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Blood Plagues and Endless Raids
A Hundred Million Lives in the World of Warcraft
By Anthony R. Palumbi
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2017 Anthony R. Palumbi
All rights reserved.
PLEASED TO MEET YOU! PLEASE DON'T USE MY NAME
I fell from sleep when the car stopped, cringing at the fluorescent glare of gas station floodlights. Acrid tobacco smoke curled like cream through a dark brew of muttered conversation. The windows were down, and even at four in the morning the South Texas air weighed warm and damp on our shoulders. The car emptied, three grown men unfolding themselves from the bench seat in the back. I'd had the foresight to call shotgun back in Houston. A battered passenger van sat alongside us at the pump; a dozen migrant laborers milled about, crunching on bags of Doritos, their Spanish soft like they feared waking the sun.
Ten hours and a hundred dollars in bribes later, across the Rio Grande and past the seething, desperate border town of Reynosa, Eric's dusty red station wagon soldiered along in the 115 degree Fahrenheit air. Shrubs, grasses, and stunted trees hugged the ground around us — all shockingly green for a murderous Mexican August. The air conditioner roared against the heat with all the success of men cursing God. Heat had long since pacified the conversation when the car swerved dramatically to the right. We flailed about and were pulled left again, correcting back to the center of the road as Eric cut loose with a stream of incredulous profanity. "The dogs," he bellowed when at last his brain made sense of things. "Dogs in the road!" And suddenly we were turning around, pulling a U-turn on the two-lane highway.
"Horns?" asked Tim from the front, too distressed to recall Eric's real name, instead abridging his gaming handle, "Hornsbuck."
"Look at this!" Eric insisted as we roared back to the spot. The hazard came into view: three dogs in the center of the highway. The one with the white-blond coat was the biggest. She lay dead in the road, the victim of an earlier passing motorist. The others had discovered the body and were attempting to mate with it. The little black one had climbed her corpse and now worked furiously at its summit. The ragged brown mutt sat patiently in the median, waiting his turn. The asphalt's heat rose around them in shimmering waves. The regal iron-gray ladies of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains sat in quiet judgment. In the car, the odor of weed resin mingled with hours-old sweat. We turned around once more on a dusty service road, and as we continued on our original course we got a third and final look. Brett insisted the little black dog was "lined up wrong"; the humping was just a display. I've chosen to believe him.
Our house outside Cadereyta was a pastoral dream of white stucco and cerulean tile inlay. A fountain loomed by the front door, dry and spattered with road dust. Storm clouds had begun to churn in the distance. Our hosts came out, and we exchanged greetings in the withering heat. They introduced themselves with the names we knew, names attached to a virtual world. This man was Modu; that one Plastico. We responded in kind, discarding the given names we'd used in the car. It was instantly comfortable; they said there would be a mariachi band at dinner. When your World of Warcraft guild holds a retreat in Mexico, video games will not be the first priority.
Inside the ranch house waited a dozen young men. Many appeared to be Mexican and spoke Spanish, while others had the lighter pigmentation and uprooted bearing of foreigners. Some assembled a battery of computers against the wall while others napped on a flotilla of mattresses arrayed across the white tile floor. We'd never met, but we knew each other well. Plastico sidled up, put his arm around my shoulders, and pressed a cold glass bottle into my hand: Tecate, a Monterrey-brewed beer I'd only ever seen in cans. He clapped me on the back and wandered off — the only acknowledgment I'd see that week of the burden we shared. Leadership was a mantle he wore unconsciously, almost obliviously, and one I'd taken up only recently and only in desperation.
I sucked down my beer and luxuriated in the air-conditioning. A very thin man from Singapore ("by way of Malaysia," he explained, in a prim accent, "before it went to the fucking dogs") introduced himself as Malicia. A warlock: one of our best, meticulous in his preparation, unforgiving of sloppy play. We shook hands, and his was clammy with sweat — he'd overdressed for the heat in a long-sleeved white linen shirt and black slacks, and flowing strands of black hair clung to his cheeks. A shock of dyed magenta hair ran tastefully over his scalp. Not wanting to refer to this man by his female in-game handle for the next week, I asked his real name. He wouldn't tell me. Once, months before in the heat of battle, I had said some intemperate things to Malicia. He seemed disinclined to forget them.
Stepping out the back door, I took in the expansive coral-painted deck. There was a pool, its bottom striated with dark blue tiles matching the house's facade. Leaning against a tree in the backyard, admiring the wide landscape swollen green by recent rains, I felt a hard wind pull. A pair of threadbare ranch dogs sprinted past, one nipping at the other's flanks. The clouds had descended; tall trees thrashed in the gale. I didn't know the time of day. A peal of thunder set the dogs to yelping. The smell of rain weighted the air and I stumbled inside, where my fellow gringos had busied themselves with what seemed like miles of Ethernet cable. Wire cutters in hand, they snipped and stripped and threaded the copper entrails into square plastic heads. Tim did his best to converse in Spanish with Plastico, who would occasionally break the conversation to bellow good-natured abuse at us.
