Escaping Azeroth

Addicted to World of Warcraft – an excerpt from Wish Lanterns by Alec Ash


Snail flew on dragon-back across the Great Sea of Azeroth. He soared over the islands of Kezan and Zandalar, and above the candy swirl of the Maelstrom vortex which hides the aquatic city of Nazjatar, to land on the western continent of Kalimdor. To the south were the Caverns of Time, where the dread wyrm Nozdormu lay undisturbed since the War of the Ancients. Snail let him lie a few aeons more, and set off across the Abyssal Sands to where his true foe lurked.

Meanwhile, in the flesh-and-blood realm of the Internet bar outside the east gate of China Mining and Technology University, Snail stared at pixels on a screen. His lunch breaks in World of Warcraft had turned into afternoons, the afternoons into evenings, the evenings into days. He skipped lectures, blagged assignments, and designed a rota with his classmates who took turns covering for each other at roll call. Soon he was spending ten hours a day in Azeroth. All-night sessions were a regular habit. His longest marathon was sixty hours straight—three days and two nights—eating hot meals for five yuan out of boxes trolleyed by, washing them down with sugary drinks to keep his energy high. His mouse hand darted purposefully as his fingers tapped and clicked like gunfire. His eyes never left his avatar, a scantily clad female elf mage. 

Un’Goro Crater steamed to the west. The air was humid and the devilsaurs were wild. Passing out of the sands, he skirted the Lakkari Tar Pits to the foot of Fire Plume Ridge, a looming mountain of volcanic rock. It’s a good spot for mining essence of fire, if you can withstand the temperatures of up to 428,000 degrees Kraklenheit. At the peak lived Blazerunner, a powerful fire elemental best snuffed out with the Silver Totem of Aquementas. Snail began the long climb.

It was more than an escape: the game offered a sense of accomplishment that three-dimensional life lacked. On campus he was just another country boy in the city, and when he graduated he would be just another worker ant. In World of Warcraft he was someone, with experience and gold and war gear that commanded the respect of other players. But at the back of his mind he recognised his compulsion. It was the brain buzz, the dopamine rush when he hit that glowing power-on button or heard the sound of the game firing up, promising hours of oblivion. Just thinking about it triggered a cycle of desire and response he could no longer fight. His right brain compelled him to play even as his left brain told him not to. He knew he was wasting time, that his elf ’s achievements meant nothing outside the fantasy world. He tried to quit again and again. But he always came back. 

The summit was in sight. Green smoke hung in the air and lava veined the mountainside. The heat was unbearable, and Snail was losing health as fast as he could replenish it with spells. Blazerunner would be nearby now, poised for the ambush. Snail climbed a craggy ridge and charged his mana, steeling himself for the battle ahead— oblivious to a new danger in the south-east. 

At the entrance to the Internet bar, two humanoids walked in. They were older than the usual clientele, wearing shabby clothing and with a rough look to them. Prowling the aisles they scanned the hundreds-strong sea of gamers, each face buried in its monitor. Sighting their unsuspecting target, they honed in on him with terrifying speed and accuracy. 

Snail pulled out the Silver Totem of Aquementas, holding it high to shine forth in righteous light. But raising his eyes he faced the surprise attack from a more fearsome enemy still. It reared out of nowhere above his screen, with fiery eyes that sent an icy chill through his bones, the two-headed dread demon—his mum and dad. 


Snail was so fixated on the game that he hadn’t conceived of peril from outside it. His monitor was tucked away in the dark at the back of the bar, next to the VIP seating. Of all interruptions the last he expected was his parents, whom he had left behind in his village in Anhui. Ever since his supervisor first rang to tell them about his gaming habit, his mum had urged him to stop. Now she had recruited his father, and together they had orchestrated the intervention.

The next minute was a blur, but Snail remembers his father yanking him by his ear clear out of his seat, dragging him down the aisle and bundling him out of the Internet bar before he could even log out of his account. While his elf floundered in the lava, rudderless, Snail was pulled out of World of Warcraft to face something he hadn’t seen in a long time: sunlight. 

