Where were classes like this when I was an undergraduate? I remember writing a 100-page analysis of George McClellan’s footdragging, not spending time on MUDs (the closest equivalent at the time) and writing “ethnographic analyses.” But I’m not bitter.
Anyway, for a communications class an instructor had her students write ethnographic studies of World of Warcraft. The resulting papers and student weblogs can be found here. The papers range from the utterly ridiculous to the insightful. The paper I found most interesting was the student who covered the issue of player-killing.
The World of Warcraft game has dozens of servers. When you’ve logged on with your account you can create a character on any of the servers. At least with the group of people I play with, we tend to just pick a server and create characters there. You can only play one character at a time, so while I’ve got three characters on the Stormscale server, only one of them can be active and playing at any one time.
There are two types of servers to pick from when it comes to player killing. The most numerous is the basic Player-vs-Environment server. On this server the main focus of the game is killing mobs, finishing quests, etc. You can definitely do player killing in this game, but for the most part you either a) have to do it in a special area set up for PVP play, or b) the other players in the area have to explicitly opt-in to PVP play by selecting an option that makes it possible for them to kill or be killed for the next 5 minutes.
The other type is the PVP server. On a PVP server, most of the areas of the world except for some low-level beginning areas are open killing fields. If you’re trying to complete a quest and someone of the opposite faction comes along and decides to attack you, they can do so at any time (and vice versa). Moreover, there’s no penalty (though also no in-game benefit) for players of very high level killing players of very low level.
In WoW, there are two basic factions, the Horde (undead, orcs, etc.) and the Alliance (human, elves, gnomes, etc.) Players are either on one side or the other — I only play Alliance characters.
I play on Stormscale which is on a PVP server — and I couldn’t imagine playing on a PVE server. Moreover, I pretty much try to kill every player I come across where I might actually have a chance to do so. So if I’m just riding through Alterac Valley and see some 18th level player who only has half his health points left? I’ll dismount and send my level 50 Warlock after him to finish the job.
There is also the group PVP-ing, like getting a large group together to go raid a nearby Horde village or town, which might end up with 20 Horde vs. 20 Alliance (or more) in an hours-long back-and-forth battle.
Of course the other side is that this also happens quite a bit to me — I’ll be questing with my wife when some level 60 rogue comes along and wipes us out before we’ve even had a chance to figure out where the attack is coming from. After awhile though, you learn to adapt, and customize your character and your strategy to the constant PVP action.
There are also the folks who try to do something other than PVP, even on a PVP server. As Aaron Delwiche’s paper notes, some players will try to wave, smile or even dance as a sign of “lets not fight … at least for now.” Again, the way I play is that if the person waving is too high to kill anyway, then fine we can play nice. But if I think I’ve got a chance to kill him, then a wave pretty much means, “hey, come over here and try to kill me.”
There is also some debate in the forums about things like ganking (attacking a player while he’s already fighting a mob — and likely has less health points, etc). and other tactics. Occasionally people in the forums complain that such fights aren’t fair. As far as I’m concerned, though, the last thing I want is a fair fight. If someone else wants to play all chivalrous, more power to them, but my goal is to win in PVP encounters and typically the best way to win at any fight is to have an overwhelming advantage.
There is also the meta-criticism hinted at in Delwiche’s paper of the “can’t we all just get along” variety. The WoW beta and even the version launched in November 2004 had some features that allowed players of different factions to communicate. Those have all been removed. Anything, in fact, that might make it easy for co-op play between factions within the game has been removed. Delwiche and others seem to see this as a defect of the game, and are interested in the few attempts to do cross-faction cooperative gameplay.
This criticism might make sense if WoW was the only game of its kind, but there are always games like Second Life if you want to play UN Peacekeeper. These sort of analyses make about as much sense as discussing why American football gives the player so many tools to committ acts of violence against the opposing side, but such few tools for opposing factions to get together at the 50 yard line and just play catch with the ball.