Monday, February 23, 2009

The Dark Side

The Lich King expansion for WoW offers players the opportunity to create a "Death Knight" character and to work as a high level assistant for the Lich King, who very much resembles Darth Vader.  The head piece that the Death Knight characters start out with, a cowl that shades part of the face resembles that worn by Darth Sidious, a Dark Lord of the Sith and perhaps the most evil of the characters in the Star Wars saga.  

In order to create a Death Knight, you must have reached a level 55 character on the realm you are playing, as Death Knights start out at level 55.  You have to give up your other character, at least while you're playing the DK, so it seems, psychologically, that you have died and been reborn as a soulless, mindless death machine.  The Lich King gives you orders to kill wantonly and without conscious, at one point ordering you to kill a number of citizens who are unarmed and who tremble and beg for their lives when you approach them, citizens who do not strike back, for the most part, when you attack, wielding your glowing, runed sword.  The Lich King "whispers" to you in the chat box should you falter or think not to strike.  No mercy, he says, when a woman with several children begs for her life.   There is no light, only dark, he whispers.  In another scenario you are ordered to spread a plague to the miners working in a nearby mine.  The more you kill, the more rewards you get, and nowhere in the game have the rewards been greater: almost every quest in the early part of the Lich King nets you a rare piece of armor. 

Prior to Lich King there had been times when I found my character doing something morally reprehensible, something I would never have done in real life:  killing animals that were bordering on extinction in real life, for example.  Of course I've never killed anyone in real life, but in the game as long as there was a narration that justified it I didn't feel so bad about it.  It's just a game, after all.  But Lich King makes you do horrific things, over and over again, and I am finding it deeply disturbing.  The only reason I'm continuing to play is because a review I read of the game suggests that something huge happens and transforms the game, making the DKs more acceptable in some way.  I'm waiting for that something to happen, but I don't think I can last much longer.  

I do have the feeling that my character is being trained to love evil and relish killing.  Since the game has strict rules, it doesn't seem as if I have a choice if I want to keep playing a DK.  Obey or die.  But it gets easier, killing the helpless citizens, especially when the rewards are great. And that's disturbing as well.  I wonder if there are other games like this with the opportunity to play such great evil, and I wonder--to what end?  I have always known that I might reach a place in this game-playing where I would not, could not go, a place where the game ceased being a game and instead seemed to be infiltrating too deeply into my core self.  This is, of course, what parents and educators have all along feared with respect to these kinds of games. It's one thing to find yourself pitted against a powerful Dark Lord, but how to play one yourself, "for fun"?  

On the other hand, isn't this what fiction writers or actors have to do to get inside the heads of serial murderers or other evil creatures?  What did Doestoevsky have to do to create a character like the amoral Stavrogin (who rapes a little girl) in The Possessed?  How about Heath Ledger's portrayal of The Joker?  

The question for me:  is it valuable to ask the children who play video or computer games to actually play pure, unrepentant evil?  Is it valuable to teach them to savor or enjoy killing the helpless, to laugh at their pleas to spare them?  

Or am I afraid of the darkness that I sometimes find within myself, so afraid that I don't want to enter into a game space where I have to come too close to it?  The most horrifying thing my mother ever said to me:  We are all capable of anything, Sheryl.  Anything.


Saturday, February 21, 2009


My husband does not like video and computer games.  He does not like how they seem to have stolen his son (now my step son)  from him, he does not understand the hours and hours his son can sit in front of a computer screen, utterly absorbed, clicking and clicking at something his dad does not understand.  He thinks video and computer games are partly responsible for the lackluster performance his son has had in high school.  

He is right to be concerned, but I have also tried to get him to look at the games in a different way, to enter into the games such that he understands the attraction.  Keep your enemies close, I say to him.  I have not been successful.  Although he will come in my study and peek over my shoulder during my nightly hour of playing, I cannot get him to play a character himself in WoW, even though I have created a male warrior character called Teake, which I sometimes play. In a future post I want to write about what it feels like to play a male atavar, but not today.  

