«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»
Stuck in time According to the fictional timeline of the Warcraft universe, the events of World of Warcraft are situated twenty-five years after the Horde’s invasion of Azeroth as understood in the first Warcraft game, a moment deemed so important that it has become the year zero of Azerothian time.51 As such, World of Warcraft does not present all of the fictional world of Warcraft but presents a particular moment within it. While playing World of Warcraft, players are constantly reminded of the diachronic, of playing in a constantly changing world with a tangible past. Azeroth’s history is not just told by NPCs through quests. Blizzard also engages in environmental storytelling by embedding narrative elements in geographical landmarks and other objects scattered throughout the game world.52 For part ii controlling the game instance, the partly destroyed capital city of the blood elves, Silvermoon City, fell victim to a large-scale Scourge attack during the Third War, an event depicted in Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (Blizzard Entertainment 2002). Even to those players who have not played this earlier game, read the novels or are simply not interested in the how and why of Azeroth’s past, the fact that this war took place has been made obvious in World of Warcraft. While the war is long over, the city ruins still exist in World of Warcraft as well as the gigantic “scar” through the countryside surrounding the city caused by a marching army of demons.
Even though the richness of Azeroth’s past is told, felt and seen throughout World of Warcraft, I argue that playing the game is a wholly synchronous experience, with hardly any influence on the past or future of the fictional world. You are very much playing in the ‘here and now’ of the fictional world, as Klastrup puts it (2009) but at the same time you are stuck there. The issue I want to address here, however, is not how the diachronic is represented in the fictional world but how the synchronic experience of play influences – or rather does not influence – World of Warcraft’s fictional evolution.
Before addressing the design choices that impact the diachronic and/or synchronic experience of time, I will introduce some general observations on the experience of time when engaging with fictional worlds in games. When talking about time in a game’s fictional world, there is a difference between the time played by the player and the time his or her characters spend inside the fictional world. Film theorist Seymour Chatman’s commonly used terms ‘discourse time’ (‘the time it takes to peruse the discourse’) and ‘story time’ (‘the duration of the purported events in the narrative’) could be used to describe this difference. Juul, however, points out that not all games have a narrative, and some games’ fictional worlds are so incoherent that they defy an understandable story time. To address the often non-narrative nature of games, he therefore suggests the alternative terms ‘play time’ and ‘fictional time’ (2004, 2005). Another issue worth addressing is that, in games, the player is not an observer but he is more often than not in control of the protagonist. As Juul argues, ‘the player’s time and actions are projected onto the game world where they take on a fictional meaning’ (2005: 143). The idea of projection onto a game world fits well with being in the here and now of a game’s fictional world. The amount of fictional meaning a player’s time and actions are allowed to make is controlled through design.
There are two main design choices I link to the experience of time and which play key roles in the level of influence that players have over Azeroth. First, there
is the amount of impact that players are allowed to have on their surroundings:
are they allowed to build objects, extend the geography or implement their own stories into formal quests? Secondly, there is the amount of persistency the game world has: do players’ actions have a lasting impact; do the changes they bring 80 battlefields of negotiation about become part of the game world? As game designers Raph Koster and Rich Vogel point out, all online virtual worlds and communities can be ranked along the two axes of impact and persistency (2001). When a player/user is allowed full access to change their surroundings in a fully persistent environment, we arrive at free-building worlds like Second Life (which is almost entirely user-constructed).53 Most online chat systems sustaining virtual communities, on the other hand, do not create or change a fictional world at all, nor do they include many persistent elements. Between these extremes we find MMORPGs, where, depending on the amount of freedom the design allows, players have some influence on the fictional world, which persists to some degree.
As I mentioned earlier, the levels of impact and persistency influence the experience of time when engaging with the fictional world of World of Warcraft. At first glance, time in Azeroth conforms to our own experience of time; an Azeroth day has twenty-four hours and it becomes dark in the virtual world when it becomes dark in the real world. Here, fictional time and play time resemble each other. The difference becomes apparent when you start interacting with the environment. Every time you kill a mob within Azeroth, from the smallest nondescript farm animal to the monstrous bosses in instances with a well known legacy from Azeroth’s history, they simply reappear (or “respawn”) several minutes later. It is simply not possible to eradicate a mob permanently – the game is set up in such a way that every player has a chance to kill a particular target as well as become the hero. The actual impact on the fictional world by killing a mob is thus nihil, as the game is not designed for the death of mobs to persist. Like the players’ characters, World of Warcraft’s computer-controlled characters are immortal; only Blizzard can kill them eternally when they think the time is right for a fictional character to die. The world’s fictional time is caught in a loop: whatever players are allowed to do within it, it will reset again to allow other players to do the same thing.
While leading to a rather incoherent fictional world full of immortal beings, the repetitive killing of mobs is rewarded by the game on an instrumental level. As explained earlier, mobs “drop” loot. The more famous or important a mob is in World of Warcraft’s fiction, the higher the chance their loot includes rare and thus highly sought after items. These mobs, including the bosses in dungeons, are “farmed” – killed repeatedly – for their loot. This results in what Juul calls ‘dead time’: unchallenging, mundane activities for the sake of a higher goal (2004: 138).
