Tuesday, 08 August 2017 06:14

Who's the hero in an MMORPG?

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I killed Arthas Menethil, the tyrant of Northrend. So did thousands of other World of Warcraft players. Icecrown Citadel sure was crowded that day. (I wonder who ended up going home with his crown?)

Who's the hero in an MMORPG? How do you know when you accomplish a great feat? Can “winning” ever feel singular? When I raided with at least one crazy Canadian (you know who you are), a Discipline Priest who kept me alive over all the other DPSers (because dwarves gotta stick together), and a guildmaster who trolled us all by crafting arrows in the middle of boss fights, with this motley crew — like so many others — I “enjoyed” experiences at once common to the player base, and unique to my team.

In MMORPGs that attempt a main story, the protagonist of that story is a hydra with however-many-subscribers-login-daily heads. Players buy into a kind of doublethink: you're in a situation like the ending of Spartacus, except instead of sharing the blame, you share the glory. If everybody's the hero, nobody's the hero, but spoiler alert: you all still receive recognition, rewards, and punishment.

Singular significance and heroism

Is Arthas dead? Who's the Kingslayer? My raid group shared kills. I had a role. It was a team effort. But endgame hardcore raiding by definition attracts the hardcore and competitive, including myself, so I competed within fights to be the most valuable player, and I wasn't alone. It was always me and the Canadian warrior, neck and neck, and we definitely never lost first- or second-place to that one Warlock who was a rabid superfan of the Chicago Blackhawks. Not even on Lich King 25, where every warlock cheats, I swear.

We used a point system to distribute loot and, from the moment I joined my guild, I saved up my points for one item: Deathbringer's Will. It only dropped once, and I bid more points than my guildmaster. He had to award it to me (Such is the burden of leadership). I'm never vendoring that thing. It was one of the trophies I felt set me apart; rarity notwithstanding, it boosted my damage consistently past the warrior and the warlock, not to mention my poor guildmaster. And don't let them tell you different.

My method of chasing singular significance and heroism in World of Warcraft actually places me in the minority. Most subscribers don't raid. Other players see how rich they can get, how many alts they can make, how many fish they can catch, even though there'll always be a bigger fish and another group of noobs spawn-camping a big story boss.

A world so like our own, despite fantastical differences

MMORPGs ultimately prove that there's no one way to play a game. In fact, they inevitably invoke Jesper Juul's definitions of emergent, and even subversive, play (I doubt that Blizzard ever intended pacifist runs of World of Warcraft). MMORPGs ultimately teach the folly of the very idea of main characters in a world so like our own, despite fantastical differences.

Multiple viewpoints. Delusions of single player mode. Sounds a lot like real life, doesn't it?

And… anybody who jumps up and belligerently insists that no, they're the real Spartacus — they've missed the point entirely.


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Kelsey Erwin

Kelsey seeks out RPGs with the narrative clout of Greek tragedy and strategy sims more punishing than QWOP. Their favorite part about being a gender neutral PC gamer and reviewer is that it's probably the only thing no one else on the site will put in a biography. Super saiyan special snowflake originality! Kelsey always keeps a pot of hot tea close at hand, and the sign of a truly great game is when it can monopolize Kelsey's attention so completely that the tea grows cold. While a dedicated believer in the PC Master Race, Kelsey also still spends time with their old favorite console, a cinderblock size Playstation 2.