Games

'World of Warcraft' Changed Video Games and Wrecked Lives

Over 15 years, Blizzard's MMO was an obsession for many, but an addiction for others.

by Patrick Klepek
Nov 11 2019, 1:00pm

World of Warcraft was not Drew’s only addiction. There was alcohol, food, and smoking, too, but World of Warcraft went on for so long, and was so all encompassing. It still casts a shadow, years later, after he’s managed to get so many of his addictions under control. He lost two jobs over the game. His health fell into disarray. Friendships would come and go.

Drew, who asked to have his last name kept anonymous, was a senior in high school when World of Warcraft was announced in 2001, though the game wouldn’t ship until 2004. At the time, Drew’s parents limited his game time to two hours per day, but like a lot of kids, he found ways around it. He would lie to his parents about how much he’d played, and resorted to elaborate schemes to stay connected to the internet. One time, Drew dangled an ethernet cord from one window of the house to the basement.

World of Warcraft arrived at the same time Drew went to college, a moment in the lives of a lot of young adults where, for the first time, they’re granted extraordinary freedom. At first, World of Warcraft was like anything else, a hobby to fill the time. It sat alongside his decent grades, and an active social life. But the summer of 2005 is when it started going downhill.

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Drew decided he wanted to achieve the rare “High Warlord PVP” title, part of World of Warcraft’s in-game achievements. They’re ultimately meaningless digital trophies, having zero impact on the moment-to-moment of playing the game, but part of the appeal of shared online experiences is being finding ways to stand out, whether cosmetically or with a trophy.

“Have you ever seen those game shows where everyone has to put their hand on a car, and the last person to remove it wins the car?” he said. “Or a bunch of people have to stay on a roller coaster, and the person who stays on longest wins $10,000? Those aren't really contests of skill, but will—a contest of endurance. Whoever has the most free time wins.”

By the end of the summer, he got what he wanted, but the journey was harrowing.

In late August, Blizzard succumbed to years of demands from fans desperate for a way to play World of Warcraft, the company’s genre-defining online RPG, in its original form. With World of Warcraft Classic, the game operates exactly how it did in 2004, a time when World of Warcraft didn’t just become a beloved video game, but a legitimate obsession. And for some, that obsession ran deeper, an addiction that ruined lives and relationships. As World of Warcraft Classic neared, one response I saw on social media, over and over, was tangible anxiety, with the mere discussion of World of Warcraft sending some people to a dark place.

Yesterday, Blizzard announced the launch of World of Warcraft Classic "drove the biggest quarterly increase to subscription plans in franchise history."

The Treadmill That Never Ends

To understand what Drew wanted to achieve here will take your breath away. Achieving the High Warlord PVP title required no skill. You did not have to be good at PVP, or player vs. player combat, to achieve it. It was a time sink, a massive time sink that required weeks of daily investment. A “high score” only means you spent more time than the person under you, and the amount of time required to achieve it is staggering to the point of being unbelievable. In 2009, one player on the popular World of Warcraft wiki Wowhead talked about playing PvP all day, every day for six straight months, cutting back on sleep, and regulating their meal times to no more than 10 minutes.

(Update: A few readers pointed out there was high-level gear attached to unlocking the High Warlord title.)

For weeks at time, Drew was spending more than 20 hours per day playing World of Warcraft. His summer was specifically designed to accommodate this. He asked a professor to grant him an “independent study” for credit that would require minimal effort to complete. Everyone in his life—friends, family, girlfriend—were told he was spending the summer at his computer working on that study. In reality, he was grinding away.

“I ordered pizza delivery every day and only left my room to use the bathroom and very occasionally shower,” he said. “I only left the house for extremely brief intervals to make quick trips to the grocery store and to buy cigarettes.”

