Playing the Ghost Class: a Protological Response to Death

As a game, World of Warcraft has many protological aspects, but one in particular opens up possibilities that may or may not have been intended. This is the protocol of death. The “corpse run” that the player makes upon death can be completed fairly quickly and hastily, and this is most often the case when a player is focused on continuing an in-game objective, but there are other ways the ghost state can be explored and exploited. Dead players cannot be attacked by enemies or interact with NPCs at all. Death also increases the player’s speed and makes it possible to run on water, making it easier to traverse the game’s environment. In a somewhat obvious turn of events, death also removes the player’s fear of dying. Although I eventually discovered that no ill results came from it either way, I was much more willing to brave the center of the Raging Chasm in Westfall as a ghost than as a living player. All of these features add up to another use of the ghost form: to explore the world of the game unhindered by slow speeds, attackers, or the obligations of quests.

Death is the focus of Lisbeth Klastrup’s essay “What Makes World of Warcraft a World? A Note on Death and Dying” in Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader. In it she makes the following observation: “That one can use the ghost form to explore an area without risking being killed is an example of how in-game death can be an expression of strategic play—a strategy to explore and stretch the borders of a game” (156). She makes it clear that traversing the game as a wandering spirit is not a subversion of gameplay, but playing the game differently. I would argue that it also does not breach the game’s protocol, but rather is a completely protological response. Someone less familiar with the idea might assume that the protocol upon death would be to get to one’s corpse as soon as possible so as to continue the game, but protocol is not about what is allowed or encouraged, but about what is possible. The ultimate goal of the player is to derive enjoyment from playing the game, and exploitation of the death system can further that goal. For instance, players can explore the vast landscapes, structures, and cities of the game without having to put in the work of leveling a character high enough to survive them. The death system can also be used to test possibilities and fix player mistakes. For example, I have confirmed that by running out to sea until the fatigue meter kicks in, one can die as a ghost, and that as this act overrides the previous death location, it may be a suitable method of relocating one’s corpse out of an area from which retrieval is difficult or impossible. Death in World of Warcraft includes many possibilities that make less of a hindrance and more of a game in itself to the protological player.

There is also in-game evidence that Blizzard has at least acknowledged these possibilities. On the screen after a player’s spirit is released, there appears a button labeled “Return to Graveyard” that acts to teleport the player back to the graveyard at which they enter the ghost state. The purpose of a teleport function is, at its core, to move the player character from the starting location to one closer to an objective. During the “corpse run,” the starting point is the graveyard, and the objective is the player’s location of death. If players were to always run straight to their corpse (and there is little reason not to given the large arrow on the mini-map that points directly towards it), the graveyard would in fact be the furthest point from the objective the player would ever be during the run. The presence of obstacles such as mountains may change the path from a straight line to one that is more curved, but even in those cases teleporting back to the beginning of the path is not likely to be helpful. However, when one takes into account the possibility of players using the ghost state to run unimpeded across entire continents or misusing their ghost powers and getting stuck somewhere, the importance of the “Return to Graveyard” button becomes more easily identified. The “Return to Graveyard” button provides evidence that the creators of World of Warcraft are encouraging or at least facilitating the exploration of the possibilities provided by the ghost state. Such a unique resurrection system was bound to open up doors to other forms of play, and its presence no doubt contributes to the enduring nature of World of Warcraft.

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3 Responses to Playing the Ghost Class: a Protological Response to Death

  1. I think that your evaluation of the possible uses of death in WoW are really interesting. I wondered briefly about the ‘return to graveyard’ button but to be honest after dying so much I stopped noticing it and it simply became something that appeared when I died. I hadn’t really tried exploring when dead, I was always too focused on getting back to the quest I had been working on. Now I think I might try to explore a bit.


  2. soc19 says:

    This is a great analysis of death in WoW. I actually meant to write a post on the same topic, but I guess you got to it first, haha. The first time I died in the game, I was fascinated by this “ghost” state and needing to find my corpse to return to normal gameplay. It’s like returning a “lost soul” back to the body. I was expecting to return to a checkpoint or nearby location after death, but I never imagined this graveyard system. I also thought the “return to graveyard” button was redundant, since I couldn’t imagine why someone would actually need such a thing, but your explanation clears it up a lot. It’s very cool that one can use these protological elements to one’s own advantage.


  3. newtonscradle7 says:

    As a new player to this game, I was one of the people who once they died, they immediately went right back to their corpse to continue playing. After reading your post and that essay in the WoW Reader, I am definitely interested in how they created this death sequence and giving the ability to explore without many consequences/obstacles. The “Return to Graveyard” button is like the heartstone, I can explore new regions that I would be cautious to explore while living and once I explored enough and seen what was in certain areas, I would be able to go back to the “home” and be able to return to my body and continue playing as a living character. This changes the idea of playing the game. You do not have to be living to play the game, you can play the game as spirit. This is a very interesting procedure in the game and I will definitely try exploring with my spirit in the future.


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