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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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I would love to assist and witness such a unique event, but considering the elitism and arrogance shown by those organizing it, I might as well just try to be there on my own, or just curse them for their pride and selfishness on keeping to themselves an event that the whole server worked on.

I overheard that on a certain server the guild taking care of the scepter, once they took it, they asked for a rescue to the rest of the server in the shape of gold among other things. While what’s being done on [this realm] isnt that bad, it will certainly kill any hint of reputation that these two guilds had (posted by “Pehar”, 28 February 2006).

TAL and HoT’s argument that they deserved a more private opening rather than a public one – after all, they were the ones who finished the difficult quest series and grind sessions – was not accepted by many non-raiding players, though several raiders also voiced their concerns. With these groups colliding, and with more players joining in, the discussion progressively turned into a large flame war within a twenty-four-hour period. At one point, a poster called Kratora provokingly suggested that the raid communities were “basement virgins”. After flaming back with comparable sexually tinted remarks, and subsequently deleting

these, HoT’s Worgal reacted with:

part iv claiming the game It’s people like you who drive raiding communities to be selfish/elitist and such about these things, you and the people of your kind are not a welcome contribute to my gaming experience nor my everyday life.

And simple to say this, yes it was wrong of me to consort to flaming and sexual remarks and sinking to your level.

But for all I care right now, let the AQ gates open, let the server crash. Why should the communities try to do a nice thing when apparently they get flames/name called/harassed no matter what they do (posted 2 March 2006) In the end, the guilds did announce that the gate opening would be a public event, with the date and time no longer being a secret. The Gates of Ahn’Qiraj were opened in the early Sunday morning hours of 4 March 2006, with the announcement coming the night before. The raiding community’s initial efforts to keep the event relatively stable did not turn out successfully; several server crashes occurred before, during and after the opening event, and excessive connection latency (better known as “lag”) made playing nearly impossible for hours.

The fact that the opening of the gates became a public event instead of a private affair for the raiding guilds involved did, however, result in peace (or at least a temporary ceasefire) between the raiding community and the sub-communities that had formed to oppose them.

As Bartle points out, successful virtual worlds often reach a point of balance in which all different types of players are content enough with each other’s presence that they will stay and play (2004: 133). While I did not encounter any players actually leaving the game because of the Ahn-Qiraj incident, the events described above did reveal tensions between different groups of players, each with their own play preferences, interests and stakes. With only the raiders getting new content with the opening of the Gates of Ahn-Qiraj, for non-raiders, part of this tension was the result of a lack of attention to their needs by Blizzard. At the same time, the raiders were left in a position where they now suddenly had to contend with the entire player community about an event that many considered primarily theirs. A key element in the build-up of tension, however, was the sceptre and the power it held. If one group of players is offered the power of access to new content that many other players also desire, the equilibrium between player groups becomes unbalanced, and the differences between player groups becomes more pronounced and problematized. It shows that a game (or at least a realm’s) community that might appear whole and balanced can become rather fragmented when faced with stressful situations due to power asymmetries.

166 battlefields of negotiation Playing identity and community The community fragmentation mentioned above was not extinguished but rather ignited by identity play. According to communication scholars Beth Kolko and Elizabeth Reid, it is exactly the fragmentation and multiplicity of virtual identities in worlds like these that appear potentially problematic for community building in virtual environments in terms of social coherence and continuity (1998: 220).

As they explain, ‘it is all too easy on-line to find oneself becoming entrenched in a position that is increasingly indefensible or merely uncomfortable to maintain’, for instance during flame wars, while it is equally easy to abandon that position by abandoning the persona through which it was projected (ibid.). While the options for building and rebuilding characters and thus a virtual identity (or identities) differ with each MUD or MMORPG, in World of Warcraft the notion of easy abandonment as described above is problematic.

In World of Warcraft, identities are bound to and articulated through player characters, both in game and on the dedicated forums. The switching costs – the cost of abandoning everything you have with a particular character to start a new one – are high, as identities are linked to the enormous time investment related to levelling up these characters. Making a controversial character “disappear” to avoid harassment from other players is thus emotionally and financially costly if that character has been created through months or even years of play. For the companies behind these games, high switching costs can even be beneficiary. As Castranova points out, ‘if switching costs are high’, it becomes less attractive for players to move over to a competing MMORPG, potentially resulting in a situation where ‘the amount of government service necessary to keep the citizenry sedentary is low’ (2005: 214). Through the years, Blizzard introduced different character recustomization services for a price: a name change (€8), appearance and name change (€15), realm transfer (€20), race change (€20) and faction change (€25).

In doing so, Blizzard made switching costs a very real part of virtual life in World of Warcraft.

One would think that due to the more stable link between characters and identities due to high emotional and financial switching costs, World of Warcraft would produce relatively stable communities. As all players can create several characters without other players knowing which characters are played by the same person, both identities and communities can still be fragmented and multiple. Additionally, we should keep in mind that these players are not bound to a community, a certain realm of the game, or even the game itself. As virtual worlds scholar Vili Lehdonvirta points out, individuals are ‘simultaneously part of numerous other social worlds, which shape their identity and regulate their behaviour’ (Lehdonvirta 2010). The fact that players can create new characters on a whim just to post sensitive matters on the dedicated forums, as was the case with Deepfroat, and delete them shortly after is still quite easy and cost effective. The same goes for part iv claiming the game starting flame wars on the forums, spamming the in-game channels with advertisements for gold sellers, or verbally assaulting other high-level players in-game through whispers. According to Cassandra, the latter actually happened to TAL members during the flame wars on the forums (chat interview).

