StateCraft: Update

StateCraft: Update
Griefing is Good: Freedom of Choice and the Politics of Gameplay

Mark Wallace | 28 Mar 2006 11:04
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If you ask me, there are two kinds of players in the videogames of life: There are passengers, and there are drivers. The passengers can be found riding the rails of most single player games; the drivers play MMOGs.

What it comes down to is a question of choice: How much of it do you really have? While open-world games like Grand Theft Auto and Gun have begun to give the unconnected PC- or console-bound player more and more choice as to how they'll make their way through the environments unfolding on their screens, the single player experience is still mostly one of being guided through a series of missions that unfold, as the popular phrase has it, "on rails" - i.e., in a linear series of events that funnel the player down a relatively narrow path of gameplay encounters. In general, the player has only one choice to make: Go on to the next boss fight, or switch the damn thing off.

The experience of MMOGs and other virtual worlds, by contrast, can be fundamentally different (though it isn't always). In virtual worlds, players are free to follow any number of different paths through the content that's provided by the developer. Here, the player has a far wider range of choices as to what comes next. Or, at least, that's what it looks like at first glance.

Though the software that underpins a game can do much to guide a player, in most cases, the player himself has far more control over just how he makes his way through the world than the designer does. There's no one path to level 60 in World of Warcraft, after all, and theoretically, you could get there without ever doing any of the quests Blizzard spent so much time and money to seed throughout its game. In MMOGs, players rule. What may be surprising, though, is the fact that, quite often, it's neither you nor the game that determines your path through the world.

A lesson from French existentialism may be helpful here. The play No Exit, first performed in May 1944, is Jean Paul Sartre's drawing-room meditation on (among other things) how we create our identities. Sartre asks a question that should be important to anyone who spends time in MMOGs, where our identities are more malleable than anywhere else: How does one bring oneself into existence?

Sartre answers with a negative example. Perhaps the most important chestnut to be found between the opening and closing curtains is a line uttered by Garcin, the only man in the three-person play. Garcin sums up what all gamers already know: Hell is other players.

Well, actually, it's other people, according to Sartre. But the epigram is easily tweaked to suit our current purposes. For Sartre, the most important element of who we are is neatly encapsulated by the choices we make in the world. But other people sometimes perceive us differently. Woe betide the man who lets himself be defined by the perceptions of others. Do that, and you enter a kind of hell in which you fail to exist.

Any WoW player who's ever tried to chat with the NPC Hemet Nesingwary in Stranglethorn Vale on a PvP server knows this is true. More often than not - especially if it's early on a Saturday evening, Eastern Time, when Californians are just logging on and Europeans are done questing for the night but not yet ready for bed - Nessie, as he's known, is nowhere to be seen. Why? Because he's been killed by the high-level Alliance players (or Horde, depending on your server profile) who are hanging around Nessie's camp site, waiting to kill you, too.

Stranglethorn is rightly called Ganklethorn by players frustrated by being "ganked" over and over again (i.e., killed by high-level characters for whom the battle is hardly a challenge). But on WoW's PvP servers, other zones can be just as bad.

Alliance players often find it impossible to make their way through the quests available to them in the eastern portions of the Ashenvale zone, and Horde players who'd like to take a run at the instanced dungeon known as Uldaman often find themselves so impossibly outmatched by Alliance players, they can hardly reach the entrance.

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