World of Theorycraft, or the Subjective Value of Digital Labor: Part One (Youth)

Reliving an essentially static experience as two entirely different people is a unique–and rare–opportunity. How often is it that we may revisit some moment in our lives that for all intents and purposes has remained the same? How can we? Any place or person is not the same after the passing of years, not really. Others have changed with you, the years have had their way with even the stone. This is especially true now, in the age of rampant climate change, where even a period of decades may have fundamentally changed the geography of your memory. Indeed, during the 21st century, we might say it is impossible to thoroughly make a return as a different person to a wholly stagnant realm–whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. Real, actual matter and substance obeys the rules of reality and proceeds and exists without us or our supervision or even our regard. This is object permanence. But this is only true in reality, something so vast and beyond our understanding that we exist at its whim and not the other way around. It is not true in realities we have constructed. The example I put forward–and hold your laughter–is World of Warcraft.

Within the past year or so, Blizzard has done something unheard of or at least so infrequently done as to be unheard of. Not in the sense of triumph or achievement–as has been said of other recent developments in electronic media, such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and the forthcoming release of Cyberpunk 2077–but rather the boldfaced recycling of old content. I am, of course, talking about World of Warcraft: Classic, the roots of which go back to Nostalrius a fanmade endeavor to retain the time-honored initial release of the popular MMORPG. This formerly little known passion project had been gaining more and more interest as interest conversely waned in the actual retail version of the game itself, and so the sharks at Blizzard, as they so often do, spotted the chance for a cash grab. Blizzard ordered a cease-and-desist and promptly “began development” of their own attempt at nostalgia which would become WoW: Classic as we know it today.

And what a shot of nostalgia it is. The rush of the drums at the login screen. The lofty stone of the Dark Portal, swirling with chaotic energies and ready to usher you into a world of magic and mystery and blood. At once you begin to settle into a strange sensation not felt in so long a time: familiarity. It is not unlike going home. It is not unlike waking up and realizing that these last years and all their troubles have merely been a dream. Indeed, for so many the roads and dungeons of Azeroth were home and dreamlike in their capacity to whisk one off into a world so engrossing the loading screen would caution them to be sure to not forget the world outside. Character creation is like visiting a motley of old friends, once so intrinsically familiar that their absence is only truly felt upon rediscovery. The origin point for each path glimmers like the light eking from a hardly cracked door. Bleak skies over the gloom and glades of Tirisfal, the arid red rock of Durotar, the rolling plains of Mulgore, the peaceful forests of Elwyn, and so on. Each one a microcosm of a time in the avid player’s youth. Then, with a name and a few clicks of the mouse, this world once again becomes your own–for a time.

This is a feeling many will know who had played and are now playing again what is now a cultural titan, but not so long ago was the marker for a total and complete dork. I was one of those dorks. Indeed, I was and am the ultimate dork. I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons since I was 8. I’ve created my own RPG rules set. I’ve written ten books and devoted tens of thousands of words to setting notes that other people will probably never see. This is not to brag, but to press home that despite appearances you will not find a bigger dork. So it is with some emphasis that I tell you how pumped I was as kid to throw together an Orc (my favorite race since playing Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness as a very wee lad), give him an Orc sounding name, and get rolling as a bloodthirsty Warrior ready to deal death and collect plunder.

And yet for all my cultic devotion to things nerdy, especially for anything pumped out by Blizzard up to and including circa 2004, I found my enthusiasm quickly begin to wane. Once I ventured outside the Valley of Trials, triumphed over the insanity of Barrens Chat and progressed into the grueling Thousand Needles, each rotation (Charge, Rend, Battle Shout if it wasn’t active, Heroic Strike, etc.) became a chore. Each quest became a task. The excitement bled away until all that was left was the incomprehensible drag that was leveling your character to 60 and your professions to 300 and playing the auction house to get enough gold for your mount and so on. Everything became what is known unaffectionately in all gaming circles as “The Grind”.

I simply could not tolerate it. My young brain was moving a mile a minute and required much noise, many flashing lights and moving objects. I quickly would retreat into Halo or Call of Duty or any of the many, many single-player RPG’s that sapped away hours and hours of my youth (Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, Planescape: Torment and Fallout). I was an aficionado, you see, a lover of many digital delights, and the time sink of killing the same mob over and over and over to get item after item after item or running the same dungeon a minimum of 10 times to get a much needed piece of equipment could simply not appeal to me. Instant gratification was my muse. I wanted to move at my own pace, to be rewarded specifically at the rate of the work I was putting into the game. Patience was unknown to me and the frustration very familiar that comes on when confronted with the absence of reciprocation. If you’re anything like me, Dear Reader, you’re beginning to know all too well what I’m talking about. Because of course, after all, what I’m talking about is that other “Grind”. The Real Grind. The Dark Tunnel At The End of Which We Hope Is A Light.

What I’m talking about is Life and the labor of Living.

As a child, you have no concept of what that truly means. What is life as a child? What is the labor of living as a child? I speak from the experience of being a habitually depressed child with a less than stellar childhood, so let’s dispense with any indictment of the argument predicated upon some childhoods entailing some labor. Ideally, and for many, childhood is the period of years that will come to form one’s peak personal and emotional freedom. To paraphrase an expert on the existential dread that waits at the other side of the field of youth, children do not yet have any concept of what “day-in, day-out” truly means. And the young do not yet have any concept of labor or labor as it will come to mean in adulthood. Labor to a child is a simple matter of arithmetic. If I add one stone to the pile, there will be one more stone on the pile; conversely, if I take one away, there will be one less. A simple system of reciprocity. The idea of random apportioning is anathema, as it inherently is senseless at best and unjust at worst. Children are mirrors for the world around them. They haven’t yet been chewed up. A child can tell the just from the unjust by mere instinct. And so by mere instinct a child, barring extenuating circumstances, can suss out an exploitative and unfair system when they encounter one.

Enter again World of Warcraft, inheritor of the social perils begun by Everquest. A lack of patience can render large swaths of the game a chore, but what truly deadens the experience for a child (or at least this former child) is the lack of fairness. “Life isn’t fair” is a common refrain among the playerbase in answer to any complaints regarding the game mechanics. Indeed, the game mechanics themselves are designed with that refrain in mind. How else do you continue shilling millions of people out of $15 a month? Surely not out of brand loyalty or legitimate entertainment, but by exploiting that reptilian desire to see numbers increase. Much has been written on the similarity between gambling and the mechanics of loot acquisition in gaming. World of Warcraft was perhaps the first significant example of this before the modern day boogeyman of Loot Boxes. So I won’t delve into that too much here.

Rather the point is more that this lack of fairness, which children who are able to afford gaming PC’s do not yet readily understand as an element of the real world, is repugnant to them. They can’t understand it. For the most part life has supplied them with what they needed and did not ask that they earn it first. If they earned anything, they earned it on the basis of reciprocity and not randomization. Many younger players will not go on to hit max level, to raid with prominent guilds, to make “World First’s” of this or that new boss. They will leave and return and leave and return until months or years they later reach something of an endgame. Only for another expansion to drop. Or another content patch. Or, god forbid, a sequel. One understands how a child could tire of this repetitive and sluggish pace, a repetitiveness and sluggishness not uncommon in adult life, which they have yet to experience. I might even suggest that World of Warcraft, in its purest and most original form, is quite the system of training wheels for how to survive in the capitalist and cutthroat nightmare into which we all one day age.

A nightmare we will explore afresh in Part Two: Maturity…

(Note: I am speaking under the assumption of a generally privileged childhood, as that was my experience at least in a monetary regard, which in many cases can be assumed of WoW’s playerbase.)

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