«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»
Even when Blizzard acts too rigorously, when it makes a mistake it tends to set it right when you push back at the company about it. Even though initially both the GM and the EULA said I was to blame for someone else robbing my virtual 136 battlefields of negotiation belongings, the customer service department in the end did reinstate the stolen goods. Or at least a part of them: when I received all my items back through the in-game mailing system, I noticed that all my virtual gold was still missing. The following excerpt of a conversation I had with a GM after I received my items shows Blizzard’s reaction when I confronted it with this issue.
5/6 15:32:21.658 To Frozensteel: first of all: thanks for returning all of my items, and the stolen guild bank items too 5/6 15:32:35.068 To Frozensteel: but as said in the ticket; my gold is still missing :( 5/6 15:34:24.383 Frozensteel whispers: I see. Unfortunately after an account is compromised we are not always able to restore everything that is lost, in case we were unable to recover the missing gold.
5/6 15:35:29.901 To Frozensteel: the hacker(s) did make a new lvl 1 char on my account, maybe they transferred it away through him?
5/6 15:36:22.579 Frozensteel whispers: Yes, we have investigated these avenues but were unable to recover any of the missing gold.
5/6 15:36:44.316 To Frozensteel: what could have happened to it then?!
5/6 15:38:04.227 To Frozensteel: I mean, it was quite a lot, and most of it I was keeping 'safe' for a friend who stopped playing till WotLK 5/6 15:39:02.930 Frozensteel whispers: I cannot discuss the details of our investigation process I'm afraid, to do so would be a breach of our policies (chatlog conversation, 6 May 2008).
While the amount of gold stolen was considerable, Blizzard did not recover it for me and it refused to tell me why or where it went. If the company was able to find the data showing when, where and how my account had been stripped empty, and which items went missing, then surely it should have been able to find information on the amount of money my characters were carrying. Even if Blizzard was unable to track where the gold went, it at least knew how much needed to be reimbursed. Not returning my gold was therefore a deliberate choice. While it’s no problem for Blizzard to create virtual money by simply pressing a button in the same way a national bank is able to print new notes, doing so would mean injecting more money into the virtual economy, which is already being saturated through RMT practices. If anything, Blizzard would rather eject money out of the game.85 Trying to get it back means tracing the intricate money flows that RMT traders have set up to try to cover up their tracks, in all probability a more laborious task than simply refusing to reimburse a player who lost it by his or her own fault in the first place. The EULA protects Blizzard from questions about their decision-making process; discussing the details of the investigation, as the GM informed me, is a breach of policy.
part iv claiming the game We can distinguish several forms of contract-based control at work in the above battlefield of negotiation. We can find automated surveillance of my account through World of Warcraft’s network, because apparently my character’s behaviour was data-mined, enabling Blizzard to accuse me of involvement in RMT. There is also non-automated governance through Blizzard’s GMs and other service employees, who read and replied to my mails and entered in conversations with me in-game. Lastly, we find the more passive control system of the contracts themselves, the End Users Licence Agreement and Terms of Service. While players constantly interact with the rules on the level of game design, the rules on the level of game contract are only brought up after installing the game client and subsequent patches and expansions and, as in my case, when stakeholders collide over contractual rules. Both active and passive control mechanisms are there to remind players that, as law professor Jack Balkin puts it, the ‘freedom to play is the freedom to play within the rules the platform owners have created’ (2006: 87). In this case, my freedom to play was limited through both control mechanisms, as I had broken the rules according to platform owners. The ban prevented me from accessing the game; the violation of agreements gave Blizzard reason to lock me out (which subsequently prevented me from disputing this decision in-game with a GM). While active control is an effective measure to stop misuse of the game instantly (as defined by the EULA), passive control produces Blizzard’s ultimate defence in battlefields of negotiation like mine: I should have read the small print.
In essence, the small print of the EULA and related contractual documents describe point by point what the non-negotiable consequences of play are in the eyes of the platform owner. As explained in chapter three, these legal documents are often scrutinized for being too harsh. They enforce a plethora of rather extreme rules and limitations upon players, without providing them with many means to defy them other than not playing the game. On the level of contract, the power of the small print and the way it is enforced makes World of Warcraft (and similarly governed virtual worlds) a hotbed of activity for potential battlefields of negotiation. Game theorist Julian Kücklich argues that the subjects of virtual worlds ‘do not pay the government to deliver the goods – security, economic stability, etc. – but rather for the packaging of the goods in the form of mythology, ideology, and history’ (2009: 345). As the “government” of World of Warcraft, Kücklich notes, Blizzard derives its power precisely from this absence of social content from the contractual relationship with players (ibid.). That does not mean that the EULA does not serve a purpose beneficial to most players. ‘Properly enforced’, writes Dibbell, ‘the EULA makes each virtual world its own parallel legal universe, immunized as much as it can be from the inability of existing law to reckon its strangeness and possibilities’ (2006a: 144). What proper enforcement entails is a discussion that players are actively involved in, even if they cannot directly influence the way in which World of Warcraft is governed. Not all discussions concerning RMT deal with monetary or legal issues, however. In the
Part of the game?
