Identity is a complex thing. Though our choices determine its path, so too do the realms and relationships through which it journeys. Here is one of the most significant of mine.
World of Warcraft (WoW) has been a part of my journey for over half a decade. It may perplex those who have not encountered it, and alarm those who have heard of it from the wrong sources. So let's clear things up a bit.
World of Warcraft is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game – an MMORPG. That is to say:
RPG - An artificial world, in which you as a player can take up a character's persona, go on adventures, fight monsters, interact with non-player characters and elements, and so on. A classic genre of videogames.
Multiplayer/Online – This world is located on the internet. From their own computers, multiple people can enter the very same world, interact with each other, partake on those adventures and journeys alongside one another, or if they so wish, against each other.
Massively – By 'multiple people', we mean millions. As I write this, WoW has 10.3 million subscribers worldwide. That's a larger population than about 150 countries.
World is very much the operative word. This is no mere game: it is a new and created social space, no less a set of "imagined communities" than nations or states or tribes; and in which play out the same range of personal, social, political and economic human relationships. It is an extension of our two-hundred-thousand-year migration, which having more or less saturated the inhabitable continents of Earth, pushes its journey into spaces entirely of its own creation.
WoW has its own complex and comprehensive storyline, spanning thousands of characters and their relationships, into which your player-character is free to play his or her part: from mundane trivialities (collecting boar livers etc.) to cosmic narratives where the fate of the world is threatened by forces of galactic scale. I cannot possibly begin to provide a synopsis: go here if you're interested, and make sure you have several hours to spare and a very strong cup of coffee.
But it's the human element that defines it. Your interactions with this virtual world are played out through your social activities therein: above all in dungeons and raids, where you join up with five, ten or twenty-five other people (in the old days it was forty) to overcome the most formidable challenges. And raiding is not a dinner party: it requires organization, logistics and teamwork on a quasi-military scale, with a balance of player classes and roles, strategic and creative thinking, and dedication and cooperative persistence on every party member's part.
Of course, because humanity (especially in the "West") has acquired a problem with cooperation, these are often unsuccessful and frustating experiences. Corrupt leaders and abuse of power, clashes of inflated egos, conflicts over loot distribution, ninja-looting (i.e. theft of an item to which one is not entitled), discrimination, bigotry, callous social norms, or the kind of attitudes only arrivable at when education systems blast a person's intellect backwards from where it started at birth: all these occur, and reflect not problems with WoW, but the same mistakes and corruptions afflicting the same old humanity which has extended its journey into it.
And sometimes the boundary between WoW and the world outside it is vaguer still. A surreptitious (and illegal) industry has sprung up, most infamously in China, where people are paid to amass in-game currency all day, then sell it to players for "real-world" money. (Indeed, it recently emerged that corrupt officials in a prison in China were running a sweatshop by which prisoners were forced to farm virtual gold, with the proceeds lining the officials’ pockets and the inmates subjected to appalling violence if they did not comply.) In 2005, the lethal corrupted blood of the evil serpent god Hakkar the Soulflayer broke out in a virtual pandemic that spread through all the game’s major settlements – drawing the attention of the international epidemiological community, with calls for further research into the incident, referencing the contemporary challenges of SARS and avian flu, and suggesting what lessons the incident might provide in modelling the real-life spread of infectious disease, and developing our ways to combat it. "Just a game"? Hardly.
And then there's the classic one: romantic relationships. There are successes: players who get attached in the game, or decide to meet up outside it, leading to many happy partnerships, or even families. And there are calamities: internet anonymity and its notorious false personas, but also all the disputes and breakups and gender prejudices and discrimination against sexual or romantic diversity (to which might be added, disdain for online relationships) – all of which originated not in WoW, but in human society, for which WoW is but one more setting into which the toxic fumes from our breaking of love have been fanned.
My own journey through WoW has been long, and its influence on my overall journey enormous. I started in 2005, when I was more in need than ever of a different setting. In over half a decade that followed I bore witness to both the best and the worst that humans can be; but whether the net effect was positive or negative, I would not trade off the inspiration and insights it gave me for any other. It was in WoW, more than any other society, that I reforged the pieces of my life which the UK had shattered, and began to carve an identity which would not have been possible in Britain alone – and which eventually found paths out of Britain to carry on its journey, first to Guyana, now to Japan.
I don't log into WoW so much today, mainly due to commitments outside it. But I still find it important to remain connected to the people I know in it, and the World itself, so once a week I get ten of us together and we raid the latest content.
And still today it informs my perspectives and work. In practically everything I write, a discerning eye might make out fragments or traces of WoW's Azeroth.
So, what is reality? Sometimes, perhaps, that's something we'd best answer by ourselves.