This Sunday, November 23rd, is the 10th Anniversary of the release of World of Warcraft. Its impact on video games cannot be understated - but its impact on wider popular culture itself can't be either. So how did a fledgling MMORPG from 2004 become still relevant to the pop culture world of today?
It's almost a strange thing to consider a Pop Culture landscape without World of Warcraft. 10 years is a long time in Pop Culture media, but at the same time it's a testament to how indelible a mark its made on not just the gaming landscape - even now you still have MMORPGs coming out dubbing themselves the 'WoW killer', a sign of the game's formidable presence in the genre it helped popularise - but on a much wider scale as well. Even if you've not played it, the word 'WoW' has become a shorthand that people recognise instantly, that draws images to mind its fantastical world and the races that inhabit it, or even the negative connotations - the tales of addiction, the stereotypical persona of the social outcast in their parent's basement - that people are just as quick to think of. Those connotations, good or bad, speak to vast swathes of people WoW has touched over its years. But how did it get there?
Partially through WoW's own willingness to cannibalise pop culture itself for its content. Warcraft might be a world of fantasy, but it's almost just as much defined by its lampoons and homages to pop culture as it is by its own storytelling at this point. Everything from the game's items and achievements with knowing nods and winks to everything from the Legend of Zelda to Paris Hilton, to whole zones and stories based on the likes of Rambo, and as you can see above, Indiana Jones. It's an almost symbiotic relationship that's grown over the years as WoW has - there's a weird sort of open-secret of pop culture that they all share and refer to each other in their own ways, homages to the icons that came before them and influenced them. It definitely started like that in WoW (I mean, a team of computer programmers and game developers is bound to have more than a few fans of Pop culture on board), but at this point WoW's self-referential nature has developed into an almost acknowledgement that it's part of that culture itself now. It can get away with it and somehow not feel cheapened by it because it's earned its own presence there as well.
And like I said, it's a symbiotic relationship - just as much as WoW has cribbed from the annals of Pop Culture history, it's given as much in turn. The game's rapidly expanding user base in its earliest days lead to a mainstream intrigued as to what the hell was getting everyone so enthralled. As the audience grew, it became the 'in' thing to reference WoW - shorthand for establishing a character's geekiness in an instant as much in fictional worlds as it was in the real world at that point. Warcraft just sort of seeped everywhere, like a cultural osmosis. At the height of the game's popularity going into The Burning Crusade that was perhaps crystallised the most in the now-iconic South Park Season 10 opener, Make Love, Not Warcraft - lampooning the playerbase and, what is arguably still a pretty radical thing, known for its use of Machinima (footage captured using in-game assests) for a considerable chunk of the episode. Although it's not reached such a zenith since, it still help define Warcraft not just as a home for Pop Culture references, but was huge enough on its own have become one itself.
But perhaps above all, like with all Pop culture, it's the people who play it that have given WoW both its longevity as a videogame and its position as one of Pop Culture's greats.
This huge, virtual World has been a living playground for millions and millions of people (as of December last year Blizzard estimated that over 100 million accounts have been registered for the game over its lifespan), becoming part of their lives in ways no other piece of media really can. A TV show can run for a decade, but you're not actively engaged or participating in it, meeting people through it. Games are immersive in ways other forms of entertainment simply aren't, and through that Warcraft has gathered an audience all over the world, from all walks of life. The video above, a documentary released a few weeks ago to celebrate WoW's 10th anniversary, is symbolic of the breadth of its audience - Men, Women, young, old, famous, average joe, anyone and everyone could find their place in World of Warcraft and play together. The game broke down barriers through the layers of its fantasy world that created friendships and relationships which bled out of Azeroth and into the real world (the tale of husbands and wives having met playing Warcraft is an often told tale, as it is in the above documentary). It was, and still is, a unifying experience for so many people - an experience important enough that for some it's even become a monument to their lives, the always sobering list of in-game tributes to deceased players immortalised in WoW emblematic of the impact it can have on people.
That weird relationship the game could bring to people created memories that will last people their lives - it's not just nostalgia for the game's content, but memories of the people they've met and befriended over a decade of interacting with each other. Those memories, those social interactions, are powerful emotions that have defined people's relationship with World of Warcraft in a way that almost defines our relationship with Pop Culture in general. It's rare that a video game can become such a personal experience in the way Warcraft players approach WoW, and it brings it to the level reserved for true Pop Culture greats: that it's not necessarily the media itself that is important or what makes it popular culture, but the fans and people who have loved it.
And so we come to today - Anniversary events have begun in the game (that's my character above, a Night Elf Hunter, with her 10th Anniversary pet, the adorably cute Molten Corgi!), a throwback to the popular content of old, just as the newest content, a whole expansion's worth of it, is sinking in for players. There's something potent about that mix of looking back and looking forward happening concurrently, but above all it speaks to the legacy of WoW. In the run up to Blizzard's semi-annual fan convention Blizzcon earlier this month, there were a lot of interviews which declared the developer's intent for WoW to last at least another 10 years, but honestly I think it has the draw to last far beyond that. Because the memories forged through it, relationships and friendships all over the world, will last for lifetimes. In cementing its place in Popular Culture as well as the hearts of millions, WoW has found an immortality that will last far beyond the servers and pixels that make up Azeroth.
Happy Birthday, World of Warcraft. Here's to the next 10 years, and beyond. You've certainly earned it.
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