The Liminal Period: Death in World of Warcraft

Lisbeth Klastrup’s article, What Makes World of Warcraft a World? A Note on Death and Dying, explains why the death feature in games, although not required, is necessary to maintain the validity of gameplay. While games are in no way required to have their players “die,” this feature is essential to making the game effective and enduring in MMORPG culture.

Character deaths are analyzed as a way to inform players on the most effective ways to play Warcraft. Death informs players by using undesirable outcomes to motivate them to play the game prudently, avoiding reckless behavior and therefore avoiding death. In this case, death is a punishment for fighting a monster of an unreasonably high level or falling off the edge of a cliff, providing incentive for the player to discover ways to avoid such actions.

Death is also seen as a reflection of Van Gennep’s liminal period theory, a concept that emphasizes death as a transitional phase between one social state and another (life and death). The “ghost phase” in which players wait for resurrection serves as a liminal period in between life, death, and life again. However, Klastrup notes one important difference between Gennep’s liminal period and that of the ghost phase in World of Warcraft: Gennep integrates the soul into the world of the dead, while Warcraft reintegrates the soul into the world of the living. Regardless, death serves as a reminder of human mortality.

One of Klastrup’s final points focuses on the social aspects of death in Warcraft. She distinguishes between two types of deaths: those in battle and those committed in solo play by accident. Klastrup believes that deaths committed in solo play such as falling off of a cliff or drowning affect players more emotionally, as these modes of death appear more realistic. The body identification that players have with their avatar or character invokes this emotional response. While solo deaths have more emotional consequences, group deaths largely produce social consequences for the player. Deaths can be heroic and earn respect, such as giving one’s life to defeat the enemy and protect the group, or yield embarrassment, such as dying in battle from lack of ability or from imprudence (as in the case of Leeroy Jenkins, a player known for blindly charging into battle and costing the lives of his group members). Overall, Klastrup acknowledges that death does matter in Warcraft, as it gives the game a sense of realism and forces the player to respect the world within the game.

Overall, I agree with Klastrup’s interpretation of death and resurrection as mimicry of Van Gennep’s liminal period. Van Gennep’s theory bases itself LARGELY on immediate death as a transitional period, reflected in the waiting period that players endure before they may resurrect their character. However, as someone who has studied Van Gennep’s theories of death in the past, there are aspects of death in Warcraft that she does not touch on that must be explored. According to Van Gennep’s theories on death, the liminal period is:
-Transitional
-In between normal social roles
-Ambiguous
-Dangerous
-Filled with strange symbolisms
-Time of communication with the sacred
While Klastrup does address death as a transitional period in between life and death, she fails to interact with the other aspects of Van Gennep’s theory. Klastrup discusses how death has social implications, but not how death is the state in between these social roles. For example, if a player enters a battleground or raid with other players, generally everyone is given a certain level of respect before the battle begins. However, after battle commences and the player dies as a result of imprudent gameplay, other players who are negatively affected by this death generally respect the deceased player less when the behavior becomes habitual. Once a player proves himself or herself ineffective, their social standing decreases. Here, death is the stage in between social roles, in between status as a respected player and one that receives criticism and a lower social standing. The opposite is true with heroic deaths: death is the stage in-between a generally respected character and one that is greatly respected. While this mainly applies to death in the group setting, death does not just imply social consequences, but it is a social stage in itself.

Death in Warcraft is also ambiguous. After death, the character is transported to a graveyard and becomes transparent, with the entire world appearing gray. The player is automatically transported to a world that looks the same, yet appears unfamiliar. This stage of ambiguity, including the experience of a character simultaneously appearing in corpse and ghost form on screen, is essential to the liminal period.

While the character itself is not in danger while in ghost form, death can have dangerous implications. For example, coming back to life with damaged armor or less experience endangers the player’s chance of leveling up or winning a battle. Death can also endanger other characters who are negatively affected by the loss of an ally in battle, as mentioned earlier.

Death in Warcraft is also filled with strange, cultural symbolisms. For example, angels and graveyards symbolize the stage in which players await resurrection. While these symbols may not seem strange in Western culture, they are immensely foreign to certain nonwestern cultures, some of which participate in worldwide gameplay. Even the shriek of players upon death symbolizes not only the death of the character, but the entrance into the liminal period.

Finally, death can be seen as a time of communication with the sacred. Certain quests, as described in the article, prompt players to take items to the graves of deceased players. Upon completion of the quest, players are allowed to honor the dead and even read epitaphs on gravestones. Here, even virtual characters honor the dead by placing objects at graves and reading epitaphs of fallen comrades.

Overall, Klastrup’s article proves that death is an essential tool in prompting the player to engage more critically and effectively with gameplay. However, the comparison of Warcraft death to Van Gennep’s liminal period, while accurate, is only touched upon in the article. Upon further exploration, it is possible to see that not only is death an essential feature of Warcraft, but its function as a liminal period shows the myriad of ways the death feature permeates into Warcraft society.

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2 Responses to The Liminal Period: Death in World of Warcraft

  1. trafalgarlaw9 says:

    I too read Van Gennep in a previous class and I think that your analysis is very interesting. One addition that I would like to make is that Van Gennep exclusively looks at the liminal period as a progression from life into death (because he studied mortal beings), while in Warcraft you experience a constant cycle of death and rebirth. Many human traditions treat the dead as if they were still alive, just on another plane of existence. Warcraft still fixates itself on living for the most part, although the various analyses of death’s role that people have posted illuminate important exceptions to that statement. Still, the fact that one can pass between life and death repeatedly is not a common theme in anthropological studies of the liminal period.

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  2. dfw1alskare says:

    I also read this essay on death in WoW! I had never read Van Gennep or his theories on death but I was glad to read what you had to say about Gennep in relation to this essay. You provide a lot of interesting background that I wish Klastrup did discuss. The idea that death is dangerous in the sense that one loses EXP points is something that resonated with me. Though she did touch on this, after reading this post, I’m thinking she didn’t spent enough time discussing the gravity of death in WoW (it’s not only “precious gaming time” that is lost, but so much more). I explored the positive aspects of death after reading her essay so the truly negative and punishing aspects of death completely escaped me until I considered the points you had to make. Thanks for your post!

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