«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»
Buying gold or using power-leveling services are part of the divergent tactics deployed by players unhappy with the game’s limitations or design decisions they do not like, but players using them are under constant threat of being identified as cheats. As explained earlier, cheating is hard to define, especially in a constantly changing multiplayer environment, and therefore can lead to endless discussions among players. Game scholar Mia Consalvo, who studied RMT-related contestable player practices in the MMORPG Final Fantasy XI (Square 2002), reckons that for most players these activities are seen as forms of unfair advantage (2007: 165). I would agree with such an analysis. Recurring themes in arguments against money buying and power-leveling are that players who do so have not “earned” the right to the fruits of their financial investment.86 In World of Warcraft, there are several rites of passage that are universally seen as key in the overall experience of playing the game. An example is getting your first mount, which initially became possible when a character reached level forty. New players seldom gathered the amount of money needed to buy a mount straight away when reaching level forty (a hundred gold pieces), and the process of gathering the money needed is one of the biggest challenges that players face during the levelling process during the game’s first years.
Among players, the devaluation of gaming capital is at the core of RMT-related discussions. Spending hours, days, even weeks on gathering the materials or virtual money for a particular highly regarded or valuable piece of equipment or other clearly definable achievement (a mount, an honorary title, a reputation with an in-game faction) leads to affective value worth defending. Be it work or play, “fun” or repetition, these required investments of time and effort are built into the game’s design, giving stakeholders who value its worth a weapon against those who simply do not care: they can be written off as cheats. In many cases, name-calling does not impact money-buyers and power-levelers; they do not care about being labelled a cheat since their particular tactic is to keep their play fun.
Others avoid possible public conviction by keeping their activities a secret to their part iv claiming the game peers. Regardless of this, the only stakeholder who can have a lasting impact on the way they play is Blizzard. This impact can go as far as blocking access to play altogether through a EULA-triggered account ban.
Some players have tried to find a way out of their relatively powerless situation as stakeholders in relation to Blizzard. In May 2007, an American player called Antonio Hernandez filed a class action lawsuit against gold seller business IGE.
We're just trying to get IGE to stop kicking the seats’ (Blancato 2007). This lawsuit points to an interesting development where players do not wait for Blizzard to act on what they think are practices that are ruining their game but are actually taking their battlefield of negotiation to real-life court. While IGE might be a company, they are also using players (or, in the case of low-wage country gold farmer, “players”) and thus play to make money, leading to what one virtual law observer jokingly called the ‘new meaning of player vs player’ (Methenitis). Here, the arguments used against IGE in the Hernandez case actually involve players defending – even legally using – Blizzard’s own ToS and EULA against other players, without the involvement of Blizzard itself.87 While the case was ultimately dismissed due to a settlement between the parties involved, what the Hernandez vs. IGE case showed was a battlefield of negotiation engaged by players on a legal level usually exclusively controlled by Blizzard.88 The unique nature of virtual property in virtual worlds like World of Warcraft, with stakeholders applying different affective and monetary values to it, shows how difficult it is to claim a separation of the real and the virtual. There are legal scholars and economists who nevertheless suggest that virtual worlds and the real world should remain separated. Castranova, for instance. calls for a specific ‘law of interration’, a system of real-world laws that grant EULAs a legal status ‘robust enough to allow them to preserve virtual worlds as play spaces’ (2006b: 79). The idea is that virtual worlds that consciously let the real-world economy enter their virtual one (like Second Life) should be covered by real-world law. Other virtual worlds should be closed off entirely from real-world law (examples like discrimination or certain forms of pornography would, however, still fall under real-world law, showing the difficulties of a clear separation), rendering all disputes within them the exclusive business of players and platform owners. This would preserve 142 battlefields of negotiation (self-)selected virtual worlds as pure spaces of play, spaces in which people can escape the troubles of the real (see also Castranova 2007). Aside from the fact that it is highly questionable that such a pure space of play could be achieved (play is, after all, an experience rooted in the real world), the danger of such a system lies in the power of the designers. Even if laws of interration would bring into force all kinds of behavioural and ethical rules and guidelines for platform owners, in the end these platform owners are the ones setting up non-negotiable rules through code as well as contractual roles. Outside the reach of real-world law, they can “rule” their world as they please. Players, of course, wield an even more powerful weapon against unacceptable forms of control by platform owners: they can quit by cancelling their subscription. As I will show in chapter fourteen, switching costs (to another game for instance) are nevertheless high, ensuring that there will always be players who will try to make do rather than get out. As an alternative to Castranova’s rather far-fetching concept, Balkin instead proposes a selection of different statutes of interration for virtual worlds, each depending on the basic principles of the virtual world’s organizational structure, which would bring all types of virtual worlds under real-world law. The underlying goal is to protect both players and designers under all circumstances (2006: 107-113).
