Getting divorced was a lonely experience for Josh Schweitzer. Spending his days overseeing construction workers and his evenings caring for his 3-year-old son, he had no one to talk to. But there was one group of people who helped him pull through -- even though he'd never laid eyes on most of them.
They were his World of Warcraft friends -- "guild people," he calls them. They live all over the world and spend 20, 30 or more hours a week together in the online world of Azeroth as druids, priests, warriors and rogues, slaying monsters and collecting treasure.
Schweitzer's friends in the Dread Pirates guild are a tiny subset of the 11.5 million people who have made Warcraft the most successful online video game on the planet.
Like many other massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), Warcraft is set in a "Lord of the Rings"-like fantasy realm where players create characters and undertake missions, some team-based and some solo, to gather resources and earn rewards.
Most players become part of a guild, a closely knit group that plays the game together while chatting. Active guilds spend hundreds and even thousands of hours a year together online, often developing strong bonds.
For Schweitzer, 27, a Bakersfield resident, the Dread Pirates replaced the co-workers, family and buddies who someone his age might typically draw on in a difficult time like a divorce. He confided in them over his headset.
"The only people I had to talk to about it were guild people," he recalled recently. "All of my friends are in Dread Pirates. I don't really have any others."
Schweitzer, dressed in board shorts and flip-flops, was sitting with them on a Thursday night in August at the Lost Bar, a Peter Pan-themed drinking hole near the Disneyland hotels. The occasion was BlizzCon, an annual two-day event put on by World of Warcraft's publisher, Blizzard Entertainment, in Anaheim. Twenty thousand tickets to the show sold out on the Internet in less than a minute on a Saturday in May.
BlizzCon is held to promote upcoming products and sell merchandise. But it's also a way for members of a vibrant if little known subculture to see one another in the flesh and reinforce connections formed via an ethernet cable.
Twenty-five of the 40 active members of Dread Pirates managed to land tickets. That night at the Lost Bar, 17 of them sat in a big circle, retelling stories, laughing at in-jokes, and posing for pictures like old friends at a college reunion. It was the third such gathering for the Dread Pirates since BlizzCon started five years ago. In 2007, four members came; in 2008, 13.
Schweitzer took his only vacation of the year to attend BlizzCon, leaving his son with his parents. Others traveled from as far away as Toronto and Australia.
"We spend so much time together and share so much information that we become like a family," says Joe Benga, a 26-year-old computer help desk supervisor who flew in from Gilbert, Ariz.
"Except," adds Casey Aron, 26, who tends bar in Portland, Ore., "most families don't spend time together three or four nights a week."
Warcraft plays an important role in all their lives. Dennis Mizer of Tucson and his wife Mary play together instead of watching TV. Austin Armstrong, a 21-year-old Sacramento engineering student, hones his skills by modifying the game's interface on computers he manually rebuilds. Joe Hrenchir, an American living in Perth, Australia, uses it to stay close to friends in the U.S.
To a casual observer, they look like any loud group of twenty- and thirtysomethings at a bar. For anybody who isn't a Warcraft player, however, their conversation might as well be in Russian:
"We're talking about the viability of shadow priests." (A reference to one of the characters in the game.)
"You take him for 5% crit and you take him for 3% hit." (Measurements of the damage players inflict on enemies)
"A toast: To Arthas and his dead-ass corpse in front of me!" (Arthas is a major villain in the game.)
Dread Pirates use in-game monikers when together. Schweitzer is Tallyn. Dennis Mizer is Valeas, or Val. Armstrong is Extenze. Hrenchir is Hardrox. Mary Mizer is Aeryanna, but, in one of many signs that the World of Warcraft isn't a hotbed of feminism, most people call her "Val's Wife."
There are thousands of guilds in Warcraft, but Dread Pirates is one of just a few that has been around since the game was launched nearly five years ago. Joel Gorman, a.k.a. "Zarekk" and "the captain," is co-founder and undisputed master of the Dread Pirates.
An imposing figure with a shaved head, the Sacramento resident is a benevolent but firm dictator, a role that dovetails nicely with his day job as a corrections officer. He's the final authority on who's in, who's out, who goes on the important missions called raids, and who gets the best in-game rewards.
"We are a small tribe and he is the alpha," says Aron.