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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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Influencing both the affordances and limitations of ludic and representational role-playing is the choice of faction. Each character must choose between either the Horde or the Alliance faction. On a fictional level, eternal war rages between these factions. Each faction has its own cities, its own transportation system, its own economy and so on, all of which are out of bounds for members of the other faction. Within the game, players having chosen Alliance for their character are also not permitted to chat to members of the other faction by design. If they want to role-play with members of the opposing faction in-game, they must do so through gestures (nothing prevents them from meeting outside of the game, though). On an instrumental level, players are not allowed to form any formal group if their characters are not part of the same faction. They cannot trade items or visit dungeons together, nor can they take on quests meant for the opposing faction. Like realm choice, the impact of faction choice, as well as Blizzard’s reasoning behind the split-up in factions, will be analyzed further later in this chapter.

The choice of faction directly influences other character creation choices players can make in terms of representational role-playing. Based on faction choice, a character is either human, dwarf, gnome, night elf or drainei – races allied within the Alliance – or they become orc, troll, undead, tauren or blood elf – the combined Horde races.28 As one would expect, the choice of race influences a character’s look. From the ordinarily human to the zombie-like undead, from the hulking minotaur-like tauren to the cute diminutive gnome, all races have a distinct look. While this outward appearance is mostly cosmetic, each race does have several unique abilities that provide instrumental advantages. The tauren race, for example, has been given a stamina boost, justified on a fictional level by their size and muscular build. On an instrumental level, extra stamina means the tauren race is well suited for classes who specialize in surviving copious amounts of damage like the warrior. Here, fantasy culture tropes concerning a certain type of fictional race are translated into instrumental advantages, showing that ludic and representational role-playing are not opposites but, by design, can indeed go hand in hand. In contradistinction, by the same design some ludic/representational combinations are not allowed. Night elves loathe the use of magic on a fictional level, making it impossible to pick classes using magic (like mages or warlocks) on an instrumental level. By promoting and preventing certain combinations of race and class, Blizzard regulates both ludic and representational roleplaying, exposing in the process the forms of play that fit into the world vision of World of Warcraft.

56 battlefields of negotiation While the choice of race impacts instrumental play, the final representational character creation options – gender, appearance and personal naming – are mostly cosmetic. The choice of either a male or female character comes down to individual preference. Experimenting with a character’s skin and hair colour and other facial characteristics (each chosen from a limited set of options) makes it possible to construct the illusion of age in a character’s face (like choosing a wrinkled face underneath a bald head or gray hair to signify being old). The character’s body, however, cannot be changed. Characters all have the same hypersexualized features, especially with those races most closely resembling humans, limiting the options for identity play.29 For many players, the gender and appearance of their characters are pragmatic choices. World of Warcraft is a game played from a third-person perspective, with the character in constant view of the player’s gaze. Many players choose a character they enjoy looking at, while many players opt for gender-bending (ie. choosing the gender that is not their own).

Survey data from 2005 showed that the gender distribution among characters was 65% male and 35% female while in reality, only 16% of all World of Warcraft players were female (Yee 2005e).30 With relatively limited means to create a unique character in terms of race, gender and looks due to design-imposed constraints, the choice of name makes a character truly individual. Character names are therefore among the most powerful ways of expressing identity because the rest of the characters’ appearance is bound to Blizzard’s design (Hagström 2008; Tronstad 2008). In theory, players of games like World of Warcraft can enter any name they want for their character, allowing them to use their name as a depiction of their context, preferences or playing styles (cf. Schaap 2002). However, the naming option is not completely devoid of control. The game’s design, for instance, will not allow names surpassing fifteen letters, nor can it have punctuation marks or consist of more than one word. Naming practices are not only controlled on the level of game design but also on the level of game contract. Blizzard’s naming policy in the Terms of Use states that characters names should not include vulgarity, racial slurs, advertising and other forms of abuse defined by Blizzard (2006b). For dedicated role-playing realms, Blizzard has even created a separate “role-playing realms policy”, supporting players who appreciate that their fellow players do not use names that break the “magic circle” of the fictional world.31 If players are caught violating the naming policy, they may face penalties.

In contrast to the other setup options, where the rules are enforced automatically through coded game design limitations, the naming policy is enforced after the setup phase. Blizzard might catch players themselves through surveillance software (which, for example, picks up gibberish names like ‘fggtfwjq’ often generated by bot software) but usually, inappropriate names are reported by other players. I have witnessed players reporting inappropriate names (or at least claiming they would do so) many times in the role-playing realms in which I was active.

part ii controlling the game In one case my own character’s name, Grmbl, was even at stake. The name was reported for being gibberish, even though it is a well-known exclamation of grumpy characters in comics, Apparently, though, “grmbl” was not well known enough. After logging in one day, I found my character's name changed into a randomly generated temporary name. I found out my name was deemed inappropriate through an email from Blizzard’s customer support and was asked to change it before I could re-enter the game. I eventually contacted a Game Master (one of Blizzard’s in-game service employees) who, after referring to google to look up “Grmbl”, removed the temporary name and reinstated my original one.

