“That…is the most horrible thing…I’ve ever heard.”
My exact words. That was all I could get out, because I was laughing uncontrollably.
This despicable reaction was in response to a story my friend A.G. related from his days of playing World of Warcraft-or “WoW,” if you’re among the gamer culture. It’s one of the most popular Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) around. You may have seen the commercial with William Shatner talking about being a “conduit of the ancient forces of nature.” WoW players apparently hate this description, but it’s a lot like an online version of “Dungeons and Dragons.” Players create a character-human, troll, minotaur, whatever-equip them with powers and abilities, and interact with other players’ characters in a virtual world where they go on quests to find new equipment and abilities, conquer foes, slay dragons, etc.
I’ve never had any interest in playing WoW. Sounds like plugging into the matrix, if you ask me. Yet millions of people worldwide pay monthly for access to play it and games like it every day. For the exceptionally devoted (read: obsessed), the online world can become a more dominant part of your life than your flesh-and-blood relationships. And even for those committed folks who play in moderation, the line between reality and gaming may dissolve in bizarre ways that make non-gamers point in dismay or laugh with shame.
Case in point: A few years ago, a girl who frequently played WoW died in real life from a medical condition. She had been a member of a guild, which is an organized group of players who, working together, can accomplish some of the game’s larger quests that a person playing alone cannot. It’s unlikely that anyone in the guild had ever met her face to face, but they were understandably affected by the loss of someone they had interacted with regularly for some time. Since WoW players are spread out all over the world, attending her funeral wasn’t feasible. So the guild members decided to hold their own memorial service in the game.
I didn’t believe it until I saw a video clip of it. Her character, whom they had logged into the game for one last time, stood at the edge of a small pond as each guild member walked by to pay their respects. The guild members even changed their characters’ attire to all black. They posted an announcement on a popular discussion board that they were doing this, asked other players who might be in that area of the game to respect the occasion (it’s a war zone, after all), and even invited non-guild members that had known her to attend and participate in the service. It may seem geeky and silly, but if nothing else it’s fascinating from a sociological standpoint. This group went out of their way to pay tribute to a friend in the only way they could. If you watch the video, with the characters standing around solemnly in this snowy field, it’s an oddly touching scene.
At least, it was until a rival guild descended on the memorial service and slaughtered everyone in attendance.
Yes, I’m serious. A band of gamer-thugs who had gotten wind of the event crashed an online funeral and massacred the bereaved. Moreover, the raiders created a video of the incident. It contains coarse theme music, excerpts from the obscenity-laden backlash that followed (go figure), and in general is about as politically incorrect as one can imagine. But if you really want to see it…this link will give you a pretty good idea of what happened.
For those unfamiliar with the game, a few things to note: The player that the camera follows at the memorial service-the one player in black that participates in the attack-is actually a rogue spy that infiltrated the funeral under the auspices of “just coming to pay my respects.” That’s how they were able to film both sides of the attack concurrently. Also, I’ve been informed that switching a character’s clothes to one color requires not wearing armor or protective items. So not only were the mourning guild members outnumbered 3 to 2 and caught off guard, they had no chance against the fully-equipped attackers. And in case you’re wondering, getting killed in WoW isn’t much different than getting killed in any video game. You can eventually come back, but I’m sure that does little to mitigate the outrage factor of this particular incident.
The scathing quotes at the beginning of the video clip are taken from message board debates that have raged ever since. Most folks have the decency to say “that’s horrible,” even if they can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it like I did. I mean, online or not, who crashes a funeral? Someone had actually died. Game administrators can suspend or even ban players who cause problems, but I’ve heard conflicting stories as to whether the raiding party was punished at all. They technically didn’t break any rules. The purpose of the game is to engage other players in combat, gain experience, and win items. If a group of enemies announces that they’ll be at “x” location at “z” time, unarmored, and by all rights in no frame of mind to do battle-well, that’s an opportunity that apparently couldn’t be ignored.
Ironically, some have made strong counterarguments that the guild holding the funeral was out of line. People pay money to play WoW, and no player or guild has the authority to designate a public area off-limits to combat, regardless of the circumstances. Even among gamers that sympathize with the victims, there is general consensus that the event was foolishly planned. There are plenty of areas in the game they might have held the service where they couldn’t have been ambushed, and, sadly, it’s naïve to think that human decency would prevail in a venue that essentially provides complete anonymity. The attack was tasteless, but totally avoidable. And not even remotely surprising.
What gets me about this event is I don’t know how to react. I feel like a terrible person for laughing at it. It is ridiculous. And it is just a game. But it was a real funeral…sort of. Online realities create unprecedented ethical dilemmas. Should the perpetrators be punished? Is an online funeral a sacred occasion or an absurd mimicry? I have to imagine these are the questions that the game’s administrators had to consider shortly thereafter. By nature, MMORPGs allow virtually unlimited freedom within the game construct. Short of hacking into the system, there’s really no way to cheat. Still, most such games have specific rules against what’s called “griefing.” This includes any action whose sole purpose is antagonizing other players or obstructing their attempts to play. I wish I could believe that this restriction has some moral basis, but I doubt it. The game administrators don’t want their customers to get frustrated and stop playing-and paying-because of some virtual bully. Accordingly, the administrators have a creepily god-like ability to pour out their judgment on the world they’ve created.
There’s not much point in criticizing the funeral raiders for simply attacking a band of enemies. That’s just playing the game. However, the fact that they sent a spy into the funeral proves that the video of the ordeal, which is now all over the web, was planned out carefully in advance. Their goal wasn’t success or experience-it was humiliation. If you watch the video, note that the moment the attack begins (when the music changes to “Scatman”), the spy runs up and actually kills the dead girl’s character-which I suppose is the online equivalent of walking into a funeral parlor during visitation and lobbing a grenade into the open casket.
So this outsider asks, what kind of ethics are acceptable when you enter a virtual reality? Any gamers out there that can shed some light on this? What, if anything, would you do to the funeral raiders if you were in charge of crime and punishment in the game? I would ask A.G., but he’s plugged in right now. Speaking of which, I need to go remind him to eat.