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WoW is a Work of Art, part 1: A journey into Azeroth

The day I walked into the store to buy World of Warcraft, I had been taking care of my mother as she underwent chemotherapy for brain cancer, and I desperately needed something to do that wasn't cooking, cleaning, sorting pills, or running errands. I needed something that would connect me with people while at the same time letting me stay at home and care for someone I loved.

When I picked up a box with a pretty, yet severe night elf woman's face on the cover, I wasn't thinking, "I want to get to level 60 and start raiding Molten Core for epic gear!" or even "I'm going to be a PvP god!" Instead, I was hoping to create characters with a personal background, with feelings and ideas all their own, and act them out in an imaginary world where no one knew who I really was, a world in which our purpose was to share creatively and interact as a team, not to make money or exchange gossip.

In short, I wanted to roleplay. But what I got was something much more than even a roleplaying experience, more than me and my characters, more than an endless stream of quests and rewards, experience and reputation, monsters and loot. I found myself in a world filled with its own people -- real people -- and a series of problems for these people to overcome together in order to progress and travel even deeper into this world. At every stage, I found something new opening up to me, whether it was access to more abilities of my own, more ways to interact with others, more vast landscapes to please my eye, or more stories to capture my imagination.

A long time has past since I first bought that box. My mother has recovered from her treatments and regained a lot of her independence. My "real life" has largely gone back to normal, except that now World of Warcraft is a part of it. I no longer have some need for a way to spend time with people without leaving home. Instead I have new friends and special activities we like to participate in. These friends and activities make me feel as though I'm growing and changing as a person too, although for a long time it was hard to pinpoint why.

I had previously gone through a long period of life in which I thought I had given up video games for good. "A waste of time!" I said. "They keep you at home, mashing buttons when you could otherwise be out spending time with people, or doing something productive." Now that I had a new game that felt different and had captured my imagination, I heard other people around me and in the media speaking of games in the same way that I once had. Of my favorite game in particular, they often spoke in slightly hushed tones, as if discussing cocaine, and they brought up how they heard on TV that it ruined relationships. If one questioned them as to what World of Warcraft really was, I doubt they could say very much, except that it was something bad.

I thought long and hard about this game. Was it really a waste of time? Was I addicted? Did it affect my life in a negative way? What was I getting from this game that I couldn't get from real life? Why not put away the game and read a book, for example, or call up my friends and visit the park?

A book, I realized, doesn't let me talk back. I love books and I love reading, but I also love interacting as much as I can with my media. I love walking in parks with friends, but the park does not present challenges for us to learn and overcome together. The redwood forests of California are so far away for me that a trip there would be hard to contemplate, but the imaginary landscape of Feralas, while obviously inferior to the real thing, is still just a few minutes away.

I realized that my love of the world -- the real world -- only increased as I journeyed through Blizzard's fantasy realm. On multiple levels, from music to problem-solving, from awesome visuals to collective storytelling, I had actually come to relate to WoW as an organic work of art in which I can grow and move even as the artwork itself grows and changes over time.

What is a work of art if not an expression of the human experience and imagination, which touches your heart in some way and makes your world a little more meaningful? WoW is undoubtedly a beautiful environment, with breathtaking things to see, powerful music and sounds, as well as difficult challenges to overcome, and imaginative stories to tell. All these have an effect on our minds and spirits. Furthermore, it is changing all the time, with new content, refinement to old content, and new ways of interacting with other people. Not only does it have all the traditional elements of art, it allows people to connect together, compete and cooperate within that art, as if it really were a world of its own. In its own way, the power of World of Warcraft to connect people together is its greatest artistic achievement of all.

Like any powerful artwork, this game has made its mark on my life. I entered Azeroth just for something creative and social to do, and stayed because I found something in this world and its community that captivated me, an exprience as powerful as any great film, book, painting or poem. One day, society at large will come to recognize World of Warcraft as a work of art too. Once the emerging global culture has come to understand and accept games alongside film and literature, with their own potential as well as its pitfalls, artists in the field of game-design can begin to exploit its opportunities for creative expression in ways far greater than any game has thus far achieved. WoW's successors will things of beauty unlike anything we can imagine.


"WoW is a Work of Art" is a three-part series. Part one focuses on the author's personal discovery that games are an art form, based on his experiences in World of Warcraft. Part two explores how WoW is not merely another work of visual and musical art, but a work of interactive, team-oriented problem-solving art as well. Part three look s at WoW as a stage on which some players choose to play writer, director, actor and audience all at the same time, in their own improvised theater.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Virtual selves, RP, All the World's a Stage (Roleplaying)

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