Our invisible walls

A friend of mine can’t understand why I like World of Warcraft over Guild Wars. “You don’t have to pay!”

“Yes, but… I like the exploring.”

“You can explore in Guild Wars.”

“No. No, I can’t. The walls stop me.”

“What walls?”

“The ones that stop me from jumping into the river. Or off the buildings. Or off the cliffs!”

“Why would you want to do that?”


I have a fear of heights. It’s not something I advertise with any regularity as, being over six feet tall, it seems odd to talk about. But, like so many things in my life, it’s a part of who I am and how I react to situations. Get me close to the edge and I want to back up. I will fight to back up. Yet, I always walk to the edge first.

It starts at about 15 feet. Under that, I’m fine. I can climb ladders and even lean out of windows. It’s after that, as the ground seems impossibly far away, I start to worry. Some part of my brain starts to freak out and I will start to walk away. I avoid windows after the third floor in buildings and stay away from ledges. Just thinking about it now, writing about it, makes me get a bit nervous.

For some reason, this doesn’t affect me in videogames though. I can, and have, jumped off cliffs and into the void. Not unlike a modern Icarus, I will leap into the sky and dare the gods to stop me. I will fly for my time, even though I know, on some level, that the ground lurks, closer and closer still, to claim me. I know and can act anyway.

That’s how I learned my night elf had an afterlife. After killing some monsters in my first few hours in WoW, I ran around the nearest building and decided to climb it. The stairs lead to the top and, after some experimentation, I found that I could get on the roof and walk around. Then I noticed the edge and the distance between me and ground.

It was more than 15 feet. I was several stories up and looking down as other new players were running around. I smiled. For a moment, I had found a hidden place that only I knew about, where only I was. It was then, of course, that I considered how I would get down. I could take the stairs… or I could jump. So, I did.

I didn’t die then, but it gave me a taste. I kept trying to jump from higher heights. I would try to get on top of buildings or leap from hills. My exploration took me across the smaller areas and into the larger island. As I leveled, so too did my need to leap off new things just for the joy of doing it.

Once I learned that the island had cliffs, I had to find a way to jump off them. I would run into groups of enemies, leap and dance like a madman on a mission to get around them and to the walls. I sought a way off the island. And soon, as I pressed at the limits of my world, I found it. I came across a gap in the barriers that held me back. If I wanted, I could leap off.

I didn’t do it at first. I stayed back. I would walk up to the edge, look over and then back up. I would walk around it. Again and again, I circled back to the edge and then stepped back. Finally, I made up the nerve and jumped.

I fell through the blackness and, for once, I wasn’t afraid.

Then, I died.

My spirit, the ghostly form of a night elf, materialized a way off at a small graveyard and my body was marked on the map. I realized then that I would need to do it again. In spirit form, I would need to leap off again. I made my way back to the edge and, again, jumped.

I have invested hundreds of hours into World of Warcraft. And, in all that time, that’s my favorite memory. Sure, yes, I can talk about skills, bits of the mythology I thought were neat and even how many characters I have, but that memory always comes back to me. It’s the moment when I decided I could try something different, something that scared me, in a videogame. I took a leap into the dark just to see what would happen.


Every once and awhile, my friend and I talk about the games we play. He still plays Guild Wars.

“Have you ever wanted to try something new, like maybe World of Warcraft?”

“How about you play Guild Wars?”

“I did. I didn’t like it. It wouldn’t let me die. It stopped me from going over the edge.”

“It’s for the best that the walls hold you back. Why would you want to jump to your death?”

“Why wouldn’t I? I like to try different things.”

He shakes his head at this. “You should play Guild Wars. I can get you all the good gear. It’s been my game for years now.”

6 thoughts on “Our invisible walls

    1. Dan Cox

      You recently wrote that you didn’t have something interesting to say about the games you were playing, Rachel. Sometimes, at least for me, it’s more about looking at what I am doing (or thinking about) and then telling other people about it.

      “Did you do this too? I used to jump off cliffs in this one game. That’s pretty strange, right?”

    1. Dan Cox

      I really liked the same idea, jumping off things, in Crackdown too. (I understand those two games, Crackdown and Prototype, to be similar in that they both give you super powers and place you in a big city.)

      The thing about World of Warcraft is that it doesn’t really expect you to jump off buildings — or off cliffs. It lets you do it, but there isn’t any mechanical reason why that would be useful. It’s just a strange thing I thought to try and, it seems, it worked out for me. The game could have easily, as Guild Wars does, stopped me from my foolishness and exploration.

  1. I remember Quintin Smith making the point once long ago on an RPS podcast that videogames train us to try stuff out to see what happens. Since the dangers of any given course of action are usually low to negligible by normal metrics (i.e. life, liberty, happiness, death), we’re taught to experiment and be curious. Quinns linked this to the carelessness that constitutes the main difference between someone who ‘knows computers’ and someone who doesn’t: the former may not actually know how to fix a problem any more than the latter, but is confident enough to click stuff and poke stuff and see if it gets better or worse.

    1. Dan Cox

      Trying things… like eating everything in Metal Gear Solid 3, for example? Yeah, I agree with that.

      I think I like that innocent curiosity more than mine, at times, purposeful subversion of ideas and methods. We are both, either wandering in the dark looking for something shiny or jumping off cliffs just to see what would happen, provoking the game in some way. It’s trying to climb the mountain, cross the lake or, in something more recent to me, killing everyone in a game just to get at why the game does what it does and how that might be understood on some level.


Comments are closed.