colin f lane

Progress Server

somewhere between societal LARP and reality-as-simulation


Blizzard's World of Warcraft released in 2004. It exposed millions to the world of massively multiplayer online roleplaying games. MMOs had been around in one form or another for decades. Plenty of people who signed up and took off work or raced home from school and waited in interminable queues to play World of Warcraft had played other MMOs. World of Warcraft was by no means the best MMO upon its release. But it was the first mainstream MMO, first to become a worldwide cultural phenomenon. It was in one way the apotheosis of the form -- because it smoothed over the spiky edges (of character, personality, style) of earlier versions of the form, because it knowingly appealed to the mass market. Midcult, not folk art or high art.

My friends and I were in the ninth grade when WoW released, and quick to sign up. There is something special about meeting one's IRL cohort in evocative VR for the first time. Jumping around shouting. One friend and I had been playing FFXI, and both excitedly anticipated making the switch to Azeroth; he had even been in the beta. I spent the entirety of my Easter break that school year in my house, adventuring. Sitting crosslegged outside the goblin port city of Ratchet, naked, hawking fishes. For nine days I did not go outside, confined to my bedroom, and to my PC, listening to the local classic rock radio station because my machine's sound card was not compatible with the software, drinking copious raspberry iced tea Snapple, Pepsi, and Starbucks Frappuccinos.

Within a year, most of my friends and I had logged off for the last time, canceled our subscriptions, and gone back outside. I never stuck around long enough to play even the first expansion pack. I never reached level 60, though I did get my mount. As with most computer games, once I felt I had fully grokked its essential nature, I felt free to move on. But the game and our shared time exploring it remain a powerful, generation-defining touchpoint.

World of Warcraft was the Starbucks of massively multiplayer online roleplaying games. It wasn't ever really cool, even within the stratum of society peopled with computer game-playing nerds, because it did such a good job of ruthlessly re-engineering itself to appeal to the widest swathe of normies. But it was absolutely evocative of an era. In the years following its initial launch, Blizzard released multiple expansion packs, adding new races, classes, professions, items, locations -- content. But also smoothed over the already simplified, lowest-commmon-denominator mechanics. Making the player experience less spiky, less crunchy. But it is exactly in that friction wherein lies, some people believe, the biogenetic emergence of true roleplaying.

More than a decade after my friends and I had walked away from WoW for good, we returned, on the private server Nostalrius. This was a "vanilla" server, operated not for profit, without the sanction of Blizzard, for those disaffected souls who had over the years longed to return to the Azeroth of a bygone era -- but who could not, owing to the persistent release of patches and expansion packs on Blizzard's servers, the relentless march of forward progress. (Blizzard claimed they no longer had the original codebase.) Getting back together with friends from high school, now in our mid-twenties, running through the Barrens again, was a magical thing. And for the first time, I experienced the audio of the original. It seems Blizzard picked up on the widespread desire for this nostalgic LARP-within-a-MMORPG; they litigated against the people operating Nostalrius, and in time released their own "Classic" version of the game. We played that one too, for a time. It's always the same, though. You recapture some of that original magic, drink your fill while realizing the rest of your life has since become thoroughly dislocated from the past and continued moving on, and so you move on too.


A friend of mine suggested that, what we ought to have IRL, is a vanilla server. One that keeps progress within acceptable, predefined bounds. One where there are no patches, no expansion packs. The Progress Server.

You, your family, your friends, your employer, your community, your polity -- exist on a global server programmed to endlessly relive the same idyllic era. At the close of the Golden Age, instead of disaster and devolution and descent into a Dark Age, the server very simply resets: you go to bed one night, on the brink of societal collapse, barbarians at the gate, and wake up the next morning, still your same self, just as old, but inhabiting a world from a quarter-century ago. Rinse and repeat. Ad infinitum. Perma-Pax.


That Golden Age is the Nineties (by which we also mean the early Two-Thousands). Neoliberalism. The End of History.

From the Fall of the Berlin Wall to the accession of Trump, exclusive.

pre / post

9/11 is the watershed moment for this Golden Age. All history, thought, cultural production can be characterized as Pre- or Post-9/11.