Behind the Curtain: Too much emotion

Oh Richard Bartle, you so crazy!

So, the rantings of an out-of-touch academic, desperate to grab attention, or astute observations from a true pioneer of MMOs and virtual worlds? I'll go with the latter – partly because it's true, and partly because I'm scared Dr Bartle might hunt me down and shout at me.

Going by some of the comments I've seen here on Massively and elsewhere in the past couple of days, not everyone agrees with me. That's cool though, it's the Internet, and you have a right to be face-slappingly stupid hold an alternate viewpoint.

Don't worry though, I don't plan on dissecting the good Doctor's words today, not only has that been done to death elsewhere; I simply don't want to. Instead, I'd like to talk briefly about emotion and our emotional investment in MMOs. To be specific, I'd like to talk about emotions which arise moment to moment, as we play.

I mentioned Richard Bartle, as I only just completed the quest he's talking about a couple of days ago. You probably know the story, but in short you are asked to torture a prisoner for information. I'm torn as to whether or not Blizzard intended the quest to be tongue in cheek or a subtle dig at certain governments' attitudes to torture and the deniability thereof, or simply screwed up and implemented a quest with really bad writing. The quest giver, a member of the Kirin Tor – a group of mages in World of Warcraft – tells you that they require information from a prisoner, but do not condone torture. They are however, apparently quite happy to sub-contract said torture to you, should you be willing to do it.

I'd love to say that I hemmed and hawed about the whole thing, or that I agonised over the moral and ethical consequences of conducting torture, even in a virtual world, but I'd be a liar. I dragged the quest item onto my action bar and zapped that prisoner like there was no tomorrow.

Compare that however, to the quest on the other side of the continent where you have to encourage male and female sea lions to mate. Apparently, the sea lion's alpha male, Big Roy, was slaughtered to make soap for pirates, and now the poor things won't mate. Fortunately, there's no option in the quest dialogue for you to 'fess up that it was actually you who killed Big Roy on behalf of the pirates. There's also no way for you to realise, while you're out said alpha male, that you're harming the evolutionary balance of a species. Still, that didn't stop me from feeling like a murderer once I realised what I'd done.

That's right – I felt terrible for killing an NPC sea lion, while I happily tortured an NPC human being for information while he begged me for mercy. I even took the time to wait around for the sea lion to appear. Back in the Burning Crusade content, my main character is Queen of the Ogres, meaning that I now find it impossible to go back and finish any quests which involve killing my subjects. The reason? I feel horrible killing them, when they say such nice things to me when they die.

Now, my question is this – how often, if at all, do you find yourself feeling an emotional connection to your activities in-game? How many times has that connection stopped you from completing a quest because you find the objectives disagreeable?

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This article was originally published on Massively.