For the last six years, World of Warcraft players have been involved in an event known as the "Running of the Gnomes," where players create gnome characters on the Scarlet Crusade World of Warcraft server, gather in one location, then run across the world of Azeroth in order to raise money for breast cancer.
The Running of the Gnomes was founded by one of the editors of Warcraft Community Magazine Ashleigh Ayn Sult, also known as "Dravvie" in the World of Warcraft community. According to Sult, the idea came about in 2009, during World of Warcraft's third expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. Sult was an avid supporter of breast cancer awareness, and wanted to do something in-game to support the movement. She started by coloring her guild's tabards pink for October, and the next year organized the first Running of the Gnomes.
The first Running was attended by more than 100 gnomes, and raised somewhere between $200 and $300 for the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Over the past six years, the event has quickly grown, with more than 1,500 gnomes in attendance, and a total of $5,000 dollars raised over the last six years.
To find out what a virtual marathon looks like, we logged on to Scarlet Crusade on the day of the race. When you first log in, your gnome appears in Gnomeregan, the starting area for all aspiring gnome players. However, the hour before the event was rather chaotic, with thousands of gnomes spawning in the area, and even more players constantly asking no one in particular for an invite to one of the race-related guilds.
Gnomes are one of the shortest races in the game and are generally known for their silly looks and personality, which is in stark contrast to serious races like the Draenei and Night Elves. However, their shrunken design makes them perfect for tongue-in-cheek events like the Running of the Gnomes, where the absurd sight of gnomes running in mobs is enough to garner attention from any nearby viewer.
At 8 PM, players received the signal to begin running. The first destination was the Dwarven capital Ironforge, where they caught a ride on the Deeprun Tram to Stormwind, the Alliance capital. Players then had quick respite before running through three mid-level zones, where they had to dodge enemies that could kill most of them with one shot. Thankfully, some players levelled up their characters enough so that they could keep the runners safe from harm.
The runners made it through the dangerous zones, and even managed to regroup after a server crash that kicked everyone offline for a few minutes. At their final destination, the goblin trading port Booty Bay, they were greeted by two things; the finish line, and a heart-shaped mob of gnomes
While this was the official end for the race, it is a tradition among the racers to try and raid the Horde capital of Orgrimmar, where even the highest level players will be killed very quickly by guards and other players.
These gnomes then attempt to mob-rush the Horde capital and (if they're lucky) get close enough to its leader Warchief Vol'jin to lick him by typing the "/lick" command.
The organizers reported that more than 2,450 gnomes registered for the event this year. They were also able to raise $3,740 for the Cleveland Clinic, twice as much as the original goal of $1,750.
There are some critics of digital events like the Running who see it as little more than slacktivism, a way for people to do something of little cost and risk so that they can say they supported a specific cause. However, Sult doesn't see it that way. Instead, she sees it as a community gathering to support a good cause, just like when runners in one town join together to fundraise by running in real life.
"Any group of people coming together to do anything positive can do anything," she told Motherboard.