Talk about All The Things ... Also a game designer who has even worked on projects for the federal government, Erik has rallied from anorexia to go on to advocate for student agency and motivation in education. With a confidence bolstered in Azeroth, he's assembling his own experiences and aspirations into a big-picture view large enough not only to fill his own sails but to help others push off from safe harbor.
Main character Klaes, blood elf arcane mage
Guild Vanguard Gaming: The Dragonmaw Vanguard
Realm Emerald Dream (US-Horde) (formerly The Venture Co.)
WoW Insider: Let's set the stage with the basics first, before we go into how WoW is helping you steer your way through life. How old are you, Erik, and what are you studying in school?
Erik Martin/Klaes: I'm 20, and I've just finished the process of making my own major at the University of Maryland, College Park! My major is called "New Media and Global Civics," which isn't exactly a thing, so for the next couple of years it's kinda up to me to make it some sort of thing.
Basically I'm studying the ways the internet and media (including games) can help people tackle or understand all the complex issues the world faces. "Civic" is a pretty broad word too though; it's certainly not just voting or even government, but how individuals can participate in making improvements to the world around them, great and small. Helping people help each other, plus internetz.
And when did you get into World of Warcraft? What was it that appealed to you about the game?
I started playing WoW when I was 16, during Wrath of the Lich King. A friend introduced me to the game, and since I didn't actually grow up playing a ton of video games, my first steps in Azeroth were, silly as it might sound, kind of breathtaking, haha. It fed every desire I had then -- an alternate world where I could go anywhere and be anything and nothing could stop me.
This wasn't too long after I'd gotten out of the hospital for anorexia, and since I was still struggling with depression, I was just so not OK with myself and not really loving the "real world." All of a sudden I had this alternate place filled with people who wouldn't judge me on anything except how epic of a mage I could be in Azeroth -- everything that had happened in real life didn't matter.
And while I guess you could find that experience in a lot of MMOs, the other thing about WoW is the world is so incredibly rich and filled out. The lore is staggeringly huge but also sincere. The game is very self-aware in a way -- totally ridiculous at times, but also pretty freaking dark with some pretty good characters like Sylvanas or, Mary Sue that he is, Thrall. The world itself got me as much as the gameplay. It gave me something to escape to which I really, really needed then.
Meeting Queen Rania of Jordan about educational techYou've said that WoW played an important role in helping you fight anorexia. That's a battle more commonly associated with girls. Do you mind sharing a little about your experience?
So, yeah it's not really normal to hear about boys with anorexia. The funny thing is I've met plenty of other guys who've struggled with it -- but very few who are open about sharing it (which is completely understandable).
There's sort of a misconception about the root of anorexia; many seem to think it's just something for people who see toned bodies on magazine covers and go overboard trying to mimic that. But that's not really it at all. Anorexia is all about the sense of control a person has in their life (or perceives they have).
If you get to a point in life where you feel like you aren't in control of anything, and everything just seems impossible or overbearing or futile, you can end up trying to control the only thing left: yourself. It starts with trying to be more fit or conventionally attractive, trying to "improve" yourself (which, sure, is based on those magazine covers and the like). But it gets to a point where you are far past your fit goals and are instead damaging your body by controlling it to the calorie. You might even recognize that you look OK or even sickly, but you keep finding little flaws, and trying to control those flaws gives you a sense of control in your life, makes you feel a sense of agency, so you keep doing it.
There's an excellent TED talk by a game designer named Jane McGonigal. [Editor's note: Read 15 Minutes of Fame's interviews with McGonigal here and here.] She's really wonderful, and she touches on that word "agency." Video games also give us a sense of agency and control we often crave in real life. It's just easier to be awesome in a video game than IRL.
So what was WoW's role in helping steer you back to health?
Suffice it to say, my anorexia got really bad, and after I got out of the hospital, I and those around me were afraid of relapse. Instead, I found World of Warcraft. It gave me a sense of agency away from my body -- and an epic guild that took it a step further and gave me some confidence to boot.
And something about school and education is wound up in this knot, isn't it?
So basically, many of the reasons I wound up fighting anorexia originated in school. School is really, really bad at giving kids a sense of control and agency in their lives: "Sit down, do what you're told, read this, write that, no we don't really care what your passion is, just take the test OK?" is sort of the message in school.
For me specifically, I tried to do something really big in middle school (create an international memorial day for innocent victims of war). It was unrealistic and naïve, but a good cause. I cared about world events and promoting peace and all that, but school didn't really have the framework to foster those interests or support that project (except for one remarkably good teacher). The whole thing instead wound up making me very depressed and cynical, leading to anorexia.
Our education system is fundamentally designed to create obedient workers who are "useful." Originally, "useful" was a good loyal factory worker. Fast forward to the 21st century, and it doesn't add up. We need more creativity, and we know creativity comes from passion -- it certainly doesn't come from more standardized tests, so yeah, it's a problem!
So now you've gotten involved in a number of educational initiatives, isn't that right?
Yep! A few other students and myself are starting a Super PAC to push some education reform issues and also just get student's voices heard more in education generally. It's sorta ridiculous that there are all these groups saying they're reforming education without actually talking to any students. They won't achieve anything meaningful or lasting going about it like that -- so we're aiming to change that.
I know you mentioned you're currently on a brief hiatus from WoW. Aren't you also GM of your guild, though, as well?
I know everyone says they have the best guild in the world, but I sincerely mean it from the bottom of my heart. I've learned so much from being with my guild about leadership, friendship, ... diplomacy, haha.
We're mostly an RP-PvP guild, but we have people playing in other games besides WoW also now. And yes, currently I'm inactive; we have a really cool admin setup, though. We don't have one solo GM; instead, a council of about 12 admins or "Warlords" sits at the helm, and we pretty much informally rotate responsibility. If one of us in inactive (me, for example), someone else is usually there to step in. This also helps with preventing burnout, which is common when leading guilds!
At the end of the day, the biggest reason WoW was never a waste of time to me was the guild.
You've got quite a few game design projects under your belt. Can you tell us about those?
Currently I'm working with a group called FHI 360 to explore the idea of making mobile games for low-literacy communities in the developing world that help educate or connect people, though it's very preliminary stuff. I've also worked with the Federation of American Scientists on a game coming out in March called Immune Defense, which is sort of a cellular biology RTS game, and with the Department of Energy on a game called Terrachanics.
So where is all this blur of activity heading, Erik? What are you hoping to do when you graduate?
Yikes, haha, like I have a clue! I'm toying with the idea of running for my local board of education or becoming a teacher, but I could also keep going in the game development direction -- I have not dismissed the idea of aiming to one day work at Blizzard!
Also, while it sounds crazy, I work on a fantasy novel series on the side. It's probably god-awful stuff -- but hey, it's fun! So who knows?
"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with Game of Thrones' Hodor (Kristian Nairn) or a 70-year-old grandma who tops her raid's DPS charts as its legendary-wielding GM. Send your nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org.