The I Ching and the Pandaren Starting Zone: PHI in WoW 7

In most starting zones I’ve leveled alone. Not so on Wandering Isle. A new pandaren avatar soon has two companions, a female and male pandaren. In fact, the storyline’s abiding theme is collaboration based on the complementarity of opposite perspectives, genders, and forces, especially for working out knotty problems. Wandering Isle’s ancient Chinese graphic design harmonizes with this theme – a prominent one in Chinese classics like Tao Te Ching and I Ching. In the first section of this post, Yilien’s narrative shows the collaboration of complementary opposites in action. The second section introduces the I Ching. The third shows Master Shang Xi using the I Ching, a kind of case study. The fourth discusses its pedagogical possibilities. And I conclude with an overview of I Ching mechanics.

Dawning Valley on Wandering Isle

Dawning Valley on Wandering Isle

 1. YILIEN’S NARRATIVE: Wandering Isle (from level 1 to level 9)

The pandaren of Wandering Isle are a peaceful people. Here two quite different philosophies exist in harmony. Those who embrace the contemplative life follow the way of the Tushui (Chinese for “earth and water”); they’re idealists – deliberative and highly principled with strong beliefs about justice and morality. Those who embrace the active life follow the way of the Huojin (Chinese for “fire and metal”); they’re pragmatists – practical, decisive, even impulsive, believing that the end justifies the means if it’s likely to lead to the greater good for all. Tushuis and Huojins complement each other; like yin and yang, they’re interconnected and interdependent.

Our homeland is on the back of the Great Turtle Shen-zin Su, who roams the seas. His path has recently become erratic, and our climate steadily grows colder. Something’s terribly wrong. Master Shang Xi, the headmaster of the pandaren academy, has assigned three students to speak with Shen-zin Su, with whom no one has spoken in hundreds of years. I’m honored to be among them.

Aysa meditating in the Cave of Meditation as her guards and Yilien protect her from sprites

Aysa meditates as her guards and Yilien stand by to protect her from sprites

My teammates are Master Shang’s most gifted students, Aysa Cloudsinger (Tushui) and Ji Firepaw (Huojin). Ji approaches danger by meeting it head on, while Aysa is much more judicious. Ji, for example, once told me, “The time to act is always now.” And Aysa once said, “If you listen long enough, the wind will carry the answer to you.” Despite their differences, Ji is attracted to Aysa, but she seems too engrossed in her disciplines, meditation and martial arts, to notice. My role seems to be to avoid the extremes to which each is prone. In any case, together we make a great team.

Temple of Five Dawns

Temple of Five Dawns

On the highest spot of Wandering Isle sits the exquisite Temple of Five Dawns. From this geographic and cultural center, roads radiate in the four cardinal directions. And four is the number of ancient elemental spirits – fire, water, earth, and air – whose home base is the temple. But the spirits have gone astray. Because the spirits are the protectors of the Great Turtle Shen-zin Su and of our land upon his back, it’s crucial that our team reunite them in the temple. Without all four accompanying us, we have little chance of speaking with him and thus little chance of healing him and saving our home.

Through meditation Aysa discovers where and how to find each spirit and the ever-pragmatic Ji determines specific actions to take. Our efforts often include combat. Aysa is an impressive fighter, but her disciplines  leave little time for that; so the greater part of the fighting, as well as getting the materials needed to accomplish our tasks, falls to Ji and me.

Ki-Han Brewery

Ki-Han Brewery overtaken by virmen that Yilien fights off while helping Ji awaken Wugou

The first elemental we retrieve is Huo the Spirit of Fire, whose flame needs rekindling. Aysa discovers that he’s in the Shrine of the Dawning Light; and Ji protects me from hostile hozen (“monkey-butts,” he calls them) while I gather the materials needed: dry dogwood roots and a fluttering breeze obtained by defeating a living wind. Rekindling Huo sounds simple enough, but it isn’t. Just getting to Huo presents challenges.

After running through the shrine’s entrance – a tunnel path along which fire geysers suddenly spout – I encounter Huo’s guardian, Master Li Fei. Without so much as “hello,” he lays this piece of wisdom on me: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself. There is a path before you, but you choose the trials you will face, and the trials you will overcome.” Then he challenges me to defeat him in combat to prove I’m worthy to meet with Huo. Knowing his skills are far superior to mine, he has me perform a ritual – lighting three braziers – that illuminates my potential and offers me a better chance. The bout is not easy, but I emerge victorious, rekindle Huo’s flame, and eventually take him to the Temple of Five Dawns.

Shu the Spirit of Water (front) and Wugou the Spirit of Earth (back) with Yilien

Shu the Spirit of Water (front) and Wugou the Spirit of Earth (back) with Yilien

Retrieving the Spirit of Earth and the Spirit of Water present challenges (as well as wisdom) of a different sort, but none of them compare to the difficulty of coaxing Dafeng the Spirit of Air out of the Chamber of Whispers. Frightened by the terrible onyx cloud serpent Zhao-Ren, Dafeng has fled from the sky and cowers in the chamber’s deepest recess. As Aysa says, “We must help him face that fear, or face it for him ourselves.”

Zhao-Ren, the onyx cloud serpent

Zhao-Ren, the onyx cloud serpent

Ji places fireworks along Zhao-Ren’s overhead path, fireworks that I run around triggering. It’s an awkward method for bringing down a fire-breathing cloud serpent, but eventually he weakens and falls to the ground where Aysa, Ji, and I engage him in melee combat. But somehow he regains strength and takes to the sky again. The second time he falls, we kill him.  

Dafeng takes courage from our efforts and returns to the Temple of Five Dawns. Now all four ancient elemental spirits are there; and Aysa, Ji, and I can prepare to speak with the Great Turtle Shen-zin Su with the hope of unraveling the mystery of his plight.

Liang's Retreat, near the pool of Shu the Spirit of Water

Liang’s Retreat – perhaps the open book is the I Ching

 2. THE I CHING: A Brief Introduction

Originally I planned to tie the classic book of Taoism, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (Daodejing), to students’ work on this zone; but after digging into its recent scholarship, I realized I needed to do the same for the I Ching (Yijing or Book of Changes), which highly influenced Lao Tzu, as well as Confucius. The I Ching is, I believe, the better choice for the yin-yang theme that plays out during the Wandering Isle experience: the necessity for the cooperation and harmonizing of opposite perspectives, attributes, and powers. Besides that, this book can have a lasting impact on students’ lives. I was introduced to it as an undergraduate and have consulted it many times since. The Sage has always given me much on which to reflect. It’s one of my all-time favorite books.

The I Ching, as well as the ancient yin-yang philosophy that underpins it, is not easily grasped by most Westerners. It’s difficult “to find the right access to this monument of Chinese thought” because it “departs so completely from our ways of thinking” about cause and effect, says Carl Jung in his foreword to the now-classic English version called The I Ching or Book of Changes (Princeton UP, 3rd ed., 1967). We typically think of causation as linear – moment A causes B which causes C and so on to the end of time. The I Ching, however, recognizes that within each moment is the seed for change from one state to its opposite, as symbolized by the small circles within each swirl of the t’ai-chi (taiji), also called the yin-yang symbol – moment A has a tendency toward not-A. (The t‘ai chi symbol below is a public domain image from Wikipedia.)

t'ai chi symbol (2)Everything is in flux. As it is in nature – the seasons, phases of the moon, the birth and death of stars – so it is in human life. Rest-exertion-rest-exertion…. Peace-conflict-peace-conflict…. Hunger-satiation-hunger-satiation…. And so on. Such cycles are often long and often beyond our control; however, how we handle (or not) the good times and lessen (or not) the impact of the bad times is within our power. The I Ching can help us recognize the tendencies of situations that are significant, confusing, or problematic and in this way help us make wiser decisions on how to handle them.

