Media : Game Theory

When in PvP ...

A few months ago, players on the Illidan server of World of Warcraft learned that their dear friend Fayejin had died unexpectedly of a stroke. She was described by those who knew her as “one of the nicest people you could ever meet,” and her guildmates were deeply saddened to learn of her death.

In a short posting to the game’s message boards, Fayejin’s friends invited the community to commemorate her by holding an in-game memorial near the Frostfire Hot Springs in a zone called Winterspring. “She loved to fish in the game,” explained the organizers, “she liked the sound of water ... and she loved the snow.”

Unable to attend the real-world funeral for financial and geographic reasons, the organizers hoped to record the memorial service for their friend’s parents. Fayejin had spent hundreds of hours building a life within the game, and it seemed important to document the meaningful relationships that she had formed on-line.

On the appointed day, dozens of players congregated near the water, lining up to pay their respects. Close friends shared memories of the deceased, and mourners filed one-by-one up to the water’s edge.

Without warning, a mob of players from another guild descended upon the funeral and began slaughtering members of the grieving crowd. Paralyzed by a mixture of shock and sorrow, the mourners did not fight back. Soon, the area was littered with corpses of funeral attendees.

A few days later, the guild responsible for the attack posted a short video clip celebrating the massacre. Combining excerpts from angry e-mail messages with game footage and a pulsing soundtrack, the video was rapidly propagated throughout the net.

The attack on the funeral was only possible because Illidan is a “player-vs.-player” (PvP) server. On such servers, players in contested areas are allowed to kill members of other game factions. PvP culture is notoriously cutthroat. Some players say that PvP is crucial to their enjoyment of the game, while others argue that it enables bullies and psychopaths.

This was hardly the first time that player events had been raided on PvP servers. Funerals and weddings for game characters have often been attacked by outsiders. However, in this instance, there was one crucial difference: The funeral had been organized to commemorate the loss of a real human being.

Many gamers viewed the attack as unconscionable. Posting in an affiliated message board, a higher-level dwarf asked members of the raiding guild, “is there no sense of right or wrong within you? These people were honoring a person who is no longer with them, and you attacked them while they were unarmed.”

As discussion escalated in on-line forums, many gamers supported the guild’s right to attack the mourners. “Oh, good grief,” suggested one player. “It’s a PvP server, and you should expect it to happen. Why go on a PvP server? To kill and have fun killing helpless people who just stand around.”

Defending their actions in public forums, the attackers showed no signs of remorse. “I wish I were undead so I could have cannibalized her corpse,” wrote one attacker. Another argued that virtual funerals are a ridiculous concept. “I don’t log in to watch people celebrating things that happened outside the game,” he wrote. “When you sign in, you sign an invisible consent contract to be part of that game’s rule set.”

In a follow-up message, the same assailant wrote, “Yes I went out of my way to kill stupid people doing something stupid in a video game. I loved doing it, and seeing you cry here ... We decided to make a bunch of nerds rage out ... cry more dude.”

To gamers and non-gamers alike, the entire incident might seem like a frivolous topic. However, conversations about these happenings are important. Ethical understandings that emerge from these debates may affect the ways that virtual worlds develop in the future. The stubborn refusal to contemplate the humanity of players on the other side of the network is callous and disturbing.

These games are creating global social networks that pull people together across national borders. Even on PvP servers, we have an opportunity to augment our compassion, rather than become dehumanized killers.

Ultimately, the biggest losers may be the members of the guild who initiated the attacks. As Michael W. pointed out in a recent post to Terra Nova, “I mourn the day they lose someone they love, or someone in their guild steps out in front of a bus, or whatever. Their actions now mean their pain will likely be compounded in the future when they realize both what loss is and how they must have made the others feel at the time.”


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