I must be tribal by nature.
I’ve always enjoyed doing things in a group. In fact, when I look back on my life, I realize the times I was happiest were always when I was spending a lot of time participating in tribal activities.
I still have very fond memories of growing up and getting to spend time with small packs of cousins during family visits.
Later, when I became an actor, there was the camaraderie of rehearsal, and the “temporary family” that would be created during each production.
My high school band experience was particularly clannish. Our band was large, well-led, competitive, and prize-winning. (I never even heard the term “Band Geek” until years after I got out of high school… the term didn’t seem to exist at Bryan High.) My senior year I was proud to serve as president of the band.
I spent two years living in a dorm during college, and believe me when I tell you that the riotous, co-ed Clark Hall at North Texas State University circa 1977-19791 (as it was then called and will be forever thought by this writer) was a big, fun tribe.
More theater tribe experiences in college, then onto acting school in New York. Heightening my sense of tribal identity during those years was the fact that a group of my fellow theater students lived communally in all three apartments of a three family house in Jackson Heights, Queens. We would go to movies, plays and concerts in packs. It was glorious.
One of my favorite memories from that period was the infamous Disappointing Hurricane Gloria in 1985. Gloria was supposed to be the first time in decades a serious hurricane had struck New York, and everyone was prepared for it. It ended up being about as big an event as Vanilla Ice’s fourth album. I remember I spent the entire day with a group of my school buddies. We took in a matinee (Compromising Positions, an underrated gem), then saw Lily Tomlin on Broadway, then snuck into an unlocked room at the new half-opened Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square and spent the night. It was a blast.
In the years after school ended, alas, the tribe began to dissipate. Adulthood began in earnest (boo!) and my large social group began to enter the stately but seemingly unstoppable decline so typical of your late twenties.
I moved to Los Angeles eventually, and was lucky enough to fall into a group of actor friends again. It wasn’t really the same, though. We were all deeply into adulthood, and had schedules, preferences and agendas that didn’t line up nearly as frequently as they could have.
I drifted through my thirties, enjoying a loyal but small group of compatriots. I never stopped missing my tribal past, however.
Then, in 1998, I became a hardcore video gamer. Among the many joys this brought into my life was the fact that I was in a tribe again! The internet was alive with gaming communities, which I quickly dove into with gusto. I realized that being a gamer made me a part of an international brotherhood.
For several years I immersed myself in the wonderful world of Adventure Games and the smart, fun people who played them. We swapped hints, walkthroughs, reviews, complaints and stories endlessly on easy-to-navigate forums.
And then came the game that changed everything: World of Warcraft.
For those of you who don’t know, World of Warcraft is a Massively-Multiplayer-Online-Roleplaying Game, or MMORPG. This type of game had been around for several years before WoW’s launch in November of 2004, but it was a highly criticized game genre.
In 2001 Blizzard announced World of Warcraft with the bold boast that they planned on “fixing” the MMORPG genre.
The thing is, they DID.
I had never played any kind of online game before WoW, and with Blizzard’s announcement, I realized that the time for me to join the fray had come.
So, on launch day, November 23, 2004, I sat down in front of my computer, fired up the game, created my first character, and, with breathless anticipation, pressed the ENTER WORLD button.
And my life was never the same again.
I take the time here to go into all of the many reasons why World of Warcraft was such a game-changer, or what makes it such a great game to this day.
What I do want to discuss is its tribal aspect.
MMORPGs are, at their heart, social games. While there are plenty of things you can do solo, the best stuff in the game is done with, well, a tribe.
In a game like WoW, the tribes are called Guilds, and within three weeks of game launch I found myself in a gigantic family of guilds run by an Australian community called The Older Gamers.
Suddenly I had dozens of new friends. Through game chat we began to get to know one another and have adventures together.
Eventually we employed voice programs that let us all be on voice chat together at the same time.
I can’t describe how fun it was to log into the game and see that twenty or thirty people that you know are all online and ready to interact with you. Even if you aren’t specifically doing a group project with them, just hanging out with them was fun. Comparing notes, asking advice, complaining about game mechanics, etc.
WoW became, for me, that hallowed “Third Place” (see Ray Oldenburg’s book, The Great Good Place. A Third Place is the place you go to that’s not work, and not home, but a casual place where you can be comfortable and have fun.
In other words, it’s Cheers. When you logged into World of Warcraft, if you were in an active guild, well, guess what: Everybody knows your name and everybody’s glad you came.
