Once every month or two, I have this dream. I’m standing in a cavernous entryway to what my brain tells me is absolutely a World of Warcraft raid dungeon. Its walls are streaked with throbbing orange and purple veins, akin to the armor sets dropped in Molten Core, an actual WoW raid dungeon. It is dark. It is strangely cold. I am supremely under-leveled. And I am alone.
I wake up from this dream with my heart pounding and an almost painful clenched feeling in my chest. It’s my version of the nightmare where you’re back in high school or college, and you realize you’re seconds away from taking a test you haven’t studied for in a class you never attended. This makes sense: From 2005-2007, toward the end of my time in high school, World of Warcraft was as formative for me as any class, probably more so. For a solid two years, it was part of my day, every day. I’d get home from school and Taekwondo in the evening, and then I’d level or—later, once I’d joined a serious guild and gotten In Too Deep—raid for anywhere between four and six hours. But a few months after the game’s first expansion, Burning Crusade, came out in 2007, I burned out and stopped playing. I’ve popped in again at various points over the years, but my returns were never habit-forming. I’d poke around for a few days, realize the game wasn’t for me anymore, and move on.
Until now. For the past couple months, I’ve been semi-regularly dipping into WoW Classic with a small group of friends. I’m playing a troll rogue named Trollthan. He has a pink mohawk. He likes to dance. It’s been nice, even if, as an adult, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that WoW’s trolls are just thinly-veiled Jamaican stereotypes. Because WoW Classic is an official imitation of pre-expansion WoW, I’m back where it all began. But even if the game is the same, I’m not. My motivation for continuing to play has shifted monumentally. Where once I was driven by loot and lore, now it’s all about people.
When I first started playing WoW, I was a quiet kid, and a pretty lonely one to boot. Some upperclassmen I looked up to—the cool nerds—got into Blizzard’s MMO soon-to-be-sensation shortly after it came out in 2004, and they told me I should roll a Horde character on their server, Thunderlord, and join them. So I did. Maybe I’d become friends with them. Unfortunately, my Tauren shaman never met up with their edgy in-game avatars; I was too anxious to admit that I was interested in playing WoW with people I barely knew and that I’d gone through all the necessary steps to make it happen (Note to past me: intensely counterproductive thinking there, buddy!). Ultimately, they didn’t stick with it for long.
But I did. I’d always been a Warcraft kid. Warcraft II made me fall in love with video games and fantasy. While other kids were writing fan fiction, I was creating me-sized double-sided paper dolls of every unit in the RTS classic. Warcraft III sat alongside Lord of the Rings as a defining story of my early years. WoW, then, turned out to be everything I’d ever wanted. I still remember the first time I walked into Orgrimmar, the vast Horde capital city that was still somehow just a tiny dot on a map that, at the time, felt limitless. It was like being backstage at the Oscars; I could walk up to Thrall—the Thrall from Warcraft III—and talk to him! He gave me a rote early-game quest! That meant we were basically best friends!
And so, for the most part, I solo-ed my way to level 60, grouping up with other players when dungeons and the occasional tougher-than-average quest called for it. I did ample sightseeing and geeking out, but it wasn’t long before I got sucked into the endlessly whirling gears of the level treadmill. I wanted loot. I lived for loot. Incremental number increases were my entire shit. When I dinged 60, I basked in the afterglow for weeks. When I completed my tier 1 raid armor set, I felt like a king draped in a cloak made of his fallen enemies. I’d worked so hard, and then I’d waited in line as other people in my guild—who I liked just fine, but never felt super close to—got to claim their pieces first. My avatar, a cow person, became a shimmering monument to my accomplishments, a walking testament to deeds that meant more to me than just about anything I’d accomplished as a teenager up to that point.
It’s hard, in 2020, to identify with that person. WoW Classic promised a return to old stomping grounds, but for me, it’s been like visiting home over the holidays. Sure, there’s an immediate rush that comes with taking in comfortable old sights and sounds, but it fades fast. It’s also been like returning home in that the passage of time unavoidably tinges rosy feelings with complicated shades of gray. During my WoW heyday, Blizzard was a big company, sure, but it hadn’t just laid off 800 people after a record year or taken a deeply problematic stance on human rights abuses in Hong Kong. It is, for me at least, impossible to divorce those realities from the act of playing WoW. However, I’ll admit that I was still thrilled to stroll through Orgrimmar again, this time wearing the skin of a tiny troll instead of a towering, lava-armor-clad cow hulk. A wave of nostalgia overtook me as I turned the corner into the city’s vast Valley Of Wisdom. The locations of key resources like the inn and the auction house suddenly leaped back to the forefront of my mind, phantom muscles that had atrophied but not disintegrated. It was like I’d never left.
