“What is the meaning of life?” is a big fuzzy question, one that few philosophers address. Yet most of us have asked this or similar questions at one time or another. Questions related to life’s meaning seemed to stalk me in the dwarf starting zone, perhaps because the majority of quests easily fall into three categories: defend the homeland, fetch beer, and retrieve archeological artifacts. How are such repetitive activities meaningful, if at all, from the character’s perspective? from the player’s? What do we mean when we ask about life’s meaning? What kinds of answers are we looking for? Where and how do we expect to find or create meaning? In the discussion section, I’ll introduce several readings on this issue; but first, for context, here’s my dwarf character Yvaal’s narrative.
YVAAL’S NARRATIVE: Roll Out the Barrel
Frenzied troggs were running willy-nilly all over the place. Earthquakes had shaken them out of their underground homes. Wounded dwarven soldiers littered the area. And most Anvilmar residents were lockdowned in the forge. Such was the scene when I arrived in this small settlement to help my dwarven kinfolk and our gnome allies with the trogg situation and the troll resurgence occurring throughout Dun Morogh.
My superior, Joren Ironstock, was standing just outside the forge. Along with the few others still standing, we killed countless troggs then bandaged our wounded and got them to the forge. Letting out a deep breath, visible in the chilly air, Ironstock asked me to go inside and speak with his wife Jona. Those holed up needed supplies.
Jona’s first request was to fetch cached casks of beer. She explained, “I don’t know how anyone expects to get any work done around here if we don’t have any ale!” – and not just any kind of ale either; she only wanted the best craft beer: Stormhammer Stout, Theramore Pale Ale, and Gnomenbrau. I shared her urgency and dashed off. You see, we dwarves here in the high, snow-covered mountains know that good beer is every bit as important as food and warmth. Afterwards I quaffed a flagon of pale ale, then got to work hunting down boar for meat and wolves for hide blankets.
A few days later, after taking care of a nearby troll problem and recovering artifacts for the archeologists (we’re big into learning about our lost heritage), I packed my bag (boar jerky, a beer flagon, and a wolf-hide cloak), said goodbye to Jona, and headed to my new assignment in the bustling town of Kharanos. The Thunderbrew Distillery is the main building there. It has a tavern and inn where various trainers hang out – and why not? It’s famous for its excellent ale.
Right off the tavern owner sought my help for preparing his patrons’ favorite dish, beer boasted boar ribs. A little later, an ambitious small-time brewer confided to me that he knew the secret to making the “perfect stout,” simmerweed; I gathered baskets of it for him. Another day when walking back from battling trolls, I came across an overturned cart; beer barrels were scattered all around. A young woman, addled from the tumble, mumbled something about a troll attack and asked me to rush samples of the Short and Stout Brewery’s new ale to my innkeeper – mighty fine ale it was too.
Meanwhile, the quaking continued. Troggs popped out of the ground maddened, thinking the destruction was our fault. Trolls, whose villages the quakes destroyed, strove mightily to drive us away so they could move in. Day after day we fought troggs and trolls. And no sooner than we’d clear an area, more came in. Their numbers seemed infinite.
To make matters worse, the power struggle between my Bronzebeard Clan and the Dark Iron Clan erupted into armed conflict. The Dark Irons took advantage of our thinly stretched forces and ambushed the Ironforge Airfield. I sped there as soon as I heard. Our planes were on fire and our troops in combat with our distant kin. Once the fires were out, I hopped into a repaired plane and bombed a great many of the arriving Dark Iron reinforcements. After that it was hand-to-hand combat. Many fell. Though we won that skirmish, the dwarven civil war rages on.
The politics of the situation remain confusing. I won’t go into much detail here, except to say that I was sent as an emissary to Ironforge to talk with our new self-appointed leader, Moira Thaurisson, representative of the Dark Iron Clan to the Council of Three Hammers. She appeared shocked that the Dark Iron rebels had attacked us and denied that any conspiracy for a Dark Iron takeover was afoot. Rather, she blamed the Dark Iron ambassador for the airfield ambush and ordered me to arrest him. Without a struggle, he submitted to being handcuffed. I quickly brought him to Moira, and her guards took him to the Ironforge dungeon.
