Hello, and welcome to the Dreamgrove, a blog dedicated to playing a Restoration Druid in Azeroth … without the use of one’s hands!
I first created Phaelia after being initially enamored by the cinematic in which the Night Elf Druid morphs into Cat Form. Unfortunately, neither the Feral and Balance specializations appealed to me, but I loved the feel of Restoration. I had previously played for years as a Ranger in EverQuest — a much maligned and often underperforming DPS class — and was eager to play a class or specialization that would always be wanted. I played for several years before founding Resto4Life.com in 2007, which I authored for just over two years before the impending arrival of my son (for whom the Phaelia’s Vestments of the Sprouting Seed were graciously named) prompted me to take a long break from blogging and gaming altogether.
I would visit Azeroth intermittently over the next few years, but was unable transition to playing regularly. A year into the release of Warlords of Draenor, our little Sprout was old enough to play a character of his own, making World of Warcraft an activity we could enjoy together as a family. Mr. Phae and I helped him to level a Worgen hunter of his own, all the way up to the level cap. This is no small feat as the majority of conversation seems to revolve around determining what happened to his pet and where he has run off to now.
After only a couple of months raiding in Draenor, a project deadline at work caused me to have to put in longer hours and greater amounts of typing than I was accustomed to. The two activities combined caused me to develop pain in both of my wrists and forearms. Because I had previously suffered from similar pain years earlier – pain which had resolved itself without too much difficulty – I didn’t think much of it. I began icing my wrists at work and during raids. When it became apparent that I wasn’t healing on my own, I spent several hundred dollars on ergonomic equipment which, although seemingly helpful at first, soon proved to be ineffectual. As my condition worsened and because my career depends upon the use of my hands, I was forced to give up all recreational computer use.
Seeing me suffering, my manager kindly suggested that I consider using voice dictation software at work. I was initially resistant not only because I feared the loss of productivity, but because I was self-conscious about what my coworkers would think (like most software developers, I work in a cubicle, not a closed office). Eventually however, I grew desperate enough to install Dragon NaturallySpeaking and began the process of re-engineering my workflow. Still, even with voice dictation, having to use a mouse continued to take a toll on my arms and I sought a mouse alternative that did not require the use of my hands. I initially tried a piece of hardware called an eye tracker, which uses a small camera to observe the motion of your eyes and then attempts to position the mouse where it believes you are looking. It felt quite Minority Report, but unfortunately the technology is not yet accurate enough for use as a mouse replacement. I eventually found the SmartNav 4: EG by NaturalPoint, an infrared camera that tracks the movement of a small, reflective silver dot that you wear somewhere on the top of your head. That movement is then translated into mouse movement on screen. This device – along with voice dictation software – may have saved my career.
However, even with these adaptations at work, I was forced to concede the need for surgery, at least on my right arm and wrist. Nerve conduction studies had conclusively diagnosed me with nerve compression in my right forearm but was ambiguous about carpal tunnel in both wrists. I was hoping to have fully recovered in time for the release of Legion, but when it became evident that I would not be, I started making investments in the same equipment I had purchased for work to use at home. I was initially discouraged because in-game movement was such a difficult obstacle to overcome, but I was determined not to have to forever sacrifice what I consider to be part of my core identity: being a gamer.
Now I can play comfortably and (so far) effectively without the use of my hands (I do also leverage an XBox controller for initiating auto-run and to make minute adjustments to my position when raiding). As it happens, World of Warcraft is the perfect game to play hands-free because of the number of key bindingd available and its support of complex macros and scripting. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is actually easier for me to game than to program. There are, of course, a number of limitations: additional latency, occasional instances of poor recognition, reduced mobility, the need for pre-configuration and maintenance, and background noise (try playing beside an overly excited seven-year-old).Nonetheless, it is a fun and engaging method of play. I have particularly enjoyed how it has freed me from the need to fit all of my abilities onto a relatively small number of buttons, as I was forced to do when using a Nostromo.
I have always enjoyed sharing my knowledge with others, and I have decided to share what I have learned over the past year because I know that many other gamers may be experiencing symptoms of RSI, even if those symptoms have not yet developed into a long-term injury. I hope to provide a way to provide readers many more years of gaming without the threat to loss of career or self-identity. I hope that other gamers — inside and outside of Azeroth — can benefit from the knowledge I have to share.