When I hang out with my brother Ross, we joke, make fun of each other, and swap stories about mutual friends. Sometimes, we’ll each pack a bag of stat-enhancing potions and go out to kill large monsters.
It’s been well over a year since I saw my brother in the flesh – but thanks to World of Warcraft, I interact with him on a daily basis.
The unchallenged juggernaut of online role-playing games, World of Warcraft (WoW) has just celebrated its tenth anniversary. Some ten million players from around the world have engaged in alternate fantasy existences as elves, orcs, trolls, or even more unusual races like the draenei (often affectionately referred to as ‘space goats’ – yeah, really). The in-game universe, Azeroth, is internally consistent. Logging in offers a sense of comfort comparable to that which you might feel upon coming home after work each night, knowing that your quilt is exactly where you left it on the sofa. It’s a world in which night and day continue to cycle on whether or not you’re currently playing. In WoW, it’s the players – all of them – who make the game.
WoW’s fantasy setting borrows heavily from reality, and much like the real world there are limitless options its inhabitants can choose to pursue. Some players are drawn to ‘raids’ – groups of up to forty people teaming together to bring down enormous bosses. Other players prefer to fight amongst themselves, taking on opposing factions in a sort of roleplay of the universe’s lore and its warring inhabitants. Others still are drawn to its more cutesy offerings; collecting pets like rabbits and miniature dragons.
Me? Well, I like a little of all of the above – but primarily, I see the game as a tool of communication. It’s in Azeroth that I’m able to catch up with the people, like my brother, that I otherwise might not speak to regularly.
It goes without saying that technology has, in the past two decades, greatly advanced the way we communicate with each other. As a child living abroad, I hand-wrote letters that took up to two weeks to reach my friends back home in Australia. I slowly upgraded to emails in the course of my teen years, as more and more of my friends became connected to the internet at home. Such communication is commonplace, normal now. My partner Skypes his family weekly, my dad regularly texts me photos of his cats, and Facebook keeps me abreast of the daily lives of every long-lost childhood friend.
Where can these increasingly complex technologies take us next? How can we cultivate these technology-facilitated, long-distance relationships to be even more real and realistic? I believe the next step lies in games like WoW.
The number of potential ways to extend and strengthen relationships via online worlds is vast, and goes far beyond the light-hearted in-game banter that my brother and I share. Game critic Jenn Frank’s exploration of online virtual world Second Life (the company behind Second Life, Linden Labs, tellingly discourages users from referring to it as a ‘game’) allowed her to emulate a physical, intimate relationship with her long-distance boyfriend. Awkward as her first attempt at simulated sex may have been, she acknowledges that the software allowed she and her romantic partner to attempt various movements they would otherwise ‘never have dared to endeavour’.
The potential in these online worlds isn’t limited to hiring rooms in red-light districts, or shooting fireballs at hapless orcs. Businesses of all kinds are increasingly becoming aware of the opportunities provided by virtual interactions, with workers bridging international distances by meeting in simulated spaces in lieu of ordinary teleconferencing. This allows for processes to be demonstrated, rather than merely described or shown, and offers a form of experiential learning not otherwise possible. Tremendously popular game DayZ – a bleak first-person shooter that leans heavily on the mechanics of survival, as conceptualised by a former soldier – began life as a means of training soldiers through simulated exposure to situations provoking emotional responses.
In comparison, perhaps my WoW-based closeness with my brother is a mere blip on the radar of possibility. Still, the game has been an enormous conduit for sustaining our relationship through his stints working overseas over the past several years, as well as my own recent move to the United States. In a world without WoW, we would likely be keeping in touch only through social media feeds and the occasional brief email, no closer to each other than to the primary school friends we see flash across our Facebook newsfeeds but never actually speak to. WoW, thankfully, provides me daily access to Ross’ hilarious one-liners – and on the rare occasion we do get to hang out in person, our shared recollections of in-game memories strengthens our sibling bond.
A place like Azeroth can be just as powerful at facilitating long-distance relationships as any Skype or telephone call, if it not even more so. In addition to the ability to facilitate and mimic a face-to-face conversation, it is capable of creating a simulated, detailed substitute world to ground the relationship. Your friends don’t just hear about what you’ve been up to, or see photos and watch self-destructing Snapchats. With online games, you’re part of the same world and existing in a shared space. Together, you can create new memories.