So last night I watched 180° South: Conquerors of the Useless. It was a pretty well made documentary. Here’s a little plot summary from IMDB:
“Conquerors of the Useless follows Jeff Johnson as he retraces the epic 1968 journey of his heroes Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins to Patagonia. Along the way he gets shipwrecked off Easter Island, surfs the longest wave of his life – and prepares himself for a rare ascent of Cerro Corcovado. Jeff’s life turns when he meets up in a rainy hut with Chouinard and Tompkins who, once driven purely by a love of climbing and surfing, now value above all the experience of raw nature – and have come to Patagonia to spend their fortunes to protect it.”
While I was watching, I couldn’t help but think that all of us who enjoy raiding in WoW are, in some ways, “Conquerors of the Useless.” We have set out for ourselves large challenges that we expend much time and effort to achieve. However, these challenges have very little practical value. They don’t produce any useful product, don’t make us any money, and rarely do they earn us any kind of esteem outside of a very small group of similarly minded folks. And in lots of ways, that’s a good thing. We need to take time away from being productive, and instead appreciate a challenge for its own sake, not for its extrinsic benefits. If there is a value to be gained from these activities, it is the change that they make in the way we look at the world or think about ourselves.
In so many other ways, however, watching this film reminded me of the lack of “epic adventure” that I currently feel in WoW. What makes the adventure in the film so epic is that it is an unguided journey, with very few restrictions or limitations. There is a driving goal, which is to climb Cerro Corcovado. However, the path to that goal is completely open ended. On the way down to Patagonia, the ship’s mast breaks and the group is stranded on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) for about a month. As with so many great stories, the journey to get to that final destination is the entire point, and where all the magic happens.
My “adventure” as it were, in WoW, is completely the opposite. The challenges I face are scripted and unchanging. I read up on them ahead of time, attempting to minimize any chance of being surprised. The same bosses have been killed by hundreds of other folks by the time I kill them, so I have little feeling of the intrepid adventurer who is completing difficult tasks. Which is not to say that I don’t derive any pleasure from killing a new raid boss. I do. But, the type of pleasure I get from that event is qualitatively different that the pleasure of an epic adventurer, conquering a challenge for its own sake, and on his own terms.
Instead, if I am honest with myself, the pleasure I get comes from a sense of “progress,” however vaguely conceived that may be. And the problem with this drive to achieve based on progress, devoid of all other human meaning, is the other main point of the film. As many others have observed, the more progress we make, the less satisfied we feel. Once I have an LCD TV, I start to wonder if I shouldn’t have bought a bigger one. Or waited for a 3D version. We start to compare our achievements to others, only becoming satisfied when our own are bigger, faster, or more impressive. We lose the initial sense of self-driven adventure and accomplishment that we started with, and become only motivated with the extent to which our achievements dwarf those of others.
I hope the tie-in to progression raiding in WoW is fairly obvious here. If we are honest with ourselves, a large part of the draw comes from visiting WoWProgress, and looking at all those guilds below us and enjoying our higher ranking, or talking ourselves into why those above us are no-lifers who raid too much, as opposed to our more realistic schedule. If you’re not motivated by rankings, perhaps you enjoy having a full epic level set of gear that earns drools as you stand around in Orgrimmar or Stormwind. Maybe your sense of pride is more subtle, and comes from consistently placing at the top of the relevant meters for your role or knowing that you are one of the best players on the server. Whatever the source, I am willing to bet that the conscious or unconscious driving factor behind most progression raiders is the will to be “more” than someone else, whether that is measured in progression, gear, or performance.
Of course, I expect that many people would disagree, and argue that they raid for the pure challenge of defeating a difficult encounter with a team of 9 or 24 other people. I still think that is a part of why people enjoy raiding. Unfortunately, I think it’s a much smaller part of the motivation than we want to believe. If we were solely motivated by the challenge, we would see more people completing difficult but rather pointless achievements, or attempting to beat a raid with as few people as possible. While people certainly do these things, most people do not, and they are certainly not what you see a guild talk about on their recruitment ads or the front of their webpage. It’s all about the progress, and implicitly, how that progress compares to other people on the server, the country, or the world.
There is another sense where I have lost the feeling of adventure in WoW. When I was leveling my Shaman, everything was new. Absolutely everything. I didn’t understand how to maximize my DPS. I didn’t even really understand the concept of picking a talent spec, bouncing between elemental and enhancement talents to create a jumble of mediocre DPS. I didn’t really know what zone I was going to hit next. I had no conception of what I would do once I hit level 70. I was just enjoying the journey to get to level 70, and I had an amazing time learning and discovering along the way.
Initially, raiding held the same sense of adventure. I got carried along to my first Kara run, with no idea what a DPS meter was, how most of the boss mechanics worked, or even how to get around the place. It was a real (if virtual) adventure, accompanied by 9 patient guild members who knew what the heck they were doing. It was amazing.
Over time, I learned a lot more about how to raid. I learned how to set up my character. I learned about addons. I learned how to research boss fights. I created focus macros and gear sets and power auras for specific fights. I learned how to pick apart my performance on World of Logs and find subtle points of improvement. At some point, however, I lost the sense of adventure that I felt when I got the invite to join a Naxx run for the first time. And now I feel like that sense of adventure is gone for good. I can’t even create a new alt without hitting Elitist Jerks first and learning about a proper rotation and decent talent spec.
Do I have a coherent point here? Not really. I am a very competitive person, and I still raid to down bosses as quickly as I can. I enjoy that feeling of “accomplishment,” even if at other times it all seems a bit hollow. I have very little patience with those who don’t put forth their best effort, and I’m constantly seeking to improve my own mistakes. I would be annoyed if I had to carry someone like I got carried through that Kara run. I would rather not raid at all than raid easy farm content.
Sometimes, however, you have to wonder what is driving this will to progression and success? At what point do we stop being epic adventurers who try to conqueror useless but fun goals, and instead become ultra-focused competitors who push to give ourselves something to feel better than other players?