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.
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.
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.
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
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.)
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
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
- I'll say it again: winning is a meritocracy.
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.
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.
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.)