I’ve reviewed a fair chunk of the books published by Boss Fight Books here at Paste. If you’re not familiar with Boss Fight, the general idea is something like the 33 ? series or the maybe-on-hiatus Deep Focus books: an author picks a game, they “read” the game through their lens of choice, and the reader gains some type of larger appreciation for the game. This can go a lot of different ways.
The best outcome is a broader appreciation of the object through a perspective that you might not have had before: stories about development and how the thing ended up as this particular thing; stories about adversity the author went through in the context of the thing; a deep, focused reading that teases out new insight that never would have been apparent through an average reading of the book by you and me.
The worst outcome is mostly just those categories reverse. It’s the retelling of well-worn information that has peppered top ten lists for a decade. Or it’s a story of adversity that doesn’t tell us much about the game, or the author, at all. Or it’s a surface-level reading of the game that all of us could get to by playing through the game and doing a little bit of freewriting afterward.
Boss Fight Books, just like the other series’ that I mentioned, has had books that hit both those highs and those lows, and Daniel Lisi’s World of Warcraft ticks off all the boxes in the “best outcome” category. It’s a well-written, careful book that tells some great personal stories while delving into the broader context around World of Warcraft, and that additional information really sets up some parameters for Lisi to attempt to answer the central question of the book.
While Lisi only mentions it a few times, and the book certainly doesn’t frame itself this way exclusively, the running question that animates the discussion about World of Warcraft is “why do we go back?”
In a world of eternal blockbuster releases, infinite independent game opportunities, and a couple hundred years of extended boardgame production around every theme imaginable, what keeps us traveling back to Azeroth and its allied topographies in order to click on animals and hit the same four keys on the keyboard?
Lisi wavers back and forth between a few different answers. In order to avoid spoilers for the best story in the book (it really is a good one), I will just say that one of those answers is “friendship.” Another is addiction, and Lisi goes to some academic literature on the question, although I think it might be impossible to call his approach “comprehensive” (nor do I think that’s the goal here). Yet another is finding online games a haven from the pressures and realities of day to day life, and recognizing that the space of accomplishment in a videogame is just as real for many as more culturally-recognized achievements.
Lisi helps us learn quite a bit about his relationship to World of Warcraft and how it afforded or cut off certain parts of his life. He also shows how it lit a fire under him and pushed him on his current path as a game developer (although these few sections of the book are pure saccharine and a bit too much).
However, and this is my eternal complaint, we don’t learn much about World of Warcraft. Certainly we get some periodization and some snapshots of what the game looked like at various times, but there are no prolonged readings of the game. In the context of Lisi’s book, WoW is a platform that allows other things to happen on top of it, or around it. It’s an object that incubates a culture, and the real machinery of that object is left behind in pursuing an explanation of how that culture came to be. And that’s fine, of course, but one has to be on board with that going in to get the most out of this book.
Daniel Lisi’s World of Warcraft shows an excellent snapshot of a player’s experience with a game while trying to negotiate their place in both an adolescent and virtual world. It’s a quick, thoughtful read that kept me engaged throughout, and I look forward to whatever writing Lisi does in the future.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.