The I Ching is based on 64 hexagrams; each presents an archetypal situation or attribute of the human experience. A handy index to all of the Richard Wilhelm hexagram translations is available here. Later in this post I provide an overview of the specific mechanics for seeking the I Ching’s advice by receiving hexagrams through the use of coins. But first, as an example of the way the book’s wisdom moves, let’s look at the momentous challenge facing Wandering Isle.

Statue in the Temple of Five Dawns

Statue in the Temple of Five Dawns


An enormous wounded turtle spiraling toward a huge maelstrom in the middle of the sea: this image depicts Wandering Isle’s situation. Although our young heroes are unaware of their homeland’s impending doom, they answer the call to heal the turtle. Their teacher, old Master Shang Xi, directs their actions, but how did he decide what they should do? Perhaps he consulted the I Ching, an ancient Chinese book of wisdom and divination. If so, he may have asked the Book (which I call the Sage) a question like this: “Our Great Turtle is ailing. What actions should we take?”

In the role of Master Shang Xi, I threw the virtual coins (available at I Ching Online) and, to my delight, received a highly appropriate hexagram, #29 The Abysmal (Water). Each hexagram is composed of two trigrams, in this case k’an (the abysmal) doubled. K’an means “a plunging in” and the doubling makes for a “repetition of danger.” Though Shang doesn’t know it, Wandering Isle is indeed headed toward an ocean abyss. The hexagram gives him a vision of the situation, and the commentary offers hope: “… if one is sincere when confronted with difficulties, the heart can penetrate the meaning of the situation. And once we have gained inner mastery of a problem, it will come about naturally that the action we take will succeed. In danger all that counts is really carrying out all that has to be done – thoroughness – and going forward, in order not to perish through tarrying in danger.”

The Sage, in effect, tells Shang that if something is not immediately done in the right way, Wandering Isle will perish. Then Shang, I imagine, meditates and arrives at a plan for “all that has to be done”: First the four ancient elemental spirits who have gone astray – Fire, Water, Earth, and Air – must be found and gathered in the Temple of Five Dawns. He believes that his most gifted students, Aysa and Ji, can do this. And, together with the four elementals, they can discover what ails the Great Turtle, on whose back Wandering Isle sits.

At this point Shang has gained insight on the current situation and formed a plan on how to deal with it. But he notices that his hexagram Abysmal has two “changing lines,” lines that move in opposite directions, which means that the hexagram is unstable and is transforming (see “Mechanics” below). A “transformed hexagram” signals that further consideration is needed and offers a potential future should we persist on our current path. In Shang’s case, the Abysmal changes to hexagram #6 Conflict, the image of heaven rising and water falling, the two going in opposite directions. The Sage gives him a strong warning to amend his plan and offers this advice: “If rights and duties are exactly defined, or if, in a group, the spiritual trends of the individuals harmonize, the cause of conflict is removed in advance.”

Shang rethinks his plan. As a yin-yang scholar, he understands that seeking harmony is a response to change and is, in fact, a continual process of reconciling and transcending differences among individuals and circumstances. He initially thought that the different ways in which his two gifted students handle situations would naturally complement each other: deliberation preceding each act on difficult matters and reflection following each act. But now he realizes that conflict is highly likely given each student’s tendency toward excess: Aysa to overly deliberate and Ji to impulsively act.

So Shang decides to include Yilien, a promising new student who is neither too yin (reflective) nor too yang (active), believing that her moderating tendencies offer the team a better chance of harmonizing and thus a greater chance to succeed. And, of course, they finally do succeed – but it’s not easy (no spoilers here on how the Great Turtle is healed :-).

Yilien meditating in the Temple of Five Dawns

Yilien meditating in the Temple of Five Dawns


What approach, then, should I take to the I Ching? For students who choose to quest on Wandering Isle, what kind of assignment should I give them? Certainly an interactive lecture with a slideshow would be in order to provide background, mechanics, and motivation. And selected parts of both Carl Jung’s Foreword and Richard Wilhelm’s Introduction to The I Ching or Book of Changes would provide more depth. They might also enjoy looking at some of the reader reviews found on Amazon. And they need to be aware of the Richard Wilhelm Hexagram Translations. Although I doubt that I would require scholarly articles on this book, some introductory students may appreciate having a short list of those in our library databases that I found both enlightening and more or less accessible to non-scholars.

As for the assignment specific to Wandering Isle questers, I’m thinking that students could consult the Sage at various times during their adventures, especially beginning around level 8 or 9 after all the elemental spirits have been gathered (this zone takes players to level 11 or 12). It’s about this time that serious ethical and strategic questions emerge. Students could present each question and their interpretation of the Sage’s response, with support from relevant quotes in the text.

Here are several sample questions regarding the storyline. These are intentionally vague so as not to spoil the plot (note that questions to the Sage should not be susceptible to yes and no answers): Why did Master Shang Xi do what he did in the Wood of Staves? Why do our heroes need the four ancient elemental spirits present when they speak to Shen-zin Su? Why don’t the Alliance and Horde cooperate in the face of common foes? What if Aysa rather than Ji had determined how to heal Shen-zin Su? To leave Wandering Isle and continue the game, I have to join either the Alliance or the Horde; please offer advice on choosing the right one for me.

To receive a hexagram, students have the option of throwing their own coins and using the actual book (I’ll put my extra copy of the I Ching on reserve), or they can throw virtual coins and get their readings on I Ching Online, which has its own summaries of each hexagram, quickly gets one to the changing lines and transformed hexagrams, and includes Wilhelm’s classic version from the original Chinese – all of which I’d want students to consult.

Yilien on a bridge in the Dawning Valley

Yilien on a bridge in the Dawning Valley


For our purposes, hexagrams are created by tossing three coins together six times. Coins have heads and tails, each of which is assigned the number two or three depending on whether it’s heads (let’s assign it 2) or tails (let’s assign it 3). By adding the values of each toss, we get the number 6, 7, 8, or 9. The even numbers become yin lines (— —) and the odd numbers yang lines (——). The lines are stacked, with the first line received on the bottom and the last line on top . The bottom three lines form the first trigram and the top three the second. In this way we get a hexagram of two trigrams of three lines each, six yin-yang lines total. Master Shang’s throws, for instance, produced two identical trigrams, the Abysmal sitting on top of the Abysmal, producing the image of being submerged in deep in water. (See Wikipedia’s entry on the I Ching for a view of the 8 trigrams and 64 hexagrams).

The initial hexagram you receive describes the situation of the very recent past or the present time as it pertains to you. Frequently this hexagram has one or more “changing lines,” in other words, lines created by all heads (yin, 6) or all tails (yang, 9). These lines are so powerful that they change to their opposite (yin becomes yang and yang becomes yin). They create a transformed hexagram that describes the future tendencies of your current or proposed path and in this way offers further advice or even a warning. For instance, the two yin lines in Master Shang’s upper trigram were changing lines; the transformed hexagram was Conflict, which warned him that his current plan needed revision.