The other night, after our evening crossword puzzle, I could see he was in a generally happy mood, so I asked if he'd play a  "little bit" of the game "Peacemaker" with me.  Peacemaker is  a game designed by Israelis, Palestinians and Americans based on real life events that simulate the tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  Teake is, in real life, a journalist, and a Dutch citizen and is extremely interested in world affairs. 

In this game you have to choose between being the leader of the Palestinians or the Israelis, or you can let the computer choose for you. Since we had to share power (you can't play against a human player in the game), and since we could not agree on who we wanted to play, we let the computer choose for us:  the Palestinian leader.  

There are lots of things I could report to you about playing this game:  I could report to you, for example,  that there are not enough options in the game and  that it seems an impossible game to solve, and that these things probably reflect the way things are in real life. I could tell you that the graphics were not very interesting, but that the text was, and that one could learn a lot about the history of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict by playing the game, and these things are all true.  

But for me, what was most interesting was the dynamic that developed between Teake and me as we shared leadership and made decisions about what to do as the leader of the Palestinians. The first thing that became clear was that we could not agree on how to lead. Every time something happened that demanded a response (a suicide bomber, Israeli attack, etc.) Teake wanted to do one thing and I wanted to do something completely different. I don't know that there was a pattern early in the game--sometimes I wanted to build things to make our infrastructure better, sometimes he was the one wanting to build.  Sometimes I wanted to make a speech to the world and sometimes he was the one wanting to make a speech to the world.  All of the projects we wanted to do cost money, however, and we constantly ran into problems trying to get world leaders to loan us money for our various projects.  

We decided to take turns deciding how to respond, although each time we criticized the other's decisions.  I think we were trying to do what westerners would consider the "right" thing, but it seemed that everything we did was criticized by one faction or another, and our approval rating internally and with the international community continued to plummet as we kept trying to do the "right" thing:  help the poor, relocate refugees to better places, build better educational systems, appeal to the international community, etc.  We had avoided any escalation of violence, to no avail.  After an hour of play, we were losing big time.  "Losing" involves reaching a certain level of unhappiness with both the internal and the world community as reflected in real numbers.

Teake, I should mention, hates to lose.  

"Let's just start blowing things up," he finally says when it seems that none of our good-nik solutions are getting anywhere.  

Needless to say, we lost.  

We did come away from the game with some sense of how incredibly hard it is to govern and to share governance in such a volatile part of the world, although we sort of knew that already.   I don't know if Teake will want to play the game with me again or not.   I know, from playing other games, that there must be a strategy that lets you win, that we just have to figure it out. 

But I don't think Teake will want to do what I know we'll have to do again and again in order to win: lose and lose and lose and lose.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Playing the Enemy

Two factions dominate in W0W:  the Alliance and the Horde.  When you create a character you have to decide to which faction you want to belong.  On some level, the Alliance are the "good guys."  They include the beautiful-bodied humans and cerebral night elves, as opposed to the broken and bestial looking trolls, orcs and "undead" of the Horde, who seemed to me, at least initially, to clearly be the "bad guys."   Even the names of the two factions, Alliance and  Horde suggest that one is more organized than the other, the Alliance a group of like-minded, rational creatures, the Horde a swarm of less organized, warring factions.  If we were to make a comparison to real life, the Alliance might be seen as like the European Union or the United States, and the Horde might be interestingly compared to terrorist groups from Iraq, Afghanistan and the like.

Of course, good girl that I am, I wanted to play the Alliance.  I couldn't imagine at first why anyone would want to play the Horde.  Why would anyone intentionally want to play the "bad guys?"  I mumbled something about this to my step son, who looked at me quizzically, said "That's not what it's about at all," but wouldn't elaborate.  Later, when I suggested we do some questing together in the game he said "I'm Horde."  Alliance and Horde cannot quest together and indeed cannot even speak to each other in the game.  

It struck me then as an interesting way to think about teenage sons and the way they sometimes perceive their relationship with their parents:  we are the Alliance, they are the Horde.   Of course they would be interested in any kind of creature that fights viciously and passionately against the rules and limitations of society.  This is why the Hulk is so attractive, and many of the orcs in WoW, to pick one race resemble the Hulk:  their skin is dark green, their bodies stocky.  In addition they have fangs and wide, grimacing smiles, not unlike a Gorgon mask.

