Young trees glow with branches that double as lamp posts, bringing gold warmth to the blue light that engulfs the mist-shrouded island of Teldrassil, home of the night elves. Plants and trees in shades of green, pink, purple, and lavender shroud the forest floor. Owls, boars, massive spiders, and cat-like creatures called nightsabers peer from behind trees and bushes. I’m strolling around the island with a newly created night-elf toon1, picking herbs, occasionally killing a nightsaber or spider and remembering the last time I was here with my son, Gray, completing some quests.
“Dude, what is that, mom?” he typed in the chat box. Although we lived a thousand miles apart and often played World of Warcraft from that distance, this day he was visiting me in Pittsburgh. He was on the third floor, using my desktop; I was on the second, using my laptop. His toon, a night-elf hunter, jumped up and down on the screen and pointed in the direction of my mount, a riding goat loaded down with food and various supplies.
“Hah, it’s my mount,” I said, slightly embarrassed. I had gotten it for some cooking achievements on a higher-level toon. At the time Gray and I were playing, the max level was 100 (today, players can advance their toons to a level of 120), and I had several at that level. I always enjoyed creating new toons, though, and the one I was playing with Gray was level 20. Serious players possess mounts much more impressive than my goat—dragons and multi-headed flying serpents, for example—but I’d gone for something much humbler. My goat bleated and tossed her head.
“That is so bad,” Gray said. “I love it.”
I smile now, remembering the compliment. In real life, he never went for anything that called attention to himself, so it made sense he’d like my mount. We spent the rest of the day questing and running dungeons before it was time for him to catch a plane back to Dallas, where he lived. He was nine months out of rehab, working, and seemingly drug-free, and I didn’t know then that this was the last time I’d ever see him, that watching his toon die in a dungeon we ran that day was a virtual prelude to his actual death from an overdose a few months later, in December 2014. All I knew then was that in the “real” world, it might have seemed odd, or at least uncool, for a young man to be walking, traveling, and playing a game with his mother, but in this virtual world, no one knew we were mother and son, and we were free to travel together while chatting through a box on our computer screens, sharing intimacies we might have found difficult to share “IRL.”
I’ve written elsewhere about playing World of Warcraft with my son2 and the various ways in which that playing enhanced our relationship and my understanding of him. I’ve continued to play the game since his death, though, and am interested in thinking about why I continue and how playing has introduced me to people I might never have met outside of the game.
• • •
In July 2006, my husband and I had plans to spend a few weeks in a log cabin in the mountains, a vacation I sorely needed. But the cabin fell through at the last minute. I considered using the time for reading or writing, but I was teaching at the university level and administering a creative writing program; my life was packed with constant reading and writing. I needed a break from words, a break from doing anything that smacked at all of usefulness. I’d also been concerned about the environmental effects of all the traveling Americans do for vacations. What if I took a virtual vacation? I thought. It would save on gas, be environmentally friendly, and serve my need for escape.
Gray had been telling me I should try World of Warcraft (affectionately known as WoW by players and pronounced just like the exclamation). I’d long been interested in video games and the way they shape boys like my son. WoW, I learned from Gray, is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game that allows millions of people to play together. Each player picks one of the warring factions (Alliance or Horde), creates a toon from one of the many races available (night elf, human, gnome, dwarf, orc, undead, worgen, draenei, blood elf, troll, goblin, tauren, or Pandaren), and picks a class (druid, hunter, mage, monk, priest, rogue, paladin, shaman, warrior, and others). The player then begins questing—adventuring into the world and completing assignments from quest-givers, advancing their faction as well as their toon. The game is unusual in that there really isn’t a universal overall goal, and the game doesn’t ever have to end. With each new expansion come new quests and foes. For many like me, part of the attraction of the game is the role-playing aspect: one personal goal is to create and “level up” a character in the virtual world that’s formidable in a very specific way (depending on your race, class, and profession). You can also be a useful part of a group that gets together in dungeons to fight powerful monsters; you can interact with real people in the game, though you know them only through their toon. With Gray’s encouragement, I created my first toon—a night-elf druid I named Enheduanna, after the Sumerian poet and priestess to the goddess Inanna.
