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In terms of instrumental goals and rewards, the introduction of the Honor System in patch 1.4 (May 2005) changed PvP combat considerably. This and a subsequent reward system gave players the option to gain PvP-oriented rewards.42 PvP was now redesigned as an instrumental goal in and of itself rather than a diversion from performing quests. Initially, no areas were set aside purely for PvP combat, players themselves sought each other out, creating notorious hotspots for spontaneous PvP action.43 Further patches and expansion packs introduced dedicated PvP areas in the form of “battlegrounds”(for large, loosely organized groups) and “arenas” (for small, tightly organized teams). Both battlegrounds and arenas are grounded in Warcraft’s fiction but, like dungeons, they are instanced and thus stand separate from the rest of the game world (MacCallumStewart 2008). More similarities with dungeons exist. The often chaotic battlegrounds and the highly skill-based arenas form mini-challenges with true quantitative outcomes (you either win or lose a battle) and allow players to build up and showcase their instrumental prowess. The arenas spawned a highly dedicated tournament culture, with the best players fighting each other in professional socalled e-Sports teams for real money (cf. Taylor 2012).
Whereas battlegrounds and arenas offer dedicated areas for PvP combat, existing outside of the main game world through instancing, the role of PvP in the rest of the game world is organized through other rules. Whether you can actually attack a member of the opposing faction outside of a battleground or arena depends on the choice of realm, as explained earlier.44 Even on dedicated PvP part ii controlling the game realms, there are socially negotiated codes of practice dictating which kinds of PvP action are allowed. In most cases, attacking characters of a considerably lower level (and as such rather defenseless) is seen as improper conduct. The same goes for killing an opponent, waiting for him or her to be resurrected and, killing him or her again and again, exploiting the victim’s weak state after resurrection (a practice called “corpse camping”). Needless to say, whether or not these examples of individualized group play usually referred to as “ganking” or “griefing” depends on a particular view of sportsmanlike behaviour between individuals, larger groups, factions or entire realms. Ganking and griefing are, however, as game scholar Jonas Heide Smith calls them, forms of extra-mechanic conflict: the ‘consequence of multiplayer games being social spaces’ as opposed to intra-mechanic conflict which form the direct consequences of the way the
game rules are designed. (Smith 2004; Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith & Tosca 2008:
Having created the preconditions for extra-mechanic conflict to exist, Blizzard is not taking a stance against PvP griefing. In fact, the company’s PvP realm policy states that ‘actions that would typically be considered “dishonorable actions” are considered PvP mechanics and are not considered harassment’ (Blizzard Entertainment 2005). While PvP combat is encouraged by Blizzard on the level of game design, it is at least partly regulated through social codes of practice by players themselves. This situation can lead to serious battlefields of negotiation, which will be investigated in chapter ten.
For some, the built-in possibilities for extra-mechanical conflict through PvP mechanics and the faction division go against the established norms and values of the MMORPG genre. Virtual worlds designer R. V. Kelly 2, for instance, calls PvP ‘a violent, creepy, ornery, impatient, petulant subculture’ (Kelly 2 2004: 40). A presence or even emphasis on PvP combat does not have to lead to anti-social behaviour. Empirical research has shown that World of Warcraft’s PvP realms see more players in group formations than in normal realms (2005). One way of explaining this is that there is simply no better way of protecting oneself against attacks from the opposing faction than by bringing a friend. The possibility of PvP-based extra-mechnical conflict therefore also leads to organized group play, not merely to individualized, anti-social group behaviour.
Through the way PvP combat has been set up as an instrumental pursuit with its own reward systems, we can nevertheless show how players are set up for a game world where attacking other players’ characters is not punished but in many cases rewarded. Again, the game isn’t called World of Warcraft for nothing.
My point, however, is not to argue against PvP combat but to convey the dominant play strategies that, like performing quests and picking the correct group composition for dungeons, define the game’s “intended” use and world vision and, by doing so, conditioning players into certain forms of behaviour. On an individual level, players get hooked on the game by an endless supply of quests 70 battlefields of negotiation and the promises of unlimited goods availability. In group play situations, we see players peer-pressured into specific types of collective action or, when dealing with PvP, are left to define their own boundaries of acceptable behaviour. This highlights the way the game’s design controls and guides instrumental play, which allows for a better understanding of the players’ stakes when they deviate from the intended uses of the game. As I show in the following chapters, players do not just follow the intended instrumental structures but resist, manipulate and/or transform them in order to engage with the game in ways they enjoy most, both individually as well as in groups.
The instrumental rules and structures are not the only parts of World of Warcraft’s design that define its intended use. On the level of representation, game design also influences the course of play. I will therefore focus next on the way World of Warcraft’s fictional world is designed, showing that there is, in fact, a large difference between the way this world is represented and the way it is engaged through play.
part ii controlling the game8: Playing with Fiction
While discussing the dominant rules and structures that constitute the game in World of Warcraft, I did not shy away from mentioning that which creates its fiction. After all, in order to explain the mechanics of World of Warcraft, it does not matter that its factions are called Horde and Alliance: a more abstract “A” and “B” would have sufficed. For most players, the fact that World of Warcraft is set in a fantasy world cannot be divorced from play – even with the same instrumental rules and structures, another fictional theme would have meant playing another game. World of Warcraft’s fiction is not purely cosmetic either: like the instrumental design discussed above, the fictional design controls and guides the player’s action toward intended uses and, since we are dealing with representation, its intended interpretations. It does so by situating a player’s character in the fiction, by orienting and guiding the player spatially and by limiting the amount of persistent influence players have on the fictional world. Ultimately, the goal of this chapter is to convey that Azeroth, the name of World of Warcraft’s fictional world, is a world in which formal player agency is limited at best.
