When Duty Calls: A Noob's Journey
Before I played Call of Duty (CoD) with people I actually knew, I went to the Gamerz Lounge with Baz, Critic’s Games Editor, who was to be my trainer. He played first, so I could see what all the controls do. For the uneducated, an Xbox controller has two twirly handles, or “joysticks,” to use the technical term. One of them moves the screen around, and the other one moves your character. Both must be employed in order to move with maximum effectiveness. The front left button zooms in, and the right front button shoots. The blue button is “reload” (and also “respawn,” which is what I had to use it as more frequently). The red button is crouch. I thought these two buttons were in each other’s places, and kept accidentally crouching when I was trying to respawn; the lounge had to cope with me verbally abusing their property for “not letting me run.” I now see that this was my bad. Everyone I spoke to assured me that learning the controls was the hardest part – once I had it down, “in a couple of weeks,” I could start being good. Well, I had five days, and it was time to get acquainted with the next game.
After attempting CoD, World of Warcraft (WoW) was a welcome relief, not least because we got to sit at desk-mounted PCs rather than the limbless floor-chairs CoD required. I’d heard things about this game. Sad things; scary things; seductive things. A comforting hand was placed on my shoulder: “Are you ready?” My eyes darted floorward for a moment as I replied “no,” and then I took a breath and clicked an ancient icon of nerdery, and the log-in screen unfurled.
Before letting me create an account, though, I had to watch a trailer for The Mists of Pandaria. This is the latest expansion of WoW, and is very obviously targeting a younger demographic. The trailer was basically Kung Fu Panda 3 and was ridden with clichés (although having watched the rest of Blizzard’s trailers, this could be an ongoing stylistic issue). I did not sign up to play bamboo-jousting with a Happy Meal toy. I wanted Runescape Plus.
Baz reassured me that I wouldn’t have to play as a panda. There’s no “what to expect when you’re expecting” guide for creating a WoW account: whatever you spawn will be the embodiment of some dark part of your soul, and it’s for this reason that creating your character is one of the most intimidating parts of WoW (that, or it could have been Baz repeating the phrase “so poignant” quietly next to me). Choosing my gender was the hardest decision I’ve had to make: did I want to experience life as a male? Or did I want to be a strong, independent woman? What if I was bad at the game, and people thought it was because I was a girl and not because I spent my childhood in the real world?
Baz told me that because I would likely not reach a voice-chatting level, I should make my “avatar” as much like myself as possible so that the experience would be personalised. This is why I chose to be a female and a Worgen, which is basically a werewolf: IRL I am surprisingly hairy, and have killed people with my teeth. Team Jacob! You can also choose which “class” your avatar is – Shaman, Hunter, and Death Knight are just some of the options. I chose to be a rogue, which Rob, a gaming connoisseur, would later tell me is a class dominated by “self-interested arseholes.” Like they said, true to my real persona. I figured I’d use the same username I use for everything, Skuxslayer69. I was told, though, to “not be that person,” and instead I am Braemblers.
Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to appreciate gaming, thanks to several tortuous games of Monopoly, or maybe CoD is truly terrible. Taking a night off from The Board Game Without End, I enlisted a couple of guys for an evening of Black Ops II. I honestly do not know how they’ve managed to make so many different versions of CoD. Baz assures me the campaign narratives, when played out to the end, are emotionally stirring and fulfilling, but the vast majority of players only play “team deathmatches” and “free-for-alls,” so I’m not sure why they bother re-releasing five hundred versions of Twenty Arenas You Can Die In.
I am incapable of doing most things for extended periods of time, and my attention span is even further limited when the thing I’m doing is as monotonous as CoD deathmatches are. The first round I died a lot, and it sucked. The second round I died a lot again, and it sucked. The third round I managed to kill a few people. By halfway through the fourth round, the glee I’d first felt at not being completely useless had worn off, and I found myself going through the point-and-shoot motions with a glazed look on my face and a brewing case of cramps.
I kept playing for an hour in the hopes of rediscovering that peak I’d experienced around the twenty-fifth minute, but this game was doing more than sapping my will to live; this game nearly ruined my relationship. My boyfriend called me “quitter” and “annoying,” and said I’d thrown the controller in a fit of rage, which was a blatant lie. When I called him out on this he became even more outraged, accusing me of breaking our pact to always back up each others’ lies. I packed up my stuff and told him I was leaving because I needed “some time to myself.” Time, that is, to secretly work on what I hoped was a lacking gamer skillset and not a freshly-cemented hatred of first-person shooters.
Before I tried CoD again, though, I needed a quick fix of a lil’ somethin’ else: I snuggled up in bed and installed WoW on my home computer. “Don’t do it,” Baz had told me, “it’ll take up all your hard drive. You’ll develop an addiction.” He’d seen in my eyes that I’d be RPing as a Worgen for years after my “research.”
Different “classes” have different roles: Warriors and Death Knights are “tanks,” which means they can take a lot of damage, whereas Priests and Shamans are healers and launch attacks from a distance. Rogues are listed only as “melee damage dealers,” which means we do shit-all teamwork and a lot of pickpocketing. We are the Invisible Men. Rogue gnomes, Rob told me, are the ultimate in WoW douchebaggery. They sneak up and attack your knees; you never see them coming. What Azeroth didn’t see coming was me, a noob who immediately became one of the most hated members of WoW: a kill-thief.
