Sunday, July 5, 2009

World of Patience

I've been playing World of Warcraft for about six months now, after my pal Chronkite finally convinced me to try it. I don't consider myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination. There's certainly plenty of facets that I don't have any experience in (warrior class, dual talent trees, anything related to Outland or Northrend), but I've amassed far more knowledge about the game than the common non-player has at their disposal.

After the intoxicating Battlegrounds experience, I wanted a new challenge, something that was really bizarre. Sure, there were challenges waiting ahead in Burning Steppes and past the Dark Portal, but my highest toon (WoW slang for “character”) is a good 15 levels away from exploring those domains.

Then it hit me: what if I tried going through the game without killing anything? If I could get to level 80 without ever fighting, that would be so totally badass!

So I rolled a new toon. Without thinking too much about the dynamics of race and class attributes, I chose a human rogue, which ended up being a pretty decent choice (though in retrospect, night elf would have been far better, for reasons I'll try to explain later). I then set myself the following rule: I will not allow my Creatures Killed stat to rise above zero. In my first defiant act, I sold off my starter weapon. After all, I wouldn't be needing it.


It goes without saying that a game that is literally named “planet where the art of murdering is practiced” tends to lead the player into killing things. A good many of the available entry quests send you to outright slaughter wild pigs, encroaching kobold miners, giant moths, and a plethora of other species. Some players cheekily refer to these as the “racial cleansing” quests.

Additionally, a large percentage of the remaining quests have you fetch objects from various hostiles, such as candles, bandanas, vials of animal blood, or simply slabs of meat. For the most part (and I'll explain the exceptions below), you can't do these quests without killing the possessors of the objects first, so those are out as well.

So what's left? Well, in short:

- Courier quests. Many NPCs will send you to talk to another NPC across town, across the zone, in another zone, or even on another landmass. A subclass of this type of quest has you bring the NPC some sort of item, such as a note or needed supplies. Another subclass is when you get sent to find someone who has become lost in an area.

- Search quests. In this type of mission you go around an environment searching for things to pick up (like lost ship parts, a stolen heirloom or certain kinds of flowers) or to leave behind (such as taking a dead person's remains to be buried).

- Holiday quests. WoW has a number of in-game holidays that give players certain non-violent tasks to perform. For example, as of this writing the game is celebrating Midsummer, whose various activities include juggling torches, honoring flame keepers and – I swear I'm not kidding – pissing on the enemy's fires. The downside to these, of course, is that holidays are exceptions rather than continuous events.

To get enough XP (experience points, for the laymen) to go up to level 2, I had to run around to all four starting areas and do whatever quests I could do within these parameters. This in itself was particularly trying, due to these areas being quite far from one another. Getting from the mountainous dwarf lands to the island of the alien Draenei, for example, requires taking two boats and a tram. Additionally, since it is a world of warfare, things are trying to kill you all the time, and they don't seem to have much use for the Golden Rule. The dwarf / gnome starting area can only be accessed through a tunnel, and in the tunnel is an infestation of level 4 troggs. Level 4! It seems so dismissive from the perspective of a level 44, sword-swinging paladin, but to my new toon it was a sheer terror in Neanderthal form.


Here's a screenshot to show you what I had to work with:

Those of you who play WoW are doubtlessly laughing furiously right now due to the actionbar. For those that don't, here's a general explanation of what those buttons on the bottom left do.

[1] Eat cheese
[2] Drink healing potion
[3] Build a campfire
[4] Cook food
[5] Go fishing
[6] Pick flowers
[7] Mine mineral deposits
[8] Melt down minerals into ingots
[9] Teleport back to an inn
[0] Check my location coordinates
[-] Do a dance
[=] Bring out a little robot, who follows me around but does nothing (a free gift from our good friends at Mountain Dew. No, seriously.)

So: I can catch fish, cook and eat food, take drugs, set fires, dig up plants and rocks, play with pets, and boogie down. And I don't fight anything, and run away when attacked. I may be the first ever digital hippie.

