I’m High on World of Warcraft


On Games

The city of Thunder Bluff in World of Warcraft. Screenshot from the game.

It was about four in the morning when the warrior decided to leave our group. He’d started weeping, apparently, into his mic. I didn’t have a headset, but the other members of the group did, and they detailed the player’s breakdown in the chat. He couldn’t take the pressure, they said. He was sorry. He’d let us down. He was tired. He was blubbering now. He left the group and opened a portal to Stormwind, his home city. The rest of us waited a few minutes, trying to think of a way to replace the most important member of the group before giving up, surrendering the hours we’d spent working our way through Uldaman, a subterranean dungeon filled with cursed Dwarves. I stood up and took two steps away from the computer to lie down in bed and stare red-eyed at my character on the screen, which was now lit by the late-summer sun breaking through the bedsheets nailed vaguely across my windows.

I think about World of Warcraft nearly every day, but considering the millions of people who play the game, I’m not alone. Launched in 2004, WoW is the most successful MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) ever. At the height of its popularity, in 2010, the game had more than twelve million active subscribers and continues to be the most played MMORPG today, almost two decades after its release. The game is so well populated that whole books have been written on the game’s sociological aspects and in-game economy. The objective of the game, if you could say there is a single objective, is to increase your character’s level. You do this by completing quests, raiding dungeons, and fighting in player-versus-player (PvP) combat, as well as engaging in the literally hundreds of other tasks and story lines the game contains, all of it taking place within the vast world of Azeroth, with each player’s character being a combination of a race (orc, troll, night elf, et cetera) and a class (shaman, mage, warrior, et cetera).

I got the game for my thirteenth birthday, in March of 2005, and somehow managed to play only occasionally until that summer, when I became hopelessly addicted, often playing for upward of fourteen hours a day. The addiction lasted through the summer, during which I rarely bathed, ate, left the house, or did anything but play WoW. By fall my room was littered with rotting food and unwashed clothes, and bedsheets covered my windows. I didn’t consider myself to be addicted, but dedicated. I cherished the fact that I was capable of spending my time doing just one thing. My favorite moment of the day was when I wandered through the silent house at dawn after a fourteen-hour session, impressed by the feeling of remembering what it felt like to walk. I’ve rarely been happier than I was during that time.

Most of my time in Warcraft wasn’t even spent questing, but simply “exploring” the game—walking my character across Azeroth’s forty distinct in-game zones while listening to music or imagining my own story lines. I spent whole days walking through the World with an almost obsessive fascination and appreciation for the game’s atmosphere: its infinite pixelated horizon, its endlessly looping orchestral music. Often I would just stand still and rotate the in-game camera, admiring the infamously simple graphics—which were mostly swaths of a single texture with plants or rocks drawn on them—or jump my character around to admire the way their armor moved. Once the game map had been completely explored, there were various tactics that players could use to get to unfinished or hidden areas, some of which were accessible only by a technique called “wall jumping,” wherein a player would jump directly at a wall for hours until they found an invisible hole that allowed them into the unpolished world beyond, making exploring in the game a literally endless endeavor.

Sometimes I took a rare break from the game to watch videos of other people playing. There were thousands of videos with millions of views, many of them produced by Chinese players; the most popular being of rogues engaging in PvP combat, displaying their ability to kill others with a single strike. The best videos didn’t show just PvP footage, but created entire story lines around their characters through graphic cutaways and text overlays (often in Chinese) that created a narrative of their character simply being a good person in a bad world, or being a hopeless romantic, et cetera, all of it tied together with a soundtrack of My Chemical Romance and Evanescence songs, and interspliced with footage of them effortlessly and viciously killing other players.

My computer became a kind of cathedral that I built and rebuilt over the years, constantly replacing the graphics card, memory, and CPU in order to see the game more clearly, to enter into the world as much as possible. I adjusted the user interface (the buttons and elements on the screen that control the character’s actions) almost daily, tinkering with it in an attempt to put as small a barrier between myself and the world on the screen.

But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to simply play the game or to optimize my computer. So during the summer of 2007, while I was deep into the game’s first expansion pack, The Burning Crusade, I started playing the game on drugs.

Up till that point I’d occasionally played after smoking weed and had tried to play on shrooms, before realizing that the high was too intense to play the game properly. But that summer, inspired by reading’s Experience Vaults forums, on which people recount their own drug usage in great detail, I started experimenting with taking minor amounts of the cold medicine Robitussin, which in larger doses apparently produces the strongest psychedelic experience one can have, due to the high levels of dextromethorphan it contains. On Erowid, people documented drinking so much Robitussin (“Robotripping,” as they called it) that they literally tripped themselves into other universes and were able to transcribe full conversations that they’d had with aliens. I never went that far, instead limiting myself to about five times the suggested dose, or about ten tablespoons, which I swallowed in between taking bites of a banana to try to stave off the revolting Robitussin taste. With my sensory sensitivity at a peak, I would wrap myself in a blanket and sit down in front of the computer in the evening, then play until dawn, when the luster of the drugs wore off with the rising run.

Robitussin was like a new computer, a graphics card in itself. On a mild dose it feels as though you’re always about to become high, as though you’re permanently “coming up.” But you never do, and instead remain in a constant state of mild highness that consists mostly of a euphoric body high coupled with vision that is both blurred and slightly enhanced, as though you’re looking at the world through tears. The new outer-space-jungle areas of the expansion pack were slurred, and swam lucidly on the screen. The acts of killing, interacting with another player, or even just walking through the atmosphere seemed like miracles. I played on drugs intermittently that whole summer, then stopped before the beginning of the school year. The only other time I played on any sort of drug was during the winter of 2008, while playing the Return of the Lich King expansion pack, when I sniffed raw peppermint leaves in order to keep myself awake longer, a method, I’d read, that Beethoven and Voltaire used.

After that winter, my playtime staggered, and by the end of 2009 I’d stopped playing completely. I tried to play again in 2014, but couldn’t justify spending my time questing in a game, as opposed to working in an increasingly gamified reality. When I think back on the game, I think of the World—of the rocky red terrain of Durotar, the rocky beige terrain of The Barrens, or the green jungle terrain (with trees) of Stranglethorn Vale—and the game’s humor. There’s just no real-life corollary to spending half your day trying to converse with a player in China, from whom you’ve just purchased in-game gold with real money; raiding a dungeon with forty other mentally ill people; or having a three-hour argument with a literal child on the in-game chat, all while sitting at your desk. Sometimes I’ll try watching a gameplay video, but I won’t be able to stand it for more than a couple of minutes, as I’ll find the changes made to the game —the endless amount of new areas, classes, and races, and the game’s vast oversimplification—genuinely depressing.


Patrick McGraw is the editor of  Heavy Traffic.