The city of Gilneas was under attack by Worgen and all within it were destined for a life of wolfdom. I had a quest: to kill six of the beasts I would become. Yeah, WoW is dark as hell. I was hacking away at a Worgen when out of nowhere something flew over and smashed into it. It fell down dead, but my kill number did not go up. Some douchebag hunter and his pet dog ran over and looted the corpse that was rightfully mine.
I couldn’t believe it. I demanded that Baz explain this outrage to me; “Arten” and his mutt had stolen my kill. It was then that I truly became The Rogue. I followed Arten, using my sneakiness to jump out at Worgens he’d nearly killed and strike the final blow. I snatched four more dying beasts from under his nose. It was satisfying and easy. As a reward for my kill numbers, I was given a wolf-fur cloak. I still possessed this when, ten minutes later, I became my wolf form, an experience I found to be a near-maximum level of creepy. I needed to quit for the day.
I set the PS3 up at my house and embarked solo on the campaign mode, which I figured would teach me things incrementally rather than placing me in the Hunger Games-esque situation that is popular CoD. As well as teaching me mad skillz, I expected that the campaign would have a storyline that would keep me from growing bored … but it didn’t. Because I’m bad, I had to replay the same scenes over and over. At least when you’re playing deathmatches one after the other, there’s some variation in where and how you die.
The Black Ops II campaign is apparently set in the year 2025, even though for some reason the beginning suggests that you (David Mason) were an adult during African Jungle Communist Wars of the 1980s. Oh no, hang on – the answer is not that you’re a perma-forty-year-old, it’s that the first sequence of the campaign actually involves David’s father, Alex. I had to Google that information, because the electro-shock torture scene the campaign starts with didn’t make this information clear. It was emotionally stirring, though. Now, in 2025, Alex’s old nemesis Menendez is orchestrating cyberterrorism! David must take up the reigns and defeat this foreigner, just like his dad before him. Understanding the background, however, did not alleviate the boredom that was a ten-second loop of Angolan yelling (I didn’t make it to David’s part of the game).
In campaign mode, the exact same people do the exact same things whenever you respawn, which in my case was about once every forty seconds. I’m sure that once you’re good at shooting things, moving through the campaign is much less boring, and the online games would be better too: watching Baz play on Day One had been far more enjoyable than dying over and over and lying to myself that I was “doing really well.”
The key to CoD is knowing how to use the controller. In theory, I had this down: I could make my player do any move yelled at me, albeit very slowly. I thought I’d have been at least average within a few days, but Baz’s warning that it can take two weeks to fully master the controls was true. There was no way I was going to go through a fortnight of extreme anger, disappointment, and boredom just for the glory of being able to fully appreciate some graphic headshots.
Those who have mastered the motions of CoD really enjoy it; there are millions of them. Realising there was no way I could reach their level by the next day, I asked the experts what was so appealing about a repetitive FPS aurally dominated by shrill Australian twelve-year-olds screaming “one v one me, c*nt!” “It’s hard to give you an answer for that,” acknowledged Rob, “there are better alternatives for the genre.”
Part of the appeal, I proposed, could come from finally mastering the gameplay: “getting good” was a stage everyone I spoke to brought up, possibly because I was desperately asking how much more pain I’d have to go through. I accosted one player to find out how she got good: “it took me about six hours of straight playing to get average,” said Critic intern Josie C, before she was forced to return her focus to a game of Monopoly. Another CoD fan, Shariya, admitted that as someone who had only been a very casual gamer before being introduced to FPSs, it had taken nearly a month to become a decent player.
This information wasn’t a surprise to me after my experience, but would probably shock online reviewers who lauded the game as being “noob-friendly” with a “shallow learning curve.” I readily admitted that it might have been a shallow learning curve for someone with previous gaming experience, but for a total noob it was deeper than Eat Pray Love.
What about WoW? Was that considered noob-friendly? Strangely, no. Blizzard released World of Warcraft, possibly the world’s most famous massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), in 2004. WoW costs about US$14 per month to play, but there’s a free “starters” edition that you can play for an unlimited amount of time – you just can’t get above level 20. This year, there are about seven million monthly subscribers. That means they pay. Every month. These people are all above level 20, and I had dropped myself into their world.
I’d been warned about WoW culture because of its age: many players were left over from the early, “vanilla” WoW, or at least the early expansions, and could be elitist or rude to new players. Baz assured me, though, that in the early stages of the game I wasn’t likely to have a level 85 Orc Death Knight jump out from a tree and shank my avatar’s ass. Like keep to like, and some even welcome newbies for a reason not listed on Blizzard’s website: WoW is losing players. They needed me, and they might need you.
WoW, everyone had told me, was far more social than CoD. I definitely saw the truth in this, as my CoD player interactions were limited to the diseased coughing of adolescents and swear words. For a starter, though, WoW isn’t very social. I was unable to “whisper” or type messages, but could applaud and dance. I was hesitant to use either of these moves in front of other players because I only ever wanted to interact in order to hurl insults at them; possibly a side effect of my time playing CoD.
I could see the appeal in both of these games, but only for someone who already had skill. I could go through another month of raging against the machine to find out how great the games were, or I could just ask. “Well,” sighed my buddy the tank, when asked if CoD and WoW were all they were cracked up to be (from the perspective of someone with actual talent), “they’re no Minecraft.”