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Without many problems, she helped me to finish a quest in a dungeon called Shadowfang Keep. A dungeon like this one normally requires a balanced group of five characters (in this case between levels twenty to twenty-five) to successfully complete. Because Brikk, at this point only level twenty, received help from a character on level sixty (and therefore strong enough to complete the dungeon on her own), no group was needed. The level-sixty helper fought its way through the monsters like a warm knife through butter while Brikk looked on and reaped the rewards. While there was certainly twinking involved, it was one of the rewards I received which made me want to pursue twinking as a case study. Not only did I walk away with the quest rewards and some other nice pieces of gear I could use, I also picked up a pair of rare cloth bracers called Mindthrust Bracers.
With Brikk himself having no use for them, I knew I could sell them through the in-game auction house. Before I put them up for auction, I decided to read up on them in one of World of Warcraft’s many online information databases where I encountered a new side of twinking of which I was not fully aware. On the Mindthrust Bracers page, I found the following user remarks: ‘If you are lucky enuf to part iii gaming the game get them to drop, congratz. But, if you are a twink who has to buy em, do it cuz these things OWN!’ (posted by “Zarlyn”); ‘Twinks rejoice. More twink caster gear’ (posted by “Draw7Seven”); ‘Ok i will pay 25-30g for these if u have them’ (posted by “Blackwidowers”); ‘I'm offering a 65 gold reward to whoever fetches me these’ (posted by “Gahnrael”).68 To put all these comments in perspective: the bracers had a value of four silver and sixty-four copper coins when sold to an NPC vendor, and the accumulated wealth of most regular characters at Brikk’s level was still well below one gold coin, which is equivalent to one-hundred silver coins. In other words, the bracers alone were worth several times more than the “normal” total wealth of a character at Brikk’s level. I eventually sold the bracers for just under twenty gold coins within two days.
My first encounter with this “other” side of twinking touches on twinking’s relationship to (virtual) money. When players do not want to invest too much time in a new character, they can use a walkthrough, or they may simply buy the best gear available from the in-game auction house to ease and accelerate the leveling process (or, even better, both). The second option of buying useful gear takes advantage of the fact that another player has invested the time to attain a certain item, time you do not have to spend. Taking into account the often outrageous prices charged for the best twink gear, twinking is a form of luxury play, an activity made possible by having enough money to spend within the game world.
A direct result from extreme examples of luxury play is hyperinflation within the in-game economy, most notably on the lower levels. Because of high demand, many of the superior low-level items are sold for many times their formal worth as quoted by Blizzard. This especially applies to rare items like the Mindthrust Bracers mentioned above, making such gear nearly impossible to obtain for players who do not have wealthy, high-level characters as sugar daddies for their low-level characters. The high prices are one of the reasons why players try to acquire more virtual money through illicit channels, which enables them to compete, including the so-called Real-Money Trade (RMT) – buying virtual money with real money. Injecting virtual money bought from external sources into the game world makes competition with twinkers even more difficult for newcomers.
Hyperinflation caused by high-level characters using their fairly earned (as in:
earned through play) in-game money to buy low-level items for their low-level characters is an unavoidable result of the MMORPG’s design – there are no rules preventing players from bestowing luxuries on their low-level characters. External causes of hyperinflation, like the Real-Money Trade, results in game balancing issues unwanted by the game’s design team, providing them with enough reasons to fight RMT activities on the level of game contracts. Throughout the years, Blizzard has closed thousands of accounts and removed many millions worth of gold from World of Warcraft’s realms, all the while reminding the player community that ‘selling World of Warcraft content, such as gold, items, and characters, can result in 106 battlefields of negotiation a permanent ban’ (2006a). More on the effects of RMT, as well as an analysis of RMT-related breaches of game contract, will feature in chapter twelve.
A fascination for those players wanting to spend so much money on such a low-level item urged me not only to investigate twinking further but eventually to become a twink myself. Much of the money (be it virtual and/or real) spent on rare twink items appeared to be targeted at a very particular kind of twinking dedicated to PvP. Battleground twinks are exclusively designed to be used in World of Warcraft’s battlegrounds, one of the main venues for dedicated PvP competition and thus group play activities. I call them battleground twinks in this case study in order to make the distinction between them and regular twinks clear. Among World of Warcraft players, the battleground twink has become the defining form of twinking due to its popularity and notoriety. I decided Brikk should become a battleground twink too, because I wanted to know why players injected so much virtual money into these twinks, what the perceived and actual rewards are for twinkers, and how the practices of twinking allow players to gain agency over the game and over other players in ways normal play would not.
Going for the easy kill Up to this point, I have described twinking primarily as a form of hyperproductive deviance, a way to increase agency with a low-level character using the possibilities of the game’s design. Battleground twinking, however, is far more counterproductive and destructive in its deviance. To understand why this form of twinking has become so popular, and where the counterproductive and destructive tendencies come from, I will first explain some of the basic battleground mechanics within Blizzard’s design as well as the main tactics of battleground twinking. By doing so, I will make clear how battleground twinking allows players to exercise control over the game’s design and over other players.
In battlegrounds, groups of loosely organized players face each other in short matches. To prevent high-level characters from facing (less powerful) low-level characters battlegrounds matches are subdivided into level groups. For instance, all players between levels twenty and twenty-nine are grouped to face only opponents of those same levels. As soon as you reach level thirty, you must fight in the thirty-to-thirty-nine group, also called a “bracket”. The players who have reached the highest level have their own top-level brackets, preventing these strong characters from playing against “younger” characters that are still in the process of leveling up. World of Warcraft is designed as a system to prevent destructive deviance like ganking easy-to-kill, low-level characters and to ensure that most players will be active in the higher level brackets, using their highest-level characters.
