Making failure less fail in World of Warcraft

In my time doing a World of Warcraft ethnography, I have had to acquire many skills; perhaps the most valuable of these was the fine art of failure.

Let's back up. I've been reading John Ferrara's Playful Design: Creating Game Experiences in Everyday Interactions, which has a lot of lessons about design of games that I wish I had learned before my ethnography. One quote that gave me a lightbulb moment was this one from page 174:

Video games are a wonderful way to acclimate people to failure and to help them develop the skills needed to surmount difficult challenges.

Anyone who has played video games can easily think of several ways that these games allow the player to fail: extra lives, continue options, save points, resurrection. Each of these methods allow players another shot at getting past the thing that killed them, whether a particularly difficult jump, a boss battle, or getting ganked by an unfriendly player.

My character, Skakavaz, dead during a raid. (A common occurrence.) (Screenshot by the author, World of Warcraft copyright Blizzard Entertainment, 2004.)

My character, Skakavaz, dead during a raid. (Screenshot by the author, World of Warcraft copyright Blizzard Entertainment, 2004.)

I spent the better part of my WoW ethnography learning how to raid. Raiding -- teaming up as part of a group of ten, twenty-five, or forty players to go through long dungeons with high-powered bosses --  involves a complex ensemble of skills. The player doesn't just need to be able to perfectly control their character and execute the requirements of their role, but also needs to be able to communicate and take orders quickly during the battle. I have thought a lot about these skills and how players acquire them, but I have only recently considered the essential raid-related skill of failing.

Raiding involves a lot of failure, or "wipes" -- the entire party dies because one person ran the wrong way, or a healer disconnected, or the DPS didn't do enough damage and the boss enraged, or countless other failures. Everybody dies, and then everybody comes back and tries again. Dying in WoW is not permanent, and the player can recover all of their items by simply running back to their corpse. Even though death is just a temporary setback, it can get frustrating when you've been failing at the same thing over and over again for two hours. The game's design had several features built in to mitigate the stress of failure, and the raid group I was part of had our own strategies for motivating players to keep trying.

Players gather around a feast. (Screenshot by the author, World of Warcraft copyright Blizzard Entertainment, 2004.)

Players gather around a feast. (Screenshot by the author, World of Warcraft copyright Blizzard Entertainment, 2004.)

First, let's talk about the game's mechanics. When your character in WoW dies, you lose all of your beneficial status effects, including any stat-enhancing items that you may have used (potions and special food being the most common of these items). Players would spend hours collecting materials for these items, or spend a lot of gold buying them from other players. Every death would mean having to consume more of these items, and many deaths can be seen as a waste of resources -- but some battles may not be winnable without those extra stat boosts. How to resolve this? Two in-game items helped alleviate this tension: flasks, which are basically enhancement potions that persist through death, and feasts, which one player could make and set out to provide bonuses to all raid members. Raid members now had to spend less time outside of raids gathering materials for their potions and their beneficial food. These resources made players less upset about the "waste" of resources involved in repetitive failure during raids.

Players resurrect fallen comrades. (Screenshot by the author, World of Warcraft copyright Blizzard Entertainment, 2004.)

Players resurrect fallen comrades. (Screenshot by the author, World of Warcraft copyright Blizzard Entertainment, 2004.)

During the raid itself, one of the biggest frustrations was the time it took to recover from a failure. When I started raiding, when the raid wiped everybody would have to run back from the graveyard to the instance. New players would get lost trying to find the raid entrance, and inevitably, someone (usually a DPS) would wander off to get a beer and expect a resurrection (which was a huge annoyance for the healers). Most raid teams used certain character-based skills -- such as the now-defunct paladin ability Divine Intervention -- to shield from death a character who had the ability to resurrect everybody else. But one character resurrecting 24 others took a lot of time too, so running back was still the better option. Eventually, Blizzard introduced a new guild ability called the "mass resurrection" which allowed a player to resurrect everybody at once, saving a lot of that downtime that was so frustrating about wipes.

Failure still happens a lot, even though there are a number of mitigating abilities in the game's design. Part of a raid team's responsibility is keeping each other motivated through all the death and failure. In my group, the preferred method of motivation was lightening the mood and shifting the focus of the raid from "making progression" to "having fun with friends". Occasionally, one particular player would tell the raid team to insult him in the most imaginative ways after every wipe, and he would pick the best one and give them 100 gold. Another player started "The H-Hour", when he would announce amusing innuendos over voice chat in the middle of a raid night. Sometimes the group would extend their frustration into general chat, reciting song lyrics and annoying the general population of the zone. This reframing was a way to motivate the raid members to come to raids -- even on those nights when the group did nothing but fail all night -- just to hang out with one's in-game friends.

Dealing with failure is one of the valuable skills taught by WoW and other digital games, both through productive use of resources and social interaction. Whether it's mitigating the cost of failure, learning how to proceed after failure, or finding motivation in the face of repeated failures, this is a valuable life lesson.

Making failure less fail in World of Warcraft by Lauren Collister, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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