While I’ve been away, I learned to play World of Warcraft, not very well (level 46 Night Elf, a level 10 Troll named GoatEater, and a level 7 Rogue named Wllndorf). My friend, Gamer taught me to play. Away from my friend’s taunting and frequent retorts of “Such a noob!” the snowy world of the rogue is a peacefully quiet, almost meditative environment. Doing quests and running dungeons with the elf is more visually stunning; Elune’s temple and the city of Darnassus are beautifully awash in the colors one associates with airbrushed renderings of Pegasus flying over rainbows, and being able to fly a Hippogryph over an animated ocean as the sun sets over ships docked at Teldrassil is a virtual experience that’s worth making it to level 20 (or maybe that was the prerequisite for getting a “mount”—mine a white saber tooth, which looks like a huge tiger). It is exactly this sort of slipshod attention to the details of the game that most annoys the gamer buddy who introduced me to the virtual world.
Gamer buddy thinks the details of the game lie in gear scores, one’s ability to remember that “stam buff” means Fortitude spell, knowing which characters are able to pick locks. Apparently it is important to have a guild because there are benefits associated with membership. So far, I have only been able to make use of the guild to the extent that I know whom to pair with for dungeon runs based on the guild membership list that includes character levels. (A 46 can’t be paired with an 80 in a random dungeon. No need for despair, Whobbs has offered his services as my tank!)
One night on the docks of Darkshore, a level 80 Night Elf approached my friend and I and chatted us up. We ran a few quests, told a few jokes. My friend excused himself to run a raid, and I was left chatting with Kainis alone on the docks. We “friended” one another in the game. Soon after Kainis checked in with me whenever he saw I was “ingame.” Which was helpful.
One of the pitfalls of being a “noob” is that finding your way back to the entrance of the dungeon (in which a fire monster, troll, or scarlet zombie monk has just smote you) can be next to impossible, especially if the charming man who has introduced you to the game fails to mention that the little torches leading away from the burial ground will take you directly back to the dungeon. Or maybe, I’m just too big a “lame fail noob tard” to have figured that one out on my own.
Kainis would frequently ask how I ended up in the middle of nowhere (since he could see my location on his friend list), and he would talk me back to the dungeon or the cemetery depending on how much I wanted to continue pretending I knew how to play. (From the cemetery a player can resurrect with the angel who hovers there, transport “home,” and be done with the dungeon run.)
One night I’m playing in a dungeon I’ve never been to before and whose burial ground is in the middle of some crazy desert landscape with cliffs, and I am so lost for so long that my dungeon mates have “kicked” me. Not only am I running around a desert full of monsters who want to kill me, but I have no one to ask for help because once the group “kicks” you, you can’t talk to them anymore. Out of nowhere Kainis messages me: “I see you’re in the middle of nowhere. What are you doing out there? Are you lost again?”
Being the knightly dungeon master that he is, he offers to come to me and help me home. He does find me and leads our toons to the top of a cliff where the toons lie down beside one another and we proceed to talk about the sort of thing single men and women discuss when they find themselves alone under a desert sky atop a cliff. I confess: I talked dirty online with Kainis, which may or may not be his real or assumed name either in real life or in game.
“But wait!” you say. “You are not single and the night sky is not real. Further, you are not a night elf, nor are you six feet tall and weight maybe 140 pounds with a huge portion of your total weight being devoted to your gravity defying purple cleavage!”
Cognitive dissonance, I believe, may be the term we’re looking for here. It is and it isn’t. It’s real, but it’s not. It feels real, but it doesn’t count in the same way meeting the real man behind the toon, Kainis, at a hotel midday would count. Or does it?
This may be a quaint confession in the minds of some. Twenty years ago a friend confessed to me that he liked to call 900 number chat lines to masturbate while talking with women who he was fairly certain were middle-aged pros who could no longer support themselves on the street. In my mind, there is a parallel here—anonymity, assumed personas and pretend bodies (every penis huge, every woman beautiful), the gentleman’s agreement inherent in the zipless fuck (that agreement being continued anonymity and emotional detachment), the pay-to-play element of gaming and 900 numbers—and the parallel is unsavory. I couldn’t take communion the next day because the act of contrition in every mass just didn’t seem adequate to my sin. In my mind, I had been intimate with another man. My husband thought I was being silly. It’s nothing like actually being intimate, he said; it’s virtual.
Virtual. But it feels real.
My trash-talking gamer friend talks trash on-line like an adolescent boy. Trash Talk, it seems, is the lingua franca of the gaming world, combining entries from The Urban Dictionary website with dozens style assignations. Gamer delighted himself with introducing “me” as “a top into chocolate sauce”—which is not anything you would want to be introduced as (unless your fetishes ran in that direction—think German shitze films, which I feel compelled to note I’ve never seen and in which I have no interest). My toon fell into the role of providing comic relief: My elf would ask, “Are we talking about ice cream? I prefer chocolate ice cream, no topping, or vanilla with fruit, but I’m really a savory foods person. I like my fat with salt, not sugar” to the virtual howls of my dungeon group.
