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«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»

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Hence, large-scale, elaborate fights in raid dungeons become a matter of reading, interpreting and interacting with the UI data rather than trying to make sense of what is happening in the fictional world. Being habituated to the use of addons during raids also informed my play in individual situations and in small groups, where I began to use my UI data more than before, sometimes even triggering irritation when I witnessed other players underperforming in casual rather than highly instrumental play situations. Like walkthroughs, UI mods are paratextual thresholds: they have the potential to go beyond simply providing additional information to the player; they control one’s reading of the game as a whole.

124 battlefields of negotiation Playing with the interface instead of the fictional world is reminiscent of the types of games, such as wargames and strategy games, out of which MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft evolved (Fine 1983: 5-16). Within these games, fictional worlds may be present but the action of the player exists, as Galloway puts it, on ‘an informatic layer once removed from the pretend play scenario of representational character and story’ (2006: 14). When non-diegetic player actions take place within the game instead of in non-playable phases such as the setup, they turn into ‘gamic actions in which the act of configuration itself is the very site of gameplay’ (2006: 13, emphasis in original). By doing so, players ‘enact the algorithm’ instead of enacting a character within a fictional world (2006: 19). This is exactly what raiding in World of Warcraft can feel like: like playing the interface itself.

Theorycrafting strengthens the feeling that the data streams from UI mods are the primary tool through which to play the game. The often minute results of skills and gear optimization through this form of hyperproductive deviance can only be perceived in action through UI mods. For the instrumentally driven player, getting better statistical results during a boss fight can become as (or even more) important and enjoyable than killing the boss itself. The invention of new individual and group-oriented goals based on data rather than on fictional victories, which shifts the focus of World of Warcraft’s diegetic world to its underlying mechanics and data streams, is a typical way to cope with the repetitive nature of raiding, where raid dungeons are ‘run’ over and over, even when the challenge of beating the bosses has long passed.

While the use of UI mods and theorycrafting practices grant players increased agency over their performance as well as new goals to strive for, the emphasis on data brings with it a de-emphasis on the individual player’s (virtual) identity. The heavy use of participatory surveillance and theorycrafting can be seen as part of what Taylor has called the ‘relational’ orientation of dedicated, instrumentally oriented group players like raiders: ‘paying attention to how the competencies of people relate to each other and how they can be coordinated’ (2006c: 86). It also evokes an important element of Deleuze’s societies of control, which sees its members reduced from individuals to ‘dividuals’ (1995: 180), becoming, as political scientist Robert Williams explains it, ‘endlessly divisible and reducible to data representations via the modern technologies of control, like computer-based systems’ (Williams 2005). Players of games like World of Warcraft are already represented as game characters, as such replacing the real with a virtual embodiment. Through hyperproductive deviance making use of UI modification and theorycrafting, raiders are stratified even further into abstract, aggregated data representations within and outside of the game.

Recombined, these data representations form the measure by which players are judged. From a social perspective, the increased focus on theorycrafting and the resulting reduction of flexibility and creativity during raiding can result in more part iii gaming the game narrow definitions of acceptable play forms during raiding as well as situations where trusting UI mods data readouts becomes prevalent over trusting the actual players generating this data (Chen 2011; Paul 2011). I would add that this process of rationalization and quantification also leads to a shift of focus away from the diegetic, fictional fantasy world to non-diegetic interface play which gives a sense of agency over the game’s instrumental core that, real or imaginary, becomes the goal of play in its own right.

Through this and the previous chapters, I have not only shown a development of hyperproductive deviance that moves from individual to individualized group to group play but also demonstrated a decreasing emphasis on the fictional world during play. Using walkthroughs, especially those aimed at power-leveling, replaces the game’s emergent narrative structure with a more instrumentally oriented linear progression. Battleground twinkers are hardly concerned with the fictional while they collect the best items to outfit their twink character or engage their opponents in combat. The repetitive nature of raiding, in which bosses are killed many times over, as well as the fact that much of a raider’s engagement with the game during a fight takes place on the interface level, makes raiding’s relationship with World of Warcraft’s fiction ambiguous. In all three chapters, play moves away from the fiction towards a more “bare bones” approach where player practices – both in and outside of the game – engage the inner, instrumental core of the game.

What the past three chapters also show, however, is that tactics of hyperproductive deviance do not free players from control exercised from the perspectives of game design. By manipulating and circumventing the dominant strategies of the game rather than breaking or hacking the rules of the game, players still need to make do with the affordances and limitations of World of Warcraft’s core design.

I have, for instance, shown how the black boxes shielding the algorithmic core of the game prohibit theorycrafters from gaining full agency over the game’s mechanics. Powerlevelers also still use quests as a dominant progression strategy for leveling up, even though they might have no interest in the fiction the quests have to offer. Additionally, while hyperproductive deviance grants players with more (perceived) agency over the game and/or other players, they are still subject to social codes of practice. Players might, for instance, be considered cheats while power-leveling or twinking, which could result in social exclusion by their peers.