Yilien saying good-bye to Wandering Isle as she leaves to join the Alliance

Yilien saying good-bye to Wandering Isle as she leaves with Aysa to join the Alliance

There’s so much more to the I Ching than I will ever know, let alone be able tell you about here. But that’s not surprising given the vast scope of its wisdom. In his introduction Richard Wilhelm says, “In its judgments, and in the interpretations attached to it from the time of Confucius on, the Book of Changes opens to the reader the richest treasures of Chinese wisdom; at the same time it affords him a comprehensive view of the varieties of human experience, enabling him thereby to shape his life of his own sovereign will into an organic whole and so direct it that it comes into accord with the ultimate tao lying at the root of all that exists.”


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The Meaning of Life in the Dwarf Starting Zone: PHI in WoW 6

“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.

Dun Morogh landscape

Dun Morogh landscape

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.

Inside the Anvilmar forge

Inside the Anvilmar forge

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.

Thunderbrew Distillery

Thunderbrew Distillery

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.

Yvaal at the Gol'Bolar Quarry to fight off troggs and collect artifacts

  Yvaal at the Gol’Bolar Quarry to fight off troggs and collect artifacts

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.

Yvaal at the Ironforge Airfield

Yvaal at the Ironforge Airfield

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.

The Great Forge in Ironforge

The Great Forge in Ironforge

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.

Yvaal bids you farewell

           Yvaal bids you farewell.


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Free Will v. Determinism in the Undead Starting Zone: PHI in WoW 5

Is free will an illusion? This starting zone offers the opportunity to grapple with this and related questions. As I did in the first four installments, I begin with my character’s narrative, then introduce the issue and raise questions in light of Yvilee’s experiences.

Yvilee and her imp Cholop in the Shadow Priest's chapel

Yvilee and her imp Cholop in the Shadow Priest’s chapel

YVILEE’S NARRATIVE: Free to be Undead

A shimmering val’kyr hovered over my open grave, calling me by name. “Rise, Yvilee!” Wobbling I rose. Damn! I was literally rotting skin and bones. “Welcome back to the realm of the living,” the val’kyr said. “With the blessing and power from the Dark Lady, I have freed you from death’s grip.” The horror of it all struck me: I was one of the undead!

“You are free to follow whatever path you choose from here.” Really? Free to be a walking corpse, what kind of freedom was that? No one I’d known, even if they’d survived the battle, would have anything to do with such as me – and who could blame them? What a wretched turn of events! I had little choice but run with Dark Lady Sylvanas’ band of Forsaken, my vicious foes. Call me a turncoat – I don’t give a rat’s ass. I had to look out for myself.

I told Agatha, that was the val’kyr’s name, that I wanted to join up. She pointed toward the undertaker, who greeted me: “You’ve held up nicely, especially after being dead for so long!” Geez, what a lame compliment. I started to give him the finger but shrugged instead. I’d quickly calculated my options – at least I was free to think – and decided that gaining the Dark Lady’s favor was the smart thing to do. I could be quite the toady when it served my purposes. Little by little toadiness would make my star rise, at least that was the plan.

An undead apothecary laboratory

An undead apothecary’s laboratory

Of course I had to start at the bottom. I kowtowed incessantly, appearing eager to perform even the smallest and most revolting tasks. For starters, the undertaker needed embalming fluid and twine to replace new undeads’ missing parts – hands, jaws, things like that. I racked my mouth into the best smile I could manage (not easy for an undead) and said, “Let me get it!” then jumped along like a happy camper to fetch the stuff.

Soon more and more Forsaken officers sought my help. I gathered battle-ravaged corpses for recruitment into the Forsaken. I shattered the brittle frames of Rotbrain undead, relieving their sick minds of misery. I tracked down and terminated worgen infiltrators. I collected all kinds of junk – like doomweed, darkhound blood, and murloc scales – for our apothecaries’ kill-everything concoctions. And on and on. I was tireless.

Yvilee and Cholop talking with Executor Zygand in Brill

Yvilee and Cholop talking with Executor Zygand in Brill

In fact, I was pretty damn good at this undead business and came to revel in it. My kickass imp Cholop was having a hell of a time too. I forgot to mention I’m a warlock, so it figures I’d naturally take to such a life, if I may call it that. But it seemed like I was getting nowhere fast. Though I didn’t know it at the time, my big break came when I met Lilian Voss.

Three newly-risen undead were “having trouble coping” with their “fate,” the caretaker said, and I, with my “working tongue,” could “relate” to them (he was quite the smartass). “Happy to oblige,” I said, biting my tongue.

The newbies were totally freaked. I got that – who wouldn’t be? But only the orc quickly wised up and joined. The uppity ex-marshal said he’d start his own Forsaken band and strutted off into the woods. Lilian, however, couldn’t believe she’d died and screamed all the way to the village, “My father will protect me! My father will protect me!” – from us the undead, I assumed.

A corner of a former estate owner's bedroom, now occupied by the Forsaken

A corner of a now-undead estate owner’s house, occupied by the Forsaken

Whether she joined us or not was no concern of mine. Whatever, she’d remain undead, period. But I kept having this fantasy of pounding her silly head into reality. Why, you may ask? Could be that on some level I felt we were alike; we’d both been young women working for the Scarlet Crusade when we died – and now, well, it wasn’t fricken fair. In any case, I decided to show her once and for all what she’d become. When I found Lilian in the inn once again cowering at the sight of me and calling me an abomination, I held a mirror in her face and said, “See for yourself, fool! You’re just like us.” She looked and cried, “I can’t be undead! Not me!” and dashed off.

Yvilee in Magistrate Sevren's office

Yvilee and Cholop in Magistrate Sevren’s office

Word soon came that the Scarlet Crusade held Lilian captive atop a heavily guarded tower. What? They’re not known for taking prisoners, especially not their worst nightmare, the undead. I went after her, fighting my way to the top – dammit I’m good. There she was in a cage. Even though the fool said not to bother, that her father would save her, I went about picking the lock – but quickly stepped into the shadows at the sound of footfall on the stairs.

A Scarlet officer approached Lilian saying, “High Priest Voss denounces you as a daughter. He’s ordered that you be executed immediately.” She pleaded, “NO! This can’t be! … we were friends once!” He jibbered on, something about what a bitch she’d been and that he’d enjoy killing her. But before he could turn the lock, she jumped right at him through the bars, her entire body a cold purple fire, and just like that he fell over dead – fricken incredible! Then, fire all gone, she slipped back into the cage and told me to go. I’m not stupid. I got the hell out of there.

Taking the bat taxi into the Undercity

Taking the bat taxi into the Undercity

Time passed. I was reporting to top level officers for missions crucial to the Forsaken – and having a blast. I’d all but forgotten about Lilian when the High Executor told me I had a new ally, a young undead woman with amazing powers and a blistering hatred for the Scarlet Crusade. Sounded like Lilian, and sure as shootin’ it was.

A trail of small purple flames above the meager remains of Scarlet soldiers led me to a Crusade camp. The only soldier alive was a lieutenant, clearly tortured and near death, hanging upside down from a meat hook. Lilian stepped from behind a tree and, without so much as a howdy-do, gushed out her life story: how her father, High Priest Voss, had raised her as a weapon against the undead; how just for him she’d sacrificed her childhood studying sorcery and martial arts; and how, now that she was undead, he’d ordered her execution. The bastard!

Yvilee summoning her voidwalker minion

Yvilee summoning her voidwalker minion

“Come,” she said. “We will speak with him now, in his tower to the northwest.” It wasn’t as if we could just stroll in. The path to the tower was heavily guarded, but Lilian, Cholop, and I took care of them in short order, leaving behind another trail of purple flames.

