Must We Always Kill? Confronting the Murder On Rails MMO Mindset

Let me make a small confession. I find it somewhat troubling yet strangely fascinating that video games are largely popular because they provide people with a safe, sanitized and consequence-free way to act out their violent fantasies — things they wouldn’t dare do in real life.

As a person who spends a considerable amount of time playing MMOs I am guilty as charged. But I have to ask: has modern life become so devoid of passion, meaning and fulfillment that we must resort to the escapist delight of killing and murder in our spare time on our computers and consoles? Is the ultimate destiny of video games to be nothing more than a murder simulator?

Must we always kill in video games and MMOs?

Why We Love to Escape

I’m not a cultural anthropologist but maybe part of the reason is that we seem to love escapism is the current reality of humanity: for the most part our western culture is metropolitan and industrialized. I don’t think people were meant to live in cities; people weren’t meant to work in cubicles and on assembly lines either. The paradox of civilization is that it has not made us more civilized. Deep down we still yearn for those primitive and primeval pursuits such as the thrill of the hunt, the need to be competitive with our fellow humans and our love of warfare with other tribes.

Since the limitations of living in a civilized world preclude us from engaging in those aforementioned uncivilized behaviors we instead turn to sports and entertainment. Even as far back as ancient Roman times people have loved to watch bloody carnage in the coliseum to satiate those primeval urges. Today’s coliseum could be football, any other professional sport or even a virtual world! (You knew I’d eventually link this back to video games.)

I admit that it’s far better for people and soccer hooligans to act out their aggression fantasies in a video game then to do so in real life. So let’s concede that entertainment, sports and video games play a very important role in allowing people to blow off steam in a safe and controlled environment. Still the fact that I have to exclusively kill in MMOs in order to progress bothers me.

The Virtual Body Count

For as long as I’ve played MMOs I’ve killed things. I did it not out of virtue but out of necessity — I had no choice — I needed to level my characters. You soon learn that to advance in MMOs means to kill and kill as fast and efficiently as possible.

In the past ten years I’ve probably killed enough humanoids and creatures in video games that would make infamous hunter Hemet Nesingwary look like Ghandi. I’m sure the virtual universe is littered with WANTED posters with my name on it accusing me of a multitude of crimes against virtual humanity.

WoW kill stats

For the record, in the past few months that WoW Achievements have been in existence the statistics show that my dwarven hunter has killed over 20 thousand creatures. I’m the kind of person in real life that hates to kill a fly but somehow in video games I’m shamelessly transformed into a ruthless cold blooded mass murderer. How did this happen?

Tired of Killing Yet?

At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, the fact is that killing has become far too common in MMOs. It’s sucked the air out of the room to the degree that other types of play styles that one might expect in a virtual world (explorers and socializers according to Bartle) are left to whither and die due to a lack of nourishment.

I was reminded of this by a brilliant article recently penned by Tesh entitled Tired of Killing. Just as some of us like Muckbeast and myself have recently started questioning quest-directed gameplay in MMO’s, Tesh and others like Ysharros and WQID in the new MMO blogosphere are starting to present alternatives to the combat-centric MMO mindset as popularized by Blizzard. The short version: we are tired of the same old crap shoved down our throats.

Tesh puts forth this challenge to the MMO industry:

That’s just not satisfying in what I want out of MMOs.  I want living, breathing dynamic worlds, not murder on rails.  To be sure, some players do want that, so I don’t disagree with including the combat mini game, I’m just pointing out that it’s not a satisfying world that only offers new and unique ways to kill stuff and raid corpses.  There are so many more things that could be done to make an interesting world.

Channeling everyone through one “golden path” of gameplay (the combat mini game) does work, for many people, but it’s just so… shallow (and ultimately static), compared to what this genre could really offer.  In other terms, it’s just one (highly burnished) facet in the gem that a spectacular MMO could be.

Now before you think I’m going Jack Thompson on you — this is not a call to eliminate violence or to sanitize it. Instead, I’d like to see MMO players have more options available to them that let them progress their characters that don’t involve death and destruction.

Bob the Killer Meet Bob the Builder

As an alternative to the murder and mayhem carnival that MMOs have been reduced to let me ask this: would it really be so wrong to let players create and build things that matter? Sure crafting and professions exist in most MMOs but the devs are just paying lip service to them as some vestige of days gone by — translation: they are not very important and get a token amount of attention paid to them. Crafters should be able to advance their characters in meaningful ways. Developers need to start putting some manpower and resources into developing content for crafters.

Please correct me if I’m wrong but despite the fact that WoW earns around $600 million a year, I’ve heard that Blizzard has one or maybe two people hired to work on crafting for 12 million subscribers. What’s wrong with this picture?

Blue Sky 101

How about letting people raise animals in virtual worlds? Let players grow permanent gardens and crops too. Let them build homes, towns, and cities if they are so inclined. Single-player games like King’s Bounty are already starting to let players get married and have children. Give players the tools to make music and art! Sure this all sounds like fantastic and wishful thinking but every one of these activities is distinctly human and wired into our psyche — daresay more than killing is. My point is that they could easily provide some alternative form of progression and advancement for people who are tired of the murder simulator that MMO’s have been reduced to.

The Usual Suspects

I think much of the problem is that the video game industry is dominated by young adult males full of testosterone. They like games that are focused on aggression mechanics such as combat and killing.

I’ve done some reading on the problem of the young males in the world in general and it’s generally understood that when their population is disproportionately high you have more problems in that society such as the proliferation of gangs and religious extremism. Look around at most trouble spots in the world today and you’ll see that much of the unrest and crime is caused in countries where young males are over-represented in the population demographic.

From the perspective of a male in his 40’s, I know full well that young adult males have very little life experience and aren’t typically the older more mature Renaissance men who in my opinion should be making virtual worlds. Yet they tend to be the ones who end up making them as they seem not to mind working obscene 16-hour days. Also, you can bet they are making those games for people just like them — other young adult males. It’s easy to see why providing a virtual world that has an alternative to achievement oriented mechanics like killing and murder would be somewhat problematic if not perplexing for them.

Part of the solution would be to see more females involved in the production of making MMOs and virtual worlds to balance out the rampant male hegemony.

Another problem is that young game designers who fancy themselves as storytellers don’t find stories about people building things or growing a garden very exciting or appealing. Death it seems is the ultimate plot mechanic and is in vogue these days as you see skulls on just about every kind of merchandise and clothing imaginable.

Dear Video Game Industry

Finally, I’d like to take the video game industry to task with a statement that won’t make me very popular. This may sound trite and pious but it seems that almost everyone involved in the video game industry is part of this problem to some degree. With the exception of children’s games and puzzle games, most video games and MMOs are predicated almost entirely on combat and violence.

Let’s be honest here, you are in the business of making virtual violence simulators.

To the people who work in the industry: is this something to be proud of? Is this the legacy you really want to leave this world?


Being a realist, I know full well that combat and killing will probably always be with us in video games and in MMOs. Combat-dominated games pay the bills. The problem is that due to the reliance of combat as the highest form of expression within MMOs it creates a play experience that is tedious, one-dimensional, and vapid. It also has the negative side effect of creating a brutish, monotone, sophomoric player community where everyone must fall into line as they board the murder on rails amusement park ride.

It’s high time that the sleepy captains of the MMO industry consider that there are other people who might like to be part of their virtual worlds too. If given the opportunity these new recruits would welcome alternative forms of player self-actualization mechanics that appeal to the better part of our natures and give this genre a much-needed breath of fresh virtual air.


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