Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Hidden Nemesis

I've been pondering something a bit while I've been working on my fiction, and that is how MMOs translate things such as death into a game.

An MMO is a strange beast in its own way: by design it is a multiplayer sandbox where people get to experience all sorts of interactions (such as quests) in their own time. Sure, you can group up, but the multiplayer nature of the game means that death --for both the baddies and you-- isn't permanent.*

You die, you respawn. They die, they eventually respawn.

Items such as phasing as implemented in WoW with the Wrathgate event, as well as other MMOs' version of such phasing, is an attempt to alleviate this. Making it seem like you truly have an impact on the environment is the goal.

But what I've been thinking of is something else entirely: what is the psychological and physical impact of death on people in an MMO? And how did people deal with this in real life when they were drafted, given some basic training, and then shipped out to go kill people?


In an MMO we can make light of death, given that to the player it's an obstacle to overcome. Listen to MMO players talk about wiping in raids or instances, and it's just no big deal. You can even hear bosses express relief at their death, meaning that "Hakkar controls me no longer".**

But nevertheless, "Kill Ten Rats" is just a stone's throw away from "Kill Ten Kobolds" and then "Kill Ten Defias."

I choose the Defias for this because of their origin story, which is something that a lot of people would identify with.

Since there are a few people --including the mini-Reds, who I know occasionally read this blog-- who don't know the Defias origin story, I'm going to put this behind a big ol' cut:

Spoilers ahead

After the First War, the Stonemasons' Guild was hired by the Stormwind House of Nobles to rebuild the city. After the work was complete the leader of the Guild, Edwin Van Cleef, met with representatives of the House to collect payment. The Nobles refused to pay up, whether because they blew their money on military adventurism or because they were assholes (your choice), and in response Van Cleef led a riot in the newly rebuilt city and vowed revenge.***

I'm pretty sure people can get behind being upset at not being paid for honest work, and even (to an extent) at trying to find a way to get even.

However, the Defias' goals mutated from that to the destruction of Stormwind itself in the same way that fanatics can use a reasonable goal to justify horrific ends.

Sure, the overall storyline shows the Defias as fanatics, essentially allowing a player to dehumanize the Brotherhood, but in my opinion it has the exact opposite effect.


It's a traditional tactic of a nation at war to dehumanize your enemy, make them seem less like you, so that you'll have no qualms about killing them for King and Country. "They're fanatics so they deserve it" is but one of the refrains you'll hear from people who want to dehumanize the enemy.
This is one example from WW1.
Found all over the 'net, but this one came

And in a game such as WoW that contains multiple races****, then the process of dehumanization is much easier. Replace the image above with that of a snarling Orc, and you've got the idea.

But the Defias origin story humanizes them, and it makes the Defias relatable in a way that makes attacking them uncomfortable.


Even with dehumanization, your average player may not have known death by combat until they take up weapons in their race's starting zone. Some may have, particularly given their culture (Orc), something that happened immediately prior to their joining up (Gnome), or their very origin (Forsaken), but it is certainly not a given. The quests build up from killing animals to killing other sentient creatures not like you (Kobolds, Troggs), to eventually killing others that are definitely like you (Zombie Trolls (Echo Isles), Defias, Leper Gnomes, Dark Iron Sympathizers, etc.).

As any soldier will tell you, the psychological toll of killing an animal is one thing, but killing another human is quite another.

And in MMOs such as WoW or LOTRO, the quasi-medieval nature of the game means most fights are up close and personal. While you, the player, can sit comfortably from a distance and see an enemy struck down, your toon itself doesn't. Your toon is exposed to killing in a brutally direct way that nowadays is found only in true crime stories.

It's not like a toon hasn't been exposed to death at all, since there's always the specter of death lurking in the background of any environment not in a modern setting. Healers notwithstanding, death due to illness, accident, or by wild animal is just a fact of life for settings that don't include modern medicine. But death by violence is quite another thing, and it can have a profound influence on a person.


As an adventurer, your toon likely became jaded with all of the killing, but even that can be a symptom of a larger problem.

Known nowadays as PTSD, the psychological illness is something that many ex-soldiers (or other occupations that frequently confront the effects of violence) face to a varying degree. And to say that the denizens of an MMO would be immune to PTSD is, to put it mildly, bullshit.

We, the players, may not be triggered by it, but the virtual people who reside in an MMO would definitely feel it.

When I sit and think about the impact of PTSD on a setting, a story a teacher of mine***** once told me comes to mind. He spoke about how, during the fighting that led up to the Battle of the Bulge, the fight had become such a slog that the infantry would fight all day to either keep their position or to progress a very short distance. The effect of the cold and fighting had a terrible effect on the men, so the most affected of the lot were sent to a psychologist who was tasked with getting them "battle ready" again. After days of effort by the psychologist, the commanding officer came in to give them a "pep talk". After his "rah rah" speech, one of the soldiers said, "You simply don't get it, do you?"

I don't 'get it', because I don't suffer from PTSD.# But I can imagine what it would be like, and I have to think that a lot of the denizens of an MMO --toons and NPCs alike-- do get it as well. They've seen it's effects firsthand, and no matter how tough they may seem, they may be broken inside.


However, these are all things that you really can't simulate in an MMO. Well, you could try, but I'm not so sure that people would want to play a game that allows them to play as this semi-superhero that is internally and externally crippled by their time fighting the enemy.

