Saturday, March 21, 2015

Diaries of a Ganker, Part IX - Inside the Mind of a Serial Ganker

It's been a long time since I went ganking, and I feel like the title of this series has become a bit of a misnomer given that I spend most of time in ranked matches rather than out in the open world looking for Horde to gank. Even in Archeage, I could never claim to have been a ganker but the inverse, a somewhat hapless gankee travelling a treacherous open PvP world exploiting peace time rules, time zones, Nui shrines and situational awareness to mitigate the dangers posed by reds and factional traitors. I didn't stay long enough in AA for the wheel to turn, but nonetheless I am happy to report that I took my licks with equanimity during the times I got struck down by enemy players. There were numerous times where I had adjust my timetable and activities due to enemy player activity, but I accept this as part and parcel of the type of games I like to play. Some people can't tolerate pressure from other players, preferring total control over their play time, and who am I to say that this stance is wrong? I, however, do not belong to this category, and am willing to exchange a modicum of agency for a heightened sense of virtual peril, for factions to matter, and for a deeper, more immersive world where PvE mobs aren't the only threat to my avatar's well being. I want human bad guys in my virtual world. I like player associations to matter, and I like either aligning with, or opposing such factions.

My main for this expansion - Tientzo the Mistweaver monk.

I had ceased ganking and griefing in WoW a long time ago, not because I felt like it was somehow immoral or repugnant, but rather because open world PvP (OWPvP) in WoW is guilty of a far more serious transgression. Simply put, it is boring and meaningless. In TESO open world PvP occurs within the greater backdrop of the tri-partite Alliance war, which gives meaning to the skirmishes, encounters and battles that occur within Cyrodiil. In Archeage open world PvP occurs along trade routes on both land and sea, and is incentivized for both parties by the pursuit of wealth and commerce, as well as being subject to a rough form of "player justice" in the form of Crime points and trial by player juries. In WoW no such incentives exist - open world PvP is a feature which seems to have been simply glued on without any real thought behind it, and as a consequence "player boredom or random mischief" becomes the primary motivation for PvP interactions. In TESO a ganker is a soldier, a scout or a skirmisher - in Archeage they are pirates, privateers or highway robbers - in WoW they are simple murderers and psychopaths, with no real rationale behind their attacks on other players other than arbitrary factional designations.

Factional designation still constitutes just cause to attack someone, especially on PvP servers, because otherwise it begs the question of why people are on such a server in the first place. There are no excuses to be on a PvP server unless you are willing to be involved in non-consensual PvP, given that players have the option to opt out in virtually all MMOs that currently exist. A rugby match goes on for 80 minutes and you probably only spend a miniscule amount of that time being tackled. The rest of the time you are running, passing, kicking or tackling yourself, yet any rulebook lawyer would find it difficult to argue the legitimacy of being tackled unless it was dangerous or illegal. It is part of the rule set, and the infrequency at which it occurs does not render the rule invalid. Nonetheless implied consent doesn't do much to conceal the barrenness of such a playstyle, especially in the absence of greater incentives. It's still defensible to attack someone because they are red - but it seems a thousand times more palatable if you are attacking someone to seize territory, acquire plunder, defend your lands, or advance your faction's score. Being killed in Cyrodiil while defending your faction's keep, or being robbed and killed by highwaymen while trying to smuggle lucrative trade packs in AA is a thousand times more preferable than being abruptly being killed for no apparent reason while questing in WoW, because we can rationalize our foe's actions better. They may still just be fucking with you - but their actions become contextualized within the greater game and becomes a much easier pill to swallow.

I haven't engaged in world PvP in WoW for a long time, aside from the massive and bloody skirmishes which characterised levelling in the opening days of the WoD expansion. Those battles were great fun, which shows that, contrary to everything I just said in the previous paragraph, even in the absence of a greater purpose PvP fights can still be fun in of themselves. Those days were characterised by a curious egalitarian quality, however, which makes that period atypical to world encounters which happen nowadays. Back in November 2014 we were all new - we were all levelling - we were all on a new world whose secrets had not all been laid bare, dissected and displayed on numerous websites and guides. Asymmetrical fights were OK, because we could call for help on chat, and since we were all levelling together, there were plenty of Alliance who were willing and eager to heed the call to arms. Nowadays the zones are suffering the fate of all theme park style areas - players outlevel the zones and render them deserted and obsolete, except for the transient alts passing through on route to 100. Two types of fight are possible in these zones - one in which levelling toons encounter each other and clash, and another where a dedicated ganker like myself actively hunts down and attacks players travelling through the world. The former is more organic, and more in the spirit of the factional strife which characterises Horde and Alliance relations - the latter, given the lack of external motives for doing so, "appears" motivated purely out of mischief or spite.

I use the word "appear" because there can be a disconnect between the intentions of an attacker and their perceived motivations from the viewpoint of the victim. Victims often take their attacks personally, and ascribe all sorts of sinister motives to their attacker. They can be right - there are some angry people out there - but it fails to take into account differing motivations for engaging in world PvP. The most glaringly obvious is that people are playing the game as intended, and questions of "morality" need not even be considered. It's like accusing a chess player of murder when he/she captures your pawn. Another common chestnut trotted out against OWPvP is that it robs people of agency. Does the act of my killing your avatar rob you of your inalienable right to choose a game that suits your particular tastes? Of course not - you are completely free to choose a game, or a server, or a mode that is explicitly non-PvP based. But you can't complain about being ganked in games that are clearly delineated as having non-consensual PvP. Your agency is intact - you can exercise it anytime you like by leaving and playing a game more suited to your tastes.

Hey, S.E.L.F.I.E!

OWPvP games are not created equal, and one of the key factors which determine their quality is the holistic characteristics which contextualize virtual world encounters. Eve has null sec politics, TESO has the Alliance War, and Archeage incentivizes PvP for both pirates and merchants alike with the carrot of commercial gain. The problem with WoW's open world PvP  is that stripped of all the external stuff that better games like Eve, TESO and Archeage have, all you have left is factional loyalty as an excuse for initiating hostilities. In a funny way the design of the game has an impact on the "morality" of an action, because an evil ganker in WoW becomes i) a loyal line member in Eve protecting their sovereignty; ii) an intrepid scout cutting off enemy reinforcements in TESO, or iii) a swashbuckling privateer plundering fat merchants plying the trade routes in AA. The shifting perceptions of ganking suggests to me that ganking is essentially a null signifier, only given meaning by the nature of the game itself, the motivations of the ganker, and the perceptions of the gankee. The act of ganking is neither intrinsically righteous or evil, or good or bad, or right or wrong - it is the context of the game which determines its relative worth.

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