I am an American and an unabashed consumer. When I walk into a grocery store, I expect to see a cereal aisle with every variation of Cheerio in every possible box size I can conceive. I buy 2-3 different types of cereal at one time with the expectation that one will probably become rat food. It’s a way of life, being a consumer, but like many other Americans, I’ve had to put that momentum to consume on hold. I’ve had to learn to save instead of spend, and it has been a necessary, albeit difficult, adjustment. However, over the past few weeks a remarkable thing has occurred. For roughly 15 dollars a month I’ve found a place where the dream of consumption lives on, untrammeled by outside economic circumstances and immune to the collective malaise hanging over us all. I have, I believe, found a salve for the American psyche and it is called World of Warcraft.
WoW first entered my fiscal consciousness when I invited my friend to go out and grab a few drinks with me awhile back. There was a bar I knew of with 200 different types of beer, the cereal aisle of bars, that I knew he enjoyed. Excited as he was for the invitation, he confessed he was saving money for a trip, and that instead of going out he was going to play WoW. It was hard to deny the economic sense of his decision – spend 50-100 dollars for a hangover and a forgotten evening or play till your heart’s content for a nominal monthly fee – but at the time it seemed like a sad alternative to boom time bacchanalia.
A year later and I’m a true believer. Spending money in the pursuit of ever cooler and more exclusive things is part of what defines me as a young American. I don’t mean that as a personal criticism either; I’d rather that be my defining cultural characteristic than hanging out in cafes and smoking cigarettes(not that I have a problem with French people). What I’m trying to say is that buying rare retro games is in my blood, but it’s also just a hobby. I can live without it if it means having a little more in the bank or mattress, depending on how shaken your confidence is. But I realized that even in the midst of an economic crisis, I needed to find an outlet for this deeply American tendency of mine. So I’ve redirected my consumptive urges towards Azeroth with great success. I have replaced clothes shopping with armor sets, nights on the town with instances and the desire to make copious amounts of money with mining and the auction house.
As a shopping experience WoW is surely unparalleled. I can easily spend an hour each day window shopping on wowwiki for all sorts of accessories and limited edition, or epic in WoW speak, gear. Of course loot lust is a well documented phenomenon, but I was initially skeptical whether the same burning desire I have for obscure dvd’s would translate into some colored textures on a character. I also wondered if I would ever be able to get the rare items that make the game so cool, given that I could only devote a handful of hours each week to the game. Well it turns out you can get glowing weapons well before level 80 and that’s pretty much all I needed to know to get hooked. I won’t be stomping around on a mammoth anytime soon, but did you care that your first car wasn’t a Ferrari when you were 16? You’ll definitely see the Jones’s as well, with their fantastically baroque weapons, armor and unusual mounts, but like any good consumer these are merely inspiration.
The game also lets me indulge in conspicuous consumption, something I was often hesitant to partake in. Thanks to WoW I’ve realized that being a conspicuous consumer is enormous amounts of fun. I also now understand the core appeal behind car rims that spin even after you’ve stopped moving – you notice them. The more ridiculous and eye popping my character can be the better. It also stings all the more when I find myself in the presence of someone at my level with gear that’s twice as powerful. That’s what WoW does so well: It’s taken the desire to see and be seen and made it applicable to videogames. Because behind the joy of buying something unique, is my deeper urge to make sure someone knows that what I’ve purchased is special.
None of this appeal was there for me when I first started playing back in May. The game felt like a chore; I didn’t understand why I was completing countless fetch quests to add a few extra polygons onto a bulky avatar when I could just go out and buy cool things to put on myself, in real life. However, as I cut back on my spending in real life, I found I spent more time in WoW and grew to understand its attractions. On my new budget buying twenty of the same shirt in different colors at American Apparel is ridiculous, but I have four purely decorative swords for my character in WoW and it feels great. I hesitate to call WoW a coping mechanism in my life because I haven’t given up anything. I’ve merely found a new avenue of expression for my consumption.
I’m sure there are many factors that are responsible for making an industry recession proof but, at least where entertainment is concerned, the ability to offer vicarious hope must be crucial. Many famous films made during The Great Depression speak to this kind of optimism and
WoW isn’t so different. WoW lets us remember what it was like to live a spendthrift existence, hunting for limited editions, tossing all our hard earned money at a needless extravagance and buying one of everything we saw. I’ll be saving my pennies in real life, waiting for the inevitable turnaround, but you better believe that while I’m waiting I’ll be sprinkling Azeroth’s gold dust on my coffee.
Tom Endo is half way towards his goal of blowing all his money on a new mount that he definitely doesn’t need.