«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»
part ii controlling the game Part III Gaming the Game It should be clear by now that even though World of Warcraft is very much open for free play, it is nevertheless a game infused with a range of control and guidance mechanisms creating dominant play strategies and also certain limitations for play. The three chapters in this part of the book will, however, show how players address these strategies and limitations imposed on them. They are, one could say, “gaming” the game. The chapters also show what happens when players share the game, but not necessarily the way it can or should be played. Players do not always agree with the ways World of Warcraft asks them to play, nor do they always agree with the ways other players engage with “their” game. These moments of tension between game and player, and between players themselves, can turn into battlefields of negotiation about the rules of play. The main questions here are: which tactics do players use to gain agency over the game’s design through negotiation processes; how are the tactics of negotiation supported, reinforced and sometimes contested on the level of game culture and community; and in what ways do play practices that counter, circumvent or go beyond dominant strategies and play limitations inform the experience of the game both individually and socially?
The chapters here introduce a host of battlefields of negotiation in which World of Warcraft’s intended, dominant uses (as analyzed in the previous part of the book) will be challenged through player practices. With these chapters, I do not claim at all to provide a full overview of all forms of play that deviate from the intended path set out by Blizzard. While dominant, intended play strategies can be studied through an analysis of the game’s design, play practices diverging, countering or foregoing these strategies can only be studied through active participation – ie., through play. The chapters here therefore describe examples of transformative and transgressive play stemming from my own experiences and encounters as a player/researcher. They nevertheless describe widespread and often very popular – and thus representative – play practices, which has allowed me to tap into and use an extensive body of websites, strategy guides, modifications and other participatory cultural productions dedicated to them.
Each of the upcoming chapters is furthermore dedicated to one of the three forms of social play introduced earlier – individual play, individualized group play and group play – showcasing very different negotiation processes as a result.
In the first chapter, I focus on the use of walkthroughs and strategy guides as tools to transform the individual play experience. To do this, I ventured into play practices that some players would consider cheating. The following also involves controversial play: the practice of boosting a character through the game by giving it an “unfair” advantage over other players’ characters. The third and final chapter of this part of the book offers a discussion on the group play form of raiding and tackles social surveillance through player-created UI modifications.
Throughout these chapters, I show that players, as stakeholders with their own particular view on the rules of play, are exceedingly creative in their ways to avoid, transform or surpass the intended use of World of Warcraft as designed by Blizzard.
It is here that it becomes clear what the limitations are when only analyzing a game’s design, as the process of play leads to very different strategies and interpretations.
86 battlefields of negotiation9: It’s about time
World of Warcraft asks for a serious time investment from players. Just getting to the highest level to reach the endgame, where most of the bigger instrumental challenges and social activities can be found, requires hundreds of hours of play.
A 2006 data-mining project by game researchers Nicholas Ducheneaut, Nick Yee, Eric Nickell and Robert Moore showed that the average player had accumulated fifteen-and-a-half days (or forty-seven full eight-hour work days) to reach level sixty, excluding all the time played after reaching this level (Ducheneaut et al.
2006: 409). Patches and expansion packs have since significantly speeded up the process of gaining experience points. Increased knowledge about the leveling process among the player base, collected in and distributed through the vast knowledge databases and wikis dedicated to the game, also have undoubtedly made progress easier and faster. The average amount of time it takes to get to the highest level has nevertheless been somewhat constant over time due to an increase of content and the highest level jumping from level 60 to 85 (the maximum level introduced with the Cataclysm expansion pack). The time investment to reach the highest level therefore remains daunting.
For a significant amount of players, however, most time in World of Warcraft is spent beyond the moment of reaching the highest level. My main character, for instance, became level sixty during Christmas 2005, but when I last logged out three years later, I had accumulated a total of 1483 hours playing with him, or close to 62 full days. World of Warcraft’s endgame is a vast and diverse experience that, not surprisingly, receives a relatively large amount of attention (in terms of new content) and polish (in terms of creative and innovative design) from Blizzard. It is, after all, here where all players wind up at some point and where Blizzard needs to convince players to keep on playing and paying their subscription fees (Brown 2011). As a result, an often-heard statement among players is that leveling up a character is just a means to an end, an obstacle preceding the real fun of the endgame.54 This chapter investigates how players who cannot or do not want to invest so much time can negotiate the time-consuming leveling process. In the battlefields of negotiation encountered here, time is therefore at stake. With leveling being an obstacle that can take months to overcome if players do not have unlimited time to play in their daily lives, some players look for external means to limit the part iii gaming the game demands of leveling with the use of strategy guides available online.55 Using strategy guides for assistance in getting through the game as efficiently as possible has become an important part of the culture of digital games, and World of Warcraft’s culture forms no exception. Strategy guides offer a wide range of different help topics for every imaginable play situation, and are created both by professionals (like commercial strategy guide publishers) and amateurs (players writing their own strategy guides and posting them online). The latter brings strategy guides into the realm of participatory culture. Using strategy guides therefore does not just bring external help to play, it also presents a very direct overlap between game culture and game design. Negotiation processes about strategy guides that result from this overlap concern both its actual use (using a product of the participatory culture around the game to overcome challenges within the game itself) and the perception of this use (using external means to overcome challenges can be considered cheating in terms of game play and associated social codes of practice).
One particular type of strategy guide will be featured here: the walkthrough.
