When I started playing World of Warcraft, it was as a Horde character. Left to my own devices, I wouldn't have gone that way. Based on my dabbling around in the free version, I had planned on going Alliance. But then my friends told me that if I did I wouldn't be able to talk to them or in any way work together. And they warned me what it would mean to my relations with others. This whole artificial-aggression divide didn't thrill me. I'm not here to PvP; I'm here to craft things and kick a few sparkle-bunnies with my friends. So I found a Horde character-type that fit my natural inclinations as best I could and headed out into Azeroth with my friends.
The two factions are divided by philosophy in the game's story, but that story is carefully set so that neither is all "good" or all "bad." The Alliance is full of iron-spined sorts out to defend the realm and everything in it, but they're also xenophobic as heck and willing to act on it with the sword. The Horde is all about acceptance of the various races and coming together for the good of all, but also focuses on conquest and power. The various groups that ally themselves with them (The Forsaken for the Horde and the Gnomeregan for the Alliance, for example) follow the same general pattern.
But all subtlety is plowed under by ruthless game mechanics that keep things divided into black and white. When you build your character, you have to choose between them, and it affects what kinds of character you can play. If you play Horde, you can't even understand the chat window of someone who plays Alliance, and vice-versa – the text is munged on the fly into an incomprehensible argle-bargle. There's no mixing later, either. Even if a given player has a character from each side, those characters can never speak to each other or be able to interact. Most Alliance NPCs will try to kill a Horde character on sight – and believe me, this is reciprocated in spades.
These game mechanics combine to turn the players on either side into acrimonious opponents. Various player groups will conduct raids on the cities of the other side just for fun. You have to be careful not to end up in the wrong place or any character may kill you, even if you're just walking down the road lost and accidentally step into the wrong village to get directions. In game, ne'er the twain shall meet.
After I had my feet under me, I started an Alliance character to play with another group of friends. The events of that sequence and the tasks you're set as you play through are as close to the same as you can get in each of the two very different milieu. But as I worked my way through them I was struck by a fundamental reversal.
Playing Horde, I had been struck with a near instant annoyance with Garrosh Hellscream, Warchief of the Horde. He came across as a power-mongering jerk, and his protestations about how it was all for the good of everyone instead of his own personal aggrandizement rang hollow to me. But as we moved forward, I found that I like most of his underlings and their approach to the game's situations. They're pretty cool people overall.
I continued my questing with the Horde, and Garrosh's character just seemed to get worse. My annoyance turned to active dislike. If I thought the game would have allowed it (and that he wouldn't have pounded that level-85 character into the ground like a tent-peg), I would have attacked him myself. The only game character I hate more is Handsome Jack from the Borderlands series.
Playing Alliance, I ended up with a grudging respect for King Varian Wrynn, and hated all of his hidebound, arrogant lieutenants. He did the same stuff (you had to fight him to prove your worth, etc.), but it was handled with a grace that was aggressively lacking in Orgrimmar.
As I've continued to play through, Varian's lieutenants haven't improved their manners. And each one of these close-minded, authoritarian, xenophobic jerks I run into on my way through the various game areas just reinforces this impression. While playing my Alliance character, I ran into the same iron-pants martinet who killed one of my Horde characters in the aforementioned "walking down the road" incident. She didn't kill me on sight. That was nice. But that was about all you could say for her attitude.
I ran into the Bravo Company quests in the Redridge Mountains, and while the Rambo reference is kind of apt, the repeated discussion of the crude way he wants to re-purpose the word "Orc" made me want to take him back to the mill and lock him in his cage instead of help him.
I have a hard time shouting "For the Horde!" when I see what Garrosh has done (and what I know he will do as I finish working my way through Pandaria and Tanaan). And it's just as hard to shout "For the Alliance!" near any of the bigotry-addled jerks I have to deal with as I'm playing on the other side.
And then the cinematic trailer for the upcoming Burning Legion expansion set this whole thing into even sharper relief. While Garrosh has been corrupted beyond redemption, Varian has grown and opened his mind. And he's not the only one. Lady Sylvanas Windrunner (the Forsaken elf in the abbreviated armor with the bow) was turned undead by a human prince who fell to the darkness (see the Warcraft III: Frozen Throne and WoW: Wrath of the Lich King expansions). She has every reason to hate all human leaders like poison and certainly never trust Varian. But she's come to help with the fight, and even saves him.
And it will matter why. Have Varian and Sylvanas changed because they discovered the trickery and failings of others that set them on opposite sides of the divide in the first place, or have they changed and learned to trust despite it? Will Khadgar continue to stand strong against the temptations to do whatever it takes, no matter how dangerously arcane, to stop the demons?
And can the rest of us somehow follow suit? That's what I hope for when Burning Legion comes out at the end of this month. The cinematic trailer gave me a glimmer of hope that it's time to work together, and the Harbinger animated shorts they've been showing fanned that spark.
The demon invasion has begun, and I have accepted the quests to join the fight. I hope the game mechanics have eased some of the constraints on the behavior of those of us who aren't on board with the more extreme sides of the Horde/Alliance divide. Not everyone will want to, but for those of us who do, we need a way to break through the wall. The game mechanics need to allow people of all kinds to come together and save that world, and then continue to work together to make it even better.