But there's more to than that.  After having played an Alliance character to a high level, I started the game over, this time playing a Horde character, a troll.  While the other Alliance characters I had played were beautiful in a Barbie-doll sort of way, there was no way to create a troll character that is anything but hideous.  Big-footed, big-nosed with tusks of varying sizes, they have blue or green skin and a pronounced slouch (humans and elves never slouch).  They don't run in loping, balanced cadence like humans or elves but rather have an awkward, lopsided gait.  Their speech and culture in the game mimic that of black Jamaican culture, which is a whole other subject I'll talk about another time.

Playing a troll character means transforming my mind set so that all the characters in the game I am used to seeing as enemies (and I killed lots of trolls as an elf) I now recognize as friends.  I am now able to enter all the enemy camps and home cities that I could not enter when I was identified as an Alliance character.  I hear different narratives--the other side of the story--if you will, from the Horde quest givers that justify whatever actions I might be asked to take against Alliance characters.  I find myself feeling compassion for this wounded, demonized group of characters.  I see things in the landscape that I hadn't seen before:  how most of the Alliance groups live in traditionally idyllic environment with trees and lakes and rivers, whereas the Horde lives in barren and wounded and destroyed environments.  Esther MacCallum-Stewart has pointed out in her excellent essay "War and Histories in World of Warcraft" (in Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader), the Horde "worship nature in all its forms" while the Alliance "are only happy with a conventional, fertile landscape that they have quickly industrialized." (43)  MacCallum-Stewart presents a nice analysis of the environments of the two groups and how those environments shape our perception of the two groups, pointing out that the Horde's cities reflect an "ability to creatively remodel terrain," while the Alliance cities are modeled after long established types of cities such as medieval castles and mountainside fortresses.

Many years ago I wrote my PhD dissertation on the figure of Medusa.  I was attracted to her because of the paradox inherent in the many versions of her stories: in one version it was her beauty that turned men to stone, in another it was the horror of her horrifying Gorgon face.  In yet another version it wasn't snakes but dreadlocks that crowned her head and she was the head of a tribe of Libyan female warriors.  I was also interested in thinking about why so many American female poets (like Sylvia Plath, May Sarton and Rachel Blau DuPlessis to name only a few) had written poems in the persona of Medusa and seemed to be attracted to her as a muse. As creative relief while writing the dissertation I began writing poems in the voice of Medusa. She became an actual muse for me, drawing me eventually away from the critical writing I would do in the dissertation and into another world:  the world of poetry.  I began to see something in her character that had the kind of creative agency that I can also see at work in some of the Horde races from WoW.  When you are not given the blessing (or curse) of a beautiful body and face you must rely on imagination and creativity to move successfully through the world.  It is the difference between the passive and beautiful Snow White, and the endlessly inventive and creative witch of a stepmother, as Gilbert and Guber point out in their classic work Madwoman in the Attic.

Free from any semblance of beauty or need to attract, on a physical level, a male, my Horde troll character lumbers through her destroyed environment, making things up as she goes along, first trying this and then that before succeeding.  Her cities feel more like communities and families than the Alliance cities do.  Merchants and quest givers call me "child" and dance when I come to them with a question.  When they speak they speak in an informal Jamaican dialect.  

At the very least playing the enemy has taught me once again that things are not always as they seem and that there are always two sides to a story, that truth is always complicated, and that the way we see the world is colored by our race and our assumed place in the world. It's not that I didn't know these things before, but I knew them intellectually, not in my body. Playing the game has allowed me to experience two sides of a conflict in a very physical way.  Getting a poem by heart, memorizing it, teaches us so much more about the bones and spirit of the poem than simply reading or analyzing it on the page does.  Same thing for playing music. You can read the notes or you can internalize a song or piece and play out of that internalization. So too does enacting, physically, the other teach us something that is perhaps more lasting about cultural understanding than simply reading about it.  

