Cooperation comes in many different forms. In virtual worlds, it most often takes the shape of the five-man quest parties formed in World of Warcraft, the player clans that vie for control of powerful castles in Lineage II or the battle plans formed by trigger-happy soldiers in World War II Online. In general, players with common interests are happy to work together to accomplish a common goal. Sometimes, though, help can be found in places we least expect.

This story takes place in Azeroth, the fictional world of World of Warcraft. In the history of my virtual lives, it was a singular event. More importantly, it’s the kind of occurrence that, when it happens, gives me faith that virtual words are more than just the Hobbesian environments they’re often made out to be, places where our virtual lives are nasty, brutish and short, and the only way to get by is to look out for Number One.

My latest World of Warcraft character is a troll Rogue (thus a member of the Horde faction, rather than the Alliance) who, at the time of the story, was looking forward to reaching level 30. I’ll call him Arc. Arc hangs out on a player vs. player server, where Horde and Alliance members can attack each other freely. I’m not always on the winning end of these encounters, of course, but I like the wider range of interactions possible in a PvP environment. Even when I’m the victim, interesting things can come of it. I had no idea how interesting, though, until the other night.

I logged on around midnight, thinking I’d just whack a single shellsnapper turtle near the undead town of Tarren Mill, grab the final piece of turtle meat I needed to complete a cooking quest, ding 30 and just log off. But as soon as I materialized in town, I found myself chatting to a couple of undead players about seven levels below me, one of whom was having trouble finishing a Warlock quest. He needed to cross the dangerous Arathi Highlands, get to the Wetlands on the other side and kill a non-player character who had apparently managed to resist his best efforts so far. Could I escort him across the Highlands and help him kill the guy, he wanted to know. Sure, I said. I’ve been helped with similar quests in the past, and it was only right, I thought, that I pass along the assistance. This was a perfect opportunity.

In fact, I have never before traveled from Tarren Mill to the Wetlands, so I had no idea what the road through Arathi might hold. The threatening creatures to either side of us, though, were right around my level, so it didn’t seem like it would be such a bad trip. But that night, the road was clogged with Alliance players running to and fro on errands. Repeated gankage ensued, and not in our favor. Most embarrassing was our deaths at the hands of a level 34 gnome Warlock, who wiped us out twice in a row.

I gave up after the second attack, crouching down amid some weeds and hoping he’d just go away. But the little bugger soon spotted me. Instead of zapping me with a fireball, though, he just circumnavigated my brambles, hopped up and down a couple of times, then “/waved” to me using World of Warcraft‘s system of emotes.

While it wasn’t the first time I’d been waved to by an Alliance character, whenever it happens, the gesture is significant. WoW characters can speak and understand only the languages of their factions. Alliance chat reaches Horde eyes as a jumble of seemingly random letters, and vice versa. The one mode of communication that both factions share is the emote system Blizzard has built into World of Warcraft. By targeting a character like Kamber, the gnome Warlock, and typing “/wave” on the chat line, I can create an “emote” that appears as “Arc waves to Kamber” in the chat window of both factions. Similarly, I can “/cheer” someone, I can “/thank” them and I can even “/spit” on them, as well as a host of other actions.

In this case, I just “/waved” back, but didn’t move – until Kamber let loose his next emote, which resulted in, “Kamber motions Arc to follow him.”

In fact, it took a couple of similar motions and a couple of “/nods” from Kamber before I was willing to move. Finally, though, I took a chance. Even if he leads us straight to his powerful buddies, I figured, we’ll at least have moved a bit farther down the road.

We met up with the aspiring undead Warlock, DethKnight, and his young Sidekick, and a short “conversation” ensued as Kamber attempted to win the two lower-level players over to his plan. It went something like this:

Kamber motions DethKnight to follow him.
DethKnight laughs at Kamber.
Arc shrugs at Kamber.
Kamber nods.
DethKnight waves at Kamber.
Kamber questions Arc.
Arc shrugs at Kamber.
Sidekick pees on Kamber.
Kamber frowns at Sidekick.
Kamber motions Arc to follow him.
Arc nods at Kamber.

And then we were off. For the next 30 minutes, the four of us made our way through Arathi together, whacking the occasional raptor and generally hopping up and down along the road to the Wetlands. I couldn’t resist /cheering for Kamber along the way, /saluting him and occasionally /bowing to him, despite the fact that his faction-mates around Tarren Mill repeatedly tried to kill my fellow Hordelings and me whenever they got the chance. Within the context of the game’s lore, Kamber was my sworn enemy. But what was going on at that moment was more than the game, it was a few people deciding the game’s fiction wasn’t sufficient, and exploring a different way to work together in the world.

When we finally reached the Wetlands, Kamber spoke to an NPC, who turned out to be the same one we needed to kill for DethKnight’s quest. When Kamber was done, we offed the poor guy – whereupon I felt it only polite to /apologize to Kamber.

Then, it was time for the duel. Kamber arranged it by first /pointing to his own shadowy Warlock’s minion, then /pointing to DethKnight’s minion, then repeating the sequence two or three times. Finally, Deth got the point and the two spectral bodyguards went at it, Kamber’s winning easily, of course, but that wasn’t the point. The point was, we were looking for ways to interact, and that was an obvious one, something that happens all the time within factions, but not so often between the two rival bands. When it was all over, we did a little /dance and sent Kamber on his way with a /bye, a /thank and another /bow.

On my solo run back to Tarren Mill, I pondered what had just happened. Here was a guy who, according to the game, should have been mercilessly roasting us to a crisp. And yet, he had stopped to offer his assistance and managed to provide us with an escort through dangerous territory. World of Warcraft does everything it can to keep players from one faction from helping those of the other. You’re rewarded with Honor points for killing your enemies, and despite a long-promised Dishonor system to help prevent rampant slaughter, Blizzard has yet to deliver anything in that department. The artificial language barrier makes it difficult to even plead for mercy, except, perhaps, through emotes. In the end, it’s easier to just kill.

And yet, that night in the Arathi Highlands we managed to overcome all those obstacles and form a little band of adventurers that knew no factional prejudices, able to overcome a language barrier and set aside what we’d been taught about each other, and find a way of overcoming a game mechanic that was meant to keep us apart. In order to find a way to work together, we had to make the game more than just the sum of its parts.

Player vs. player? For us, that night, the phrase had no meaning. Better yet, it had its meaning turned upside down. I know we’re not the first or only players to have engaged in this kind of emergent gameplay, but it’s rare enough to be of note. Help can come from the most unexpected place. Kamber, I /salute you once again.

Mark Wallace can be found on the web at Walkering.com. His book with Peter Ludlow, Only A Game: Online Worlds and the Virtual Journalist Who Knew Too Much, will be published by O’Reilly in 2006.

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