In 2009 Steven Porfiri was accused of never having played a video game before by someone on a GameFAQs message board, and the insult has haunted him ever since. Now, as the Senior Games Writer for Merry-Go-Round Magazine, he’s finally been given a platform to prove that not only has he been playing video games, he writes about them as well. I Played a Game Once is an inside look into what he is playing, and how it has any bearing whatsoever on our current moment. It’s basically like Carrie Bradshaw’s column but with more discussions about save-scumming.
It’s a wild sensation to see something you were aware of in your youth repackaged and sold on the virtue of it being as old as it was. In high school I had friends that were very, very into WORLD OF WARCRAFT, and when The Burning Crusade expansion dropped, it blew their minds. They couldn’t quite fathom what they were dealing with at the time. Or maybe they could? I wasn’t sure—we were in high school and all I got really acclimated to were the references.
It was an interesting skill I developed, being able to pick up on things that were references to something without ever having experienced them myself. I feel like it served me well during that time. But because I never had access to powerful computers or was given an allowance growing up, I never got into WARCRAFT as a youth. I think also my parents knew that I had a penchant for video games and were concerned with the popular depictions of WoW players and other online gamers: sedentary, lazy, socially-repressed, and unhygienic dorks who constantly referred to themselves as elves. And while I still managed to be sedentary and lazy (but with the addition of going to AYSO soccer practices every couple of days), as a Grown-Ass Man I figured now was as good a time as any to see what the game had to offer someone who is only able to see their friends from six feet away and with a mask. Fortunately, I had another friend who had also gotten very into WORLD OF WARCRAFT, who would function as my guide, somewhat, during this time.
The thing about playing WoW with a friend is that Blizzard very much wants you to, but boy howdy they don’t make it easy. The way WARCRAFT is set up, players are on different servers, and if you’re new to the game they just put you on one with other n00bs and tell you to hustle through the tutorial world. So now if you wanna play with a friend you either have to pay money to switch your character over, or make a new one on their server, or they make a new one on yours. And yeah, this is probably the oldest of old news, but I guess I’m not a goddamn NERD.
So this was something I didn’t realize until it was far too late, but fortunately my friend just has level 50-ish characters strategically sprinkled on several different servers. This setup feels bananas to me, personally; the idea of creating and maintaining several different characters across many servers on the off-chance someone wants to play with you on that one? What an odd move. Or maybe it just seems weird because I rarely, if ever, have the desire to play with someone online, nor do I have a teeming community of people at my fingertips who might want to run a dungeon with me if I put out the call. But fortunately, she did, and she had quite a few lying around. She was able to level-sync with me, which meant that her level was knocked down to something my trifling Forsaken character could contend with. The goal of this feature is specifically so that higher-level players can level with their friends on the quests they’re on, without insta-killing every enemy they come across. To get into this system a bit more, what it does is lower the higher-level players to the level cap that the lowest-level character qualifies for.
So for me, a flaccid level 16, that meant my friend was bumped down to level 60, the level cap for the base WORLD OF WARCRAFT. While this was supposed to make things easier for me, I couldn’t help but feel bad. My friend was a mighty warrior! A champion of the Horde, probably! Where did I get off kicking her down to level 60 and stripping her of her abilities and higher-level items? Just so I could play the WORLD OF WARCRAFT: BABY’S DAY OUT expansion? But she was a good sport about it, and followed me around the world as I participated in one of the older questlines from Battle For Azeroth. This pivot was especially galling because I spent money on the newest expansion, Shadowlands, but apparently you can’t access that expansion if you’re a lower-level player. I was unaware of this, and felt like QUITE the fool. Almost doubly so, considering that, according to my friend, Shadowlands is the best expansion since Burning Crusade. Apparently that’s a huge deal!
But… I suppose it kind of makes sense. Apparently in Shadowlands you go to heaven and also hell, so undead me, who still gets their shit rocked by large bears, would not fare the best against the choirs of the empyrean nor the footsoldiers of the damned. (I just checked and I guess there’s more Dead People Places you can end up in should you refuse your walk to your body or pay your spirit healer when you die. But like I said, I didn’t play the expansion, I have no idea what’s going on here.)
I spent my time in the blend of Aztec and Jaimaican cultures that constitute the game’s Troll race. In the Battle for Azeroth campaign, winning over the Trolls was a big item on The Horde’s to-do list. I guess it’s because you want as many races on your side as you can get (Damn Taurens and Pandarens!!!!), but I could also see why you’d want the people who can summon dinosaur gods on your team just as a rule.
