Embarking on my gaming journey, I was a youthful enthusiast in the mid-90s when the gaming industry was almost completely consolidated on the SNES and Sega Genesis. Unfortunately, I lacked those pieces of hardware, equipped only with my family’s shared PC. If I wanted to play Mario, I had to seek refuge at a friend’s house blessed with a SNES. If I wanted an extreme change of pace with a game like Sonic, I had to find a different friend who could give me access to his Sega Genesis. And in both scenarios, I had to take turns with the host, so I spent at least half my time watching instead of playing.
Maintaining these arrangements was extremely taxing for an introvert battling social anxiety. After a few years of these treks from one house to another, I finally got a hold of a gaming experience I could have in my own home: A PC game. Back then, finding a PC game worthy of anyone’s attention was rare, and the ones that existed were the types my Mom wouldn’t let me have, such as Doom and Duke Nukem 3D. Yet, I held to my belief that there were hidden gems amidst the PC gaming rough, as I knew that my family’s shared computer was my best shot at gaming fulfillment within the near future.
With this in mind, I’d eagerly tag along every time my Dad announced his irregular trips to CompUSA, usually for some mundane office supplies. His feigned ignorance about my ulterior motive for joining an office supply run was a running joke between us. We both knew I hoped to discover a worthwhile PC game in the CompUSA bargain bin.
That’s where Warcraft: Orcs and Humans caught my eye, marking the inception of my first franchise-bound fandom. This series has been a constant companion for over 25 years, albeit with minor hiatuses sprinkled throughout. It became a sanctuary, offering familiarity and relaxation. However, this comfort morphed into a gaming prison over time. The familiarity bred complacency, creating barriers to exploring new games and leaving significant gaps in my gaming resume.
My Comfort and Familiarity with World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft (aka WoW) was announced alongside the release of Warcraft 3. I can still vividly see the marketing material in my mind of Warcraft player characters staged in various parts of the jungle that would later be known as Stranglethorn. WoW’s announcement strategically coincided with the next big trend in gaming, Massively Multiplayer Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs, or simply MMOs), with Everquest acting as the frontrunner. MMOs were a relatively new genre; apart from a handful of obscure text-based games from the early 90s, the games in this genre had quickly gained notoriety for being dangerously addictive.
I wasn’t interested in MMOs, though, and I had little desire to play Everquest or any other titles already released. I only cared about Warcraft and its fantasy world known as Azeroth. Having spent years playing Warcraft 1 through 3, I had grown attached to its immersive storyline and lore, chiefly found in the games’ manuals. I was excited by the idea of exploring this world and digging ever deep into the stories it contained. The MMO part of this equation was secondary – it could have been a single-player game for all I cared.
The anticipation of becoming a distinct character within this universe was overwhelming. I found the idea of fighting in the trenches of major battles, swinging swords, and hurling fireballs incredibly exhilarating. Leading up to the release, I lived on the message boards, preemptively joining guilds and gobbling up every small detail that could be squeezed out of the NDA-bound beta testers.
Upon the game’s release, I tore into the content full throttle. Keeping pace with the fastest levelers in my guild, I burned through quests as quickly as I could while still taking the time to immerse myself in the story and world-building that had been painstakingly developed by the creators. My adventures spanned the lengths of the digital planet, exploring dungeons merely for the thrill of first-hand experience, oblivious to whether the resident bosses held any beneficial rewards for my character.
Eventually, I reached what is known as the “end-game” content – a concept all too common in online RPGs and even bleeding into other genres. It’s the point where your character has hit the maximum level, and your mission revolves around conquering bosses lurking in raid dungeons. And not just once – this cycle continues, repeated on a weekly timer, ad nauseam.
This gameplay style never made sense to me, despite it being the bread and butter of the MMORPG game design. As a longtime RPG gamer, the desire to repeatedly defeat the final boss to the point of monotony puzzled me. Except for the New Game+ in games like Chrono Trigger, my replays of any conquered game were typically interspersed by months or years, not repeated like clockwork every Tuesday for a year.
Despite my aversion to the game’s most popular feature, I discovered gameplay niches that captivated me for years. I found myself drawn to Player vs. Player (PvP) action, both in Battlegrounds and the open world and later ventured into Arenas. Dabbling in light role-playing added a social dimension to my gameplay. While I seldom participated in weekly raid schedules, dungeons and raids became part of the diverse content I’d intermittently engage with.
