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Controlling code through theorycrafting While UI mods like CT_RaidAssist are well suited for live in-game monitoring, many guilds prefer to capture and analyze the data streams and to evaluate their performances afterwards. Blizzard actually allows players to log a large variety of different combat data by typing in the “/combatlog” command into the game’s chat window. Combat data is then saved in a simple text file in one of the game’s folders. Recognizing the popularity of data monitoring and analysis among hardcore raiders as an important part of building and sharing expertise about the part iii gaming the game complexity of the raiding experience, Blizzard has continued to expand the possibilities of World of Warcraft’s internal combat log system, allowing both a larger range of data tracking options as well as allowing player-produced UI mods to access more data in an easier fashion.74 Using Blizzard’s combat log data, players can export their performance – or better said, an abstract, quantified version of their performance – and upload them to a variety of websites dedicated to data log analysis such as wowwebstats.com or worldoflogs.com. On such sites, players can analyze raid activities, for example an attack on a particular instance boss, per class types (tank/healer/dps), per class (warrior, hunter, priest, etc.), per individual player, per attack type (melee, class-based ranged attacks, etc.) and so on.
While most of these sites offer the possibility of keeping data private to a player’s own guild members, many guilds open up their performance data for all to see. This performance exhibitionism, where data recorded in the relatively private sphere of a raid is made publicly available, again shows that many players do not consider social surveillance an issue. In fact, top guilds can use data analysis sites alongside video recordings to showcase their skill and expertise outside of the boundaries of the game.
The possibilities for extensive data analysis in games have fuelled the practice of “theorycrafting” which, according to the most used World of Warcraft wiki, is ‘the attempt to mathematically analyze game mechanics in order to gain a better understanding of the inner workings of the game’.75 Many websites, blogs and forums are dedicated in part or in whole to theorycrafting. In most cases, theorycrafting aims to understand the inner mechanics of individual classes and the way their offensive or defensive methods can be optimized as well as how they benefit optimally from “buffs”, beneficial spells or other effects received from other classes. While the first form of optimization might benefit individual play (like solo-killing difficult mobs), as well as individualized group play (like twinking, or PvP in general), the latter aims to optimize coordinated group play such as raiding. Theorycrafting, or ‘rule mining’ as Mortensen also refers to the practice, is thus one of the most hyperproductive, instrumental efforts to understand World of Warcraft’s inner algorithms, a part of participatory culture aimed directly at breaking down the barriers of game design that hide the official rules of play (2010: 80).
While I will not post actual theorycraft calculations here, the following list of steps from a hunter class-oriented fan site will suffice in demonstrating the extreme efforts some players go through to optimize their performance through
data analysis and theorycrafting:
Sniff Test: First thing is just to look at stuff and determine which [class and character abilities] won’t make the cut. If something increases my health by 10%, I know that won’t have any impact on my dps. This is also the stage
Paper Napkin Theorycraft: The next step is I do some crude and simple calculations to see approximately where things stand. If there was something that was on the fence on the sniff test, I’ll go ahead and eliminate it if it sucks at this stage. Mostly I’m determining what order to test in. This step is often done while driving.
Collect Data: Next step is a whole ton of target dummy testing to collect my baseline data for stuff like glyphs (dps totals without glyphs, percentage of damage from each shot, stats of each shot, etc.) Theorycrafting: Then I sit down and do the number crunching. As I’ve said before, the math here isn’t hard. The hard part is setting up your equations to take everything into account. The most common theorycrafting errors come from people who just set up their equations wrong so they double up on something, or leave something out. This is Data Point 1.
Testing: Next is the really really painful part of actually testing in-game. I do testing on the target dummy, because it is the only perfectly controlled environment we have (assuming no one else is attacking it). I usually do this with raid buffs. This is Data Point 2.
Spreadsheet Checking: I also plug the data into a spreadsheet and see what it has to say. This is Data Point 3.
Now I have three data points to compare. If they all agree, then it’s easy to smile and say my work is done; however, if one of them disagrees, then it’s time to go back and try to find out why one is wrong. I could have made an error in my Theorycrafting – it happens. The spreadsheet could be wrong – it happens a decent amount. The in-game data could actually be wrong, too!
Perhaps the presence of raid buffs would radically alter the result, rather than scale it across all options evenly. That also must be investigated (Frostheim 2009).
Such approaches to data analysis and theorycrafting might not provide an entirely trustworthy interpretation of the game’s mechanics; however, they do show players where they are lagging behind and, more importantly, where and how they can improve. By collecting data through add-ons and using guides and spreadsheets for theorycrafting, players aim to gain more agency over the game’s mechanics that are otherwise hidden from view.
part iii gaming the game In the negotiation process that is theorycrafting, perceived agency over the game is at least partly imagined, and Blizzard likes to keep it this way. By implementing unknown and random elements into combat mechanics, Blizzard refuses to let theorycrafters attain full knowledge of the game’s core algorithms.
As Blizzard’s lead systems designer Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street pointed out in a
forum discussion on a theorycraft issue:
We like for players to experiment with gear, talents and the like. Having black boxes adds depth and a sense of exploration to the game. When everything is known with certainty, you can do things like definitively know the best choice in every situation, theorycrafting is dead. (posted on the US forums, 17 April 2009).
So while players may use elaborate sniff tests, spreadsheets and calculations to gauge performance with every possible character setup and usable piece of gear,
there is no full guarantee that a particular optimized setup is better than another:
by design, Blizzard has added black boxes that shield the game’s internal calculations from the player.
