Do You Fish in Real Life?

This article analyses the transfer of fishing activity between the physical and virtual worlds.

Do You Fish IRL? In Real Life. I dislike the phrase, because it implies that everything else is unreal. Yet many virtual environments trigger the same human emotions as the physical world. Very real indeed.

Google US search for 'fishing guide'. If you search US Google for the term “fishing guide“, the first result may surprise you. It doesn’t help to catch any of the 30,000 species of fish found on planet earth. And its author has bright pink hair.

This isn’t just a neat party trick. Nor an indication that I should write a real fishing guide. Nor a failing of Google’s search index: Google is directing such a generic search to a game-specific website because the search engine thinks that the majority of people searching for a “fishing guide” are looking for a World of Warcraft fishing guide. (The box below provides evidence.)

Perhaps, within the online sphere, virtual fishing is as important as conventional fishing? The caveat, “within the online sphere”, is crucial: Physical world anglers generally aren’t sat in front of a computer screen, while World of Warcraft anglers are. However, the internet is still widely used to find information about offline pursuits: The US Angler Survey found that 42% of those surveyed primarily learn about fishing from websites – more popular than print media. (The survey is presumably biased, because anglers that use the internet are more likely to complete an online survey – but still indicates the internet is a fairly important source of information for physical world anglers.) Of course far more people search for generic terms like “fishing” than anything WoW or guide-related. So game-related search does not dominate as much as it may first seem.

Searches for “fishing guide” are not the only way online anglin’ is merging with offline.

As the remainder of this article demonstrates, World of Warcraft anglers are up to 3 times more likely to fish in the physical world than the wider population: If you enjoy fishing “for real”, you are more likely to fish virtually than other players. This implies that the fishing activity transfers directly between the physical and virtual worlds.

Google trends - fishing guide vs wow fishing. Box: Google Isn’t Stupid
This graph shows Google search volumes (y-axis) for 2 different terms over time (x-axis): “fishing guide” (in blue) and “wow fishing” (in red). People prefixing a search with “wow” will always be looking for World of Warcraft-specific information. In the middle of 2007, the 2 lines vary: There is a visible increase in people searching for a “fishing guide” during the Northern hemisphere’s summer. By the end of 2008, the 2 lines mirror one another. A huge spike occurs for both lines. Both lines then more-or-less mirror each other through to a second spike in April 2009. Did physical world angling suddenly become twice as popular? In November? No. A new WoW expansion was launched – with a lot of new fish! And the second spike? That’s WoW’s patch 3.1, which introduced a lot of fishing changes. So, by the end of 2008, a very high proportion of all searches for “fishing guide” were actually looking for a World of Warcraft fishing guide. And that’s the result Google gave them. Note that El’s Extreme Anglin’ does not rank #1 for the most generic search term “fishing” – although it can be found in the top 20 results.

On this page:

Also in this series:

A Question

In February 2008, readers of El’s Extreme Anglin’ were asked a simple question: Do You Fish in Real Life? The question was intended to refer to recreational (“sport”) anglers (not those working in the commercial fishing industry).

El’s Anglin’ is a website dedicated to fishing in World of Warcraft (WoW). Fishing in the game is a simple process: Find some water, cast, wait for a bite, reel in. Players do not need to refer to a website to understand the basic principles. El’s Anglin’ tends to attract anglers who want to improve their skills, or want information about where to catch certain fish. The 2007 Retrospective provides an audience profile.

The important point is that El’s Anglin’ is read by people who fish in the game. Players that don’t fish, have no reason to read it. A survey of El’s readers is a survey of WoW anglers, not a survey of all players.

5,299 individual people responded, selecting one of 4 options:

World of Warcraft Anglers: Do You Fish in Real Life?

Responses to the question, do you fish in real life?

Percentages are the proportion of all responses given for each answer.

Roughly a third are active physical world anglers (answering either “yes, often” or “yes, occasionally”). 3/4 either fish, or have fished in the past (all responses except, “never caught a real fish”).

“Often” and “occasionally” are entirely subjective (based on the personal opinion of the respondent). The difference between “occasionally” and “not any more” may be interpreted in slightly different ways. Equivalent surveys of physical world anglers tend to ask “how long ago” a person fished. Typically, only those that fished within the last 12 months would be considered active anglers. Unfortunately, this survey was conducted in the depths of the Northern hemisphere’s winter, when outdoor activities like recreational fishing are least popular. So the results from a question that defined “often” and “occasionally”, would also be misleading.


The IP (internet communications protocol) address of each response was recorded. MaxMind data was used to cross-reference IP addresses to their country of origin. This allows us to separate and analyse responses by country.