Another game design element important to the battleground twinking discussion is the idea that you need to put in some effort to get the best rewards. In part iii gaming the game World of Warcraft, the very best gear is only attainable through highly demanding group play forms such as raiding or Arena PvP. For many players who do not have the time or interest in such play forms, the best gear in the game remains out of their reach. Such players have no chance against the players who wear a full set of “epic” gear. For some players, especially those who just enjoy dominating other players in combat, this is frustrating and even unfair. Even if they would have the same skills as those players with top-notch gear, they would in many cases still lose due to the sharp increase in attributes like health, agility and resilience that comes with epic gear. It becomes a situation of stats over skill, which is difficult if not impossible to overcome without investing a considerable amount of time. At this level, even RMT cannot help, as most of the best gear is not available through the auction house – you must earn it through regular play.
Like most forms of deviance, player agency is at stake. But with battleground twinking, it is not about exercising control on the level of game design but achieving more agency on the level of game play. Frustrated players looking for ways to be more successful in PvP combat without having to compete with the best of the best high-level players can look down to the lower-level battleground brackets.
Players can start a new character that they level up to the maximum level within such a bracket (for instance, level nineteen within the ten-to-nineteen bracket).
They should, however, be careful not to engage in any play practices that might earn their newly created battleground twink experience points. This might result in the twink leveling up to the next bracket, where they would once more be the weakest character on the battleground. Next comes the actual twinking, which is accomplished by outfitting the characters with the finest gear and magical enhancements achievable at that level, for example by using the money from their higher-level “sugar daddies”. In 2006, the year I created and primarily played my twink, the twinked characters were mostly rogues or hunters – highly popular twink classes due to their ability to inflict abundant amounts of damage in quick succession. The result is a character that not only out-levels the lower-level characters in the bracket but also out-gears characters of the same level.
Battleground twinks are both hard to kill and lethal for non-twinks, which means they are vastly superior to non-twinks. Admittedly, the sensation of dominating the battlefield was highly enjoyable, even though I could often sense the frustration of non-twink players present. Sometimes players from the opposing team would use “emotes” to make clear that they did not like my presence. During some matches, entire groups of non-twinks chased me down to kill me after I killed them several times. However, non-twinks were not the only characters I faced. On the contrary: in the many battlegrounds in which Brikk took part, I seldom if ever encountered a situation in which I was the only twink. Usually, both sides had several twinks among their ranks, and at the end of each round, twinks usually scored the highest (most kills, most flags captured, etc.).
108 battlefields of negotiation The ambiguous nature of twinking has led many players, including those who have twinks themselves, to label it a condemnable activity; many players will not admit they twinked a character and if they do, they tend to use a defensive tone.
Take, for instance, this “coming out” posting on the official forums calling out to “lay off the twinks”:
I have no shame whatsoever in admitting that I have a twink alt, but I would like to ask the WoW community to stop automatically assuming all twinks are selfish b@stards. I twink FOR FUN, and because it's the only way to survive in [battlegrounds]. [...] Please at least stop to ask yourself what kind of player I am before you automatically assume I'm some heartless demon-spawn (posted by “Peregrine”, 13 January 2007).
Other players responded with everything ranging from anger (‘Twinks are losers who were picked last in gym class, and cheating to win a video game makes them feel superior for once in their lives’, posted by “Browny”) to qualification (‘Hardly cheating... just not playing fair’, posted by “Marlae”) to support (‘I don't twink myself, but I don't think it's wrong to twink either. It's about trying to get an upper hand in things’, posted by “Selmack”). Remarkably but not unexpectedly, many players entering the more heated twinking discussions in defense of the practice do so anonymously rather than with their main characters – they want to have their say within these negotiation processes but seem to shy away from potential repercussions.
From my experience, dealing with twinks on a battlefield involves a certain degree of hypocrisy. While I could feel the irritation from opposing players during play and read many angry chats among my team members about twinks on the other team, I seldom received a negative remark from a member of my own team
about the fact that I was a twink. Mortensen nicely sums up this contradiction:
‘while everybody hates meeting twinks in the battlegrounds, having them on your side is not a social stigma, but a nice convenience’ (2006a). As a result, whether deviance is destructive or not is certainly in the eye of the beholder.
Even though players tend to accept or at least tolerate twinks when they are on their side, battleground twinking is not what most players consider to be the social norm for experienced players. Using his player types (Killers, Achievers, Explorers and Socializers), game designer Richard Bartle sees a main sequence of change that an average player goes through over time in MUDs and
Players typically start off testing the immediate bounds of their behavior (killer), then begin to acquire knowledge of their environment (explorer); following this, they apply their knowledge (achiever), in the course of which they part iii gaming the game forge bonds with other players; finally, they retire and spend their time chatting with their friends (socializer) (2004: 165).
Bartle explains killers in terms of wanting to dominate other players. Battleground twinks, being oriented towards PvP combat, can be placed within this category.69 Whether or not Bartle’s evolutionary sequence is entirely applicable to World of Warcraft in general, the practice of battleground twinking seems to offer some contradiction. Dominating other players, not socializing with them, is the endpoint for these characters. Having achieved a firm understanding of the game world and its rules (ie. having leveled up to the maximum level capacity), creating a twink character purely for PvP combat in battlegrounds means using your knowledge and in-game wealth to actively (but nonetheless often covertly) return to killer status.