World of Warcraft is without a doubt a massive cultural phenomenon unlike any other online game to date. It has given us countless hours of entertainment, introduced friends and couples to one another, and touched the lives of millions. For some, the game has made a bad situation better, or even -- in at least one case -- possibly saved their lives. For others, it has cost them everything.
Fair warning: This column describes some intense and tragic events.
Hans and the moose
In 2007, twelve-year-old Hans Jørgen Olsen of Norway and his sister (ten) decided to take a shortcut through a garden on their way to school. The choice would prove fateful. A moose had wandered into the area and promptly took a dislike to the children.
"It ran straight towards us when it saw us," Hans told Norwegian news station Nettavisen. "I screamed at it to scare the moose, but I soon realized that it was not going to stop. Then I turned and ran and ran until I couldn't run faster."
The charging moose caught up to Hans and slammed into him. His backpack cushioned the blow, but the impact knocked Hans to the ground.
Unsatisfied, the moose remained. "We held eye contact for a while," Hans said, "and then it suddenly struck me."
When asked if he was afraid, Hans said, "It was basically OK."
After a few moments, the moose left him alone. Hans found his sister and the two went to school as planned. A school nurse examined him and found only bruises. Quick thinking, bravery, and WoW had possibly saved the children's lives.
On the other side of the world from Hans, another young gamer played WoW. Her character's name was "Snowly." In 2005, she complained of tiredness after spending days preparing for a "difficult part of the game." During China's National Day holiday, which lasts a week, Snowly played for several consecutive days nonstop. The exhaustion became too much, and she passed away.
A week later, members of her community held an online funeral for her (pictured below).
The incident was followed shortly thereafter by a similar one. A gamer named "Nan Ren Gu Shi" also expired after gaming for too many hours in a row.
In the wake of the two tragedies, Chinese officials announced that a three-hour limit would be set for all online games. The system went live in 2007. Internet gaming companies in China are now required to ask for ID from teenage gamers. The ID registers their play time and encourages them to seek "suitable physical activity" after three hours. As further encouragement, the game cuts in half any points earned (think XP or valor) after that time. After five hours, points are reduced to zero.
Unfortunately, the system does not regulate adult gamers, who can be even more irresponsible. In 2005, a Korean couple left their house to play WoW at an Internet cafe -- leaving their four-month-old baby alone in the house. Five hours later, the parents returned. They discovered that their daughter had rolled over in her crib and suffocated.
"We were thinking of playing for just an hour or two and returning home like usual," the couple reportedly told the media, "but the game took longer that day."
According to local police, the child's grandmother lived upstairs and could have looked after the baby, but for some reason the couple chose not to bother her.
Police said, "We booked the pair on criminal charges, judging that when you consider the situation, they were responsible for their daughter's death."
Far worse is the case of Rebecca Christie of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Her ex-husband, Air Force Sergeant Derek Wulf, said that he would visit and find that their three-year-old daughter Brandi had no food or water. Christie forgot to feed the girl while she played WoW. Eventually, Brandi weighed only 23 pounds and allegedly resorted to eating cat food to stave off starvation.
In 2006, Christie found her daughter unconscious on the floor and called 911. Brandi was rushed to the hospital, but doctors were unable to revive her.
FBI investigators later examined Christie's PC. They said that her WoW session that day had lasted for 15 straight hours.
Three years later, Christie was sentenced to 25 years in prison for second degree murder and child abandonment. "Not seeing what she needed," Christie said, "I'll live with that for eternity. There's nothing more that I want than to have her back with me, but I can't have her back."
Brandi's father Derek Wulf pleaded guilty to child neglect and was sentenced to three years' incarceration.
Ezra and the phoenix
Ten-year-old Ezra Chatterton of Riverside, California, loved to play WoW with his dad. After their house burned down and all of Ezra's toys went up in smoke, his father Micah used the insurance money to buy him the only toy he wanted: a PC and a WoW subscription. The two bonded over the game and spent long hours playing and talking about it.
When Ezra was diagnosed with a brain tumor, he Made a Wish to visit Blizzard. Blizzard whisked him and his dad to their offices in Irvine via limo and put him on the development team for a day. Working alongside Jeff Kaplan, Ezra got to design a weapon, a quest, and an NPC named Ahab Wheathoof. They recorded Ezra in a sound studio for Ahab's voice. Blizzard also added Ezra's dog Kyle to the game as part of the quest he designed.
Later, Ezra got to experience what it's like to be a GM. Blizzard gave him the power to kill mobs in one hit. They let him clear the way for a guild about to test Supremus in the Black Temple.
When a local newspaper asked him about the visit, Ezra said, "I'd like to be paid to test and play the game and test weapons, but I don't think I meet the age requirements."
Tragically, Ezra suffered a stroke about a year later. Months later, he succumbed to his illness on October 20, 2008.
Micah posted a tribute to his son. In it, he wrote,
After news of Ezra's passing, WoW Insider's Daniel Howell (aka BigRedKitty) organized an event to raise money for Make-A-Wish in Ezra's honor. Along with the Argent Dawn-US guild Bloodmoon Chosen, players planned to raid Goldshire and Stormwind with a force of max-level players. Anyone who didn't have a toon on the server joined the raid with a level 1 tauren (since Ezra played a tauren).
When Ezra couldn't walk anymore, he turned to World of Warcraft. When he couldn't see, he turned to music, or our pets, or food, or directing me to play World of Warcraft for him. The trick was that, as his world got smaller, he just looked at it more closely. If I am to take any shred of good from this suffering, I'll have to learn from him.
According to one account, the event drew over 1000 people, including 897 level 1 taurens. With so many, no raid was possible. The server promptly crashed, and GMs asked the crowd to disperse.
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