«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»
For the first time in World of Warcraft’s history, a small handful of players therefore held the key to new formal content as well as when this content would become accessible. By gaining the power to decide when to open the gates, they could also exclude or include other players in the opening event. This power asymmetry between a few raiding guilds and the rest of the player community was granted to them through Blizzard’s design of the event. These raiding guilds, then, acquired a level of agency over the game normally reserved for Blizzard alone, while other players remained powerless.
Before continuing with the battlefield of negotiation that took place prior to and during the opening of the gates in my realm, it is useful to discuss some basic power hierarchies in and around World of Warcraft in terms of agency over the game’s design and regulation or governance of its community. Both the powerful role of the sceptre-holders (and the resulting power asymmetry with other players) and the way the community upheaval was dealt with by Blizzard are strongly linked to the way World of Warcraft’s formal community governance is structured.107 160 battlefields of negotiation Community control, controlling community As I have shown in earlier chapters, players are constantly negotiating the rules of play on the levels of game design, social codes of practice, cultural norms and values, and game contracts, but in many cases the only stakeholder with formal influence over the core game is Blizzard. Players can modify their user interface;
they can play in a divergent or devious manner; they can role-play or produce fan fiction; they can create behavioural norms; but they do not have access to the game’s code. Nor do players have access to the managerial tools of Blizzard, both within the game and on the official forums. Blizzard is not a faceless entity but has an actual presence in World of Warcraft’s community through Game Masters (GMs, primarily active within the game) and Community Managers (CMs, primarily active on the forums). Using the tools at their disposal, these Blizzard employees help, police and in other ways govern and support the player community in ways that players are unable to do so by themselves.
The sceptre-holders during the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj events found themselves in a position between the relatively powerless players and the “all-powerful” Blizzard.
This created a situation in which the distribution of formal power was more varied rather than strictly oppositional, a situation which might not usually be common in World of Warcraft but nonetheless is important, even fundamental, to many of the game’s precursors.
Comparing MUDs and World of Warcraft, game researcher Torill Mortensen points out that when it comes to player creativity, ‘WoW allows it, whereas MUDs depend on it’, explaining that in MUDs ‘new administrators, builders, and developers are recruited from among the player base or from friends of the current developers’ (2006b: 411). In many MUDs, players are not just players, they are also active on various levels of influence over the core game experience. MUDs thus present a hierarchical power order far more complex than just powerless players and all-powerful company employees or, as they are called in many MUDs, “Gods”. In between basic players and Gods, we can find more privileged players including the so-called “wizards”. As the highest achievable title for a person who is not part of the initial design team or in other ways employed by the company, wizards have access to all administrative functions of the MUD except for direct access to the main code. As virtual worlds scholar Elizabeth Reid explains, these privileged players are not democratically elected but often chosen by the Gods on the basis of demonstrated talents, be it imaginative object design or excellence in conquering the game world (1999: 119). As they are so experienced in the game and its challenges, wizards – or “wizzes” as game designer Richard Bartle calls them – are ‘on the whole no longer concerned with the virtual world per se, just in its inhabitants’ (2004: 165-166, emphasis in original). These privileged players actively help to manage both the game and the community, helping out and, if needed, punishing players for any wrongdoing. This part iv claiming the game level of self-governance by players greatly differs from World of Warcraft’s community organization. In MUDs we see a system where basic players can raise considerably their influence as participants, leading to both governance and development becoming a collective effort.
In contrast with MUDs, World of Warcraft’s “Gods” (the CMs and GMs) usually do not share their power with players. One significant reason is that most MMORPGs form a business, while most MUDs are non-commercial – the companies behind MMORPGs simply cannot afford to have players potentially ruining their game through mismanagement. Comparing this situation to real-world political situations, Castranova compares the dictatorial, non-sharing power of commercial MMORPG companies to despotism (even going as far as to call them tyrants): ‘for reasons involving business competition and the like, the developer state does not make any efforts to legitimize its rule through, say, effective lines of communication or transparent decision-making processes’ (2005: 208). This does not have to be a problem, though, because bad governance in these worlds results in the game’s “citizens” – and paying customers – walking away. This could create a ‘highly efficient despotic regime that, thanks to competition with other despotic regimes [ie. other commercial MMORPGs], does its best to provide legitimate services for the people’ (ibid.). The problem is, these service representatives are spread out thinly and, unlike the wizards of the MUD, are not participating as players in the game. The “government” remains a mostly invisible force that only shows itself when the EULA is broken (such as in the prior case studies of this chapter).108 In the case of World of Warcraft, Blizzard does not use/employ players as ingame customer service assistants or as any other official form of co-governance where players receive more agency in the game or in its community than other players.109 Blizzard’s GMs and CMs do indeed offer valuable help and assistance to the community, but unlike the wizards do not do so out of sheer philanthropy.
They employ service managers whose job it is to uphold the law in the form of the EULA and ToS. Due to the costs of employing all these customer service workers, explains Castranova, a ‘for-profit government will provide just enough service to maintain its population’, which in practice often means that the players are left to govern themselves, without any formal power to actually do so (2005: 214). The fact that all players are equal (be it equally “powerless”) can be an advantage over the more varied power hierarchy of MUDs, where privileges can be used for favouritism (Reid 1999: 126). But without the constant presence of GMs and CMs within the game and on the forums due to constraints dictated by commercial concerns, Castranova ultimately sees not despotism but ‘anarchy spiced with occasional profit-oriented tyranny’ as the most common governmental situation in modern MMORPGs (2005: 210). In the case of the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj event, “profit-oriented tyranny” came to the fore, as some players began to disagree with the notion that they needed to work for content they had already paid for through 162 battlefields of negotiation their monthly subscription. More outspoken opponents of the mass collection of items even called this part of the war effort “slave labour”.
