Thomas Malaby has an interesting post on ganking over at terra Nova in which he suggests that ganking isn’t a game, because there’s no challenge, and that gankers are effectively “ducking the question” by not really participating in the game structures. (Ganking is defined as “someone powerful attacking someone weak.”) The article seems primarily influenced by the sort of ganking that occurs in World of Warcraft.
I’m speculating that ganking happens when a player who does not want to be challenged to play a game (i.e., encounters where the outcome is contingent), instead opts to do something where the outcome is a foregone conclusion: kill a player that is vastly lower in capabilities. If meaning is found at the meeting point of inherited systems of interpretation (cultural expectations) and the performative demands of singular circumstances (something I talked about here), then ganking is a denial of that meaning. It is a retreat from the demands of the new, and it signals a disposition that does not want to be performatively challenged. Ganking lower level players is, then, a somewhat pathetic attempt to feel, well, something.
The article goes on to discuss ganking in a few different contexts:
- Ganking as an empty exercise of power, just a meaningless self-confirmation
- Ganking as fitting within a context of a larger “cat and mouse” style game
I think it’s hard to discuss ganking without reference to UO, Shadowbane, Eve, and other similar titles which have open world characteristics. One of the great achievements of DAoC and WoW is making PvP palatable again after the debacle in UO. And the UO PKing debacle was heavily driven by ganking.
Thomas is right that ganking is generally not about challenge. By and large, you’re not playing the combat game when you gank. That said, I think there often are many people playing alternate games altogether when they gank. In UO, for example, we saw people gank randomly in order to boost the bounty posted on their heads — the bounty had effectively become a high score table for bad guys. Ganking was effectively bottomfeeding the self-designed challenge of climbing this high score table.
It’s really easy for players to develop orthogonal goals in a game that is more free form in structure. This results in pain points for the victims. A miner is trundling along trying to get ore to town for the purposes of building a commercial empire, while a PKer is there playing another game entirely — perhaps a game of prestige versus another ganker guild, or some such. The miner isn’t interested in playing the killcount game, and he’s merely a token in that game, not regarded as a person of any consequence, with any feelings.
Interestingly, the miner in our little example is perfectly capable of regarding the marauding PKer as equivalent to just another monster. Getting your ore back to town in the face of possible danger is in fact part of his game. If the PKer actually behaved more like a monster, the miner would likely feel less outrage. Instead, he’s angered more because he sees this monster as a player.
The feelings bit is very important in a gank scenario. The trash talking was actually the worst part of getting PKed in UO. The oft-repeated example of someone being killed then watching helplessly in ghost form as their pet was slaughtered, then carved up and cooked and eaten right in front of them is an example of the complete disregard for the feelings of the victim that gankers typically engaged in. This is only possible because the victim occupies an uncomfortable position midway between real person and score token. If they were a just a token, the ganker would not bother; if they were fully cognizant of the victim as another human being, they likewise wouldn’t engage in such behavior. There’s a middle ground there where they treat the victim in a manner reminiscent of all those dehumanizing psych experiments (Stanford Prison Experiment, the thing with the electric shocks, etc).
A big part of why the pain is lessened in the case of RvR combat is because it’s not quite possible for the goals to be orthogonal — players are placed in opposition to one another, and there’s an expectation there that you are there to do to them what they are doing to you. Even on the full PvP servers in WoW, where orthogonal goals can and do arise (“I want to go quest, and you came along and killed me!”) there’s still this overriding context of two teams going head to head. In a sense, it’s the questers in the full PvP server who are not playing “correctly.” Most importantly, DAoC and WoW both intentionally present the opponents as Other: you can’t talk to them. As much as possible, they are reduced all the way down to tokens, much like opponents in an FPS match.
This even makes systems that were decried as overly complicated, such as SWG’s Temporary Enemy Flags and UO’s Criminal Flags, seem simple and obvious in WoW’s context. WoW’s flagging system is basically identical to these in its core functionality: kill a “friend” of the opposing team (an NPC from the other faction) and you are temporarily vulnerable. But by constraining the possible interactions to this us vs them situation, the number of edge cases where you might engage in a helpful action are reduced just about to zero, and the aggressive actions are actually encouraged. So it’s again an issue of expectation. Compare it to a case where a third-party bystander heals someone in a worldy game, and gets inadvertantly sucked into a war.
In the end, I’d say that ganking is actually performed in a metacontext that does give it meaning. And it cuts to the heart of the challenges inherent in making worldier games: the difficulty of having orthogonal pursuits interact only in what we regard as positive ways, or at least not abusive ways.
Once upon a time, I toyed around with the idea of an MMO where you became what you behaved as. If you were a PvPer who always fought only the opposing side, you might become a paladin, a Roland-like hero. If you were a PKer who preyed on the weak, you’d find your avatar becoming that of an ugly troll. If you hoarded wealth in your house, you might find yourself waking up a dragon one day, scored based on how much stuff you accumulated — and required to periodically kidnap princesses and NOT kill them. Each archetypal role would have a ladder of achievement based on fulfilling that role well: the troll would advance precisely by killing in trollish ways (demanding tribute from those who cross bridges, perhaps), and the miner by mining.
In this same concept, I said that true gankers were rewarded by fading into nobodiness, unable to attack or eventually even interact. Blank-faced, and eventually incapable of interacting at all. Insignificant, unranked, not even recognizable. The thought was, if you ever actually did render ganking as meaningless as its victims call it, the gankers would fade away, snarks and boojums all.