Note: I’ve chosen not to link the video discussed in this post. If you want to, feel free to look it up on your own, but I’m not going to promote it here.
World of Warcraft has produced some funny moments, and some interesting moments. It’s also produced many truly awful moments as well. Today marks the ninth anniversary of the most notable – at least in my opinion – event in WoW’s history. The details go something like this: An avid WoW player suffered a fatal stroke, so her in-game friends decided to have a makeshift funeral for her inside Azeroth. They posted notices on WoW’s forums, inviting players from both the Alliance and Horde to come pay their respects. The rules were pretty straightforward. Do not attack one-another. Be respectful.
As you can imagine, things did not go to plan. What began as a beautiful moment quickly degraded into a slaughter. As members of both the factions lined up single file to pay their respects to a fallen friend (or foe), a group of players from the Alliance guild, Serenity Now came barreling in and killed everyone they could. Part of what made this awful moment so noteworthy is that the perpetrators created a montage of the massacre, complete with soundtrack, and posted it to YouTube.
When first I saw the video I’ll admit that I chuckled a bit out of sheer amazement that people would go so far out of their way just to be mean to others. The actions of the players in question were clearly in bad taste, but it was funny in the same way an off-color joke is. I also couldn’t help but wonder what the organizers of the funeral expected. In real life people are generally pretty decent, but in a game where the mask of an avatar and the safety of anonymity are so prevalent it’s really not that surprising that people can act awful.
Over the last nine years the incident has stuck with me. I’d say that I’ve probably gone back and watched the video at least five times over that period. Each time I’ve watched it, it’s bothered me a little bit more because since then I’ve become more and more invested in my digital persona. Whether it’s World of Warcraft, Twitter, YouTube, or another online community we, as a society have slowly placed more and more stock into what people think of us online.
These days there is a decent chance that you’re Facebook friends with at least some of the people you game with regularly. Those people know all kinds of details about your life. If you tried to pull a stunt like the funeral raid today, and one of your Facebook gamer friends took offense, it wouldn’t take much for them to get a lot of your personal information out there for the world to see. Make no mistake, this is a good thing. Less anonymity means less of the activity you’d only engage in anonymously. Still, the death-threat-via-tweet that was so prevelant during the height of Gamergate is proof that either we’re still too anonymous, or some people just don’t care about consequences.
Nine years later, what I think remains most relevant about the funeral raid is how much attention it received. Amongst the WoW community the video spread like wild-fire, and in turn, it promoted the type of bad behavior that has seemed to permanently soak into online gaming as a whole. Things like Facebook and Twitter help to humanize those on the other side of the screen, but clearly it’s not enough yet. Most of us still operate with enough anonymity that day-to-day rudeness is hard to police. It might be harder to pull of something like the funeral raid with complete anonymity, but you can still scream slurs at your average Call of Duty opponent without much consequence.
I’m of two minds about the meshing of our digital and physical personas. On one hand, it would be nice to be able to see the Facebook profile of every person you gamed with. If they were rude to you, you could much more easily call them out, and if they were nice, it would be easier to connect with them. On the other hand, you’ve probably thought of about a hundred reasons why that’s a terrible idea just in the span or reading that this sentence. After all, if it turned out to be your neighbor that cursed at you online you might be more apt to confront them physically.
The thing is, you wouldn’t join a softball team and then spout off curse words and racial epithets to everyone on the other team, would you? You wouldn’t yell at your teammates for striking out, would you? Of course you wouldn’t. And you most certainly wouldn’t go kick over the casket at the funeral of someone on an opposing bowling team. Who you are on the internet is not who you are in real life. Unfortunately, as the funeral raid incident proves, that’s not necessarily a good thing. As we experience the growing pains of moving to a more connected society, I’m sure that we’ll see more incidents of digital activities having real world consequences. That’s kind of scary, but then again, maybe it’s not a bad thing for digital bullies to be a bit scared.