«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»
The other chapters in this section of the book, which address individualized group play and group play practices, involve exactly such battlefields of negotiation. Here, however, I will primarily focus on the individual play experience, so I will limit myself to investigating negotiation processes between the player and the game’s design.
I will investigate two World of Warcraft walkthroughs to show how different translations of World of Warcraft into a strategy guide format not only lead to two different play practices but additionally influence a player’s perception of the game as a whole. The first walkthrough is part of the official strategy guide published by commercial strategy guide publisher Bradygames (Lummis & Vanderlip 2005); the second is a power-leveling guide created by a player calling himself Joana, who also sells his guide commercially through his own website (Joana 2007).57 To understand the practice of using walkthroughs, I have made use of both guides extensively during the leveling process of two of my characters. What is considered cheating or deviance is difficult – if not impossible – to define, as it is socially negotiated and highly context dependent, but as a research practice it is 90 battlefields of negotiation considered controversial. As game scholar Julian Kücklich has pointed out, the term cheating has connotations that usually do not meet the game research community’s professional and ethical guidelines (2007: 356). As Aarseth once stated, for instance, researchers who cheat in the games they study ‘cannot reach a deep understanding of the games they examine’ (2003: 7). In reaction to Aarseth, Lammes however argues that ‘a self-confessed cheater/researcher that takes [the position of a cheater] as a reflexive practice could actually engender very interesting material’ (2007: 28). In his work on cheating as a methodological tool in digital games research, Kücklich takes up a similar position, in effect summing
up some of the advantages of inducing the puzzlement through cheating:
As a method, cheating allows us to reflect upon the presuppositions that we bring to games, no matter from which perspective we are studying them. It also enables us to identify blind spots in our research perspectives and thus discover new avenues of inquiry with regard to the phenomena we study. Perhaps even more importantly, taking into account unorthodox forms of play can help us recognize flaws in our theoretical models, which are so often built
upon the experience of playing by the rules, rather than breaking them. (2007:
357) Engaging in practices some players would consider cheating allowed me to indeed identify and reflect on play practices that would have been otherwise inaccessible. Some of these practices, like the use of walkthroughs and other external information supporting advantageous play (as seen in the next chapter), are not uncommon but widespread among the player community. For me, this meant that taking this approach enabled me to broaden my overall experience and understanding of the game, its stakeholders and their stakes.
While what is considered to be cheating or deviation is socially negotiated, why players cheat or deviate is a more personal affair. After countless interviews with players as well as game designers about why people cheat, Consalvo concludes that ‘perhaps the only constant is the lack of a constant factor’ (2007: 94). People cheat and deviate in order to win a game, out of boredom, because a game is too difficult, to annoy others or simply because they are stuck. Or, as in this case of walkthroughs, to lessen the amount of time it takes to go through a game.
Instead of trying to provide a top-down overview of the reasons why people turn to walkthroughs and strategy guides, I will take a bottom-up approach by describing my own reasons for using them, reasons I have seen reoccur many times with other players throughout my time on web forums and during play.
When one starts out playing World of Warcraft without prior experience with MMORPGs or RPGs in general, the game is dauntingly complex. The official strategy guide lends a helping hand, offering a broad and general introduction to playing the game. It is therefore particularly attractive for newcomers to the game part iii gaming the game and/or the MMORPG genre.58 Joana’s dedicated power-leveling guide, however, requires players to have a solid knowledge of the inner mechanics of the game a priori, and most of its users are therefore experienced players with one or more characters on the highest levels. It is mostly aimed at players who want to level up additional characters as quick as possible. Both guides offer walkthroughs aimed at different types of players and offer a very different take on the walkthrough process. As I will show, the two guides form paratexts that change not only the way the game is interpreted but the way it is played. Both, however, allow players to gain agency over the game’s intended use by actively bending, circumventing or flat out ignoring it.
From emergence to progression Strategy guides generally convey much about a game. Game scholar Jesper Juul
offers a simple test to see what the main structure of a game is using only paratextual information:
Search for a guide to the game on the Internet. If the game guide is a walkthrough (describing step-by-step what to do), it is a game of progression. If the game guide is a strategy guide (describing the rules of thumb for how to play), it is a game of emergence (2005: 71).
In games of progression, often single-player games, players need to perform a predefined sequence of events in order to succeed, while in games of emergence, “the primordial game structure” often seen in multiplayer games, a small number
of rules result in a relatively large amount of potential play variations (Juul 2005:
72-74). When reading through Bradygames’ official guide for World of Warcraft (the first of the two guides I discuss in this section), it is instantly obvious that World of Warcraft is primarily a game of emergence. Take, for example, this excerpt
from the guide’s introduction:
This guide explains the terms that appear in the community, the methods of creating and building a character, and how to handle yourself in various situations.
For those with greater MORG experience, the guide brings you up to speed with class explanations, tactics, long-term strategies for increasing your power and getting the most out of your Talent specializations. Those switching to World of Warcraft from other MORG’s should find these chapters of tremendous value while looking at long-term options for play and mastery (Lummis & Vanderlip: 6).
92 battlefields of negotiation The guide goes on to offer tips and tricks for a large variety of subjects, like keyboard layouts, general etiquette, naming your character, death and rebirth (“spawning”) and – playing ahead – information on party dynamics (the “holy trinity”), talents and professions.
