WoW: Thoughts on PVP, Tribalism and Marshall McLuhan

Once upon a time there was a fantasy world called Azeroth. It was divided world where war waged constantly between two opposing factions: the Alliance and the Horde. Through the magic of technology that “world” become a reality for people via the World of Warcraft MMO. Many people were drawn into Azeroth by the promise of being able to choose a side, taking up arms and going headlong into battle. And battle they did as both sides waged a seemingly endless war. The fighting was fierce as each side sought to protect their homelands from the brutality of the invaders. Both sides showed valor and nobility. And for a time, it was good.

Then the capricious gods of Azeroth deemed it necessary to give structure to that war. Behold, they created the “Honor System” and with it came the promise of epic weapons and greatness!

Eventually World PVP all but died as the PVP Honor System, the PVP Battleground system and finally the PVP Arena system took a Faustian hold over the souls of players. Players traded their freedom for the security of purple epics. In the end, the purple rain of epic gear left us feeling empty and hollow. Many of us wondered: so where is the “war” in WoW? Have the gods of Azeroth have failed us?

I’ve never been a big fan of player vs. player in any MMO that I’ve played partly because it’s never been done quite right. PVP has always lacked emotional and visceral depth. Yet there was something magical about those heart stopping town vs. town battles back in Hillsbrad during the original WoW. There was a sense of spontaneity, unpredictability and excitement when the Horde would fend off an Alliance attack and vica versa. All we knew was that “they” were the bad guys and they needed to be defeated at all costs. Back then, people engaged in battle for honor and glory — they didn’t need to be bribed with shiny gear. For a time WoW transcended the typical MMO and exhibited a unique magic all it’s own…

That was almost 4 years ago. Much has changed and for the worse. Even old time PVPers are starting to complain. Many have finally realized the banality and futility of the PVP Arena system. They are bored and bitter. They finally understand that PVP contrivances that Blizzard has created have zero to do with the “war” that was long promised for WoW. PVP has become less about defending your tribe and more about gear and grinding “points”. PVP has been reduced to the banality of a transaction.

The Fool’s Errand: From Spontenaity to Structure

Without hesitation, the majority of the blame for what happened to PVP can certainly be directed at Tom Chilton, one of the lead designers of WoW who has been the prime architect of PVP at Blizzard. There’s an old saying in politics: “legislators legislate”. Apparently designers design — even when the design is not needed or warranted. His constant meddling and experimentation with PVP has changed a healthy WoW into a sickly junkie that’s on a slow but sure death spiral.

World PVP was fine on its own and never needed structure. All WoW needed was more reasons to fight for one’s people, one’s town, one’s King, one’s country. The top priority of Blizzard and any other MMO company should be to create a compelling and rich world that invites participation with exciting premises and deep scenarios. Those are the emotional hooks that still could revitalize Azeroth if they would only wake up and find the courage to change.

Many people look back at the World PVP that existed before the introduction of Chilton’s honor system with fondness. There was a sense that what was really going on was a real “World of Warcraft” — faction against faction. Unscripted. Unincentivized. Unregulated. Just pure emergent behavior free from the clutches of the control freaks at Blizzard. Yet in a recent interview with Gamespy, Tom Chilton unfairly dismissed it as “nostalgia”. I beg to differ Tom. Clearly you have failed to grasp the basic premise of WoW: a world in conflict. Instead he favors a clinical and ordered Queensberry Rules style of PVP that takes place in instanced arenas. Credit to Abileno for pointing this out in a recent article at The Cesspit.

The Gods of Order

The truth is that the brain trust at Blizzard hates chaos and unpredictability. According to them, WoW must be played they way they want you to play it. Even the NPC’s and the world react to the dictates of Blizzard. Most NPC’s are tightly leashed — they can’t be trained and politely “evade” back to their spawn points. Guards of your own faction can’t be attacked. Live GM events are forbidden. They will not create any more outdoor encounters. Large gatherings of players are discouraged and in-game protests are subject to disciplinary action. Everything must be controlled and scripted within the safe framework of “instancing”. They have even placed artificial limits on how many players can enter a dungeon. Blizzard wants us all to behave like good children and proceed in an orderly fashion to their instanced playground.


I believe that that sense of magic and excitement that World PVP engendered among early WoW players was due to the brilliant initial design of WoW into two distinct factions: the Alliance and the Horde. It managed to evoke a sense of tribalism in many of us that is normally reserved for sports events such as soccer and football. Images of drunken soccer hooligans and painted American college football fans come to mind. The beauty of WoW is that it allowed us to pick a side, a team, a faction, a tribe. According to 1960’s Canadian thinker Marshall McLuhan and others, the right brain is the primary center for tribal thinking and behavior. Yet when you examine modern western civilization, you see that left brain thinking has become dominant with its focus on logic, rationalism and structure.

Could MMO’s Be the Beginning of the Global Village that McLuhan Prophesized?

I wonder what Marshall McLuhan (who coined the phrase “the Global village”) would have thought of MMO’s? I’m sure he would have been fascinated by them. He believed that technology would finally enable humanity to reconnect with their tribal DNA and create a new collective identity. Potentially MMO’s could be considered to be part of the Global Village because they let us achieve extraordinary deeds and actions as a community albeit online. Guilds that engage in raiding activities are an example of tribalism in MMO’s. It is here that the individual submits to the group for the greater good (the slaying of a boss monster). MMO’s are unique as a leisure activity as they have the capacity to give one a rare feeling of connectedness and community that gamers never got from playing solo games.

For a time WoW had both elements of right brain tribalism as it’s main underlying premise for being. Community driven game play was the cohesive element that made WoW really work; it gave the structure of quest driven gameplay and gear oriented combat a sense of purpose. Recently with the advent of left brain structured and incentivized PVP as well as a focus on appealing to casual gamers we have seen the sense of community decline. Without the anchor of community, more and more WoW subscribers are having an existential crisis. Although WoW always had a strong solo component it was balanced out by the its focus on endgame community participation and unstructured world PVP. If we don’t play MMO’s for community then why the heck are we even here?

How to Bring the Magic Back

Many people feel that the magic has left WoW. I believe that magic was really “us” the players all along. Blizzard didn’t create the magic; they created the stage that allowed “we” the player to make it happen. Blizzard needs to loosen the reigns of their MMO. It’s time to stop being an over-protective mother and let little Johnny Gamer walk for the first time. Sure he’s going to fall down and bump his head but those are the kinds of things he will never forget. Players need more challenges and less coddling. It’s time to stop suffocating gamers and allow them to the opportunity to create more emergent game play. Blizzard, have some faith in your community because in the end it is that very same community that will keep WoW alive and kicking.



Latest Comments

  1. AimedShot June 13, 2008
  2. Finnioch June 22, 2008
  3. Artan July 11, 2008
  4. 1223 August 25, 2008