I felt, in the beginning of my time playing WoW, like an anthropologist (or a spy), and in a way, I was. I saw myself as engaging in a kind of immersion journalism—a woman in her fifties, playing a video game dominated by young boys … or so I assumed. I’ve since learned that women represent a large segment of the gaming market—46 percent as of 2019. Of the millions of people who play WoW, a third are likely to be women.
I’ve also learned that many women who play are over forty and college-educated. One woman, a PhD anthropologist, spoke of “gamer shame”—it’s difficult for her to talk with her colleagues about the fact that she spends her free time playing games. Many stay-at-home moms play after they put the kids to bed. I’ve met a number of active and retired women professionals who play regularly, including librarians and social scientists, poets and artists. A number of women admit they, like me, originally became interested in the game through their sons, as a way to bond with their sons.
A few weeks of play stretched into years—fourteen years as of this writing—as I created and fell in love with more toons, with the game, and even, a little bit, with some of the people I met there.
• • •
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow, as the exhilarating feeling of being completely involved in an activity, which can lead to feeling strong, happy, and creatively active, describes precisely the feeling gamers have while playing a challenging game. “Games,” he wrote, “are obvious flow activities, and play is the flow experience par excellence.” Csikszentmihalyi also writes that “alienated children in the suburbs and bored housewives in the homes need to experience flow,” which he understands as a healthy, creative, and necessary experience. “If they cannot get it, they will find substitutes in the form of escape”3—for example, the highs of drugs or the oblivion of alcohol. It’s not enough, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks argued, to live our literal day-to-day lives; humans need “to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need to see overall patterns in our lives. We need hope, the sense of a future.”4 Playing games can give some of us a healthy means of transporting and escaping, and may also help us to see a future that’s difficult to imagine in the real world. I’m not so sure that finding flow in a game will keep us from using drugs—certainly it didn’t stop my son—but I have been sober for ten years and am certain that playing WoW has helped me stay sober. It’s a place where I can experience adrenaline rushes and all kinds of fun and excitement without drugs or alcohol.
As a kid, Gray liked fantasy role-playing games well enough, but he also loved fast-paced hack-and-slash games that looked, from my perspective, like pure escape. It seemed like, for him, the adrenaline rush was the most important feature of the game—the quickness, the drama. I’ve always been more meditative. I write, read, and teach poetry and other forms of creative writing, which require a slower speed than most video games. Gray played to escape his real life while I played, at least partly, to learn what there was in this new gaming world. It’s not unlike the way that some read to engage the world while others read to escape.
While writing this essay, which was often painful, I sometimes avoided writing by playing WoW. Unlike writing, where you often create the rules as you go along and you don’t always know if you’re successful, the game provides clear guidelines, clear rules, and the ability to win. The downside of gaming is that it can interrupt your life, can take the place of it, or at the very least interfere with your real work.
Imagine, if you will, that it’s snowing outside. Everything is rounded and softened; the sharp lines of the stiff, tall Pittsburgh houses seem relaxed just a little. I’m curled up in front of my computer, pillow for my back and afghan for my lap, cat at my feet, shades up so I can see the snow.
I could be writing, but I’m not. I’ve left Pittsburgh and entered Azeroth, the central world of WoW. I might be questing in Stranglethorn Vale, a virtual coastal rainforest. Maybe the rain here is as thick as the real snow outside. It’s pouring, gray with rain, and difficult to see as I pick my way through thick brush, trying to avoid apes and panthers, tigers and pirates.
This is both the beauty and the darkness of video games. For a space of time, you can separate yourself from whatever the weather is outside, or the situation. Maybe I look up from time to time to admire the falling snow, then turn back to a hot, steaming jungle where the rain sounds just as it does in real life and where I am hyper-focused, at the moment, on a clear goal: to kill a certain number of tigers and bring their meat to a small camp in the jungle.
This is flow. Playing the game at this level of engagement puts you in a sort of netherworld where you’re mostly, but not completely, separated from the real world and its problems. I could let myself fall even more deeply into the imagined world. I can put aside for the moment the pain of my son’s death, that at the end there was nothing I could do to help him. I can enter Azeroth and fight monsters that I can best. I don’t forget my son, but for a time, I’m able to engage fully in another activity that brings me some small pleasure.