The table below shows the number of responses from the top 10 countries:

Responses by Country
Country Responses % of All Reponses
United States 2407 45.4%
Germany 934 17.6%
Great Britain 308 5.8%
Canada 277 5.2%
Netherlands 199 3.8%
Sweden 186 3.5%
Denmark 131 2.5%
Australia 119 2.2%
Norway 95 1.8%
Finland 72 1.4%
Other Countries 571 10.8%

The proportion of responses broadly reflects the balance of El’s Anglin’ readers. The figure for Germany is slightly higher than expected based on readership, and the German response is also higher for this survey than for other polls conducted during 2007 (5% is more typical). One explanation for this quirk is that the game’s patch 2.4 was in testing at the time of the survey: El tends to explore and document new game content before non-English language sources, so often attracts additional readers with a more limited understanding of English during these periods. At the time of the survey, WoW was only played in 3 European languages – English, French and German. French players not only have Deedoohangus’ Le guide de la pêche, but (for cultural reasons) seem to be less likely to refer to English-language websites than other Northern Europeans.

United States

The 2,407 responses by US WoW anglers provide a reasonably robust statistical sample for further analysis. There is also a wealth of statistical and survey information on physical world anglers in the US, published by organisations like the American Sportfishing Association and government agencies. I am grateful to Rob Southwick for helping me navigate through this information.

The table below shows the proportion of all responses by US WoW anglers to each option, alongside the proportion for all countries.

United States WoW Anglers: Do You Fish in Real Life?
Answer US All
Yes, often! 13.9% 10.2%
Yes, occasionally. 29.2% 22.9%
Not any more, but I know how. 43.5% 40.5%
No, I have never caught a real fish! 13.4% 26.4%

43% of US respondents are active physical world anglers. And 87% either fish now, or have fished in the past.

While fishing is a popular recreational activity in the United State, it’s not that popular: There are “nearly” 40 million active anglers in the US [Sportfishing in America] – 13% of the population.

Individual people tend to drop in and out of the activity from year-to-year – the “churn rate” is high. This means that far more people have fished at some point in their lives – 119 million US citizens, which is 39% of the population [2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Table B-4].

WoW’s US anglers are 3.3 times more likely than the overall US population to be active recreational anglers. They are 2.2 times more likely to know how to really fish than the overall US population.

The second 2.2 multiplier is a slight under-estimate: The 39% figure (of the US population that have fished at some stage in their lives) reflects the full demographic structure of US. However, WoW’s underlying demographic structure is biased towards younger age groups – particularly ages 15-35. While many (physical world) fishermen and women learn to fish when young, some will not learn until they are older. Those people would answer that they have not caught a fish in the survey, but would still fall into the 39% proportion.

Perhaps World of Warcraft’s customers simply tend to be more likely to be physical world anglers than the rest of the population? Statistically it is possible: There are more anglers than WoW players. But seems unlikely: WoW is not a “fishing game”. Fishing is a fringe activity, not core to the design. WoW is not even an outdoor pursuit. Unfortunately I cannot easily survey WoW players who do not fish in-game.

Definitions: Several terms are used throughout this article, such as “angler” and “active”. The precise definitions for these terms can vary slightly between sources. Hopefully they don’t vary enough to invalidate comparison.


It is possible that the survey was biased. Perhaps physical world anglers were more likely to respond to the survey than others? Analysis of responses from Germany suggests this is not the case.

There were 934 responses by WoW anglers based in Germany. A less reliable sample than the US, but still large enough to probe in detail.

German WoW Anglers: Do You Fish in Real Life?
Response Germany All
Yes, often! 5.4% 10.2%
Yes, occasionally. 9.4% 22.9%
Not any more, but I know how. 29.2% 40.5%
No, I have never caught a real fish! 56.0% 26.4%

German WoW anglers have a far lower level of involvement in physical world fishing than the Americans: Just 15% of German WoW anglers are also active physical world anglers. 44% either fish now, or have fished in the past.

The number of recreational fishers in Germany is estimated to be between 3.3 and 5.8 million people [PICOS]. Crudely averaging those figures gives 4.6 million people, which is 5% of the German population. (I have not managed to find (in English) statistics for the proportion of the German population that have fished at some point in their lives.)

So, WoW’s German anglers are also 3 times more likely than the overall German population to be active recreational anglers. Almost the same multiplier as the United States, but with a completely different balance of responses.

Box: Why Germans Don’t Fish
Why is recreational (physical world) angling so much less popular in Germany than countries like Norway? One explanation may be regulation: “German laws forbid angling for children under 10 years and later a quite demanding angling exam is mandatory” [European Anglers Alliance]. The same source shows a strong tendency for people (in other European countries) to learn to fish when young, something which German law limits. Another explanation may be geographic: Germany has a shorter coastline per head of population than most other countries in Northern Europe. That’s not simply a practical factor (Germany still has plenty of inland water). Rather, a historic cultural issue: A weaker maritime heritage than Atlantic-facing Europe, with less historic dependency on fishing for survival.


