Living A Virtual Life

Two years into the history of World of Warcraft--an online game that accommodates 7 million players around the world--no one had successfully ventured into the dungeon to slay a group of computer-generated villains known as the Four Horsemen. But four experienced "guilds" of players--one in Europe, two in America and one in China--were coming close, posting updates on separate Web sites they maintained. Finally, a 40-person contingent from a U.S. guild conquered the last beast--and its members became instant international celebrities in a massive community where dragons and Druids are as real as dirt.

In the physical world we vainly scrounge for glory. Bin Laden still taunts us, the bus doors close before we reach them and leave us standing in the rain. But in the fantasy realm of Azeroth, the virtual geography of World of Warcraft, the physical pain comes only from hitting a keyboard too hard, camaraderie is the norm and heroism is never far away. In simple terms, Warcraft is the most advanced and popular entry in a genre called Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, or MMO. "I call it the Technicolor, Americanized version of 'Lord of the Rings'," says Chris Metzen, VP of creative development for the game's maker, Blizzard Software. But for millions it is more than a game--it's an escape, an obsession and a home.

Engaging in this orgy of sword-swiping, spell-casting and monster-slaying generally involves a $50 purchase of the software and a monthly $15 fee thereafter to play online. Players in Asia--a clear majority of the WOW population, despite the fact that the game was created by digital dudes in Irvine, Calif.--buy cards that allow them WOW time for a few cents an hour. Then there's the merchandising: T shirts, jackets, hats, a non digital (!) board game. In China, 600 million Coke cans were festooned with WOW figures. There are seven novels based on Warcraft lore. And Blizzard recently inked a movie deal with the studio that produced "Superman Returns." Games-industry analyst David Cole estimates that Blizzard (part of Vivendi) has made more than $300 million from the game so far. Blizzard COO Paul Sams says only, "We are an incredibly profitable company."

What distinguishes Warcraft from previous blockbuster games is its immersive nature and compelling social dynamics. It's a rich, persistent alternative world, a medieval Matrix with lush graphics and even a seductive soundtrack (Blizzard has two full-time in-house composers). Blizzard improved on previous MMOs like Sony's Everquest by cleverly crafting its game so that newbies could build up characters at their own pace, shielded from predators who would casually "gank" them--while experienced players continually face more and more daunting challenges. The company mantra, says lead designer Rob Pardo, is "easy to learn, difficult to master." After months of play, when you reach the ultimate level (60), you join with other players for intricately planned raids on dungeons, or engage in massive rumbles against other guilds.

"Ninety percent of what I do is never finished--parenting, teaching, doing the laundry," says Elizabeth Lawley (Level 60, Troll Priest), a Rochester, N.Y., college professor. "In WOW, I can cross things off a list--I've finished a quest, I've reached a new level."

Like many WOW players, Lawley is active in a guild. Some of the high-ranking guilds, like the one formed by noted Japanese venture capitalist Joi Ito (Level 60, Gnome Mage), are mini-societies with their own Web sites, online forums and private lore. First Ito invited people he knew professionally, like Ross Mayfield (Level 60, Human Palladin), CEO of an Internet company on whose board Ito sits. "Warcraft is the new golf," says Mayfield. "I actually closed a deal with a company I met through WOW." But as Ito met others in WOW, the roster diversified. There is a priest whose character is ... a priest. There are soldiers, bartenders, truckdrivers, lawyers and Goggle engineers. The guild's "raid leader"--who organizes the twice-weekly ventures into the feared Molten Core to slay the powerful "boss mob" monsters--is Jamie Ray (Level 60, Night Elf Druid), a night-shift nurse in Parkersburg, W.Va.

Though WOW is a fantasy world, the interaction between guilds and individuals relies on human choices and morals. The first thing one does when joining the game is to choose an avatar from one of eight "races," split between two factions: the human-looking Alliance and the more bestial Horde. Edward Castronova (Level 42, Priest), an Indiana U professor and author of "Synthetic Worlds," once roiled the WOW community by a blog posting entitled "The Horde Is Evil," in which he charged that only the antisocial at heart would pick that darker side. Castronova believes that if someone behaves badly in the game--an example would be the WOW equivalent of spree killing, where someone ganks a character of a much lower level, just for the hell of it--that person should be judged harshly in the real world as well.

Another example of questionable behavior is viewable in a video that more than 80,000 people have accessed on YouTube. When one guild member died (in real life, not Azeroth), his grieving friends decided to hold a funeral for him inside the game. The solemn affair was disrupted when a rival guild burst upon the unarmed mourners and slaughtered them mercilessly. "It's unfortunate that someone would do that to people trying to honor one of their guild members," says Mike Morhaime, Blizzard's president. Another event that bothered Blizzard's management was an in-game protest march, when hundreds of naked Gnomes gathered to call for more powers.

Generally, though, players of the game enjoy a form of com-ity rarely seen in the real world; higher-level players go out of their way to tutor newbies and accompany them on quests. Deep friendships are forged. Relationships begin that flower into marriage, with Tauren brides and Undead grooms tying the knot in some virtual tavern in Thunder Bluff.

Warcraft even has its own economy, as the gold and exotic armor and weaponry that players accumulate are much coveted in trade. Despite the opposition of Blizzard (which thinks that using real money to gain an edge in the game violates WOW's egalitarian spirit), a thriving industry makes tons of real dollars by "gold farming" (accumulating in-game currency and selling it) or "power leveling" (borrowing someone's avatar and grinding through the game to gain experience). Most of the manpower is supplied by Chinese workers like Zhang Hanbin (Level 60, Rogue), a 24-year-old dropout who works in a grim apartment-cum-sweatshop in the provincial town of Wuxue. An eight-hour day collecting game loot can yield 100 gold pieces, worth about $30 on the black market.

Are you getting the idea that "Warcrack" (as some call it) eats up a lot of time? "Of all the games that my [addictive] clients are involved with, World of Warcraft is the most popular," says clinical psychologist Kimberly Young. Mostly, trouble comes in the form of kids who fall asleep in class, and furious spouses. "My girlfriend--who actually bought me the game--was ready to kill me," says Alex Rascovar (Level 60, Gnome Mage) , a New York City actor who often binged with eight-hour sessions before he went cold turkey a few months ago. There are parental controls available, but most parents haven't a clue. (Only when embarking on this story did yours truly learn that his son [Level 60, Troll Shaman] had hit the level cap in WOW.

In China, a competitive society where real life is becoming as freaky as anything you'd find in Azeroth, players seem even more prone to go overboard. According to the Xinhua News Agency, one girl died of exhaustion after playing WOW for several days without a break.

Even those who dropped out will be tempted to return later this year when Blizzard releases its long-awaited update The Burning Crusade. The key features include two new races, a new continent to explore and an increase in the level cap from 60 to 70. Hundreds of thousands will jam the WOW servers until they once again reach the peak.

Edward Castronova sees all this as an early indicator of what will become a vast participation in synthetic worlds, with fuzzier and fuzzier lines between virtual and physical realms. "In 20 or 30 years the technology will be here to create incredibly more realistic and immersive worlds," he says. "There will be a world that fits the fantasy of any life you want to lead." Those deep into WOW, of course, are already living that future. "Yes, it's just a game," says Joi Ito. "The way that the real world is a game."