I followed Lilian as she ran into the tower. She stood tall before her father, who tried to make nice. She told him to shut up and turned her purple fire on his bodyguards – poof! He got only a few words out before she grabbed him by the neck and, in a flash, ran up the wall. Purple smoke instantly filled the tower. Then his dead body fell to the floor. And she sped off down the road.

That was the last time I saw Lilian. With her awesome powers and my cunning, we’d make a fricken dynamite team. But I doubt if she ever joins us; she’s just too damn independent and a bit crazed to boot. Whatever, I received a promotion and a commendation from the High Executor for getting rid of those damn Scarlet soldiers. Now I’m off to the Plaguelands to continue the Forsaken’s quest for world dominance. Be very afraid ;-}.

Brill decked out for the Midsummer Fire Festival

Brill decked out for the Midsummer Fire Festival


Basically the undead are zombies with free will. As undead, the Forsaken cannot procreate; so they employ val’kyr to resurrect their dead enemies as new recruits, in this way building and replenishing their troops and agents. Yvilee was resurrected to serve as an undead agent of the Banshee Queen, Dark Lady Sylvanas. Even so, she’s told from the git-go that because she has free will she does not have to join the Forsaken. In fact, as a player I could have chosen to take Yvilee to another starting zone, like Evensong Woods or Mulgore, at least after the first few quests in Deathknell.

The Forsaken take pride in having free will. Undead characters’ freedom to choose is mentioned or alluded to a number of times. For example, at the end of the starting zone, the undead High Executor says, “From birth to undeath, we all have our own path to follow.” And he tells Yvilee, “If you’re ever ready and willing, I may have some work for you in the Plaguelands.” But is free will, as some people believe, an illusion?

Although the val’kyr Agatha tells the newly-risen Yvilee that she is free to do as she pleases, she wonders what kind of freedom she actually has; after all, she cannot return to her previous life. What kind of freedom does she have? What about Lilian Voss? Given their different circumstances and dispositions, could they each have acted other than they did? Who’s freer and in what sense, Yvilee or Lilian Voss? Or are they equally determined by conditions beyond their control? More generally, does the free will versus determinism debate even make sense today, given what we know about genetics, physics, and psychology?

To help answer these and related questions, see Casper J M Hewett’s “Determinism and Free Will in Science and Philosophy” (2006), found on The Great Debate website run by an educational group in the United Kingdom.

Yvilee takes off for a new adventure

Yvilee on a bat taxi flies off for new adventures

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Environmental Philosophy in the Night Elf Starting Zone: PHI in WoW 4

While working through the night elf starting zone, I found myself reflecting on the morality of killing wildlife in order to preserve what we humans consider the natural balance. Nature is fluid, flexible, ever-changing over time. Perhaps there’s no such thing as a “natural balance.” Even if there is, how do we know what it is? The night elves claim to know; perhaps they are wiser than we. In any case, this starting zone prompted me to propose this zone’s use for grappling with two environmental issues: (1) the conflict between the rights to life of individual wild animals and the need for a healthy biotic community and (2) the practice of eradicating “invasive alien species.” First I present Yvois’ narrative on her experiences as an apprentice forest conservator and then look at these two issues.

Yvois Shadowglen slice 052914YVOIS’ NARRATIVE

In her boughs the great tree Teldrassil holds my homeland, a lushly forested island. Growing up in Darnassus, Teldrassil’s only city, I romanticized the forests I’d never entered and dreamed of becoming a defender of Nature’s wild children. Finally I was old enough to join the conservators as an apprentice. I packed a little rucksack, said my goodbyes, and hiked along a forest path to meet my mentors in the small village of Shadowglen – where my very first assignment dashed my romantic notions.

Conservator Ilthalaine told me that an overabundance of rain had thrown the nightsaber population out of balance. My job was to thin their numbers. Leaning over the body of my first kill, I watched as the green fire left its eyes. It was little more than a kitten. Overcome by the horror of what I had done, I ran back to Ilthalaine and told him I couldn’t do this. He explained, “The resources of the forest will be depleted too quickly if the problem is not addressed. Killing nature’s beasts is a necessary evil for the good of all who share the land.” I finished the job, then sat behind a tree and cried.

A Teldrassil forest

A Teldrassil forest

From Tarindrella, a dryad woodland protector, I learned that our greatest problems extended far beyond the usual conservation issues. She had returned to Teldrassil on “grim business,” she said, because here “something foul lingers.” Many of the forest’s children were corrupted by a mysterious evil force. We saw this first hand in the Shadowthread Cave filled with vicious, corrupted spiders. We killed as many as we could and, in the bowels of the cave, found their broodmother: Githyiss the Vile, a giant green tarantula. After we killed her, Tarindrella’s eyes pooled with tears. “It pains me,” she said, “to have to inflict such violence on creatures of the forest, corrupt or not.” Right then I knew we would become good friends.

But Githyiss was not the corruption’s source; near her corpse was a Gnarlpine furbolg totem – a clue to the deepening mystery. Saying we would meet again, Tarindrella left to pursue the bear-like Gnarlpine. In time, I would kill many a Gnarlpine, including their leader, Ursal the Mauler. But my task then was to complete my first moonwell ritual, one of many. It was on my return from that moonwell when, to my great shame, I was duped by satyr Zenn Foulhoof, about whom I’ve already written.  

Yvois taken down by one of Melenas' imps

Yvois taken down by one of Melenas’ imps

Speaking of satyrs, I was charged with assassinating one even fouler than Foulhoof: Lord Melenas, whose cave lair was protected by a host of imps. Tallonkai Swiftfoot told me that Melenas was plotting “something most foul” and that he wanted his head. I was given no clues as to the satyr’s plans or why I was to keep my mission a secret. Even so, I did as told – but not before a horrid imp took me down. My wound was so grievous that my spirit left my body, which fortunately allowed me to scout around the labyrinthine cave to discover Melenas’ whereabouts. When spirit and body reunited, I went right to the satyr and chopped off his head.

It was a nasty business redeeming our great tree from corruption – and frustrating too. I’d kill one corrupted creature and another’d pop up. Rushed from one mission to another, often without knowing why, I hardly had time to think. But one time I did get a break: A young forest elf asked me for a favor, to take a book of recipes to his sister who was in Darnassus studying to become a priestess of the moon. She was homesick, he said. I was homesick too and looked forward to the trip. He paid my passage on the hippogryph – my first time flying! While there I briefly visited my family, then returned to the young elf with his sister’s thank-you note.

Yvois visiting her hometown, Darnassus

Yvois visiting her hometown, Darnassus

Yvois flying on a hippogryph from Darnassus

Yvois flying on a hippogryph from Darnassus

The prospect for more relief from my work’s horrors came when I was sent to help botanists with their experiments on timberling seeds. They hoped to discover what plagued the timberlings, mobile tree-like creatures with a hulking humanoid appearance. But the seeds were so corrupted that killing the most tainted adults was the only option until a cure could be found. The killing part fell to me, natch, and I brought their mossy tumors back to be destroyed. A little later the botanists discovered that within the once-gentle, giant timberling called Oakenscowl was the mother tumor of them all. I killed him and extracted his gigantic, poisonous tumor. With the tumor destroyed, the disease would spread no more among the timberlings.