In the form of participatory surveillance through UI modification, players even add additional layers of control (through surveillance) and limitations of play (through more clearly defined roles and responsibilities) to their overall game experience.

Whether or not players see new socially negotiated forms of control – or the fact that their agency over the game’s design is partly illusory – as problematic depends on the stakes of those involved. For most players power-leveling, twinkbattlefields of negotiation ing or theorycrafting, the perceived agency over the game and/or its players weighs more than the potential drawbacks. In any case, the way the game is experienced by those deviating from the dominant design is transformed noticeably, both temporarily (during power-leveling or twinking a character) and potentially indefinitely (habituating interface play).

From a game design perspective, there are also visible transformations. The deviant play strategies in these chapters directly or indirectly led to evolutionary changes in World of Warcraft’s formal design. Recognizing the annoyance that slow leveling presented to players who wanted to start new characters, Blizzard has continued to ease the leveling process through patches and expansion packs. The popularity of battleground twinking also resulted in the practice of twinking being institutionalized into the core design through the implementation of twink-oriented items on the lower levels. Similarly, many of the tools and affordances provided by raiding mods eventually found their way into World of Warcraft’s native user interface, thereby making some player-created mods redundant.

In such cases of adaptation and appropriation, what once was hyperproductive deviance becomes an official part of the game. Such evolutionary changes are as a much part of the outcome of battlefields of negotiation as the altered forms of agency and control that players themselves experience.

Whereas in this section of the book, most acts of defiance and deviance took place between players and between players and the game, in the following final set of chapters I will look at examples in and around the game that will include Blizzard not just indirectly (through game design) but also more directly. We will see the company engage with players on creative, legal, and managerial levels of engagement, showing battlefields of negotiation at its most complex.

part iii gaming the game Part IV Claiming the Game In this final part of the book, “Claiming the Game”, I set out to investigate play practices and other forms of participatory practices that exist in the marginal grey areas of what is possible or allowed within – and with – World of Warcraft. Again, the examples presented throughout the coming chapters feature players who, through practices diverging from the intended use of the game or by judging other players playing the game differently, try to make the game their own. What is added here is an extra layer in the form of the activities of Blizzard Entertainment and its employees as they try to manage the player community. Through these activities, the following chapters provide insight into how far players are allowed to go in their efforts to claim the game through the various negotiation processes. As such, the main question in this part of the book is not just how different stakeholders situate themselves in issues concerning control, agency and ownership but also how they are allowed to situate themselves in these matters.

The notions of individual play, individualized group play and group play practices reappear throughout these chapters. Because most of the battlefields of negotiation discussed here take place on a meta-level of interaction with the game – not only inside but also outside of the game – the distinction between instrumental and free play will, however, receive less emphasis. Attention to practices taking place outside of the game world allows for a clearer understanding that the boundaries of play are not set by the game’s design but by its use and through social negotiation – what is and what is not part of the game depends on the stakeholders and the stakes they set. As one would expect from a commercial company, Blizzard does not always agree with players on these boundaries, especially when it considers that the sustained success of its game is in danger.

The case study presented in chapter twelve deals with the ever more permeable boundaries between virtual worlds and the real world as both players and Blizzard attach monetary and affective value to game items that are not just used and traded but also sold – for real money – and stolen. Chapter thirteen focuses on creative productions made by players. It investigates the production of machinima, animations made through the game’s engine, and examines their position as both welcome cultural objects and potentially destructive forces. As such, it deals with the fine line between “good” and “bad” appropriation within creative negotiation processes. In the final chapter of this section, I deal with battlefields of negotiation relating to the management and governance of the player base following a case of community breakdown after a new content patch was introduced to the game. It shows the affordances and limitations the game (both in terms of design and contracts) provides for community self-management.

The negotiation processes discussed in these three chapters relate to money, creativity and community, which cover a wide spectrum of play norms and values under negotiation. While different in approach and topic, the examples in these chapters all push the concept of battlefields of negotiation to a level that shows how claims about what the game is and how it should be played are not just grounded in social negotiation processes but also in legal contracts. By investigating not just the socially but also the contractually negotiated boundaries of World of Warcraft, the affordances – but most notably the limitations – of the MMORPG’s participatory culture become more pronounced.

130 battlefields of negotiation12: Virtual Thievery

This chapter tells the story of how I was banned, for a short period of time, from playing World of Warcraft due to allegedly taking part in illegal activities, with “illegal” here being defined as contravening the rules set by Blizzard in the contractual documents accompanying the game. In reality, I was actually a victim of “virtual crime” – an awkwardly dual status of being both perpetrator and victim. I encountered firsthand what happens when a player collides with the legal side of World of Warcraft, a part of the game most players will not even notice after they click ‘I agree’ after installing the software. The aim of this chapter, however, is to show not just my encounters with virtual law but also the battlefields of negotiation that surround the reason I became entangled in these problems in the first place. This is an investigation of the trading of real-world money for virtual currency or other virtual services, a form of trading that is highly controversial not just on a legal level but on a community level as well, because it significantly alters the way the game can be played.

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