«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»
While World of Warcraft’s version of Azeroth already is a miniature version of the “real” Azeroth (as discussed in chapter eight), following a singular path through the game by skipping and ignoring large amounts of quests provides an even more radical condensation of space. Large swaths of the game’s geography, including entire zones and all the quests that lie within them, were skipped completely by simply ignoring every quest that lead to them. This meant skipping hours and hours of content of both fictional and instrumental nature, all intended to reduce the time it takes to progress.64 The only actions that matter are those on the planned route, with exploration being both unnecessary and, even worse, a waste of time. Here, we see dual levels of player agency at work. On the one hand, a player’s agency over the game is increased, as he or she does not need to look for the how and where of quests. On the other hand, agency is decreased, as his or her ability to read and understand quest goals is potentially diminished. A player learns to navigate the world (and the quests within it) by having it explained to them by an external source, and not by letting the game’s design “explain” it to them through discovery, trial and error.
Naturally, the level of demystification, both in terms of challenges and fiction, depends on your prior exposure to the game and its fictional world. Most players using Joana’s guide will have played through the game at least once before attempting to powerlevel a character. For them, skipping or grouping quests is less demystifying, as they have probably experienced many of the quests with other characters, in a sequence that makes more sense on a fictional level.
As a paratext – a threshold of interpretation – the influence of a power-leveling guide like Joana’s and, to a lesser extent, a walkthrough like the one from the official guide, is nevertheless noticeable for both experienced and novice players alike. The more loyal you are to following a walkthrough, the more you diverge from the intended flow of the game in terms of instrumental and fictional exposition. This divergence might be hyperproductive for the cause of speedrunning, but it might be counterproductive to other practices of play. I actually did try to combine power-leveling with activities that Joana’s guide explicitly advised against for being too time consuming. I tried to build up my character’s professions during the speedrun. One profession – mining – involved gathering all kinds of metal ore and gems hidden in the hills and mountains of Azeroth. I even used a dedicated mining strategy guide alongside the power-leveling guide to see if they could function together. As particular types of metal ore are only found in particular areas, the problem with combining professions and power-leveling became instantaneously obvious when the walkthrough ordered me to move on to the next zone while I still had not collected all the metal needed from the current zone. My power-leveling walkthrough was interfering with my mining 100 battlefields of negotiation strategy, and the other way around. This situation also underscores that the concept of an “ideal” path through World of Warcraft offered by the power-leveling walkthrough is limited to its specific purpose only.
While I have limited myself to individual play throughout this chapter, I would like to add that, as a threshold of interpretation, walkthroughs can influence a player’s preferences for group play also. Free group play situations like (representational) role-playing are counterproductive for power-leveling. Joana’s guide even warns players about the potential dangers of instrumental group play. Clearing dungeons might lead to large amounts of experience points (and thus faster leveling) but getting a good group together with a proper class combination might take too much time. Visiting a dungeon with an unorganized, random group means risking death and is better avoided. This does not mean that powerlevelers and speedrunners do not have social contact during their activities. The in-game communication system lets players chat with each other even if their characters are not physically close to each other within the game world. In fact, most individual play practices are still social by way of these communication options. Dedicated group play, however, is something else than chatting with ingame friends while playing individually; it requires characters to actively work together in organized forms of ludic role-playing. Walkthroughs aimed at highly individualized play forms can influence the way players perceive such forms of collective social action, seeing them as potentially harmful for progress rather than a productive challenge.
To conclude this chapter, we can safely say that, due to the omnipresence of these paratexts for World of Warcraft – produced both by amateurs and the professional paratextual industries – the use of strategy guides informs and influences a substantial part of the player community. It shows that when time is at stake from the perspective of game play, there is a large demand for increased agency over the way the game is supposed to be played from the perspective of game design.
This demand is for a substantial part fulfilled through participatory activities (ie.
the creation of strategy guides) from the perspective of game culture. The use of walkthroughs like Joana’s power-leveling guide creates battlefields of negotiation between these three levels, with players actively negotiating Blizzard’s design structures through hyperproductive deviation. As Mortensen observes: ‘mastering the game is not submitting to the game: it is to know it so well that the game no longer controls the player’ (2008: 220). Walkthroughs are used to achieve a new control balance between player and game, suggesting increased agency for the player. Walkthroughs nevertheless present their own levels of control over player action, potentially transforming the emergent, largely narrative-oriented progress of the game’s core design into pure, linear progression, with less rather than more options for divergence.
In the next chapter, which centres on individualized group play, another form of hyperproductive deviance is discussed. This time, however, the play practices part iii gaming the game deviate from the intended design to grant the player more agency to directly influence other players, leading to battlefields of negotiation from a game contract perspective. As such, the form of deviance discussed next is as hyperproductive as it is destructive.
102 battlefields of negotiation10: Twinking, or Playing Another Game
In this chapter, the notion of playing “alone together” is investigated by focusing on individualized group play. As game researchers Nicolas Ducheneaust, Eric Nickell, Robert Moore and Nick Yee point out, many players prefer to be surrounded by other players rather than actually playing with them (Ducheneaut et al. 2006: 4). Here, I want to extend the notion of playing alone together to include playing against other players in ways that are not universally accepted and can even be considered anti-social. In the battlefields of negotiation discussed here, power between players is at stake, as players use everything at their disposal – including some activities deemed deviant according to established social codes of practice. The question here is how these tactics influence playing World of Warcraft for the stakeholders involved.
