In her essay What Makes World of Warcraft a World? A Note on Death and Dying, Lisbeth Klastrup seeks “to explore what the stories told about death and dying tell us about what behaviors and experiences in general matter to players in the world of World of Warcraft (143)”. In other words, Klastrup is exploring death in Warcraft by examining players’ reactions and experiences with in game death. Klastrup approaches the aspect of death in World of Warcraft by first examining the actual process of death within the game. Death functions in Warcraft in a similar fashion to other games: when the player character’s health points reach zero, the player character dies. At this point, the player is transported to a graveyard and presented with a few options. For example, the player may elect to pay a penalty and be resurrected by a “spirit healer”, or the player can choose to embark on a corpse run, or return to their place of their death and be resurrected. Both choices have separate penalties; to be resurrected by the “spirit healer” comes at the cost of a diagetic machine act, in that upon this choice the player is given resurrection sickness for a set period of time. On the other hand, completion of a corpse run bears no such penalty, except that of time, which in a game like Warcraft is vital.
Klastrup also touches upon the inherent challenge of incorporating death in video games. In order for a game to be challenging, the game must punish the player in some way. For this reason, most video games employ death, usually in the form of restarting from the last checkpoint or save point. However, if developers make the penalty for death too harsh or restrictive, players may feel alienated or frustrated, and choose to abandon playing the video game. So, the goal of death in video games is to provide challenge, as well as tell the player something, be it that they are not powerful enough yet for this area, or that they need to change something about their approach in this scenario.
Klastrup then goes on to categorize different experiences of death the player can have during the course of playing Warcraft. The player can experience death from being killed by in game NPCs or beasts (diagetic machine acts), as well as being killed by other players in a PvP environment (diagetic operator acts), and finally, the player can also experience death from natural causes, like drowning or falling. Feedback from Warcraft players seems to indicate that deaths from NPCs within the game is frustrating, but not as frustrating as death from natural causes, which Klastrup attributes to the fact that death from something like drowning is something we can easily imagine. On the other hand, being killed by a pack of monsters is a little harder to imagine, and for this reason, death from NPCs is mostly a learning experience, an attempt from the game to indicate that the player has done something wrong. Finally, death from being killed by another player takes on a more personal aspect, as death is caused not from the machine, but another operator. These deaths cause the disempowerment of the player, they are frustrating, particularly in the case of corpse campers.
While Klastrup’s discussion of death in Warcraft is already more than admirable, I wish she took the time to discuss Warcraft’s death system in direct response the the theory she presents about the function of death in video games as a whole. She notes that games have to achieve a delicate balance between punishment and the avoidance of frustration within the player. In my opinion, Warcraft manages this balance to a great degree, in most cases. When soloing, death is mostly helpful. The machine is telling the operator, “you are not ready for this area”, or “try a different strategy”. While Klastrup does discuss corpse running, she doesn’t bring the act back into her discussion of the balance of death in video games. Corpse running is a brilliant way to punish, and also to help players find a solution to the event that resulted in their character’s death. As opposed to simply restarting and placing the character back to the point before their death, the player becomes a ghost; for the most part the rest of the world remains unchanged. In discussing corpse running as “a rite of passage”, Klastrup misses an important aspect of corpse running, which is, at least in my case, reflection. In most cases, a corpse run lasts less than five minutes. However, in this five minutes, the player is allowed to examine why they died, be it bad strategy or being ill-equipped. Regardless, this time for reflection reduces the frustration of death because the player is not simply immediately dropped back to the place before they died to make the same mistake again.
Klastrup, Lisbeth. “What Makes World of Warcraft a World? A Note on Death and Dying”