• • •
When I first started playing WoW, I was focused, like most other players, on “leveling up.” When you create a toon, you start at Level 1, and each time you level up, you gain more powerful armor, weapons, and, often, spell-casting abilities. One of the quickest ways of leveling up is to run dungeons, which are specific instances designed for five people. Dungeons offer complex challenges often involving mazes, high-level mobs (monsters), and at least one boss (the most-difficult-to-kill monster). They offer higher experience points and rewards of high-level armor or weapons. Low-level players will often focus on dungeon running in order to level up as quickly as possible. As players level up, raids become available, which allow for up to forty players, are even more difficult, and offer the highest rewards in the game.
One of the earliest dungeons I experienced as a new player was the Deadmines, a series of complex, expansive tunnels that are the home of the Defias Brotherhood—thieves, assassins, ogres, and other ne’er-do-wells hostile to the Alliance, the faction to which my toon belongs. These bad guys, like all the ones you face and must best in dungeons and raids, are NPCs (non-player characters); that is, they are not controlled by other humans but rather by the computer. To run a dungeon, you typically have to join forces with four other players; the small groups I initially joined to try and make it through the Deadmines often “wiped” because we were all noobs and didn’t know what we were doing. Wiped means that all toons in a group are killed. If you are in a dungeon when this occurs, your spirit gets sent back to the beginning of the dungeon. You then have to run back inside to find your body and resurrect.
It was only by running the dungeon again and again as a team, failing numerous times, that we learned which strategies worked to make it to the final boss and successfully defeat him or her—or it. We came to understand the specific strengths of our individual toons and how to help each other make it through. Most players belong to a WoW guild, a group of players who share resources and run difficult quests, dungeons, and raids together. I often ran with players from my WoW guild, called “Mything Persons,” but sometimes, when no one else was available, I ran with strangers.
Running Deadmines that first year of play, I met another player whose toon’s name was Cobalt. Cobalt helped me out a number of times, explaining through the game’s chat box the best way to defeat various bosses and performing as a tank (the lead toon, who is the first to attack and can take the most damage without dying), while I took on the role of healer (who keeps everyone alive with various healing spells). Eventually, I noted that he rarely left Deadmines even though, at a certain point, he’d leveled up beyond the dungeon cap and could level up no further by staying there. We sometimes quested a bit together in Westfall, the area outside of the dungeon.
As in most multiplayer games, in WoW, you can chat with other players via text messages in a small side screen. The color of the text signifies to which group your chat is going out: if it’s green, you’re broadcasting to everyone in your guild; if it’s blue, the text is going to everyone in your dungeon or questing party. A lavender color means someone is whispering to you: no one else will see the message.
Cobalt began whispering to me so much over the course of a few weeks that I became uncomfortable. Because his toon was male, I assumed the player was a boy or a man, something I realized later was not always a safe assumption as many males have female toons for various reasons, and vice versa. I wondered then if he was sort of flirting with me, and I began to feel like I needed to break out of the role-playing. I was married, an older woman, and didn’t want to mislead him. We had “friended” each other early on, which meant he could tell when I logged on to the game. He would immediately whisper to me to join him in some activity or other, including running Deadmines for what felt like the fiftieth time. As we wound our way through the dungeon, killing members of the Defias Brotherhood, I whispered back to him. You have to remember that while we’re chatting, we’re also aggressively killing mobs in the dungeon.
Me: Why do you keep coming back to Deadmines? You’re level 30. It can’t be helping you to level any further.
Cobalt: I don’t care about leveling. I just love helping people who don’t know how to do it.
Cobalt: I’d like to help people like that irl.
Me: Do you mind my asking how old you are?
Cobalt: Seventeen. You?
Me: Let’s just say I’m old enough to be your mom. Just wanted to let you know since you keep whispering to me. I was starting to feel like you were looking for something else
Cobalt: Oh wow, no problem, it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care how old you are.
Me: Are you in school?
Cobalt: Getting ready to graduate high school. Planning to join the army.
After we finished the dungeon, he messaged me again:
Cobalt: Hey, my mom wants me to get off now. She plays, too.