The exact same thing happened again a year later, with the same character and name (after which they changed it to “Grumbl”). In another case, a friend was harassed in-game in a role-playing realm several times because his character's name was “Motorbreath”. Even though he claimed this name had its roots in his character being an engineer, a standard World of Warcraft profession, his harassers pointed out that in the real world it is the name of a well-known song by rock band Metallica. In the end, my friend’s character never received an official name ban from Blizzard. This leads to an interesting situation where Blizzard’s world vision concerning names, as stated in the game’s legal documents, is recalled and enforced by players themselves. Whether this is for better or worse depends on the stakes of the players involved; while for some, having a devious name is a way to claim agency over the restrictions of the game, for others it represents a form of destructive deviance lessening the immersion of the fictional world.

For players, both those who make all the choices mentioned above for the first time and those experienced in and knowledgeable of the process, the configurational affordances and limitations are not necessarily intrusive or in other ways negatively impacting the enjoyment of the game or its fictional world. The same goes for the World of Warcraft’s centralized and therefore tightly controlled network as well as the nature of the computer as machine actor. When not too intrusive, they keep the game stable and they add to the worldliness of Azeroth, limiting the ways players are able to abuse the character creation for divergent or devious purposes (Klastrup 2010). For some players, however, the lack of customization options for their character, the limitations of machine actors, or a feeling of there being too much surveillance on behalf of Blizzard might hinder them from building a meaningful virtual identity or pursuing the play style to which they aspire. These players are not powerless – through negotiation processes they find ways to work around the affordances and limitations of World of Warcraft’s setup. By discussing the technological and configurational structure underpinning and preceding play, this chapter has nevertheless shown that World of Warcraft steers players to certain intended uses. In the next chapter, the rules of play that are encountered during play itself take this process a step further.

58 battlefields of negotiation7: The Rules of Play

In this chapter I will not deal yet with World of Warcraft as a fictional world but will instead focus on World of Warcraft as a game, or as Galloway puts it: the ‘gamic elements that all are inside the total gamic apparatus yet outside the portion of the apparatus that constitutes a pretend world of character and story’ (2006: 7-8).

Sure enough, much of the gamic apparatus is articulated to the player through the fictional world. While one could describe World of Warcraft’s rules and structures using only


descriptions (referring to characters as player-controlled objects for instance), rules and fiction are inextricably intertwined. In this section, I will not refrain from referring to fictional elements if it helps to convey the underlying instrumental rule system.

Overall, this chapter investigates how dominant play strategies – and thus the preferred or intended use of World of Warcraft as designed by Blizzard – are implemented to guide players through the game. I will look at the way players are introduced to the game, looking in particular at the way progress is designed as a player’s primary goal. I will also discuss dedicated group play as a form of play being all about very particular group compositions and behaviour that are not necessarily or inherently social. Lastly, I will look at player versus player combat (an important part of the Warcraft in the game’s title) as an instrumental goal in and of itself, designed to perpetuate eternal war between player groups.

The numbers game In the previous chapter, I introduced the configurational phase in which players set up their characters; I will now continue with what happens as soon as a player actually engages in play after logging into the game. This allows me to convey how World of Warcraft’s design structures function on an instrumental level.

Depending on the chosen race, a new character will magically appear within the game world in the so-called starter zone of that particular race.32 For a troll hunter, for instance, (the combination of race and class which formed my main character), this means appearing in an area called the ‘Valley of Trials’, a nicely rendered rocky valley with appropriate flora and fauna within the land of Durator.

Other characters are present here too: “non-player characters” or NPCs and, potentially, other players’ characters (those who have just started a new character part ii controlling the game too, or chose to visit with an established character). On an instrumental level, little of the diegetic geographical and scenic information matters. What does matter instrumentally, however, is the non-diegetic user interface sitting between the player and the fictional world. The user interface or UI includes a large selection of options in bars at the lower bottom of the screen, a mini-map (showing your character’s position in the world) in the right-hand corner and some statistical information about the character in the left-hand corner including the amount of health and a simple number 1 depicting that the character is, in fact, still on level one.

As the UI exists on the fringes of the screen, what arguably draws our most immediate attention after appearing in the game world is a character standing just a few metres in front of one’s character. It is framed in the centre of the screen, an obvious design trick to focus the player’s attention on him and, more importantly, the bright yellow exclamation mark floating above its head. It is an invitation, a non-diegetic signifier for possible interaction. Right-clicking on the character reveals a UI pop-up window filled with text under the header ‘Your place in the world’. The text explains that your character must go talk to another NPC standing in the near vicinity, and offers to either accept or decline this simple mission. It is the character’s first mission in the game which comes in the form of a so-called quest. After accepting the quest, the other NPC suddenly has a large, bright yellow question mark above its head. Interacting with this target NPC reveals the message that you have ‘completed’ the ‘Your place in the world’ quest. This leads to another quest, this time offering a pair of boots or gloves as a reward. You are also informed that by completing the quest, you have earned forty experience points, visualized by one of the previously transparent bars in the bottom of the screen appearing now partly filled up. Doing the follow-up quests, involving the killing of ten “mottled boars” in an adjacent valley, leads to more experience points, both for each boar killed and for ‘completing’ the quest by conversing with the quest giver again. After a certain experience point threshold is met, a “ding!” sound is heard and the character is suddenly engulfed in bright yellow light. Congratulations: you have just levelled up to level two. When you complete the quest you also receive the boots or gloves, each granting the character extra strength when worn. Other NPCs in the area now also exhibit exclamation marks above their heads: more quests to do, experience points to gain and rewards to be earned.

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