Soon we conservators received excellent news from the Oracle Tree: Teldrassil was experiencing new growth. Though our many efforts had lessened the corruption, our world tree was still tainted. To my delight, I was assigned to work again with Tarindrella in our final push. Teldrassil’s growing strength and the moonwell waters I’d collected gave her the power to empower me to fight my way to the Heart of Corruption. Here I killed the Bough of Corruption and all its minions. Teldrassil was cleansed!

Interior of the Temple of the Moon, Darnassus

Interior of the Temple of the Moon, Darnassus

We cheered and hugged, then went our separate ways – Tarindrella to help another forest in trouble; and I to carry the moonwell waters to my mentor, who gave me one last task: to take the waters to the high priestess of Elune, Tyrande Whisperwind in Darnassus. I found her standing next to her consort Malfurion Stormrage in the Temple of the Moon. Stories about them are legend. They’re magnificent to behold together. Awed, I bowed and left in a glowing haze.

My training was over. I could hardly believe it. I needed some time to gather myself and holed up in my family home. But after a few days rest, I was itching to get back into the fray. So now I’m in Darkshore working with the Alliance to secure the town of Lor’danel against Twilight’s Hammer.

Yvois returning to Darnassus with her water elemental

Yvois returning to Darnassus with her water elemental


1. Whose Rights –Individual Animals’ or the Ecosystem’s? Yvois is introduced to the realities of wildlife management as soon as she begins her training as a forest conservator. Because too many nightsabers mean too few other wild animals, she has to “thin” their numbers to preserve the natural balance. Did she do the right thing?

The answer may depend on whom you ask. If for nightsabers we substitute whitetail deer, like those found in my northwoods region, the issue comes home. Hunters want an abundance of deer; farmers, gardeners, and motorists not so much; and forest managers value biodiversity and thus healthy sustainable populations of all members of the ecosystem. These groups, however, tend to share one thing in common: they shed few tears over the death of an individual deer (unless it’s a fawn). On the other hand, animal rights advocates object to intentionally harming any animal, especially mammals and fowl, except in extraordinary cases.

Moving beyond the interests of these various stakeholders, we should consider some broader questions: To what extent, if at all, should we try to control wildlife populations? Is it right to kill individual animals in order to protect the biotic community? Should we just let nature take its course? Who presents the best argument in this ongoing debate, Aldo Leopold or Tom Regan? 

Leopold speaks on behalf of the biotic community as a whole in “The Land Ethic” (A Sand County Almanac, 1949). While presenting his argument, he states that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong if it tends otherwise.” Regan, however, speaks on behalf of the individual animal in “The Case for Animal Rights” (Animal Rights and Human Obligations, 1989). He argues that any animal who is “the experiencing subject of a life,” human or not, has intrinsic value and thus a right to life: If humans (and night elves) can’t be sacrificed for the good of the biotic community, then why can deer (and nightsabers)?


2. Eradicate Invasive Alien Species – or Not? The nightsabers Yvois encountered were not corrupted, but many of the spiders, furbolg, and timberlings were and, as such, are much like “invasive alien species” ( i.e., non-native life forms that may crowd out native species and disrupt the ecosystem). There seems to be a big difference between intentionally killing a healthy native of an ecosystem and an alien invader that harms the natives. Until recently efforts to eradicate such invaders – like zebra mussels, purple loosestrife, and phragmites in our region – were noncontroversial. But new evidence suggests that eradication is not always the answer.

For example, an invasive salt marsh cordgrass has become the nesting habitat of the endangered California Clapper Rail and an invasive tamarisk is now the nesting habitat of the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. Bryan Walsh in Time (5/29/14), summarizing a study reported in Science, wrote that “some invasive species have become so embedded in their environment that they could only be removed at great cost. Take them away and an ecosystem might collapse, in the same way that pulling a single thread can cause an entire tapestry to unravel.”

The night elf botanists had the right idea, it seems: find a way to detoxify the corrupted timberlings rather than eradicate the species. The purpose of Yvois’ various missions regarding corrupted creatures was to eliminate the cause – not to eradicate the species. Each mission culminated in finding and destroying the source of a particular species’ corruption. The source was the evil, not the creatures themselves. Of course she never really dealt with the ultimate source, the Burning Legion; efforts to do that would come later.

But the parallel between corrupted species in the night elf homeland and invasive species on Earth breaks down, in part because the line between good and evil is much sharper in the WoW world of Azeroth. There, evil beings unleash corrupted beings. Here, taking the long view as Barbara Nichol of CBC News (4/01/14) does, “bioinvasion” is “nothing new. Camels … are actually native to North America. Hippos and lions and alligators once made their homes in Great Britain,” and so on. Moreover, she says that we humans “are the most damaging alien invasive species of all.” To see that, we need look no farther than the effects of industrialization and urbanization on our natural landscape.

“We don’t appear on the World Conservation Union’s famous ‘World’s Worst 100 Invading Species’ list,” says Nichol. And she asks, “Why not?” Should we? Let’s assume the answer is “yes,” put ourselves on the list, then reflect on this big question: What can we do to get off the list of the world’s worst invaders? At this time, however, it may be more productive to question the concept of “invasive alien species.” Is it wrong-headed? Should humans even be in the business of deciding which species to eliminate and which to protect? Why are our interests more important than those of the zebra mussel?

Deeper questioning still could look at the project of formulating a conservation ethic at all, a project that tends to put humans at the center of the universe rather than seeing us as one among many species in the biotic community. Rather than formulating ethical systems, perhaps we should practice environmental etiquette. We should listen to the “stories” wild species and landscapes tell, as Jim Cheney and Anthony Weston advise in “Environmental Ethics as Environmental Etiquette” (Environmental Ethics, Vol. 21.2, 1999). And, as Aldo Leopold says in “Thinking Like a Mountain” (A Sand County Almanac, 1949), we must learn “to think like a mountain.”

bordercobbledIt should not be believed that all beings exist for the sake of the existence of man. On the contrary, all other beings too have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of anything else. ~Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, Maimonides (1135-1204), Guide of the Perplexed III:13

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Game Aesthetics in the Night Elf Starting Zone: PHI in WoW 3

Should videogame narratives be considered art? Over the past decade some scholars of literature, game studies, and philosophy have grappled with this question. I didn’t mean to do it too, but my avatar Yvois unwittingly got herself in a jam that prompted the question. I felt compelled to investigate it. After her narrative, I point out aspects of several articles that shed light on ways in which game narratives are art in their own special ways.



Teldrassil is an enormous tree that rises out of the Veiled Sea. A lush island sits atop its branches, the homeland of the night elves. I was born in its capital, Darnassus, but recently left the city to train as a mage among the mighty trees of Teldrassil’s forests.

As a night elf, my primary mission is to help maintain the balance of nature. As a novice mage, I’m a student of arcane magic, which draws on the forces of nature, like fire and frost. Arcane is morally neutral but also seductive, wielded too often to satisfy an elf’s own appetites and lust for power, or so it was in the past. Eons ago the night elves outlawed arcane because of its corrupting and destructive influence on the Highbornes. Now, however, young elf mages can train to help the community of life flourish; even so, elves who hold the past close are highly suspicious of mages.

A large part of my training involves gathering water from moonwells scattered around Teldrassil, water that comes from the Well of Eternity, the ancient source of arcane magic. As I fill each phial, I learn a little more about the moonwells and night elf history. One mentor recently told me, “Pay heed to the lessons of the moonwells, lest we find ourselves furthering our shortcomings.” And my mage trainer warned, “your path will not be an easy one.” Sure enough, I soon stumbled.

