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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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What are massively multiplayer online role-playing games? Games? Virtual or synthetic worlds? Interactive novels? Simulations? Economic systems? Civic spaces, like cities? Classrooms or laboratories? Social spaces? Pieces of theatre? Wastes of time? Ideological state apparatuses? Forms of industry or modern-day nodes of productive? Networks? (Hayot & Wesp 2009, emphasis in original) As Hayot and Wesp point out, no single answer can capture the complexity of these games. My aim in this part of the book is therefore not to look for such an all-encompassing answer but instead to provide a theoretical framework to approach MMORPGs as complex socio-cultural phenomena, where the rules of play are under constant negotiation among numerous stakeholders on social, technological and managerial levels. The way I formulate this approach conveys some of the key issues addressed in this book: World of Warcraft is a game in and of which the rules are under constant negotiation; World of Warcraft both exists and is experienced on a social and cultural level; World of Warcraft is a game in which player and other parties (including Blizzard) have certain stakes that are considered to be worth defending. In the following chapters I investigate the various discourses surrounding these issues through four perspectives: game design, game play, game contract and game culture. As I will show, one needs all four perspectives to fully grasp World of Warcraft as a battlefield of negotiation, to understand the stakes invested in this game by those involved, and to identify the different levels at which stakeholders operate when they engage with a MMORPG like World of Warcraft.

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As should be clear now, MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft are hard to define. I have been calling World of Warcraft a game for practical reasons but, as pointed out before, MMORPGs are in fact not games in the traditional sense of the word.

Tracing a modern MMORPG like World of Warcraft back to the genre’s roots, for instance, conveys a history that is grounded both in games and in virtual worlds, the result of which makes it infinitely more than “just” a game. Suggesting that there are differences between games and, say, virtual worlds first demands a deeper understanding of what constitutes a game in the first place.

Harking back to classic definitions by the likes of Johan Huizinga (1955) and Roger Caillois (1961), game designers Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman offer a broad definition of the term game, stating that a game is ‘a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome’ (2004: 80). Working from an even wider array of scholarly and

design-oriented definitions, game scholar Jesper Juul distills a more refined formal definition that he calls the classic game model:

A rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiatable (2005: 36).

Such definitions of a game work well for most games but present difficulties when applied to the genre of the role-playing game, of which the MMORPG is a subgenre. What is missing from these types of games, ranging from tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons (Gygax & Arneson 1974) to MMORPGs, are definite quantifiable outcomes. As Salen and Zimmerman point out, role-playing games are ‘structured like serial narratives that grow and evolve from session to session.

Sometimes they end; sometimes they do not’ (2004: 81).

Games without end?

Juul specifically recognizes MMORPGs as exceptions to the rule of what constitutes a game. Due to the open-ended nature of MMORPGs, ‘the player never part i framing the game reaches a final outcome but only a temporal one when logging out of the game’ (2003 43). For this reason, Juul does not provide a place for a MMORPG within the classic definition of a game, suggesting it is a type of game that tries to break with the standard model of games (ibid.).

Salen and Zimmerman are more lenient towards MMORPGs. They argue that quantifiable outcomes are still present in MMORPGs because of the quests that can be accomplished, levels that can be reached and goals attained that players set for themselves. In this way, a MMORPG is ‘a larger system that facilitates game play within it, giving rise to a series of outcomes that build on each other over time’ (2004: 82). For players, levelling up, finishing quests and reaching other game objectives provide, as game designer and scholar Gonzalo Frasca points out, ‘a way to discretely and objectively quantify its players’ performances in a way that they can get standard social recognition similar to the one that they would get in a winning/losing situation’ (Frasca 2007: 69). Players assign value to their performance, which can then be compared socially. For Frasca, to argue that World of Warcraft is not a game is needless: ‘[it] is a game not because it can be won or not but because there are measurable, conventional ways to assign social status to players’ (193). World of Warcraft’s status as game, then, is at least partly self-defined by players who may (or may not) choose to set their own desired outcomes, assign value to them and, by doing so, create the possibility to compare player performances.

More so than with other games, the range of options that players have in selecting their own goals and outcomes, and the different ways in which players subsequently exercise this freedom, are among the MMORPG genre’s defining features.

Together with the persistent nature of the play space, this freedom is what makes games like World of Warcraft very similar to virtual worlds. As virtual worlds anthropologist Thomas M. Malaby points out, these characteristics result from a comparable practice of production, shaped as a combination of game design, game development and software development generally (Malaby 2009: 14). In its basic definition, however, virtual worlds are not necessary game-like. Take, for instance, the definition by Richard A. Bartle, one of the pioneers of virtual worlds


Essentially, a virtual world is an automated, shared, persistent environment with and through which people can interact in real time by means of a virtual self (Bartle 2010b: 24).

What sets a MMORPG like World of Warcraft apart from virtual worlds like Second Life (Linden Lab 2003) is that the game’s design team has implemented not only game elements with which players can interact but also a variety of mechanisms that control and guide players through the game, ensuring that most players will ultimately enjoy a similar (rather than a potentially wildly different) game experibattlefields of negotiation ence. Bartle goes a step further by simply stating that ‘Second Life is not a game, because it has no embedded gameplay’ (Bartle 2010b: 35). To understand the difference between MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and less game-oriented virtual worlds, we can turn to the historical roots of MMORPG or, more generally, virtual worlds development.

