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Almost 20 Years Later, ‘World of Warcraft’ Is Still Ruining Lives

The video game, arguably the most addictive ever made, has claimed countless relationships in its time

I attended college in the aughts and recall, in sophomore year, meeting the roommate of a friend who hung out with us a few times. One Friday night, however, I stopped by their dorm and found him immersed in a computer game; he barely responded when I said hi. Neither did he want to come out to the party my buddy and I planned to attend. I didn’t think much of it until the end of the semester, when I realized I hadn’t seen the dude around campus since.

“He got so addicted to World of Warcraft,” his roommate said, “he almost flunked out of school.”

Back then, there were many anecdotes like this — and alarmist news reports — detailing the fiendish grip of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG, which has been cited as one of the most popular, most profitable and best titles in the format, and in the medium overall. Players could easily lose hours or days to quests in the fantasy world of WoW, and, with such deep investment, their grades, jobs and relationships. Several factors contributed to obsession: the fun of meeting and cooperating with fellow travelers from around the world, less downtime between actions and, most important, a huge, ever-broadening realm to explore as Blizzard Entertainment produced new expansions and updates. In the simplest terms, there is no “end” to WoW — there’s always something else to accomplish, another foe to defeat.

That, amazingly, remains true almost two decades after the game’s debut in 2004. Which means World of Warcraft is still undermining the stability of civic and domestic arrangements.

The far right in the U.S. is currently acting as though drag shows and Pride events pose an existential threat to the family unit as we know it. If they actually cared for preserving the “traditional” way of life (they don’t), they’d do better to ban World of Warcraft, which has ended marriages and kept parents from raising their children. “I am hoping it doesn’t get there for me,” wrote one woman on Reddit, in response to another who said she’d had to divorce her WoW-addicted spouse. “My four-year-old often makes comments about daddy playing on his computer and when he tries to talk to him while he’s playing and my husband is short with him and brushes him off makes me so sad to watch because he just wants his attention so is it really any better for them to have him only partially around?” 

On the same subreddit, r/nowow — for people struggling with their devotion to the game, or affected by someone else’s habit — a man explained how he had put his marriage at risk, fallen behind in medical school and even used the excuse of watching over his newborn late at night in order to keep playing the game, despite many episodes and confrontations he could describe as his absolute “rock bottom” moment: 

Isn’t it fascinating what we, as a culture, select as the targets of our moral panics? Even some liberals have been known to blame mass shootings in part on violent, gun-ridden video games. Yet WoW, in which you’d more likely slay a mythical beast with a magic sword, has arguably done far more damage to the social fabric, with avowed quitters claiming it’s a manipulative behavioral system creating a problem akin to compulsive masturbation. With guilds, or teams, there can even be an added peer pressure. “I heard tell of one dude that got hit with a penalty [from associated players] because he left in the middle of a raid due to his kitchen catching on fire,” one redditor reported. “Another one because their cat brought a live bird into the house.”  

Between the structure of the virtual world and its sheer longevity — “You’ve got to remember I’ve been playing this game for 17 years,” one wife recounted her distant husband saying when she asked him to cut back — the number of people negatively affected is incalculable. But, as with so many other terrible realities, we’ve quietly accepted this. Perhaps in the 2040s some middle-aged gamers will be able to say they’ve been playing WoW their entire lives. I guess, if nothing else, it puts into sharp relief the regrets we all have about wasting our precious time.