Yvois filling a phial at a moonwell

Yvois filling the crystal phial at a moonwell

It was a lovely afternoon. Walking through the magnificent forest along a cobblestoned path, I felt quite pleased with myself. I had just completed the first moonwell ritual and was conveying the crystal phial to Corithras Moonrage in Dolanaar. Not far from that village, I saw a tall, rather scary-looking fellow off to the path’s side. He was horned, cloven footed, and covered in reddish hair. But his voice was soothing as he whispered for me to come over. He introduced himself as Zenn Foulhoof and asked if I’d gather some reagents for him. He said that if I did so, he would make me “very happy” by giving me things I’d “never dreamed of” – and he added that I should keep it a secret.

The secret part was rather curious, even a little unsettling, but I had so very little to call my own and so little experience using my new mage skills that I couldn’t resist complying. I gathered tiger fangs, spiderweb silk, and owl feathers; the tigers and spiders were especially vicious and wounded me numerous times. My three spells – frostfire bolt, frost nova, and fire blast – were still quite weak. But I managed to kill the creatures, got the stuff, and, limping back, delivered them to Foulhoof, only to be insulted: “Three cheers to the naïve and gullible!” he shouted. Then he gave me a crummy claw spell, which doesn’t do squat, and a tiny tote bag – not even a few pieces of silver.

Yvois and Zenn Foulhoof

Yvois and Zenn Foulhoof

I felt terrible. But that wasn’t the worst of it. As soon as I arrived in Dolanaar, Syral Bladeleaf took me aside to tell me that the Council of the Forest knew I’d helped an enemy of the forest, a satyr. And even if I didn’t know what he was, I should have known better than “to defile the forest by killing Nature’s creatures” without just cause. I had to redeem myself, she said, by teaching Foulhoof a lesson.

“Anything!” I replied. “Just tell me what I can do.” I was to return to the forest to gather corrupted seeds called fel cones and offer them to Foulhoof as a tasty snack. I did just that. He seemed genuinely pleased, saying, “Ah, what a sweet night elf! I knew you would come in handy!” Then he gobbled up the fel cones and – poof! – turned into a frog. Ribbit, ribbit – ha! Gotcha! The delight I took in seeing Foulhoof, now Foulfrog, hop around almost made my humiliation worth while. But, alas, I couldn’t bring the creatures I’d stalked and killed back to life.

Yvois in Dolanaar

Yvois in Dolanaar



Although I was initially interested in this starting zone’s environmental theme, the Foulhoof episode took over Yvois’ narrative. Foulhoof’s duping deeply disturbed her and put her standing with the night elves in jeopardy. She had to redeem herself, did so, and reveled in his comeuppance. Nonetheless, Foulhoof’s exploitation of her innocence left a scar that will no doubt wince a warning whenever she encounters smooth-talking devils.

The theme of exploited innocence is a fairytale staple. The Foulhoof series, for instance, parallels the Brothers Grimm version of “Little Red Riding Hood”: One fine morning Little Red’s mother asks her to take cake and wine to her sick granny. Walking along the forest path, Red encounters a wolf, who acts quite genial. She tells him where she’s going and, at his suggestion, goes off into the forest to pick flowers for granny – ignoring her mother’s warning to stay on the path. Meanwhile, the wolf scampers off to granny’s, eats her, and eats Red too shortly after she arrives. A passing hunter figures out what happened, cuts open the wolf’s belly, and out pops granny and Red. The wolf gets his due when Red and the hunter fill his belly with stones. The wolf revives, tries to run, and falls over dead. And Red vows never again to disobey her mother by wandering off the path.

Yvois owl

Videogames as Aesthetic Experience. The parallels between Yvois’ and Red’s stories led me down the path of philosophy of literature, which eventually led to articles on game aesthetics, that is, games as works of art, including literary art. I grew increasingly interested in what scholars were saying about game narratives as art and wondered: What criteria can we use to evaluate a game narrative as artful or not? Have game narratives risen to the level of art often found in other narrative media like theater, novels, and films – or is this even a fair question to ask, given that interactivity is primary in games but not in most other narrative forms? Do some players approach the game aesthetically; if so, what counts as aesthetic play?

To attempt to answer the questions above, I refer to Phillip D. Deen’s article in the online journal Game Studies, “Interactivity, Inhabitation and Pragmatist Aesthetics” (Vol. 11.1, 2011). Taking to heart American philosopher John Dewey’s perspective in Art as Experience (1934), Deen argues that videogames are “legitimate candidates for artistic standing.” Such art, he says, resides in a game’s “structured interactions,” in the game experience it offers players. Its “aesthetic merit” differs from that of most other narrative arts: “Is the game immersive? Does it create a world? Does it allow the player to interact visually, somatically and imaginatively with that world? Does the experience of playing the game allow the player to attain a sense of organic fulfillment, harmonizing its many moments into a whole possessing its own emotional quality?”

Of course, not every player who opts for the Foulhoof quests will approach them in the same way. But the opportunity to enjoy – or at least appreciate – them visually, imaginatively, and emotionally is, in my experience, there. I as Yvois was indeed immersed in the experience, even fretted about being duped (even more so later when I learned that I could have refused to do Foulhoof’s bidding without breaking the main quest chains). For me, it was an aesthetic experience that deepened my connection to Yvois and my interest in the night elf starting zone.

Deen also addresses the issue of comparing game narratives to accepted art forms like literature, theater, and film. Taking cues from John Dewey and Henry Jenkins (specific references can be found in Deen’s article), Deen distinguishes “between ‘great’ art, which appeals to the intellect and calculates the artwork’s effect over the long term and ‘lively’ art which values immediate or spontaneous affect.” Videogames are a lively art. He goes on to say that “popular art evokes an emotional reaction and displays the vitality of American culture. It is delightful and forward-thinking, experimental yet accessible. Therefore, video games may not represent high culture, but they have an aesthetic value of their own.”


Videogames as Immersive Narrative. A good game narrative is one element of digital immersion, i.e., the “perception of being physically present in a non-physical world” and, in the case of narrative, becoming “invested in a story…similar to what is experienced while reading a book or watching a movie” (Wikipedia). “Similar to,” yes, but not at all the same. Celia Pearce in “Towards a Game Theory of Game” (electronic book review, 2004) points out that everything in games “revolves around play and the player experience”; whereas in literature and film, story is central. As such, we need “to look at narrative in a play-centric context, rather than a ‘storytelling’ context.” Moreover, she believes that “narrative games have gained such popularity… because they borrow what is engaging and interesting about other forms of narrative and use it to enhance the play experience.”

As Yvois, I interact with preprogrammed characters (NPCs) and their narratives in a mythic setting and, in the process, develop my own character within the larger story. Other players may or may not acknowledge my character’s individuality, but NPCs do; some call me “Yvois,” others “night elf” or “mage” – and occasionally “hero”). I’m praised, trained, queried, given tasks, chastised, threatened, cursed, challenged, and so on – and I sometimes take it personally, as I did on being duped. In other words, my player character is immersed in the story because she’s a part of it, an actor in it, an agent who furthers the story by living it. She and the story evolve together. Without the player character no story unfolds; without the story, there’s no role for the character to play.

And there’s a lot more to narrative immersion than that. Pearce explains and illustrates six narrative “operators” found in MMORPGs: experiential, performative, augumentary (including backstory), descriptive (retelling the story, as Yvois did), metastory (predesigned story world), and story system (rule-based, generic elements by which players create their own narratives, e.g. choice of race, class, professions, quests, dungeons, guilds, chat boxes, and so on).