There are many things I’d never seen prior to entering the virtual world of gaming and gamers. The Internet certainly gets its freak on. Lemon Party, Goatse, and Tub Girl are iconic images of hardcore fetish the savvy send as links to noobs. The unsuspecting open the link and freak out, to the delight of the epic. Lemon Party didn’t freak me out—just seemed like a threesome of middle-aged men enjoying one another’s company naked. I have no judgments about Goatse, but I do worry for him; while it is his body, that can’t be healthy. Something about Tub Girl just doesn’t seem consensual, and that really bothers me, as does the dark video involving a man and a horse in Seattle. I sincerely hope the accompanying news stories are a hoax—otherwise, I have been unwittingly duped into watching a snuff film. My imagination, my sexuality, I don’t run anywhere near as dark as that stuff. If images leave the realm of the consensual and enter the realm of the tragic, I don’t want anything to do with them. Unfortunately, once you’ve seen something, you’ve seen something.
Have I done something though? How responsible am I for the feelings of the man lurking somewhere out there behind Kainis? Is it possible to hurt someone in the virtual world? Am I accountable for the promises my toon makes? I think the answer to all those questions is “YES, absolutely.”
My impression, though, is that many people would argue with me. They would say the lack of accountability is the point of the virtual world. They would say it’s all theater, make-believe play, pretend. They would say the power of the virtual world lies precisely in its ability to nullify the signifiers at play in real social interaction: class, race, gender, education, beauty, experience, age, geography, you name it. In the virtual world, we are who we say we are and no one will know any different. In the virtual world, I look like Angelina Jolie in Hackers and I’m a super smart, super confident 29 year-old vixen who owns not only her own sexuality, but likes to make anyone who takes an interest in it into her bitch. I wear shiny shiny, shiny boots of leather online.
Over the last few months I’ve “met” many new people—a stunning variety of personalities. Scuutor was especially helpful ingame; he helped me with gearing up my toon and explained some of the benefits of guild membership. My game realm, Proudmore is home to LGBT gamers. One member of the guild was a 16 year old exploring her real world options in the virtual world of gaming. She had a girlfriend in the real world, but allowed as how boys were not icky entirely. The adults in the guild, of whom I may have been the youngest, surrounded her protectively. The tone and content of conversation shifted rapidly to coming out stories and college entrance essays as soon as she revealed her age. The members of BloodBathandBeyond are models of virtual accountability and ethical behavior.
Some relationships I’m still confused about for a variety of reasons. “Stranger” may be ready to hire an attorney and sue me, or he may just be pushing for more talk of the sort we started out throwing at one another. Whichever the case, my husband said, block this guy. And I did, but not from chat. Because the conversation we shared was intense and edgy, part of me feels responsible for whatever psychodrama I lifted the curtain on. While we were talking, he asked if I were “real,” and I answered, “Yes, I’m real,” but I qualified that I was “playing” with him. “Pretend,” as any actor will tell you, feels “real” whether it’s in person or online, physical or virtual. And then he said something to me that I had said to my gamer friend; “It feels real, though.” If he needs to talk with me again, he can.
When I said, “It feels real, though” to my gamer friend, he had reduced me to tears ingame. By that, I mean I was sitting alone at my keyboard with tears trickling down my face typing furiously about how unfair he was being. I was frustrated and my feelings were hurt. I was trying so hard to master World of Warcraft, and nothing I did that night met with anything but taunts and criticism from him in the public chat line of the dungeon group.
Even in a pretend world, levels of public and private disclosure are in play. It was one thing for Gamer to taunt me through private “whispers,” quite another to be dressed down in front of the dungeon party or, worse, on the trade lines, which broadcast to the entire virtual city. Before I learned these distinctions, I accidentally told one of those stories (for which we only use the “whisper” feature of messaging in real life) on the guild chat. Or, at least, I think I did. When one of the female guild members whispered, “Are you ok?” in response to what I thought I had told only Gamer, I realized my mistake. I was too embarrassed to pursue confirming my gaffe, and rapidly realized that no one but Gamer knew who I really am, in real life. How embarrassed can I be on behalf of my toon? She isn’t me, after all, is she?
“In real life,” IRL in the virtual world shrouds itself in hazy golden light. In the virtual world, to reveal one’s irl self is to invite the possibility of irl friendship. Irl friendship is revered online. Other players defer to irl friendships. If Gamer revealed to a dungeon party that I was his irl friend, the tone and content of conversation changed to align with his tone and level of familiarity. Even on line, on a LGBT server, in a world populated with men pretending to be women (albeit of various species), the socially prophylactic properties of falling under the “ownership” of a man are at play.
Irrationally, one would expect the virtual world to conform to our fantasies of a libertine world unfettered by the signifiers that shackle us irl. The only problem is that we inhabit the virtual world and bring ourselves with us when we log on.