«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»
This chapter has investigated twinking from several viewpoints, including its relation to virtual money, its dominance-oriented nature, the way it interferes with intended MMORPG design and how it standardizes a game that arguably is all about diversity. My aim is not to claim or pretend that these practices totally change the way twinkers experience their game. Being the result of luxury play, a battleground twink is rarely a player’s main character, at least not during the period in World of Warcraft’s history when I was playing my twink. Having a battleground twink was like having an expensive hobby, while the locus of the game experience still took place at high levels, in the endgame content. Twinking is an 114 battlefields of negotiation activity pursued as a diversion or variation in the overall play experience. What we can say is that twinking points to the fact that a considerable number of players choose a form of play activity diverging from socially accepted forms of group play. In more than one sense, twinking is a form of transformative play that provides an entirely new way of approaching play within a MMORPG, as most of the intended design led by emergent variation is replaced by a very limited form of play aiming for a clear, quantifiable outcome. In a certain way, twinkers seem to play a “game within a game” that they have created for themselves by diverging from the norm.
In the next and final chapter of this section of the book, I focus on a play practice that, while less controversial, is also about gaining agency over other players. It deals, however, primarily with gaining agency over the game itself.
Having dealt with individual and individualized group play in the first and second cases, I will now turn to group play and introduce one of the most dedicated forms of instrumental play – raiding – in which a major part of the deviating practice is the creation and use of performance-enhancing user interface (UI) modifications.
part iii gaming the game11: Playing the Interface
The user interface or UI represents one of most flexible parts of World of Warcraft in terms of what players are able to manipulate or add to the game. Players can, to a certain extent, manipulate the looks of World of Warcraft’s native graphical user interface and therefore their window onto the world of Azeroth. Additionally, World of Warcraft’s application programming interface or API is set up to allow a certain level of access to the game’s library, enabling the retrieval and – through UI modification – visualization of a large variety of data normally hidden from view. By using the appropriate UI modification, also called UI mod or add-on, players can, for instance, scan the in-game auction house to compile a pricing information database or collect information about player performance for comparison purposes. Some UI mods are relatively simple and coded by individuals, while others are large projects with groups of players writing and updating its code.
World of Warcraft’s UI modding scene plays an important role in the game’s participatory culture, as players have much freedom to manipulate the existing user interface to improve or enrich their play experience, a freedom they do not have in relation to the instrumental rules and structures or within the fictional world of Azeroth. T.L. Taylor warns us, however, that we should not consider the participatory nature and use of UI modding as being ‘free, utopic, non-hierarchical, or unfettered’ (2008: 188). Control still exists, both on the level of game contract (Blizzard has an extensive “UI Add-On Development Policy” giving Blizzard the means to allow and block add-ons as it sees fit) and, as I show in this case study, on the level of game play.72 What is at stake here is ultimate control over the game’s mechanisms to attain the most optimized forms of instrumental performance. In contrast with the previous two chapters, the deviant practices investigated here are dedicated to group play, showing that players are not just gaining more agency over the game but willingly subjecting themselves to new levels of social control in the process.
Dedicated instrumental group play in the form of raiding is such a demanding enterprise for those involved that UI mods have become more compulsory than optional. The harder the goal is, the more effort is required to get the right team together, which then needs to function in perfect unison in order to succeed.
According to the more dedicated raiding groups, without modifications, the basic 116 battlefields of negotiation user interface of the game lacks the tools to smoothly organize the players involved and manage the data streams of the ensuing battle. Through UI modification, not only does the user interface during raiding become more conveniently arranged, using UImods also results in voluntary social surveillance. As I argue in this chapter, the use of UI mods as monitoring tools is not merely limited to interplayer surveillance. Players actively engage in “theorycrafting”, a practice supported by UI modification, with the goal of penetrating World of Warcraft’s hidden instrumental apparatus but also because it has the potential to result in a transformative play experience I call interface play.73 Mandatory modification Because I decided that raiding should be part of my research into World of Warcraft in late 2005, I become a semi-active member of a raid guild. By semi-active I mean that I did not participate in the guild’s main raid team. Instead, I joined raids whenever there was a vacancy for a newcomer like me. My first experience with the use of raiding-oriented mods, however, was not through using them but actually by forgetting to use them correctly. At one point I joined my guild in the Molten Core, at that time the hardest raiding instance of the game, requiring forty players to efficiently win. I registered my character on our guild’s web forum to be able to take part in a “run” (a visit to a dungeon). I prepared by buying some fireresistant gear and potions (after consulting some dungeon strategy guides, I learned that some of the monsters in the Molten Core will fry you instantly without fire resistance), and I made sure I was online with my character on time. I was invited to the raid party by the leader and started to make my way to the entrance of the Molten Core raid dungeon, buried deep below the Blackrock Mountain. I was all ready to go when I received a message from the raid leader asking if my “CTRA” was malfunctioning. I quickly realized what he meant. The full name of the UI mod the raid leader was referring to is called CT_RaidAssist, and although I did not exactly know how it worked yet, I knew it was important for raiding so I had actually installed it some weeks earlier. The problem was that a new version had come out during the intervening weeks, making my version outdated and dysfunctional. A quick reinstall could not prevent the fact that I was now late for the start of our run and, moreover, I had let down the raid leader and the rest of the raid team who needed to wait for me. A similar event happened a few months later. While I did not register for a run, I happened to be online when the guild had an empty slot to fill on a raid to the Blackwing Lair dungeon, which had just been released by Blizzard through a patch. I offered my services but this time, because I did not have the required add-ons installed properly, I was simply denied access.