When one particular player or a guild within a MMORPG such as World of Warcraft suddenly does acquire real power that can change or affect the whole community – “being wizard for a day”, so to say – it can lead to unique situations of strife between players. This happened with the opening of the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj. As I show next, in the battlefield of negotiation that ensued in the realm I was observing, despotism and anarchy were felt as different stakeholders both claimed agency over the situation.
With great power comes great responsibility The main actors in the Ahn’Qiraj case were those who, after weeks of intense instrumental group play, finally acquired the means to open the gates in the form of the sceptre. A character named Fang, a member of a Horde raiding guild named Heroes of Thrall (HoT), and Cassandra, a member of an Alliance raiding community called The Alliance League (TAL), became the sceptre holders and decided to join forces to open the gates together.110 Both groups worked intensely to get their hands on the sceptre, and opening the gates together was seen as a welcome inter-faction gesture. As the most vocal sceptre holder on the realms’ forum, part of the dedicated European World of Warcraft forums, TAL’s Cassandra became the most prominent figurehead of the endeavour for the rest of the community. Communication about their progress was made public through the realm forum.
While initially being very open about the whole process, the raiding guilds became more hesitant and even somewhat secretive about the extent of their progress after a negative experience with the realm’s player community. An earlier public announcement of a large event by TAL and HoT that was part of the quest series to reach the sceptre attracted many other players and with them unwanted disruptive behaviour such as ganking and spam in the various chat channels. The
raiders and players interested in the events taking place (the historical re-enactment, the invasion) thought such devious players ruined the experience. As Cassandra later recalled in a forum post:
We made that one public. And I still regret it, as what was supposed to be a really nice event was ruined by people yelling “OMFG, I PAYD 10G IN TRAVEL FOR THIS??”, “LOL DOWN IN FRONT” and finally “GANK THE HORDE!” after everything was done. The people writing back and forth through the event mounted weren’t really helping either (posted on the official EU forums, 1 March 2006).111 part iv claiming the game Expecting the worst with a large public opening of the actual Gates of Ahn’Qiraj – in other realms where the gates had already opened, massive player presence even crashed the realm’s servers – TAL and HoT decided to make the event semi-public through an invitation-only system. The player community was informed through the forum that they could “whisper” (a direct, personal message) either the Horde or Alliance sceptre holders about the date and time of the opening in-game in order to allow access to those interested while discouraging troublemakers. What sounded like a good idea quickly turned sour when someone under the name “Deepfroat” suddenly posted the date and time in a new forum thread called “The AQ Gate Scandal” (posted 2 February 2006).112 As previously explained, players can only post on the official forums by logging in with one’s personal account, and as a result, most players post on the forums as their main characters. Deepfroat can be identified as a pseudonym because this particular character was only level one and as such was in all probability an alternative character created solely for this posting. Although sceptre holder Cassandra later found out who was behind this pseudonym – ‘I know who and hold no hard feelings to him’ (chat interview, 14 June 2006) – her first reaction to Deepfroat’s post was
Congratulations in ruining it for all those who wanted to see it.
Was it really so hard to contact Fang or me if interested?
We’re changing the date. And keeping it completely secret this time.
If you need to blame anyone, blame this guy (posted 28 February 2006).
To recapitulate this complex series of events: the gate-opening event was the main stake for all involved. A broad and varied segment of the realm community wanted to witness it but the raiding community carrying the sceptre to open the gates attempted to find a way to limit the number of players present during the event through a social threshold (the whispering method). Though difficult, it was nonetheless possible for non-raiders to participate in the events; the raiding community attempted to distribute or at least negotiate their hard-won power with other stakeholders (particularly those interested in World of Warcraft’s fiction) without sacrificing the experience of the event itself – that is, until Deepfroat spoiled their plan by announcing the date and time to the entire realm community. This caused the sceptre holders to withdraw from an open process, leaving other stakeholders without any means of knowing when the gates would open.
Suddenly, the sceptre’s power was no longer shared but monopolized by the raiders.
The reaction of the sceptre holders surprised quite a few players, especially those who did contact the sceptre holders through whispers. In hindsight, sceptre holder Cassandra explained her actions as a slight overreaction: ‘I felt hurt and betrayed. No other way to explain it. So I lashed out’ (chat interview). What folbattlefields of negotiation lowed on Cassandra’s post was a slew of reactions either supporting the sceptre holders’ case or flaming commentary about this Deepfroat character. With increasingly more people joining the discussion, opinions on the matter began to shift. While most agreed that what Deepfroat did was inexcusable, the decision to make the opening of the gates a private event was met with antipathy. One of the
first to vent their concerns was a player called Raidor:
It annoys me that TAL and HoT can choose to keep this hidden just for themselv. Doing that scepter quest wasnt that hard work i think, and there were other guilds \ coms [communities] on the server that would be more than glad to do it. This is a WORLD event, not a event for 2 raid communities. Alot of people worked hard to open these gates, and now you’re just screwing everyone over... way to go (if the server will crash at the event. There’s nothing you can do about it, and it will do so even if you keep it secret or not. The place will be packed with tons people 2 minutes after you hit the gong. you guys gonna make a human shield outside the place and say to people invite only.
/shoo?) (posted 28 February 2006).
Another player joined the discussion with a similar comment: