I love MMOs. I’ve been playing them for almost a decade. My first MMO was Final Fantasy XI, but since then I’ve run the gamut. WoW, SWTOR, Warhammer Online, Guild Wars 2, Tera, Wildstar… you name it, I’ve played it. While some MMOs may do things better than others, I can’t help but keep coming back to Warcraft. It may not be the best MMO in all regards, but it’s certainly my favorite. I love the game, I really do, but there’s one thing about it that just makes me sick to my stomach: the elitist culture.
It all began in 2009 with the release of a little addon called GearScore. GearScore (later rebranded to PlayerScore) allowed others to see the quality of your gear. It assigned a value to each piece of gear and calculated a “gear score” by which you could be forever judged and ridiculed. I had taken a few months off from the game, so you can imagine my surprise when I logged on and was barraged by a constant stream of gear inquiries and e-peen measuring tape. GearScore was all that seemed to matter. WoW’s culture had become focused on 1 imaginary internet number. Over time, the addon was refined. It was “improved” to allow others to inspect your achievement history, including boss kill achievements. Now, not only were you discriminated against based on your Gear Score value, but also your raiding history. Fun!
The zeitgeist became so laughable that even Blizzard themselves poked a little fun. On the 1st of April, 2010, they announced a new UI feature for WoW: the “Equipment Potency EquivalencE Number”, or the E.P.E.E.N. The number-obsessed GearScore craze had gotten ridiculous enough to warrant an April Fool’s Day lampooning. The text in the joke announcement, while once funny, is now an eerily prophetic estimation of how shitty things have become. “…the pool of players you interact with becomes more and more exclusive… and your friends list will become increasingly more manageable… Any negative repercussions of these changes will be offset by the satisfaction you’ll receive knowing your equipment is significantly more impressive than average.” Sure, sounds like WoW to me.
Blizzard had an even more direct hand shaping WoW’s elitist culture. In April 2010, it was all just a joke, but when Cataclysm dropped in December, Blizzard officially incorporated item level into the default Character sheet. Additionally, dungeon queuing via the Dungeon Finder tool was restricted based on item level. Boom. The gear elitism had been legitimized and codified. In Mists of Pandaria, WoW featured its first globally available Legendary item. The idea was to allow all players to obtain a sweet Orange item, not just players of a specific class. To me, it just acted as yet another benchmark by which players could socially rank themselves above one another.
The social landscape is now chock-full of various elements by which players assert their superior warcraftiness. Achievements, item level and legendary item status are the primary means by which you are evaluated. The problem is, these attitudes go beyond gameplay, too. The cultural humor is all predicated on these same pretentious notions. “Shitter,” “garbage,” “trash-tier,” “bad,” and “terribad” are the “jokes” I hear over TeamSpeak on a weekly basis. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not particularly sensitive. I realize that individual jokes are more-or-less harmless, but holistically, they speak to the game’s culture, which is one of elitism and condescension. Why aren’t there words to describe how awesome we all are, and why don’t those go viral? Most of the words that come out of a WoW player’s mouth can be distilled down to a not-so-subtle allusion about how they are better at video games than you. It’s kind of silly.
I know this doesn’t apply universally to all WoW players, but in my experience, it applies to the majority for sure. Or maybe I’m surrounding myself with the wrong crowd. Who knows. What I do know is that after spending only mere moments in another MMO, the difference is obvious. I recently poked my head into Guild Wars 2 to see what had changed in the past year. I was roaming around in the one of the World vs World maps when I ran into another player. I mentioned to him that I was a little rusty. With no further provocation, he took twenty minutes or more to explain to me the ins and outs of what I had missed. Reddit user /u/fonjask had a similar experience. Fonjask offered to skip a cutscene to move his GW2 dungeon group along quickly. The kind replies his group offered were so out-of-the-ordinary for an MMO that he took a screenshot.
Here’s the bottom line: if you measure your self worth in terms of item level and video game achievements, you need to re-evaluate your attitude. MMOs offer us a social opportunity unlike any other game genre. It seems shallow and immature to squander it. There are people behind those item levels. We’d do well to remember that, especially when WoW’s Legion expansion hits and our Artifact weapon level serves as the next benchmark by which to judge one another.