For players, theorycrafting is ‘at the core of WoW metagaming, the game outside the game’ (Paul 2011), where the aim is to deconstruct World of Warcraft down to its bare algorithms. For Blizzard, theorycrafting should remain a game: they know the practice is part of what keeps hardcore players coming back for more.
Theorycrafting provides players with never-ending potential for improvement, even if this improvement is barely noticeable in play. While a particular sword may inflict a certain amount of damage on a mob, according to theorycraft spreadsheets there might be another sword which does 0.1% more damage in a certain context. Even with differences this small, instrumentally driven players usually strive to get this “better” axe, even if it means weeks of raiding, and thus a prolonged subscription to the game. As one critical observer keenly blogged, ‘theorycraft provides an irresistible carrot to the MMORPG game mechanic stick’ (Lewisham 2008). Again, we must not underestimate the advantages and joy that players derive from theorycrafting – whether they do it themselves or make use of
other players’ calculations and guides. As Mortensen points out:
If another [player] ends up using your contribution to create a better theory of how the game works, and eventually beats you, he hasn’t really won and you haven’t really lost. Instead the communal knowledge has grown, and you have both used it, added to it, and learned from it (2010: 88).
As a research method and form of social knowledge production, digital literacy scholars Steinkuehler and Duncan point out, the practice and popularity of theorycrafting can even be said to foster scientific habits of mind in players (Steinbattlefields of negotiation kuehler & Duncan 2008). As a form of hyperproductive deviance, theorycrafting is not so much devious but an important way to gain and share knowledge about raiding culture as well as a prime way of gaining access to this culture.
As I have shown, the semi-voluntary nature of using UI mods and theorycrafting to gain access to and participate in World of Warcraft's raiding culture results in shifts in control and agency over both other players and the game itself. In the final section of this chapter, however, I focus on how the resulting play practices transform the relationship between the instrumental and the fictional during play.
Since I began using UI mods and learning to navigate and learn from theorycrafting guides, my experience of raiding – but also non-raiding play situations – changed noticeably. Judging from my observations of other players and reading forums, my experience was not an exception. Most of the changes I noted had to do with a shift from interacting with what happens in the fictional fantasy world to interacting with the interface.
Exposing the inside We can argue that World of Warcraft is primarily experienced visually through its computer-generated fictional world, the diegetic information, while much of the non-diegetic UI, with all its buttons and data readouts, remains relegated to the periphery of the screen. This is not to say that the non-diegetic is less relevant during play. Even with its emphasis on the fictional world, World of Warcraft is no different from other video games (and especially other MMORGPs) in the way that it does not attempt to hide its underlying instrumental data flows. As Galloway expresses, video games rather flaunt the fact that data plays an important role, as game designers know that through this information players understand how a game operates and what it asks them to do (2006: 90-91). The non-diegetic layer constantly communicates key information to the player concerning his or her character and its actions. Most of the information found in the frames and bars of the UI can also be interacted with; clicking on a spell in an action bar results in your character using this spell; right-clicking on a helmet in the backpack-frame results in equipping this helmet. Playing without the UI is nearly impossible.
Installing and using UI modifications, like those for raiding discussed above, add more non-diegetic material which subsequently also moves closer to the centre of the screen due to the limitations of screen space. The non-diegetic cluttering of the screen is not perceived as a drawback of using add-ons per se, as these add-ons require attention in the form of constant monitoring of both individual and group performance. Therefore, the non-diegetic becomes even more pronounced during play. In my case, using the add-ons my raiding guild asked me to use meant not just a shift in perceiving the game in terms of the balance between diegetic and non-diegetic elements, it also changed the way I played the part iii gaming the game game. In order to arrive at a constant optimal performance, I had to train myself to always keep an eye on the add-on data streams, a habit that also started to influence my play experience when I played individually or in small group formations. It made me interact less with the diegetic world (that which takes place within the fantasy world of Azeroth) and to play more with the interface (the flat layer of data located in front of the fiction).
The emphasis on the non-diegetic that raiding UI mods introduce in play can be so potent that players partly or wholly discount the diegetic world. An add-on like CT_RaidAssist alone adds several new windows to the interface. Instead of acting as pop-ups that are only brought to the front during periods of activity, it is encouraged or even mandatory to have them in view during action because the data streams they show are essential to dedicated instrumental group play. They also allow for quicker and more focused actions in chaotic battles, which can best be explained by a typical raiding situation. As a hunter (a ‘dps’, or damage-based class type), it was my main job during a raid to aim my bow at whatever target the rest of the group was trying to kill. Usually, one player within a party or raid is responsible for choosing the order of the targets to bring down, a position known as the ‘main assist’ or MA. Due to the abundance of player characters, non-player characters (NPCs) and monsters on screen at the same time, usually crowded up in one spot, it becomes very difficult to select a target by clicking on it in the game world. Raiding add-ons offer the possibility of simply clicking on an interface button that represents the MA’s current target. In order to avoid chaos, you rely more and more on UI interaction (rather than on selecting targets in the fictional space) when you need to select several targets at the same time during combat.
Information about ongoing combat events is not only communicated visually through UI mods but in some cases also through audio messages. The Deadly Boss Mods add-on, for instance, sends out audio signals as well as textual warnings to inform the players that a raid dungeon boss is about to unleash a certain spell or attack. This does away with the necessity of paying attention to the actual behaviour of the enemy within the fictional world. What was at first a matter of slaying monsters in gloomy caverns becomes increasingly a matter of clicking abstract boxes and observing UI health bars slowly depleting to zero.