The form of individualized group play under investigation here is called “twinking”. While a more detailed description will follow, the practice of twinking in its most basic form involves using accumulated wealth and/or power of a high-level character to boost the performance of a low-level character. Battleground twinking is a variation on this practice, where the accumulated wealth and/or power of a higher-level character helps to boost the performance of a lower-level character against other players’ low-level characters in a dedicated player vs. player, or PvP, setting. In other words, battleground twinking creates an unfair advantage over players who do not have access to such wealth and/or power – or over those who consider twinking a form of cheating.
The best way to understand the practice of twinking is by doing it yourself.
Over a period of several months, I built and actively played a twinked character in PvP battlegrounds. Like the previous chapter, where I used walkthroughs to level up a character, battleground twinking involves much research and planning in order to do it successfully. As with most deviant play practices, we can argue about whether this process can be considered cheating. As explained in the previous chapter, actively pursuing such controversial play practices as a research method allowed me to understand both the game and play within it from an entirely new perspective. It allowed to me to recognize and examine four different interpretations of twinking: (i) twinking as a form of luxury play, (ii) twinking as a form of dominance play, (iii) twinking as a form of transformative play, and (iv) twinking as a form of standardized play. Each of these play forms exist on differpart iii gaming the game ent levels of instrumental and social behaviour and additionally revolve around different stakes. All forms of twinking discussed here, however, grant players greater agency over both the game and other players. The practice of twinking is a rich topic for the study of negotiation processes, with a range of stakeholders (twinkers, their opponents, Blizzard, etc.) staking their claims around game play, game design, game culture and game contract, exhibiting World of Warcraft’s battlefields of negotiation at their most complex.65 The luxury of twinking According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a twink is, among other things, an effeminate young man or, in more commonly used terms, a sissy, pansy-ass or weenie. Twinking as a verb in the sense of creating a twink has no dictionary entry. Twinking is nevertheless a notable term in the culture of MUDs and MMORPGs, where twink is defined as something somewhat different. On Wikipedia we can read: ‘In its most basic definition, a twink is a character with better gear than they could have easily gotten on their own’.66 A similar definition comes from the official World of Warcraft strategy guide, where a twink is ‘a character that owns items that are normally above their capability of obtaining on their own’ (2005: 9). All definitions hint at the fact that twinks, or actually the players controlling them, are in fact less capable than regular players, as they do not seem to be able to manage acquiring certain items on their own. In the reality of the game, they are not lesser characters but actually more capable of defeating regular players. Twinks, also known as powergamers or munchkins in the RPG genre, are the strongest characters among their own kind, certainly not the weakest.67 In gamers’ jargon: they “own” the game in ways they should not by any normal means. As a result, twinking has been seen as an unwanted, manipulative form of playing an RPG and has spawned much – mostly negative – discussion since the genre’s earliest games.
In real life, transferring power by preferential treatment, for instance through hereditary succession, involves at least two separate people. But in a game like World of Warcraft, the benefactor (a rich and powerful high-level character) and beneficiary (a newly initiated low-level character) are often controlled by the same person. Using the power and influence of an existing character to make progress easier for your own new character is a relatively easy step to make. For instance, by leveraging virtual money from an established to a newly initiated character, the new character’s virtual life will have an easier start.
As in real life, potentially unfair wealth and power distribution in World of Warcraft is not always perceived positively. Twinking could be considered unfair, as successful progress is suddenly based on who has the greatest resources instead of the best skills, making competition-based playing like PvP nearly impossible when twinks are involved. One could even argue about whether distributing 104 battlefields of negotiation power and wealth between characters is simply a clever use of game mechanics or an exploitation of them. There is nothing in World of Warcraft’s design or contract that prohibits it. Like most speedrunning tactics, many twinking tactics involve what Consalvo calls “found” actions or items, which ‘accelerate or improve the player’s skills, actions, or abilities in some way the designer did not originally intend, yet in a manner that does not actively change code or involve deceiving others’ (2007: 114). These tactics allow for hyperproductive deviance; they discard the intended design where a character has to fight for its own place in the fictional world by accomplishing quests, acquiring skill and gathering items by having other characters do it for them. Like power-leveling, twinking makes the parts of the game’s design that are often considered boring – grinding your way through the lower levels to get to the end game content – more bearable, especially for those who have leveled up characters several times before. Moreover, there is little difference between helping a friend with a lower-level character who is stuck in some quest or giving this character some better gear you had laying around – both totally acceptable forms of social behaviour – and fully twinking your own character with the very best gear and running them through otherwise non-reachable game situations with the help of higher-level friends.
Both are forms of luxury bestowed on low-level characters by higher-level characters. Actually having luxury (ie. wealth) is a requirement for creating dedicated battleground twinks and is best illustrated by explaining the origin of this case study.
The decision to start my own twink was made more by accident than on purpose. At one point I had just created a new character, an orc shaman called Brikk, and during the lower levels of Brikk’s life, I arranged for him to get some help from a friend with a high-level character. Essentially, I was asking to be twinked.