For the next series of articles, I’m going to shift methodologies slightly. I’ll still be looking at the nuts and bolts of game mechanics, but instead of using just the broad spectrum of gaming, we’ll investigate it through the lens of Clausewitz and his opus, “On War.”

As a quick bit of background, Carl von Clausewitz’s book is arguably the most important theory of warfare ever written. He was born in 1780 and served in the Prussian Army during the Napoleonic Wars. Much of his philosophy is based on a study of Napoleon and his Prussian rival, Scharnhorst. “On War” was published a year after his death in 1831. But you may ask, why Clausewitz?

Since online gaming is built around systems of combat, it makes sense to study it through the lens of the master of warfare theory. Ironically, Clausewitz championed the idea of warfare being an art more than a science whereas computer games, by their very nature, are purely mechanical systems. The melding of the two should prove interesting.

The first Clausewitzian topic we will investigate is morale. About this he says, “Every theory becomes infinitely more difficult from the moment that it touches on the province of moral quantities … as soon as the moral activities begin their work, as soon as moral impressions and feelings are introduced, the whole set of rules dissolves into vague ideas.” This is to say that the employment of morale rules are difficult at best.

Let’s look at World of Warcraft, which is, to my recollection, the first MMO that instituted morale. Other games have since followed its precedent even though its employment of morale is the opposite of what I’d expect. Take, for example, a theoretical battle with three brigands: It’s a tough fight, but if I play it right, I know I should win. I’ve whittled the first brigand down to a fraction of his heath and he breaks and runs. Clausewitz describes a similar situation: “Suddenly some one known to us falls – a shell strikes amongst the crowd and causes some involuntary movements: we begin to feel that we are no longer perfectly at ease and collected; even the bravest is at least to some degree confused.”

So, I’d expect that as the brigand runs, my sword catches him in the back and drops him. Furthermore, the other two brigands continue to fight, but they are now shaken. They’ve seen one of their companions run (and die) and each wonders if the other will do the same. Should they run now while they have a chance, or stick it out? They are unconfident in themselves and each other. I may still be outnumbered two to one, but I’ve got the moral advantage.

But that isn’t what happens. In WoW, the first brigand runs away and I don’t get a free strike at his vulnerable back. He sprints off running to and fro, perhaps recovering a little bit of health while his two companions continue to fight me, completely unaffected by their friend abandoning them. A few seconds later, the brigand who fled has returned and brought three of his buddies with him. Now I face two choices: die in place or run.

In other words, breaking an enemy’s morale in an MMO is the worst thing that can happen. The routed enemy escapes without injury while his unimpeded buddies pin me down. Now I’m in a race to finish the battle and back off before a whole swarm of enemies sweep in and finish me off.

According to Clausewitz, “The activity in war is never directed solely against matter; it is always at the same time directed against the intelligent force which gives life to this matter, and to separate the two from each other is impossible.” Yet in gaming, this seems to be exactly the case. Warfare in MMOs is only against matter (i.e. the physical properties of the enemy) since warfare against the moral factors only causes a broken enemy to increase in strength.

I can, however, understand the logic behind the current MMO programming. The premise is that someone who is morally broken by battle will eventually recover and be able to return to the fight. The problem is it takes only a fraction of the moral factors into account and compresses the recuperation time of the routed enemy, causing a paradoxical rule that “he who runs first, wins.”

The solution to this problem is in four parts. The first is a lengthened recovery time for the enemy that flees. A few seconds of flight and then a return to the combat is far too quick. Furthermore, the enemy that returns to an ongoing combat should have reduced morale. In other words, they are liable to flee again and, while they stay in the battle, their attacks are less powerful.

Second, an enemy that breaks and flees should have a moment of vulnerability as they turn to run. Whether this means a free shot against their back, an increased chance to hit, or increased damage may vary, but it must be significant because in that moment they are at their most vulnerable. “The most decisive losses on the side of the vanquished only commence with the retreat.”

Additionally, there must be repercussions for companions who remain in the fight. Their morale is shaken by being abandoned by a compatriot. They should be more prone to breaking themselves and their attacks should be less focused, meaning they have greater difficulty hitting and inflicting damage.

Finally, the specific effect should not be concrete. As I introduced at the beginning of this article, the impact of moral forces on a battle are vague and impossible to fully quantify. In some fights, morale never breaks, while in others the impact is more or less severe.

Ultimately, the result of someone fleeing from a battle should result in a positive advantage to the victor rather than the vanquished.

Citation for all quotes: Clausewitz, Carl. On War. London: Penguin Group, 1968.

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