Personal: The Grind (a true story, part 1)

Way back when, when games were bought in stores, no one streamed their exploits (but we recorded them with FRAPS), and 1080p at 40fps was considered a great gaming experience, I played WoW.

WoW was more an interactive chat environment for me, a place to explore, to communicate, and to meet new people. The hyper-Christian father of six, the former sex worker turned lawyer, the grandmother, everyone was special, often fun, sometimes drama, to be around.

Then came that fateful day I found PvP, player vs. player. First it was just a way to relieve some stress in the evenings. As a new player, neither possessing the armor and weapons nor the experience, most of my PvP experience consisted of running back from the game's graveyard towards my comrades, getting “killed” quickly, and repeating the exercise.

The game, however, also rewarded the losers. Not as well as the winners, of course, but just participating or, ideally, being in the winning team, meant to gain points that could be spent on better weapons and armor as well as cosmetic changes, such as “titles” that were displayed to other players.

A few weeks of losing, learning, eventually winning a few times in a row, and I was hooked. No longer did I explore Azeroth, the planet, or participate in 5- and 40-man “raids” of more complicated content... I was constantly “in queue,” waiting to be thrust into a player vs. player fight, or fighting.

My in-game connections changed, too. My “guild,” the social groups of players that formed in WoW, was focused on beating computer generated monsters in dungeons, while I was fighting other players. While I remained a member (and guild master) of the guild, I barely interacted with them anymore. Instead, I found new compadres, people whose history I didn't know, who barely offered their real world backgrounds, and whose conversations focused on how to beat which player on the other side, and who needed how many points to advance in rank.

Ranking was a fickle system. Not only based it on kills and not being killed, it also weighed each player against all others, both in a percentile and direct sliding scale. While many people could reach the rank of, say, Legionnaire (Rank 8), much fewer would make it to General (Rank 12), and only one slot was open at all times for High Warlord (Rank 14).

Ranks were calculated during the weekly “maintenance” downtime, when all servers were disconnected and the scores tallied (as well as patches applied and other things).

We usually met an hour before the servers came back up, using VoIP technologies such as Teamspeak, later Mumble, and planned the week. Going from Rank 9 to 10, I felt the trepidation for the first time: did I make it?

When, four weeks later, I reached Rank 11, I decided to call it a day after 12. “General” was a great title. Going from 11 to 12 meant to “grind” every day, at least 8 hours of playing, at least 6 weeks, and winning at least 75% of all games. So I did it. But then “Warlord” (13) sounded good and reachable, after all it was only 10 weeks out.

On my way to Warlord, things changed. I didn't, I already had. I'd become reclusive, antisocial, and overweight. I'd lost a lot of sleep, and my health had deteriorated. To fall asleep, I drank. To wake up, I tossed pills against the hangover and coffee against the lack of sleep. Then I played.

What changed wasn't me, I'd already become “that guy,” it was my environment which, much more forgiving and slower to judge than myself, wandered off. My friends, relationship, family, and job evaporated. It didn't matter. I had the game and the Grind.

My days looked the same: get up, make coffee, toss pills, reheat pizza or just eat it cold, log into the game. Open Mumble. Greet everyone who was there, briefly deride the one player who had a life and wasn't coming online, then jump into the queue for Battlegrounds. Unnoticed by me, but the more felt by others, my depression reared its ugly head more and more, only placated by the next win in combat or the next trophy acquired.

I usually played until I found myself asleep on the computer. This only happened when the queues were longer, if we jumped from battleground to battleground I often made it for 24 hours or more. Coffee and sugar conspired to keep me awake and additionally reduce my insulin sensitivity as a lasting gift.

Upon reaching Rank 13, Warlord, I had lost everything outside the game. Everything I owned was a computer, an overdue room, an unpaid Internet account in collections, and my pixels. New armor, new weapons, new titles.

There was only one more step: High Warlord. Rank 14. 12 weeks, at least, of never failing. 12 weeks of at least 14 hours of playing the game. 12 weeks during which the slightest failure, falling asleep, not logging in, not winning, would cost me all.

And, of course, the title was highly sought after. My compadres had to agree to stand back, to let me have the points. Not only did they have to work with me, twelve weeks, seven days a week, 14+ hours a day, they also had to keep me alive, control dangers, and tack on another Grind to theirs until their time came. I'd done this for others, and now I wanted it to be my turn.

The conversation was hard. Some wanted the title for themselves, a few left the team in a huff, adding more hours to the “feeder” duties of the remaining players. Others didn't think I could do it or deserved it, among other things I played a Priest, a support and healer, not killer, role in the game. Warriors and Mages were the favored classes at that time.

Yet, as the servers reset and a new week dawned, it was decided: I would go for High Warlord.

[In part 2 we'll follow the 12 weeks to High Warlord, the high cost of winning, and what happened after them. Will I make it? You'll find out]