Other game studies scholars might add intertextuality to Pearce’s list or include it in the augumentary category. Tanya Krzywinska, for example, in “World Creation and Lore” (Chpt. 6 in Digital Culture, Interactivity, and Play: A World of Warcraft Reader,” 2008, online here), borrows the term “geek aesthetics” to describe a game fan like me who is “enthusiastic about the lore and intertextual resonances and narrative intricacies” of a game (124). She focuses on the relationship between WoW’s mythic structures and the game-play experience. WoW draws on the myths, history, and symbols of a variety of cultures. It’s filled with allusions to movie, fairytale, mythic, literary, as well as other videogame characters and content. WoW’s rich intertextuality delights players who catch onto these allusions and who may find parallels to folkloric structures like that of “Little Red Riding Hood.”


Should videogame narratives be considered art? In short, I believe that some should – if they have the ability to immerse players in the storied world.

For those of you interested in the role of narrative and its immersive qualities in MMORPGs, I recommend checking out these and other online articles in the Game Studies journal, the electronic book review, and Digital Culture, Interactivity, and Play.

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Ethics in the Worgen Starting Zone: PHI in WoW 2

In my previous post I began exploring ways that World of Warcraft (WoW) starting zones could serve as sites for teaching and learning philosophy. First I presented Yvyy’s narrative about her experiences in the first part of the Worgen zone; then I discussed issues in the philosophy of mind that her experiences suggested. Here, after Yvyy completes her starting-zone narrative, I begin thinking more about the logistics of using any WoW starting zone in a philosophy class and focus on applying ethical theories to an avatar’s experiences.

Duskhaven, a town in Gilneas

Duskhaven, a village in Gilneas


With the triple whammy of feral worgen attacks, continual earthquakes, and the Forsaken invasion, Gilnean leaders had to muster all the help they could get – even me, a half-human worgen who would turn on them if the serum wore off. They were willing to take the risk, and I didn’t disappoint.

For instance, after I assassinated two Forsaken ship captains, Lord Godfrey told me, “You might be a bloody beast, but you’re our beast.” I smiled – not at the implied, somewhat backhanded praise, but at the irony of the situation: when I reported to him I was still in cat form; but the “beast” he referred to was my worgenness, not the druid cat form he and all Gilneans readily accept. Besides, to assassinate others surely requires calling up the beast within, worgen or not.

Yvyy while rescuing frightened children

Yvyy while rescuing frightened children

In any case, I was glad that opportunities arose to help others in humanitarian ways. For example, I saved troops washed into the sea by one of the quakes, quakes that would soon destroy Gilneas. To prepare for the evacuation, I brought frightened children back to their mother, rounded up horses and supplies, and, in general, aided others when I could. I did get a little annoyed with one old granny who wouldn’t leave unless I found her favorite book and cat, which took way too long, and retrieved her laundry from the clothesline.

I found several missions quite distasteful. For example, to feed refugees from the inundated coastal areas, I had to slay stately stags so tame you could pet them. People of course have to eat. I get that. But I was selective: I killed only stags separated from the herd and left undisturbed those protecting fawns. The most distasteful task involved killing an Abomination who had killed a villager’s wife. Her husband hungered for revenge and asked me to carry it out. I bristled at the idea of engaging in a cold-blooded vengeance killing, but when I found the Abomination – cobbled together from corpses, its guts hanging out, its stench unspeakably vile – I held my breath and did the deed.

Yvyy off on a mission on a Forsaken bat

Yvyy off on a mission on a Forsaken bat

During one mission I learned that others like me, an enclave of Gilnean worgen, had taken refuge deep in the forest. They were aided by night elves, who told me that their ancestors were responsible for the worgen curse: Hundreds of years ago a sect of druid night elves, in order to save themselves from demonic forces, abandoned their oath to maintain Nature’s way and succumbed to the ferocity of wolves; eventually the curse became epidemic among the Gilnean. To assuage their sense of ancestral guilt, the night elves found a way to permanently restore a worgen’s human mind. I underwent the ritual – successfully!

Lord Crowley – who, like me, got the curse during the worgen attack on the cathedral – was leader of the worgen enclave. Under his leadership, we worgen fought alongside our human compatriots to defeat the Forsaken. After a long, bloody battle, we readied the elven ships for evacuation to Teldrassil. The night elves, once again taking responsibility for unleashing the curse, generously offered the Gilnean worgen sanctuary in their capital, Darnassus, where we are now. To show my gratitude, after a few days’ rest I will travel to Darkshore to aid them in any way I can.

Yvvy next to Greymane horses and carriage during the evacuation

Yvvy next to Greymane horses and carriage during the evacuation


With Yvyy’s narrative completed, I’m wondering about the wisdom of using WoW starting zones as teaching and learning tools: Is the philosophical payoff worth the time and effort it would take students to work through a zone? What kinds of assignments would make it worthwhile? Could students use their chosen zone for multiple issues we address during a semester? Although playing WoW may be an attractive activity for some students, I continue to think that options aimed at the same objectives should be available. In any case, my exploration goes on. And now I turn to possible ways to engage students in applying ethical theories to starting-zone content.

Let’s suppose an introductory class is surveying three traditional ethical theories: utilitarianism, deontological ethics, and virtue ethics.1 I could pose questions specific to selected starting zones. Students would have a choice of zones and questions on which to reflect and write. Before answering a question, they would need to write their own first-person narratives of the situation to provide context and empathize with the avatar. Then, for each of the three ethical positions, they would explain the ethical reasoning underlying their avatars’ actions.

Students could choose to do the activity solo or in teams of two or three. My preference would be teams so they could experience the power of cooperation and collaboration (after all, worgen and humans defeated the Forsaken by working together). I suspect that teamwork would result in wider and deeper reflections – and it’d be more fun. Of course some form of individual accountability is necessary: Each team member could take the lead on addressing and writing the team responses to a question, with duos addressing at least two questions and trios three. Also, whether solo or in teams, students would write self-assessments on their efforts and learning.

Gilnean citizens' meeting in Greymane Manor

Gilnean citizens’ meeting in Greymane Manor

Responses to the questions should include the following: a narrative from the avatar’s perspective; an explanation of the ethical reasoning the avatar could use to justify acting like a utilitarian, deontologist, and virtue ethicist; and details that show how basing actions on one theory rather than another changes (or not) the avatar’s actions – perhaps even the avatar’s willingness to complete a quest. Below are examples of ethical questions that students could receive before choosing among available races and zones. These are drawn from Yvyy’s narrative.

1. Should people who embrace the opportunity to help others be considered morally good?

2. Is assassinating another person ever the right thing to do?

3. Do we have a moral responsibility to preserve the lives of non-human animals that are not a threat to our existence?

4. Is avenging the death of a loved one ever morally justified?

5. If in the distant past a race’s ancestors harmed members of another race or ethnic group so deeply that the repercussions remain dire to this day, should the descendents of the offending race be held morally accountable and make reparations?

Yvvy deliberating

Yvyy deliberating

To conclude, I take each of the three ethical theories and sketch out possible responses to the first question above.

Utilitarianism: If Yvyy were a methodical utilitarian, for each opportunity to help others, she would consider whether or not her action was likely to contribute to the greater good for the greater number of Gilneans. She would believe that helping others prepare to evacuate is the moral thing to do; however, she might not help granny gather her things because doing so could mean that other people, including entire families, wouldn’t get the word before the waters rushed over them. In short, when the good of the community conflicts with the good of the individual, the utilitarian’s moral nod goes to the community. But what to do about granny? Should she be left to drown? Yvyy has no way of knowing how great her contributions to the community’s survival may be later on. For this reason and others, the utilitarian perspective seems inadequate in this situation.

