Sometimes life gives you a synchronicity that makes you a teeny tiny bit wiser. One such synchronicity happened to me recently regarding the geekosphere.
I was halfway through a wonderful book called "The American Nerd: The Story of My People" by Benjamin Nugent. At the same time, I finally, finally, actively ventured into World of Warcraft.
These combined events taught me something: Ten million unique users can be wrong.
In American Nerd, Nugent outlines his experiences as a boy playing Nintendo with his friends, and deals with the day that he sold his console as part of his attempts to blend in with the grunge music cool kids. The book has a penitent feeling, and deals with the many subcultures in nerdom with an affectionate yet anthropologically relativistic approach. The haven-like virtues of tabletop gaming are extolled. Science fiction clubs are lauded. Even Kirk/Spock fanfic and yaoi get their moments, with a credible psychological explanation for why perfectly nice girls dig slash.
But in the non-judgmental, we're-all-friends-here environment within the book, we gamers didn't fare well. At first I thought it was just because the author had missed the huge leap gaming has taken since the old NES days. He criticized gaming for being an aggressive, isolating experience, with the focus oriented too much to the characters on the screen, and not enough on the real people playing. He still held up Nintendo as a light in the darkness, but I dismissed that as nostalgic bias.
Then I gave WoW a spin... and felt like I was a freshman in high school, at risk of being shoved into a locker by school bullies. I was getting my first direct taste of "ganking noobs". Or, more accurately, being the noob at risk of ganking.
The first thing anyone starting WoW needs to understand is this: You are a stupid noob. No one in the game world really cares about stupid noobs. You are a nuisance, and should expect to be mocked. Humility is expected. Grovelling, followed by a peppering of ‘lol's to express your virgin nerves, is encouraged and derided at the same time.
The only redeeming quality you have is that you will, after the investment of hundreds of hours, have reached a basic level of competence. You will then be able to participate in raids and help facilitate guild leaders rewarding their buddies with the best loot, at the expense of those not in their clique.
There are guides for ganking. Web forums applauding it. The general belief is that if you select a PVP server, you have it coming... only I wasn't ON a PVP server, and I still got screwed with. A friend of mine who met her husband on WoW - I'm not kidding -- pointed out that you can't gank in the starter zones. Clever jackholes work around this by luring noobs out of starter zones where the ganking isn't flagged. I accidentally stumbled into an area far above my level just chasing a spirit wolf in a horribly executed follow quest. It's really easy to stray.
There's a problem with that. With 10 million users and counting, World of Warcraft isn't an arena for hardcore, informed gamers. It's a casual cash cow without a proper noob area, and by slaughtering people who are still trying to figure out WASD, gankers reassert the social order of older jocks picking on younger geeks in the hallways of the land of eternal high school.
Do I need to remind everyone where we nerds were on that food chain? How much we hated the popular kids for doing that to us? How we fantasized about their eventual karmic comeuppance. They'd end up like Al Bundy in a perfect world: balding, broken, selling shoes while reliving his glory days at Polk High.
Unfortunately we can't claim the moral high ground as nerds anymore, guys. Thanks to phenomena like teabagging in Halo, ganking in WoW, and general trolling, we're just as bad as the jocks we despised, if not worse. Now that we have the power, we're doing everything they did and more. The problem with World of Warcraft is that, with its user controlled loot allocation, completely open world, imperfect, cumbersome controls, and piss poor self-policing, it strips gaming of the inherent fairness that once shone like a beacon of hope to us social rejects.
Before you start protesting - as well as spamming my various social networking pages with vile comments and setting up fake profiles claiming I'm a lesbian who's also into bestiality (and is fat lewl), hear me out. We are the gods of the internet. We've made this place in our own image to be our paradise. And what have we got? A distopia with all the aggression and tension of the superbowl, but the cheerleaders are secretly 300lb IT guys.
Where are the real women? We're there. You just don't know we're there. So we can judge your abhorrent behaviour without you seeing us coming. Then we leave, because you're a bunch of mean jerks. Or we announce very loudly that we're GIRLS, knowing that will make you snap to your sharpest salute, but we already heard what you said about "those whores" not liking nice guys like you.
The women who stick around are no better, frankly, with their Heathers-style cliqueyness or their need to one-up the guys. But let's face it, women aren't WoW's - or any MMO's - target audience. But that's a whole different issue.
In the interests of fairness - something I still care about - I get why people like WoW. It's Forgotten Realms with a fresh coat of high-pigment paint, and that's a formula that's been working since Forgotten Realms co-opted Tolkien in the 1980s and turbocharged the basic elves/dwarves/humans/orcs formula. Wow is also a secret club and a world stage all at the same time, and for gamers struggling with acceptance and popularity issues, that's handing someone the keys to the promised land.
But it's also a vast universe without a lot of oversight and a high potential for abuse of both players and the system itself. It's not perfect, and it's highly inhospitable to new players in its current form. Because it's the biggest, it's also allowed to be the meanest, because if you don't like something, ten MILLION people implicitly disagree with you. It's the ultimate bully pulpit.
Plenty of hardcores mock Wii gamers with their kinder, gentler, no-next-gen-graphics style of gaming, but no one has really questioned the millions of people hacking and slashing on WoW, where the desire for a Zhevra mount or a Tyrael pet has taken on an addictive quality in many of the game's loyalists. Because of this "WoWcrack" quality, because people now have so much sense-of-self wrapped up in their level 70 Shamans, it's difficult for the indoctrinated to objectively judge what's going on. Blizzard even employs very affective carrot-and-stick tactics to stop users from straying to other MMOs, further impairing objectivity.
And no one likes noobs, so who listens to them?
So the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Ben Nugent was right to rip on us gamers the way he did: we aren't the bright shiny noble paladins we pretend to be. We're gnarled, angry little jerks, who are mean like the cool people, without being pretty like the cool people. That's something I haven't encountered in other nerdoms, where I find the culture, with its focus on periodic face-to-face gatherings through conventions, to be essentially inclusive.
He's also right that Nintendo is keeping the industry honest by offering a different experience for the consumer. And consumers obviously like it, because while 10 million users is a whopping number, Nintendo boasts 34.41 million Wii consoles, and 82.34 million DS handhelds sold to date. The two top selling games worldwide are both currently Wii games. Nintendo targets their products far more strongly towards harmony between casual and hardcore gamers, and it's paying off.
My hope as I write this is that when the next geek writes a book, gamers will have evolved a little as a community and will get a better grade in the Bell Curve of nerdom. What I expect is just a whole lot of angry comments because I dared defy the WoW gods and must, therefore be wrong. How interesting, that, with Blizzard's fixation on corruption storylines, their own players can't see how they themselves have been tainted by the near-absolute power of the world's most popular MMO.