World of Warcraft, a magical place to play — or a digital dungeon of obsession?

Sept. 09, 2009 | 2:00 p.m.

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…

World of Warcraft

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

Warcraft angry

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.”

Warcraft showdown

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

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World of Warcraft exhibit underway at Laguna Art Museum

Bad economic times? Not in on-line gaming worlds 


Photos:

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

Comments


7 Responses to World of Warcraft, a magical place to play — or a digital dungeon of obsession?

  1. Anon says:

    Im Joe Benga!

  2. SUE says:

    MY 21YR OLD SON'S LIFE REVOLVES AROUND THIS GAME. I CAN'T STAND IT!!

  3. Joel says:

    You really can't blame people for being "antisocial" and spending their quality time with each other online. American culture is strange, we move far away from parents, aunts, uncles. It is modern capitalism and it creates a very lonely environment. It's selfish too. We also pay women to divorce. No, really. Think about it. When parents divorce and there are kids involved, doesn't the women usually get everything? That is called SUBSIDIZING divorce. Our society, our culture in America has created this online world. Corporations like Blizzard are thriving on the destruction of the family here in America and even from those lonely souls in other countries.
    During my divorce, my 2 sons and I played on a free WoW server. It's an emulator and doesn't work so well but we can play WoW free. I couldn't justify or afford to pay the monthly Warcraft fee's for sure. Not with 3 kids. I just wish I could have grown up in another country were family was more important than it is here. :-(

  4. Erin says:

    I think it's unfortunate that media always focuses on the super hard core crazy people who play this game. I've played WoW on and off for about two years yet it hasn't taken over my life. I'm not so lonely sad person clinging to the only family I can find… I just like playing videos. I still maintain a healthy social life and work full time. My marriage hasn't suffered at all… I'm 100% normal. So are most of the people who play WoW. It's unfortunate that the only time the media focuses on the game it is because some 13 year old played for a week straight and had a seizure or something like that.
    @Sue: your child is 21, stop worrying about what they spend their time on.
    @Joe: I think you're absolutely wrong in your conclusion. Sure, people can say that the american family is broken, but I don't think that is why games like WoW are so popular. Games are like any other media, they're an escape. The big difference between WoW and single player games is that in WoW you can actually play with and against real humans, which makes the game that much more unpredictable and exciting. That's why games like WoW have taken off. That and they're fun.

  5. Peter says:

    I completely agree with Erin.

  6. wow accounts says:

    This article is great!
    It does a good job of showing how seemingly virtual relationships cross-over to the "real" world without making it appear "pathetic" to MMO outsiders…

  7. ronald says:

    iv been playing since it came out but im not obessed with it i make time for life my dad thinks i play to much when all i do is talk to people basically on world of warcraft i do the same thing in real life dosnt change much except im not killing dragons in real life lol

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