Fast-forward 18 years from when I began playing WoW, and I realize that for 17 of those years, I’ve had the same main character. If my Warrior character, born in 2005, were a real person, he’d now be old enough to drive. And, like driving, playing as this character is something I can now do on cruise control.
Gaming to Escape Reality
Much like the game, my reasons for retreating into Azeroth from everyday life have evolved yet remained constant in many ways. Initially, as an introverted teenager, I used WoW as a social platform in an era before Facebook or even Myspace had taken off as they have now. In college, it served as an escape from tedious coursework. As an adult, it has become my sanctuary to decompress after work or stressful social gatherings. Its role as a refuge remains unrivaled amongst all games I’ve played. Why is that? There are better games out there by a large margin; it may not even be the best MMORPG available now.
The answer lies in its fulfillment of two crucial criteria.
- Longevity – WoW has been around longer than any other game I’ve played. It is not just a game that I can dust off after years, but rather one that has consistently introduced new content and maintains its relevance. It offers a blend of familiarity and novelty – a combination that seems to satisfy the subtle cravings of my ADHD-afflicted brain. This balance keeps me from feeling overwhelmed while offering something new and intriguing to explore regularly.
- I don’t have to learn new rules. Have you ever sat down with friends to play some of the more elaborate tabletop games that are trending these days? Have your eyes glazed over, and your thoughts become static as someone attempts to explain the complex rules? That’s the sensation I encounter when faced with some of the more recent game releases. Despite positive reviews, I hesitated to tackle the learning curve of an entirely new game when a familiar one was readily available.
It’s these two main points that make WoW the ultimate comfort game to me. Like those who have their go-to TV shows perpetually playing in the background, I always keep WoW installed and ready to launch, no matter how many other new and exciting games there are to play. WoW is my Friends, or The Office, or Seinfeld. While new games might be great and likely superior to WoW at this point, they don’t offer those two essential components for a person too mentally or emotionally exhausted to invest themselves in an entirely new experience.
The Familiarity Principle as it Applies to Gaming
Looking back, my attachment to WoW reflects Robert Zajonc’s ‘familiarity principle’ or the ‘mere-exposure effect.’ According to this principle, coined by Zajonc in the ’60s, humans develop preferences for things due to familiarity. As we age, our inclination for familiarity often outstrips our youthful drive for novelty and exploration.
Initially, this concept would have applied to preferences in diet, music, and movies. With the maturing video game industry and its aging gamer population, we see it unfold in this new domain.
In my younger years, my gaming appetite was voracious and indiscriminate. If a game existed, I wanted to play it, often bouncing from console to console, house to house, just to get a taste of every gaming experience I could find. The thrill of a new game, the joy of mastering its mechanics, and the anticipation of its uncharted territories filled me with indescribable excitement.
However, as the years piled on, so did the responsibilities and realities of adult life. The seemingly endless energy and time I once had began to dwindle, and so did my appetite for the constant novelty of new games. Yet my love for gaming didn’t wane. Instead, it evolved, morphing into an unhealthy dependence on a single game.
In the sprawling world of Azeroth, I found a balance between the familiar and the new. The familiarity principle meant that every log-in was like returning home, yet the game’s consistent updates meant there was always something new around the corner. The more I played, the more familiar and comforting it became—a cycle of attachment that intensified with each rotation.
The Benefits of Staying in My Gaming Comfort Zone
There are some upsides to staying in my comfort zone, especially as someone who grew up with undiagnosed ADHD. One profound source of regret, frustration, and low self-esteem often originates from my struggle to maintain hobbies, activities, or newly learned skills. This recurring struggle intensifies the challenge of embracing new experiences, as past failures fuel my hesitation to overcome fresh obstacles.
With that in mind, WoW stands out as an exception to my usual pattern of abandonment. It became an avenue where I could genuinely experience a sense of mastery and achievement, becoming highly skilled and knowledgeable within the game’s universe. Constantly hopping from game to game might have offered novelty and a broader array of experiences. Still, it could also have exacerbated my feelings of failure stemming from inconsistency and lack of perseverance.
