One of the great thrills for any staff writer at the Los Angeles Times is to get a story selected for Column One, the paper’s longstanding feature on the front page where writing, depth and insight are emphasized over news-of-the-day urgency. In today’s paper, the Column One belongs to Ben Fritz, a welcome new addition to the Business section staff, who walked among the curious tribes that play World of Warcraft. Here’s an excerpt…
Getting divorced was a lonely experience for Josh Schweitzer. Spending his days overseeing construction workers and his evenings caring for his 3-year-old son, he had no one to talk to. But there was one group of people who helped him pull through — even though he’d never laid eyes on most of them.
They were his
Schweitzer’s friends in the Dread Pirates guild are a tiny subset of the 11.5 million people who have made Warcraft the most successful online video game on the planet.
Like many other massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), Warcraft is set in a “Lord of the Rings“-like fantasy realm where players create characters and undertake missions, some team-based and some solo, to gather resources and earn rewards.
Most players become part of a guild, a closely knit group that plays the game together while chatting. Active guilds spend hundreds and even thousands of hours a year together online, often developing strong bonds.
For Schweitzer, 27, a Bakersfield resident, the Dread Pirates replaced the co-workers, family and buddies who someone his age might typically draw on in a difficult time like a divorce. He confided in them over his headset.
“The only people I had to talk to about it were guild people,” he recalled recently. “All of my friends are in Dread Pirates. I don’t really have any others.”
Schweitzer, dressed in board shorts and flip-flops, was sitting with them on a Thursday night in August at the Lost Bar, a Peter Pan-themed drinking hole near the Disneyland hotels. The occasion was BlizzCon, an annual two-day event put on by World of Warcraft’s publisher, Blizzard Entertainment, in Anaheim. Twenty thousand tickets to the show sold out on the Internet in less than a minute on a Saturday in May.
BlizzCon is held to promote upcoming products and sell merchandise. But it’s also a way for members of a vibrant if little known subculture to see one another in the flesh and reinforce connections formed via an ethernet cable.
Twenty-five of the 40 active members of Dread Pirates managed to land tickets. That night at the Lost Bar, 17 of them sat in a big circle, retelling stories, laughing at in-jokes, and posing for pictures like old friends at a college reunion. It was the third such gathering for the Dread Pirates since BlizzCon started five years ago. In 2007, four members came; in 2008, 13.
Schweitzer took his only vacation of the year to attend BlizzCon, leaving his son with his parents. Others traveled from as far away as Toronto and Australia.
“We spend so much time together and share so much information that we become like a family,” says Joe Benga, a 26-year-old computer help desk supervisor who flew in from Gilbert, Ariz.
“Except,” adds Casey Aron, 26, who tends bar in Portland, Ore., “most families don’t spend time together three or four nights a week…”
THERE’S MORE, READ THE REST
— Ben Fritz
RECENT AND RELATED
Top, a game area at BlizzCon, an annual convention for over 15,000 players of games published by Blizzard Entertainment. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times
Bottom, BlizzCon women. Credit: Mark Milian / Los Angeles Times