While World of Warcraft is not covered by any law of interration, the lack of clear real-world laws tackling the type of virtual crime I was a victim of effectively meant that Blizzard was the only authority to turn to.89 What we have seen in this chapter are negotiation processes where the stakeholders – Blizzard, “regular” players, “cheaters”, cybercriminals – all try to set or cross boundaries – some legal, some not. Questions about what is fair play, what is cheating and what is crime are socially as well as legally negotiated. Through these negotiations, the actual rules of play are constantly challenged, showing that even on a contractual level, these is no such thing as a shared understanding of what the boundaries of World of Warcraft are or should be.
part iv claiming the game13: Performing on the Edge of Rules andFiction
This chapter deals with creative productions by players, homemade fiction and non-fiction films to be more specific, made within but also with the game. They display free play in its most outspoken form: here we see players who do not just play the game to beat its goal-oriented content but instead seek ways to expand or in other ways manipulate the fictional world, or who try to find the edges of what is possible in the game’s design in terms of the coded rules and boundaries.
These creative productions do not always conform to what the designers and other players find an acceptable appropriation of the virtual world and its fiction.
It makes this chapter as much a discussion on fan creation as one on game design exploitation, both of which can lead to creative and in some cases legal processes of negotiation.
The forms of creative production discussed in this case study are machinima, films made through a game’s software engine. They are creative productions mimicking real film by having players act out roles according to self-authored or adapted storylines. Scenes are framed and subsequently ‘filmed’ through dedicated recording software (often using the first-person perspective of an off-screen player) and, ultimately, cut and scored as needed. The practices of play and production we see here turn players into performers or virtual puppeteers; their goal is not just to amuse themselves but also to entertain an imagined audience, as most machinima productions are shared through video-upload sites such as YouTube or dedicated machinima databases like Warcraftmovies.com.
In the first part of this chapter, I discuss the creation of fan fiction and its role in player agency over Warcraft’s fictional universe. The second part shows how the machinima filmmaking process exists in a legal grey area, with Blizzard condoning – even actively promoting – the creative practice but not allowing all the tools to make it possible. In the final part, I look at machinima filmmaking as a practice that can trigger legal action by Blizzard on the level of content as well.
Two World of Warcraft machinima productions are featured, both made by dedicated teams of players. The first, Tales of the Past III (Falch 2007a), is an epic piece of cinema featuring characters from Warcraft lore. The second, Exploration – The Movie (Dopefish 2005) shows free play at its most devious, as a team of explorers 144 battlefields of negotiation show hidden game content not meant for the public eye. Comparing the way Blizzard handles both productions – the second actually contributed to formal changes in the game’s design – shows the thin line between creative endorsement and opposition among stakeholders.90 Our story, your story In an interview, Chris Metzen, Blizzard’s VP of creative development and the creator and warden of Warcraft’s fiction, has summed up the genesis of Warcraft’s
fictional universe as following:
I grew up with Dungeons & Dragons, as a Star Wars fan, as a comic fan, with their vast continuities. They hooked me so young, and kept providing me with serial instalments of IP that I thought: that’s where it’s at. I’m always confident we’ll build cool, fun games to get people to play – but what if we attempted to construct more of a universe for them, and keep people thinking about them when they’re not playing (EDGE 2004: 84).91 This ‘thinking about them’ only reflects the bare minimum of agency that players actually derive from the fictional universe that Metzen and his colleagues have envisioned. On this level of agency, the player serves, as media theorist Henry
Jenkins puts it, as ‘a more-or-less passive recipient of authorial meaning’ (1992:
25). Instead, players act as active readers and act as what Jenkins calls ‘textual poachers’, picking up those elements they find pleasurable or useful for their own needs and, in some cases, deploying them in new, unexpected ways outside of the formal narrative or fictional world on offer (ibid., 2002b). In the case of machinima filmmaking, this deployment is not limited to the time players are not playing but takes place during play as well.
Unlike fans of television series, films or books, however, players of a MMORPG are allowed a more active engagement with their beloved fictional world and its inhabitants through play. Even though the agency players acquire over the fictional world is limited (as shown in chapter eight), the elaborate fictional universes of MMORPGs and the fact that players are active within these worlds with their own characters can elicit great emotional investments from the players. As I show in the following case, Warcraft players/fans can be highly vocal stakeholders in the fictional material, causing minor and major battlefields of negotiation when elements of the existing fiction are changed or altered by the design team during content updates.
In October 2005 and with much ado, Blizzard announced the first expansion pack for World of Warcraft, called The Burning Crusade, which would add a considerable amount of new content to the game world, including entirely new additions to the established fiction. During the months that followed, Blizzard part iv claiming the game constantly unveiled what these additions would be, creating much heated speculation and discussion among the player community. One of the more controversial additions was a new playable race called the draenei. Descendants of the demonic and highly evil eradar race, the draenei were met with great hesitation by fans of the Warcraft fiction, especially as the draenei were to be allied with the “good” alliance instead of the “evil” horde faction. Moreover, the draenei were to arrive in the Warcraft universe with the help of an inter-dimensional spaceshiplike vessel.