«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»
This is the first time that we've really put all of the power in the hands of players. So you see some really interesting things going on. In some places, you see multiple über-guilds that have treated each other with respect, or who have called a truce, and are engaged in some massive collective farming. You see a lot of guilds setting up contests to encourage others to participate. The event really comes down to the politics and diplomacy on each realm (Schiesel 2006: 2).
Blizzard’s intentions, as shown through Kaplan’s remarks, echo Castranova’s idea of MMORPGs as possible ‘petri dishes for social science’ (2006a: 170). As this chapter only investigates one such petri dish, I do not claim to offer a broad, cross-realm inquiry of the Ahn’Qiraj case. As such, the situation described here was experienced differently on all other realms. I nevertheless came across more stories of severe power struggles during and after the event. A wiki post on the US Illidan realm, for example, lists ‘The Gong Affair’ as one of the most (in)famous events to take place among its players, with some guilds still being “blacklisted” by the community for using the sceptre while other guilds were not present to witness the event.113 Kaplan talked about ‘really interesting things going on’, and the aim of this chapter has been to show just that in the form of a temporary 170 battlefields of negotiation community fragmentation. Both the power introduced through the sceptre and the resulting politics and diplomacy mentioned by Kaplan were largely bestowed upon one particular subgroup of players: the raid community. Implementing such power asymmetries in the design of a game like World of Warcraft remains a tricky affair. If not all subgroups agree that the privileged group handled this power in the right way, and when they have no means to negotiate such asymmetries in any democratic way but are subject to the whims of those with the power, a community can turn on itself.
In this and the previous two chapters, I have investigated what can best be described as the difficulties that different stakeholders in World of Warcraft encounter when disagreements arise about what is “good” and what is “bad” behaviour in or around the game. Investigating the various ways in which not just social codes of practice but also forms of contract and management play a part in stakeholders’ efforts to claim agency and ownership over the game has allowed me to shed light on the question of how both players and Blizzard situate themselves in battlefields of negotiation where certain forms of play and/or appropriation of the game are preferred above others. Blizzard’s active part in negotiation processes that tackle breaches of contract is, in most cases, greeted positively by the player community. The codes of practice that players create and (re-)negotiate among themselves are not always sufficient to deal definitively with devious behaviour. From observation and experience, I can say that most players, for instance, agree with Blizzard’s tough stance on the black market of the RealMoney Trade, even if it results in some collateral damage (like my temporary ban from the game due to supposed involvement in RMT activities). The RMT case study, however, also demonstrated that not all players agree with Blizzard’s tough stance against buying gold with real money. For some, acquiring gold through RMT is the only way to compete with players with more time to spend on the game. While these players can openly engage in negotiations about the rights and wrongs of such practices with other players, when interacting with Blizzard, they find that their rules on RMT are nonnegotiable.
While contractual rules of World of Warcraft do not stop players from breaching them, they certainly have the effect of enlarging the stakes involved, with the outcome of these battlefields of negotiation being a potential temporary or indefinite ban for the player. A pressing issue discussed in these chapters, however, is that Blizzard does not always enforce its contractual rules in a transparent way. Similar to the way black boxes are built into the game’s design to keep players guessing about the inner workings of the game, vague and/or inconsequent contractual rules and the enforcement thereof leave players in the dark about what they can and cannot do within – or in the case of the machinima filmmakers discussed, with – the game.
part iv claiming the game The methods that Blizzard employs to govern World of Warcraft on the levels of game design and game contract do not make the company exceptional. In fact, many commercial virtual worlds are set up as what Lawrence Lessig calls ‘merchant-sovereignties’ (2006: 287). ‘Our recourse with respect to merchant-sovereigns’, he points out, ‘is simply to take our business elsewhere’ (ibid.). What I have shown in this chapter is that players do not always take what could be considered the easy way out. Manifesting a large investment in this particular game, players continuously create arenas of negotiation through which control, agency and ownership are consolidated and contested, even if it implies opposing omnipotent ruling sovereignties.
172 battlefields of negotiationConclusion
In July 2008, I ventured to Paris, France to visit the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational, a large convention celebrating Blizzard’s computer games and spinoff products. Thousands of Blizzard fans from all over Europe and beyond – a considerable part of which were hardcore World of Warcraft players – gathered in a giant convention centre somewhere on the Parisian outskirts to attend developer Q&A panels, play unreleased games, get the latest scoops, buy merchandise, meet other players and be part of the Blizzard brand community. This particular edition of the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational preceded the release of the World of Warcraft’s Wrath of the Lich King expansion pack (which was playable in demo-form on the convention floor). As a player/researcher, I was both in awe of the scale of fandom present but at the same time felt a certain unease. The following excerpt
comes from a blog post I published soon after the event:
The whole thing started with a giant opening ceremony. The most fascinating part about this ceremony wasn’t that the hosts whipped the crowd into a cheering frenzy for the presence of Blizzard’s “superstars”. That was to be expected. No, it was because these superstars included not only the designers and founders of the company but also the heads of PR, marketing and, yes, even global finance. So here was a crowd of thousands, cheering for those who did not make the games and virtual worlds they adore, but for those whose job it is to make a lot of money out of this love. [...] Most of the crowd didn’t even know these “suits” (I didn’t hear their names being called out due to the deafening music) but cheer they did (Glas 2008).