"'Ey, Ghando!" — he addressed me as my avatar. "I hear you so long, and I imagine your ugly face, and now I am in love," the last word pronounced lub. He was a small man, short and sporting a nascent gut, but his voice boomed nonetheless, the way I'd grown accustomed to hearing through my computer's headset. I had always assumed he kept the microphone too near his mouth. Clearly I was wrong.
"Plas, I can't believe how short you are," I replied. The cheapest shot, the quickest, the lowest-hanging fruit.
Plastico threw back his head for a belly laugh. "Ghando, I punch you in the head." Our juvenile exchange was utterly in character. The man was a constant joker and hated nothing more than discord, ill feeling, or unpleasantness — feelings he derisively lumped together with the catchall term "drama." It was therefore crucially important to him that everyone had as much fun as possible at all times. He was the life of the party, his magnetic online charisma translating perfectly to this tile-floored, air-conditioned room in the mountains of Nuevo Leon. He pushed more Tecates into our hands. Sleep-deprived and dehydrated as I was, the room quickly grew fuzzy. The floor mattresses beckoned me. I felt like they might honestly save my life.
Memo woke me up: a snaggletoothed young man with a long, thin face and wide white eyes. "Time to eat, pendejo." Memo was a priest, a fellow healer and one of the guild's junior officers. I stumbled after him toward the patio, peeling my eyelids back with fingertips, letting them snap back to moisten my sandpaper contacts. The rain had come and gone, though giants stirred above us. Tables were set, with all the deck illuminated and coals smoldering in an enormous grill. The iron was raised with a hand crank; Plastico held half an onion in each hand, waxing designs on the surface that quickly hissed to fragrant steam. My guild scattered themselves between tables adorned with bottles of tequila and more Tecate.
"Drinking Tecate is a must," Plastico explained, quoting the guild's official theme song. While some guilds might play their favorites over private voice chat servers (where we could don headsets and banter out loud like friends in a bar) we had our own original track, written by a hiphop producer in Los Angeles who in a past life had pulled duty as a backup dancer for Vanilla Ice. Watch music videos from the old days and you'll see him. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II, the "Go Ninja Go" sequence: he's there, lean and young in parachute pants with a killer faded flattop. Kojak, as we called him, had a wife and kids keeping him rooted at home and away from Mexico. Into my brain popped a question about the week's raiding schedule1 — if we had computers set up, after all, might we be able to clear some dungeons? This was how I'd started thinking in the months since taking charge. The game always ran in the background, persistent in my brain the way it was on countless server farms, seeking the sharpest edge or the freshest goal. But Plastico's happy glow kept me silent. He wouldn't countenance shoptalk, not with tortillas to layer like fish scales over the raging grill.
The guild's founder — a wealthy electronics retailer with a round belly, scruffy beard, and easy smile who'd fronted the cash for this adventure despite rarely having time to play the game anymore — stood up at the start of dinner. Slipo was more than our patron for the week; he was the patron, the guild's spiritual father, held in a kind of reverence that extended beyond the game. His ex-wife, still a close friend and the guild's honorary mother, sat nearby with their beautiful children. Though Slipo spoke some English, he insisted on Memo translating for him. A man in his position does not stand before guests in his own homeland to struggle with a foreign tongue. He thanked us for being there, for traveling so far as many had. He bade us eat and drink, he introduced the band, and then he sat. With the first round of quesadillas in my stomach, I felt sturdy enough to sip Tecate with lime. It suddenly seemed very natural, being in this place with these people. Shared time and sacrifices had brought us here, and I decided I wanted to stay. Not just at the ranch house — everything already booked and planned — but in this guild, with these people, with their warmth and what we'd built together. I'd given so much already, holding things together when any sensible person would have walked away and done something easier. Did I not own this thing, whatever it was, as much as anyone?
The music kicked up. It played soothing and busy, the singer's ululations and the sharp slaps of his palm on his guitar binding up time like leaves of paper. For the first time in my life I understood why people enjoy mariachi music. Eric threw Plastico in the pool about an hour later; Brett, short and round and red as a tomato with liquor's flush, declared he would fight anyone who tried the same on him. Gnats cavorted overhead through the beams of buzzing electrical lamps. The band played with barely a breath between songs, but never for a moment did they rush.
One doesn't find oneself attending a weeklong World of Warcraft party on a lark. It takes a long time to plumb that particular depth; one makes a great many choices on the way. Personally, I never planned to play WoW. It wasn't my type of game, I declared, having never played EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelotor any of WoW's other competitors in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) genre.
