March 26, 2010

Lorelol: World of Warcraft as societal escapism, not fantasy escapism

On CultureLab, one of the New Scientist blogs, there's an interview with William Sims Bainbridge, who has spent 2,300 hours studying World of Warcraft in game to write an upcoming book about his studies: The Warcraft Civilization: Social science in a virtual world (links to sample chapter).

He was asked:
You've spent 2300 hours in World of Warcraft (WoW). Is it more than a game?

Like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung, WoW isn't just escapist fantasy. It's posing alternatives to the world we actually have today. It raises questions about environmentalism and colonialism; it asks how people are going to be respectful of each other in a world in which there aren't enough resources.

Tolkien believed that all good people could come together on the same side. This is one of the biggest questions that humanity faces: can we have a world consensus by which we're all partners in finding a solution? Or, like the Hoarde [sic] vs Alliance situation in WoW, are we doomed to be in separate factions competing ultimately to the death? It touches on very serious issues but in a playful way.
With all due respect to Dr. Bainbridge, he's wrong about WoW; it is indeed just an escapist fantasy, just as Lord of the Rings was, just as Tolkien intended it to be. Of LotR, Tolkien has written: "It is neither allegorical nor topical... I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence."

There seems to be a subset of science fiction and fantasy fans that feel the genres do not receive the respect they deserve from the larger lit community, and make broad statements like Bainbridge's to highlight the real world and literary qualities of sci fi/fantasy works. I don't think LotR needs to be equated with Lolita as a great work in the same sense, because they're very different works, both great in their own realms. LotR doesn't need to be an allegory to be a great story. There's nothing inherently wrong with escapist fantasy.

But, as Bainbridge illustrates, we read deep into the details because author(s) unavoidably express reflections of time, place and society in their stories. For example, all the "good" people who united in LotR also happened to be white, while the Easterlings (Middle-Eastern peoples) and Haradrim (Africans) sided with the "dark" lord. It's relatively easy to place LotR in a historical context, but much more difficult to take a contemporary story or the lore of a game like WoW and definitively point to purposed examples of social commentary, especially with broad issues like social divisions and tribalism.

Beyond that, LotR and The Ring are formalized narratives, each classics in their genres. WoW is a video game, and while it will certainly go down in video game history for its breadth, it’s a bit of a stretch for me to extend a congratulatory hand to Blizzard for excellent storytelling. In general, the story is terrible; WoW lore (also known as lorelol) is not a framework of European myths, it’s the most recent bastardization of the original bastardization of myths that, until the late 80’s, when roleplaying games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior really took off, was already progressing at a steady pace. Since then, so many stories have been told in fantasy games that they become copies of a copy or a mashup of a mashup ad inifitum. The story in WoW is a convenience, a familiar framework for fantasy enthusiasts to jump in and feel at home without actually have to think through a story (which I believe Bainbridge acknowledges). I’m willing to bet that a large majority of players – including myself at the time – know little or nothing of the story of Azeroth beyond the goofy NPCs we beat up in stylized little rooms that will reset tomorrow.

People don’t play WoW to escape into a story, they play WoW to escape into another society that celebrates social awkwardness and in general, provides you with an immersive place to interact. If they wanted to escape into story, there are plenty of great console and PC games with no online, social components. Really, WoW is just a more complicated Gaia Online, or a multi-tiered chatroom with PvP combat. It’s a place for gamers to congregate or for new gamers to get a taste, like Bainbridge did. I don’t see it as any different from any other online community; people gravitate toward others that have the same interests, form tribal bonds and identify allies and opponents.

I'm going to stop here for this post, trying to keep the ideas together. I want to expand a bit on the distinction between story and society though in a bit more depth next time. I'm going to use Bainbridge's study as a jumping off point for a series about gaming, MMOs and the internet culture in general I've been meaning to write for some time. We'll go with Lorelol for the series title.


  1. I think you're overly dismissive of the idea that people engage with serious issues in popular entertainment; I also think you're drastically oversimplifying matters when you assign a single motivation ("to escape into another society that celebrates social awkwardness") to the very sizable WoW player base. I'll probably post about this more in detail myself.

  2. I expand on it a bit more in the next post, but I think what I'm getting at (and what I could have been clearer on) is that people aren't hooked by the story, they're hooked by the society and ultimately, that's what keeps most people playing.

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