The Chinese Health Ministry first declared Internet addiction a clinical disorder in 2008, but the media had diagnosed it long before. The definition (alarmingly) was spending six or more hours online a day. Network games were dubbed ‘electronic heroin’ by state experts, rotting the brains of the nation’s youth, and the number of Internet addicts was estimated in the tens of millions. Cartoon policemen popped up on screens, telling gamers to take a break. In 2005, a South Korean played for fifty hours without eating or sleeping, and died at his keyboard. Another picture that did the rounds later was of a Taiwanese gamer found dead in an Internet bar, with rigor mortis so that one arm still stretched towards the keyboard, the other reaching for the mouse. 

For Snail, the game didn’t feel like an addiction—it felt like home. His perspective was like that of the film War of Internet Addiction, uploaded to Chinese video sites in early 2010 by the user ‘sexy corn’. A feature-length machinima film, made using screengrabs of live-action play from within World of Warcraft, it starts as a pastiche of the Terminator films and goes on to criticise government censorship of gaming. ‘We are the generation that grew up playing games,’ one digital troll (of the literal, green kind) says in an impassioned speech to his censor. ‘Our love of the game and the vulnerable position of its players in this society has not changed . . . What sucked us in was not the game but the sense of belonging the game gave to us. We dutifully go to work in crowded buses. We consume our food despite the unknown chemicals inside. We don’t complain about our pitiful salaries . . . Why can’t we have one yuan per hour of cheap fun?’ 

The censor is impassive. ‘Nice speech,’ he says, ‘but it’s useless. You have a voice, so what? The power behind me can easily overwhelm all of your voices.’ 

‘How can we not speak out just because our voices are small,’ the troll replies. ‘Everyone in front of their screen, raise your hand and send your power to me. When they killed YouTube, you didn’t raise your hand. When they blocked Twitter, you didn’t raise your hand. Now we may lose WoW too. I know we’re just “fart people” . . . but at least you can raise your hand in front of your screen, and pass your voice and power to me through the web. For our only emotional home, let’s shout together: We are WoW gamers!’ 

For Snail’s mother and father, it was all a bit hard to grasp. In rural Anhui, the notion of elf mages vanquishing fire demons was remote to say the least. But they knew what slacking off was. Snail’s father reminded him of the opportunities he had by going to university, and of the whole family’s sacrifice to get him there. With a degree, his could be the first generation of the Miao family to settle in a city. Snail had always told himself that the consequences of his time-wasting were reparable, that he could catch up on work. But when they talked with his student supervisor it became clear that he was too far behind, and the unthinkable happened. There was no choice but for him to drop out. 

When it came to getting his head right, Snail’s parents weren’t taking any chances. With the supervisor’s help, the first time his mother used the Internet was to look up the website for an Internet-addiction rehab centre. ‘Internet Addiction!’ blared a prominent warning on the site, over an image of a skeleton sitting at a keyboard with headphones on. ‘The heartache of so many parents! The “poison” of so many children!’ There was an equation to drive the point home: ‘Quitting Internet Addiction = Helping our Youth to Mature their Spirit + Improving Family Education.’ Below was an address. 

From the outside, the detox camp looked like a school. There were no barred windows or barbed-wire fences, just a gated entrance and a receptionist. Even still, these institutions have a reputation. They are in essence private boot camps with military discipline and Internet-addiction therapy, and there is no way to get online once inside. There are also persistent rumours of rough physical treatment, and at some facilities electro-shock treatment is part of the cure. Among roughly three hundred such centres in China, there have been seven reported deaths.

At the camp which Snail’s father took him to, on the outskirts of West Beijing, their approach seemed to be to bore patients into mental health. One of the managers gave them a brisk tour of the premises. There was little to see: spartan dorm rooms, offices, lecture rooms and an exercise yard. Enrollees stayed for two or three months before being released as productive members of society. They slept in bunk beds and rose at the crack of dawn, wearing army fatigues just like in school military training. Each day was scheduled tightly with drills, chores and agonisingly dull group therapy sessions about the perils of the Internet. When a new inmate entered the camp any electronic device beyond a digital watch was confiscated, and there were regular sweeps for stashed mobiles. The only computers were in the administrative offices, under lock and key. 

No one was forced to enrol, in theory. Every new arrival signed themselves over to the camp’s tender loving care. But in practice it was the parents who made the decision, and the child who for better or worse had no choice but to comply. The pot-bellied manager talked only to Snail’s parents, speechifying about the troubled post-80s kids as if Snail wasn’t there. Only at the end of the tour did the manager look at him, to say just four words. 

‘We can cure you.’