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Soapbox: World of Warcraft Teaches the Wrong Things

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Soapbox: World of Warcraft Teaches the Wrong Things

February 22, 2006 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next
 

Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft has over 5 million subscribers worldwide, as of this writing. It's the most successful massively multiplayer game on Earth right now. This well-crafted game has put other games in its genre to shame. Blizzard is a great company, and I might even end up there some day, though this article probably rules out that possibility.


World of Warcraft

Before we get to World of Warcraft though, let's pause to learn from Raph Koster. Raph is no stranger to MMOs, as he was the design force behind Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. He wrote an excellent book called A Theory of Fun that you all should read. I tend to put "fun" in quotes, because it's a pretty nebulous thing that I don't know how to define. Fun is like pornography; I know it when I see it. Raph was brave enough to attempt an explanation of "fun."

Fun is learning in a safe-environment.

Those few words have a lot of implications. Games are mini-worlds where we can try out all sorts of ideas and possibilities, and see what works and what doesn't. Games let us fail with little penalty and then let us try again. Games teach us how to time our jumps, how to aim, how to solve puzzles, and how to manage resources. They teach us strategy: when to attack, and when to avoid a fight. It would be great if they taught a wider range of lessons, but as Raph says, that's up to us game designers to make it happen.

Reflecting on Raph's ideas, I was initially very happy because it explained a lot of things. First, a lot of parents complain about what impact games have on children, but those parents are generally only seeing the trivial surface of the game, rather than what the game is REALLY teaching. Chess appears to be vaguely about war (it has knights and castles and kings), but it's really a game of controlling space, of reading the opponent's mind, of trickery and tactics and so on. Grand Theft Auto appears to be about shooting cops and hookers, but it's actually a game of exploration and freedom. There is value to exploring a virtual world that lets you do things you can't do in the real world. Don't be fooled by the gangster facade.

Even more to Raph's point, I reflected on what Street Fighter taught me: an awful lot. Where to even begin? For starters, there's tactics and strategy. When should you attack and when shouldn't you? You have to understand the critical points in a match, the situations that blow the game wide open. If you are winning, you need to avoid these situations, if you're losing you need to create them. Street Fighter taught me about yomi: knowing the mind of the opponent. You can't just play the odds and do the textbook-correct responses, you have to adapt and anticipate your opponent's moves. The game is merely a medium through which you play against the other player. Some players develop skills in planning, while others develop their skills at improvisation and adapting to any situation they are thrown into. I learned first hand that when all seems lost, if you push, push, push and never give up, it's still possible to win.

And yet all that is only a tiny fraction of the lessons I've learned. Street Fighter is a one-on-one game, so you must rely on yourself to win. You can't mill around while your friends do the work for you. Self-reliance and continuous self-improvement is the only successful road. And yet, I also learned that no man is an island. Our tournament structure has always been open to all comers, so that an undiscovered talent from Idaho who trained secretly in his basement can show up to our biggest tournament and win it all, if he has the skill. No need to qualify or be level 60 in an RPG or any of that. And yet, this mythical person never ever materialized in my 15 years of playing the game. The only way to become good is to play against others who are good. It takes a village to make a champion. You can't turn your back on the whole world because you NEED the community to improve. You must learn and train with them. It's pretty hard to do that without making some friends along the way, too.

Another very important lesson was that winning at Street Fighter is a meritocracy. Your race doesn't matter. Your religion doesn't matter. The only thing that matters in a tournament is your ability to win. The community looks up to those who can win, regardless of ethnicity. There is no substitute for growing up in an environment that cares about results, rather than race. Nothing a teacher or parent could ever say measures up to that life experience about race-relations.

There are also a lot of things us Street Fighter players take for granted. They are truths so self-evident, that we never talk about them because it never even occurs to us that these aren't givens. Here's a few examples:

  • A fair game does not give material advantages to one player over the other
  • A fair game gives each player equal opportunity to bring whatever legal materials he wants (in our case, you can choose any character you want, no need to grind him to level 60. All players have immediate equal access to all characters.)
  • It's ok (and the entire point!) to bring to the game a) more knowledge than your opponent about the nuances of the game, and b) more skill than your opponent.
  • Time invested should count for nothing in a fair game. It might take me 1 hour to learn a few nuances and gain a certain level of skill and you 1000 hours. The hours don't matter; only the knowledge and skill matter.
  • I'll say it again: winning is a meritocracy.
  • Finally, playing a fair game is what it's all about. It would never occur to us to play a game where one player gets to do 50% more damage because he has a level 60 Chun Li.

Raph's theory is really holding up for me. Street Fighter was so fun for me because there so many things to learn. Looking back, these are life lessons that I couldn't do without. From the strategy of the workplace to reading the mind of others, to a sense of fairness, I am rich with reward from my gaming background.

But lately, Raph's words have really started to scare me. I started to think "What is World of Warcraft teaching all these kids?" I've played the game since the "Friends and Family" alpha test two years ago, and I've read the forums ever since. I have a very good idea what the game is teaching, and it's downright frightening. Unlike the uniformed parents who are afraid that GTA is going to ruin our youth, I'm not afraid of the silly facade of World of Warcraft: I'm afraid of what's it's really all about, deep down! That's a much more powerful and influencing thing than the mere surface (Street Fighter isn't about cartoon fighting, that's just a surface, too).

So let's put the cards on the table. Here is what World of Warcraft teaches:

1. Investing a lot of time in something is worth more than actual skill. If you invest more time than someone else, you "deserve" rewards. People who invest less time "do not deserve" rewards. This is an absurd lesson that has no connection to anything I do in the real world. The user interface artist we have at work can create 10 times more value than an artist of average skill, even if the lesser artist works way, way more hours. The same is true of our star programmer. The very idea that time > skill is alien.

2. Time > skill is so fundamentally bad, that I'm still going to go on about it even though I started a new number. The "honor system" in World of Warcraft is a disaster that needs to be exposed for health and safety reasons, if nothing else. This system allows players to work their way through the ranks, starting at rank 0 and maxing out at rank 14. Winning in pvp gives you honor points, and at the end of each week, your performance is compared to that of other players, and you gain or lose ranks. Now, losing also gives you points, but not as many. The system overwhelming rewards time spent playing, rather than skill.

What is the health and safety danger I spoke of? You might think that if you waltz into this honor system, and perform better (which in this case mainly means you played longer) than everyone else on your entire server, that you would become rank 14. Not by a long shot. Your gains are capped each week, so it will take months and months to gain rank 14. Once you get up to rank 10, you are now competing against people who play the game 10 hours per day and up. There is no limit to how much a person can play, so players are driven to play every waking moment (forget having a job or social life) for fear that if they don't, some OTHER player will do so and be ahead in rank.

The idea that time > skill has gone from a merely fundamentally bad idea, to being actually dangerous, addicting people to the point of fatigue and death. No wonder China's new laws about MMOs are addressing this problem. MMO games must only award players full experience points for the first three hours of each day, half experience for the next two hours, and no experience after five hours. (Logging off for at least 5 hours will reset the system.)


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Comments


Zoran Iovanovici
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Reading this six years after it was published, so much of this still holds true. The name David Sirlin still stands (for me) as one of the premiere voices when it comes to tackling issues of core game mechanics, rules, and design. It's great to see articles dissect games and reveal how they are fundamentally broken or flawed in a number of key areas that affect player engagement and overall fun-factor.


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