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World of Warcraft's peculiar time dilation

Matthew Rossi

When you've been playing a game as long as some of us have been playing World of Warcraft, you get some unusual moments of realization. One of them occurred to me recently, when talking about the upcoming 9th Anniversary of the game this November 23rd. The person I was talking to said "Yeah, my mom showed me how to play, I used to fish for her on her hunter" and it came out that said person was 21 years old, and that she has been playing the game since she was thirteen. She has effectively grown up in Azeroth, at least part time - nearly half of her life has been spent playing this game.

Meanwhile, with each expansion the game has lost some players and gained others - there are people who started playing in Cataclysm and even people who started play this year (I know, I've met quite a few of them) and many of them have no idea how to even go about absorbing all that happened in those nine years. To people who've played all along, it all happened - it's part and parcel of the game, it's history we experienced. But to new players, the sheer volume of it all can be daunting - I've had players comment with disbelief when told about 40 man raiding, who don't really grasp just how many times class mechanics have been changed and revamped and altered. One healer simply couldn't grasp the concept of an out-of-combat resser, a healing character who stood back out of range of boss fights and resurrected people who died over and over again. For me, the trippy part of that conversation was reading a 21 year old relate stories of Molten Core to this newer player and realize they were stories of what she was doing in grammar school.

Of course, for me WoW is a game I discovered in my 30's. My early thirties, come to think of it, and now I'm well out of that decade. So we're all aging, but the proportion of time we spent playing the game is different - for me WoW is just one of many games I've played, and certainly not almost half of my lifespan.

World of Warcraft's peculiar time dilation

Still, there are so many variations - players who've come in for each expansion, and each of them a different age. There's older players who started in Mists, and younger ones who've played since BC or even before (as my story before illustrates) and with the game having lasted nearly a decade, these combinations form a strange kind of time dilation when discussing the game with its players. I find myself sharing more in common with the 21 year old who was playing in MC at 13 than I do with the person my age who joined in Cataclysm - we have a shared vocabulary of the ridiculous and sublime moments from Vanilla to now, a language we can speak that is only partially shared. In a strange way, we're both old in terms of the game, having seen all of it unfold.

As an aside, I find transmogrification helps create a real feeling of disconnect for me sometimes. Seeing an Ashkandi on my back while I'm wearing a mix of warrior Tier 6 and Tier 10, or my current Hellreaver with a mix of Naxx 25, Dragon Soul and Throne of Thunder gear, for instance. Don't get me wrong, I'm an absolute fiend for transmog, but it still helps give me that weird sense of being a visitor from a strange time exploring history. Like the Doctor, but with a lot more dragon murdering.

I've noticed this as I've moved around guilds - when your raid leader's started playing is often deduced by how they explain fights. I had one raid leader who explained every single new fight using BWL and AQ fights as the diced up components - "Oh, this boss does a thing like C'thun, except there's two of them sweeping around, don't let them hit you" while another of my raid leaders (who had, admittedly, been playing for years) just explained every fight as being like an ICC fight. It almost seemed like he picked the fights at random, just because he thought in ICC fights. For him, every raid was ICC, he'd learned to raid there and he'd never really left it.

This is not unique to WoW, I'm sure any game that's lasted as long or longer has similar stories. What is unique to this game, however, is how these 'generations of play' are not only of various ages, but they often mix and mingle in current play. I currently raid with people of all age ranges, and a variety of game experiences, from people who remember the Suppression Room with a shudder to people who started in early Cata - we're all experiencing the current content, yet bringing our own weird biases and preconceptions and experiences of the game to bear. Some people learned to raid in Wrath, others after, others before. Sometimes I almost feel like having raided in Vanilla is a bit of a handicap in today's raiding, because fights like Paragons of the Klaxxi make fights like Garr look ludicrously simplistic. I like to think that my experience is useful, but sometimes I worry it just makes me complain too much when stuff changes. Then again, as was helpfully pointed out to me last night, I've had to learn to play the game all over again every expansion anyway, so how calcified can I possibly get? WoW today is very, very different than it was when that 12 year old was fishing for her mom and running Molten Core. On a school night.

Seriously who would let their kid run MC on a school night? It was like six hours a clear back then. And that was a reasonable pace, too.

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