I have Kate Eltham over at Electric Alphabet to thank for directing me to this marvellous article in the London Review of Books about video games. Gaming doesn’t get much serious attention in the mainstream media, although it’s hugedy-huge. Many of you already know that I am one of the 13 million or so World of Warcraft players worldwide (how on earth can that be considered a marginal cultural practice?) and so it’s refreshing to see serious attention being paid to gaming.
Lanchester makes so many interesting points, but the ones that really stood out for me were about gamer creativity: “the most interesting thing about… games,” he writes, “is what is done with them by the user.” He doesn’t specifically reference WoW in his article, but I have always appreciated the “sandbox” potential of the game. One of the best nights of play I had was not the night I critted over 6K in Gruul’s Lair and picked up epic drops; but the night my husband and I, set loose in a beta-test version of the Lich King expansion, rode our horses across every inch of the new continent of Northrend. Just exploring, looking around, appreciating the graphics, soaking up the atmosphere. It felt like we actually went on a journey (and not nearly so expensive as real travel, plus the kids were asleep and not bored or vomiting on us).
But, more importantly, the relationship players have with their characters or “toons” in WoW can actually be a creative one. From the moment you choose their race, class, and faction, you are taking part in a process of character development. Then, as you spend time with them over many many (many) hours of game play, you can become quite invested in them, their journeys, their histories (in-game and, for some people especially those on “role-play” servers, outside-of-game), even getting a sense of what they will or won’t do. There was a recent kerfuffle on the WoW forums when a player took offence at a quest that involved torture, essentially arguing that his toon wouldn’t do it. For the purposes of this blog post, I bravely posted a forum thread about how players felt about their toons’ personalities, and found that quite a few players do seem invested imaginatively with them: they are creatively engaged with the game through the narratives, both in-game and imagined, of their characters.
But Lanchester asks, am I playing with my character as if she is a puppet (in much the same way I pull the strings of the characters in my novels), or is Blizzard Entertainment playing me as if I am the puppet? Is the sense of creating a character real or “just some horrible corporate simulacrum”? He suggests that “nothing within a world so fully made by a corporation can be truly creative.” But isn’t that to believe that corporations are gigantic, money-hungry, power-wielding monoliths against which we are powerless? They’re not and we’re not. In fact, gaming corporations tend to be staffed by gamers who are creative; I’m sure most of them would revel in the knowledge that the end users were also getting that juicy feeling that we all recognise: when our imaginations are firing up, and our possibilities are multiplying.