When I put out an open call for people to share anxieties about World of Warcraft Classic, some of the stories I heard, like Drew's, were horrifying. One person wasn’t there for the final moments of their pet’s life, who was experiencing a seizure nearby, because their “ass was busy raiding Naxxramus.” Their parents took the dog to be put down later, an event they did not attend because they were still raiding in Naxxramus. Later, still in the raid, they cried.

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For Drew, there was no big moment when he “quit." He can’t even remember the last time he logged on. But as he got older, the weight of pointless in-game accomplishments ate at his psyche. He wanted relationships, better health, and to pay off his student debt.

“It’s difficult to describe the level to which it overtook my life,” he said. “I often recount to people that I ‘lost’ about eight years to World of Warcraft from 2004-2012, when I finally gave it up for good.”

Things are better for Drew now. He has a fiance, a house, his own business, and only on occasion does he pick up World of Warcraft, mostly to check out the new expansion content. It hasn’t been a problem. He does, however, smile when Blizzard reports the player base for the game has dwindled over the years. In his mind, it means fewer people can get hurt by it.

“Were they aware then that they had a serious addiction problem on their hands—that their gameplay design was causing real harm?” he said.

“I ordered pizza delivery every day and only left my room to use the bathroom and very occasionally shower. I only left the house for extremely brief intervals to make quick trips to the grocery store and to buy cigarettes.”

Most people know someone who’s said they were “addicted” to World of Warcraft, a game that, by design, demanded hundreds of hours to experience everything it offers, a game where grinding was the point, not an exception. But there’s saying you’re addicted, an exaggerated way of suggesting you’ve played a lot, and legitimately being addicted, when it becomes a priority over everything else. World of Warcraft is the kind of game that inspired places like Wowaholics Anonymous, where people shared experiences about trying to quit. Their website has closed, but Wowaholics Anonymous has an active community on Reddit.

Acknowledging that people can become addicted to games is a relatively recent phenomenon, with the World Health Organization only adding “gaming disorder” to its database in 2018. But it’s a fuzzy definition, and what do you say to the millions of people who play games for many hours without experiencing a problem? Game companies, reluctant to admit their creations might be causing harm to some people, have largely avoided the topic. The proliferation of loot boxes, a riff on gambling where players open randomized digital boxes in search of better items, have not helped their case.

Another person told me about introducing World of Warcraft to their father, trying to find bonding time between a parent and two sons. The father became hopelessly enthralled, creating and running five characters at once, and stopped paying attention to work or taking care of themselves. Every second of free time was devoted to the game. Soon, they all stopped talking to one another. A year later, he passed away. The relationship deteriorated for many reasons beyond World of Warcraft, but when they saw news about Classic, their heart sank.

“What would have happened, if my brother and I just hadn't introduced him to it?” he said. “How would things have gone differently, if his addiction hadn't blossomed?”

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Addictive qualities are not exclusive to World of Warcraft, and in some ways, have been part of games since the beginning—hello, quarters and arcade games. They've been taken to new, dangerous, and exploitative heights with mobile games. But World of Warcraft’s grandiose scope, unlimited time sink potential, and offering an experience so genuinely different from anything else was a potent combination that drew in tens of millions of people who found themselves responding to a game that offered a virtual life that never said no.

Over the years, Blizzard has avoided the issue. In 2010, in response to a documentary exploring the addictive qualities of video games, the company did issue a brief statement.

“Our games are designed to be fun... but like all forms of entertainment... day-to-day life should always take precedence,” said the company at the time. “World of Warcraft contains practical tools that assist players and parents in monitoring playing time."

A Chance to Be Seen, But At What Cost?

For Drew, World of Warcraft was a place to jump into and disappear. It’s a place that offered a chance to live an alternative life, one fundamentally different than the real world. This was yet another reason people, like Annie Blitzen, fell so hard for the game.

In their early 20s, Annie’s life was miserable and she was looking for escapism. This came in various forms, from signing up with the Air Force to making a World of Warcraft account. Both were unproductive ways to avoid dealing with depression, but were effective escapes.