Representing Azeroth There are many ways to address a game’s fiction. While I discussed World of Warcraft as a text in chapter four, enunciating the difference between “passive” interpretation and “active” participation, I do not aim to define World of Warcraft as a narrative. A MMORPG is more than just a representation of a fictional world (as is a film or book); as Klastrup points out, it presents ‘an actualised version of an
imaginary universe’ (2009, emphasis in original) with an added social dimension:
We as users of it know that the people we meet and interact with in the world are real people and that our real-time interaction and communication with them is not imagined or scripted by someone else, but actually take place here and now (2009).
MMORPGs form shared fictional universes where players have the chance, as game critic and historian J. C. Herz expresses it, ‘not just to press your nose against the window of this universe, but to actually be a living, breathing part of 72 battlefields of negotiation it, and have thousands of people implicitly acknowledge that you are part of it’ (2002: 119).
As an actualized version of an imaginary universe, World of Warcraft is not a complete copy of that universe. Taking his cues from theories on possible worlds (Pavel; Ryan 1991, 1992), Juul addresses the fact that fictional worlds in games can be nothing but incomplete, with players having to fill in the missing pieces by combining knowledge from the real world, knowledge of genre conventions (2005: 122-123) and, as I argue below, knowledge of existing source material.
Additionally, Juul argues, many games present game worlds that are incoherent, where the world ‘contradicts itself or some game events cannot be explained as part of the fictional world’, usually due to the fact that they are games first, and fictional worlds second (ibid. 132). Other games, like many adventure games, offer more coherent worlds where ‘nothing prevents us from imagining them in detail’ (ibid. 132). According to Klastrup, MMORPGs ‘logically’ belong to Juul’s category of coherent world games (2009). I prefer to deviate from Klastrup on this point. On many occasions discussed throughout this chapter, World of Warcraft’s Azeroth does contain instances of incoherency and contradiction, the reason being that there is a big difference between the fictional world of Azeroth and the fictional world of Azeroth as depicted in World of Warcraft. To explain this difference, it is useful to discuss Azeroth first in detail.
Since its conception in the game Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (Blizzard Entertainment 1994), Azeroth has grown into a fictional universe with countless dissimilar races on several planets (and, in some cases, other dimensions) and a history spanning thousands of years. Azeroth is not limited to the Warcraft computer games and their various expansion packs. Like the fictional universe of Star Wars, Azeroth forms the fictional grounding for, among other things, a host of novels, comics, board games, a trading card game, a tabletop role-playing game and so on. Spanning so many media, Blizzard keeps tight control over the core narratives, events and characters of this world in order to preserve fictional consistency and logical continuity. Chris Metzen, credited as the creative director of World of Warcraft and vice president for creative development at Blizzard Entertainment, has been a key figure in Azeroth’s overall design since the mid-90s, many years
before World of Warcraft’s release.45 He remarks about the creation and maintenance of Azeroth’s lore:
We're taking the process of building a world seriously and it wasn't just churned out. It had a strong sense of continuity. [...] We are kind of painstakingly anal, about making sure all the details add up; that continuity is held to be sacred. So that no matter in what medium you are experiencing Warcraft it all feels like a contiguous experience (Blizzard Entertainment 2004b).
part ii controlling the game Suggesting that the medium is not an essential element for a contiguous experience, Metzen glosses over an important difference between Azeroth as the fictional world existing on a meta-level and Azeroth the fictional world as presented within individual media like World of Warcraft. In his work on tabletop role-playing games, Fine explains that a game has the same relationship to the fictional world
it presents ‘than a game based upon “reality” has to do with that reality’ (1983:
134). World of Warcraft does not present the “real” Azeroth. Instead it offers a ‘magnification or model of life’ on Azeroth. The fact that there is no “real” Azeroth in the first place provides Blizzard’s writing staff ample opportunity to control both versions of Azeroth, changing the fiction when they feel it suits the game or the other way around.
In the form of a model, or actualized version as Klastrup put it, of the “real” Azeroth, World of Warcraft’s fictional world is designed with play in mind: it is simplified in order to focus on those elements important to becoming a game. As such, one could replace the term model or version with simulation. A MMORPG like World of Warcraft is what Juul calls a stylized simulation, ‘developed not just for fidelity to their source domain, but for aesthetic purposes’ (2005: 172).
The process of simplification and stylization is already visible in the setup phase, discussed in the first part of this chapter, and shows the large degree of agency that Blizzard has over a player’s role within the fictional world. Here, players were able to choose between several classes, each presenting a potential career that a person within the “real” Azeroth might have. What players do not get to choose are careers deemed too boring or not heroic enough to play. While one could play one through representational role-playing, in terms of formal ludic role-playing you simply cannot choose to be a city guard, a nurse, a salesman or a lumberjack. Similarly, players can only choose fit, strong, young bodies for their characters during setup, not ugly, fat, old, crippled or in any other way less than “perfect” physiques. Players are to be heroic, with all other less heroic characters being computer-controlled.
Within this simplified simulation of Azeroth, Blizzard has chosen the quest system as the main driver of the player’s character story. In the previous section, I introduced the very first quest that a Horde troll encounters upon entering the world. Then, I only discussed this quest as a pointer to the next quest, in order to explain how the quest system works in terms of instrumental progress. Quests, however, also function to give a player’s character purpose on a fictional level, providing the freshly created character with a personal story. What follows is the
quest text from the first quest, called ‘Your place in the world’:
Finally, you are of age, name... of age to battle in the name of the Horde. To conquer for the glory of the Warchief.
You will do nicely.