Pixels, Pandemics, & The Protestant Work Ethic or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love World of Warcraft (Again)

[UNLOCKED] bonus 035 - May 10th, 2020

“What’s your /played?” is a question that can strike fear into the heart of a World of Warcraft (WoW) player. 

/played is a command you can enter into the chat interface. It returns a value in days/hours/minutes/seconds format. That cold logic is the most stark reminder that massively multiplayer online roleplaying games come with an opportunity cost. 

My /played is currently. 443 days, 16 hours, 5 minutes, and 50 seconds.

That’s 10,648 hours of my life spent in a fictional world. First slaughtering feral pigs for innards but over time doing battle with Blood Gods. But it is a whole lot of grunt work. Kill this to get that, deliver this box to that person right over there, dig through shit to find something, etc. 

That clock started ticking for me about a month or two after the game launched in November, 2004. Like any pre-Facebook online experience anonymity was the norm. And that comes with pros and cons. Lots of assholes, but quite a few friends and good times along the way too. But work. An awful lot of work.

According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the U.S federal standard for full time workers is 2,087 hours per year. That’s 5.1 years of my life spent toiling for the citizenry of Azeroth. You can shave off some time for the virtual heroics of proper monster-slaying but you’re still looking at an awful lot of busy work to get there. 

The Prosperity Gospel made manifest in pixels. I’m surprised the game doesn’t contain an epic mace with that for a name. At times the creators of WoW seem to have more in common with the likes of Travis Kalanick than J. R. R. Tolkien.

Western players refer to this alternatively as “farming” and “grinding”. Chinese players (WoW is BIG in China) call it “brushing.” If German sociologist and economist Max Weber were alive today he’d likely see similarities to the protestant work ethic as laid out in his seminal work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the 'saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.' But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

Scott Rettberg, a professor of digital culture at the University of Bergen in Norway in his paper, Corporate Ideology in World of Warcraft argues:

The fact that grinding is required to level up and achieve reputation cannot however alone explain why so many World of Warcraft players tolerate, or even welcome, the repetitiveness and tedium of grinding. I contend that the appeal of this type of activity is threaded deeper into the subconscious of the capitalist mind, which has been trained to appreciate work itself as a moral good. 

Bonnie Nardi emeritus professor of the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine disagrees with that sentiment. She instead argues in her book, My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft that something more prosaic but no less crass in its obvious capitalism is at play:

Rather than games as training grounds for the workplace, a more straightforward explanation is ready to hand, at least for farming in World of Warcraft. Farming was woven into the game as a design element to provide game content at a cost that increased corporate profit margins. Farming slowed players so they did not rip through months of careful content development in a few days or weeks. Blizzard’s incorporation of farming reduced its need for development by inserting a necessary but time-consuming activity into the game that kept players busy.

Both of those statements feel true to me as a long-time, on-again, off-again player. The telling thing is how much the culture in the game mimics corporate life. Rettberg again:

Guilds, the core social unit in World of Warcraft, are also often structured like companies. Most guilds hold regular meetings and have guild leaders (the in-game equivalent of a CEO) and other officers, such as a treasurer who maintains a guild bank. Guild leaders or an executive committee of officers arbitrate disputes, distribute loans, armor, and weaponry, and plan organized campaigns.

What’s more, players were drawing apples to apples comparisons between skills they exhibited in WoW and the ones they needed to get ahead in the workplace. So much so that they began listing WoW as experience on their resumés. The Wall Street Journal, CNN Money, and Harvard Business Review all felt the need to fill column inches about the phenomenon.

The inequities of capitalism on Earth are mirrored in Azeroth. Affluent players in the West pay real-world money to gain in-game currency and items from “Chinese gold farmers.” Whether it’s for a pair of Nikes or +8 agility magic boots, 12 hour+ work days in sweatshop conditions, at low-pay, is still despicable. The in-game chat memes that developed due to this were every bit as racist as you might suspect. Money is always othering. Whether it’s gold or dollars. 

Farming is by no means unique to WoW. Animal Crossing New Horizons is being hailed by many as a mental health salve during the Covid crisis. Some American players however are turning to the game to make ends meet. The damage capitalism inflicts abroad always finds its way home. Always.

In the midst of COVID-19, some New Horizons players are turning to World of Warcraft-style gold farming methods to make ends meet. In early April, Lexy, a 23-year-old recent college grad, created a Twitter account offering up bells (Animal Crossing’s in-game currency) for real-world cash (she requested we refer to her by a nickname to avoid potential reprisal from Nintendo). “I got laid off due to COVID so I'm farming bells in ACNH,” she wrote. “I really need to make rent this month so I'm selling 2 mil bells per $5, please message me if interested, I'll give you a discount the more you buy.”

The pandemic has been a boon to video game publishers. Activision Blizzard, makers of WoW (and Call of Duty and Overwatch) has seen net revenues climb to $1.44bn (£1.16bn). In Q1, 407 million people had played its games online each month.

WoW, however, has a much more interesting relationship to pandemics. In 2005 Blizzard introduced players to the raid boss Hakkar The Soulflayer. Hakkar is the Blood God of the Gurabashi Troll empire. Trolls in WoW have Jamaican accents and worship Loa. Despite all that Hakkar was a visual homage to Quetzalcoatl

Hakkar’s most lethal spell was “Corrupted Blood.” Corrupted Blood dealt damage on cast and over time to players. What’s more it could spread to others based on proximity. Most effects like this tend to disappear from players when they leave a raid instance. However a bug in how it was originally coded meant that the same was not true of pets owned by hunters.

When hunters returned back to capital cities they innocently summoned their pets again. The pets were still infected and the disease spread from them to other players and non-players as well. Low-level characters were killed instantly.

Anonymity, as I suggested earlier, can bring out the asshole in people. “Griefing” in community parlance. It didn’t take long for malicious players to weaponize Hakkar’s spell for their own sick lols.

Gamemasters even intervened with a wide-range of efforts. They would attempt to quarantine infected areas. And of course ban asshole players when possible.

The Corrupted Blood Incident became a touchstone for real-world epidemiologists:

An epidemiologist named Eric Lofgren, then at Tufts University, just happened to be an avid WoW player and was fascinated by the real-world parallels to how the epidemic played out in the virtual world. He and his Tufts colleague, Nina Fefferman, co-authored a 2007 paper published in Lancet Infectious Diseases examining the potential implications of the Corrupted Blood incident for refining existing epidemiological models

"For me, it was a good illustration of how important it is to understand people's behaviors," he recently told PC Gamer about the earlier WoW study. "We often view epidemics as these things that sort of happen to people. There's a virus and it's doing things. But really it's a virus that's spreading between people, and how people interact and behave and comply with authority figures, or don't, those are all very important things. And also that these things are very chaotic. You can't really predict 'oh yeah, everyone will quarantine. It'll be fine.' No, they won't."

I, of course, have been in quarantine. I’ve been working from home since February. In my day job I’ve been connected to multiple Covid-19 responses. Working with epidemiologists who use models informed by Lofgren and Fefferman’s work. It’s all a bit surreal.

That work has been demanding. A few weeks ago I finally acknowledged I needed to practice some self-care. Despite misgivings about its crass capitalism, I re-upped my dormant WoW subscription.

Resiliency by way of escapism. It’ll do for the time being. There’s no telling what my /played will be by the time this fucking pandemic is over.