I marveled at other players sitting idly atop a building in their tier 1 armor sets. “I used to be like you,” I thought to myself. I also realized that I probably never would be again, and it didn’t bother me. I’ve done it before. I don’t need to do it a second time—nor, I think, do I want to. WoW Classic’s grind is glacially paced and frequently unrewarding. Slowly leveling up hasn’t sparked the same dopamine rush it did back in the day. Maybe that’s the fault of sleeker, modern games and their fire hose sprays of loot and prizes. More than that, I think it’s a reflection of how my priorities have changed over the years. Back when I first played WoW, I was a kid who’d only ever lived in Texas. Now I’m an adult who’s lived in four cities and might be about to add a fifth to that list. More than that, I have a career and a host of accomplishments I’m proud of. Games still mean something to me, but that meaning has changed. It’s not about watching numbers go up anymore. It can’t be. I don’t have the time. If I’m gonna play something, I want it to take me somewhere new or tell me a story I haven’t heard before.
I’m now playing WoW Classic with friends I met outside of video games, one of whom is my partner, who I’m often separated from by many miles of distance, and another of whom is former Kotaku senior reporter Cecilia D’Anastasio, who moved one billion internet miles away to Wired. It can be tough to maintain close relationships while far apart, but WoW is helping bridge those gaps. This has in some ways turned the game into a new journey, even if it’s not a journey to somewhere new. For the most part, my little group has never played WoW before, so our adventure isn’t so much about my avatar or which items are incrementally turning me into a demigod. Rather, it’s been more like taking friends on a tour of my hometown, which I’ve long since left behind. I can remember, abstractly, when all of these locales and lore events and PVP squabbles and guild dramas were my whole world, but now they feel much smaller. I don’t mean to denigrate people who’ve stuck with WoW in some form or fashion for all these years. I think if I’d done so, my relationship with the game now would be very different. But moving away from virtual spaces is a lot like moving away from real ones. As you grow, they shrink.
Still, there’s a certain pride to sporadically functioning as a virtual tour guide for my friends. “I used to hang out there, and there, and especially there,” I get to say. “I know facts about that place and that event. I know where we need to go. I know how players reacted to this area when it was actually brand new.” WoW’s world—once so vast in my mind as to border on incomprehensible—now feels like it’s mine, a personal thing I can share.
Even that nostalgic appeal, however, only lasts so long. Plus, you can only shout out a location or trot out a “back in my day”-ism so many times before what was once endearing becomes annoying. But my friends are also helping me look at WoW’s world in new ways, and not just because they bring in fresh perspectives on the lore and the grind and all of that. It’s also because I’m not running through the game alone anymore, or even with people I only vaguely know.
In a weird sort of way, returning to WoW has finally helped me understand why so many people play MMOs. It’s something to do with people you authentically care about while all of you also do other things—and are, in some cases, separated by thousands of miles. It’s a way to keep in touch that also keeps you connected and current, working toward a series of shared goals instead of just occasionally, awkwardly asking each other how it’s going.
The idea of playing MMOs primarily to stay in touch with close friends always made sense to me on paper, but now I get it. The gear, the grinding, and everything else is incidental. The real point is to get together, chat, and tell dumb jokes for a couple hours once or twice a week. Leveling up is a social glue. If we’re gonna level through WoW, we’re gonna do it as a unit, because if someone gets too far ahead, they won’t get much XP from the enemies the rest of us are fighting anymore. Modern games have made that less of an issue with level scaling and other, similar systems, but I actually like that it’s an issue in WoW Classic. It forces you to consider the people you’re playing with at all times. It makes it more about the people than the game.
Since I started playing WoW again, I haven’t stopped having that nightmare about staring, all alone, into the mouth of a terrifying raid dungeon. But some of the old memories that inform it are starting to be overwritten by new ones. A few weeks ago, my friends and I were on a quest, swimming to our destination side by side. One of us started jumping while swimming, but when viewed by other players, it didn’t take them out of the swimming animation, which caused them to look like a weird cartoon dolphin soaring through the air. We all started doing this, and then we coordinated a routine that involved swimming at each other like synchronized swimmers. We took a video of it, and then we laughed and laughed and laughed. This accomplished nothing, but it was some of the best dumb fun I’ve had in a while. I’d like to think that, if we’re all still friends 15 years from now, we’ll still remember that night. And if not, maybe I’ll still look back on it fondly anyway.
It’s taken me only 15 years to come full circle. I first got into WoW to try and make friends, only to lose myself in a world of grinding and gear collection. Now I find that kitting my character out with all manner of shiny baubles rings hollow, but I’m happy to log on if it means maintaining friendships with people I met outside the bounds of WoW’s fantastical online theme park.