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Besides being a potential form of destructive deviance, battleground twinks are unique amongst their twinking peers for being counterproductive, at least in Mortensen’s meaning of counterproductive deviance as deviating from the plans of the game designers (2008: 208). In terms of social deviance, battleground twinking is not just destructive but can also be considered counterproductive. The reason for this is not just the social stigma that is attached to twinking but also the simple fact that battleground twinks do not level up beyond their chosen level bracket. Battleground twinking is not only a form of individualized group play by choice but also by necessity; all non-twink characters they meet during PvP combat eventually do level up, making sustained social contact difficult. Battleground twinks meeting and befriending other twinks is not unheard of, and I encountered several twink-only guilds while researching this case study. Nevertheless, most twinks I met on my server had little interest in socializing with other twinks.70 Battleground twinking then is a negotiation process, where twinkers gain agency over other players within an individualized group context that, to a large degree, prevents sustained social interaction. For twinkers, this is not a loss but is rather intentional.
The effects of the individualized group play approach is felt not just socially but also instrumentally. Battlegrounds usually have goals that are best achieved by working together, but in most situations, twinks only opt for seeking out and destroying as much of the opposition as possible, either in small groups or alone and without much interest in shared goals. Communication during these battlegrounds is almost always limited to short messages concerning battleground objectives, the occasional insults (‘l2p n00b!!!’) or congratulatory remarks (‘gg’, ‘gj’, ‘0wned!!!’).71 In several cases Brikk was even called back from achieving a battleground goal too rapidly, as a quick victory would mean less kills and thus less fun for the other twinks (non-twinks usually did not mind winning the round swiftly, especially when they were constantly being victimized by twinks).
110 battlefields of negotiation Another effect of counterproductive deviance through battleground twinking relates to the experience of the game as a whole. By optimizing a character for a specific level rather than the endgame content the game has to offer, battleground twinking is a play practice that creates an endgame situation in what Blizzard (and most players) consider the mid-game. In the next section, I show how counterproductive deviance is preceded by a more hyperproductive approach to playing, where players construct game goals where none are intended by Blizzard and standardize character customization in a game designed around diversity.
A game within a game As explained earlier, MMORPGs are a complex type of game, as they do not fit the typical definition of what constitutes a game. They are intrinsically open-ended, while the common conception of what defines a game is, amongst other things, a quantifiable outcome. While players can achieve quantifiable outcomes through questing, finishing instances or winning or losing a battleground match, these outcomes are only temporary and fleeting; there are always new quests to accomplish and other goals to set.
By creating an endgame situation mid-game, battleground twinking does actively pursue a quantifiable outcome. Battleground twinkers want to gather the very best gear possible without passing a certain level threshold (which would make them “lose” their particular game) enabling them to then stay there indefinitely, repeating the same play ad infinitum. I am not arguing here that battleground twinking transforms World of Warcraft into a classical game. What I do argue is that by creating a quantifiable outcome, battleground twinking heavily deviates from the MMORPG’s overall design, because these battleground twink characters will never see the endgame as Blizzard intended.
The process of deviance starts long before a battleground twink is “finished”, which is the moment a twink can no longer acquire better gear and nothing is left but to hone their PvP skills in the battlegrounds. Starting a battleground twink requires the use of certain tactics that need to be deployed strategically in order for the twink to be optimized, some of which I will discuss using Brikk’s evolution as an example. Brikk had already surpassed level nineteen shortly after I came into possession of the Mindthrust Bracers, so twinking within the ten-tonineteen bracket was no longer possible. I therefore decided to turn Brikk into a dedicated level twenty-nine battleground twink and began to read up on twinking on the many websites and forum discussions dedicated to twinking. It was soon clear that I had to approach twinking carefully. Twinking did not (only) mean hawking the auction house for those perfect rare items in order to be able to purchase them for reasonable prices (read: reasonable for twinks). Some of the most coveted twink gear items could only be obtained by undertaking quests. But each time you defeat a monster within the game world or finish a quest, your part iii gaming the game character earns experience points or XP and increasing XP means increasing levels and therefore constitutes a danger to aspiring twinkers. As a result, minimizing Brikk’s XP gain became key while his level crept up to level twenty-nine;
too much XP and he would suddenly and irrevocably reach level thirty. While a regular character can just kill mobs and do as many quests as he likes – for them, all XP is more than welcome – a twinker by definition must plan his way carefully through quests.
Blizzard’s design of an open, emergent world where more XP is better is challenged by the approach above, where minimizing XP gain while maximizing rewards forces a player to severely narrow his or her range of possibilities. They turn the MMORPG from a game of emergence with selected moments of progression, the main structure of MMORPGs according to Juul (2005: 72), into a game of progression with less and less moments of emergence. Creating a battleground twink is therefore similar to following a power-leveling walkthrough. In fact, a plethora of player-created twinking walkthroughs that assist you through the process is available for every class.
When all self-imposed goals (like gathering the best twink gear) are met and the ideal twink is created, the practice of battleground twinking changes once more, this time into a game of pure emergence. As battleground twinks do nothing more than endlessly repeat the same battlegrounds again and again, progress between rounds is limited. One could say that gaining skill is a form of progress, but against non-twinks, skill does not matter much – battleground twinks are built to easily dominate for a specific reason. Both game structures – progression with only some emergent elements and pure emergence – are far removed from the non-twinking experience that World of Warcraft offers as its dominant, main strategy.
