Following my youngest stepson through the countryside on our way to the big city.
The first time I logged into World of Warcraft, I felt like a newborn. I saw colors and shapes moving in front of me, but my brain couldn’t make sense of them. There was nothing to latch onto.
“You’re facing me,” my oldest stepson told me. “Those are my legs.”
Then it clicked. I was looking through my character’s eyes, and what I saw were knees. We were standing in a snowy clearing. I was three feet tall, and my stepson was the size of an adult.
Gavin and I had picked gnome bodies, so we were both very short, and the kids — as elves and humans — were comparatively huge. They were strong, too. They had months — maybe years — of experience on us, and they had both traveled to where we would first enter the game to protect us while we got our bearings and to show us around.
But first they had to teach me how to walk. I couldn’t figure it out on my own.
When we could finally maneuver and sort of fight anything that might attack us, my youngest stepson took me on a tour of the countryside and the big, underground dwarf city nearby. I kept losing him and he came back for me over and over. I felt like a little kid — impatient, helpless, confused, and safe all at once.
You know how when you watch a movie, after a minute or two, something happens in your brain and you don’t think about watching the movie anymore — you’re so absorbed you feel like you’re in the movie? The same thing happened for me in this game. After a few minutes, I wasn’t just watching my gnome run around on a computer screen — I was in the game, running through snowy forests in leather boots hunting wolves, smiling at Gavin in his gnome body with his green eyes and green hair, or tilting up to look at the kids, trying to keep up with them. I still have memories of things we did together there — swimming, gathering herbs on the side of the road while Gavin called me to hurry up, walking through grassy plains, exploring cities, and fighting off trolls and giant spiders and strange things under water. They feel like real memories, of real places in real, other bodies. Or like dreams — vivid dreams — that we dreamed together.
After the first week or so, I think the kids got a little bored with us. You can make your characters kiss and dance and hug, and Gavin and I kept smooching in the game and looking into each other’s eyes and jumping up and down at the sight of each other. Plus, we traveled slowly and died easily. The kids moved on to quests with their friends in more dangerous territory while Gavin and I stuck together, figuring out things they already knew how to do and exploring places they’d already seen. When we really needed their help, they came back down to walk us through the hard parts.
I met one of the kids’ friends for the first time when the kids were busy on a tricky quest. Instead of coming to bail us out one of them asked — we’ll call him Brian — to help us.
A huge, experienced warrior, he swooped in to protect us while we fought off the raiders we couldn’t handle on our own. When they were all dead, we thanked him and he swooped off to wherever he had come from. It was like having a superhero drop in.
A week or so later when I picked one of the kids up from school, he pointed to a boy sitting at a table nearby. “Remember that guy who helped you last week? That’s him. Brian.”
“You’re Brian?!?!” I walked over, awestruck.
In my brain he was that big warrior. But at the same time, here he was also a fifth grader. I knew he was one of the kids’ friends, but still I felt… surprised. It was like something out of a fairy tale — like he was under some kind of body morphing spell. He was both things at once, but it almost seemed like the warrior part was more real.
I walked closer to the table where he sat. “It’s nice to meet you,” I said. I felt respectful. “Thank you so much for helping us.”
He encouraged me about what we’d done so far and gave me advice about the kinds of quests Gavin and I should take on next, and how to go about them.
I listened and nodded, trying to remember it all.
And it felt like while I was seeing him as a warrior, he was seeing me — not as a Charlie Brown sort of adult — but as a person who could use his advice and encouragement.
I looked up to see Brian’s mom, who had come to pick him up, watching from a few feet away. “I was so glad to see it was you guys that Brian was playing with online, and not weird people,” she told me with a sparkle in her eyes.
Here’s the really weird and wonderful thing, though: something shifted between the kids and us for a little while. Like that moment with Brian, I saw them not just as kids, not just as people who I could help and take care of in this world, but as people who helped and took care of me, and who knew more than I did in that other world. I think they saw me a little differently, too. When we came back into this world, the “real” world, we came out fresher and more tender. I came out with more respect for them — not theoretical respect, but respect I felt at my core.
I came out feeling — remembering? — that our sizes and ages and experience levels in this world weren’t really who we were. Who we were was something else. It felt like we were all spirits together — all sparks of self. How tall or how old our bodies were or how much we knew about this particular world felt less important.
It was exhilarating to switch places with the kids. To be small while they were big and to need their help to navigate and function. I think that while we were switching places, maybe they saw us not so much as quasi-alien adults, but as people, too. Just being people together for a little while was bliss. It felt gentle and glow-y and new. It felt good.
When I think of World of Warcraft, I think of meadows and plains and forests and adventures. I think of getting a taste again of what it’s like to be a kid. I think of seeing — really seeing — and being seen by the kids.
And I think of Gavin’s green eyes and shock of green hair, and I think of him smiling and dancing at me.
And monster trucks in the mud at Euclid Park.
“[P]eople are like kids’ concerts. They don’t sound perfect. They are a big old collection of faults sometimes. But taken as a whole, they can give you the chills, they’re so holy.” — The Three Levels, Momastery
Penguin swimming at the Aquarium of the Pacific.
We rode around the Long Beach harbor and saw this boat disappearing into the fog.