Tracing the MMORPG genre’s roots While the MMORPG genre has definite ties to the history of the tabletop roleplaying game (which will be discussed in Part II of this book), the shared history of MMORPGs and virtual worlds is usually traced back to early developments in networked, multiplayer computer game environments in the late ‘70s. In 1978, computer science undergrads Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle created the network-based MUD, or MUD1 as it is more commonly referred to, which fused multi-player role-playing game elements with text-based computer-mediated adventure gaming, first introduced by games like Colossal Cave Adventure (also known as ADVENT, designed by Crowther & Woods, 1976) and Zork (Anderson, Blank, Daniels, & Lebling 1977). MUD1, standing for Multi-User Dungeon, was a persistent text-based virtual world with a fantasy setting, in which a multitude of participants could play and interact with each other and their surroundings.7 In MUD1 and later similar adventure-based games, we see the small, tight player groups of the tabletop role-playing game replaced by a player group whose size is only limited by technological constraints of early computer and network technology, and whose activities were no longer directly governed by fixed game goals and structures. MUD1, explains Bartle, was also notably different from earlier, single-player text games: ‘The puzzle-based, narratively constrained format of adventure games couldn’t work in the setting of a multi-player game: the world had to assume dominance, not the problem-solving’ (Bartle 2010b: 25, emphasis in original). MUD1 became the model of a genre of text-based virtual worlds, with the genre also taking on the MUD name.8 Early MUDs remained strongly linked to fantasy-based adventure gaming, similar to their tabletop forerunner. MUDs eventually broadened their scope, spawning a much more varied genre of multi-user virtual worlds. As sociologist Elizabeth Reid points out, many MUDs continued their fantasy heritage, creating the subgenre of MUDs its users began calling the ‘adventure’ MUD, but a new category – the ‘social’ MUD – started to appear (1999: 109).9 Trying to build a text-based virtual world without a set theme, therefore breaking with the MUD’s fantasy tradition, James Aspnes released TinyMUD (1989). It quickly became the preferred virtual world for those fed up with hacking and slashing monsters. It offered world building and socializing, not fantasy-themed action. TinyMUD and its peers (like TinyMUCK, TinyMUSH, both 1990) formed precursors to the MOO.

This new form of virtual world – MOO stands for “MUD object oriented” – gave part i framing the game its user the ultimate freedom to extend and adjust almost everything about the world, the most famous of which was LambdaMOO (White & Curtis 1990).

Virtual worlds have continued along the paths of game-oriented and socialoriented interaction. In the mid ‘90s, graphical virtual worlds successfully entered the virtual world scene, with MMORPGs like Ultima Online (ORIGIN Systems, 1997), Everquest (Verant Interactive 1999) and World of Warcraft representing the graphical upgrades from adventure MUDs. The legacy of social MUDs and MOOs is still visible in the form of social worlds, of which Second Life (Linden Lab 2003) has become one of the most prominent (Bartle 2010b: 30-35).

While they share a common history and several defining characteristics, the difference between game-based MMORPGs and the more social interactionoriented virtual worlds should be clear. Game researcher Lisbeth Klastrup sees them as the two main genres of virtual worlds (or, to use her terminology, online worlds) – namely ‘gameworlds’ and ‘social worlds’ (Klastrup 2010: 310). While this book is certainly informed by research into social worlds, with World of Warcraft as its main object of study, it deals mainly with gameworlds.

The reason for elucidating the evolutionary junctions between gameworlds and social worlds is because I want to emphasize that, in terms of game design, gameworlds like World of Warcraft are not necessarily built to provide mainly social interaction. Even though gameworlds are prime examples of games featuring synchronous multiplay (Bogost 2004), playing and enjoying them does not require other players. Players can actually focus on personal goals and objectives, and quantifiable progress (like leveling up) is usually not limited to those who play in groups. While we should not downplay the importance of social interaction in and around MUDs and MMORPGs, we could argue that it is not vital in order to play but rather optional. More so, gameworlds do not just offer options for social interaction but are also designed to offer – or to not necessarily prevent – a broad range of play practices that can be deemed individualistic and anti-social in nature. World of Warcraft is therefore a highly elusive game when it comes to play.

22 battlefields of negotiation2: The Many Faces of Play

We can agree that World of Warcraft, which offers a wide range of play practices enabled through the game’s design, becomes a varied and unpredictable space for play. Play, however, is always varied and unpredictable, even within the most tightly designed games. As Salen and Zimmermann point out, the act of play, whether within a game, with a toy or with the imagination, is ‘free movement between a more rigid structure’ (2004: 304). To ensure some measure of grip on the wide variety of play practices found in World of Warcraft, I turn to philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. He defines play ontologically as a movement that has no goal that, when reached, brings it to an end. Play, instead, has a structure of oscillation, a constant to-and-fro movement, which keeps play active by constantly renewing itself (1985: 93). For Gadamer, this is the essence of play and it is through this movement that games can be defined. The rules and structures through which the to-and-fro movement are controlled describe the particular nature of a game (1985: 96). Here we can see that play on a very basic level needs at least some structuring to become a game. Literary theorist Wolfgang Iser has further elaborated on Gadamer’s ideas of play as a to-and-fro movement. Iser calls play in games that have a particular goal ‘instrumental play’. Here, play ends when the pre-set goals are achieved (1993: 237). On the other side of the spectrum lies ‘free play’, the form of play that is without endings and keeps play in motion (ibid. 237). Iser looks at ilinx, Roger Caillois’ category of games which is all about inducing vertigo (Caillois 1961: 24), for ‘free play at its most expansive’ (Iser 1993: 262). Ilinx-based games like bungee-jumping, downhill racing or swinging (if you would call these games at all), are all about inducing vertigo by destroying the stability of perception (Caillois 1961: 23).

The paradox that Iser recognizes in this opposition is that both instrumental and free play cannot exist in a pure form. Literary theorist Paul B. Armstrong

describes this paradox as follows:

On the one hand, no game can be purely instrumental without ceasing to be playful and becoming merely a means to an end. On the other hand, there is

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