Huge fiery chasms in the very fabric of the world. Dramatic changes in the organization of zones. New races that will join the intensified battle between Horde and Alliance. Sweeping changes to storylines, game dynamics, and basic systems of play. To quote Woodrow Wilson, it sounds like a “New World Order” is imminent. Wilson used the term to describe what might emerge from the turmoil of the First World War, referring to a chance for something better.

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It’s often true that huge upheavals can dramatically change the structure and order of life. In my business as a psychologist, when I see people in crisis, I often look for the hidden potential for new growth amidst the turmoil.

World of Warcraft players will be facing the same opportunity for a New World Order with the upcoming expansion. For God’s Sake, they’re calling it Cataclysm – get out of the way! The masterminds at Blizzard want to enhance the world’s most successful MMOG with exciting new content and modern game experience – keeping it fresh is their key to keeping millions enthralled.

But what will it mean to actual players? Though I am not currently active, I went through two expansions (Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King) and was profoundly affected, not always for the better. Remember, WoW is both a game and a community filled with diverse and complex social structures that have been painstakingly created through hard work, blood, sweat and tears. This includes connections with other players, attachments to guilds, roles within guilds, and the sense of mastery that you get from feeling that that you know how to play the game. A WoW character is also heavily reliant on the quality of its gear. With expansions, all that good stuff that you collected becomes instantly and permanently obsolete, and you have to scramble for a whole new set of best-in-slot items.

If you’re an elite player who has mastered all endgame content, you’re probably ready for something new, and confident that you can figure out how to work the calamity to your benefit. Or you might be very comfortable sitting atop your world and feel quite apprehensive that things are changing and you can’t be sure where you will end up.

For average players, expansions can create great anxiety, huge disruption, and a real sense of pain and grief. While many of us savor the novel, most of us have a certain comfort with familiarity. At the end of Burning Crusade, I was very happy with my guild, my role within it and the progress we were making. We weren’t top of the server, but we were solid, we had lots of fun together, and we seemed to be moving forward. The group had evolved to the point where structure, procedure, roles, and other social norms had stabilized in a way that fit well for me. This made my immense time commitment to the game seem worthwhile.

WotLK came along and everything was tossed into the blender. After intense raiding, leveling again seemed boring and redundant, only made tolerable by addons which pointed me in the right direction. Some of my guild-mates leveled rapidly while others moved along more slowly. This spread led to a natural difference in individual needs in what had been a close group. The more advanced players moved on, joining higher level guilds and leaving others to wonder where the loyalty and love had gone. This fairly predictable disintegration of an online family felt traumatic and painful.

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Though I was able to find a good place for myself, and still managed to have fun raiding early WotLK content, the magic of the group was gone. I missed how it used to be, and this became an important factor in my decision to leave the game altogether.

My WotLK cataclysm produced a crisis that helped me clarify that it was time to stop playing WoW. I could have kept at it, but, it was very difficult to shake the feeling that the new had somehow obliterated the old. The game was different, not as familiar, not as fun, too redundant. I had the sense of having been through all this before and didn’t have the appetite for another round.

I’m sure others had different experiences. I certainly knew players who liked the way things were in WotLK better than they had in BC days. Some played character classes which received a brush-up and were considerably improved. Some emerged as leaders and power brokers. Many found the new features, instances, and raids fun, challenging, and interesting, and wouldn’t have thought of quitting.

From what I have seen, Cataclysm is an even more colossal rupture in the WoW universe. Many players take their play and characters very seriously. What is happening in WoW often feels like it is happening to a part of them. These magical characters have at least partly human souls, with human proclivities and tendencies. When you prick some of us, we bleed. The excitement of a new expansion can be accompanied by a great deal of grief and angst – your world is changing – it’s totally out of your control, and you can either find a way to change with it, be left behind, or leave altogether.

If you find yourself in the throes of a personal Cataclysm, what can you do about it?

It may help to define for yourself as explicitly as possible why you make such a huge investment in this MMO. What really means the most to you about your play experience? Is it the need to demonstrate competency, the need for community, the need to escape reality, or some other agenda? Gaming is so engrossing and so much about action and stimulation that many of us are able to avoid asking ourselves these basic questions. A crisis is a good time to do it, and, at least temporarily, you may be forced to pick between some of these priorities.

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If it is most important for you to be the best-in-class on your server and most advanced in game content, you may have to sacrifice some community and connection. Or you may choose to compromise on progress in order to play with a small group of people you really enjoy spending time with. You might resist a big time investment to learn the new game fast, and accept the fact that you won’t be a very good player for awhile, or you might spend hours playtesting the beta version so you can get a head start as soon as Cataclysm goes live.

It’s all about trade-offs. People who play video games are doing it rather than doing something else, like reading a book, riding a bike, watching TV, or going to the movies. Most devoted WoW players have probably arrived at a set of trade-offs that make sense in the current environment and now those may get shaken up, which can create stress and tension.

It may help to take a step back. If a fantasy role-playing game is making you feel like hell, and you are paying for the privilege, maybe something is wrong. There are plenty of ways to feel crappy for free. If you slow it down and make the game less a priority you may gradually fall into a rhythm that works for you. A more laid back attitude may also create openness to new relationships and new connections. It’s hard to tolerate social reshuffling, but sometimes good can come of it.

When you think about it, this isn’t so different than real life. Every once in a while, for most of us, a dragon writhes around beneath the surface of our well-ordered lives and lifts a fire-breathing snout above the surface, raining mayhem on all we have tried to create. These real life developmental crises, be they losses, break-ups, moves, illnesses, or unemployment, force us to clarify what’s really important, and we have to dig deep to tolerate pain and grow new adaptive capacities, whether we like it or not. If a game like WoW could help people get better at this, and translate that skill to real life, I could probably get a few more psychologists to recommend it!

Dr. Mark Kline currently dabbles in Starcraft II when not busy being a psychologist, parent, or writing The Escapist’s AskDrMark column. Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to askdrmark@escapistmag.com. Your identity will remain confidential.

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