Yvyy GreymaneManorRoofs -dividerDeontological Ethics. Yvyy implies that she takes pleasure in helping others. As a Kantian deontologist, she would see her efforts in evacuating citizens as praiseworthy but not necessarily moral. She might, however, see her willingness to help granny gather her things the moral thing to do, despite the tasks’ triviality. So how could agreeing to find frightened children not be considered moral and yet locating granny’s favorite book as moral? The answer lies in one’s motivations for acting. Yvyy the Kantian does the socially right thing in the children’s case because she wants to. In granny’s case, she doesn’t want to; but when she applies the moral law, what Kant calls the categorical imperative, she might see that it’s her duty to find granny’s things. One version of the moral law goes like this: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” If Yvyy’s maxim were to do for others as she would have them  do for her, then she would help granny gather the things important to her. On the other hand, if her maxim were to help as many people as possible regardless of the pain of denying an individual her aid, she might refuse to do it. Thus we see that if we give the moral nod to people’s motivations for acting rather than to the consequences of an action, it’s not so easy to judge if an act is moral or not.

blog dividerVirtue Ethics. As a virtue ethicist in the Aristotelian vein, Yvyy would have the personal mission of developing her character by forming habits that help her become the best person she can be. Her decisions would be contextual, based on trying to do the right thing, in the right circumstances, for the right reasons. There’s no specific moral law – except to act as a virtuous person would, which includes knowing one’s character weaknesses and how to correct them. For example, Yvyy seems too willing to acquiesce to others’ demands, no matter how trivial they may be. Let’s say she knows this about herself. So what is she to do about granny’s refusal to leave without her book, cat, and laundry – when time is of the essence? Yvyy wants to save granny, so she has to come up with a strategy to budge her. Perhaps a compromise offered in a take-charge tone would work, like telling granny she’ll find the cat and then they’re going, period. Practical reasoning is crucial to virtue ethics; thus it seems more nuanced than the other two theories.

 Of course, hardly anyone relies on only one type of moral reasoning. Although we’re rarely aware of it, one or more of these ethical positions are probably at play during our moral decision making.

Yvyy’s current home is an inn on the Darkshore coast. I’ve grown to like her quite a lot and hope to visit her again one of these days. Meanwhile, I’ll soon be moving on to another WoW starting zone.

Darkshore landscape

Darkshore landscape


1 The idea for using three ethical theories to reflect on game content comes, in part, from Ren Reynolds, “Playing a ‘Good’ Game: A Philosophical Approach to Understanding the Morality of Games,” International Game Developers Association, 2002.

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Philosophy of Mind in the Worgen Starting Zone: PHI in WoW 1

This post begins my exploration of selected World of Warcraft (WoW) starting zones as potential sites for teaching and learning aspects of philosophy. Here I take a case study approach. The case has two sections: a narrative and a discussion. The narrative is the first part of my character Yvyy’s journal, a kind of fan fiction. The discussion relates Yvyy’s story to aspects of the Philosophy of Mind. The links in the narrative provide some of the backstory to the Worgen starting zone.

Duskhaven, a village in Gilneas

Duskhaven, a village in Gilneas


I was once fully human, a citizen of Gilneas, a nation walled off from the rest of the Alliance and the world itself. Then the worgen – the most vicious, wolf-like creatures you can imagine – attacked our city. They came from within, from what we call the Curse. The worgen were everywhere, in the streets, on the roof tops, even in some of our homes. I was in the cathedral when they burst through the stained glass windows.

That’s the last thing I remember . . . until a special potion brought me back to consciousness. I had the Curse! Wounds from the worgen attack had transformed me into one of them. Probably I too had been an attacker (no one will say). But fortunately the worgen-me was captured, caged, pilloried, and given that potion – a temporary measure that returned my human mind but not my human body. Even with treatments, the best I can ever hope for is to keep my human mind. I’m condemned to fight an internal war between my two selves – the beast and the woman – for the rest of my life.

Yvyy the druid worgen

Yvyy the druid worgen

 But that’s not the whole truth. I retain exceptional powers. Let me explain. You see, all young Gilneans are required to develop talents in the “class” for which they are best suited. For example, some have the innate capacity to become hunters, others warriors or priests, even mages or warlocks. Because early on I exhibited shape-shifting abilities, I became an apprentice druid – and remain one; as such, my primary duty is to develop my druid powers for the purpose of protecting the natural world and of maintaining and restoring its balance.

Things were clearly out of balance in Gilneas and had been for some time. But we didn’t foresee the worgen attack or the earthquakes that destroyed the reef that protected us from outsiders. The earth gave a tremendous shake and threw open the harbor. Waters engulfed our coastal villages. The ships of the Forsaken sailed in, under the command of Banshee Queen Slyvanas Windrunner who, we soon learned, took her orders from that most despicable of orcs, Garrosh Hellscream, Warchief of the Horde. The earth continues to tremble and rumble. Everything has turned against us, seemingly all at once.

Yvyy in cat form

Yvyy in cat form


Issues in the Philosophy of Mind stand out in Yvyy’s narrative, raising questions like “What am I?” “Who am I?” “Am I the same person today that I was ten, five, or one year ago, even a few hours ago?” and “What makes me, me?” Even more fundamental are questions like, “Is there really such a thing as a self? If so, what is it? And where is it?” Yvyy thought of herself as a human, a citizen, and a druid. These were her identities, until she was transformed into a worgen body with a human mind or, depending on how you look at it, a human mind with a worgen body. Does it matter which way you look at it? Either way, she still thinks of herself as a druid and a Gilnean, although socially marginalized due to her recent condition. Similarly, whether I decide to value my mind over my body or my body over my mind seems to make little difference to my professional identity as a teacher or my identity as an American. But it can make a difference as to which, body or mind, I tend to focus on developing – as well as to my spiritual, social, and political beliefs and concerns.

But back to Yvyy: Who or what was she after the transformation – now bodily worgen and, through drugs, mentally human? Had her “self” transformed too? What might Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, or even Dennett say? What would you say? Let’s unpack this just a tad.

Most of us think of ourselves as having a body, which includes a brain. But we also think of ourselves as being something more. We may call this something a mind or soul or self. The problem is that all three concepts seem lacking in earthly substance. In other words, sensation and perception inform me and others that I have a body. “Mind,” however, doesn’t seem to have the same empirical status – unless we stipulate that the mind is identical to the brain processes that make us conscious of our surroundings, experiences, and memories. “Soul” is mostly a religious concept that often includes expectations of a life hereafter. And “self” or “I” can be seen, at least from a Buddhist perspective, as shorthand for the aggregation of many components (sensory capacities, mental and physical capabilities, personal traits and talents, connections to others, memories, beliefs, on and on). Taken together, these components lead us each to think of ourselves as unique and separate from all that is not us – which, to Buddhists, is an illusion.

In any case, as you can see in this little ramble, there’s a lot to think about here. But one last thing to consider: Perhaps, like me, you have occasionally said, “I’m not myself today.” What do we mean when we say that?

A swamp in Gilneas

A swamp in Gilneas

 That’s enough for now. More from Yvyy, the worgen druid, to come.

Posted in Fan Fiction, Game-Based Learning, Philosopy & Technology, World of Warcraft | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments