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«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»

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media matters


of Negotiation

Control, Agency, and Ownership

in World of Warcraft

rené glas

amsterdam university press

Battlefields of Negotiation

MediaMatters is a series published by Amsterdam University Press on current

debates about media technology and practices. International scholars critically

analyze and theorize the materiality and performativity, as well as spatial practices

of screen media in contributions that engage with today's (digital) media culture.

For more information about the series, please visit: www.aup.nl Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft René Glas Amsterdam University Press The publication of this book has been supported by NWO (The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research), The Hague, the Netherlands.

This book is published in print and online through the online OAPEN library (www.oapen.org) OAPEN (Open Access Publishing in European Networks) is a collaborative initiative to develop and implement a sustainable Open Access publication model for academic books in the Humanities and Social Sciences. The OAPEN Library aims to improve the visibility and usability of high quality academic research by aggregating peer reviewed Open Access publications from across Europe.

Cover illustration: Sarah Guilbaud and Ivo Mulder, Amsterdam Cover design: Suzan Beijer, Amersfoort Lay-out: JAPES, Amsterdam isbn 978 90 8964 500 5 e-isbn 978 90 4851 808 1 (pdf) e-isbn 978 90 4851 809 8 (ePub) nur 480 / 670 Creative Commons License CC BY NC ND (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0) c R. Glas / Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam 2012 Some rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, any part of this book may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise).

Contents Acknowledgements Introduction Part I: Framing the Game

1. The Definition Game Games without end?

Tracing the MMORPG genre’s roots

2. The Many Faces of Play The movement of play Ludic vs. representational role-playing Problematizing social play

3. The Contracts of Play Social codes, norms, and boundaries Playing on a licence

4. Play and/as Participation Every player plays its part Participation as exploitation?

5. Battlefields of Negotiation Part II: Controlling the Game

6. The Setup of Play Network play Playing machines Configuring play

7. The Rules of Play Designing play Designing cooperation Facing the other

8. Playing with Fiction Representing Azeroth The space of play Stuck in time Part III: Gaming the Game

9. It’s About Time Paratexts as cheating tools From emergence to progression Hyperproductive demystification

10.Twinking, or Playing Another Game The luxury of twinking Going for the easy kill A game within a game

11. Playing the Interface Mods as social surveillance tools Controlling code through theorycrafting Exposing the inside Part IV: Claiming the Game

12.Virtual Thievery Play, work or crime The power of small print Part of the game?

13.Performing on the Edge of Rules and Fiction Our story, your story Looking the other way Exploration or exploitation

14.The Fragmented and the Multiple Community control, controlling community With great power comes great responsibility Playing identity and community Conclusion Notes Bibliography Index

6 battlefields of negotiationAcknowledgements

The evolution and realization of this book could not have been possible without the contribution of many friends, colleagues and institutions who I am greatly indebted to. Overseeing the research itself, José van Dijck and Jan Simons have been indispensable from the start. José’s emphasis on structure and argumentation and her inspiring enthusiasm helped tremendously in shaping my work.

Together with Jan’s sharp observations on complex topics, their guidance proved invaluable throughout the research process. The book you have in front of you would not have been possible without support from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO), which funded the “Tranformations in Perception and Participaion: Digital Games” project from which the research originates.

By helping me focus my thoughts and framing my arguments in a series of meetings and conferences, the members of the Digital Games project contributed considerably, especially in the early phases of the research. Led by Renée van de Vall, the group also included Maaike Lauwaert, Martijn Hendriks, Jack Post and Joseph Wachelder. My gratitude also goes out to Karin Wenz and Sally Wyatt for providing valuable feedback as external experts on the project. I also thank the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA) at the University of Amsterdam for their continued support and advice in various stages of the research.

Writing a book like this can be a solitary experience, but my colleagues at the Department of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam and, later, the Department of Media and Culture Studies at Utrecht University made for excellent company. For sharing offices, discussions, ideas, conferences and drinks I would like to thank Joyce Goggin, David Nieborg, Dan Hassler-Forest, Maryn Wilkinson, Jennifer Steetskamp, Andrea Meuzelaar, Imar de Vries, Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Mirko Tobias Schäfer, Michiel de Lange, Marianne van den Boomen, and many others. I would like to especially thank Joost Raessens and Sybille Lammes who, next to being wonderful colleagues and fellow adventurers in the study of digital games and play, were so kind to provide feedback during the final phase of the writing process. Another proofreader I must thank for his thoroughness on short notice is Michael Katzberg. I would also like to show my appreciation to the students I have had the pleasure of teaching in courses in game studies and beyond for interesting discussions and inspiring insights.

A very different group of individuals I would like to thank are The Truants, a guild of “rogue scholars” I met in and around World of Warcraft and played with for years. Under the lively leadership of Torill Mortensen, the members of The Truants did not just play – in an often endearingly chaotic way – but they also convened during international conferences to share their work on World of Warcraft and games in general. Being part of this group proved to be an inspiring and enjoyable part of my research. Among the many Truants I would like to thank for their companionship are Luca, Kristine, Espen, Valter, Hilde, T.L., Jessica, Ragnhild, Charlotte, Peter and Emma. Special mention goes to Ivo Mulder, a friend who also joined The Truants and with whom I shared many online adventures.

Ivo is responsible for this book’s wonderful cover design, for which I cannot thank him enough.

Finally, I would like to thank all my family and friends for their warmth and support, and for putting up with my endless banter about World of Warcraft. Last but not least, I wish to express my dedication to Nynke and our daughters Madelief, Hente and Dagmar for offering love, guidance, and distraction (in a good way) during all the ups and downs of the writing process. I dedicate this book to them.

8 battlefields of negotiationIntroduction

World of Warcraft is considered the pinnacle of massively multiplayer online roleplaying games or MMORPGs, a genre of computer games that offer fictional universes where thousands of individuals play with or against each other or simply hang out to socialize. World of Warcraft, developed by Blizzard Entertainment based in Irvine, California, facilitates a wide range of play styles and preferences, ranging from casual role-playing to pursuing hardcore cooperative challenges.

The game is considered easy to learn but hard to master, and is surrounded by a huge, player-driven culture offering everything from information wikis to fan fiction, from user-interface modifications to guides explaining how best to level up and even how to learn a profession or how to earn virtual gold through the ingame auction house.

Since its release in November 2004, World of Warcraft (WoW) has attracted a massive crowd of players, peaking at twelve million in 2010.1 The expansion pack entitled Cataclysm released that year sold more than 3.3 million copies in the first 24 hours after release, making it the fastest-selling PC game of all time. Even though the game has since shed some of it vast user base, with around ten million players in early 2012 the game remains one of the most popular MMORPGs in the world. With its ongoing success, the game has become a poster child of the progressively collaborative relationship between consumers and producers observed in the larger media landscape. As media theorist Henry Jenkins notes, ‘game designers acknowledge that their craft has less to do with prestructured stories than with creating the preconditions for spontaneous community activities’ (2006: 159). According to EDGE magazine, one of several game industry sources that crowned World of Warcraft the ‘game of the decade’, the game is exemplary of a larger change in how we consume media ‘not as individual packages picked from the shelf, but as services, always evolving to meet the needs of their growing audience’ (2010: 68). To obtain this service, however, players need to pay a monthly subscription fee in addition to buying the game itself.

These subscription fees provide Blizzard with the financial means to constantly update the game. A game like World of Warcraft is not a stable object but an object in flux; it is continuously transformed through patches and expansion packs that express what Blizzard thinks the player community wants next. Players themselves have created a vast network of websites, information databases, blogs, forintroduction ums and other communication channels through which they not only express their needs, wishes and other game-related expressions in words but also trough fan art, videos, user-interface modifications and other creative productions.

The increasingly collaborative relationship between consumers and producers suggested above, however, is not free of conflict. As Jenkins points out, companies see participation as something they can ‘start and stop, channel and reroute, commodify and market’, while consumers on the other hand assert ‘the right to

participate in the culture, on their own terms, when and where they wish’ (2006:

169). As a result, conflict can arise between producers and consumers but also between consumers themselves, when they are confronted with diverging interests in the very media object in which they participate. In these moments of conflict, the game itself – what it is (or should become) and how it should be played – is at stake.

Conflicts about World of Warcraft between players and Blizzard even started before the game was officially launched in late 2004. The following announcement surfaced and spread across the hacker community in January 2004, many

months before the official launch:

Open-source proponents, crackers, and anarchists alike rejoice as an alpha version of World of Warcraft has allegedly been secured and is now supposedly making its way around warez circles. This news comes from Skull's Hack Site who says WarForge (infamous for their work in battle.net emulation for the War3 and TFT betas) is already working on server software for the WoW leak.2 This incident occurred when the game was still at a closed alpha testing phase, a period in which sparse publicity material, such as carefully chosen screenshots and videos, was available to prospective players. In order to control potential damage, a Blizzard employee was quick to react with a post on Blizzard’s official


In order to accelerate the testing process, we recently allowed a small group of external testers to play the game. During this process, a collection of files was leaked to the Internet. While these files contain alpha content from the game, they are not fully playable and therefore do not convey the experience that World of Warcraft will provide when it is released.

We are currently investigating this matter and will take serious action against those involved.

As always, we appreciate the interest and enthusiasm that players around the world have for World of Warcraft, and we look forward to delivering a massively multiplayer game unlike any you have ever experienced. Until then, we ask that

–  –  –

Probably to the chagrin of Blizzard, the leaked World of Warcraft code nevertheless spread via peer-to-peer file-sharing networks. While it remained largely unplayable – the code was far from finished, and no servers were up supporting the code – World of Warcraft was suddenly pulled out of Blizzard’s control sphere and thrust into the players’ domain. The result was a proliferation of devious coding groups with mysterious names like WarForge, Team Phyton and WoWDaemon trying to emulate the game by, for instance, reverse engineering client software in order to set up private rather than Blizzard-controlled servers.

The hacking incident and its aftermath signal a larger phenomenon this book seeks to investigate: both players and Blizzard are stakeholders in World of Warcraft who engage in constant negotiations concerning control, agency and ownership over the game. During such negotiations, stakeholders employ different tactics on various levels of negotiation – technical, fictional, social, managerial and so forth – in order to gain and/or keep control, agency and ownership. In this book I organize these levels of negotiation in four main perspectives: game play, game design, game contract and game culture. The more of these perspectives are involved in negotiation processes, the more complex these processes become, and the higher the potential is for tension. In this book, these overlapping levels of negotiation are called battlefields of negotiation. From this layered approach follow the main questions this book poses: how and on what level do negotiations between stakeholders (including both players and the game's developer) take form; in what ways do these negotiations define, challenge and alter the process of play; and how do they effect and influence the game as a sociocultural object?

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