During the summer break of 2010, back when I was a 13-year-old student about to start his first year in high school, I decided to start playing World of Warcraft. I had no prior experience with a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) nor even the basic knowledge to understand the lore of the game. I chose to play in the Horde only because the idea of creating my own Orc seemed tempting, as they were bound to become fearsome warriors or living shields that would protect allies from danger. The latter resonated with my personal way of getting around with friends and family, always trying to lend a hand to those in need. After carefully selecting a beard and hairstyle that would match my orc’s pale green face, I set foot in Azeroth for the very first time, without fully realizing how impactul this experience was going to be for years to come.
Blizzard’s MMO introduces a vast world filled with wonders, but from the moment you get out of the character creation screen, the choices you make rely entirely upon you, resonating with that period of my life. I had to choose a career, start asking for job recommendations and began to understand the importance of savings and managing my own economy. It was a learning process. And from the first few hours, my mind sensed it wasn’t going to be just a gaming experience, but a series of lessons towards my young adulthood.
The starting area for Orcs is located in the Valley of Trials, a desert of sorts with dozens of boars and scorpions to test your might as you start leveling up and getting new equipment from completing quests. Once you finish your tasks, you are sent north throughout Durotar, passing through a series of places. An outpost in the center of the map called Razor Hill and the Sen’Jin Village, starting area for Trolls near Echo Islands, are only a few. But you can’t begin to understand the scale of World of Warcraft, at least being in the Horde, until you get to one of the capitals. Orgrimmar was the first for me.
It is the place where everyone gathers: veterans, server legends, and people like me who are just starting. Orgrimmar was vivid in all possible ways, filled with opportunities and people to talk to. At the same time, it was my first approach to the young adulthood that was less than three months away, finding myself stepping into the high school halls for the first time, surrounded by future friendships and possible romances. While Blood Elves didn’t catch attention when running the game in low graphic settings, I did learn to stop being so reserved, slowly escaping from my introvert persona and creating bonds with fellow adventurers. But, in the meantime, there was another major lesson that I had to pay attention to: working.
Mining, along with a cheap pickaxe, was mandatory for Orcs like me, as Durotar had mining points all over the landscape. Its complementary profession, blacksmithing, let you use those materials to create weapons, armor and all kinds of accessories. I could never invest the time needed to sustain myself in the long run, but I always carried the pickaxe with me. After all, I used to sell everything that wasn’t useful, patiently waiting until getting enough bronze and silver coins for the meter to change to gold, the highest currency in the game.
It didn’t take long for me to realize how repetitive the process was. Yes, you got to see an improvement in your skills, but the action was always the same. You would right click on a mining spot, wait for the character’s animation to end and move on to the next one. Getting used to a routine was the lesson I obtained from grinding (completing repetitive tasks to level up). And there’s a certain charm to it if you know how to add variation in the loop. For me, it was half about discovering new songs (Muse and Three Days Grace were my partners in more adventures that I can possibly remember) and the other half an excuse to keep visiting new places while leaving a mark on them. Looking back at this now, freelance writing doesn’t feel so different (I never stopped listening to those bands either).
In order to fulfill my tourist crossing, I started using Zeppelins for long-travelling between continents, which weren’t that different from taking a bus or riding the train. They have a monotonous routine of flying back and forth from point A to B in a certain amount of time, making stops at towers for each location or region. Looting gave me enough coins to afford travelling, and so did my mother when I was “old enough” to get out to the world (or my neighborhood) on my own, but I lacked the knowledge to do so. I had no other option but asking strangers for guidance, which was equally as stressful as approaching real life people on the street asking how I could get to my destination.
Back then my phone didn’t support Google Maps, and I never invested the time in understanding the transport guide, so I solely relied on directions. I travelled a lot throughout my life as school was always at least a bus away from home, but there was always someone at my side. Starting that summer, it became a standalone experience. Although I was on a break from classes, I remember attending a handful of birthday parties, along with hanging out with my first romance (who ironically was a big fan of Lineage II, Blizzard’s rival MMO). Few told me how tiring and confusing public transport could be, but luckily for me, World of Warcraft took the time to prepare me for the worst.
Opening the map for the first time was an equally shocking experience to reading the transport guide: during that time in Wrath of the Lich King’s expansion, you had an entire world waiting to be explored, divided in three continents. A fourth one added in The Burning Crusade, Outland, was located far away from the humid desert of Durotar. To make it even more troublesome, each had dozens of small regions and villages, each with their own challenges, stories and characters. For a 13 year old who had only been travelling by himself for a couple of weeks and had never left the country, to have such a colossal pool of opportunities ahead made for a life-changing moment. But facing so many options was overwhelming, to say the least.