Even though the stakes may not always be significant in flame war situations (I have witnessed flame wars erupt about very futile matters), the means for players to wreak havoc within the bounds of the character creation system run deep.

Flame wars or other forms of social upheaval are hard to solve or contain by players themselves, as they have been granted no formal power by Blizzard to keep fighting parties apart or to correct or punish wrongdoers. The “Gods” of World of Warcraft, however, do have such power, most notably from the perspective of the game contract. Investigating the way these Blizzard employees handled the situation in the realm I was observing during the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj events provides valuable insight into collisions between powerful and powerless stakeholders in this battlefield of negotiation.

When power asymmetry causes virtual community breakdown and civil unrest, virtual law and order are useful tools to avert chaos. In MUDs, for example, “toading” is a well-known way to deal with offenders of a community’s peace. It represents the practice of Gods and Wizards ‘using their special powers to change the name and description of the user to present an unpleasant appearance (traditionally that of a warty toad) and the moving of the user to some very public area of the MUD where other users can taunt and chastise him or her’ (Reid 1999: 117).

Toading can also result in the total annihilation of a player’s account, making the practice a virtual death warrant (Dibbell, 1998: 18).

Toading is a community-appeasing way to show that law and order is indeed something players themselves are involved in, of which we do not find a counterpart in World of Warcraft. Players have the ability to report other players’ wrongdoings, which is a form of self-surveillance; however, they cannot act on them themselves in any formal way, which can be seen as a lack of self-governance.

Not having the manpower to police all situations of player struggle, Blizzard’s GMs and MCs primarily come into action when their EULA is being violated (for instance in the case of RMT of exploitation practices). When the violations are of a social or behavioural nature, Blizzard usually does not punish perpetrators publicly. Instead, they temporarily or indefinitely ban them from the game and/or official forums.

Blizzard did eventually act during the ongoing negotiation processes between player groups concerning the opening of the gates, but not in a way that most players were expecting. At some point during the ongoing flame wars, a friend of

Cassandra posted the following under the header “Well isn’t this comical”:

After God knows how many pages of absolute mess and utter stressed debate over something Cassandra and Fang were doing for the community, I log in

–  –  –

The grounds cited were verbal harassment.

It makes me seriously question the eyesight of our CM’s on these forums. Are you sure you didn’t intend to ban half a dozen people trolling that thread with anti-raider remarks?

Now seriously. Which one of you clowns was it that got her banned? (Posted by “Kellandra”, 3 March 2006) As became clear soon after, Cassandra was banned from the forums for fortyeight hours for severely threatening the aforementioned character Kratora (who had become one of the most prominent opponents of HoT and TAL’s actions).

Whether it was unfair to punish a player for (over)reacting after an endless barrage of verbal assaults against her and her raiding group was hardly relevant for Blizzard – and if it was, the Community Managers certainly did not show it. The fact that Cassandra went beyond the boundaries set by the forums rules and guidelines during the back-and-forth flaming was the main reason and justification for Blizzard to place a temporary ban on this player.

As the contractual rules for participating on Blizzard’s dedicated forums have been accepted by all players, it is hard to argue that Blizzard acted unjustly in this situation. It does, however, point to the fact that instead of offering a solution like the somewhat medieval but community-appeasing toading of the MUD, now those in power only swoop down from above to uphold the EULA and ToU without any direct or transparent communication with the community. Eventually, the discussion thread following Kellandra’s post, which mostly consisted of a new flame war on the fairness of the ban, was “locked” by a Blizzard CM with the

austere statement:

Please respect the forum guidelines by keeping all discussions in a civil tone, especially if you reply to a poster of a different opinion than your own.

If you keep a civil tone when posting, you will not get banned (posted by Vaneras, 3 March 2006).

Community governance through EULA and ToU enforcement here covers, and even tries to subdue, the anarchy that arose due to the fact that players had no real means of governing themselves while negotiating their stakes in the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj incidents. Verbal harassment aside, Blizzard also remained impartial on the larger issue of whether or not the raiders should have the right to keep the part iv claiming the game opening a secret. Actions on behalf of one group of stakeholders (for example the raiders) on this realm would force them to take a similar stance on all realms, where different player groups might have similar, different or no problems at all.

While exceptions exist, the multiplicity of realms of MMORPGs also marks a difference between them and MUDs, where all action tends to take place within one world. In theory, in World of Warcraft, players who do not like the community of the realm they play in can switch characters to another realm (at a certain cost, that is). While the community in this realm might be different, from the perspective of game contracts it is treated exactly the same. Players cannot, however, change the realm itself into something else (for instance from a PvP to PvE type of play setup) without access to the necessary powers, whereas in MUDs, ‘if players are not happy with the game as it is played, they develop a new one’ with the privileges they already have (Mortensen 2006b: 411). Due to the multiplicity of realms and the impartiality it requires to manage them as one singular game, Blizzard’s in-game and on-forum assisting and policing of the players is based on objective contractual agreements and codes of conduct and less so on subjective moral or ethical judgments.

Impartial or not, Blizzard was acutely aware of the possibilities and dangers of giving one group of players power over the revealing of new content before handing this power over to the players. At the time patch 1.9 was released in January 2006, Blizzard’s Jeff Kaplan spoke about their upcoming Ahn’Qiraj event in a New

York Times interview:

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