My clan is suspicious of Moira’s ambitions and skeptical about her denial of Dark Iron rebel involvement, but she seems okay to me. In any case, it was odd that after they took the ambassador away, I was immediately ordered to leave Ironforge and travel to our neighboring territory Loch Modan to deal with the trogg and kobold resurgence there. I’m now at the South Gate Outpost awaiting further orders.
DISCUSSION: Is Beer the Meaning of Life?
Yvaal spends most of her time in Dun Morogh engaged in three activities: making beer runs, retrieving archeological artifacts, and killing troggs and trolls. The quest giver for each activity states or implies its purpose. Jona Ironstock, for instance, believes that beer serves as a stimulus for getting work done, while other dwarves simply want a good brew. Dwarven archeologists believe that artifacts hold important knowledge; in one instance, Yvaal is told that her found “priceless ancient artifacts” will go to the Ironforge Museum. And military leaders are dedicated to defending their people and territory; in fact, others’ aggressive intentions prompt most all of the “kill” quests.
But were these activities ultimately meaningful? Yvaal was shuttled from one mission to another, none of them undertaken at her own initiative. Does meaning reside in dedicating oneself to others’ needs and orders? She does enjoy quaffing ale. Does meaning reside in satisfying one’s appetites? She doesn’t complain about retrieving artifacts, but whether they hold intrinsic meaning for her is hard to say. We can, however, assume that defending fellow dwarves and her homeland is meaningful, although at times it seems a futile exercise because new foes quickly replace the ones just killed. Looking at her experiences in Dun Morogh as a whole, we can ask: From Yvaal’s perspective, do these activities add up to a meaningful life?
We can also take the player’s perspective. Exploring the dwarf starting zone was meaningful to me because it’s part of my project to see how, if at all, various starting zones can be used to engage students in philosophical thinking. I could as well ask if this project is meaningful in the grand scheme of things and even whether or not I should care. But indulging in self-analysis is not my purpose here. Rather, my immediate questions run like this: Is this starting zone meaningful to the casual player? Lots of people spend lots of time playing WoW, so they must find some kind of meaning in the game, but what and why? And will it be in retrospect? Some former players, for example, bemoan that they “wasted” way too much time in Azeroth. Then again, is playing any videogame meaningful in the grand scheme of things? If so, in what ways?
There’s an important question that overarches all of those above: What do we mean when we say that life has meaning? Philosopher Richard Taylor takes this on in his essay “The Meaning of Life” (first published in Good and Evil, Prometheus Books, 2000). He immediately acknowledges that “[t]he question of whether life has any meaning is difficult to interpret,” then lays out his plan to attempt an answer by first looking at a concept that’s easier to grasp: meaninglessness. He uses the Greek myth of Sisyphus as the paradigm of the meaningless life. The gods condemned Sisyphus to push a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back down, then push it back up, again and again for eternity. After looking at different ways Sisyphus’ task can be deemed meaningless – and then meaningful – he offers his answer to the question of life’s meaning (no spoilers here :-)).
Then in two blog posts, “Must we pursue good causes to have meaningful lives? (Part One)” (5/28/13) and “(Part Two)” (6/8/13), philosopher John Danaher discusses three types of theories on the meaning of life and critiques arguments used to support each one: subjective theory (Richard Taylor’s Fulfillment Account), objective theory (Aaron Smut’s Good Cause Account), and hybrid theory (Susan Wolf’s Fitting-Fulfillment Account).
Should I use this topic in an introductory philosophy course (and I may), students who choose the WoW starting zone track will likely receive four or five questions to consider while playing this zone, questions that bring issues raised in the Taylor article and Danaher posts to bear on their dwarven experiences.