Making friends with the enemy (or not)

Changing times in MMOs mean this is more likely

Over 10 years ago, I spent a lot of time researching World of Warcraft linguistics in an attempt to prevent other players from killing my character. I didn’t like being on a PvP server, but all of my friends and family were there, so I wasn’t about to switch. So, rather than put the time into becoming an excellent player who was capable of instantly dispatching enemies who camped my characters and repeatedly killed them whenever they tried to do anything, I signed up for two World of Warcraft accounts, set up two computers, and experimented with cross-faction communication.  I hoped that I would be able to head off the griefing by making a compelling case against killing. It didn’t work out that way, but my story is a good way to demonstrate the power of social interactions, the changing environments in video games, and the ways in which customizing your gameplay (e.g., with theorycrafting) can lead to  the same game being very different  experiences between players.

To develop my mini-dictionary, I created a member of the opposing faction and had my characters meet up “in person” somewhere inconspicuous and chat. It’s embarrassing how incredibly non-systematic I was. I mean, I did start with the alphabet, which was incredibly non-helpful as each letter in Common (the Alliance language) translated into only one of four letters in Orcish (o,e,y and u). I then moved on to number letter combinations – why? I have absolutely no idea – and found that a1 translated to re, a2-a6 to aN, a8 to rt, and other seemingly random stuff. The digits 1-9 translated to the same 4 letters as the alphabet, while 10 translated to Tl.

Those non-discoveries led to the more haphazard approach of button mashing, which revealed that, when used in combinations, short words could be produced (or at least things that sounded like words when you read/said them, like “ruff”).   After days of fairly random experimenting, I was able to come up with some very expressive phrases (Table 1). Question marks didn’t translate, but you could make your character shrug just after saying them, which was visible in the game.

Table 1. Helpful phrases to use to avoid being killed if you’re playing an Alliance character, c. 2006 

(c) Colder Carras 2006, lol

When we think about video games and health, we have to remember that there are different ways of playing video games. Even when we’re talking about games or modes in which players can kill other players, options exist. We don’t have to knuckle under to the Man’s idea of fun. If you want to be social, you have options: don’t play that game or play differently.I bring this up to point out that video games have an enormous number and type of social interactions. They allow players to use their ingenuity to make social situations more rewarding. For me, knowing that there were players out there who delighted in just making the game harder for others was depressing. Being part of that PvP environment is a definite drawback for some people, but it’s an opt-in: if you want to play that specific game or play the game in that way, you are opting in to a certain type of social situation. I chose to play with friends and put up with the constant threat of having my character killed and all my progress halted temporarily because it was important to me to be able to hang out with the people I liked while I was playing. It gave me the chance to chat in voice and by text, to be a part of teams that conquered difficult challenges, and to make clearly measurable progress in a variety of goals.

In any case, this is all moot now, because a few years later the rules were changed. Recently, rather than having to attempt pidgin Orcish when my daughter wanted another player to stop camping her corpse and killing her character as soon as it came back to life, she just logged into her Horde character and messaged that person to please stop. Usually that worked for a few hours. However, it didn’t work well enough over time, so she was able to switch servers to a server that didn’t allow PvP (something that wasn’t allowed when I made the dictionary). Finally, that whole issue will be removed in the next version of WoW, which will get rid of PvP-exclusive servers entirely and make PvP an opt-in thing for every player in almost every type of play.

This is a great example of why research into video games, social interactions and mental health is so challenging. Things are always changing. What we conclude about a specific game or a specific play type one year might change. Unless we can figure out a way for our research to keep up, we’ll be publishing on things that are no longer the case—like if we kept devoting a lot of effort and money to researching polio epidemics when we have a vaccine that has eliminated polio in all but a few countries. I wish I knew the answer to this one. We talked about ways forward in our recent article on commercial video games for therapy; I hope we can make that a reality.