Me: OK. See you later.
Cobalt: She could use a friend, some help playing. Would you friend her and do some quests with her?
Me: Sure. What’s her toon’s name?
Cobalt: Katydid. OK, I’m signing out, and she’s gonna sign in.
A few minutes later, when Katydid signed in, I friended her, and we quested together that day and then fairly regularly thereafter, chatting all the while about both the game and our real lives while teaming up to kill monsters. Her toon had the profession of jeweler, and she gifted me some necklaces and rings that gave my armor a boost. My toon was an alchemist, and I gifted her some healing potions. She confided she was a single mom with five boys. Three of the boys were using her WoW account. (WoW costs $14.99 a month to play, and although Blizzard, the company responsible for WoW, discourages it, family members often share accounts.)
Eventually, Katydid would reveal that her husband had died a few years earlier. I told her I was a teacher and had one son who also played WoW. We discussed problems with teenage sons. I couldn’t imagine what it might be like to be a single mother of five boys. I knew they lived in South Carolina because either she or Cobalt had revealed that at one point, and I’d told them I lived in Pennsylvania. Still, I didn’t know much about her or her son except what they revealed in the game chat and how their toons acted. I did say at one point that she seemed to have done a good job raising Cobalt, with whom I still quested quite a bit. She replied it would have been easier if her husband had still been around. All this, again, in between killing monsters. In ways I don’t fully understand, the fact that we were fighting together and protecting each other, albeit in a virtual world, gave a kind of depth to our conversations about mothering that might not have been there in a different setting.
One night when we were questing together, she mentioned being worried about the bad weather predicted for her area. At one point, she said, “I hope those tornados don’t make it here, I can already feel the wind rocking the trailer.”
For the first time, I thought about how difficult her life must have been, living in a trailer with five boys and no husband. It struck me at that moment how much she must have really needed the kind of transcendence—flow—the game offered. It also occurred to me that I might never have had a chance to get to know her except for the game.
A few months later, both she and Cobalt disappeared from the game—or, at least their toons did. I assume Cobalt joined the army, as he had planned, but I don’t know. I’m sad that we’ve never reconnected, but happy for the small intimacies we shared, which have stayed with me all these years.
• • •
When I came into my stepson Rob’s life, he was fourteen, and I found it difficult to develop a relationship with him at first—until I started to play WoW and learned that he played too. Once or twice, he allowed me to play with him. He was friendly—generous, even—in the game. Once, in a complex set of monster-infested tunnels, where the goal was to find a few well-hidden treasures, he put his own toon at risk to stay and help another player locate the treasure Rob’s toon had already found. I had not yet had the opportunity, in real life, to see this compassionate side of Rob. In the fourteen years I’ve now been with his father, I have sometimes been unable to engage Rob in conversation about the real world, but we can almost always exchange a few words about WoW. His name is right under Gray’s in my friends list, the list that shows up immediately when I open the game.
A few days after Gray died, Rob texted me: “I remember the moment that I first met Gray. Though he was older and I did not know what to do at first, it took us all of five seconds to bond over something as tedious as StarCraft [a video game]. His thoughts were right along the same page as mine for the future of the franchise. It may seem trivial, but the chance to connect with someone new who somehow/someway shared my thoughts was an unexpected delight.” I should note that Rob would have found it difficult to say this to me in real life. A deeply shy young man, he was best able to express his feelings through a text, mediated by a screen and cushioned with reference to a video game.
Actually, my son was very much like Rob. A little more than a month before he died, Gray and I had the following text exchange, which would prove, in memory, to be our last communication (although I had texted, emailed, and called him, without response, about setting up a visit over Christmas):
Gray: Have you played Civ V [Civilization V, another video game]? It’s amazing!
Me: No. Better than earlier ones? I just downloaded Gone Home. Have you heard of it? Causing a lot of controversy. Gamer gate.
Gray: Oh yeah, I’ve heard that’s really good. Haven’t heard of a gamer gate connection so I’ll have to look that up. As for civ v, it really does seem to keep the spirit of civ 2 and maintain a streamlined experience while lots of new aspects (religion for example). Very cool, though I will say I’m going to order and give civ
iv a try because I have a slow computer and the diplomacy and culture options are supposedly more fleshed out.
