The Fashion of World of Warcraft Classic
How stat weights and spreadsheets determines what looks cool and what does not.
The funniest thing about World of Warcraft is that as much as it is a digital power fantasy, for a large portion of the game your character looks absolutely ridiculous.
As you level up and acquire better gear, almost none of it matches. Although your character is slowly growing in power and competence, visually, it looks like they can barely dress themselves.
For a solid week, the best gear I could find for my Rogue was a brown leather chest, purple pants with embroidered yellow snakes crawling up the legs and chunky blue boots. These were all "rare" items — "blues" in the parlance of WoW — and thus very good on their own. But together they looked like garbage.
You would assume that this is a huge oversight from Blizzard. Why would anyone design a RPG where people hate looking at their characters for the first 200 hours? In practice, however, it just convinces you to log back in to work towards fixing your goddamn atrocious-looking armor.
You look at your character and you think "Ah, this sucks, my gear looks like Shit," so you do some more quests, you run a dungeon or you grind out a few levels so you can finally equip something that looks cool.
And as soon as you find a piece of gear that you like, or somehow the Loot Slot Machine delivers you a look that you feel reasonable proud of, you get one piece of gear that looks awful but has better stats so you sit there for 5 minutes swapping the two pieces of gear out, mulling over "Well do I want to look cool, or do I want to do more damage?" — ultimately deciding on the latter because how else are you going to feel a sense of progression?
The true carrot on the stick isn’t the numbers getting bigger; it’s heading into a major city for the first time and seeing level 60 characters running around with their Epic Gear. At first blush it just looks very cool because end-game gear comes in matching sets, but then you inspect someone's character and you see that the Bloodfang Boots they're wearing have +25 Agility, like holy shit you had no idea that boots could have that much agility that's insane.
You would assume that once you hit level 60 and you finally get some decent gear your character stops looking like garbage, but this is where the real judgement starts to happen — not by you, but rather every other player you encounter.
When you're leveling it's like ah well who cares, you wear the gear that you can pick up along the way, but once you hit 60 there's this expectation amongst players that you wear the Right Pieces of Gear. These pieces of gear, called "best-in-slot pieces", have been anointed by the Number Crunchers (we call them "theorycrafters") as the gear you should wear for optimum damage, tanking or healing output.
Over a decade ago not everyone knew, or even cared that much about "best-in-slot" pieces, arguably allowing more "freedom" for people to just equip the gear they thought was good and good-looking. But now, with over a decade of spreadsheeting, there's a canonical understanding of gear. If you're a fresh level 60, here are the blue pieces of gear you should be wearing. If you're just starting Molten Core and Zul'Gurub here are the first Epics to pick up. And if you're clearing Blackwing Lair every week here are the pieces of gear that will, effectively, make your character Perfect with the most powerful items in the game.
The funny thing about this is that even with the literal best gear in the game, you still look a little funny. Warriors wear a mix of big red shoulders with a purple breastplate, brown belt and highlighter yellow and pink gloves. Dagger Rogues need to mess up the look of their very-cool black-and-red Bloodfang set with dull brown Aged Core Leather Gloves and Boots of the Shadow Flame. Everyone's best-in-slot set, to an outside observer, looks a little off. But to those within the game, at some point, you internalize the game's systems to the point that gear setups that look kooky actually look correct and good.
To wear the Aged Core Leather Gloves and Boots of the Shadow Flame over your Bloodfang gloves and boots signals to other players that you Know What You're Doing. Only someone who didn't know what they were doing would wear full Bloodfang while using daggers. These kinds of tiny judgements happen dozens, if not hundreds of times every second you walk around a major city. Players checking each other out, sizing each other up, trying to assess their skill and competency relative to each other with nothing more than what they have equipped.
It's a little cruel, I think. You spend so much of the game just trying to make your character look cool, and once you finally get to the point where you can equip the Cool Gear what you actually need to do is make your character look Bad Again to look Cool in the eyes of others.
World of Warcraft Classic is not a game about trying to slay powerful bosses, or even a game about making the numbers get bigger, but rather a game about accumulating social capital, as determined by how many best-in-slot pieces you have. It's not fashion in the aesthetic sense — since the "correct" pieces of gear are determined by the stat values they have, not what they look like — but still resembles fashion nonetheless: a narrow set of pieces that if we acquire, will give us an accepted look to be celebrated.