Chirping birds and stands of medieval forest surround me. Though I'm a fresh-faced, Level One warrior, I'm already attracting attention. An armor-clad soldier asks me to take out a nearby pack of wolves. A blue-hatted gnome a third my size challenges me to a duel. I wave them off. I'm on a mission: I'm here to find Leeroy Jenkins.
I notice a character in the distance tangling with a diminutive, goblin-like creature. My computer screen tells me the character is Gogger, a Level Two warlock. I rush to his aid, laying the goblin low with my sword, then chivalrously step back so that Gogger can pick over the body for spoils. I type "Hello" in my chat window, expecting effuse thanks. He ignores me. "Hello?" I try again. He sits on the forest floor and pulls out a mug of ale. "You there?" He chugs the beer and stares off into space.
I'm about to stomp off in a huff when Gogger responds: "I'm on the phone." I'd forgotten that this isn't a typical video game, where mindless, computer-controlled characters immediately respond to your every action. This is World of Warcraft, a massively multi-player online role-playing game that has thousands of players from around the globe simultaneously wandering across the same immense 3-D world. World of Warcraft, released in 2004, has become one of the biggest things in video games since Pac-Man, with eight million paying subscribers. The gamers organize themselves into guilds, trek off on adventures that require weeks or months of play, and build relationships and reputations that exist well beyond their computers.
World of Warcraft is more than a game, they say; it's a worldwide social experience. And somewhere, one of these eight million players, the gamer behind Gogger, is on the phone. After he finishes his conversation, Gogger turns to me. "What's up?"
"I'm a reporter," I explain. "Have you heard of Leeroy Jenkins?"
"Yes," Gogger says. "I have watched the video that gave him his fame." Of course he has. Millions and millions of people have watched that video, a poor-quality, three-minute World of Warcraft clip titled "A Rough Go" that has spread across the Internet over the past two years. In the process, it's made Leeroy Jenkins the most famous name in the game -- not to mention one of the most recognizable video-game characters of all time.
"A Rough Go" opens with a band of characters milling around inside an ominous dungeon. Over the computer voice-chat system, the players plan in nasally über-geek detail how to tackle the baby dragons nearby: "Um, I will use Intimidating Shout to kinda scatter them," "We're gonna need Divine Intervention on our mages," "I'm coming up with 32.33, repeating of course, percentage of survival." Just when it seems they will be forever mired in painful, Kafkaesque planning, a character sitting silently off to the side leaps to his feet. "All right chums, let's do this!" he declares in a deep, slightly insane voice. He charges headfirst and alone into the fray, hollering his name as a battle cry: "LEEROOOOOY JEEEEENKINS!" The others are stunned. "Oh, my God, he just ran in!" one gasps. "Save him! Oh, jeez, stick to the plan! Oh, jeez, let's go, let's go!" Cursing and confused, they dash after Leeroy -- and the dragons start ripping them to shreds. Soon bodies litter the floor; all the characters are dead. "Great job! For Christ's sake!" the players whine. "Leeroy, you are just stupid as hell!" To which Leeroy responds, "At least I have chicken." End scene.
"What do you think of Leeroy Jenkins?" I ask Gogger.
"I have no opinion on Leeroy Jenkins," he says. "Why would you do a story on Leeroy?"
I hesitate, fumbling for words. "I'm looking at the nature of video-game celebrity," I say, wincing at how pretentious this sounds. But it would take too long to explain that I'm trying to find out why, in a game based on achievement (kill the ogre, collect the loot, get to the next level), the most renowned character is a complete screwup. Why his one idiotic battle charge in a seemingly insular video has spread beyond World of Warcraft to MTV, Howard Stern references, Jeopardy questions and schoolgirls' T-shirts in Asia. And why, in the fickle, fleeting world of pop-culture celebrity, Leeroy Jenkins remains a global phenomenon. A legend.
"I think his fame helped to promote Warcraft," Gogger adds. "The video was humorous -- but that's all I really know of him."
There's nothing Ben Schulz can do to stop the whispering. Tonight's like all the other nights -- except that Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind World of Warcraft, has recently released its first expansion, The Burning Crusade, and gamers can now advance ten more levels in the game than were possible before. Ben is sitting in the cramped, chatchke-filled back room of the house where he grew up in Lafayette, laboring away at World of Warcraft on his mom's Dell computer -- trouncing a spike-bedecked thug named Talon King Isis, obliterating the walking undead to collect their Ghostly Essence -- to take his hitherto Level 60 character to Level 70 as quickly as possible. But he keeps getting distracted by the whispers.