Gray: Lemme know how gone home goes. I heard about it on a cool podcast a few months ago and it sounds interesting.
Me: OK. I also got Depression Quest. New WoW expansion coming out in a week or so.
Gray: Depression quest?! Haha. Do you remember I showed you the feminist frequency videos that started the gamer gate thing?
Gaming was always one of the few things about which we could reliably have a friendly conversation.
• • •
Last year, I taught a graduate-level course called Video Games and Literature. The students all gathered with me, virtually, on Monday nights, in a WoW dungeon where we fought monsters together and bonded in new ways; I created a guild for us called “Mything Writers.” On Tuesdays, we met face to face in a classroom to discuss what had happened the night before. In addition to talking about what we learned working together as a team in a dungeon, we also talked about more universal issues related to gaming in general, including issues of gender. In WoW, female toons are as strong as male toons, but their bodies are sometimes rendered in more suggestive ways than those of male toons; sexism is pretty rampant in the gaming world in general. Many of the students, both male and female, expressed a desire for more women to become involved in writing and creating video games. There were some gay men in the class whose toons were female, and we had wide-ranging discussions about why they chose to present as female. One student would transition to a woman a few months after the class ended, changing her name to a version of the name she’d given her female toon. Playing as a female in the virtual world had helped her prepare for that transition in the real world. Another student wrote about having had both an erotic and deeply meaningful relationship with another player in WoW years earlier.
We also discussed issues related to disability. Some players experience real world disabilities that prevent them from walking, but they are able to act fully abled in WoW. Mike Phillips, a gamer and technology writer, has spinal muscular atrophy, which allows him to move only his thumb. Despite this disability, he has become a talented player in WoW and other video games.5 A couple of my students had severe hearing disabilities, and we discussed how these disabilities didn’t mean anything in WoW.
• • •
Gray still shows up in my friends list as merely “offline.” I occasionally see some of my students online when I log on to WoW these days, and I often see my stepson Rob in the game, as well as my real-life hairdresser, a couple of other real-life friends, and some friends I’ve known for ten years only through their toons. Some of these, members of my guild, knew my son, as I had invited him to the guild, and they know the story of his life and death since I wrote an essay about it and shared it with them. I would say that these people, whom I have never met in real life, but with whom I have been playing the game for over ten years, have become almost as close as real-life friends.
I have a few friends who met through the game and married. One couple recently had a baby, and the husband keeps the baby strapped to his chest while he plays WoW. Stories abound about others who entered into romantic or erotic relationships with players they met in WoW. I’m married so have never engaged in flirting. I’ve tried to get my husband to play with me, but he’s not interested, so playing the game, for me, is a time when I go to a place without him, into a world where I am not a wife but a fantastical creature to which I’ve given birth and with whom I develop relationships with others in the game.
Blizzard is aware of the danger, especially for younger players, of focusing exclusively on virtual play, and so when signing on to the game, you will sometimes see these words come across the screen: Bring your friends to Azeroth, but don’t forget to go outside Azeroth with them as well. It’s a good reminder that the world of WoW, as exciting as it might be, is not the real world, and there needs to be balance. As for me, while my WoW friends are only a small part of my life, they feel important to me. Maybe it’s time to stop writing and check on them, to see if they need help killing stuff or staying alive.
1 Toon is shorthand for cartoon and refers to a character created in an online role-playing game. A toon is also sometimes known as a player’s avatar.
2 See “The Light of Who We are,” Iron Horse Literary Review, https://issuu.com/ironhorsereview/docs/2018-nonfiction-trifecta-final-setb. Also note that portions of this current essay will appear in Fifty Miles, a collection of essays that will be published by Etruscan Press in 2020.
3 Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, pp. 36, 37, 206. Also see Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, by Jane McGonigal, for a deeper discussion of the relationship between video game play and flow.
4 “Altered States,” the New Yorker, August 20, 2012.
5 For more info about Phillips, as well as a video showing him play, visit: https://gizmodo.com/a-gamer-who-can-beat-you-using-just-his-thumb-264503.