My childhood has one major event that divides it and so I tend to think of my life in pre and post terms: When I started playing the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) known as World of Warcraft (WoW). This year I turned 31, and it occurs to me that this is for me 17 A.WoW (After WoW). Let me explain.
My parents raised me in the religion known as Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs), and so my relationships with others came with stipulations. At school, per the instruction of my parents, I had to keep as much distance with my peers as I realistically could and was not allowed to forge anything approaching a meaningful relationship with my classmates. My parents made it clear that I was not to make friends with the other kids. They were merely my classmates, with whom I was forced to spend time only because of schooling requirements. Friendships were reserved only for fellow JWs. However, due to my dad’s involvement in the religion as an Elder, he was privy to a lot of people’s private lives and thus deemed many of them “bad association.” I had one friend with whom I spent a few days during school vacations but that was it.
My daily schedule consisted of getting up, going to school, coming home, doing my homework, and the remaining free time I had playing video games on one of the Nintendo consoles we owned. On the days set aside for JW activities, I finally got out of the house but alas, it was only to go knock on doors or attend meetings at our Kingdom Hall. My parents were very restrictive with where we could go and with whom we could spend time. Even my dad’s parents were mostly off-limits to us. My only real connection to the world outside my home came through the stories in the multitude of books I read, and the fantasies created by the video games I played.
At home, things weren’t much better. My brother and I fought constantly, usually over who got access to the video games at a given moment. My sister and I didn’t share many interests and time spent with her felt like a chore, a sentiment that I regret to this day. My mom and I usually got along when she wasn’t forcing me to spend a good chunk of my free time in bible study. This began from the moment I could read, for which I resented her for at the time. Lastly, my dad’s authoritarian approach to parenting combined with an extra dose of JW “must protect my family from Satan’s wicked world” fearmongering proved to be a constant source of tension in my young life. My familial ties were strained at best. My relationships with nearly everyone in my life were superficial at best.
We had the house rule that if we wanted to watch TV, play video games, or play on the computer we had to ask for permission after our household chores were completed. We had a Super Nintendo and a Gameboy for as long as I can remember, and my brother and I kept up with the new releases through the GameCube. We also had a few games on the computer that we enjoyed playing, including a Star Wars rail shooter that would be the inception of my love for the franchise. For as long as I can remember we always had a computer in the house, and from the corner it silently beckoned until I finally brought it into my life full-time.
Computers were somewhat a constant part of my childhood. My dad had purchased a home computer and had Internet access to try and expand the reaches of the family business, a wood box factory that had already been dead for over a decade by the time I came along in the early 90s. He was also able to use this technology in his duties as an Elder for the church to which we belonged. He must have also personally enjoyed learning how to use it, as he became quite adept at navigating Windows 3.1 and MSDos. For me too, there was something I found so fascinating about the computer as I learned how it operated. Being able to type up the endless stories my mind could conjure occupied a lot of my time. Or sometimes I would just draw in MS Paint for no reason other than I enjoyed it. When my dad upgraded to a Windows 98 tower, it came with a few more games that we also enjoyed. And I don’t even have to explain to my fellow millennials how many of us cut our computing teeth on Windows XP.
Where I grew up in Washington state offers students the option of running start, to begin college as juniors in high school, of which my brother excitedly took advantage. Being a young man in college with a driver’s license and some money from working summer jobs he purchased a laptop. My brother’s “friends” at school had gotten him into more serious PC gaming. He is four years older than me, so I was delighted that his growing autonomy resulted in my growing autonomy as a byproduct. This autonomy was mostly expressed (for me) by taking into my own hands what games I would play.
At the urgings of his friends, we expanded our video game interests outside of Nintendo and into PC gaming. My brother also introduced me to emulation, which opened video games that were previously inaccessible to me. A decade prior one of my friends had introduced me to A Link to the Past and my parents had summarily shut it down. I silently resented them for years for not letting me venture beyond the family-friendly constraints of Mario. The games I was allowed to try were minimal, as my parents closely monitored what we played. Playing Zelda on an emulator was my own way of establishing my independence.
Some friends from church had recommended the game “Knights of the Old Republic” to my brother, and as blossoming Star Wars fans we immediately got hooked on it. As our insatiable appetite for content kept expanding, my brother and I would start playing sim type games, role-playing games, and even an FPS game: Star Wars Jedi Knight Jedi Academy. In addition to the single player, the multiplayer mode offered hours of fun, even with computer generated AI alone. Shocker I know. If we weren’t even allowed to play ALttP, how the heck was this allowed? With cash in our pockets from working since we were single digits years old (another story, for another time), and a computer away from the prying eyes of our parents, finally we could make some personal choices over what we would play.
