Video game addiction may be on the fringe of accepted medical conditions, but in so far as video games are addicting WoW is the standard by which all others are compared. (See the link at the end of this post; WoW is front and center on the Video Game Addiction website’s “Most Addicting Game Page) I think it’s clear that the increased sense of community in WoW is a major part of why the game is so addicting. But many games have this sort of social feature, allowing for prolonged interaction between players (The Sims for instance) yet none such games have quite the addictive reputation of WoW.
There seems to be something about WoW which makes it an especially appealing video game, and I think a part of this is the way the social structure is defined. In WoW it is not just that the goals are clear, as is the case in every game, a person’s position is clear and furthermore it is lasting; a person keeps their level and their gear (unless tragedy should befall) and thus keeps their status among the other players. This is to say that the game features a defined and relatively stable social hierarchy; if person A is in a superior position to person B, and person B is in a superior position to person C, then person A is in a superior position to person C. Moreover, a person’s place relative to other players is very easy to attain, since it is defined by numerical levels displayed to other players, and gear which is visible to other players. This simplified socialization allows for a player to have a defined social status within the game; being a level 60 with good gear is an evidently better position than being a level 6 with poor gear. And the game’s medieval feel matches nicely this social structure. Medieval politics is a paradigmatic example of a defined social hierarchy. The social difference between serf, knight, lord, earl, duke, and king are neatly categorized, so that everyone knows there position relative to everyone else. This adds a bit of narrative sense to the game’s social structure.
I think this is one of the most attractive features of WoW. In a world where a person’s place in the larger community is increasingly complex, to the point of being undefined, WoW offers a clear structure where a person’s inferiors and superiors is recognizable at first glance. And who doesn’t desire this sort of clarity in social place? In modern life, a person’s social value is almost never set from one group to another; rather we are asked to adopt many different social roles based on the particular setting we are in, (are you the same person around your colleagues, family, friends ad significant other?) and recognizing and adopting to these differences can cause frustration and anxiety. But in WoW there is no need to recognize shifting social status; it is numerically defined for you.
Think of some of the more ubiquitous T.V. shows of the past decade, like “Game of Thrones” or “The Sopranos”. These shows focus on a social system with a fairly defined social hierarchy, where success and failure is greeted by reward and punishment within that system. While this sort of system does have its inevitable drawbacks, I think it is easy to see how attractive that level of social simplicity is at times.