Even though there is a strong emphasis on the emergent aspects of the game, there is a chapter dedicated to progression in the form of a walkthrough. Under the heading ‘Your first day’, a step-by-step description of what to do, which quests to take in what order is provided for each of the six starter zones of the game world, explaining everything a character needs to do to reach level ten. For experienced players who know that reaching level ten only takes approximately a few hours to achieve in a game that offers many hundreds of hours of content (which for a large part is also repeatable), such information looks almost superfluous. The walkthrough sections of the official strategy guide may not be very useful for the long-term players, but for the newcomer they can be a key that unlocks the workings of the game and its fantasy world.
How a walkthrough is presented can dictate how the game should be experienced in play. In the previous chapter I introduced both the instrumental as well as fictional sides of World of Warcraft by entering the game as a troll hunter in the Valley of Trials. You might recall the way I described seeing the first NPC with a question mark above its head, while at the same time discovering that executing quests and killing boars led to level increases and more power. Here, I present the way the official strategy guide translates this exact moment into walkthrough
The Valley of Trials is the starting point for all new Orcs and Trolls. It sits nestled within a valley in the southwestern region of Durotar. The beginning trainers and a small few vendors are located here.
The Valley of Trials is a great starting place for Orcs and Trolls. There are minimal amounts of running involved at this point and the quests all revolve around the same contained area.
When you first come into the world, you’ll find yourself face-to-face with Eitrigg. He is your introduction into the New Horde and directs you to seek out Gornak to begin your journey. Gornak wants to help you to gain strength, albeit a bit reluctantly. He tasks you with killing 10 Mottled Boars (Cutting Teeth).
Galgar is nearby and has another quest for you as well. He wants you to collect 10 cactus apples for him so he can make his Cactus Apple Surprise. He claims that Cactus Apple Surprise can do wonders and cool you down. Both of these quests are a fairly easy way to start your time as an Orc or Troll.
part iii gaming the game Right in the beginning part of the Valley of Trials you'll see plenty of Mottled Boars roaming around. They’re not aggressive. Also sprinkled around the area are cactus and cactus apples. You'll know them by the rosy blooms on the cacti. Right-click on them to gather the apples; they respawn relatively quickly.
Once you’ve killed all the boars and gather the apples, return to the Valley of Trials and complete the quest by speaking to the appropriate NPCs. Gornak will want you to prove your prowess further by killing Scorpids and collecting 8 of their tails. It seems anti-venom is created from an extraction of venom from their stingers. Fortunately, Scorpids are not aggressive here (Lummis & Vanderlip: 65, emphasis in original).
As a walkthrough, this style of translation of gameplay is aimed at a narrative telling of events. While several references are made to the instrumental, highly controlled spine of the fictional world (a ‘contained area’, NPCs, right-clicking, respawning), pure instrumental matters like experience points, equipment attributes and levels are not mentioned. The quest system is brought forward by the authors as a narrative tool, a system of narrative guidance. Additionally, it might tell you what to do with quest objectives (‘right-click on them to gather the apples’), though it does not directly tell you where they are (they are ‘sprinkled around the area’). Still, in terms of immersion, this walkthrough addresses you as a character first, and as a player second.
For most new players, unaccustomed to the way World of Warcraft works, the narrative of the quest system forms the backbone of the initial play experience. A careful reading of the description that accompanies a quest, written in a style fitting the NPC’s race, class or rank, usually offers enough information about how and where to fulfill a task.59 In these earliest stages of the game, most quest goals are not far away from the quest givers, resulting in a conveniently arranged initial play arena. Playing through these early levels was never meant to be hard, and the walkthrough makes it even easier by guiding players through the first levels with a step-by-step process. Being an official guide, the writers do not stray far from Blizzard’s intended design, making a player’s perceived agency over the game through this walkthrough limited.
As a character progresses in level, the simplicity of the early quests is replaced by a multiplicity of quest series to follow in different zones of the world, and a mostly linear narrative experience changes into a forking path structure in which the player must make choices. In World of Warcraft, this happens at the moment the players leave their starting zone, having finished all the quests there. The point at which the fictional world starts to open up to the player with many choices is also the point where narrative-driven walkthroughs begin to fall short.
While quests, especially those linked to each other as a series of follow-ups, still offer linear progression within the game, the large amounts of parallel quest lines 94 battlefields of negotiation prohibit all-encompassing walkthroughs. It is simply impossible to offer a coherent narrative of progression through a fictional world with many layers and paths without excluding some or most of such paths. This might be the reason why the official World of Warcraft strategy guide stops its walkthroughs at the point of leaving the starting zone. From here onwards, players have to follow their own paths, consisting of a mix of quests from various zones not necessarily related to each other, instead of the singular narrative provided by the early quests and the accompanying official walkthrough. It becomes clear that World of Warcraft is not a game of linear progression but a game of emergence where a strategy guide, instead of a walkthrough, is the paratext of both choice and necessity.
There are, however, ways of bringing back the linear progression of a walkthrough, even when a game’s emergent structure defies such an approach.
Instead of trying to provide a broad, incoherent narrative recounting all of World of Warcraft’s quests, another option is to create an in-depth walkthrough that focuses on a specific play form or experience – getting to the highest level as quickly as possible, for instance. Singling out what is important for speed becomes more important than, say, an interesting quest storyline or a quest that grants useless rewards. This is what Joana did with his power-leveling walkthrough. As soon as such a specific, dedicated approach is taken, the narrative underpinning the walkthrough provided by the official strategy guide is replaced by instrumental concerns. Not the most narratively pleasing succession of quests is chosen, but the most useful. Following such a walkthrough means players actively circumvent and even ignore World of Warcraft’s dominant strategies in terms of fictional and spatial exposition.