In World of Warcraft slang (and perhaps in other MMOs too — I haven't played them), a gank is an unfair player kill. Originally, the term referred to being jumped by several players on the opposite side: the name was once a contraction of "gang kill."

What do I mean by unfair? Well, Warcraft has a system in place for rewarding player versus player combat, but it only grants rewards for being a good sport. Attacking and killing players far beneath your level is considered dishonorable by the game, and carries no rewards. Fighting other players within the honorable level range is totally straightforward, and doesn't carry the taint of ganking. But to beat up on the weak and puny is to be a ganker.

Ganking frequently occurs in low-level areas, where the lack of powerful players makes retribution difficult. The game has a system for alerting players when friendly towns are under attack, but the messages are also triggered by opposite-faction players accidentally coming within range of the town, with the result that many players turn the defense channels off.

Ganking is a relatively common occurrence on player versus player servers, where any player is open game for attack once they leave safe territory. Indeed, there are a fair number of players who take outright delight in starting and maintaining PVP characters specifically to harass low-level players on the opposite side.

Why would somebody take part in this? Well, it's because Blizzard did their job right. The Warcraft universe has two "good" sides (as opposed to the evil and neutral factions) — the Alliance and the Horde. A character belongs to one side, spends most of their time questing in service of their side, and the player develops a strong affinity with their comrades. Other than one-on-one duels, any fighting against other players is against the opposed faction, whether in Battlegrounds, the Arena, or simply in the world itself. The other side is wholly alien, too: when they speak, it's automatically translated into a nonsense-word representation of diagetic language: so to the average Human, an Orc and a Forsaken Undead would appear to be speaking very different languages, namely Orcish and Gutterspeak. /me commands, since a relatively early patch, have appeared to the opposite side as "Groovysnax makes some strange gestures," no matter what the originally command was.

The end product of all of this is that by the time you make it to a high level, you outright despise the other side. You've spent the past 40 levels running around areas where the Enemy lives in different towns, pursues different quests, and occasionally steals resources, chests, and rare monsters. This last is probably worse than anything else, because "ninjaing," as this behavior is called, can carry serious repercussions (like being banned from good guilds) if a player victimizes somebody on their side. An average player has a wide array of stereotypes and in-jokes, and likes nothing better to pound that dwarf's (or Tauren's, or whatever's) face into mush. The other side, despite the fact that they're basically the same, becomes the Other and is dehumanized.

So ganking is fun because you can justify it to yourself. When you nurture a festering dislike for the opposing alliance, it becomes much easier to divorce yourself from the fact that another player finds your ganking frustrating, to say the least. After all, if they speak Zandali and you speak Darnassian, the only way they're going to convince you to stop is to find powerful fighters of their own. And that's how arms races start.

Is there a solution to ganking? Not an easy one. Blizzard can't prevent it entirely without making the PVP system significantly more restricting. Players can move to a non-PVP server, at the expense of their guild and social circle. So until fun takes a backseat to courtesy, expect ganking to continue.

If all of this is confusingly technical to you, I've written up the slang of the Warcraft universe at World of Warcraft Slang.

Ganking: an alternative perspective 

In essence, ganking can be considered to mean "initiating a combat situation in which the attacker (the gankee) is sure to win". This includes situations in which the attacker is much more mighty than the victim, a situation in which the victim is preocuppied (perhaps already fighting someone else), or where the victim is low on health or suffering from some debilitating effect. It even includes exploiting game mechanics to preclude victim survival, and has been around since the early MUDs and mob trains. So far so good, as listed above.

What I have to take exception to is the statement above claiming that ganking occurs when a game designer has done something right, and in particular citing Blizzard's epic World of Warcraft, a game where the Player versus Player component was 1) designed as an afterthought, 2) has no impact on the world game whatsoever, and 3) can be completely avoided or bypassed throughout the entire span of a WoW character's career (currently levels 1 through 70, with no indication of change in the upcoming 71-80 bracket), as the prime example. In addition to this (as even mentioned above) the two so-called opposing sides are so blandly generic that any imagined hostility between them can be only in the writer's imagination. 

In order to truly comprehend the concept of rightful ganking, one has to introduce some reward and punishment for both sides involved in the altercation. Whether it be unique loot, fame, or simply pecking order, there has to be a reason for beating down someone far, far lesser than yourself in order for the act to be considered other than mere bullying, or griefing in online gaming parlance. In World of Warcraft, with no persistent world history, controllable territory, limited supply and no investment needed to play, any such reward is purely imaginary. Let us instead turn to EVE Online and consider how the gankster and the ganked coexist in its economy- and player-driven world.

Example 1, Empire space

Background: Empire space is EVE's civilized, commercialized space where the 4 empires live, trade, mine, buy, sell, build and spy on each other in relative peace. The sectors comprising this space contain most of the space and most of the population and are designated as 1.0 space. In this space, any unprovoked attack on any other player is immediately detected and lethally countered by the AI-driven CONCORD NPC party. You shoot, you die, regardless of the armor, shields, or speed rating of your ship.


Imagine this scenario: there is a convoy of rare jewels/ship parts/concubines on a route that you have managed to figure out somehow. You gather a party of your closest friends and ambush the freighter, leaving a buddy on the sidelines. You gank the freighter; you get ganked by CONCORD in return; your buddy swoops in, grabs the loot, and gets the heck out of Dodge. If of course you fail to destroy the freighter, you've lost several spaceships and your rivals (who took the risk of transporting the stuff) get richer (and are now aware of a spy in their midst and will be more careful in the future). Risk leads directly to reward for both parties.

Example 2, 0.0 space

Background: 0.0 space is on the fringes of the galaxy, and it is where CONCORD no longer responds. It is purely player-enforced, player-ran territory (although there are powerful NPC parties here too), with properly commensurate rewards. It is also the only place where players can build their own structures (factories, refineries, refit bases, etc.).

The scenario: A lone fighter or freighter (or heck, even a small group with escorts - small to avoid detection when coming in, as EVE has a mechanism for roughly showing fleet movements in the galaxy) venture into uncharted territory to skim a little bit off the rich and terrifying no-man's lands. Except in this case, these lands "belong" (loosely speaking) to a powerful corporation who spends a lot of time and money patrolling the richly laden ore belts. The invading group is taking a risk drawn by the lure of powerful rewards. 

Naturally, the invaders are found by the patrolling corporation. The trip back to Empire is typically long and the corporations tend to have multiple heavy hitters on standby, so the prospecting force is annihilated utterly in seconds with no chance of retreat. The lessons is compounded and executed by destroying the pilots' pods - the cost of this venture will certainly make this group think again before attempting another raid. Any leniency would be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

Risk and reward; utter destruction and (potentially) vast rewards - this is what makes ruthless ganking justified. In either case the defender has no chance at defense or escape, but the attacker stands to lose something should s/he fail to act. Likewise, any aggressor intending to wage destruction upon a victim has to be aware that there are grave (well, or at least expensive) consequences.

None of this is present in World of Warcraft. There is no territory to be contested, there are no player-controlled areas rich in loot, there is no reward or penalty for killing an enemy of the opposite side; there aren't even any mechanisms to warn you of enemy encroachment! The only reason to kill a much weaker player is to waste their playing time and possibly ruin their day (see corpse camping) - and any game system that enables pointless jackassery is not a good one.

To summarise! Inherently, ganking is neither right nor wrong, nor does it denote developer competence or lack thereof. It's really in what it is used for that determines whether it classifies as griefing (WoW) or correct, even laudable behavior (EVE, DAoC).

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