It’s the middle of June 2007, in Chicago. I am standing on an El platform, possibly Fullerton, possibly Sedgwick, waiting for my train home. It’s a brisk day in my memory, but that seems unlikely for Chicago in June; it’s definitely sunny and doesn’t appear to be world-shattering. I get a text message that does shatter my world, though. It’s from a college friend of mine. It says “Antioch is closing.”
I had entered Antioch College in 2001, graduating in 2005, a perfectly normal range of years until you notice that I transferred in. Sometimes people would ask me if I liked it. I couldn’t answer that question. Everyone comes out of Antioch loving and hating it. I would usually reply that I loved it relatively more than other alums, I thought. I would hope this answer implies that it was a stressful experience, because it was.
Echoes of that stress were the foundation of my relatively blasé reaction to the text. Antioch closing wasn’t a surprise. Budget issues had virtually defined the college during my time there. I also know that it’s closed twice before, although not in a century. So my response is not “what the fuck, how did this happen?” but “are they re-opening it?” My friend tells me that the plan is to open in a few years. Which, pragmatically, is a no.
The news affects me, but not tremendously so. I’m going home after work. I’m almost certainly playing World Of Warcraft after work. In that summer, I am a raider, for a guild that calls itself a “hardcore casual” raid guild, whatever that means. Well, I know what it means. It means we raid 3-4 times per week; we want to be the best on our server; but we’re not those crazy people who go for world firsts or whatever. If I’m not raiding that night, I’m probably building up my character. Possibly grinding for reagents, possibly running dungeons, possibly trying to make more gold. I want to be good at the game, and that involves putting in at least some of the work required to be really good. So I’m probably playing most every day. Six days per week seems likely. If that implies that I don’t have much of a social life in June of 2007, that’s probably correct.
Within the next day or two, a friendly acquaintance contacts me. She’s setting up a gathering of fellow Antioch alumni—“Antiochians”—to meet for an evening and talk about the closure. Like I said, I’m initially fairly nonplussed about the closure. But like I said, I don’t have much of a social life in those days. I haven’t seen this acquaintance in a while and it’s apparently a day I’m not raiding, and maybe I’m more plussed than I think. So I go.
I arrive late, with the cool kids and the uncool adults (probably the same people, separated only by age). The people who are leaving wanted it to be a meeting. Maybe they had a meeting. They don’t want the college to close. They’re much older. Perhaps they’re much less tired. Perhaps they didn’t have budget crises every spring when they were there. The people who are left aren’t there for a meeting. They’re there to share some memories. Talk some shit. But my friend who organized the meeting keeps talking to me. She’s earnest in a way that I’m not. She’s a little older, and she graduated before me. She’s not as tired. I’m willing to listen to her.
Two months later, she asks me “Rowan, is there ever a time when you’re not thinking about Antioch?” I can’t answer that question with a “Yes.”
I play as a protection warrior in World Of Warcraft. There are nine classes in the game, and each of them have three different branches. For example, a warrior has protection, fury, and arms. It’s over-simplifying, but these different skill structures—specs, they’re called, short for specifications—each push the player into a role. A fury warrior is good at doing a lot of damage to computer-controlled monsters. An arms warrior is good at doing a lot of damage to other players. A protection warrior is good at making computer-controlled enemies attack it while surviving. In massively multiplayer role-playing games like World Of Warcraft, this role has a specific name: “tank.”
There are four core roles in an MMRPG: a tank, who sucks up damage. “DPS,” or damage per second, which stands for players who deal damage. A healer keeps everyone, but especially the tank, alive. And support, which is a player who not only deals damage, but also does supplemental work that helps everyone else (for example, a shadow priest helps restore magical power to other players).
If you’re a tank, you are, by default, the leader of a party in a dungeon. This is partially pragmatic: because the tank is generally the person who chooses which enemy other players can safely attack. But it’s partially also simply about responsibility. The tank has to pay attention to situations where enemies break free and start attacking other party members, or other enemies who wander into a fight. Tanking is all about attempting to control chaos by paying attention, reacting to sudden changes, and convincing other people to follow you.
Antioch College was closed by the Antioch University Board Of Trustees, influenced by the Antioch University administration. Exactly why and how they made this decision is a matter of some debate, largely focused on whether they were stupid, evil, manipulated, or taking the least worst way out of a terrible situation. In once sense, they’re clearly stupid: they don’t expect alumni to reject the closure at all. In fact, they announced it mere days before the college’s yearly Reunion.
My friend who organized the Antiochian meet-up has an issue. She wants to go to Reunion, but she has a rigid job. She can’t take the necessary Thursday and Friday off. But she knows me, and she knows that my job is flexible enough that I can take those days off. She tells me that she’ll pay my way to Reunion if I write about what’s going to happen there. I accept. If nothing else, I want to see what will happen. If nothing else, I want to burn the t-shirt Antioch sent me when they accepted me as a student, in a fit of catharsis.
