Monday, August 24, 2009

Glory to the Alliance: Cultural Competion in WoW

It is hard to criticize the undoubtedly successful World of Warcraft, whose player base numbers well over 11 million. While there are some who find fault in its leveling system or other design elements, the game clearly does something right to maintain such an active community. That being said, this piece is an exploration of cultural differences in World of Warcraft, with some healthy criticism thrown in.

Blizzcon, the yearly Blizzard Entertainment convention, is an exercise in community building. At this year's opening ceremony, Mike Morhaim, Blizzard President and Co-Founder, lavished the predominantly World of Warcraft playing crowd with praise and fan service. A casual observer might see a strange festival of mutual love between developers and players. There is a concerted effort by Blizzard to incorporate their user base, particularly WoW players, into their corporate identity.

To some extent, Blizzcon is an attempt to foster a corporate/consumer culture around Blizzard software. Interestingly, its WoW playing fan base itself may be divided along cultural lines. The difference between Horde players and Alliance players, the two competing factions in the Warcraft universe, is palpable both in game and out.

One can hear the disparity between WoW players by climbing on stage and yelling each faction's battle cry. "For the Horde!" causes the crowd to rumble with applause. "For the Alliance!" results in a noticeably quieter applause mixed with the boos and jeers from Horde members. While I saw no outward hostility between players, maybe the sheer amount of horde emblems was enough to quiet most alliance members. From all outward appearances, the Horde populace has a stronger and more passionate culture than the alliance.

Like most cases of cultural antagonism, both sides have their share of stereotypes. To many Alliance players, Horde players are hostile, angry, ganking, immature elitists. To many Horde players, the Alliance are whiny, soft, ganking, immature elitists. The stereotypes wouldn't be all that different were it not for one thing. There is a large number of people who believe the game and its makers favor the Horde.

This has been a long standing debate, admittedly between a vocal minority of WoW players. The argument stems from a perceived imbalance between the two factions in PVP combat. Those attempting to support the claim frequently cite racial traits. Blood Elves, for example, have a particularly deadly mass silence. Cataclysm, the newest expansion, allows this race to play as Warriors, who are traditionally weak against spell casters. Likewise, Cataclysm will give the Goblin race to the Horde with a set of racial talents many consider far better than the Alliance's Worgen race. There is also a common assumption that most Blizzard employees play Horde. The fact Mike Morhaim himself plays for the Horde themed metal band, Level 80 Elite Tauren Chieftain, doesn't help this perception.
Whether any of these complaints are true is up to debate. The statistics tell us this: Alliance characters actually outnumber Horde characters, making up about 53% of all players. However, sorting by realm type has different results. Alliance outnumbers Horde 61% to 39% on PVE servers, while Horde outnumbers Alliance 60% to 40% percent on PVP servers. Horde members are disproportionately likely to enjoy PVP combat. With the exception of the PVE-focused Alterac Valley, Horde players are also more likely to win Battlegrounds (PVP events for you non-players).

The likely explanation for the difference between the two factions is how they are perceived as distinct culture by players. More competitive players seem drawn to the Horde. This could be because of a history of PVP success or because the Horde's monstrous races appear more brutal and menacing than the Alliance races. Perhaps the stereotypical valor of "the good guys" attracts players who favor story telling over violence.
While I'm glad Blizzard is able to create unique and appealing histories for the two factions, I'm not so sure a cultural divide between players is a good thing. Two factions embody two different play styles. For players who are not solely attracted to the dominant play style of their faction, a cultural divide can be a big impediment to fun. Horde players may find raid progression slower than they would like, while Alliance players eager to PVP may become frustrated with frequent losses in the face of the more experienced faction.

For smaller MMOs, a poorly managed play style divide can cripple its online community. Ideally, the developer should support both play styles regardless of faction. Perhaps Blizzard should support real world cooperation between factions or foster Alliance pride by creating an Alliance themed band.

Established cultures are amazingly resilient creations. Changes to game design must be the primary method by which developers sculpt culture. Blizzard's decision to include a more ferocious looking race in the Alliance and a diminutive race into the Horde is a deliberate attempt to attract different players to each faction. Unfortunately, any dramatic changes may weaken player loyalty to their faction and to the game's lore. It appears sculpting culture and identity is no easier in videogames than in real life.


  1. Funnily enough, I've heard this same argument, only with the factions switched. Back when paladins and shamans were faction-specific classes, it seemed obvious that Blizzard favored the Alliance: They had all the pretty races, all of the incredibly detailed capital cities, they had easier PvE progression thanks to conveniently placed raid instances (MC and BWL being just one short flight away from Ironforge) and paladins with their imba buffs, they had extra mounts (Wintersabers) and Alliance vastly outnumbered the Horde on most servers. Many Horde felt that they were the underdogs, and being able to slow the relentless tide of Alliance in PvP (with the help of Will of the Forsaken and Windfurying shamans) was the only comfort.

    So, I think we can agree that that Blizzard favors <the other faction>.

  2. I've always found the cultural, social division somewhat ridiculous.
    I have played both, I have more and my Mains as alliance. My friends and I Have long hoped that the next races (we picked naga and goblin) would be neutral at creation with the potential to learn all languages ( which are used soley as a cultural division currently) and the ability, if willing to develop rep with every city.
    Ah well worgen look fun, never been a gnome man so goblins don't really interest me either.
    An interesting article here:
    examines the history of the alliance faction leader, who is a dick, but as they article suggests, perhaps with reason. It certainly raises the ire of many hordies.

  3. @ Hirvox

    Exactly! Which is potentially troublesome. The fear is that both cultures differ in game, which has a real in game effect, which creates differing cultures out-of-game, and then back down again. It all seems out of Blizzard's hands to some extent.

    @ Kim

    I agree with you on the ridiculous nature of cultural division in this case. Though I do think there is value in identifiably different factions with different histories and in-game culture. Which is why a third, neutral in-game culture would have been fascinating.

    But even lore is lost on some. The article you linked to was great, but I doubt most Horde or Alliance players know much about this history. Though I guess it only takes a vocal few to sway cultural sentiments.

    On a side note, it's interesting how CCP handles EVE Online with no factions whatsoever. Undeniably, there are corporate cultures within EVE, but it seems CCP generally distances themselves from interference in that regard. I wonder how affective the game's lore is.

  4. I do wonder what happens to someone from the alliance/horde that create their character with a name implying they are from the other faction...

  5. This all reminds me of a social experiment done by a teacher named Jane Elliott. She divided kids up based on eye color, then told them that one eye color was special, and the other was inferior. She then flipped things around and told them that they all had it backwards. It was amazing to see the eye color 'racism' that followed. You can see this in action in the video series "A Class Divided"

  6. JT, thanks for sharing that video. That was some amazing stuff; powerful, depressing, and inspiring all at once.

  7. This remind me of 'the wave':