Confessions of a 30-Year-Old Gamer

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The author's avatar in the online video game World of Warcraft

Last spring I took the measure of my life, and decided that my favorite video game, World of Warcraft, had to go.

I was 30, and by most objective standards, was doing pretty well. I lived in an old building in majestic Harlem, with a lovely son and partner, and made a show of wearing a suit and fedora to a job that merely requested jeans and a collar. I had a joint bank account and dental insurance. Yet, on any given day, if you'd asked me about my greatest accomplishment, it invariably began with my second life—the one in which I was a seven-foot blue elf whose hobbies included firing crossbows, trapping wild boars and reenacting the video for Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." In May I quit because I didn't want any illusions about which of my two lives were more important.

Like most of my generation, I was raised on video games. Like most of my generation, I assumed that this obsession would pass at the proper time—say when I turned 30. But like most of my generation, I was wrong. Our assumptions were based on the idea that video games would never grow up. But no genre has worked harder to disprove that maxim than MMOGs—Massively Multiplayer Online Games. Unlike with normal video games, where you interact with just a computer, MMOGs allow millions of people to play with each other in sprawling online virtual worlds. Most MMOGs target people like me who, as kids, took 20-sided dice and J.R.R.Tolkien a little too seriously, and none do it better than World of Warcraft. At last count there were 8 million people journeying through its fantasy world known as Azeroth. On Tuesday that number will increase, when the game's creator, Blizzard Entertainment, releases its sequel to WoW, The Burning Crusade, a game that will likely smash all previous records for games made for the PC.

All those trips to Azeroth add up to a lot of money. WoW subsists on a monthly subscription fee of $14.95, which means Blizzard rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars monthly. Their clientele are mostly young men like myself—the same young men who've been giving studio executives headaches as we abandon the box office and TV.

It doesn't take much to see why. This summer I could have paid 10 bucks to watch Superman Returns for three hours. Or I could have paid 15 bucks to be Superman whenever I wanted. It isn't just the thrill of playing dress-up either; Superman Returns is static, always saddled with the same ending. But WoW, like the real world, changes with every choice I make. Fighting with two swords instead of one gives me a better shot at beating down an opposing mage, while spending hours wending through a haunted manse might win me a coveted staff. Also, unlike with old media, my choices affect people around me. I can form guilds, essentially virtual clubhouses, band together to quest for rare breastplate, recite the assorted lore of Vin Diesel or Chuck Norris, or simply hang out in front of the local inn doing the electric slide.

WoW wasn't the first MMOG I'd ever played, but it is the best. The interface is clean and easy to master. The world feels mammoth and its geography runs the gamut from painted deserts and sprawling savannahs to snow-covered mountains and swamps teeming with gators and fish men. Despite its size, players easily navigate the world via roads, ships, zeppelins, giant bats and mythological creatures like hippogriffs. Players in Azeroth choose to be members of races like humans, orcs, trolls or night elves, and then pledge allegiance to one of two factions. But unlike in other fantasy games, neither side is wholly good or evil, and both factions are under siege from a plague that turns its victims into mindless undead.

Its biggest draw, without a doubt, is its human factor, and WoW's fans have quickly shaped Azeroth into a second Earth. Players hunt for gold, and epic items, then put them up for sale on eBay, thus turning a hobby into a livelihood. They have cyber-sex, date, and get married. They hang out with old friends who may live hundreds of miles away.

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