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Fall 2005

The Secret Society
Marc Solomon

At this very moment, there exists a secret society of over five million people worldwide. It operates with in its own territories, and has its own unique set of rules and customs. I stumbled upon it by accident, and in this article will tell you about my experiences within it. Like all "secret" societies, it was revealed to me by one of its members. While visiting with a woman who had been conspicuously scarce for a few weeks, I asked where she had been, what had been taking her time. She turned away for a moment and then gave me a sheepish look. I pressed her for an explanation. Finally, she whispered, "Maybe I shouldn't tell, you might not understand."

Of course, who couldn't take such bait?

Through some relatively quick arrangements and armed with the necessary credentials, I was granted access and traveled to one of their indoctrination sites. In this first encounter, I was asked to assess myself: my capabilities, proclivities, and beliefs. These answers would guide decisions about what role I would play, how I would gain status, experience and reputation within the society. After this, I was given rudimentary tasks to acclimatize myself. None were degrading or against laws -- at least those that apply here. I would perform some service or errand for an established member or another group. Each time I finished, I would be rewarded, based on my performance. The initial tasks were quite menial, and quickly done. As time went on, and I gained some middling status among these people, these tasks became more and more difficult, sometimes requiring several hours of effort. There was much trial and error, and each level in advancement could require any combination of travel, risk and effort. There were benefits: achievement and adventure in this new world were invigorating, and the locations I traveled to each had its own beauty and challenges, some quite deadly.

I was expected to continually seek out teachers to further my skills. It was also my responsibility to pay them with only my earnings from within the society. I was an eager student in my chosen path and wanted to excel quickly. But no matter how much I wanted to learn or how much money I had, there was no instant gratification. With each lesson, I had to demonstrate my worthiness to learn more through practice in the field. Not just learning, but all the other necessities of life, required money. I had to produce things or provide services of value to those around me. There were many trades (or professions) I could choose from, since the society was self-contained, and required all of its needs to be met internally. It needed an active economy to sustain itself.

Some did well in their choices, some did not. Effort and patience usually paid off. If I wanted better clothes, or better equipment to improve my skills, I had to make them or earn the money to buy them. I had to dig resources from the earth, hunt and fish for food. I learned to trade for materials with others in hard currency or barter to create higher-quality items of food, clothing, weapons, and tools. The others in the society were engaged in many kinds of complementary professions. I was free to sell the fruit of my labors at low prices to established shopkeepers, trade with others, or use the great auction houses. Prices depended on what others would pay and how badly they needed it.

Are you thinking: what is this, some kind of weird Amish-Swedish commune? Sound kind of boring? Well, not really. Did I forget to mention that I got to wield swords, fight monsters and defeat evil creatures from the "other side" of the world?

So what's the big secret? It is an online compter game called "World of Warcraft," or WoW. Some of you may have just groaned, "oh yeah, that thing all the teenagers and college students are addicted to these days." And it's true. There are many students - and professionals - both young and old, who are spending hours and hours with each other inside this world. I personally know that the age ranges from teens to 70s. It is an addiction, no doubt about it. I too have been enraptured many weekends until the early hours, lost in it.

Here's a quick lesson on what it's like: You create a character, in a mythical race (think elf, dwaft, orc, etc.the whole Lord of the Rings motif). You select a path, a specialty: warrior, magic user, priest or something in between. These choices, along with your ongoing experiences graduation to higher levels builds a being with unique strengths. Your monitor becomes a window into an amazingly beautiful and immensely complex and huge world-my estimate is around 300 square miles. Every patch of ground, every rock, even the sky, has been meticulously tailored. High quality sound surrounds you, wind, animals, insects, rushing water, chainmail-clad feet crunching through fresh snow, you name it. And one thing reality ought to have, a very nice soundtrack that matches each territory you venture into.

You receive tasks ("quests") from people that you run into. Upon completion, you receive rewards in currency, clothing, weapons and experience. The most difficult the task, the more experience. You gain experience to go up in levels. With each level comes new abilities and opportunities.

Certainly the big attraction is fighting various beasts: wolves, bears, spiders, human criminals, ogres, and so on. You find rare treasures and solve simpler versions of DaVinci-code-style mysteries. You can join with others in ad hoc or established groups ("guilds"). Optionally, you may live in a world where you also fight other players who have chosen character races from the "other side." The built-in animosity between these two great camps (including a artificially generated language barrier) acts as the truly random variable in the game. Death, when it comes, is merely a nuisance, but still sucks. You find yourself a disembodied spirit in a graveyard, and have to run (as a ghost) some distance back to find your corpse and "ressurect" near that spot. Sometimes that can take 10 minutes. In game time, it is truly a form of purgatory.