Nordic countries (defined here as Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) often have high proportions of their population engaged in physical world fishing. These are also among the most “wired” (internet-savy) nations in Europe, making them home to many MMOG players. The strong bias towards conventional recreational fishing in these countries makes a comparison to WoW worth examining, even if the sample size is rather small: There were 492 responses by WoW anglers from the 5 Nordic countries in total.

Nordic WoW Anglers: Do You Fish in Real Life?
Response Nordic All
Yes, often! 9.8% 10.2%
Yes, occasionally. 32.5% 22.9%
Not any more, but I know how. 43.9% 40.5%
No, I have never caught a real fish! 13.8% 26.4%

The Nordic pattern is similar to the United States: 42% of Nordic respondents are active physical world anglers. And 86% either fish now, or have fished in the past.

There are 6.6 million active (in the previous 12 months) physical world anglers spread across these 5 Nordic countries [European Anglers Alliance PDF] – 27% of the population.

WoW’s Nordic anglers are only 1.6 times more likely than the overall Nordic population to be active recreational anglers. There is still a clear tendency for physical world anglers to be more likely to fish virtually. But the relationship is not a simple multiplier.

I have not found any information about the proportion of the Nordic population that will fish at some stage during their lives. Assume the pattern is the same as the US: Lifetime involvement in fishing = 3x current involvement. Apply that formula to the Nordic countries, and a staggering 80% of the Nordic population will fish at some stage during their lives. That’s on the verge of becoming a defining characteristic of those nations – something embedded deep within the culture. Obviously if such a high proportion of the population know how to fish, multipliers as high as 2 or 3 cannot be achieved: The proportion of WoW anglers that fish or know how to fish, cannot be exceed 100%!


The conclusion: That being (or having been) a physical world angler make you far more likely to be a virtual angler. It appears that the underlying emotional desire to fish tends to transfer between the physical and virtual worlds.

Readers who implicitly understand how humans interact with these virtual worlds will not be surprised by this result. Although it is unusual to be able to demonstrate it empirically.

Understanding the ease by which human activities transfer from physical to virtual environments, is key to applying this technology outside of its current gaming niche. And I’m fascinated with the notion that existing resource-intensive human activities (from [driving to] work, to shopping for the latest fashions) can thrive within a virtual environment that is not so resource-intensive.

It is easy to conclude that we can learn nothing from these persistent online game environments: That MMOG players as unusual people, “broken toys” looking for life’s “escape hatch” (to use Scott Jennings‘ terminology). Or become confused about the true motivation for killing dragons. But unlike slaughtering dragons, fishing is a lot easier for non-gamers to understand. The underlying process is the same in the game as in the physical world – one merely moves the computer’s mouse instead of casting with a pole. It’s almost plausible that the same people might enjoy both.

Yet if some activities transfer, do all activities transfer? What, if any, are the limitations?


What isn’t clear from this research is whether cultural differences also transfer: Do Nordic players fish more in World of Warcraft than German players? A pattern that would reflect the differences in participation in physical world angling between those territories.

If yes, it would suggest that cultural “conditioning” also transfers directly across into the virtual sphere.

If not, perhaps online fishing meets different personal objectives in different territories?

Unfortunately I do not (yet) have enough information to answer that question. Hopefully a future article will examine the proportion of WoW’s total player population that are engaged in fishing. It should be possible to identify players that play on German-speaking realms (most of whom are German) and compare them to players on North American realms (most of whom live in the United States).

5 thoughts on “Do You Fish in Real Life?”

  1. Thanks Larísa. 1.8 million fished in the last year, which is about a quarter of the adult population. That’s a little lower than the other survey I was using, which concluded 35%. 3.1 million “expressed an interest”. The gender balance is typical to – men are about twice as likely as women to fish.

  2. While re-reading this, I realised there is something even more fascinating, that I’d overlooked: If residents of Nordic countries fish more because of a historic dependency on fishing for survival, it follows that virtual fishing also reflects some very basic, almost carnal desire.

    Which raises a whole new chain of thought: At what point do we evolve beyond doing what we used to do. Do we? Well, Darwin suggests we evolve. So we must. Eventually. But how many generations does it take? Most of the “Nords” surveyed have never needed to catch their own fish to survive. So evolution certainly takes decades, and possibly takes centuries.

    The implication is that virtual environments will need to reflect actual pre-internet human activities for the foreseeable future. While technology will change the method very rapidly, the emotional reasons change much, much slower…

  3. […] drivers behind what we actually do? At a raw emotional level, technology changes very little. The correlation between anglers in the virtual world and people that fish in the physical world, is a simple example. Technically, the processes are very different. Emotionally, they are very […]

  4. […] Font Size +1 An example of the culture of non-communication: After 3 years of offering the world’s most popular fishing guide (admittedly a niche, but it still serves hundreds of thousands of people in a typical month), I […]

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