Have no idea what World of Warcraft is, but curious to discover why your son/boyfriend/once-good-friend-but-I-never-see-him-anymore can't stop playing it?

Then read on, and hopefully the following attempt to demystify the curious invention that is Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft might prove helpful.

More than just an RPG

Games like WoW fall into a very specific genre that is relatively young compared to staples like first-person shooters or action platformers.

It is classified as a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. If this sounds confusing, then lets break it down into its two core components.

First, it is an RPG, meaning it follows traditional role playing convention, you create a character and pick a class, gain experience and advance in levels by killing various monsters, who then reward you with cash or gear to equip on your character, such as swords or pieces of armor.

It is placed in an entirely online world whose central servers are maintained by Blizzard's army of ITs. This allows players to interact with other adventurers from around the world in real time.

That massive bit is no exageration. Currently, the game boasts more than 8.5 millions subscribers. By my own very unscientific calculations (i.e. I used Wikipedia) this is bigger than half the countries in the world.

Basically, the popularity is a direct result of combining something entirely nerdy, like Dungeons and Dragons, with the cutting edge in Internet interaction, a social networking site akin to MySpace. Take that 8.5 million, multiply it by the $14.95 monthly subscription fee and you get a very profitable formula for Blizzard.

Also, this is large enough for the game to develop its own localized culture, economy and even politics.

But before those three aspects can be discussed, it is important to understand the basic gameplay mechanic on which the game operates.

Lots of mouse clicking

You use the keyboard to navigate your online avatar and the push of a mouse button to attack hostile creatures, speak to friendly townsfolk or loot the corpses of fallen foes.

Sounds tedious, no?

In fact, for a while it was quite boring. The most popular MMORPG before WoW, Everquest, barely reached one million subscribers.

Blizzard, however, established a winning formula by using nine interesting classes (warrior, druid, warlock, rouge), a simple and intuitive interface (point, click) and player-versus-player combat (bragging rights).

And while this satisfied a large 'casual' gamer audience, they also catered to the 'hardcore' base by providing epic rewards for completing difficult, time-consuming tasks.

These tasks, called quests, also take the form of more simple, easy adventures, such as carrying a letter from one village to the next. They form the bulk of the activity most WoW players engage in.

Characters begin at level one, with relatively few talents and abilities, and can advance all the way up to 70, with a veritable host of skills and spells.

So, this in essence, forms the structure that enables the game to become such a time-consuming endeavor, as there is usually one more quest to complete, one more level to gain or one final piece of equipment to acquire.

The Republic of Blizzard

As mentioned before, like a small country, the game has created its own internal culture and indeed, its own language. For example, to most people, the phrases 'hearthstoning' 'ubrs' 'nerf' 'rick-rolled' 'PvP' are an utter mystery, nor would they know what to do if someone asked them to 'hop a griffin to IF' or 'pwn that ganking noob in STV.'

While Blizzard maintains absolute authority in terms of the games rules, the rules themselves are under constant debate. Indeed, it could almost be said WoW is a two-party system, split along lines such as 'raid' and 'PvP' or 'casual' and 'hardcore.'

The game's currency, gold pieces, boasts the remarkable achievement of being a virtual note often bought with real money.

Whole Web sites and companies have made a business of selling gold 1,000 pieces at a time to players who seek a quicker route to acquiring digital wealth.

Of course, Blizzard considers this practice illegal and a violation of the game's rules, but it' quite possibly is the game's single greatest accomplishment.

Ultimately, however, most of the game's success stems from the fact it is fun to play.

Now, at first this may seem the obvious and primary directive of a video game, but so far Sony has based its business model for the Playstation 3 on it costing lots of money while Sony pumps out endlessly mediocre games. Thus, when a game emerges that is actually enjoyable, gamers take note and flock dutifully toward it.

Frank Johnson is not a syndicated columnist or published in newspapers nationwide, but he did almost reach level 60 once.