The process of creating a twink, then, is both hyperproductive and destructive in its deviance and its efforts to gain agency. By using a transgression of the game’s intended design to dominate other players while at the same time presenting players with counterproductive deviance (at least in the eyes of non-twinkers), it limits the game to a select group of practices and ultimately halts progress towards the higher levels. Within this battlefield of negotiation, there is one type of stakeholder that has not yet been included: other battleground twinks. Players who build and enter battlegrounds with their twinks are not just negotiating with Blizzard’s design and non-twink players but, as I will show next, also need to deal with their peers on the level of game play.
In the form of standardization, battleground twinking introduces another quantifiable outcome that deviates from World of Warcraft’s open-ended design.
While Blizzard has always continued to add new content to the endgame through patches and expansion packs, relatively few of these changed the mid-game in terms of new content and gear, at least not during the time I was active as a twink player. This meant that it became possible to draw up relatively stable lists of the 112 battlefields of negotiation best gear and gear enhancements attainable at every top bracket level, and for each class. Placed within strategy guides and walkthroughs created by and for twinkers, these lists form the starting point of the planning phase of gathering the gear discussed above. Such guides not only provide the best tools to plan and execute the collecting phase of twinking, they also initiate standardization amongst twinks of each class. And when there is only one set of “ultimate” gear, all dedicated twinks eventually wield and wear the same items. For my level twenty-nine shaman Brikk, it became a matter of following such guides and checking the acquired items off the lists until the ultimate set of weaponry and clothing had been collected. A truly ultimate set which every twink of a certain class and level owns remains more hypothetical than realistic, because in reality some items are just too rare for everyone to possess, even for twinks and their wealthy owners. Different preferences in play style also lead to a diversity of worn gear. Nonetheless, the dedicated twinks whom I met on the battlegrounds consistently wore roughly the same gear.
The result of the standardization of battleground twinks is that skill is the main factor for winning in PvP situations against similarly optimized twinks, thus lessening the agency that players have against other twinks in terms of dominative power. While most fights against one (or more) non-twinks usually resulted in quick victories, especially when level differences were present, one-on-one fights against other twinks became tests of skill and endurance. This is what the fully twinked Brikk encountered many times over when he began fighting in the battlegrounds. Through the shaman class’ ability to self-heal, one-on-one battles between Brikk and other healing-enabled twinks therefore could last minutes rather than seconds.
Fighting equally powerful twinks might seem to go against the notion that twinks characters are made to overpower other players. For some twinkers, gear standardization however provides a form of play which, for a long time, was not really present in the game. Clashes of super-strong, evenly powerful twinks were among the few moments in World of Warcraft where winning or losing a duel with another player is purely a result of skill rather than gear or level. The game is designed for diversity and variety among characters and the items they wear and use, granting players the ability to be unique. By taking the uniqueness of characters away by standardizing customization, battleground twinkers deviate from this concept of variety. Over the years, Blizzard has introduced dedicated PvP content on higher levels, creating similar situations of equality and standardization.
However, due to the new end-game content that is constantly being added, players interested in these high-level items need to keep working for it to stay on top. Battleground twinks, on the other hand, offer a relatively fixed form of standardization. The true benefit of equally itemized twinks – skill being the primary and decisive factor for victory – was nevertheless hardly visible within the battlegrounds. Even when twinks had the upper hand, fights rarely took the form of part iii gaming the game twink-only duels (usually, fights are chaotic, many-vs-many affairs). In theory, battleground twinks are nevertheless unique in their ability to exhibit skill over gear or level.
As with many of the examples throughout this book, my participatory observations of twinking practices in the World of Warcraft community are situated and subjective. Additionally, it also presents a snapshot of World of Warcraft’s evolution. Taking an active part in a deviant play practice that some players would even consider cheating allowed me to investigate ongoing negotiations concerning agency over the game and over other players as well as the impact these negotiations have for the game in general. Since the period in which I participated in the game as a battleground twink to create this case study, the possibilities for twinking changed remarkably. With patch 2.3 (November 2007), for instance, Blizzard introduced newly improved items to the old, low-level instances, including gear seemingly dedicated directly to battleground twinks. By doing so, Blizzard not only acknowledged the popularity of twinking but also institutionalized it in World of Warcraft’s official core design. And not without reason: the results of a 2008 survey conducted by a website dedicated to twinking indicated that 70% of respondents spent more than 50% of their time playing their twinks, with 20% even spending more than 90% of their time. Two-thirds of all twinks said they did so in a dedicated twink guild (Drayner 2009). In other words, battleground twinking changed from a somewhat controversial activity into a viable, even sociallyoriented alternative to “normal” play.
Twinking’s evolutionary changes show that what is considered counterproductive and even destructive deviance can – through popular demand, persistent presence and acknowledgement by Blizzard – turn into part of World of Warcraft’s core use as intended by the game’s design team. This process of normalization, however, does not necessarily imply widespread acceptance of twinking among World of Warcraft’s community. It is conceivable that Blizzard simply recognized the popularity of the practice itself within the battlegrounds, which triggered the company to make it an institutionalized part of the game – whether players like it or not. Either way, what we encounter here is a battlefield of negotiation concerning power relations between players which ultimately led to an evolutionary change of the game itself.