Although I’ve primarily been a casual player throughout my time in WoW, there have been instances when I managed to stretch my abilities to their limits and engage with the community on a deeper level. The depth of this engagement has brought satisfaction and crucial boosts to my self-esteem during periods when the pressures of reality bore down with particular intensity.
The Opportunity Cost of Sticking to One Game
Adhering strictly to one game, especially over the span of years, can lead to a unique form of tunnel vision, sidelining the multitude of experiences that other games might offer. This has often been my reality, with my intense commitment to WoW frequently isolating me during conversations about the latest and greatest in gaming.
At social gatherings, friends or acquaintances–who would desperately try to fill awkward silences–would mention the latest games. They would then be confused by how a supposed gamer’s knowledge was so seemingly stunted.
“Have you started Bloodborne yet?”, “How far are you into Breath of the Wild?”, “Man, I just can’t stop playing The Witcher right now.”
I’d nod and offer a noncommittal, “Oh, I’ve heard that’s good,” but beyond that, my input was sparse. At most, I could let them delve into enthusiastic monologues about their latest digital exploits.
When the tables turned, and they’d ask what I’d been playing, the answer was always the same: WoW. However, after so many years, there’s only so much one can say about it, apart from periodic updates on its performance nearly two decades after its release.
I often felt left out, like I was falling behind in my professed hobby and passion. I wondered why I could never find the time or energy others had to start new games every few months. I couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm they had for taking on a new challenge and pouring in hours to race through the content and difficult boss battles.
I’ve realized that striking a balance between the familiar’s comfort and the new’s thrill is integral to a more fulfilling gaming experience. While WoW offers a known sanctuary, I yearned for the youthful excitement accompanying a new Final Fantasy release, the arrival of Diablo 2, or following up on a friend’s game recommendation. The challenge lay in breaking a habit that had held sway over me for the majority of my adult life and convincing myself that the effort invested in learning new games would yield rich rewards in the long run. Should be easy…
Postscript: My Current Stance on WoW and Other Games
It’s been interesting to observe my path away from the unwavering commitment to WoW and to finally touch at least one-third of my Steam library backlog. Yes, I’ve finally branched out and now split my gaming time among several other titles in addition to WoW.
One of my early explorations was the early access for Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord, a sequel to an indie game with which I’d had a brief affair years ago. A wave of nostalgia swept over me as I delved back into this medieval role-playing universe, but it also reminded me of the excitement of trying something different.
My friends and I embarked on an adrenaline-fueled adventure through a series of Battle Royale games, leaping from PUBG to Fortnite and several in between. This took me back to the last time I got heavily invested in first-person shooters (FPS), way back to the first Battlefield title, Battlefield 1942.
Our shared gaming journey took an amusing detour with the introduction of Valheim. Our time in this Viking-inspired survival game may have been brief, but it provided a few memorable moments of sailing shenanigans.
Succumbing to the hype, I joined the ranks of my friends who had eagerly dived into Diablo 4. Immersing myself in Diablo’s lore-rich universe proved to be a refreshing departure from my usual gaming routines. The storytelling in this latest installment was a pleasant surprise, as I hadn’t cared for the plot of D3.
And finally, I took the time to revisit some games left unfinished due to my long tenure in WoW. Most embarrassingly, I finally completed the main quest in Skyrim, a long overdue but satisfying item to check off my gaming to-do list.
That’s not to say that I’ve forsaken WoW entirely. I still return to the world of Azeroth, albeit less frequently and for more extended breaks. However, I’ve noticed a change in my WoW experiences as well. Diving back in after a hiatus can be disorienting, especially with the catch-up mechanics that Blizzard has implemented for players like me who’ve missed a chunk of the current expansion.
Reflecting on the transformation in my gaming habits, I realize that my theory regarding the allure of familiarity in gaming still rings true. The comforting familiarity of WoW continues to exert its magnetic pull. However, I’ve also unearthed the thrill and gratification that accompany branching out—embracing newness, sharing gaming experiences with friends, and savoring the variety the gaming world has to offer.
I hope my journey resonates with others who may feel trapped in their gaming comfort zones. It’s easy for a gaming comfort zone to gradually morph into a gaming rut, limiting your experiences and dampening the initial joy of gaming. But take heart; there is always a way out. Remember the exhilaration of embarking on new adventures and tackling fresh challenges. It’s a feeling that remains within reach, ready to reignite the spark of your gaming passion.