“The frustration/reward cycles of questing, achievements, etc. were definitely a factor,” she said. “That's hardly unique to World of Warcraft, of course, but it was sort of a perfect storm of frustration/reward, the social dimension, being able to live some approximation of my truth in a persistent and interactive way, and my inability to cope with the rest of my life.”

Crucial to all this is that Annie is trans, but at the time, wasn’t out to anyone. This enormous part of Annie’s identity was a secret, but World of Warcraft was an outlet to be themselves.

World of Warcraft provided a community in which I could be female and accepted,” she said.

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In the game, Annie created a female version of themselves, an “an idealized version.” In World of Warcraft, a game about orcs and magic, this became a gnome with pink pigtails.

“I definitely decided not to play a male character on the basis of ‘I have to put up with being/pretending to be male all day every day. I'm not doing it here,’” she said. “And pretty soon into joining a guild and making friends, I decided that female me was the only me they would ever see.”

Annie stopped socializing with anyone who wasn’t in World of Warcraft itself, playing until late in the night, making it difficult to function at work. When working for the Air Force didn’t pan out, Annie went back to college, which itself was nearly derailed because she never left Azeroth. Class after class, Annie would flunk out.

Like so many others, quitting wasn’t a light bulb going off. It happened gradually. Annie tried quitting “at least half a dozen times” but always got pulled back in when the next expansion, the most tried and true way for Blizzard to bring people back to the fold, would come out. At a certain point, enough was enough, and Annie simply didn’t pick up the new expansion.

World of Warcraft provided a community in which I could be female and accepted."

Julia Christensen was in a similar place to Annie when they found World of Warcraft in 2004, a game they played over the course of five years, racking up more than 365 days of total playtime, a year dedicated solely to World of Warcraft. It’s the equivalent of 8,760 hours.

“I abandoned school and friends and family in order to meet my guild's raid schedule requirements,” they said. “I would eat my meals at my computer and neglected the needs of my body and mind. As a transgender woman, this was especially painful as I often used video games to avoid reflecting on my dysphoria and innermost conflict with my sense of self, and I sometimes wonder if I would have realized it sooner if I did not throw myself into an online environment where I could pretend wholly to be someone else.”

In 2008, Julia attempted suicide. They survived, and in the process, found a connection that World of Warcraft couldn’t give them through people in their life. For a time, they continued to play World of Warcraft, but the trauma of that moment seemed to break the game’s spell.

The Empty Void Consumes

Over and over, what I heard from people was how World of Warcraft helped unhealthily fill a void in their lives. Through its structure and form, the endless lists and quests that took forever to actually complete, it provided a sense of purpose, even if it all proved pointless.

David “UltraDavid” Graham, a well-known esports commentator and lawyer, told me how World of Warcraft fed into his depression. Graham has a specific kind of depression called anhedonia, in which a person cannot feel positive emotions. Often, it means not feeling anything at all. At its worst, it means David does not process memories, and then time becomes a blur. It’s a loop that feeds on itself, and in the past, Graham has lost months to it.

“I knew it was a problem while it was happening, but I didn't or couldn't stop, and that made me upset, but the feeling of accomplishment made me feel better, so I continued.”

“Even well adjusted people lose time to games they love, but for me losing time is more about days and weeks than just hours,” he said. “When I'm depressed and not getting anything done, World of Warcraft’s clear goals and rewards give me a feeling of accomplishment that I otherwise wouldn't have. I've used this feeling as a synthetic substitute for real world progression.”

Graham didn’t become addicted at launch—it happened a decade after the game’s release. A friend recommended he try it, and it all went south from there. His goal was to “do everything,” and that meant every quest, every dungeon, everything. He was logging in daily, spending hours lost in World of Warcraft. He was playing the game while hanging around family, saying nothing. He was playing while doing live commentary, while the matches were actively happening. He was playing while he was supposed to be focused on legal work.

