WoW Factor: How World of Warcraft mirrors a toxic relationship for players

We all become done.

First and foremost, a fair warning here: This is going to be a column that does, albeit indirectly, deal with some potentially heavy subject matter. While I am not going to be focusing extensively or with professional authority when it comes to matters of intimate partner abuse, this may be an unpleasant read if these are uncomfortable subjects for you. Moreover, please do not take anything said in this column to be diagnostic or expert breakdowns of how abusive or toxic relationships work because I am not a therapist, and those are the people best suited to evaluating and treating those types of relationships.

Having said all of that, I want to talk about the ways in which World of Warcraft seems to mirror a toxic relationship for an awful lot of players. And no, I’m not talking about the people who just think the game is great and that better games aren’t possible despite obvious evidence. I chose the word “toxic” for a reason there.

There are comparisons that float around in the ether every so often comparing WoW to being in an abusive relationship. This is inaccurate because the central aspect of an abusive relationship is a severe power imbalance and the ability to coerce or threaten one partner in such a way that the aforementioned power dynamic is wildly skewed. WoW does not have power over you. It can feel like it does, but that’s a function of habit more than anything. I’m willing to bet no one reading this will lose their job for not playing.

All abusive relationships are toxic relationships, but not all toxic relationships are abusive relationships. There’s a lot more going on below the surface when we get into the overall spectrum of toxicity, and it’s that toxicity rather than out-and-out abuse that I find both more reflective of how a lot of people engage with WoW and more interesting to discuss. Because odds are you know the relationship is toxic on some level… but you’re still there just the same.

We're not friends, right? Good.

There are a lot of different things out there you can find offering different definitions of a toxic relationship, but all of them have points of commonality, and the broad strokes are as follows:

  • Communication between the people involved in the relationship is marked by hostility.
  • It’s impossible to trust the other person or be vulnerable around them.
  • The other person attempts to control your behavior and/or the emotions you express.
  • The relationship takes a great deal of effort from you that is not reciprocated.
  • Lies and falsehoods are consistently present.
  • You eventually make excuses for the behavior of the other party, gaslit into assuming that it is under your control.

Let’s take this piece by piece, and the first one is… well, an obvious gimme. A patronizing or dismissive attitude is seen as standard operating procedure from Blizzard, to the point that people are still pulling out J. Allen Brack’s “you think you do, but you don’t” quote about nearly everything the studio does. Heck, look at the response to feedback from the Shadowlands beta. Look at the letter explaining why free Covenant swapping is now in the game.

It’s important to note that this hostility is not one-way. It’s clear that players are just as resentful and hostile toward the studio as the studio tends to be toward its players. Put a pin in that; we’ll come back to it.

Obviously you don’t “trust” a company in the same way that you trust an intimate partner, but there’s still a strong parallel there. People do not feel as if their wishes or feedback will be listened to or acted upon. There’s a general sense that communication flows only one way, and if that’s not a lack of trust, well, I don’t know what is.

The next two points there are almost classic Blizzard tactics. It’s very clear from the launcher and the general cross-promotional schemes that Blizzard’s goal is to get people to be completely invested in the ecosystem of their games taking up 100% of the players’ free time. There are numerous elements in WoW that are basically meant to push you into content you may not enjoy doing on the basis of making a better game, and you’re discouraged from taking breaks. And for all that effort, you rarely feel rewarded, just more tired.

Lies and falsehoods? Hoo boy. It’s hard to be sure where you exactly draw the line between lies and a lack of trust, but they both speak to the same root. People don’t believe Blizzard when the studio says something about WoW, and they don’t believe that feedback will be taken seriously. It makes for any sort of dialogue between players and developers being fraught with issues.

And defense? Some players out there are almost pathological in their defense of WoW against criticism, claiming that all of the things Blizzard has the resources to do but opts not to can’t be done for vague hand-waved reasons, most of which circle back to what Blizzard has claimed is possible based on more or less nothing. Player housing, anyone?

But wait. We put a pin in something before. That hostility doesn’t just come from Blizzard toward players; it also comes from players toward Blizzard. And that’s not accidental, nor is it entirely unexpected.

Want to dig the depth.

This isn’t to say that harassment or hate speech against developers is a good thing; if that’s what you’re taking away from the above lines, then you are officially missing the point by a county mile. Rather, what I’m saying is something that should be self-evident. When you’re stuck in a toxic relationship, one thing that happens a lot with interactions is escalation. As individuals feel increasingly unheard, they become increasingly loud in their efforts to get noticed and provoke a reaction.

Needless to say, this leads to bad places, but it’s a natural outgrowth of feeling like your efforts aren’t leading anywhere. If you don’t feel like your communication is heard, you’ll become more aggressive and abrasive until you’re at least communicating in some capacity.

One of the things I mentioned right off the bat is that there’s a difference between a toxic relationship and a straight-up abusive one. The fact of the matter is that WoW has no power over you. It can’t force you to do anything. You do, in fact, have the ability to leave. But toxic relationships often make it difficult to leave, and WoW is in fact no different. You’ve got friends there, you’re comfortable there, it’s quite possible you find the core gameplay loop to be a lot of fun. Even if you don’t, you did at one point, and that’s a hard comfort to break.

It’s a relationship that relies upon you finding the bad thing you’re comfortable with to be too deep a rut to pull yourself out of. But the best thing you can do with a toxic relationship is actually demonstrate that you have power. To leave, to walk away, to make it clear that you won’t be party to this behavior any longer. It’s difficult, but it’s necessary.

Is everyone’s relationship to WoW a toxic one? No. But the components are all in place. Which raises the question of whether or not that includes your personal relationship with the game… and the concurrent question of what you’re going to do about it.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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