Chasing the Virtual Dragon and the Search for Wonder

Many years ago when I first started to be seduced by the charms of EverQuest — the first fully realized 3D virtual world — I was overcome with a feeling of euphoria. Being transported with friends from all over the world to a strange magical land of fantasy and adventure was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

After the eventual decline of EverQuest I found myself continually searching for a replacement virtual world. Although World of Warcraft created a superbly detailed and immersive experience there was something always missing. Many years later and many MMOs later I still feel that no other MMO has ever been able to successfully recreate all of those feelings that EverQuest produced.

So here I am, 11 years after the release of EverQuest still chasing that virtual dragon.

The phrase chasing the dragon has a very dark meaning for those who have suffered drug addiction. According to those who have faced the relentless bondage of addiction once you get your first taste of the drug, the next time as your body starts to develop a resistance and you find yourself needing more and more.

I often wonder if my experience of being a part of the virtual world of Norrath has left me with a similar unfortunate craving. They called EverQuest “EverCrack” for a reason: it felt very addictive. I remember waking up early before work to play; I remember losing nights of sleep as well; I recall caring more about Norrath then the real world — all classic patterns of addiction. Yet at time I used to cringe when people used to bring up the subject of EverQuest and addiction. I knew I could quit anytime but I didn’t.

The only reason I quit was because eventually EverQuest just played itself out. EverQuest died a death of a thousand cuts or maybe it just died of old age. Regardless, I’m glad it did.

You rarely hear much about addiction and MMOs these days. MMOs and video games have become an accepted part of our culture as other seemingly addictive pursuits such as watching television, texting, surfing the Internet, online gambling and more.

I know what you are thinking. Here goes Wolfshead warning us all about the dangers of addiction. Not so. What I really felt like writing about was how I feel about the MMO genre lately. The truth is that MMOs have become far less important in my life. In fact I barely even think about them and rarely play them and occasionally still write about them. I’m not alone either. Many bloggers have either quit blogging or they feel the same way as I do.

Either MMOs have gotten worse or I have become jaded. I think both of these observations are correct. But I can no longer deny that the sense of wonder is gone for me.

One of my favorite songs is Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd. Here are some lyrics that partly explain how I feel about how I feel these days:

When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown the dream is gone

Could looking for salvation in a virtual world be a fool’s errand? Maybe it is time to grow up and leave childish ways behind. As I’ve discussed before, maybe I’m part of a generation that seems trapped in perpetual adolescence. But then I consider the brilliant minds of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis who created Middle-earth and Narnia. Tolkien devoted his entire life to creating a fully functional fantasy world yet he was a devout Roman Catholic and a very serious person.

In a now famous essay entitled Harry Potter and the Paganization of Children’s Culture Michael O’Brien makes this lucid point about Tolkien:

In his essay “On Fairy Stories” J.R.R. Tolkien pointed out that because man is made in the image and likeness of God he is endowed with faculties that reflect his Creator. One of these is the gift of “sub-creation” — the human creator may give form to other worlds populated by imaginary peoples and beasts, where fabulous environments are the stage for astounding dramas. The primal desire at the heart of such imagining, he says, is the “realization of wonder.” If our eyes are opened to see existence as wonder-full, then we become more capable of reverential awe before the Source of it all.

This is very deep stuff and as an aside I wonder if Richard Bartle is even aware of Tolkien’s theories as religion in virtual worlds seems to preoccupy him lately. (By the way,  the rest of the essay is well worth the read if you have the time and inclination to learn more about the intersection of culture and religion.)

Reading O’Brien’s take on Tolkien makes me feel that perhaps it’s not so bad after all to want to experience a sense of awe and wonder. Could this inherent human longing be a divine gift? Has God instilled in us this supernatural yearning for heaven? Why aren’t virtual worlds doing more to tap into this innate human need to experience wonder? Could it be that fantasy virtual worlds have failed to realize their fullest, deepest and even cosmic potential?

Anyone who regularly reads this blog knows that I believe they have not realized their potential. There has to be virtual world virtues that exist beyond those of just sheer entertainment and amusement. I highly doubt that Chris Metzen, Rob Pardo, Tom Chilton or anyone else in charge of any major MMO today has any clue of the power and potential that they wield in their mortal hands. Of course I may be wrong but not likely. The creation is only good as its creator and therein lies the true problem.

Imagine if Tolkien had the power and resources of Blizzard at his disposal. Oh what a wonderful world it could be…


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