WoW and Public Self-Consciousness
Think back to your first day playing WoW.
I remember mine. I rolled a druid and worked through the first few levels in the old Night Elf starting area. I died for the first time (and then, subsequently, several more times) to the satyr in the bottom of the cave filled with the hopping demon grells. I think he turned into a cat after a few seconds of combat, and I would die every time. A few weeks later, I gave up on the druid at some point during questing in Darkshore – getting murdered over and over again by Murkdeep was too annoying for words.
Next I tried a Forsaken warlock. My friends had told me I should be getting professions, because I could make some money from them. So I picked up skinning and leatherworking because it seemed like everything I killed said that it was skinable. This character made it to around level 35, and I chose gear for her that looked interesting or had stats that sounded like I wanted them. Who wouldn’t want to be stronger, or more agile? I tried a dungeon for the first time (Shadowfang Keep), and when a generous party member offered to enchant my chest, I took off my robe and tried to trade it to him. A few explanations in party chat later, and my Forsaken covered up her shame with a newly enchanted robe.
I loved my warlock, but the few real life friends who played WoW were all Alliance, so I rolled a new warlock – this time a gnome. My choices, then, were only humans or gnomes and I thought the humans were boring. I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of a gnome, though this changed quite a bit in time. My friends rolled new characters so that they could level alongside me, but then a strange thing began to happen. I started to have a vague sense of what I was doing, and how to do it better. I began to play more often than my friends, and quickly outleveled them. Around the time my warlock entered her 30s, I realized I would need to find something to do that would both let me spend time in game and allow my friends to catch up to me.
I had experimented with PvP before, to the extent that some random Blood Elf paladin who offered to group with my warlock for quests in Ashenvale dragged me all the way to the entrance to Arathi Basin for my first attempt at a battleground. It went, perhaps, better than could have been expected. As soon as I zoned into AB, a map of the battleground popped up on my screen (as I recall, I think it was an add-on gone awry), and I couldn’t figure out how to minimize the map, which was taking up pretty much my whole screen. I ran around, trying to see what was going on, getting completely lost, and complaining in BG chat that I couldn’t get the map off my screen and “No, hitting M isn’t working.” It was over quickly, and my first impressions were mostly that it was a weird kind of a thing, and very chaotic.
By the time my gnome warlock got interested in PvP, I had (thankfully) resolved the add-on problem. Arathi Basin was the only battleground I’d done before, and the only one whose strategy made any sense to me, so I would always just queue for it. Usually, I defended stables. I would hide out in the little bush by the waterfall, and stick my voidwalker inside of the buiding. I thought this was a pretty clever trick. Sometimes I killed my opponents, but usually I didn’t. I could generally stay alive long enough that someone would come to help me defend. I died a lot, and it didn’t bother me one bit.
That warlock made it all the way to 70, and got to do some pretty cool stuff along the way. A few times, when I was able to find a group to do the Outland dungeons, I got a sense that maybe I wasn’t playing my character exactly how I should. I seemed to take this thing called “agro” a lot, and I wasn’t really sure why. I was using my voidwalker to kill a mob, like I always did while I was questing. By this point, someone had turned me on to Recount, so I could look at the numbers on there and have a vague idea of what I was doing. It wasn’t until WotLK was released and my friends and I ran Nexus for the first time that I realized something might be wrong with those numbers, too. “Hey, you’re almost beating the tank,” one of my friends said in what was supposed to be an encouraging way. You’re supposed to beat the tank? I thought.
This was the beginning of a weird revelation for me: I’d been playing this game for several months now, enjoying myself and constantly learning new things. But I hadn’t learned enough new things. I was doing it wrong. I was bad at WoW, and worse, now I knew that I was bad at WoW.
This is kind of an interesting thing in psychology, the point at which we become aware of ourselves as we are perceived by other people. Private self-consciousness is a tendency to examine our inner self and feelings, but public self-consciousness is the sense that other people are reviewing and (perhaps) judging our actions as well. It’s as if you’ve spent the last hour laughing at a joke, and suddenly realize that the joke was about you. The old saying, “Ignorance is bliss?” It’s completely true; I was having a wonderful time being very bad at playing WoW until I realized that there were other players out there who were much better than I was at playing the game. It wasn’t a sense of jealousy that made this difficult to stomach, it was an overwhelming feeling of embarrassment. How long had this been going on? How many people had realized just how bad I was as I was happily bouncing along, skinning mobs and disrobing for enchants?
I’ve had this on my mind the last few days thanks, mostly, to some amazing emails I’ve been exchanging with Zaralynda about (among many other things) the ways we learn and progress in WoW. I have to assume that the majority of us had a moment like this, when we realized that this game was bigger than we anticipated and that we only knew the tiniest bit of what we should. This is an entirely different realization than discovering that you’re bad at a single-player game because it’s a matter of public shame. I am doing something wrong and everyone else knows.
I thought about this again last night, when I asked for help getting started on a PvP priest. (Thanks again to all of you who took the time to comment both here and on Twitter. Your encouragement sent me into battle in WSG for the first time this morning, and I had a blast.) I realized, as I was replying to Cynwise’s comment, that the main reason I had been so hesitant to go into a battleground on my priest was that I was afraid – afraid of failing.
Where the hell did this come from? I wondered. Wasn’t I the same person who recklessly threw myself into PvP on a toon I’d played for only a month or two? Didn’t she die over and over again, and weren’t those deaths largely my own fault? When was the turning point at which I became too self-conscious about other players’ perceptions of my skill level?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do your best. There is no shame at all in trying to improve yourself and evening the playing field as much as you can by doing the research that will prepare you. But reconciling this drive to improve with a reasonable level of confidence in yourself is essential to enjoying your experience in WoW. Being unwilling to try new things (whether those things are raiding, heroic dungeons, or battlegrounds) because you’re afraid your performance won’t be perfect on the first try is not a Good Thing.
Do you remember a moment when you became conscious of the way other players perceived you in WoW? What reaction did you have to this perception? Did you change the way you played because of this? If you are now a more experienced player, how much do you worry about failure now, and what effect does that have on how you play the game?