Sheryl St. Germain
It’s snowing hard outside, and I love how the neighborhood I can see through my window is encased in a soft layer of snow. Everything is rounded and softened; the sharp lines of the stiff, tall Pittsburgh houses seem relaxed just a little. It’s a time to be curled up in front of a fire reading a book, but instead I’m curled up in front of my computer, pillow for my back and afghan for my lap, cat at my feet, shades up so I can see the snow. I would be willing to bet that there are many others in my neighborhood curled up right now, like me in front of the light of their computers instead of those roaring fires that once kept us warm through a cold night.
The weather outside is not the same as the weather in Azeroth, where I’m currently questing in Stranglethorn Vale, a virtual coastal rainforest. Right now in Stranglethorn the rain’s as thick as the real snow outside. It’s pouring, gray with rain, and difficult to see as I pick my way through thick brush, trying to avoid apes and panthers, tigers and pirates.
This is both the beauty and the darkness of video games. For a space of time you can separate yourself from whatever the weather is outside, or the situation. I look up from time to time to watch the snow falling and admire the beauty of it, then turn back to a hot, steaming jungle where the rain sounds just as it does in real life.
Playing this game at this level of engagement puts me in a sort of netherworld where I’m mostly but not completely separated from the real world and its weather. I could let myself fall even more deeply into the imagined world. I could forget, for example, that some of my friends are losing their jobs, that my son is having to donate plasma and sell his belongings, that there’s no amount of money I could send him that would help his life to be sustainable, that his chances of finding a job are almost zero at this precise moment. Even though I had nightmares last night about his life, I can enter Azeroth and put those nightmares aside; I can fight monsters that I can best.
Although the world Blizzard Entertainment has created is both astonishingly beautiful and horrifying and mimics life in many ways, it still romanticizes poverty and suffering. No one has to give blood to pay rent in Azeroth. No one is selling their books and CDs and music equipment to buy food in Azeroth. If you’re poor in Azeroth you can always earn money by mining or selling herbs or equipment or potions you can make. The only blood that’s spilled is when you kill monsters or are killed yourself, and even then, no blood is ever shown on the screen.
Last spring, a friend of mine who is a poet and administrator of a program at a local university, and who also plays WOW, told me how he walked outside one recent spring morning, looked at the startling blue sky and found himself thinking
it’s not as bright as the sky in Azeroth. The graphics in the game are so stunning, so “real,” it’s easy to forget that the life we wake to each morning is not so stunning. It’s easy to forget, too, that virtual cities in a video game are based on real cities, not vice versa. If you play the game long enough, metaphors for how you understand the world can begin to confuse themselves.
My son’s arm is bruised and swollen from the nurse who last took his blood. There are never any bruises in Azeroth, never anything swollen. In this world we are escaping from blizzards, in this world we don’t want to be reminded of the wages of suffering. In this world we’re having fun, in this world we are on vacation.
SHERYL ST. GERMAIN has published 10 books of poetry and creative nonfiction. She currently directs the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.