The view of the Earth from the moon fascinated me -- a small disk, 240,000 miles away. It was hard to think that that little thing held so many problems, so many frustrations. Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don't show from that distance. — Frank Borman, Apollo 8.
As astronauts blast into the dark frontier of space, their minds look with wonder at the mystery before them. Distant moons, quasars, asteroids and comets spinning out their lives, impossibly far away, impossibly numerous and impossibly alien. Yet the most sobering experience many space travellers have is not from looking outward -- which most of them have done all their lives.
No, the most altering moment is when they look back, and for the first time in their lives, they see our Earth, suspended like a drop of shining blue water in an infinite sea of black.
Our understanding of a place hinges almost entirely on our individual perspective, the point of view from which we observe that place. From inside, almost any environment can seem comprehensive, all-encompassing and immersive. Anyone who has ever visited their former high school after many years will understand how the transition from insider to outsider vastly changes the nature of that place. Not only do the classrooms and hallways seem smaller, but so too do the rivalries, difficulties, and even the friendships and pleasures the place offered. As an adult, you can simply walk out of the gates, get in your car and go away. The whole grounds seem tiny, enclosed and just another small part of a much larger, infinitely more complex world.
Azeroth is a big place -- if you’re inside it. I remember quite clearly the first time my Night Elf warrior jogged to the crest of the first big hill in Ashenvale. The sweep of the Ashenvale basin spread out before me, and the sheer size of the continents began to dawn on me. I realised, as I checked my maps and counted up the zones, that my journey through Warcraft would be a long one. More than seven years have passed since I first set out upon that journey, and though I have taken substantial holidays from Warcraft, I have recently returned to the realm. A little like returning to high school, the game feels in some ways smaller, though if anything, there is more in it.
And then I saw it, I saw a whole world of Warcraft, sitting on a table. Like Julian Dibbell witnessing the LambdaMOO server at Xerox for the first time -- I knew what to expect, more or less, but it was no less a surreal experience. And I was only looking at a photo of the real thing, I can only imagine what it would feel like to hold the entirety of Azeroth, Outland, all its races, the Alliance and the Horde, Onyxia and Hogger, Ironforge and Warsong Gulch -- the entire history of a world -- in my hands. Or to buy it from Blizzard, with proceeds being donated to the St Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
The_Author realises now that during all those months he never really doubted LambdaMOO was in this box, compact, condensed, its rambling landscapes and its teeming population all somehow shrunk down to the size of The Server's hard-disk drive. – Julian Dibbell, My Tiny Life
The artificiality of the world of Azeroth was never a mystery -- any gameworld is obviously a product of human design. But that does not diminish the significance of my memories. There was the grind to farm my leather for a tanking set, so I could step into Karazhan. There were the times, when off-tanking Gruul whre I couldn’t help but overtake the main tank’s threat generation, mixing pride with sheepish guilt if he took the vicious strike I was there to soak up. But all these pale in comparison to the social, political and personal relationships that had little to do with ludic goals.
I started a guild before I knew about raids and had no concept of a raiding schedule. Yet we had a good time. The days of my 'Flickering Colours' guild are my fondest memories of the whole game, a convivial family of friends playing for fun, rather than calculated progress. I met friends who are now long, long forgotten, but in those few months were terribly important.
Though many are gone, some of my longest acquaintances began and have been maintained almost exclusively through Warcraft. One of the two has since moved on to The Old Republic, but I chat to him almost every day regardless. Another was still there, in Azeroth, waiting to welcome me back and reminisce about old times -- times we both know will never be replicated no matter how many pieces of gear we transmogrify. There is the girlfriend, then fiancée, then wife who I can still play with, share a space and quest with, and who is the only reason I have gone back to play at all.
When you step outside of your world, whether it’s high school, the planet or a fictional universe, your perspective changes: it enlarges. I realise that the blade server on which the copy of Warcraft resides is a small thing, and one of many you can stack on top of each other, turn on and turn off, and put in a closet for storage. But the measure of the world is not in physical size, or even gigabytes of memory. The measure is in time. Blizzard inscribed the active lifespan of the server on each one they retired because of the importance of when.
There will never be another time like the first years of my Warcraft history, so no matter what other places into which I will venture, I will not find the same feelings, experiences and adventures. Slowly, I have come to accept this. Like high school, I wouldn’t want to go back, back to my ignorance, back to a certain kind of solitude that allowed me to start playing. I will remember, and maybe visit for a while, but I don’t think I’ll ever live there again.
There is perhaps no better a demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. — Carl Sagan