The main reason my raid guild insisted I install certain UI mods was not necessarily to improve my performance but to improve the performance of the raid part iii gaming the game group as a whole. The CT_RaidAssist mod, for instance, enables players to view the health status of all other raid members through the interface (World of Warcraft’s own interface is limited to showing only five other characters). It is part of a collection of raiding mods called CTMod (Cide & TS 2005) and, being the first to offer such raid-dedicated modifications, it set the ‘gold standard for raid add-ons’ (Gilbert & Whitehead II: 174). Raiding add-ons like the CTMod collection makes organizing and running a large group of people easier for its leader(s) to monitor the activity (or lack thereof) of each player. According to one of CTMod’s creators, himself a raid-leader, the mod was created to make the job of leading a raid easier and smoother (Breckon 2007; Taylor 2008: 197). Not just the leader but every player is able to see the status of all other members in the raid group. If someone is not using CTRA, everyone instantly notices. A simple glance at CT_RaidAssist’s interface frames was enough for the guild leader I mentioned above to see that I was not prepared; I simply did not show up correctly in his add-on’s display.
In Taylor’s work on raiding communities, where she encountered similar modrelated situations, she points out that ‘because these tools have been refined through repeated use and iterative development and are widely adopted’, they ‘act as strong normative agents’, a form of social coercion dictating how the game should be played (2008: 195). In fact, on most raid guild websites and forums I visited, it is stated that the installation of a certain set of UI mods is simply mandatory. Installing UI mods to manipulate the game’s standard design is something you cannot escape from when you want to join a raid. Having add-ons like CT_RaidAssist installed is not seen as optional but as a precondition: without them, you simply cannot participate in these forms of group play.
A raiding mod like CT_RaidAssist does not just dictate the norms for play (you have to install them in order to participate), they also create a system of social control. Taylor speaks of raiding groups working with ‘an extensive network of tools and functions that consistently monitor, surveil, and report at the micro level a variety of aspects of player behavior’ (2008: 191). In World of Warcraft raiding guilds, people behave a certain way – ie. are conditioned – because they know other players might be watching and judging them, a situation which, as Taylor points out, is often thought of in terms of philosopher Michel Foucault’s view of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon (1995) where people subjugate and discipline themselves without the need for or presence of a faceless oppressor or bureaucratic system.
Taylor is quick to add that ‘we need to shade our understanding of surveillance a bit and consider the ways players readily adopt and enjoy what these tools afford’ (2006b: 14). The widespread use of UI mods like CTMod certainly suggest that players do not mind the potentially negative side of participatory social surveillance, as it helps them to excel in ways that would not have been possible without raiding mods. Social surveillance does not limit their freedom as much as it empowers them (Albrechtslund 2008). We must remember that using UI 118 battlefields of negotiation mods remains voluntary, even if it has become standard protocol for raiding. A link can be made here to media scholar Alexander Galloway's discussion of computer protocol in which he points out that “proven success in the marketplace generally predates the creation of a [voluntary] standard. The behaviour is emergent, not imposed” (Galloway 2004: 128). Like the computer protocols Galloway discusses, the distributed and voluntarily nature of the social protocols surrounding UI mods (rather than centralized and imposed by Blizzard) evokes what French philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls a society of control (1995), the historical follow-up of Foucault’s disciplinary society. And, explains Galloway, “while protocol may be more democratic than the panopticon in that it strives to eliminate
hierarchy, it is still very much structured around command and control” (2004:
13). We can see this in the way that UI modification had been standardized as a precondition as well as in the way that raid leaders can monitor and if needed react to players who, in their eyes, misbehave or underperform.
The way in which the raiding community has shaped the use of certain UI mods as a precondition for both membership as well as interaction has become one of the defining features of raiding customs and practices within World of Warcraft’s larger game culture. As game researcher Mark Chen shows in his in-depth study of a raiding community, just installing modifications is, however, not enough to become a raider, let alone an expert one. It requires access to raiding culture through active, social involvement which builds up the required social and cultural capital. ‘Without this access’, Chen asserts, ‘a player is ignorant of emerging raiding and non-raiding norms and the details of their dynamic social and material practice’ (Chen 2011: 168). When I was alerted to the fact that I did not have the required UI mod installed, I was reminded that, at this point, I had clearly not gained access yet. Another raiding practice I was not yet familiarized with at this point was another form of data monitoring that had less to do with social surveillance and more with analyzing the game itself. As I will show in the next section, the affordances that Blizzard has provided in terms of data library access has fuelled players’ interest in the inner workings of the game itself, as players try to gain agency over the hidden algorithms at the core of the game’s code to enhance game play performance.