The Wandering Isle is a transient place. Sitting precariously on the back of the colossal turtle, it drifts from place to place across the seas of Azeroth. Likewise, its population is just as fleeting. As one of the starter zones in World of Warcraft, new pandaren characters begin their journey here before flying off to join either the Horde or the Alliance in neverending war. All of them but one.
has seen thousands of players level up and leave their homeland behind, but not him. For a normal player, the Wandering Isle is a kind of tutorial zone where pandaren characters complete easy quests and learn about their place in Azeroth. Once they level up enough, they're forced to choose a side to continue their journey. But Doubleagent never made that choice. He's World of Warcraft's first and only conscientious objector—a neutral pandaren shaman who spends his time picking flowers and mining rocks instead of fighting and killing. And, amazingly, after roughly 8000 hours of doing just that, Doubleagent has reached the maximum level of 110.
But what would force someone to subject themselves to a life of solitude on an island most characters spend about an hour on? Simple curiosity. "When I heard that pandaren started out as neutral, I was curious if I could somehow manage to reach max level without choosing a faction," Johnnie, the player behind Doubleagent, tells me. "Once I discovered that there were herb and mining nodes on the island, I knew it was possible."
The conviction to abstain from Azeroth's world-ending conflicts means that Doubleagent doesn't have access to the quests, dungeons, and raids that normal players use to level up. Instead, he picks flowers and mines rocks. Each day that Johnnie plays, he logs in and begins a lap of the Wandering Isle, stopping to pick every flower and mine every ore he sees. By the time he finishes a lap, the nodes have respawned and he can start again. And again. And again. And again.
Fast forward for years and that routine has been repeated hundreds of thousands of times. Each node he harvests typically comes out to about 90 experience points a pop. Considering that getting to level 100 (which Johnnie did back during the Warlords of Draenor expansion) takes just over 100 million experience points, and you can understand the daunting journey it took to reach level 110. When I ask Johnnie why he keeps going, he doesn't really have much of an answer. "I just keep at it," he says. "I don't know why. It's definitely not a process for the average person."
Grinding the days away
You might think that such an obsessive conviction is reserved for a more eccentric person, but Johnnie doesn't strike me as one. Living along the Atlantic coast of New Brunswick, Canada, he is soft-spoken and reserved. Though his antics have garnered a lot of attention, Doubleagent's self-imposed exile isn't some abstract way of gaining attention. "I do it for myself," Johnnie says plainly.
In that vein, Johnnie won't even reveal how many hours he's invested. To reach level 90 took him 175 days worth of play time, but beyond that he won't say—though it's easy to run the numbers and guess somewhere just under a year total. "I get a lot of negativity when I give that kind of information," he says, laughing awkwardly. "A lot of people view it as a waste of time, so I really don't want to say what my play time is beyond what I've already announced. The community has been mostly positive, but it's the negative that sticks with you more."
Look at any of the threads mentioning him on World of Warcraft's subreddit, and you'll find a load of bemused and often critical comments. "Gotta say, he was about as excited as I am," . "I kinda feel like this whole gimmick has served its worth the last [expansion]."
Calling it entertainment, however, is a bit of a stretch. Instead of celebrating each milestone, Johnnie typically sends out a simple tweet or uploads a rough, unedited video. In the video showing him reach 110, he sits for a few moments and then, seemingly unsure of what to do now, sets out to gather more ore. There's no fanfare and no excitement, just a man staring with a blank expression at his computer monitor. He tells me he got permission from work to come home to finish that last stretch of grinding. Once he reached 110, he uploaded the video and returned to work like nothing happened.
It's only natural that some would want to criticize, but Johnnie feels it isn't fair. While the amount of time he's spent in the last four years is staggering, it hasn't been spent wholly focused on watching Doubleagent running from one flower to the next. At this point, he says the routine is almost entirely muscle memory, so he spends that time catching up on Netflix shows and movies he'd be watching anyway. To him, it's no different than knitting or any other passive hobby people invest in. Except, instead of a closet full of wool hats and mittens, Johnnie has the only max-level neutral character in all of Warcraft. "I definitely don't regret it," he says. "It's something that I'm glad that I did. It was something different and it was a goal I set for myself and I went ahead and did it."
No right way to play
Still, the journey hasn't always been easy—and not just because of the massive grind. Early in his life, Doubleagent raised a lot of eyebrows from other players who saw his high level and thought he must've been hacking. Most players leave the island and never return after level 10. "People were putting in [support] tickets and reporting me," he says. "I think they assumed I had gotten to the island in some way. They probably didn't realize that I had actually leveled without hacking myself onto the island."
Even Blizzard's moderators didn't know how to handle Doubleagent at first. One told him what he was doing was fine, while another told him he needed to pick a faction and leave the island for good. Johnnie filed a petition and Blizzard ultimately decided he could stay.
Since then, the company has embraced Johnnie's bizarre way of playing. With the release of Legion in August, order halls gave each class a place to call home in-between excursions to save Azeroth from the demon invasions. When the first monks stepped foot inside of their revamped version of the Wandering Isle during Legion's beta, they found an NPC named wandering around gathering herbs and ores wearing the same gear as Doubleagent. Even better, as Johnnie grinded his way up from level 100 to 110, his NPC doppleganger followed suit.
Blizzard never contacted Johnnie to let him know, so being immortalized in World of Warcraft came as a big surprise. While in truth it's just a subtle joke, he sees it as Blizzard finally validating the way he chooses to play its game. Like Star Wars fans lamenting that there's no middle ground between the light and dark sides of the force, Doubleagent has sat awkwardly between the Horde and Alliance. "It's nice that they showed that being neutral is a choice," Johnnie says. "It might not be the fastest way to level, but it's an option."
Now that he's level 110, Doubleagent's journey has come to an end. Johnnie is currently turning his grinding efforts towards obtaining the Red Winter Hat from Warcraft's christmas holiday, . Since most headwear is acquired in higher level zones, it's the only hat Johnnie can acquire while staying on the island. Once that's done, he'll retire Doubleagent for a few years until the next expansion is released and the level cap is once again raised. And just like the coming of spring or any other force of nature, you can bet Doubleagent will be back out on the Wandering Isle, picking flowers and mining ore, ignorant to whatever new dire circumstance faces Azeroth.