The essay I found most illuminating from Ian Bogost’s How to Do Things with Video Games was far and away “Travel,” not to discredit his digging in many other fields, not because it was particularly interesting or pleasing but because it challenged my conceptions. Transport transforming how human’s conceive of space and each other (the world gets smaller) isn’t a profound thought to have, but how means of transport have encouraged mediums – like the railroad novel – or been the formative part of a particular text’s narrative (as in Grand Theft Auto) intrigued me. New technologies for travel have certainly changed humanity drastically and their depiction can shed light on how exactly they have changed us.
I believe we, as low levels without mounts in World of Warcraft, can agree travel is painful. Running to and fro delivering magical bits or retrieving ears to prove your battle prowess and earn valuable experience is tiring. You’re forced to experience every footfall along your quest, for one giving eye time to the hard work of the environment designers but also enforcing a sort of character realism – you really have to walk across town to get to that particular shop, enact your character identity in WoW’s digital space and really spend the time it takes to travel, rather than clicking and having yourself transported, or having something happen instantaneously, like is the case in other areas of the game (the instantaneous mail system for example, instantly having things in your bag when you click them, or “resting” in inns and cities despite usually being just as on the go as in the wilderness). This aspect forces you to experience the space of the game, to be absorbed in the world. Waiting for mail, while it would grant realism to the game, doesn’t effectively absorb you in WoW’s diegetic space; realistic mail would really only frustrate where the dynamics of travel force you to experience the diegetic world – certainly in a frustrating way – but in a way which is constantly reaffirming the diegetic space, grounding you in it.
There are obviously air travel alternatives in World of Warcraft – whether you possess a flying mount or not you may choose to pay for Griffin rides to expedite long distance travel – but they, despite freeing you from the ground, still ground you in the world. While this takes you from A to B faster, it still forces you to experience the space between A and B, albeit from the back of a Griffin whose path you can’t control. In effect this lack of efficacy is similar to how carriage and train travel differ: in the former we could meander, take our time exploring along the way, while in the latter we are only presented a limited perspective on the physical space we pass by, or through. There is a difference here between participating in the environment and just observing it. Even on the trams you can run around, jump off if you wish. Paid Griffin travel is a rare moment where we can sit back and enjoy the scenery while still participating in the game by changing position.
Here’s a screencap of my character, Herumor, taking a Griffin from Loch Modan to Ironforge in the first person (scroll up!), giving you just the environment flying by:
To me it feels like a screensaver – one of the rare moments the game, the world, can simply be observed rather than constantly being interacted with (aside from being present in the environment and changing locale). The meaning it creates, in forcing you to see all the terrain you are crossing in going from point A to point B, is first establishing the playground – separating the actions of the player from the actions of the machine, planting you, or your perspective if you pay attention to it, a step outside the world. Secondly there’s a sense of smallness, of your very minimal effect on the grand narrative that is the massive world of WoW. We as players can’t destroy or change the designed environment other than collecting quest items we have displayed, killing things, etc, but the flowing rivers, icy peaks can’t be changed directly. They are the play space, where the story happens. Flying around on a Griffin focuses you on this, on the beautiful landscapes we trudge through, laboring after higher and higher levels. For a moment there is respite from the labor, we can lean back and glide through the world. Much like airplane travel the scenery is far removed; the vastness traveling like this, and seeing the landscape in this way, grants a sense of possibility, of freedom. When you can control your very own mount you can decide where to go, rather than humming along the predetermined routes, I’m sure this sense of freedom, and the meaning it creates, is greatly expanded. Flying is a popular superpower, and our WoW identities are of course capable of it if you play your story correctly.
Bogost argues near the end of his essay on travel that “transit simulation… [is] an experience that demands continuity” (51). World of Warcraft’s Griffins fit this mold perfectly – there’s no loading screen, no buffering, you simply fly through all of the landscape between you and your destination.
This is drastically different than the load screens associated with “quick traveling” in Skyrim or even within WoW itself when you take a ship between continents. When going from Stormwind to Teldrassil you have to catch a ship, which quickly brings you out to sea but then almost instantaneously you are at port again, with only a short load screen depicting you moving across a map of Azeroth. In the same vein there are portals, items, and spells that can transport you, but they are only meaningful because they drive at an end, at the completion of a quest or goal, and the act of transportation doesn’t really create any meaning beyond physically moving you.
Flying is different, particularly the Griffins you can hire because you are simply along for the ride, forced to watch the scenery fly by, rather than jumping between spaces. It’s one of the rare moments you can sit back and really appreciate the design of the game, or even take a break, while you are still doing something (traveling, which is usually driven towards accomplishing a task) unlike /dance or /sit.