View From the Road

A View From the Road: Identity (Epic) Quest


A couple of weeks ago, while writing about the implementation of factions in an MMOG, I touched on the idea that these in-game factions immediately give you a sort of identity that carries over into reality, and nowhere was this more clear than last weekend as twenty thousand gamers gathered in Anaheim for BlizzCon. You could see it in the crowd waiting for the doors to open, in the Q&A lines at the panels, even in the restaurant in the nearby lobby of the Marriott – someone shouts “For the Horde!” and a cheer rises from half the crowd, while the other half boos.

Beyond Horde and Alliance, though, every one of us had an identity we chose for ourselves, an identity that existed beyond these digital realms. When you’re logged in and adventuring through Azeroth, you’re a powerful Blood Elf Paladin. But when you log out, do you immediately cease being that Blood Elf Paladin to become a Human Gamer, or does your Paladin identity persist?

For those few days out in Anaheim, I was not a young unmarried Caucasian male. No, as long as I was at BlizzCon, I was a Night Elf Druid. The person standing in line with me at the store might be black or Asian, male or female, straight or gay; they might be as young as 15 or as old as 50 – even if we have nothing else in common, the moment I see their Druid T-shirt and they see the Druid button pinned to my backpack, that shared identity makes us compatriots.

Sure, I’m a Feral-spec Druid, but I’ve spent time playing in the Restoration and Balance trees, and if my new-found Druid buddy spends more time healing as a Tree of Life or blasting faces as a Moonkin, I’ve still got his back. If he’s a fellow Feral, though, we can envy each other’s gear and joke about “John Madden!” – a reference to a tongue-in-cheek flowchart for the notoriously complex Feral damage-dealing rotation.

Does that last paragraph make any sense to you? No? You aren’t the only one. All throughout BlizzCon, I watched and listened as people stepped up to the microphone during Q&A sessions, introducing themselves, “Hi, I’m Vincent, and I’m a Frost Death Knight tank” in what is surely the MMOG equivalent of “I’m Vincent, and I’m an alcoholic.” Frost DKs, Elemental Shamans, Fire Mages – all of them with their own lingo and their own concerns that flew over my head, but that drew a cheer from their class-mates in the audience.

These were the masks we were wearing, and sometimes they bore striking parallels to reality. The Rogue complaining about mail and plate-wearing classes taking leather armor – “they’re taking our gear!” – had the same frustrated tone of a factory worker complaining about robots taking his job. All the Rogues in the room would nod in agreement and understanding, while the Fury Warriors would cross their arms and grumble about how it was Blizzard’s fault for not properly itemizing their own equipment. If WoW had existed in another time and age, it’s not hard to imagine Randolph McCoy swearing bitter revenge on Floyd Hatfield for always rolling on the cloth spellcaster gear that was rightfully his because the leather caster gear had way too much useless Spirit on it.


Hell, making fun of other classes is the WoW equivalent of racial humor: “Why did the Hunter cross the road? The chicken was in his deadzone, lol!” Even Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime kicked off the con by referring to the breathtaking pace at which tickets to the event sold out. “20,000 tickets were sold out in less than a minute,” he paused. “That’s faster than [Retribution] Paladins can storm the forums after a nerf.”

And people laughed. They laughed because they all knew Morhaime was right, and those silly Ret Pallies were all a bunch of whiners and would probably go complain about that joke, too. It was funny because it was true. Plus, you aren’t mocking people for what they inherently were, you were making fun of them for who they chose to be.

In real life, nobody gets to choose what they’re born as, but in Warcraft, everything is up to you. Choose your race, choose your class, choose your skin tone and your hair color – rather than being given a random lottery at birth, your identity in WoW – as in any MMOG – is one that you choose. And at BlizzCon, that was the identity that people judged you by, more than anything else. Any non-gamers who happened to be near the Anaheim Convention Center this weekend would have seen a surprisingly broad cross-section of humanity, but to us, all we saw was Warlocks, Priests, and Hunters – and yeah, okay, maybe a Barbarian or Protoss Zealot or three, too.

On some level, all gamers have this with one another. We share an identity as people who love games, and that’s why when we walk down the street and hear someone shout “Boom, headshot!” we smile and shake our heads. Almost every single person at BlizzCon shared a love for WoW (and Diablo, and StarCraft) that had brought them all together for a weekend. Within that kinship, you had smaller groups like Zerg and Terran, Horde and Alliance, and smaller divisions still of the classes (and different specializations).

How many books or movies have been written about someone embarking on a quest to find out who they really are; to find out what they want from the world? Last weekend, we all knew exactly who we were: I was a Level 80 Night Elf Feral Druid, and I was surrounded by twenty-thousand people just like me.

Okay, maybe not just like me. I mean, really: nobody who plays a Blood Elf can ever be up to any good.

John Funk actually bought a Druid insignia pin to match his T-Shirt.

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