As to how the denizens of an MMO deal with killing and death, I can only offer one example from my family.

My grandfather was a WW2 vet. Because he raised mostly daughters, the Korean and Vietnam Wars never seemed to bother him outwardly. But by the time of the first Gulf War, his youngest daughter's husband was in the Marines, and he began waking up screaming in the middle of the night. Yet he never talked about his personal experiences, taking his memories with him to the grave.

At the same time, he became an ardent nature lover. He was the sort of person who would stop traffic just to get a turtle safely across, who went to the zoo on a regular basis, and always had a dog around the house. But he also said there was no way you'd ever get him to travel again, as he said he had enough of travel after the war.

He may not have behaved like a lot of other people's (great) grandfather, but he was mine. He was a mess of contradictions but managed to lead an outwardly normal life. And perhaps that's the best that can be hoped for.

*Given the way how WoW Retail has progressed over the years --not to mention SWTOR's storyline-- even having an end boss or faction leader die doesn't mean that they're truly dead.

**I always wondered what the deaths of the bosses in Zul'Gurub would sound like, and now I know.

***This is the TL;DR version. I'm aware of a lot of the "other" details, but I'm not going into those here.

****Technically species, but I'm not going to dither much here.

*****In US Military History while I was at college. I know, it may seem strange that I took it given that my major was in the hard sciences, but I always loved history and I minored in it while at UD.

#I was bullied as a child, but that's a whole different thing to unpack, and the effect of my being bullied didn't rise to the level of PTSD. Not by a long shot. It doesn't mean that it can't happen, but my experience didn't result in that level of trauma.


  1. This is something I think about on occasion, too... and it quickly becomes too challenging to think about, so then I stop -- and return to ignoring it.

    Between the inherent instability of the adventuring lifestyle and the PTSD of doing all that killing of other sentient beings, I tend to imagine most of my characters as being single... and when I write more family into their stories, then I begin to feel like retiring them from active play.

    WoW has even begun lampshading how much killing of other sentient beings the player character does, with quest instructions including lines such as "go do what you do best" and the bargain with Bwonsamdi in Nazmir that the player will send *one million* souls to Bwonsamdi.

    1. I've been wondering about whether my toons would simply retire once they got to a certain point. Such as Card with the defeat of the Defias in the Deadmines, or even with the defeat of Onyxia.

      Or at least how she'd wrestle with these problems. This is one of those scenes that's been bugging me, telling me that I need to write more and flesh it out.

  2. I came to role-playing games much later than most. As a teenager I didn't even know they existed (they barely did) and as a student I knew them only as the ridiculous and slightly embarassing pastime of some natural scientists, one of whom shared rooms with a friend. It wasn't until I was in my early twenties that another friend, completely out of character, told me he was hosting AD&D sessions on a Sunday afternoon and asked me if I wanted to come along.

    I was at a loose end so I gave it a try, expecting to find it tedious and annoying. I ended up enjoying it and plating most Sundays for the best part of five years. What almost led me to back out after the first session, though, wasn't the roleplaying or the silliness - it was the killing.

    At that time I'd been a fairly aggressive pacifist for many years. I was brought up, very loosely, as a Quaker and I'd been strongly influenced the hippy cult of Loving Awareness in my teens. Punk broke me out of that but I still retained a strong antipathy towards violence and especially towards violence as entertainment. Playing a game where the main purpose was to describe out loud to a room fullof people how you intended to murder someone was a huge emotional and philosophical leap.

    Which I made. And thereafter each subsequent step got easier. By the time I found EverQuest the idea of continual slaughter seemed barely worth noting, although for several years I continued to have issues with killing anything that didn't attack me first. Neutral mobs were largely safe from my characters - unless they had something I really wanted.

    This is clearly too big a topic for a comment so I'll leave it there. I might post about it myself some day but really it's something I feel I worked through to my own satisfaction long ago so I probably won't. One thing I would say , though, is that I feel the presence of both respawning (resurrection) and visible, provable afterlife makes a huge existential difference, both to us as players and to the notional psychology of our characters. In MMORPGs, as in comics, no-one is ever really dead and everyone knows that. The significance of killing anyone or anything has to be hugely altered just by that one piece of knowledge.

    1. Thanks for your reply, Bhagpuss. Your angle, from the point of a pacifist, was one I hadn't anticipated, particularly given that I'd not expect a pacifist to get sucked into pencil and paper RPGs like you did back in the day.

      (Nowadays, with the acceptance of people not interested in being murder hobos, that's not as great a surprise.)

      Although I'd also point out the presence of an "afterlife" as it were in MMOs is primarily a gaming construct, your point about how in MMOs nobody is ever really dead makes me wonder if MMOs are just Soap Operas (or telenovellas) for video game players.

      Well, WoW Retail's story certainly seems to present it as such....

  3. It's an interesting topic but I've not even entertained the thought of comparing that seriously. For me it's simply so far removed from real life, I don't really care if I'm smashing green blob pixels or human-shaped Defias pixels.

    Maybe I should think about that more, but right now I'd have to actively persuade myself to. Especially as most games I play are so comicy and decidedly not realistic-looking. That said I don't like any of the extra-gory realistic looking ones anyway...