Anyway, my dear friend followed me along this story of palace intrigue amongst the Troll high court, explaining concepts about the game’s design and how it works once you’ve poked enough enemies that you can go to the new expansion. A lot of her focus was on the game’s design and the sort of meta-language that develops as you play it for a time.
As a franchise that has simply existed for less time, DESTINY has less of a history of metagame language building on top of itself, so a lot of the concepts presented in WARCRAFT felt like they came from a long line of concepts that had been tested and adjusted. Whether it be playing with friends, auctioning items, finding in-game careers, they all felt like they were based on ideas outside the regular scope of the game’s story. I get a sense, playing WoW, of just how long it’s been around by the extraneous concepts developed to keep players interested. It feels like I’m meddling in ancient affairs I have no business in.
My friend, however, was acquainted with the ins and outs of these arcane concepts and seemed to be able to pass them on pretty easily, despite their rolling immediately off me. Time passed as she explained the game and eventually she had other things to take care of. As she left I still felt pretty overwhelmed with the game. I was interested in continuing my story, but once I’d hit somewhat of an end point I didn’t think I’d ever be back.
But then I mentioned to another associate of mine that I’d started playing WARCRAFT. She was also a big fan and frequent player, so we made time to play together a little bit and see how things went. There were a few hiccups to work out getting everything up and running, similar to last time, but we eventually got it so that we were able to hang out and run quests together.
Similar to my first experience we spent a lot of time talking about how the various systems worked, how players used them in their in-game day-to-day. She had explained to me earlier that one of the things she loves about WoW is that there is always something to do, which lined up with my observation of the different systems and diversions outside of the standard things you might find in a single-player RPG. It seemed like proof that in order to keep the player base interested you’ve got to give them something to do, and some people really enjoy searching for and selling herbs.
She also explained how much time she spends on supplementary WoW sites that are essentially ancient tomes of information, with reams of facts on items like weapons: how to get them, what their drop percentages are, whether they’re worth holding on to or scrapping, etc. etc. Again, it felt overwhelming to me, a wee babe of nary level 20. It felt like the way I was going to play WoW would be similar to the way I’d play DESTINY, by just keeping my head down and bumping my stats until I either finished what story was available or became The Biggest and Strongest.
But something very peculiar happened after I’d gained the ability to fish. This is one of the skills a player can learn as a divergence from combat, along with things like cooking, mining, and tailoring. These are all parts of the “profession” system, and they are further split into primary professions and secondary professions. Fishing is a secondary profession, and characters can learn a (so far) unlimited amount of them, rather than the two primary professions they’re allotted. This was all explained to me as I tried to figure out if there was anything constructive I could do with the junk that was filling up my inventory. These skills all have to be “taught” by specific NPCs, so once we found the fishing trainer, I decided to try it out in the river that was conveniently located next to that character.
My friend joined me, and while we discussed things about the game and she explained some more odds and ends about how it all works together, slowly but surely it became a real conversation. Conversation drifted towards things like our goals in life, our experiences with gaming, and our parents’ attitudes toward it. We were just sitting there, fishing together, and just kind of vibing, as the kids say.
Some of our staff has previously opined on games like DESTINY 2 before as something akin to “work after work.” The gameplay loops of DESTINY 2 and WORLD OF WARCRAFT seem to encourage a grinding style of gameplay that feels at once tedious and addictive, which is kind of why I never felt I was missing out too much on them. But these are different times. People miss other people. For those of us doing our best to remain at home, it’s daunting thinking about how long it’s been since we’ve seen a member of our family or one of our friends in person. Maybe we snuck a quick how-do-you-do after getting mutually tested, but it doesn’t quite fill the social quota that most humans require. So we turn to other methods.
It’s not just in MMOs, sometimes you can make the same kinds of connections with people after a good round of a battle royale. The other night I found myself featured in a nascent Twitch streamer’s channel after a particularly good round of APEX LEGENDS. I was introduced to their friends, educated on their in-jokes and interpersonal relationships, and became more familiar with a stranger than I thought would be possible.
It’s weird to be astounded at the possibility of making a connection with a real person in a video game, but it’s not something I’d readily experienced. It felt like another in-game system altogether, and explained to me how these communities that exist around the game have grown and what binds them together. Sometimes you just want to get on with a buddy and fish, dang it. In a time where seeing a friend or family member requires thorough threat-level calculus to see what the risk is and if it’s even worth it to wave from six feet away, the option to log on and chat with a friend is a super appealing one.