“Dropping the ball on work or relationships or errands like that can cause anxiety, and that can trigger depression,” he said. “So for me World of Warcraft, can help cause depressive episodes, not just extend them.”

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Like others, the addiction wasn’t exclusive to World of Warcraft, it just brought out the worst of it. When he finally quit World of Warcraft, he quit other games that pulled him in the same way, like Civilization. But he relapsed. Graham came back for the Battle of Azeroth expansion, limiting himself to one character, one run through each piece of content, and he could only play for one month. He played “a lot, but way more reasonably than in the past.”

Drew was able to control himself upon revisits. Graham thought so, too. He was wrong.

At some point, Blizzard pinged Graham and offered a free weekend, which seemed like a convenient way to blow through a few days and, as Graham told me, “catch up on the story.” Over the course of the next 48 hours, he put nearly 30 hours into the game. It was intoxicating.

“I knew it was a problem while it was happening,” he said, “but I didn't or couldn't stop, and that made me upset, but the feeling of accomplishment made me feel better, so I continued.”

When the weekend was over, he purged, uninstalling the game and Blizzard’s launcher, while also unsubscribing from Twitter accounts and subreddits that might lead him back.

Finding Hope Within the Void

In the mountains of emails I received, a number of people who’d spent enormous, life-dominating amount of time in World of Warcraft also found hope and purpose online. There were the obvious ones, like digital connections that became in-person romances.

And there was Timmy Vu, a young Asian American trying to fit in, who could suddenly live out “a power fantasy of meritocracy” by being better than everyone else, while being able to avoid his “real life issues with assimilation, and microaggressions directed towards me.” Timmy made his first Asian friends through World of Warcraft, including a woman studying to become a psychotherapist, someone who invited vulnerable conversations about identity Timmy wasn’t comfortable having in real-life. It inspired him to become a psychotherapist.

All of this is to suggest the obvious: World of Warcraft, one of the biggest video games of all time, had a profound and diverse impact on the lives of a lot of different people that we barely understand. And while it was hardly the first massively multiplayer online game that’d hooked people into playing hundreds and hundreds of hours, it was far and away the most successful one to date. Some became addicted to what it offered, some have seen their lives tossed into chaos. But that’s not everyone, or even most people.

It was, and is, a game that demands and rewards those who worship at its alter. Because its profitability is based on paying a monthly subscription, it’s engineered to find ways to bring you back into the fold, to keep paying that monthly fee. And compared to the real world, it offers a sense of place and community where you can be accepted and praised as a hero.

But it is not a game that, after hours of play, checks in and asks if you’re okay, or suggests you should come back later. It doesn’t kick you off for playing 24 hours straight. It doesn’t have a link to a phone number to call, or a website to visit, if playing too much has become a problem.

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Most of the players I talked to, however, did not point the finger at the game.

“I don't particularly harbor any strong feelings of resentment towards the game itself,” said Nick Peake, who dropped out of college while addicted. “Obviously it is acknowledged to a certain extent as an 'addictive' piece of entertainment, but I think to view it purely in those terms belies what an extraordinarily immersive and lovingly crafted game it really is, and risks it being viewed as entirely analogous with other aspects of addiction and gaming, such as the ongoing lootbox/microtransactions debate within the industry in recent years.”

There are parts of World of Warcraft, then and now, that seem, at best, irresponsible. Achievements that could only be earned by spending spectacular amounts of hours playing, designed knowing it would force players to stretch and contort their lives, day in and day out.

But it’s also true that many of the people I talked to who became addicted to World of Warcraft also had trouble with other addictions. The game’s impact wasn’t unique.

“I now view World of Warcraft more as a vehicle for the coping behaviours I'd developed during childhood, a host-body for the parasitic nature of my own anxieties,” said Peake. “It simply became a convenient excuse for the isolation my mind sought, rather than the root cause of it all.”

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).