Dealing with Unfairness in Games

Human Beings spend a large proportion of their lives thinking about whether they are getting a fair deal, whether someone else is getting a better one, and complaining about it. We’ve all heard the adage, “Life isn’t fair,” and it is demonstrably true. Anyone with an ounce of empathy cannot watch the news without having this hammered home.

How societies decide what ‘fair’ means, which aspects of life should be fair, and cope with actual inequities is pretty much the history of humanity. All civil rights legislation, for example, is based on a shift in views about fair treatment for all and what that means.

So it isn’t surprising that players in MMOs also spend a lot of time eyeing each other up and complaining when they think things aren’t fair. After all, in a game, you can design the playing field to give everyone a fair chance. But sometimes, the design introduces something that is deliberately unfair.

I was thinking about this after reading Tam’s complaint about people who refuse to run back to an instance after a wipe, and about how he dealt with it.

So here’s the situation: In Warcraft, if you die then you have three options for resurrecting (ignoring soul stones for the moment). You can release and use the spirit healer, you can release and then run back to your body which will spare you a debuff, or you can wait for a healer to resurrect you which they will do if they are in your group and not dead.

If there is no resurrection spell in your group then everyone must run back. Otherwise, you only need one person with a res spell to be alive in order to get the whole group back on its feet. So if you are the only healer and you die, you must run back. Everyone else can if they want.

It wasn’t quite that simple though. Before Wrath, there were healers who could not res out of combat (druids) and non-healers who could (any hybrid who wasn’t in a healing role). Then they added the ability to the engineering trade skill, shamans could self res as well as ressing other people, and warlocks could give people a self-res buff via the soulstone. So there was never a strong design that said resurrections needed to be rare or restricted.

I never understood why every class didn’t get an out of combat res spell. There was no need to force healers to always run back, just because they happened to heal. There was no need to make that part of the healer role. And also, there was never a need to make the run back into the instance so long. In LOTRO, for example, if you die in an instance, you release to the beginning of the instance.

But instead of complaining about either of those things – which are honestly outdated mechanics from the start of the game – players prefer to bitch at each other. The unfairness of the healer’s long run back has become part of the accepted fabric of the game.

And what I wonder is whether having some unfairness in the game by design makes for more interesting social environments and social challenges. Does the shared experience of always having to run back make the healer role feel stronger? Did druids feel less like ‘real’ healers prior to Wrath because they didn’t have that pressure on them? (No point running back if you don’t have a res handy, unless you just want to laugh and point at the corpses.)