spend time in the towns getting ready for adventures out in the world, I took the opposite approach. I got costumes from wherever I could to have adventures in the towns. While I would dress my avatar as a simple merchant by day, I figured that there had to be some secret double life my simpleton avatar had to be living by night.
I tried acting like a dancer at a bar.
I tried acting like a bouncer at a rave.
I felt that my imagination was only beginning to scratch the surface of what I could become. Hey, if there’s one thing in the world that I always wanted to be, I could now make that happen in this game…
…BY BEING BATMAN.
Dressing up like a superhero was a way I could distinguish my individuality from the rest of the mobs of warriors and paladins. It was like dressing in a back alley costume shop while everyone else was at a name brand store paying fifty dollars for the same new t-shirt. I wasn’t privileged enough to have the corporate back-door connections to famous raid leaders and first dibs on high-end clothing products. So I started using the cheaply-made tools available to me to give my avatar a unique individuality. If I couldn’t get the attention of the rest of the community by being a top-tier one-percenter, I could get noticed by putting on a mask and swooping down like Batman on hordes of unsuspecting avatars. I was essentially doing the same things that attention-deprived kids resort to. It was the digital equivalent of sitting in the back of class, smearing peanut butter in your hair and shouting, “I’m the princess of Celestino!”
World of Warcraft is deeply therapeutic in that regard.
This leads me to thinking, is most of what we do in that game influenced by the way we wish to be perceived? Take a look at the demographics in online games. According to the psychological research project on online role-playing games, The Daedalus Project, the study found in their sampling size of 1000 players, 1 out of 2 female characters is played by a man, and 1 out of 100 male characters are played by women. So why do so many men choose to play as a different gender? I’ve asked some male friends why they decide to gender-bend in the game, and it wasn’t likely because of some hidden Freudian compulsion. They said that playing as a female made people nicer, and more generous to them. On the downside, they had to put up with a lot more dwarves blowing kisses at them. Perhaps World of Warcraft indirectly exposes players to the realization of how annoying and stupid cat-calling is.
A game like World of Warcraft allows players to ultimately choose the way in which they wish to be perceived, regardless of their real gender, race, or social status. The game ignores the real world social rules, and instead operates by its own social rules. Most every action in this game is done for some sort of social reward. Do people really want to buy the mounts simply because they allow faster traveling? Or is it because riding a tiger is the digital equivalent of riding a red convertible in the real world? Why do people want the latest armor set? Just to get a few numbers higher in damage output? Or is it to be privileged to dress in clothing that only the top 1% are privileged to wear?
But sadly, there weren’t many of us on this cutting edge, avant-garde way of playing the game. In my travels I found few others who would dress ostentatiously like me, so I would walk the world, alone, yet dressed fabulously. And there, at the ends of the world, in Blackrock Mountain, feeling all the hope and despair of a misunderstood artist, I ran away from a society that did not understand. And just when I was about to fling my avatar into the pits of the lava below, I found that I was not alone.
In the game, humans and orcs are mortal enemies. Each player can attack and kill one another without penalty. But we, human and orc dressed in fabulous tuxedos, found each other, and embraced each other. And even though humans and orcs don’t speak the same language, I said, “Ag ee oo p” which translates into Orcish as “Me lo ve u.” We cheered. We cried. We waved goodbye. Then we went our separate ways.
I feel like I was visited by a kindred spirit that day.
Originally posted on the now defunct website, thealternativechronicle.com