You may have heard this fact quoted in serious discussion about World of Warcraft: According to Malcolm Gladwell, 10 000 hours spent doing an activity (before the age of 21) is all that is required to become a “virtuoso”:
showing masterly skill or brilliance
a virtuoso performance source
The average World of Warcraft player spends quite a bit of time in the game. To many it becomes something of a part time job: voluntary and unpaid, unfortunately. Play for a good few years and you could very well have approached that 10 000 hour mark.
Do you dare type /played right now to find out?
I first heard this fact quoted because I follow – and watch – a lot of the TED lectures. And, since I’m a gamer and avid World of Warcraft player, Jane McGonigal’s mostly upbeat short lecture on how Gaming Can Make a Better World really resonated with me.
It’s nice to think that, while I may never be a brilliant violinist or pianist, I might have some kind of special skill in something, even if it is a game played by millions. Actually I quite like the notion that many otherwise ordinary people – like me – might also be secret World of Warcraft virtuosos.
But there’s something that nags at me. And maybe a real artistic virtuoso could throw their two cents into the conversation (although, frankly, the idea that an artistic virtuoso from another field might also be reading this WoW blog seems highly unlikely).
Once you reach that level of mastery… what next? Are you always a master? Is it possible to lose your mastery without practise?
You see, I’m fairly confident that I’m past my peak. If I did attain the level of mastery required to be considered a virtuoso of World of Warcraft at some point (let’s disregard the fact that I’m well over the age of 21!) I’m certainly not as brilliant a player as I once was.
One expansion and many patches and over six months of no practice or play has definitely been a setback.
The only real metaphor that works for me is comparing skill and proficiency in the game with athletic ability. I have some of that (athletic ability, that is) and it’s something that I’ve had to work very hard at over a long time. It’s hard not to talk about artistic ability without running into arguments about talent and how talent contributes to mastery. You can have the same problem when talking about athletic ability. But I can honestly say I have zero talent in that area. Any mastery I have, I worked at.
Over time, and with lots of hours of practice, I can see that I’m better: I can run faster and for longer. Presumably if I ran and practiced long enough, I could reach some level of brilliance. But if I stopped running for six months I wouldn’t be able to pick up where I left off and perform at the same level.
Nobody expects this of athletes.
So is this expected of an artistic virtuoso? Is this expected of a World of Warcraft virtuoso?
I’m just not sure.
I received a bit of flack from readers since returning to WoW and writing for the blog. Because I tend to be vague about stuff that I say that I mastered years ago, and because I’m so clearly a novice right now in the game, my credibility seems to be in question.
I’m OK with that. It seems to me that for some players, they can reach the level of a virtuoso and maintain that level of mastery for years. And perhaps they are writing from that view point: having reached that level of mastery they have not wavered or had a set back that makes them doubt their own skill. And they cannot even imagine that, once attained, they might one day lose that proficiency.
However, I am most certainly at a different place. I am past my peak. I can say, for certainty, that I reached my peak as a raider at some time between Trial of the Crusader and Icecrown Citadel. And if I have any doubts, well I have game play footage of my raiding from most of those tier and earlier ones too. And I can see far less errors in my decision making when I watch footage recorded at my peak vs my ascent or decent from that place.
For example I always get caught up watching back our Hodir (I Could Say This Cache Was Rare) capture. There’s a moment when I’m not gathering additional damage buffs by stacking for storm power or standing near a comfy fire and every single time I watch it I think:
that’s a wasted moment – why didn’t I move into a better position?
only to see – before the thought has fully formed while I’m watching the capture – my past virtual self spring into action and step right onto a safe zone because Flash Freeze is imminent. I had the next move lined up way in advance. And I knew exactly what I was doing at the time.
And even if I didn’t take a break from the game at the start of Cataclysm I knew that my skill level wasn’t at its best anyway. Too much farm content at the lull in Icecrown Citadel progression and too many changes to the Shadow Priesting game.
As a guild we hit a point where we snagged on Heroic Professor Putricide for months and months. This meant that the earlier bosses were well and truly farmed and didn’t require much attention. And the final bosses were on normal and also didn’t pose too much of a challenge (although I don’t want to imply that you could AFK through the Lich King encounter).
But I’m pretty sure paying attention for one night of the raiding week while working on progression content and repeating familiar content the other 75% of the time didn’t keep me at the top of my game. I know I got lazy. Perhaps you did to?
There’s a fairly simple model floating around regarding MMOs. The play trend is described as so:
Novice -> Mastery -> Burnout -> (presumably quits game and picks up another game)
I don’t think I ever described myself as “burned out”. I certainly never reached a breaking point that made me consider deleting my characters, my account and unsubscribing. I never stopped subscribing – even during my break.
Like many others, I have played the game with varying degrees of commitment and mastery for years. I’m certainly not the first player to take a long break and return to the game. And I’m sure that some players have come back even stronger after a break.
Maybe the more realistic model looks something like this:
Novice -> Mastery -> Break -> Novice -> Mastery -> Repeat!
or you could take it a step further and look at mastery closer to training for sports:
Novice -> Training -> Mastery -> Off season break -> Training -> Mastery
I like that cycle I think because the most satisfying feeling is breaking from “training” mode – when you’re aware that you still have room for improvement – into “mastery” mode when you feel powerful as a player. When everything seems to come easily and anything is possible.
What do you think? Do you think attaining the status of a World of Warcraft virtuoso is like learning to ride a bike? Once learned, you are always that proficient? Do you think it’s something that you have to practice to maintain?