A group of American, Palestinian and Israeli students at Carnegie Mellon designed a serious video game called Peace Maker that is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is available commercially from the independent games publisher Manifesto Games.  The game allows you to play the leader of the either the Israelis or the Palestinians as you make decisions about situations that are taken from real-life events.  I've ordered the game but have yet to receive it. This is just one example of a serious game that could have extraordinary educational impact that has come out of the entertainment gaming industry.  For anyone interested in peace and video games, I'd recommend attending the upcoming CMU conference, 'The Future of Interactive Technology for Peace" April 2-3.  Google it.

For the Horde.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Killing Yourself in Cyberspace

Like most adults I know, I get up five mornings a week to work,  go to the grocery store a couple times a week, go to the movies a couple times a month, and also like most adults I know I've contemplated suicide once or twice in my life, looked at the gulf of meaninglessness and hopelessness and cruelty and violence and wanton destruction and depravity and corruption that sometimes seems to define life on earth (not to mention misery, sorrow, regret, terrifying acts of god,  and coming from a screwed up family). What's the use, who cares, why go on with it, we think.  But most of us sleep on it (sometimes after lots of wine or beer), wake up, and do continue.  We find, or create, a reason to go on.  We look, as they say, at the bright side of life.  Or, failing to find a bright side, we create one, or pretend there is one.  Especially if we have children we pretend there is one.  

But what if you just don't see a bright side.  What if you find yourself surrounded by people who seem to hate you, more, want to kill you?  Say you run away, you jump off a cliff into the ocean thinking to end it all, only to find yourself still alive.  The drop not as steep as you had thought, the water  kind.   Surrounded by cliffs, you'll never survive a swim half way around the world, so what do you do?  You really wanted to die.

You press the x key, which makes you sink to the bottom of the ocean and you wait there, very still.  

After a minute or so bubbles start coming from your mouth, you are choking, you are taking in water, your health is declining rapidly and in bright red letters:  -400, -800, -1500. It is alarming, but this is what you want.  You are watching yourself die. You are killing yourself. You make a final jerky move and then you're dead.  You've drowned yourself.

There are a couple of good reasons to kill your avatar or let yourself die in WoW.  You always resurrect in a graveyard near where you died, and sometimes if you are trying to get to a difficult place where there are lots of monsters, it's easier to kill yourself and resurrect in a graveyard that is nearer to the place you are trying to reach.  Another reason to kill yourself is if you have fallen into an ocean surrounded by cliffs and it will take you 45 minutes to swim to a place where you can safely climb out. It's quicker to kill yourself and start over.

It's just a game, right?  

Right. But I felt really creeped out watching myself purposely kill avatar recently.  It felt deeply unnatural, even though it was just a game, even though I knew I would resurrect.  In those minutes sitting there watching my avatar die I couldn't help but think of the people in my life who have killed themselves and never resurrected, and the others who threatened it but haven't yet gone through with it.  What perceived hatreds, what monsters, what cliffs too high, what love too lost, what hope too frayed, what waters too deep to keep that finger pressed on the x button, no resurrection in sight.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Thinking about Blogs and Journals

Now that I've been blogging for a couple months I've had a chance to think about blogging and how it compares to journaling.  There are certainly things I don't want to say in a blog that I would say in a journal, so there's definitely one level of self-censorship.  There are even things Idon't mind publishing in a book that I don't want to put in a blog, maybe because it seems easier for a blog to be excerpted and taken out of context.  There are things I wouldn't write about members of my family in a blog; although most don't read books regularly, they all are on the internet (facebook, etc.).  

Of course you can set your blog so that no one can see it.  

I'm also not so sure about using a blog to write bits of a memoir.  Although my previous blogs have contributed to the piece I'm writing about playing WoW, I'm not so sure the structure of the blog is a good one if you want a longer, book-length work, to have an uninterrupted narrative arc.

I still think blogs are useful for creative writing prompts, especially shortish pieces, and for exploring new ideas.  I know a lot of people use blogs as intellectual journals, places to reflect on all kinds of things, but I'm mostly interested in seeing what kind of role they might have in the imaginative life, what role they might play in helping us to write more and better and be disciplined to write more and better.