When I decided to pursue RMT and power-leveling services as a topic for this dissertation after what happened to my account, I hypothesized that few players would admit to participating in RMT practices or using third-party services for power-leveling. Widespread as they may be, these activities are far from accepted within the player community. On the official forums, where players need to log in using their game account in order to post, admitting to having been involved in these practices would also lead to potential investigations by Blizzard. On the many unofficial and therefore far more anonymous forums that developed around the game, players appeared to be far more outspoken on the topic. Here, the differences of opinion between players were felt strongest.
Below are two posts from a discussion on gold buying on the MMO-Champion website’s forum, emphasizing both the benefits of buying gold and related “illegal” practices of the enjoyment of the game.
I've done it all, actually. Purchased accounts, sold accounts, purchased gold, purchased powerleveling – the whole nine yards. Almost all of it was done before the big crackdown, before it was "strictly enforced". [...] At any rate, most of it was worth it. I did it because WoW is a hobby. I work, hang with friends and family and play WoW; it's a big hobby of mine thus it gets funded so I have a constant flow of fun. Sure, farming can be enjoyable, but sometimes I want to do things and not have to farm for a month – that's not fun.
I'm not paying to work all the time in a game.
At any rate, I don't see a huge deal with it. If people want to spend their money on it, let them. I don't support hackers, though. Nor keyloggers and things of the sort. (posted by “Gabriev” on the mmo-champion.com forums, 8 July 2008).
Why waste hours and hours of farming when you can work for one hour and buy 2k gold with the money you make in the one single hour?
I'd much rather stay 1 hour overtime at work than farm couple days @ WoW, any day (posted by “Janz” on the mmo-champion.com forums, 8 July 2008).
These arguments sound reasonable. As law scholar Joshua Fairfield points out in a discussion on the dichotomies between real-world law and virtual worlds: ‘No one complains that I did not build my house for myself. No one complains that I did not assemble my truck by hand. No one even complains when I buy a precipart iv claiming the game sion-tooled set of golf clubs. And yet there is a complaint when I ask someone else to create an avatar or an account in a virtual world to my specifications’ (2008: 16). The following post, however, voices one of the main arguments of
players against these practices:
Cause that's not the way the game is supposed to be played. Cry and cringe whichever way you want, it's the truth and it doesn't matter what you say in many people their eyes you are a cheater by doing so and deserve 0 respect.
(posted by “Tiens” on the mmo-champion.com forums, 9 July 2008) This somewhat angry reaction puts the finger on where it hurts: there is a way the game is ‘supposed to be played’ – not according to Blizzard’s legal department but according to the player community – and the gold buyer therefore is not doing what he should be doing within the limitations of what is considered to be the game’s boundaries. He is therefore deemed a cheater. The problem is that, for the players buying gold or hiring power-leveling services, the way the game is supposed to be played is not enjoyable. The discussion here is not about gold farmers becoming workers rather than players but players feeling that play becomes a chore, like work, instead of fun, like play.
In chapter two, I emphasized that in the constant movement of play between its free and instrumental form, the extremities of both are never reached because when reaching the purest forms of free and instrumental play, play loses its meaning. The ultimate form of free play would be a meaningless act, while the ultimate form of instrumental play would turn into the antithesis of play, a simple means to an end often referred to as work. When instrumental play turns into a chore of mindlessly repetitive operations in order to reach a goal, players usually refer to it as farming or grinding. While some players enjoy these play practices, many do not. When players must pay for the privilege to play, which is the case with World of Warcraft through its subscription model, the consequence is that players start ‘paying to work’ as the forum post above expresses it.
The “fun factor” in play is highly subjective, though; what is hellishly repetitive for one player can be joyous escapism for another. Even the most forgiving player will nevertheless reach a point at which “fun” play gives way to a boring grind.
Game designer Raph Koster phrases it best when saying that ‘those of us who want games to be fun are fighting a losing battle against the human brain because fun is a process and routine is its destination’ (2005: 118). It is, however, also problematic to call process and routine unenjoyable – take, for example, farming and grinding. As Malaby points out, we should prefer words like compelling or engaging rather than fun, which characterizes the player experience better (Malaby 2007: 99). Most players keep the game experience engaging through socializing – grinding might be boring but you can also chat about it with others – but what they are actually playing while chatting away might hardly be exciting.
140 battlefields of negotiation The challenge for game designers is to keep their game a challenge for the player.
Players ask – in some cases demand – a ‘constant flow of fun’ as written in the forum post above. If this flow of fun is not present or, in the case of grinding in a MMORPG, is hindered by an uninviting amount of mindless instrumental activities, players will find ways to circumvent the problem.