The first time I tried to play World Of Warcraft was in early 2006, before any expansions to the game had come out. I enjoyed it for a month, but that enjoyment trailed off as I found myself in more complicated situations and without friends to help me through them.
A year later, I found myself unhappy in Chicago. The winter of 2007 was particularly unpleasant, with constant nasty biting cold, which meant that leaving my home for any reason was painful. Leaving it for work was even worse. I had a job which involved looking at pictures of sports stadiums and creating digital representations of seating arrangements. This required both high amounts of attention and low amounts of intellect. Whatever fulfilling work might be, this was the opposite. And my social life was in tatters. I didn’t especially like my living arrangements, and the friends I’d expected to have waiting for me when I moved back to Chicago had disappointed me.
World Of Warcraft was a logical solution to most of these problems. It gave me cheap entertainment without needing to leave the house. It gave me a social outlet. And it gave me a sense of progression and fulfillment that my job simply didn’t have. What I didn’t predict, however, was that it would be a much better game for me thanks to the new expansion. I coincidentally rejoined WOW a few weeks after The Burning Crusade was released. This meant the content had improved, yes, but it also meant that there were a bunch of new players playing Blood Elves who needed help leveling up. Not only that, but my orc warrior was in high demand—Blood Elves were the new most popular race, but they couldn’t be warriors, and warriors were the most versatile tanks around.
I quickly made a small group of friends and found myself in a casual guild. One of those friends, who played during roughly the same hours as I did, was a holy paladin, which is a healing spec. With a tank and a healer, you can do just about anything in World Of Warcraft. We’d add a few friends and allies as we needed them, but I’d really found the essential ingredient to becoming entranced by WOW: trustworthy in-game groups. It would be the only game I played in any depth for months afterward.
I was a tank. I had a healer. I could lead any group to victory.
Antioch College is special. This is why Antioch University administrators were so surprised when an alumni movement to save the college sprang up. Exactly why and how Antioch College is special is complicated and debatable. But there are a few components of an Antioch education that are clearly special, and aren’t controversially so.
The main one is “Community Government.” I like to describe CG as “student government with teeth” to non-Antiochians, which gets the gist of things in an administrative sense. Every yeah, Antioch holds an election for a group of “Community Managers” who help guide the campus along. I’d never been a Community Manager, but I had participated in one of the best offshoots of CG, the Antioch Record. That was the school newspaper, run primarily by students but advised by staff and faculty. I’d worked as the Content Editor for a term.
When I arrived at Antioch’s campus for Reunion, I ran into a friend of mine, Kristen, who had been a previous Record editor and helped train me for that job. She had also been a Community Manager. She wanted to organize a meeting of former Community Managers, and scheduled it for after the impending State Of The College address. Normally, the State Of The College was a chance for the college president to make a pitch to donors. Thanks to the closure vote, it became a farcical attempt by the administration and board to defend their decision to close the college to a hostile crowd.
Kristen dragged me along to the Community Manager’s meeting. There were about 15 people in the room, all trained organizers, almost all recent graduates, and all experts on negotiating Antioch’s administration and community. Someone suggested that we brainstorm what we thought about what had happened. So we went around the room, one at a time, and just talked about what we wanted to know about, or do about, the closure. And slowly I realized—perhaps we as a group realized, perhaps not—that this thing was manageable. It was possible to understand that the closure wasn’t an inevitable sad conclusion of market forces. It was possible to analyze what had happened, to plan what would happen, to organize alumni, to fundraise, to attack, to negotiate. It was, as I realized, both possible and just to try to solve the college. It was also inspiring, even fun, to be around people who would work toward this end.
After the main meeting, we split up into small groups to work on what made the most sense. I joined the group attempting to organize the brainstorming we’d done. Two slightly older alums, with some personal history between them, were arguing. I slipped in, and took a look at the components of our brainstorming. They fit into four categories fairly neatly: communications, legal, fundraising, and governance. (These would eventually become committee focuses for the entire movement.) The former Community Manager group activated the wide range of hundreds of alumni at the Reunion, and helped them to believe that saving the college was possible and wise. It helped me to do so early on, and this put me at the center of a budding movement.
The Alumni Board, a group of elected representatives of college alumni, had also come to Reunion hoping to work on saving the college. Their goal was to raise $40k. With the help of the former Community Manager group, they raised $200k. Then we threw the Antioch party to end all Antioch parties.
We could lead this group to victory.
As I progressed in World Of Warcraft, I started my own small high-level guild. I didn’t have the patience for recruitment, so it was never more than five trustworthy people. But one of those people had been a raider for a major guild beforehand. When they split, with the more focused raiders deciding to build their own, they contacted my guildmate and asked if we wanted to join. We discussed it briefly, then said yes. Now we were raiders.
In The Burning Crusade, there were two different kind of raids: ten-person and 25-person. A 10-person raid wasn’t so different from the normal five-person dungeons, but it was roughly twice as complicated and intense. A 25-person raid was its own beast, requiring understanding of a variety of different moving parts, putting the right people in the right places, and so on.
