A conversation with guildmates turned nostalgic a few months ago. We were stalking rare monsters in the Zorammarsh, a gloomy swamp in Draenor’s Tanaan Jungle. The planet Draenor is the setting of World of Warcraft’s most recent expansion and is, for the most part, dark – both graphically and thematically. Relentless hostility and demonic corruption (called fel) are the rule once you leave your homebase, especially in the Tanaan Jungle where intense fighting against the nefarious Iron Horde is taking place. So there we were in a dismal swamp surrounded by fel-blooded creatures – giant snakes, bats, and raptors – missing Pandaria.
Pandaria, introduced in the previous expansion, is an island continent on the planet Azeroth. Although Pandaria has its dark zones (e.g. Dread Wastes), it’s lighter than Draenor, both graphically and psychologically. Factional war remains part of the mix, but the primary war is against negative emotions like fear, anger, despair, violence, and hatred – emotions the two major Warcraft factions, Horde and Alliance, unleashed upon the idyllic landscape and peace-loving, often wise Pandaren (pandas). Here the factions curb their mutual hostilities in order to defeat their mutual enemies – which are actually physical manifestations of their own emotions.
Game graphics need, of course, to set a tone and match a narrative theme, and a theme needs to match questing and raiding goals. Both Draenor and Pandaria do this well, despite their thematic differences. While Pandaria’s overarching theme is “war begins within,” Draenor shows us in Tanaan (the current endgame zone) that indeed, to quote William Tecumseh Sherman,“War is hell.” I find the thematic flow from Pandaria to Draenor satisfying. Yet, like a number of my guildmates, I too experience Pandaland nostalgia from time to time. Why?
We were excited about moving on when “Warlords of Draenor” launched and kept quite busy leveling up, building our garrisons, running dungeons, and so on. Then we arrived in Tanaan with its endless apexis runs and pervasive darkness, literally and metaphorically. It could be that after awhile these became just too much. You see, the conversation that turned nostalgic in the dismal swamp has reoccurred a number of times since in different Draenor settings and contexts. But I think there’s a deeper reason too.
For the most part, my guildmates are educators and look for games to offer more than great graphics. We like to use our “little gray cells,” as Hercule Poirot likes to say. Raiding, whether in Pandaria or Draenor, engages us in strategic planning. For many of us, however, themes that drive the story and spin-off interesting subplots matter too. I suggest that Draenor is not as captivating as Pandaria because, in large part, its endgame theme “war is hell,” with few narrative twists and turns and little that provokes thought, has grown as tiresome as grinding in a dark, demon-infused war zone.
In comparison, Pandaria’s theme “war begins within” offers the opportunity to reflect on a perennial and complex issue: the causes of war. On the individual level, war can be viewed as a large-scale, disastrous projection of our own emotions and insecurities: for example, our fear of the Other; our bottled up anger; our greed for power; our desire to control; and our unwillingness to reason with others, to hear the other side, to feel compassion, to compromise, to cooperate, and to see the larger picture. To quote Mahatma Gandhi, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
I’m not saying there’s never a time to go to war. Gandhi, for example, tried in letters to reason with Hitler, to no avail. And in our own time, reasoning with ISIS seems futile. But such examples do not detract from the truth embedded in the Pandaria theme. Defeating (or at least beating back) our personal demons makes us happier, better people. And I believe that happy, healthy, compassionate people who have meaningful work are less likely to start a war.
Hmm. It could be that what I see as a lack of depth to the Draenor theme has something to do with why I have not written about Draenor until now. Perhaps, given that modest revelation, I’ll try to find something inspiring in Draenor about which to write.