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Letter from Azeroth

I’ve subscribed to Harper’s Magazine ever since high school, and it has easily influenced the way I think, and the things I value, far more than any other publication. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’m a bit of a fanboy for once-editor Lewis Lapham, who made the magazine what it is today. I have fond memories of seeing him do a reading at a St. Paul bookstore about a decade ago, absent-mindedly rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet as he read some winding, über-erudite essay comparing television journalism with the pagan rites of imperial Rome. (And, in case you’re wondering, there are politics geeks in this world who are as maladjusted and cringeworthy as any pudgy Captain Kirk-wannabe you’ve ever met.)

These days, Lapham is a sort of emeritus editor at Harper’s, and he doesn’t write his “Notebook” column every month. But his newest column (not yet available online) is a doozy. First, he heads to New York’s storied Rainbow Room for a panel discussion featuring foreign policy heavies Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinsky, and Brent Scowcroft. He tweaks the airy pretensions of these supposed wise men, and then notes that the United States may no longer be capable of effectively waging war, for reasons more sociological than geopolitical: Wars are powered by warriors, and too many Americans today see war as senseless, not noble. (John Keegan’s A History of Warfare is now on my Amazon wishlist, not that I need more ginormous non-fiction books around the house.)

And then, as casually as he might announce that he prefers Orange Pekoe over Earl Grey, he lets slip that this mandarin of American letters has been trying out a pasttime that even his own grandchildren might see as hopelessly crass:

I was reminded of the oversight soon after the Rainbow Room briefing when I came across the Internet game World of Warcraft, said to be played by as many as 8.5 million combatants located at all points of the geopolitical compass who pay $15 a month to pursue their dreams of godlike power in the online world of Azeroth. My guest pass granted access to the kingdoms Mulgore and Durotar, brought with it directions to the battlefields in the Burning Crusade, explained how to spot the differences between a Troll, a Silithid insect, and an Orc, when to beware the Blood Elves in Azshara, where to gather magic spells with which to ring the Scarab Gong or maybe assemble the Scepter of the Shifting Sands. Lost for an hour in the Elwynn Forest among the Murloc Oracles of Crystal Lake, I began to hope for rescue by Kissinger or Brzezinski, operating as the online avatars Bismarck and Maximus, sending reinforcements (in the personae of dwarves and shadow priests) from their computers in Washington.

Holy shit Lewis Lapham played WoW??!? The man who studied under C.S. Lewis at Cambridge, who dissed Roman Polanski while testifying in a British court, whose great-grandfather was a founder of Texaco, and who of all things doesn’t know how to make his own coffee—this same Lewis Lapham somehow got online, made a character, and played WoW? How on Earth did this happen? That’s like Prince trying out for American Idol. Or Thomas Pynchon getting a Twitter account.

By the way, sci-fi MMOG Eve Online just hired an economist, who’ll be publishing reports on in-world issues such as inflation. I’m not the only one who thinks this is going to get interesting: Judging from the comments attached to this announcement, it looks like there are a number of EO players with strong interests in economics themselves.

If you ask me, Eve Online sounds far more interesting than WoW or Second Life, but that’s exactly why I stay away. For somebody with my interests, a game with a realistic economy, complex organizational dynamics, and vicious backstabbing would be like a bottomless bag of crack cocaine. But if Lewis Lapham started playing, who’s to say? I mean, being a member of his corporation would be pretty badass.

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