"But Tony," Chris pressed his case across the table at a Friendly's diner in Waltham, Massachusetts, eighteen months prior to my Mexican excursion. "It's going to be really great. Noah and I are playing with some guys I met playing StarCraft. The game world is huge, like the size of a real continent. There's all these classes, with dungeons and other people to fight against. You won't have to play alone. We'll own noobs together! I know how you feel about noobs." I don't wish to belabor this common Internet jargon; suffice it to say that anyone less skilled than the speaker at a given video game is a noob, and to beat a noob is to own him.
It was Thanksgiving, and I'd come back east for the long weekend. The nation had just seen fit to reelect George W. Bush and I was visiting my New England hometown, seeing friends before returning to college in California. In the end, those friends convinced me to play WoW. We went to a local mall together to pick up our copies, forging between us a Musketeerish brotherhood. We approached the game, even then, as something inherently dangerous. Like if we didn't cling together we'd be washed away by the vastness we knew awaited us in WoW's virtual world, or possibly addicted to software as mind-warpingly powerful as any drug. These seemed like real possibilities.
By the time I booked my trip to Mexico I was the last one standing — the last still playing. That night at Friendly's was long gone by then, buried under a new history I'd made for myself, so distant it may as well have happened to someone else. I had new friends. I lived a different life, into which the Cadereyta convention became an initiation. This trip was my personal portal — a threshold crossed from one world into another.
The metaphor ran deeper still; just days before setting out for Mexico, I'd walked in my graduation from Stanford University. Tom Brokaw spoke, for some reason. His trademark nasal thrum fused with the suffocating Palo Alto heat, and it became remarkably difficult to stay awake. A bruising hangover didn't help, and all I really remember was an admonition not to become overly consumed with technology. You can imagine how well this message went over with my cohort, an overwhelming number of them bound for jobs at Google and Facebook and Apple. This was 2006 — just at the cusp of the mobile revolution — and more than a few of them are now millionaires. I knew I'd never join them.
School always came easy to me, and I'd chosen to direct that talent toward a degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing and a minor in astrophysics. I was then, and remain now, functionally unemployable. Still, I beat the odds and secured a position at the bottom rung of a small Bay Area film company, earning $1,000 per month before taxes. For $400 of those dollars I secured a basement room in colorful conditions of hippie squalor. I returned from Mexico and jumped right into "real life," cutting video by day and slaying digital monsters by night. I would build a creative career alongside my online reputation as coleader of T K T, the world's top Spanishspeaking guild. That was the life I wanted.
For years this second life ran in parallel to the first, buttressed it, stole from it, informed it, and on occasion threatened to swallow it entirely. I stood as one of millions and stood apart from those millions as one of their highest elite. I plunged down the deepest of rabbit holes, laughed and cried and triumphed and despaired, paying a fifteen-dollar subscription fee each month for the privilege. I'm ashamed of how much it mattered. I would do it all over again, and I still enjoy WoW today. I wouldn't trade those times for the world.
And I'm not alone.
Washed upon a Shoal
Everyone who ever entered the World of Warcraft did so on equal footing. There may have been a box or a digital download; perhaps one read, as I did, the ponderously, tantalizingly thick manual printed on glossy paper designed to resemble parchment. Once the software installed itself and your credit card information had been verified, you selected a "realm server" on which to play. The World of Warcraft is actually more than a hundred identical worlds, each separate from the others. This breaks up the titanic player population into technologically manageable chunks, keeping communities small enough to feel intimate. A player's WoW identity is strongly linked to her realm of origin. Three types exist, corresponding to the game's three major avenues of achievement: player-versus-player (PvP), player-versus-environment (PvE), and role-playing (RP). The first allows players to battle each other with few restrictions, while the latter two allow PvP combat only under special conditions. Role-playing servers observe unique rules for player interactions and are covered in detail in chapter 9. At launch, North American players could pick between forty-three PvP realms, forty-one PvE realms, and five RP realms. In practice, you played on whatever server your friends used. For me that meant Sargeras, a PvP server where Chris's friends had already started a little social group named T K T.
Logging into a realm server for the very first time, everyone meets the same screen: a dizzying palette of choices to help you fashion yourself a character, an avatar, what some colloquially dub a "toon." For those familiar with traditional role-playing games, the process was second nature: cycling through hair colors and goatee styles, skin tones and tattoos. But the game's highly effective marketing campaign drew in countless new gamers — people suddenly forced to make intimidating choices of identity with very little information.
Excerpted from Blood Plagues and Endless Raids by Anthony R. Palumbi. Copyright © 2017 Anthony R. Palumbi. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
« 1 » PLEASED TO MEET YOU! PLEASE DON'T USE MY NAME,
« 2 » LOVE AND WARCRAFT,
« 3 » WHAT LIES BENEATH,
« 4 » THE MANTLE OF LEADERSHIP,
« 5 » A CIRCUS OF MASOCHISTS,
« 6 » THE BUSINESS OF MURDER,
« 7 » "TIME IS MONEY, FRIEND!",
« 8 » THE GAME THAT WON AN EMMY,
« 9 » THE STORYTELLERS,
« 10 » WHAT IT MEANT TO US,