Raiding is a matter of control. You ensure that the members of your raid group can be controlled in their behavior. You ensure that the amount of damage done by your people is enough, and that damage taken and healed can be mitigated. In all cases, raiding, and raiding well—we quickly became the second-best raid guild on our server—requires building order out of chaos.
I’m not going to lie. I wasn’t a critical part of the 25-person raids. I was considered the third tank in a guild that was swimming with them, which meant I was rarely the focus (or “main tank”) as I was in five-person dungeons or ten-person raids. In those, though, I was critical. Doing the ten-person raids in Karazhan was necessary to improving the guild. This was also when Heroic Dungeons, a more difficult variation on already-existing dungeons, became important for progressing.
I’d always been good at dungeons. I could monitor and control everything that happened. I’d build order from chaos. A fight might get out of hand; a patrol of evil orcs could happen upon my group in combat with a different group, and I could guide them to me. This could cause a priest could panic and use their Fear skill which sent enemies running off and then back, pulling another group to me. I could take it. In fact, an early important quest required completing the longest and most difficult dungeons on Heroic mode. I noted this, and led a guild group through them. As far as I know, I was the first player on the server to finish this quest. I wrote about it, too, so that everyone in my guild who needed to do it after me would know what this Heroic quest would entail.
As a tank, and a good one, I was building order out of chaos.
Following the Reunion, I found myself immersed in the committee structure I’d inadvertently set up. People who had been physically present found themselves unable to commit to an amorphous national organization which communicated via phone and email, while dozens if not hundreds of people who hadn’t been at the Reunion wanted to help. New committees and subcommittees sprang up, while the existing ones spun off into who-knows-where if not oblivion. We were trying to create a movement out of almost nothing. It was chaos.
I knew a guy who liked building order out of chaos, though. I had an undemanding part-time job, unlike most of my peers in the Former CM group who couldn’t take time away from their budding careers. So I could throw myself into figuring out the social and technological mysteries of our new organization.
It was a game to me. By this, I don’t mean that I didn’t take it seriously. I mean I saw similarities to games I played, and used them. We had a wide group of people, all with different skillsets. I worked to connect them with the right people, or dealt with those who wanted to be part of the process but didn’t fit. It was Tetris, a constant stream of pieces that could make things work wonderfully, or ruin everything. It was Civilization, where laying the groundwork for great things later would win you the game, but the Mongols are already about to invade.
It was World Of Warcraft. I was tanking again, in a different form. I had to keep my eye on all kinds of moving parts. Sometimes, they’d fall into place—the monsters would attack me instead of my healer, the Save Antioch movement would have a day without a crisis. My work for my guild, in completing and reporting on the Heroic dungeons, was very similar to my Antioch work. If I saw that something needed to be done, that something should be done, I’d call attention to it. I didn’t hold any position of leadership in either my guild or the movement. But I did work to gather information and coordinate as best as I could.
My days went like this: I’d work in the morning, organize for Antioch in the afternoon, and play World Of Warcraft in the evening. These could bleed into one another. I regularly alt-tabbed out of WOW to chat or email people about Antioch. My friend asking if I ever wasn’t thinking about Antioch was one of those cases. Even when I was playing, I was working.
I was building order out of chaos.
My guild proved remarkably effective. We quickly established ourselves as the second-best on the server, and one that was well-respected. At one point, the guild leader posted a question on the forums: should he include his role as the head of a successful raid guild on his resumé? There’s no reason why not, of course: the skills required to be an effective raid leader should be effective skills in most any work environment. You deal with others’ personalities, you learn and adapt, you motivate yourself and others, you set rules and ensure they’re understood, and so on and so on and so on. The only thing that makes adding this to your resumé a bad idea is that World Of Warcraft isn’t exactly the most well-respected hobby in the world.
It wasn’t in my world, either. Antioch’s radical history made video games a curiosity, something abnormal, especially on the left-leaning activist side. So I didn’t advertise this. To the rest of the world, I was engaged in two very different hobbies, with the only parallel that, maybe, I was doing both of them. To myself, I was doing the same thing, as the same person, just in two very different forms.
By the end of the summer of 2007, this balance had come to an end. The renewal of classes at Antioch for its final year triggered an entirely new set of demands. In order to properly report and organize people both on-campus and in the wider movement, I decided I had to be there. Once I arrived, I was attached in a physical sense that made scheduling raids in World Of Warcraft futile. Meanwhile, my guild had been ruined by its own success—new members were there for the prestige and spoils of being victorious raiders; a casual, fun environment turned competitive and frustrating. I quit raiding, playing casually every now and then. My guild exploded in legendary fashion a few months later.
Through most of life, I’ve searched for things that could intellectually engage and motivate me for weeks or longer. For a few months, I had two of them at once. It’s no surprise that World Of Warcraft and the Save Antioch movement blended together to me conceptually, given my engagement with both at once. But I am surprised, and remain surprised, at just how similar I felt when engaging with either. Hardcore raiding and heavy-duty organizing felt like the same thing.
About the Author:
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a contributing writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq, Gameranx, and Unwinnable.