Players are furthermore not able to build objects that add to the game world like houses or geographical features. From a game design perspective, players are allowed to play within World of Warcraft’s fictional world but not with it. In terms of impact and persistency, this makes World of Warcraft markedly different from something like Second Life, whose complex virtual world is a result of thousands upon thousands of user-architects (cf. Malaby 2009).
part ii controlling the game While players are not permitted to have a lasting impact on their characters’ surroundings, they are able to manipulate the characters themselves. The many thousands of different items like clothing and weaponry that players can earn, buy or make (by taking up a profession like leatherworking or blacksmithing) can be worn visibly by characters. This enables players, for instance, to create a unique look for their character for (representational) role-playing purposes or, when wearing rare items, to showcase their past victories in difficult dungeons.
This way, a character’s look tells the story of where a character has been, or what he or she has done to obtain the items worn. The persistency of characters is furthermore tracked and represented by their level and stats: the higher they are, the longer the character has been part of the fictional world. Quests also contribute to the feeling of persistency and making an impact on the fictional world.
Exceptions aside, as soon as a quest is finished, a character may not do the same quest again. This suggests progress both instrumentally and temporally, providing a player with the feeling of having “been there, done that”. Obtaining and wearing items, leveling up and finishing quests allow players to infuse their play with fictional meaning, but these actions do not have a lasting influence on the fictional world itself, only on the players’ characters.
Returning to the notion of play time and fictional time, we can observe that in World of Warcraft, play time is continuous and chronological while fictional time is forced into a divide between the fictional time of the players’ individual characters and the fictional time of the world surrounding these characters. This results in having a persistent character that players develop over time (within the boundaries of the design) which exists in a fictional world stuck in time – a world that only moves on when Blizzard decides it is time to move on. Blizzard does so regularly through patches, creating world events like a war against an insect empire (patch 1.9, called ‘The Gates of Ahn’Qiraj’, January 2006), or the mysterious appearance of floating necropolises throughout Azeroth (Patch 1.11, called ‘Shadow of the Necropolis’, June 2006). Most influential, though, have been the massive expansions of and changes in both geography and fiction due to the release of World of Warcraft’s various expansion packs. The first two expansions, called The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King primarily added new continents to the game world. With 2010’s Cataclysm expansion pack, however, the core game world – which had been largely unchanged since World of Warcraft’s initial release in 2004 – was significantly changed. The expansion pack’s central plot was the return of an immense dragon called Deathwing the Destroyer who tore the world asunder, a cataclysmic happening providing the design team ample opportunity to redesign entire lands. Through these moments, Blizzard adds to the diachronic story, developing and implementing an additional back story with which the players can interact. On a synchronic level, the players did not cause the events to happen, nor will they truly influence their resolution.
82 battlefields of negotiation Game critic Steven Poole once suggested that in games, ‘the drama is provided by the pre-scripted story, the virtual exploration is interactive, and never the twain shall meet’ (Poole 2000: 114). Whether or not this observation is valid for all games is arguable, but for World of Warcraft it is rather fitting. Players do get to interact with Azeroth’s fiction to the degree that they can give their personal actions fictional meaning but, in terms of having a persistent impact, formally changing the rest of World of Warcraft’s Azeroth remains out of the players’ reach, independent of the amount of play time they put into it.
Like the previous chapters in this part of the book, I have shown here how World of Warcraft affords but also limits player agency. In this process, certain dominant uses and play styles arise. By looking closely at the game’s design on the levels of technology, rules and fiction, I have provided insight into how Blizzard envisions the game should be played – or at least how it should not be played. We must, of course, be cautious when thinking about game companies as singular entities.
Instead, notes Taylor, we should regard games as ‘emerging from a tangled mix of individual personalities, organizational structures, design imperatives, and economic considerations’ (2003: 26). My attempt here was to nevertheless lay bare dominant design structures, imperatives and considerations as they are presented to the players through design.
What we find are elaborate mechanisms of control and guidance, disciplining and propelling the player through the game. These mechanisms present themselves both in limitations as well as in affordances, which means we should not immediately reject them as being oppressive. World of Warcraft is a multiplayer game in which people invest a considerable amount of their (leisure) time, and as such needs some protection from devious misuse by some in order to keep it fun for others. The tight, top-down control over the game that is exercised by Blizzard is appreciated by most players for this very reason. At the same time, what we see is that in many cases, World of Warcraft does not ask the player what they would like it to be but rather tries to define it for them. Again, for most players this is not an issue, at least not one needing constant attention. Play, however, does not always abide by set rules, and players have a habit of knowingly or unknowingly deviating from them.
In the following part of the book, I will show that players play games on their own terms as much as they follow those set by companies like Blizzard. Such diversity of play forms and preferences exist within the tightly designed structure set by Blizzard, leading to potentially endless battlefields of negotiation on technological, instrumental and fictional levels. Here, World of Warcraft’s status as an assemblage of play, as an artifact defined both by design as well as play and other forms of participation, becomes clear.