It all began because I really wanted a griffen. For two years now I’ve been watching my son play on World of Warcraft and have always loved the flying griffens to distraction. They are used for traveling across the virtual world and fly with such hefty elegance over the changing landscape of the realms, their fat, heavy paws bouncing softly in the air currents created by the swoop of their huge wings. Going through my relaxation exercises at night, I would imagine myself astride their considerable girth, soaring through the sky in regal splendour. I used to joke to my son that I wanted one for my birthday, or for Christmas, so that I could beat the city’s rush hour in style. In the absence of a furry, winged beast appearing in the back garden with a bow around its neck, I began to think that maybe having a ride on one in the virtual world wouldn’t be such a bad idea. And anyway, I’ve found myself becoming very curious about the whole creation of virtual worlds lately; I wonder what kind of life is on offer, what kind of society is chosen, when anything is possible. I’m also intrigued to know what keeps my son rattling away at the keyboard for hours at a time.
First we have to choose a character. I’ve been looking forward to this as I’ve always known I wanted to be a mage. Initially this was a wholly superficial decision based on the cool dresses they get to wear, but when my son told me that mages in battle are called upon to perform extravagant magical attacks, after which they are pretty much useless and have to be invalided out to lie in a virtual darkened room for a bit, my every instinct was confirmed. That’s been the story of my life, after all. My son is a rogue, characterized by their stealth, subversion and expedience, all of which means they are tough little cookies who are almost tireless. This is almost uncanny as it represents my son to a tee. My husband also has a character but I hesitate to mention it in this context as for reasons unknown to us he elected to be a hunter, a big bull-like nightclub-bouncer type, all brawn and no brains. It’s probably best not to analyze this. Anyway, I was thrilled with the deep purple frock my character gets to wear, cut on the bias, obviously, flattering deep v-neck, flowing sleeves, skin-tight and, best of all, molded onto a figure that my husband would describe as ‘pneumatic’. ‘What kind of face do you want?’ my son asks me. We flip through the options. Mages seem to favour either snarling ferocity or gentle bewilderment, so I go with the bewilderment, which I imagine is going to be apt. I can choose my hair and find that no, I have no desire to go blonde. How about that? ‘Piercings?’ asks my son. Piercings? Well, okay, in for a penny, in for a pound. I end up with a discreet little nose ring that I can only hope will not get snagged in the thick of the battle.
My son cheerfully declares we are going to get me started, and my figure trots off into a sylvan wooded landscape dotted here and there with rather luscious buildings. Now my son knows everything there is to know about World of Warcraft, and I mean everything. He has two characters both at level 70, which is as high as you can train them, and is involved in raids every evening with his guild, a bunch of hardened warriors who chat to one another in incomprehensible code over a party line called ‘team speak’. He sits at the computer with his head set on, looking for all the world like he’s in charge of mission control, only he doesn’t speak very much, hoping against hope that his voice will break soon so his age will not be quite so obvious. I couldn’t have a better guide to help me in the initial stages, but there’s such a thing as being too helpful. I am sitting under a torrent of information that never falters for a moment over the next two hours, until I think my head might implode with the sheer weight of knowledge. At the controls he keeps up a running commentary whilst maneuvering my figure with rapid dexterity, taking out a few of the odd beasts that are roaming the forest with nonchalant calm. Of course when he hands over to me, I can’t even keep the perspective on my character steady and find I have zoomed in so close to the back of my head that I can’t see past myself. Or else an attempt to turn around has me staring up my own virtual nostrils. I tell my son it’s worse than learning to drive. ‘Never mind,’ he says kindly. ‘You’re a different generation, aren’t you?’
Eventually I find I can move about without rotating in circles and we start to progress by quests, which are little tasks, mostly involving shooting animals which will gain me money and items like meat and claws. When I complete a quest the transaction brings me experience and useful items like better armour or clothing. My son finds it hard to get me to relinquish my purple frock, however, no matter what. What’s really strange is that my own character is transferred without the least alteration to the virtual realm. I’m quite happy performing my little tasks (ridding the valley of vermin, it would appear), but I’m deeply uneasy with social interaction. When my son suggests a duel, I’m rather horrified, having no desire to interact with anyone, let alone aggressively, and I have no instinct as to who is playing on the world and who is staff, as it were. There are several moments of utter confusion while I try and hand a completed quest into an innocent bystander. I rather wonder whether I suffer from a form of virtual Asperger’s Syndrome. Still, every once in a while my character is suddenly enveloped in a blaze of golden light and it transpires that I have gone up a level. ‘We call it a ding,’ my son explains, ‘because that’s the noise it makes.’ And he adds with invisible quotation remarks, ‘you know you’re obsessed with World of Warcraft when you say grats to the microwave!’ ‘How’s your mother doing?’ my husband calls through from the other room. ‘Not bad,’ my son replies, loyally I feel, wandering in to give him a progress report. ‘But now I’ve left her on her own for three seconds, so I’d better get back and see what mess she’s got herself into.’ This turned out to be a very prescient remark.
What surprises me most of all is how tiring it all is. You need one hand on the keyboard and one on the mouse, both working independently, and about five separate eyes, it seems to me, keeping track of different information on the screen. Trying to take it in and master the controls at the same time is more exhausting than a whole day’s teaching. I start to make feeble noises about how easy it is to conjugate French verbs in comparison. ‘Do you want to stop now?’ my son asks, deftly finishing off my quest, selling my excess items at the market place and storing my latest rewards in about a half a nanosecond. ‘Why don’t you go and write something. Go and put some words together, that will make you feel better.’ In fact I had to sit quietly for quite some time before I even felt capable of picking up a book. But I do want to go back, partly because I want to understand the underlying rules of this virtual world, partly because of that purple frock, but most of all because I really want to get on the back of a griffen.