Where strategy guides generally offer a general approach to problems, walkthroughs take a player by the hand in a step-by-step fashion, showing them the quickest and/or most efficient way to get through a game. As such, walkthroughs can be linked directly to the issue of time. I focus on a particular use of walkthroughs called power-leveling, which takes speed and efficiency to an extreme.
My discussion of walkthroughs will also go beyond the aforementioned discussion of their accepted use by investigating how the use of walkthroughs affects the ways in which the game and its fictional world are experienced. Power-leveling through the use of walkthroughs, I will show, is a form of individual play that transforms the play experience into a negotiation process that aims to ignore the game’s intended design as much as possible in order to maximize progression.56 Paratexts as cheating tools Strategy guides have a particular relation to games. Providing tips, tricks and other game play enhancing solutions, strategy guides can greatly impact the experience of play. As game researcher Mia Consalvo argues, strategy guides can be seen as part of a game's paratext, a term coined by literary theorist Gérard Genette to refer to all the information accompanying the main text of a book such as the preface, the table of contents and the index. Paratexts form ‘thresholds of interpretation’ – pieces of information standing in between text (the inside) and off-text (the outside) (Genette: 1-2). Paratexts do more than just provide additional information for the main text, they control one’s reading of it.
Including the paratexts in one's reading therefore has the ability to change how the main text is perceived. Consalvo takes the concept of paratext into the realm of digital games by situating strategy guides as paratextual to the games they 88 battlefields of negotiation describe (2007: 21). As paratexts, strategy guides control not just one’s reading but potentially one’s playing too. In her work, Consalvo points out that paratexts are ‘anything but peripheral, and they grow more integral to the digital game industry and player community with every year’ (2007: 182). Consalvo’s focus is on the rise and subsequent influence of the ‘paratextual industries’ as developed by the game industry (2007: 9). I pursue the question of how paratexts created by players themselves function as strong guiding mechanisms and thereby change the reading and playing of the game.
While nobody will object to a reader referring to a book’s index, there is no consensus among players about the ethicality of using walkthroughs and strategy guides for playing a game. While for some, using these paratexts is a perfectly acceptable practice, for others it is clearly a form of cheating. The lack of consensus results from the lack of a generally accepted definition of cheating among players. According to Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, there is a hypothetical “standard player” who only plays the game as intended by the designers, forming a ‘test case against which all other types of players are contrasted’ (Salen & Zimmerman 2004: 269). Such players would be “cheat-free” – that is, they would employ no external help in order to play a game. Whether such players exist or not, for purists, the idea of being cheat-free is something to aspire to. According to Consalvo, who investigated the social practices of cheating, this purist group believes that ‘anything other than a solo effort in completing a game is cheating’ (2007: 88). This means that all external information, including asking friends for tips or advice or going online to look up some information about a quest or an item, is considered to be breaking the magic circle of play and hence can be labeled cheating. A purist player in World of Warcraft would never allow himself or herself to use web forums or information databases, only using what the game’s design offers as guidance.
As the purist definition shows, cheating is not simply breaking the rules; it is a term used to define what purists believe create unfair advantages over other players by using external help. Simply bending or reinterpreting the rules can be enough to be labeled a cheater (Consalvo 2007: 87). Like discussions about ganking and griefing, briefly discussed in chapter seven, conflicts about definitions of cheating are the result of multiplayer games being social spaces. The activities of players that Salen and Zimmerman define as being cheats – violating the formal rules of the game in order to win – can be deemed completely acceptable by players who see cheating as something only existing in social settings (Salen & Zimmerman 2004: 269). For these players, Consalvo points out, ‘the use of items such as walkthroughs or code devices in a single player game is acceptable because, by [their] definition, one cannot cheat a machine or oneself’ (2007: 92).
In a game like World of Warcraft, these lenient players coexist with purists and everyone in between, making any socially negotiated fixed definition of cheating nearly impossible.
part iii gaming the game As an alternative term, deviance is closely linked to cheating in the sense that it involves defying norms and/or rules but is arguably less accusatory in nature.
Game researcher Torill Mortensen defines deviance as diverging from the plans of the game designers. She posits two types of deviance: ‘counterproductive, that which hinders personal progress, and destructive, that which ruins the progress of other players’ (2008: 208). As World of Warcraft is designed as a game of emergence with some elements of progression, turning it into a game of progression through a step-by-step walkthrough certainly constitutes deviance. In terms of progress, however, using a walkthrough is all but counterproductive. I would argue that Mortensen’s distinction between counterproductive and destructive deviance could benefit from the addition of what I would call hyperproductive deviance: that which deviates from the game’s intended design by looking for ways to excel beyond the core challenges. One of the two walkthroughs under discussion in this case study is dedicated to hyperproductive deviance, whose main aim is to get through the game as quickly as possible by whatever means necessary. As I show in this case study, hyperproductive deviance can increase a player’s sense of agency over a game.
How hyperproductive deviance affects the experience of the game and its fictional world, and what role player agency plays within this process, will form an important part of this chapter. Using paratextual assistance like a strategy guide can create situations among players where, as game scholar Julian Kücklich observes, ‘one player’s increase in agency is another player's loss of immersion’ (2004: 9). As one would expect, this situation can create tension and thus battlefields of negotiation between players, and between players and Blizzard (who does not want to see players unhappy due to other player’s divergent behaviour).