An Interesting Social Experiment in...Brrrraaaaaiiinnnns

There's a rather interesting social (and narrative) experiment going on right now in World of Warcraft. Papers have been written on how WoW (and other MMORPGs) can be used to model disease transmission or potential viral outbreaks, but those were the result of an unintended "feature" of the game. This time around, the experiment is fully intended and fully controlled by the designers of the game and the world in which nearly 11 million people play.

As a lead-up to the release of the next chapter in the World of Warcraft, the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, the game designers have set in motion what is known as a "world event." These are unique, one-time-only occurrences in game. Although the game has been available to the public for more than three years, there have been a handful of events which happened once and once only during this time. If you weren't around to experience them (and I'll never forget the opening of the Gates of Ahn'Qiraj), you missed out completely.

The world event currently underway is tying the current game environment to the narrative and experiences that players of the game will shortly experience in Wrath of the Lich King. In short, a plague has been released upon the world of the game. It began with a few zombies wandering near the capitol cities, infecting some players who, if not healed of the disease, would turn in to zombies themselves. Next, crates from the land covered in the next expansion arrived at the docks of a major city, spewing plagued cockroaches in to the world that would turn infected players in to zombies. In the past few days, the zombie plague has intensified and it's now at the point that you have about one minute to be cleansed of the plague or turn in to a zombie yourself. With hundreds of players being infected at a time, and players deliberately getting infected to infect others and cause grief, it has become nearly impossible in some areas of the game to actually play. You simply can't do anything without being immediately infected and quickly turning in to something that doesn't (necessarily) allow you to achieve your objectives in the game.

This experiment in virtual narrative storytelling has left many people who play the game annoyed, if not angry. There are reports of people quitting the game after years of play out of anger and frustration. I think that most of those people will be back in about a week or two, if they actually quit at all. While I'm one of those who are annoyed by the plague and feel that it does disrupt my play time (because it is, after all, a game), I find it quite fascinating from both a narrative and pedagogic perspective.

From a narrative perspective, Blizzard is playing both off the very modern fear of biological attacks utterly disrupting our daily way of life (and for those who have played the game for 2-3 years, playing WoW is very much a way of life) and taking an in-game narrative to its logical extreme end. The game designers clearly want us to feel what it would be like living under the nightmare rule of the Lich King in the World of Warcraft — making our otherwise autonomous characters suffer the effects of evil and cruelty that are otherwise left to the larger imaginings of the background and history of this fictional world or relegated to the sad tales told by the computer-controlled characters in the game. They are also very subtly introducing one of the very hot topics in gaming right now — morality and the choice to be good or evil — in to the game by giving players the opportunity to become zombies (servants of the Lich King) themselves, and deliberately choosing to help spread the plague instead of fighting against it. It's a great narrative transition to the content and narratives covered in the upcoming expansion (where you will be able to engage in more morally questionable activities, such as culling a town infected by an earlier version of this very same plague).

My very astute nephew pointed out that this event is also an exercise in pedagogy, which is important to me because that's kind of what I do for a living.

One of the key features in the next expansion is the introduction of a new class of character: the Death Knight. One ability these characters have is the ability to temporarily raise a fellow player from the dead. This is extremely useful in difficult combat situations. Having someone come back as a zombie to continue to fight for a few minutes can make the difference between success and failure in a fight. If you are raised as a zombie, however, you have to learn how to control that zombie and take advantage of the abilities that the zombie has (which you would, as a non-zombie, not have access to). Knowing how to "play a zombie" will be a required skill for most players in Wrath of the Lich King. By introducing this specific type of creature as part of this world event, the game designers are not only building strong narrative ties from the current iteration of the game to the next, but also effectively teaching players what they need to know for gameplay in the expansion. It's a pretty smart approach to using the game to teach people how to the play the game.

One of the great strengths of Blizzard as a game development company is their deep commitment to narrative. I think how they are handling the narrative transition from one iteration of World of Warcraft to its next major iteration is incredibly smart. All one needs to do is look past the what to the why and you'll see some very smart minds at work.

Shawn Holmes's Gravatar The effects that the plague had on the world (it ended today at noon) were very interesting to see. The possibility of arriving in a new town, only to become infected, caused a lot of grief. I think it is one of the most enjoyable world events they've managed to put in the game (I, too, was there for the nightmare that was the AQ gate opening), and in retrospect, it seems like such a waste that so many "kiddies" couldn't stop complaining because their day-to-day activities were suddenly interrupted.

That's what diseases do. They inconvenience you. Welcome to life.
# Posted By Shawn Holmes | 10/27/08 4:38 PM
Brian's Gravatar @ Shawn - At first I was one of those people who was really annoyed by the plague timer being reduced to two then one minute (and not being able to do anything in game for most of a day), but after I really thought about what Blizz was trying to do, I had to give them major props for a very well-considered and executed world event.

Can't wait to see what the next phase of the event is going to bring. =D
# Posted By Brian | 10/28/08 9:42 AM
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