When first entering World of Warcraft’s (WOW) world of Azeroth, you’re provided an intensely guided and relatively safe area, called a starting zone, from which to learn about the game and experience it in microcosm. Depending if you’re Alliance or Horde and what race you choose, you’re located in a particular geographic region, well guarded from members of the opposing faction. This is primarily accomplished through geography. Natural mountain or cliff blockades, or expanses of land full of powerful creatures, discourage players from venturing out of the prescribed paths from area to area as they grow stronger. The villages and cities of each faction are also guarded by high level non-player characters equivalent to automated bouncers. Clever and adventurous players are certainly capable of violating this well designed and patient progression by venturing out into enemy territory, but most, especially those new to the game, don’t. As a result, players gestate with their chosen faction and its associated races. The architecture, music, environments, and people become familiar and endeared.
It’s where you belong. It’s what you know.
This changes around level fifteen when both Alliance and Horde players follow quest lines, treasure, and good hunting into the same areas. For an Undead player like me, the most most infamous flashpoint was Hillsbrad, a contested zone in the northern area of the Eastern Kingdoms, featuring both Alliance and Horde outposts. Particularly in the first two years of WOW (when I was playing most intensely), Hillsbrad was a hotbed of player vs. player conflict featuring impromptu clashes both spontaneous and calculated. The experience rewarded by the quests and monsters native to Hillsbrad were valued, and safe access to them was struggled over and defended. What made this ongoing battle for territorial so compelling was its dynamism. It felt less programmed than the rest of the world. But was it?
There’s no doubt that Blizzard, developer of WOW, calculated that this region was to be an initial site of frequent conflict. Whether Alliance or Horde, players received quests at around the same level beckoning them to Hillsbrad. However, considering there was, at the time, little incentive to do so beyond pride, and perhaps peace of mind, the vehement effort to maintain control through the sustained and enforced exclusion of the enemy had to be surprising even to the developers.
The aggressive and often hateful way players engage each other cross-faction in WOW is, in part, a product of geographical difference. The impact of entering Hillsbrad for the first time as an Orc and seeing a Night Elf crest a ridge and approach is profound precisely because the space that formerly separated you has closed. The radically different character models as well as your inability to communicate cross-faction only emphasizes the exotic effects of space. In light of this, the protracted player initiated conflicts in Hillsbrad can be understood as a symptom of the spatial relationships put in place by Blizzard. Players struggle to return to the purified environment in which they emerge.