I learned some fairly complex techniques pretty rapidly. The rogue has an ability called Stealth (the unlabeled button right above button 2), which allows me to sneak around largely undetected, but at half speed. The higher a creature is in level from me, though, the more likely they will spot me even in a cloaked state – and then, my only real remaining option is to run like Hell. This is actually where the night elf race would have had a better advantage; they have a racial ability called Shadowmeld, which is similar to Stealth, but also allows the player to break combat. A night elf rogue can use Shadowmeld to hide from an attacking enemy until their Stealth spell recharges, and then continue as before. The human racial, in contrast, is called Every Man For Himself, which breaks the toon free of movement constrictions such as traps or stun effects. It's decently useful in certain cases, but Shadowmeld would have been far more so.

Another thing I eventually realized was that some of the quests that required items from creatures could be done if I purchased the items rather than killed creatures for them. WoW has a number of Auction Houses, which are basically a sort of in-game eBay for trading armor, weapons and other things for gold pieces. This is where the first real test of my “virtual morality” came into play. After all, someone had to kill those Crag Boars to get the meat to sell to me, so am I just an enabler for killing by doing the quest at all? The game wasn't going to count it as my kill, though, and it's not like I could go back and un-kill the animal. Someone was going to buy that Crag Boar Meat, so it might as well be me!

But why single out quests? There are food items in the Auction House that can be consumed by players to regain health, and for the most part, those came from players who cooked it (using the Cooking skill). If it's a meat-based item, it's a done deal that someone killed something to make this meal. Should my toon become a vegetarian?

For that matter, why bother with the Auction House at all? I could simply log in under one of my other toons (my paladin, for example), kill some boars, loot their meat, and send it to the first toon using the in-game mail system. It wouldn't count under the pacifist's stats – but it would be me, the player, doing the killing regardless. It's the old Nazi closed circuit of responsibility, “I was only following orders” versus “I only gave orders, I never actually did anything.” How much functional schizophrenia was I willing to accept to fudge the rules?

It should be noted at this point that under normal (in other words, kill-happy) circumstances, a new toon takes about an hour or two to go from level 1 to 5. My conscientious objector toon took a full day to gain the same amount of experience. Much of this can be attributed to travel times between the sections I was able to acquire viable quests from. Additionally, sometimes a quest couldn't be done for logistical purposes; a gathering quest infested by level 4 monsters, for example, was inadvisable until I was at least level 4 myself, or they would have easily spotted me even under stealth. That meant I had to go find enough other quests to get me to level 4 just to do that quest. Rapidly my gameplay descended into a sort of fantasy flowchart, wherein I was always trying to get around the functional restrictions using any path available.

My biggest moment of doubt came on the night elf island, where I was sent on a quest to pull up plant seedlings before they mutated into lumbering elemental monsters. Since the seedlings are environmental objects and not actual monsters, I took the quest knowing that the game would not count a simple digging quest as creature kills – but when I got to the first seedling, my whole perspective took a sideswipe to the port quarter. Opening up the flower-like pods revealed a very human-looking face within, which twitched and glared nervously as it awaited its fate at my hand, unable to defend itself from my ultimate decision. I felt something in the pit of my stomach that I can only assume, if you'll excuse the arrogance of the assumption, was akin to how a mother feels when she makes the decision to abort her fetus.

However nebulous the ethical quandaries I might be faced with became due to my decision to play the game is this manner, I had in fact set for myself a very simple rule that could not be misinterpreted: do nothing that makes your Creature Kills stat rise above zero. Nothing I had done so far had broken that rule. I had to keep reminding myself that: I had done nothing to break the rule.

I pulled up the squirming seedling, along with eleven of its siblings.


I am not the first person to play WoW in this manner, nor even close to the best. Another player, whose toon is a gnome rogue known as Noor, has made it all the way to level 80, the current level cap for the latest expansion. I take solace in Noor's achievement, because it provides a most important proof of concept: you can go all the way to the top without killing a single creature.

The initial decision to play a non-combat character was not grounded in any moral structure. All I was thinking about was a single statistic on a character sheet; I literally only saw one defining numeral. As the journey towards that goal took shape, though, I found myself examining the fabric of morality itself, my actions and the decisions that guided those actions playing out in a simulated world where the shifting natures of hypocrisy and compromise became all too real considerations.

Chronkite, having heard about my strange experiment, decided to give it a whirl himself. He rolled a new toon, a Draenei priest. After an hour, he admitted defeat, praising me for my tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds. If nothing else comes of this, I will at least have that rock to stand on: the patience required to keep my eyes on the prize as I play Animal Crossing in the midst of Duke Nukem, picking flowers while fighters and mages obliterate demons on the periphery of my sight.