In Part 2 of her Storytelling Reinvented blog, Nicola More explores how online games offer timeless pearls of wisdom for engaging audiences
You would have to be living under a rock (or in an alternative virtual reality perhaps) not to have heard of World of Warcraft. The massively multiplayer online role-playing game by Blizzard Entertainment has more than 11 million players worldwide, generating revenues of around $1bn a year.
The game has even spawned a lucrative sub-industry, with top players selling their characters – the record sale amount currently stands at $9.9k – and paying real money for virtual gold to trade in the game. There have even been concerns about sweat shops for virtual character levelling and gold farming, with The Guardian recently reporting that Chinese prisoners were enduring hard physical labour all day and hard virtual labour all night, earning up to 5,000-6,000rmb (£470-570) a day for the prison guards.
The ‘World’ part of the game’s title is therefore eerily appropriate. So in an age where consumers baulk at paying even modest fees for any form of entertainment – particularly online – how has one (let’s face it rather geeky) computer game managed to hook a massive audience to regularly part with its cash? In my opinion, in four steps:
I know I’m stating the obvious here, but it’s worth making the point regardless, because WoW has achieved this more completely than any other form of entertainment. Players can access another world from their desks and inhabit another existence. That world is not linear; it’s unending, interactive and expansive. It appeals to a very basic human instinct – heroism. From teenage boys to bored housewives and everyone in between, players can throw their identity aside and become a warrior. They have a purpose, and they have control. That’s a very powerful thing.
This escapism is so powerful because WoW is the master of immersion. It has a back story to rival Star Wars or Lord of the Rings (see ‘The lore’ below) and it’s played in real time with real people. This is a world you can’t pause and walk away from (see ‘The guild’ below). Incredibly, there is even a ‘roleplaying’ server where players only communicate in the persona of their character. So ‘Where will we go tonight?’ becomes ‘Where will our adventures take us this evening, champion?’ Cringeworthy, but effective. You can see the full extent of roleplay in this instructive blog.
3 The guild
Now this part is smart. The game is interactive, but it’s also social. Players group together into ‘guilds’ based on skill, time commitment or even just personal interests or nationality. They work together, assigning responsibilities and competing with other guilds. They conduct raids at a pre-assigned time in the real world. If one player doesn’t turn up, they let their guild down. Suddenly, players have virtual and real friends, and all the expectation and responsibility that friendship brings. This to me is one of the smartest achievements of the game – to simultaneously appeal to people’s desire to escape and their need to socialise. In a sense, it provides an alternative place to explore your personality, from behind the safe mask of your avatar. As such, some of the guilds have come to mirror real-world social groups, such as LGBT – an obvious evolution that WoW bosses initially failed to recognise.
4 The lore
Whether you play as a warrior, mage, rogue, druid, hunter, shaman, warlock, priest or paladin, your chosen class of character not only has its own biological makeup but also comes with literally centuries of history, language, culture and beliefs. Writers have painstakingly crafted the ‘lore’ of the game to offer a rich and varied tapestry. Players are part of a narrative that encompasses millions of characters and hundreds of years. That’s thinking big at its best.
To me, what’s most interesting about all this is that successful online games like WoW, despite being undoubtedly innovative, are also drawing on traditional values and aspirations. There’s escapism, aspiration, adventure, teamwork and the sense of being part of something far bigger than yourself. In that, there’s commonality and even friendship. Surely that’s storytelling at its most powerful?
Image: Brian J Matis on Flickr under Creative Commons license.