Recently my WoW guild has been having a bit of a debate on the merits of Player-vs.-Player (PvP) within Azeroth. My personal opinion on this is that PvP has its merits, and can be incredible fun, but the system within WoW is horridly, horribly broken. It takes into account the concept of the battle, but battle without consequence, without emotive context, and most importantly, without honor. Consider the following incredibly simplistic notion of honor as it relates to our historical myths of idealized combat:
The notion of the honorable warrior is, of course, completely idealized. In the real world, humans have been doing rather horrible things to one another for quite some time. But in both Eastern and Western culture, the notion of the honorable warrior, the ‘fair fight’, and the ‘rules of engagement’ have emerged.
In the Western tradition, we can see the concept of honor bound up in the stylized notion of the Medieval Knight. Far from the reality of the Middle Ages, the Knighthood was romanticized as the lone warrior (from the reality of the cavalry), the leader, the role-model, and the representative of the feudal kingdom. Knights represented all that was fair, and as this hero-class was associated ever more with the Roman-Catholic religion, the notion emerges that the Knight also represents values that are “good” within Western culture. This is reflected most notably in the Arthurian Legend, L’Morte De’Artur, Canterbury Tales, etc.
This concept of the Knight as the representative of God is hugely important to our modern romanticized concept of feudal honor. The notion of the duel, the joust, the ritual of war (as opposed to actual war), and the idea of ‘honor among enemies’ are direct reflections of New Testament values, attempting to materialize the persona of Christ in the honorable warrior. (As opposed to what was actually occurring during the Crusades…)
Eastern cultural myths also play into our modern notion of honorable war. Japanese culture reflects upon this, a feudal society that in many ways is similar to pre-Renaissance Europe, but replaces the feudal clan with one more akin to a large family. Thus the values of the family are reflected in the mythology of warfare: killing the leaders of an opposing family is acceptable, but killing women and children is an act of betrayal and shame. Killing a defenseless opponent has no honor, as the ultimate sacrifice is to die in defense of the family, not randomly alone without the ability to defend.
There is a second important notion that I (possibly mistakenly?) attribute to Eastern cultural influence, although it has certainly made the rounds and been modified several times over as it passes through cultural barriers: the concept that ‘evil plays by the rules’. This is reflected in the writing of Japanese fiction, in Anime, in the works of Matsumoto, etc. Evil may be evil, but there is a form and ritual to the combat that will be respected: conflict is violent, and usually lethal, but it is a settling of matters between respected enemies, both of whom are masters of form and etiquette. This can be seen as a reflection of Shintoism prior to the imperial army (in particular prior to this century), and the concepts of opposites in nature.
Humorously, one can see several of these stylized concepts, and the eventual degradation of honorable combat, in reflecting upon Star Wars. In the original Star Wars of 1977, good is personified in Obi-Wan, and evil in Darth Vader. Yet these two characters are similar, they hail from the order of the Jedi, and there is, to be sure, a ritual to their combat. (I mean seriously… laser swords!)
But think about what should have happened if Vader was evil: he should have sensed them coming into the Death Star just as he did in the original, but then he might have held a light saber to Leah’s throat, demanded that the others come before him or she gets the axe, and then when they are all in a room together he chops her head off and then cores Luke before the others can react. Then he refuses to fight Obi-Wan because there is the possibility of loss, and instead sends every single storm-trooper available at him while he escapes the Death Star and then nukes it from orbit. That would have made a terrible movie, but it is plausible if one removes the concept of honor, even in its evil form, from Vader.
Later, in the most recent installment, we see Lucas trying to strip Vader of this honor, because he wants us to hate him. We see Anakin walk into the Jedi temple and slaughter the children of the order, defenseless five-year olds. And this is truly abhorrent, because it flies in the face of our collective sense of the ‘fair fight’ and the ‘honorable warrior’, even thought it is in character for one of the Sith. (Although, to be honest, some of us are happy to see the little brats get smashed because they are portrayed to be so incredibly innocent that we cynically want to see evil smash them into tiny pieces.)
So if we can agree on this idealized notion of ‘honor’ as it relates to the collective fantasy of war, it then follows that there is also the notion of ‘dishonor’ – of the warrior’s actions bringing disgrace upon the tribe/clan/kingdom/family he represents. And in the semi-historical roots listed above both Western and Eastern culture have mechanisms that fit right into this concept. To the Western Knight, the ultimate condemnation for dishonorable action comes in the form of excommunication. The Knight, who was a representative of their God, is denied the bond of worship and the reward of afterlife. In the more family-bound concept of honor prevalent in Eastern myth, the dishonorable warrior is expunged from the memory of the family, removed from the collective memory, to have never existed.
And this is precisely what is missing from World of Warcraft. Characters of level 60 have no incentive to fight fair, to use the ritual of combat to enforce a code of honor between the Alliance and the Horde. Instead, people gank other characters 20 levels below them. It doesn’t earn them honor points, but it also doesn’t lose honor either. There is no incentive to constrain warfare to those of roughly equal ability – and so we have elder knights rampantly slaying virtual children, to the detriment of the social fabric of the world.
Imagine a system where there was some form of social metric that assigned actual judgment to the honor of a kill – it isn’t honorable to wait in someone’s closet and stab them with a poison dart in the toe when they are getting ready for bed. One might argue that it is skillful, or masterful in its sneakiness, but it isn’t honorable. It is incredibly ironic that a virtual world that has evolved from so much of the mythology surrounding a romanticized view of the Middle Ages then chooses to ignore this fundamental tenet of that same view. And it also destroys the believability of the rest of the system – one can’t reasonably fantasize about knights and dragons, when the knight just slaughtered a baby for no discernable reason.
When I talk about this with people (thus far anyway) I typically get one of two responses, either “yeah, right on!” or “hey, it’s war, and war isn’t honorable – grow the hell up”. There is a lot to be said for that argument – but the problem is that war in the real historical world has very different constraints that are utterly absent from fantasized worlds (note also the irony of using realism as an argument to defend a fantasy world from constructs of fantasy). In the true historical battle, Knights managed not to kill all of the women and children, because killing everyone meant that there would be no harvest the following year and everyone would starve to death. Killing all the women meant that society could not reproduce. Killing everything in sight and then squatting on the land meant plague, disease, and death.
None of these constraints or conditions are in any way reflected in Azeroth, they have been replaced by instant, fully functioning resurrection without consequence. And this is what enables the endless death-loops of players corpse-camping each other to get yet another kill – the utter lack of consequence of action.
I imagine, one day, an Alliance general returning from razing an entire Horde village to the ground, killing the undead men, women, children, and animals, burning the crops and plundering the countryside. He saunters back into town only to be decapitated by his own tribe, because to do otherwise is to condone the behavior. Even in the conflict of Azeroth, there should be honor.