It was magical.
“Hey, can anybody help me finish the quest line to get my warlock mount?”
“Who wants to go on a BRD Hostage run?”
“How the hell do I get to Un’Goro Crater?”
“Who can do the Spell Power enchant for gloves?”
In WoW, the biggest event participate in with your guild is called a Raid. A raid consists of a huge private dungeon explored together by a group. These dungeons are huge, dangerous, cool-looking, and full of scary monsters and treasure.
In the early years of the game, the number of people you took into a raid was forty. Yeah, you read that right. A forty-person army, all on a voice channel together, learning to execute fights and maneuvers together. Everyone had a role, and success depended on everyone doing their roles correctly.
You know what it was like? It was like a football team. Now, I’ve never actually been on a football team, but I know countless guys who have, and I’m pretty sure I’m right on this.
I was not an athletic kid (or adolescent, or adult) and I grew up having VERY little tribal experience with sports. Raiding really gave me something close to that experience.
The early guilds I ran with had so many active members that we regularly fielded three forty man raids a week and ended up turning dozens of people away.
Playing World of Warcraft in those first two years was just ridiculously fun, because such a large, boisterous group of us were exploring the game world together and discovering its secrets together.
Predictably, even though I continued playing the game, we NEVER had guilds that large again. Official raid sizes shrunk, and so did guilds. The years went by and MMO fatigue set in.
Things got particularly acute about halfway through the tenure of the game’s second official expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. The content that needed to be done weekly by any “serious” raider had, by this point, ballooned to the point of being virtually unmanageable. Exhausted players quit the game in droves.
By the time the third expansion, Cataclysm, rolled around in December of 2010, the guild I was in was quite small, and its numbers didn’t increase much. By the end of the expansion almost everyone had given the game up.
It wasn’t that the game was no longer good. It was simply that it was so involving and could take up so much of your time that many people simply decided they no longer had room for it in their lives. I understood. I began to feel that way myself.
Then the fourth and latest expansion, Mists of Pandaria, was released in September of 2012. Many people considered it the best content since the game launched. It takes place in a beautiful, cherry-blossom-painted Asian fantasy world.
By the end of Cataclysm, I was so burnt out I felt I was forever done with games like World of Warcraft. But I found myself charmed and intrigued by the new Pandaria content. I picked up the game and began enjoying it, even though very few of my old guildmates were playing. While many of the group goals were no longer available to me, I figured, who cares? There are lots of things I can work towards solo.
And it’s true: There’s a HUGE amount of soloable content in the current expansion, and much of it is colorful and fun.
There’s only one problem:
With this kind of game, working on solo goals like that is okay… as long as you have buddies on line when you’re on line. There’s precious little satisfaction in being rewarded an achievement you worked months on when there’s no one around to congratulate you.
That may sound odd for those of you who haven’t had the MMO experience, but I’ve learned it’s really true.
Because the thing about a Massively-Multiplayer-Online-Roleplaying Game is that it’s like a big game of “keep the balloon afloat.” You played that as a kid, right? A group of you stand around in a circle and begin vaulting a balloon (or some other kind of ball) into the air. The goal is to keep it airborne as long as possible without anyone dropping it.
That is what an MMO is like. The goals in the game are represented by the balloon. If you’re the only one trying to keep the sucker in the air, it’s lonely and frustrating.
So I’m not sure what’s next for me. I don’t want to give the game up. But it’s becoming increasingly frustrating and depressing spending time in such an empty place. At least I still have my Monday night all-goblin guild, which is still fun.
The way I see it is, I have two choices: Retire my main character, Kosmo, for good. But that would be difficult, because he’s been my alter ego for almost sixty-three hundred hours of play time. Yep, you read that right, over 262 days of playing over 8.5 years. Abandoning my little red-headed gnome warlock after so much time seems like a churlish thing to do.
Or I could seek out a new guild. I’m loathe to do this, because even though my old guild is all but dead, I hate to leave the ones still there behind.
Maybe I’ll try to convince the few holdouts like me to join another guild as a group! Hey, maybe that would work!
Meanwhile, lucky for me, I have a new, real-life tribe: In 2009 I joined a couple of board gaming groups. Because of that I get to play games with people who were actually right in front of me in the same room. I’ve made some amazing new friends who, so far, put up with me pretty patiently.
Hmm… maybe I could mind-control them to start playing World of Warcraft…
1And yes, I have just seriously aged myself.