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The Philosophy of Felicia Day's The Guild

on Wed, 02/09/2011 - 00:00

Felicia Day and The Guild
For many gamers, the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role playing game) World of Warcraft is a way of life. They spend hours upon hours within the realms of Azeroth as members of either the Alliance or Horde factions while completing quests, socializing in village markets, exploring the countryside and forging communal relationships. Although being both fiction and fantasy, however, the world of WoW also embodies many of the qualities and challenges from the world-at-large and thus allows for philosophical dissertation in much the same way that Ancient Greece served as the catalyst for Socrates and Plato.

The ability of a role playing game like World of Warcraft to teach real world lessons is most represented by the fictitious Cyd “Codex” Sherman, the lead character of the online web series The Guild created by actress Felicia Day. The series, which premiered in 2007, follows Codex and a group of fellow World of Warcraft-like gamers as they try to balance their faux personas with those of the real world. Life outside the game is a struggle for each of them but they inevitably find valuable and usable wisdom online during each season of The Guild that is also relatable to their everyday lives.

“I’ve never really felt like I had any control over my life,” Codex confesses in an early episode of the web series. “I think that’s why I like video games. It is so much easier to measure life in experience points.”

Understanding life and measuring the value of existence are likewise the major cornerstones of philosophy. In the book World of Warcraft and Philosophy: Wrath of the Philosopher King (Open Court, 2009), a number of writers offer analogies between the works of John Stuart Mills, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant and Niccolo Machiavelli and the online world of WoW. In his essay “A Meaningless World... of Warcraft,” for instance, Luke Cuddy offers an interpretation of nihilism and Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the Overman. Although he does not specifically mention The Guild, Cuddy’s observations parallel the journey of Cyd “Codex” Sherman and her group of online gamers nonetheless.

“In the existential school of philosophy, nihilism is often described as a feeling of endless pointlessness,” Cuddy writes. “Has your life ever felt that way? You wake up to an alarm, you go to work or school (or both), you come home, you level up your Night Elf Druid for a few hours, you go to sleep, then you wake up and do it again, and again, and again.”

According to the comic book prequel to The Guild, published in 2010 by Dark Horse, Cyd Sherman was indeed once living a nihilistic life. “I’m depressed,” she admits on the very first page. “I’m always depressed. I know it’s irrational. Life is good. I have a job in an orchestra. My boyfriend Trevor used to be in the orchestra with me, but now he has a band. He’s way cooler now. I have all the tools to live life to the fullest. As soon as I get happy, I’m raring to go!”

That feeling of happiness never arrives, however, and Cyd’s life only becomes worse when she realizes her boyfriend is actually gay, sets fire to his $100,000 cello and is fired from her job in the aftermath. But it was also around this time that she discovers “the game,” which has a transforming effect on her.

“The world is constantly throwing me for a loop,” Cyd remarks. “I think that’s why I like playing the game. The rules are clear. I mean, literally. They’re printed up in a book.” This is what is known as entering the Magic Circle, a term coined by the Dutch thinker Johan Huizinga to describe a playing field with its own set of rules and organization. It also serves as the second step in the Nietzschean path to a full affirmation of life.

“When you step into the Magic Circle, a special thing happens—you accept the rules and order of the gameworld,” Luke Cuddy writes in Wrath of the Philosopher King. “This acceptance can be incredibly refreshing. If the meaninglessness of the real world bears down on you, if you appreciate the insignificance of human life to the rest of the universe, then you can always enter WoW’s Magic Circle.”

According to Nietzsche, once an individual has accepted the Magic Circle, the next step is to find the Magic Circle itself to be meaningless. This happens when the circle is broken and the rules that were established are no longer applicable. For Cyd “Codex” Sherman, this event occurs in the first season of The Guild web series when fellow gamer Zaboo shows up at her doorstep and confesses his love for the fictional healer.

His love is unreciprocated, however, and Codex responds to the overture by enlisting the other members of the Guild, which further breaks down the circle when the group meets at the local Cheesy Beards restaurant. The main component of role-playing games, after all, is remaining “in character” and keeping one’s personal identity separate from their online persona. By meeting outside of the game, the illusion is consequently dissolved between the members.

“What if the player begins to create an analogy between his playing WoW and living his life outside of the game world?” Luke Cuddy next asks. “He might start to wonder about the real world equivalent of a maxed-out Death Knight. How can you max yourself out in the real world? Nietzsche thought that the Overman would rise above the nihilistic stage of life and create his own values. The Overman would affirm his existence, say ‘Yes!’ to life.”

This is also the case for Codex. Early in the first season of The Guild, she makes the observation, “I just don’t cope well. With anything. I mean, there’s always a lot of drama in the game, but at the end of the night you can always just log off. You can’t log off from your life.”

Near the conclusion of the season, however, she tells her fellow Guild members, “We can do this, OK? With just a few of us we can take down a ten-man dungeon. Life can’t be that much harder.” Through the course of that initial season, Cyd “Codex” Sherman thus goes from an isolated person living a nihilistic and meaningless life to being transformed into the personification of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Overman.

“The gamer has to use what he’s learned in the gameworld back in the real world,” Cuddy observes. “If you can create yourself in WoW in the face of the meaninglessness of the game, why can’t you create yourself in real life in the face of the meaninglessness of life outside of the game?”

Although The Guild has more than its fair share of references to the online world—and the game itself is central to the overarching narrative—in reality it is “life outside of the game” that’s the centerpiece of the web series. Codex and her comrades have a multitude of idiosyncrasies that inevitably make them socially inept but are still able to overcome these obstacles each season by relying on the lessons learned online.

“The expansion to our game is coming out,” Codex remarks at the start of season three. “New continent, new powers. I’m hoping it will help heal some of the wounds in the Guild. Make us focus on what matters. It’s about the game, not each other. Dumb humans.”

In reality of course, Codex has it wrong. Despite the meaninglessness she once found in the outside world prior to entering the Magic Circle of gaming, the walls of nihilism have broken down during her time with the Guild and ultimately allowed her to find meaning within her real life after all. Codex may still struggle at times but, just like the Overman of Friedrich Nietzsche, she has found purpose in the outside world and even formed her own belief system and sense of values in the process—a philosophy known as The Guild.

Anthony Letizia

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