December 9, 2011

The Morality of "World of Warcraft"

        I am a rather unlikely player of the massive multi-player on-line role-playing game "World of Warcraft."  For those not familiar with the phenomenon, World of Warcraft is a computer game on which you create a character which you then run around in the virtual world completing quests in order to gain experience and loot.  Millions of people have characters, so some of the characters in the world (such as quest-givers and shop-keepers and random villagers) are controlled by the computer, but all the other "heroes" with whom you can interact are being controlled by other real people all over the world.  Why do I play?  Simple: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."  My husband D loves his computer games of all sorts, and more than five years ago I decided that if I wanted an activity we could take part in together in the evenings, it would have to be a computer game.  So I signed up.  I am now the proud(?) alter ego of a level 85 night elf moonkin druid as well as several lower-level characters.
        There are things I really like about this game, even besides the fact that I play it with my beloved husband.  It's a fantasy world, and I love the beautiful scenery and cool creatures.  I love the silly extras, like the fact that each kind of character can dance and tell jokes.  I love that you can collect pets that will run along behind your character just for fun.  Many of the "boss fights" are interesting tactical puzzles that
must be solved, giving a satisfying feeling of mastery when your group finally succeeds.  I'm in awe of the size and complexity of the world.  But there are also things about World of Warcraft that I really dislike.  One that's been much improved since I started playing is just how much time you have to devote to the dumb thing if you want to get through an entire chapter at a time.  They've now made lots more bite-sized pieces, thank goodness.  And of course I could get into the typical player complaints about how I hate the most recent changes to my favorite spells or the mechanics of some talent, etc etc…  But the number one thing I dislike about World of Warcraft is its morality.
        With a name like "World of Warcraft," you can imagine that this is a game about fighting, but it isn't the explicit violence that bothers me.  Injury and slaughter are not depicted particularly graphically in this game, so even someone as squeamish and tender-hearted as I am doesn't get too disturbed by what they see and hear.  What does disturb me, however, is the assumptions implicit in the laws of the universe as written into the code of the game.  Quite simply, every problem can be solved with violence and only violence.  Many quests, of course, are to go off and fight the enemy in circumstances that "Just War" advocates would find acceptable.  But if a quest asks you to negotiate, chances are you'll get to the target and the only option the game gives you is to attack.  Then after you beat up the target enough, he'll "agree" to your "negotiating."  This is the way the laws of the World of Warcraft universe operate.  But is it the way our universe operates?  Or if the quest asks you to recover a stolen item, you're sent to a village and expected to kill every person or creature in the village until you find the stolen object on one of the corpses.  The universe of the game presents this as perfectly straightforward and reasonable, but I find it insanely horrifying.  Can you imagine applying this logic in our world?
        Of course, World of Warcraft doesn't ask you to kill real people or commit real violence.  You're just having your pixels do things to other pixels.  Your average person can differentiate perfectly clearly between pixels and people.  Besides, often you have to cooperate with other real people so that all your pixels can work together.  That's a good thing, surely.  The debate over whether violent video games cause real violence is certainly a valid and interesting topic of discussion that I think all parents need to consider very seriously when deciding what games their children should play and at what age and for how long.  And responsible adults should be considering how they themselves are affected, too.  I wouldn't class World of Warcraft among the really violent games: the first-person shooter games, the games with horribly graphic depictions of blood and carnage, the games in which the violence is portrayed in real-world settings where the victims look like real-world people.  I think any normal, healthy human seeing World of Warcraft is perfectly able to draw the line between fantasy and reality when looking at the scenery, the characters, the magical spells being cast… At the same time, however, I do wonder how insidiously the myth of redemptive violence sneaks in.  Unlike the beautiful fantasy setting and characters, the inner workings of the universe's morality are never explicitly stated to the player - and therefore never explicitly evaluated for their realism.
        But this insidious sub-text is not confined to video games.  The central message of the "Justice League" cartoon series aimed at children is that the solution to all problems is to hit someone.  And if hitting doesn't work at first, hitting again, harder, will make things turn out right for sure.  The central message of Pullman's popular "His Dark Materials" series of books is that any means are justified for even the most arbitrarily defined ends.  The central message of any number of books, movies, television shows, and government policies is that violence never fails, and if it ever seems to be failing, it's only because it's just not violent enough.  Perhaps the time has come for us to take this message out of the unnoticed, undiscussed realm of invisible assumptions, and treat it as the fiction it is, as fantastical as any other system of magic.  Perhaps it's time we noticed that this is one of the elements of fantasy that doesn't translate well to the real world.

[Pictures: This huge, slovenly, mixed-up beast is my moonkin character;
Scenery in Zangarmarsh, with my moonkin character in night elf form;
Scenery in Nagrand;
Guild group by the bones of Marrowgar;
all screen shots from World of Warcraft game.]

1 comment:

Pax said...

I absolutely agree. An amazingly high percentage of entertainment in the USA these days is based (probably unconsciously) on the myth of redemptive violence. Theologian and Biblical scholar Walter Wink has done an excellent job of exposing this fallacy. We need many, many more books, movies, video games, news analyses, and stories that explore alternative ways of resolving differences and creating justice. That's just one reason I really like your Otherworld series (except perhaps for "Return to Tchrkkusk"). Keep sayin' it, sister!