Long time readers of "All the World's a Stage" may remember that I wrote an earlier series of three articles, called "WoW is a Work of Art," which I viewed as a kind of launch pad for this column about roleplaying. The first article talked about how when my mom came down with a very serious form of brain cancer, I had to put other things in my life on hold in order to come back to the US and take care of her. I was happy to do this, of course -- it was an honor to be able to be there for my mother when she needed me, but I won't pretend it was very much fun. Cancer is a terrible disease that wreaks havoc on one's body and emotions all in one big punch. Roleplaying in WoW was one of the social activities I could do for fun at that time, a little world I could enjoy without actually having to leave my home and the loved one that I was caring for.
Last weekend, the life of my mother was very visibly coming to a close. As the deadline for this column approached, I asked for leave (incidentally the first weekend since almost two years ago with no article in this column), and spent every moment with her I could. She died on Monday afternoon, leaving me an inheritance of countless feelings and thoughts which I shall undoubtedly explore for the rest of my life.
Among many other realizations and ideas that have come to mind, I realized that my roleplaying career had come full circle. My decision to play WoW and eventually write about it had begun with my mother's cancer, and now that this cancer had finally taken her life, I wondered, how has this roleplaying contributed to my real life? Has it made me a better person? When I eventually lie on my deathbed as my mother did, will I feel thankful to have roleplayed in WoW the same way my mother felt thankful for all of her experiences in life?
My wife and I took up the task of going through my mother's old photos and deciding what to do with them. In the process, we found countless pictures of her standing in front of one natural spectacle after another: mountains, valleys, forests, and plateaus. One picture showed her and some friends standing in front of a big gate, presumably to a natural park of some sort, with the words, "through this portal pass lovers of nature" inscribed along the top of the arch.
I imagine my future children and their spouses one day sifting through my old computer files and finding these articles, along with some screenshots I took of my characters in WoW, and maybe even a few actual photographs of me sitting in front of my computer screen playing the game. But none of this will capture my feeling I had as I navigated my way through the forest-maze of Ashenvale and looked up at the gigantic trees there, or stood atop Freewind Post and looked out upon the stone spires of Thousand Needles, nor even the fun I had buying my first epic flying mount and soaring about the skies of Outland. Was my feeling real? Is the fun I experienced walking through a virtual world in any way comparable to my mom's experience of the real thing?
Some would say, "no, a man-made virtual world could never compare to the real world -- playing a computer game is therefore a waste of time." But something tells me such a person has not understood the power of a game like WoW: the power to reflect the world through a new lens and understand it in a new way. The same way that my mother took pictures that represented her experiences in nature, and filled her home with paintings and photographs of natural places, a virtual world filled with man-made "natural" wonders has given me a representation of the natural world that appeals to me, and connects me to the great mystery that is beauty.
But if all WoW had was beautiful sights to see, most of us would have just visited those places and then stopped playing it a long time ago. WoW is interesting because it is filled with people, and when you play with those people, you have an interaction that means something to you. In a sense, your gaming companions become fellow travelers through a wilderness of challenges and mysteries. You map out strategies for boss fights together, ration out the new equipment you earn, and console one another when disappointment strikes, leaving you unable to accomplish your goals as you had hoped. Whether virtual or real, these shared challenges bind people together in ways that can be temporary or lasting, depending on the choices of the people involved.
Roleplayers form a particularly special bond, because we roam together the wilderness of the imagination. In a good roleplaying group, that bond is one of support, encouragement, tolerance, and fun, in which every member supports every other member to the extent possible. Through my character in game, I was able to explore some of the feelings of grief and loss in a new way, and my guildmates were there for me, both in character and out. I don't believe in dwelling on the unpleasant things of life, but touching on them like in a creative way among supportive friends is a truly beautiful experience.
Looking through the old photos of my mom and her hiking friends, one gets the feeling that these pictures cannot contain the joy she felt seeing those beautiful places with her friends. Mere paper can represent her smile, but it cannot record her spirit. Even my own memories of her cannot last forever -- one day I too will be long gone from this world, and none will remain who knew either my mom or I very well. But the precious gems that do remain from a life passed on are the lessons of joy and beauty that all of us should remember, no matter what our hobbies are or which meaningful activities we engage in.
My mother asked a question last Friday which made me think a lot about a special lesson I will carry for the rest of my life. It was the last day that she could speak clearly, because the following morning her speech became slurred and hard to understand, and it was hard for her to get up the energy to speak at all. All throughout these last stages of her brain cancer, she had countless difficulties -- her body gradually lost all its strength, and forced her to sleep more and more. She couldn't go walking about as she liked, couldn't visit her favorite lake, nor even go around the neighborhood in a wheelchair -- but she didn't let any of this get her down. In a way, those last days were a challenge we overcame together, when I was her companion, helping her find her way on life's last journey. I learned from her that even though she was at death's door, she hadn't stopped taking joy in her life. That Friday, after sleeping most of the day, she woke up at about 6pm, and asked, "So what are we doing for fun today?"
WoW is not an escape from life, it is a reflection of it. It is a journey we walk with our friends, and a memory we carry with us when we log out and come back to the real world. Make it something that you can remember with a smile, not because you played a game, but because you played it with fun, beauty, and kindness for everyone who played along with you. Any hobby you have can and should be, part of a life worth living.