My dad finally upgraded us to high-speed Internet at the request of my brother, posing it as a necessity for doing his college coursework. My dad had at one point been marginally interested of the latest tech trends, having owned a home computer since the 1980s. Yet he was increasingly hesitant to allow anything into the home over which he did not have full control as my brother and I got older. His suspicion of new technologies bordered on pathologic. Even so, my dad reluctantly agreed, and we got high speed Internet at home. Around the same time due to life circumstances, the family business tanked and at the age of 45 he was forced to change careers. He was mostly absent from my life from the ages of 12 to 18. It is ironic that he would end up giving us kids unfettered access to the Internet, which would prove to be the butterfly effect that eventually led to my exit from the witnesses. (The reasons for this are also another story for another day.) The most dumbfounding thing is that my parents actually let me have my computer in my bedroom. How this was allowed, I will never know.
One of the first things I did with highspeed internet was play my favorite Star Wars game online. The in-depth lightsaber combat made me feel like I was a Jedi, and the bots were no longer a challenge. I wanted to test my skills against humans. At first my brother and I promised each other we would only play lightsabers and not interact with the other players. (Remember, my parents were not aware of any of this, and most certainly would not have allowed it had they but known. My brother and I had enough programming of the rules of our parents to put our own limits on what we were doing.) It wasn’t long before the human aspect of online gaming became the means to access something I had been silently craving my entire life, a desire for which I didn’t even know I had: friends. These 1300 words finally lead me back to where this is heading. The chance to play a game online gave me access to the community I had longed for my entire life. I started meeting people from all over the world and would spend hours in-game text chatting with them. I eventually even joined a clan and started chatting with the other members outside of the game, through message boards or Xfire (a gaming app that is kind of a precursor to Discord).
After almost two years, I had become quite adept at hiding my cyber activities from my parents. I had a good number of people whom I considered friends, and we regularly discussed any sort of topic, ranging from school to politics to even religion. My confidence started to grow to the point it bled into my IR-life. I finally allowed myself to be friends with the other kids at school and started enjoying a measure of popularity with the other students. This is what my life had been missing! It is here we finally return to the point of this post: the major dividing point of my childhood, my involvement with the game World of Warcraft.
For those in the know, the cultural phenomenon that was WoW in the mid-to-late 2000s needs no explanation. Having done no research on the topic, my guess would be the growing availability and popularity of high-speed Internet combined with how much the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movie trilogy had popularized fantasy worlds in pop culture, WoW struck a chord with millions of people. Everyone was playing it, from the overworked and overstressed wife and mother of 5 kids to middle and high schoolers sneaking into their bedrooms to raid at 3 am, hours before they had to get up for school. At its peak, over 12 million people were logging into the game. (For context, the country of Bolivia has around 12 million population as of 2022). I’m not sure if any veritable research has ever examined this period and what drew such large crowds of people to the game. But I know what drew me in: Community.
I initially started with friends I had made from the Jedi Academy days but transitioned into a bigger community once in the game. Clans of a few dozen became guilds with sometimes 100s of members. There were nights I would log into the game and just chat with my fellow guildmates while questing. I met people from all over the world. However, this newfound community came with its own drawbacks. I had become the “rebel without a cause” teenager as I no longer cared about anything other than hanging with my new friends in Azeroth. I didn’t care about my schooling. I didn’t care about Jehovah’s Witnesses. I didn’t care about my future.
I had always been a top student leading into middle school but realized that the void in my life that friends and community were finally filling was way better than homework or even attending class every day. My grades slipped. I was sleeping 2-3 hours per night. Many mornings I would wake up and feign sickness, and have my mother call into the school for me. My teachers, who I got along with when I did attend class, must have realized that there was something else going on as they bent over backwards to make sure I didn’t fall behind in class. My freshman and first half of my sophomore year of high school are a giant blur. All I remember doing is playing WoW.
The reason why this Before- and After-WoW thing is fundamental to me understanding my life is that the majority of the really bad interactions with my dad happened B.Wow. The endless fights, the physical altercations, the sometimes hours long screaming sessions where my dad systematically tore into every facet of my character. All of the negative things I hold onto about myself and my relationships with others came from before this period as it stopped around the same time I started gaming online. That means I was 13. That means my dad thought that having intellectual debates or getting into fist fights with a literal child was the best way to parent. It probably didn’t help that I physically outgrew him by the time I was 12.
Around March of 2007 my dad finally intervened after two years of a pretty severe Internet gaming addiction. Someone had given him the idea to install tracking software on our home router and he had a pretty good idea of what my brother and I were up to. The stress had changed my dad however. The night he confronted us I was expecting my old dad; yelling, emotional abuse, probably even some physical abuse. But he was eerily calm. He accidentally handled the situation the best way any parent could. The computer came out of my room, Internet was limited to one computer in the living room, and being cut off from the community I had built I was forced to return to the one thing I was good at: school.
This has been on my mind for quite some time. In 2019 I attended a panel at PAX Seattle where they talked about “gaming addiction” and the powers-that-be wanting to make it an official diagnosis. In my own limited case, I can point to what fueled my “addiction” and it was anything but an insurmountable desire to play a video game. It was filling a need I had never had met my entire life: community. And with online gaming having become as common as anything else, gaming has actually become a more accepted way to fill this need than it was 17 years ago for me.
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