So why am I using my libertarian soapbox to review a computer game? I could conjure up some ineffectual commentary on how this may be our first step into "The Matrix," which in some ways I believe it is. No, what fascinates me is why it is such a powerful addiction. Surely your average teenager enjoys donning armor and wielding swords and fighting battles (by the way, there's a conspicuous lack of anything sexual here, but there is digital booze!). But I also know several intelligent, successful adults who have given up on TV (even cable!) and AOL chat rooms to spend long hours living in WoW. I also know parents of those lost inside it too, and I have heard of entire technical support crews spending entire shifts battling in some dungeon (ask them if they can reset your password before the slain creatures respawn).

I think WoW addicts so strongly because it is an escape into a world that we truly could have . Well, minus the dragons. But there is something else, this game is teaching . It is teaching in a big way.

Everyone who enters this world learns the following sooner or later:

  • You are responsible for yourself (your education, food, success and relationships)
  • Growth does not come instantaneously and without practice
  • Learning is for those who make the effort to find and compensate good teachers
  • You have to choose what to focus on, or else be mediocre at everything
  • Sometimes you just have to rest and let it go for a while
  • The monetary value of something is only set by the market. It changes based on how many people want it and how much is available
  • Using the unique strengths of each person in a group can produce amazing results.
  • You can do good things for others, but you also make sure that you do not sacrifice yourself in the process
  • You can't control everything

Here are some more amazing things people learn from WoW that aren't taught in most Government schools:

If you want to learn how to cook, you must find, make or buy the ingredients and a recipe. OK, so this is a lame example, but I know about 30 recipes in WoW. I can barely cook in the real world. In WoW, good food can keep you (and your friends) alive.

If you want a sword or a car or a Macintosh computer, you have to mine ore from the ground, and convert it into a useable metal. Sometimes this takes many steps and other ingredients and a lot of work.

Leather comes from animal skins. Yes, a nasty business. But waste is also bad (you slay it, you flay it).

Someone sews your clothes, either here or in China. The best clothes require the best materials and the best craftsmen.

Learning a skill, like playing the violin or swinging a tennis racket or a two-handed sword, takes time.

Making anything remotely complex requires the efforts of many people.

Many people of common purpose can defeat a more powerful enemy.

This is great stuff. This is the world we truly could have . What are we missing in our lives that causes the addiction? A world of achievement based on the depth of your character, not the whiteness of your teeth; learning from teachers who inspire, who can teach what they really know; the possibility of endless growth and adventure; strong communities of friends with grand memories to share.

Perhaps I have read too much into the design and motives of this game. After all, it has its roots in the stories and techniques of Dungeons and Dragons, the pencil, paper and multi-sided dice game that first invaded college campuses in the late 1970's. WoW is the logical internet-based automation of all that. I wanted to find out for sure, but my request for an interview with Blizzard Entertainment, the manufacturer of WoW, remains sadly unanswered. Whether or not geeks turned businessmen (5 million users times $15 per month) have a great social/political agenda shall remain a mystery, like how to get those magical plates from the castle of Uldaman. But now, when leaving this digital world, albeit at 3am on occasion, I become more fascinated with the real world. I think about learning to hammer metal on an anvil, seeing how steel is made from iron and coke, chemical processing, leathermaking, glassblowing.and on and on. Investigating the real world equivalent of all these lost or ignored arts.

Try something. As you read this, look around the room and think about all the things that you use in your daily life and ask yourself if you know how it is made or how you would make it. Think about a natural disaster, say like a hurricane, that ruins our sources of production or energy. Are we prepared? Is that acceptable? What hard earned wisdom from all the generations of our mothers and fathers are we letting rot day after day while watching Fox? The residents of WoW, like almost anyone who lived over 100 years ago, had to know to make, grow, or find everything they needed to survive. What do we have in our advanced modern life? The equivalent of my favorite quote from Brave New World is the answer to the question, "where do chemicals come from? The chemical store."

Can we justify ever saying we are bored - with all the technologies, customs, languages, history, religions, instruments, weapons, sports, and crafts there are to learn? And yes, we have this thing you surfing, the Internet, that lays it at your doorstep. At least where to find it, thank Google.

The last question you might ask about WoW is: how do you win? The answer is the same as life. You don't. You choose to do and act. You grow or perish or become something inconsequential in between. You can choose to bond with others or be alone. You can spend your time seeking glory and end up broke or without skills. You can spend all your time making money, but have goals you are passionate about. You may try to live in books, but without the real world to test it, your knowledge may be worthless.

These are good lessons. Here's the funny part. There are people who either outright try to cheat (get money, clues) or demand that the rules be relaxed for those who play fewer hours or "have to work for a living." They still don't get it. The fun and pain of it (and life) is in the doing. So what if it takes longer to get to be a level 60 Warrior?

And I just might take up cooking.