A fellow orc I met inside the capital as I was planning my first big travel provided some guidance: “You need to take the Zeppelin that is right outside Orgrimmar. Standing on the front door, go left until you see the travelling Outpost. There will be two Zeppelins, make sure to check the flags in each to know exactly where they’ll take you.”
I took the Zeppelin, but I found myself in the wrong place. My goal was to get to Tirisfal Glades (starting area for the Forsaken), a mid point between Durotar and the Eversong Woods (starting area for Blood Elves), but instead of bats and skeletons, I found tigers and tall vegetation. I walked for a few minutes and stopped by to check the nearby stores: all the equipment was at least 10 levels above mine, which meant that enemies would inevitably start from there. While I was waiting for my partner to answer my messages before the next Zeppelin arrived, I noticed a group of players with red names on their heads. I immediately remembered I was in a PvP server, and Stranglethorn Vale was known for being a bridge between the Horde and the Alliance. I can’t say I learned a lesson from this, though, as this happened to me in real life a dozen of times, when I took a bus going in the wrong direction.
I hid in the bushes, and remained as a witness for their senseless slaughter. When the opportunity showed up, I ran as fast as I could to the tower, and each step climbing it felt like forever. But the Zeppelin arrived, and I was safe for the time being. It was just one of the hundreds of situations that arise from getting lost in such a massive world.
Travelling became an easier task with time, but the sense of discovery and the stories I gathered never faded away. I was always surprised whenever I got to know a new village, a mysterious outpost (where I could stop to buy potions) or one of the other capital cities. It was, without a doubt, the main element that always kept me coming back for more. Monday to Friday, Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons, World of Warcraft was my reason to go out without (almost) ever leaving my house. All I had to do was turn on the computer.
Once I gained enough levels, I learned about the possibility of doing Instances, special dungeons with stronger enemies labeled as elite, unique encounters and tons of rewards for your effort. But going solo was not an option. I needed to gather a group of people, which meant I had to stand in the middle of Orgrimmar and ask if anybody wanted to join me. My insistence led to an invitation to join a Guild, which at the time was the equivalent of being part of a sports club (mine was basketball) or an online forum, and took me to meet what would become my first friend group after my school years.
MMOs are known to get people together for a matter of needs, as a way to group up to face greater challenges that would otherwise be impossible to handle on your own. But for me, the players I met turned into a second family that showed me what being an adult meant for them. Like the married couple who went by the names of Fireboy and Firegirl, which often took turns to go and put their baby to sleep. Or a fellow orc named Samuel, from Venezuela, who had almost as much free time as I did back then, becoming my best partner in Azeroth.
Weeks passed, and my character wasn’t the only one who had been gaining new skills and equipment. Even with a low developed craft in blacksmithing, I forged new tools for the future without realizing it. I started to learn to take responsibilities as I became independent, having to meet certain schedules and make plans for activities with friends and strangers alike or getting lost in an unknown region because of unclear and confusing ways of transport. And everything had a purpose: to meet with my friends in a certain place and go exploring together, even though we were thousands of miles away from each other.
World of Warcraft meant the world to me. I would usually get up at 8 a.m. to get the most out of the day, starting to play in the morning until almost midnight. I travelled a lot in Azeroth during that summer, and sadly, I experienced both the good and bad phases of growing up. I got into an argument with Samuel because of a shield we both wanted, and after getting confused at the very last minute of an Instance, he ended up with a duplicate that could no longer be transferred to another player, as rare items are bound to each player for either use or as selling items. I never spoke to him again after that day. Oh, and I still owe Fireboy 150 gold coins he lent me to buy a flying mount.
But all our moments and memories together were imprinted in every region we had set foot in. During the final weeks of February, I found myself travelling with a whole different character throughout the same lands I had previously met with my orc, bringing back those times with Samuel and others while we were still trying to fully understand everything the game had to offer. It was one of the very first times in which I felt nostalgia on leaving behind a treasured friendship. A feeling that, nowadays, is always with me.
Many friend groups have passed throughout my high school years, but only a few stayed. I always remember them when I visit the places we used to go exploring together, but instead of laughter, there is nothing but a fading memory. You can’t be in the same Guild forever.
The day I uninstalled the game, the play time stopped exactly at 333 hours. I knew it was going to interfere with my studies, so I voluntarily made the decision to let it go. And while I did come back several times to World of Warcraft in the following years, those first memories always felt meaningful, opening my eyes to an unknown world ahead of me.
I still miss a Zeppelin every now and then, finding myself in distant places and relying on a stranger’s guidance to get home, even now with Google Maps. And while my surroundings may not look like Tirisfal Glades or Eversong Woods, most of the situations I live today are reminiscent of my time spent in those regions. World of Warcraft prepared me to get out into the world in ways I could not have imagined when that summer began.