World of Warcraft guided me through previous dark times — it can do it again

March 23, 2020   5 mins

As the long national quarantine comes upon us — confined in our own homes, playing out Huis Clos with our immediate families, missing our elderly relatives — what will we do to pass the time? Tempted though I am by umpteen repeat watchings of the three-hour director’s cut of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, I have a sneaking sense of what it will have to be.

I will do what I swore I would only do again if civilization were actually coming to an end, because it very possibly is — which is an excellent excuse. I will re-activate my subscription to World of Warcraft. And I will ride forth once more on my creaky mechanical ostrich to do battle with dragons and ogres in the magical realm of Azeroth. I urge you, friends, to join me.

World of Warcraft is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG. It takes place in a vast sub-Tolkien fantasy world of mages and warlocks, elves and rogues and warriors. It has its own market economy, and its own ecosystem of professions and careers. It has vast landscapes to explore — some of them very beautiful in a 1970s album-cover way — and enormous numbers of quests to fulfil and missions to run.

You start out as weak as a kitten, and as you “level up” by running errands, killing monsters, practising skills and collecting treasure, you grow in strength. It is fiendishly well calibrated to keep you playing. It’s wicked fun. Like bingeing on chocolate or cocaine: you know you’ll regret it but you can’t resist that tiny bit more. I know so many people who couldn’t bear to look at their “/played” number: the in-game log that tells you to the second how long you’ve spent in the game.

Every time you think you might just log off now and, I don’t know, go to bed or make some food or go out to the pub to meet flesh-and-blood human beings, you’ll catch sight of a non-player character flashing with the little yellow exclamation mark that indicates they have a quest for you. Or you’ll think: I’d best just go to the Auction House to flog what I don’t want from my latest haul of booty. Or you’ll think, gosh, if I just dig up another ten bars of platinum in this quarry I’ll have what I need to craft that nifty pair of gauntlets I’ve been craving. So on, for another ten minutes, you go… and another ten.. and another ten….

And, happily, no death in Azeroth is forever. Every time a monster kills you, your ghost pops up in a nearby graveyard and you can hasten, incorporeally, back to your downed body to resurrect yourself. You can try that battle again, resume that quest, pick up where you left off. You’re always going forward, however slowly. It’s comforting in that way. It’s comforting in all sorts of ways.

MMORPGs are just what you thirst for in a global lockdown: they are a way of being less alone when you’re alone. Man, do I know this. I was addicted — I think it’s not too strong a word — to World of Warcraft back in the noughties, and I was kinda sad at the time. I was drinking too much and smoking too much and doing too many drugs. I still feel an almost physical queasiness remembering the comedown ends of my vampiric weeknight WoW sessions: a vermilion sun setting on another day in the supersaturated landscape of Azeroth, even as the real-world dawn greyed in the window of my south London flat.

Escapism? You bet. And yet it wasn’t just a retreat from reality. In the game I was able to connect with dear friends whom I seldom if ever saw in real life. One was in rural France. Another pair in California. I missed them, and my connection with them, and we met almost never in meatspace. And yet I spent more time with them online than I did with members of my close family in real life. We logged on and sought each-other out and talked through the in-game chat function. We were close. I felt bad about my addiction to WoW, but it also helped get me through.

It’s an addiction that I overcame. I can’t remember when I logged off for the last time and deleted my account. I can’t even remember why. I suspect it was something to do with getting a wife and children and finding the outside world a bit more tolerable than, for a while, I had. But delete it I did, and I haven’t gone back. And when I do, I wonder if it will feel like time-travelling back to rediscover myself in my early 30s.

The relationship of WoW to human time is in any case somewhat strange. Even when you are logged off, Azeroth’s world continues to turn: sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset, at the same rate as the world turns here. According to some calculations, the game’s 11 million-odd players have logged something like 6 million years of in-game experience between them. That is as long as it took us to evolve from our first upright ancestor to the humans we now recognise — humans who have invented fiat money, and air travel, and advanced medicine, and all those other things whose futures are now looking kinda shaky.

And it bears mentioning that World of Warcraft even has form when it comes to pandemic infectious disease. In September 2005, Blizzard (the company that owns and runs WoW) rolled out a new “raid” for high-level characters. A raid is an example of an “instance”, a stand-alone section of the game (a dungeon or a citadel or similar) designed for large groups of players to team up to defeat.

The final boss in this instance was a bad-tempered chap called Hakkar The Soulflayer. They rather go in for nominative determinism in WoW. It was distinctly possible to tell the difference between old Hakkar and a ray of sunshine; and when he was really pissed off, Hakkar would cast a spell called “Corrupted Blood”, which afflicted all players nearby with a “debuff”, draining them rapidly of health and making them prone to affect other players nearby with the same disease.

Now here’s the thing. “Corrupted Blood” was never supposed to leave the instance. It was supposed to be specific to the final battle in the infernal dungeon of Zul’Gurub (or as we might now think of it, Azeroth’s Wuhan). But an oversight by programmers (characters’ pets could get infected, and if you stowed your infected pet in its virtual carry-case and left the instance the plague came with you) meant that very soon Corrupted Blood was all over Azeroth like a madwoman’s shit.

Lower-level characters who caught it dropped dead more or less on the spot (standing in, here, for the vulnerable elderly or those with comorbidities). Non player characters couldn’t die of it, but could be infected and pass it on (these became, if you like, the asymptomatic carriers). The cities emptied. Healers did what they could. The terroristically minded spread it for lols.

Various forms of quarantine were tried — and failed. Only when Blizzard reset the servers and patched the game was the outbreak eliminated. Academic epidemiologists — no word of a lie — subsequently made earnest studies of what the Corrupted Blood incident could tell us about real-world pandemics, and published their findings in learned journals worldwide. And now here we are: Corrupted Blood 2.0 is out in a world where death is permanent and nobody yet dares even to imagine what resetting the servers would look like. Hell with this. I’m going to wait it out in Azeroth.

Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator. His forthcoming book, The Haunted Wood: A History of Childhood Reading, is out in September.