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

    
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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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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?

This is what makes the toxicity stick between devs and players. The devs cite these people as the “average player” meanwhile their casual base has been dwindling since SL.

It’s bad because you’re not acknowledging a problem which is the first step into fixing anything be it a relationship, a car issue, or an addiction. The issue here is that these players prevent Blizzard from actually doing any type of real self-inflection. Imagine if after FF14 launched they had the same level of defenders that WoW has; You’d probably not have the game you have today if that were true.

The issue WoW’s relationship faces is that there’s a minority of players who play the game at the top tier. These same players have access and speak to blizz devs because they all play the same game at the same level. It makes a feedback loop that has no hope of evolving until someone recognizes the problem. Unfortunately you won’t see that from the players end as it’s not a small handful of individuals. This would have to come from the devs themselves but why would they change?

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Aztoniο Αζκσωξζεμαν

The most toxic part of WoW community is less its remaining very few (courageous) defenders, than all the people that can’t just leave and forget this game, even if they stopped playing since a while.
It looks like they’ll never move on and continue to blindly spit on the game until they bury it with their own hands…
I dare not imagine their relationship with their own exes in real life…

I don’t think there are much things in the world that can be enjoyed continuously for decades. But then why spending your time hating when you could just find new things to enjoy? Maybe for the love of sport? Social pression?

There a hundreds, thousands of people who worked at Blizzard, but these days it looks likes they’re all criminals and lazy perverted sadists… From an exterior view that’s really worrying, maybe you should take some steps back too?
Just calm down and be respectful.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

Great column, Eliot. Thank you. I think you nailed it.

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mike smith

It got to the point where the only reason I played was the ever diminishing group of guildies I ran with, and to some extent, sunk costs. But Blizzard practically reset sunk costs every XP. Ended up quitting 2 XPs ago, with a vague feeling of wanting to start again “next XP” Now I probably won’t. /Played was up over a year continuous :)

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Phil Harris

I have been playing since vanilla and still love wow the concept of it until a month ago me and my wife have played together and with our friends. I have after retrospect ( wife asking why I do well in game yet get frustrated and annoyed) of what has changed and concluded that it seems like around pandera the core of the game changed direction. Every expansion is like starting over most of what you have done is useless gear, reputation,crafting and now odds are you are going to have to relean how to play your class. If after this long they still have to almost totally redesign character classes every expansion there methodology is flawed and they are not aware or in denial and my hope that they will wake up is gone. I miss my friends and a pastime that I enjoyed for years but I am happier playing other games. One of the things I miss most is the blizzcon when Metzen would come out and jazz up the crowd sure he was corny but it was funny and enjoyable now it’s like they are announcing bingo numbers. Now just to make myself clear I would love for my friends to come to me and say wow has changed you really should come back and try it again but I fear that ship has sailed over the horizon. To paraphrase (no I’m not republican) please MAKE WOW GREAT AGAIN.

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Utakata

A friend of mine and I where discussing once that the push for their raid or die narrative, Mythic + and rated PvP is somewhat reflective of how they treated their employees and the environment they created for them in doing so. And visa versa. In short, it was a terrible place that produced terrible attitudes and ideas. A feedback loop they could of pulled the ripcord on at anytime, but chose not to…for “reasons”, until it was all too late.

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Bryan Correll

You’ve convinced me. I’m going to start crowdfunding for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe Online. WAoVWO is gonna be a smash, better get in on the ground level.

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Josh

I’ve said for a while now that the difference between WoWs devs and say FFXIVs is that WoWs see you as an obstacle standing between them and your wallet.

Sure XIVs devs still want your money but they also clearly love developing the game for the playerbase.

I can’t say I believe the people making WoW actually enjoy making it, and they seem to actively hate their players.

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Ken from Chicago

I think some devs at Blizzard like the game and players–but have too many devs there who don’t.

Especially among those in power. 😭

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Josh

Pretty much.

I should probably be more clear when I refer to WoW devs in comments like the above I’m usually referring to the ones that have actual power.

The best contrast I can give is watch Yoshi P on stage talking about FFXIV.

Then go watch Ion talk about WoW

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Vincent Clark

” The best contrast I can give is watch Yoshi P on stage talking about FFXIV. Then go watch Ion talk about WoW”

It’s like night and day, brother. Night and day.

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Josh

It’s sad.

For as much as I rag on Blizzard and WoW I don’t want it to fail.

If not for me for my friends who still play or want to play. I want them to have a figure at the helm that you can just feel the excitement watching them.

I want the team guiding the game to be one where the playerbase can be excited over, and the current one (or its leadership at least) just so ain’t it.

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jealouspirate

Speaking as a fairly reserved person, I really dislike this comparison. People are different and express themselves in different ways. Just because Ion isn’t outgoing, doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, or doesn’t cosplay, doesn’t mean he has any less passion or love.

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Vincent Clark

Actually, it has nothing to do with being outgoing or anything else you listed (although they do make me admire Yoshi-P all the more). It’s about how you treat the people who play your game.

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Josh

Mmhm pretty much.

I don’t need my devs to come out in cosplay every time.

I do need to not feel like they’re spending the entire presentation condescending me.

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Ken from Chicago

Yeah. A the relationship between WoW and player might be more aptly described as between dealer and addict. Even when the addict know the dealer is “stomping” on the drug (dilluting it to lower the euphoric high) they might settle for it rather than risk going without. The dealer doesn’t need a figurative stick to force the addict to stay, merely an addictive (even less addictive than at the start) carrot.