The better angels of our nature

Why this compulsion to save others, to be the hero or heroine?

Maybe it’s because our culture extols the virtues of the knight in shining armour, the altruism of guardian angels and the kindness of strangers. So it is not surprising that these archetypes manifest themselves throughout popular culture. In books, fiction, television and other media the knights tale is a common one.

Within video games, and Massive Multi-Player games (MMOs) in particular, you just don’t get to hear about the knights. You get to be one of them in a virtual world (or to borrow from Neil Stephenson, the metaverse). In these worlds you can done the armour of a knight, ride a charger into battle and fight dragons, trolls and all kinds of wicked men and women.

For various reasons videogames are dominated by the “High Fantasy” genre. Tolkien reigns supreme here, with dashes of Sir Walter Scott, Arthurian legends and medieval romances.

Even in games such as the World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online and Everquest there is an echo – however faint – of the courtly romances of thirteenth century France. In game worlds, even a plumber called Mario gets to save a princess.

Central to all these virtual worlds is the concept of the quest.

St.George takes on an elite mob, hopes Blue drops
St.George takes on an elite mob, hopes Blue drops

A hero is given a task, they are faced by a challenge (a monster, a riddle, a gatekeeper to secrets) and they triumph.

A simple three act story, which MMO players re-enact again, and again every time they accept a quest from their friendly NPC and turn it in for gold, gear or “experience points”. As players we do this instinctively, without pause or reflection.

“Here is a quest, I will accept”.

And off we go to slay another virtual dragon and rescue another virtual kitten in a tree.

Virtual worlds: the good, the bad and… those who get it

MMOs can be described as a hobby.

The are fun, seductive and satisfying. The social aspects to them, of belonging to a community, and talking to like-minded people are hugely attractive. But they can be addictive and are easily dismissed by those who do not play them. As a form of entertainment they are still very much on the margins of popular culture. The stereotype of the MMO player is still very much of the overweight shut-in squatting over a computer in some rank basement.

And yet our world, the world of MMO players is far richer, complex and interesting than most people give credit. Call it a “sub-culture”. We are a “community”. Rather than watching localised version of “American Idol” or the usual swill of reality TV, we chose to spend our leisure time with our friends, family and guild mates in a virtual world.

The organisation that goes into planning a 25 man raid is intense. Your performance in these raids is judged, and judged harshly. The management of a guild can take many hours outside of the game. Like most guilds, my WoW guild has a website. The work that goes into maintaining this is not insignificant.

Raid time
Raid time

Relationships start in these worlds. Friends are made, and lost. As players, our experiences in Azeroth and the many other parts of the metaverse are just as rich as those of the real world. What we experience with friends online is “real”. When we lose someone from a guild, we can feel grief. When we meet someone in RL for the first time, after spending years talking to them in Vent or in guild chat, it’s a reunion as meanigful and real as welcoming home a friend who has been overseas for several years.

Friends of mine from the MMO world say we are the ones “who get it”.

This is what this Blog is about. Exploring the world of MMO players, and why we play.

What’s in a name: the meaning behind this blog’s title

Lincoln called our capacity to forgive and accept others the “the better angels of our nature”; the knight is synonymous with the suit of plated armour. Hence the name of this Blog. Yes, it’s a Blog about online games. But it’s not about min/max strategies, boss fights, content patches or dungeon runs.

There are plenty of blogs out there that do this, and will do them better then I will ever manage. I’d define myself as typical of the millions of “casual” MMO players out there who run PvE quests and do the occasional dungeon (instance if you like).

The attraction, the reason I still play MMOs, is the social aspects. Belonging to a community is a natural human desire. As to is our desire to give something of ourselves to others. In this Blog I will explore the roles we adopt in game, and what they may say about us in the “real world” (RL).

Healers, tanks, casters and damage dealers – why do you do what you do? Why that class? And what am I doing in these worlds, and why?

My nature: a priest in armour

The name of this Blog is also partly inspired by the types of avatars I play in MMO worlds. In WoW I play a Paladin (Retribution Spec), a holy warrior that deals damage. In Warhammer I play a Warrior Priest. Both wear armour, and both throw out damage and healing spells. I enjoy getting into a fight, sword or hammer swinging, fighting AI controlled mobs (1) or other players in PvP (2).

Even more so, there is nothing more satisfying than pausing between the swings of my weapon, throwing out a healing spell to a comrade in trouble, and then get back into the fight. The tension between the fight in hand, and helping others compels me to play the classes I do.

Others prefer to heal. Others prefer to stand back as casters, and coolly deliver damage from a distance. Some prefer the role of tank, the one who takes the most damage during a “boss fight”. Being in the front line, the tank directs the group to which targets, in what order and gives the command to attack.

My intiution is that our choices in game say something about us as individuals. The name of my WoW paladin is Augustine, named after the great fourth century theologian. I was profoundly moved by both his two most famous works, the Confessions and City of God.

Even though I describe myself as an atheist, there are aspects of Augustine’s writing I take to heart. His Confessions is ultimately a journey to know himself and the truth. His writings explore the same themes one finds in those other canons of the Western tradition I deeply admire and love; the central protagonists undertakes a journey, struggles and finds redemption of sorts. Whether it be through journeying to hell and back, the struggle to better understand oneself and your place in the world forms a narrative that predates the written word.

It is the narrative that appeals to my “priestly nature”; it is the part of me that has a deep reverence for those who seek answers. Struggle, and illumination.

I’m a Paladin/Warrior Priest because I see myself and both questioning and willing to fight.

(1) Mob – short for “mobiles”. In games monsters, non-player characters and other AI controlled units are referred to as mobs.

(2) PvP – Player vs. Player, game play that allows player to fight others in virtual worlds.