What this observation illustrates is that the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational is an unabashed celebration of all things Blizzard. I was amazed by the players’ enthusiastic reaction to what constituted the corporate rather than creative part of the game industry. In hindsight, however, I realized that the crowd was, in fact, not just cheering for Blizzard but also for itself.
The reason the crowd’s reaction can be considered self-celebratory has everything to do with the negotiation processes central to this book. By investigating World of Warcraft on the levels of game design, game play, game contract and game culture, I have shown that a traditional dichotomy between the consumer part iv claiming the game and the producer does not convey the complexity of a game of this type. The fact that the game is designed to offer a broad range of different play styles and preferences, ranging from individual play to group play and everything in between, has attracted a wide variety of players, each with their own take on – and stakes in – World of Warcraft. All these players and player groups have different views on the game – what it is, how it should be played and how it should evolve – and these views guide the way they play and play with the game. Blizzard, as I have shown, is an especially powerful stakeholder, too. It has designed World of Warcraft in a very particular way, with both game design and game contracts expressing certain preferred uses through a host of formal affordances and limitations. As a company, it does not shy away from enforcing players to keep within the limits of what it deems acceptable forms of play or appropriation. Players nevertheless find ways to circumvent, deviate from or transgress these dominant uses if they so please. Power over the game therefore does not reside with Blizzard; formally, it might own the game but in reality, all stakeholders involved can (and do) claim the game to be their own. World of Warcraft, then, does not just contain battlefields of negotiation between stakeholders; it can be defined as a battlefield of negotiation itself.
Control, agency and ownership over the game, I argue, do not reside with either the consumer (the players) or the producer (Blizzard) but instead are constantly shifting between them. In other words, World of Warcraft is continuously at stake. Negotiations over what the game is, how it should be played and how it should evolve take form in various configurations of participation. As I have demonstrated throughout this book, these negotiation processes convey both converging and diverging stakes, leading to situations of both cooperation as well as conflict, which convey that power is not always distributed equally. World of Warcraft’s evolution over time results from these negotiation processes; it conveys the constant back and forth between Blizzard and the player community in all its ways and forms.
The fact that players themselves are just as much “owners” of the game as Blizzard, I would argue, is for a large part the reason why the crowd reacted so audaciously during the Paris convention. A game like World of Warcraft is, after all, as much their accomplishment as it is Blizzard’s. It is their play, and the ongoing negotiation thereof, that shapes and defines the game. When, for instance, players feel the dominant strategy of leveling up is too slow, they can powerlevel through the game using walkthroughs, ignoring most of the game’s emergent content by replacing it with a wholly linear experience. Battleground twinkers make shrewd use of the game’s mechanics to dominate other players by fashioning a new, unique way of player-versus-player combat. Explorers put game design flaws to use to show an eager audience what lies beyond Azeroth’s otherwise unscalable virtual mountains, teaching other players how to exploit the game’s design in the process. It is through such processes, and others discussed in this 174 battlefields of negotiation book, that players showcase their tactics to gain or keep control, agency and ownership over and in World of Warcraft – tactics that change the game considerably.
While players display a wide range of practices that ignore, bend or in other ways deviate from World of Warcraft’s design, players nonetheless do not possess direct access to the game’s code or contract. Nor is the game designed to be appropriated and adapted by players in any formal, persistent manner. The power to truly change the game resides solely with Blizzard. Players can negotiate their own particular game experience and, through (individualized) group play, the experience of others. Players, however, have indirect rather than direct influence on World of Warcraft’s formal evolution. To use examples from this study: it is Blizzard, not the players, who at a certain point decided to incorporate more item options for battleground twinking into the game due to its continued popularity.
It was also Blizzard, not the players, who appropriated certain player-created UI mods, making them part of the official UI. It was also Blizzard who, in a reaction to devious exploration machinima, patched the game so that wall-walking practices enabling players to escape the boundaries of the fictional world would no longer be possible. All these examples show Blizzard adjusting the game to prevent it being exploited, or attempting to change it in such a way that it becomes more appealing to the player community (and potential new players). Depending on the stakeholder you ask, the changes mentioned above constitute negative or positive evolutionary steps. Either way, these changes are triggered by players deviating from or transgressing the rules of play – deviations and transgressions which, when accepted through negotiation, become the rules of play themselves.
The concept that World of Warcraft does not only display continuous battlefields of negotiation but should be considered a battlefield of negotiation itself is not just an ontological claim about this particular game or similar titles. The concept of studying these negotiation processes – that is, the what, how and why of a particular media object by its various stakeholders – is easily transferred to other forms of participatory media objects and environments. Battlefields of negotiation contain the struggles that various stakeholders encounter when dealing with a contested space of interaction, struggles that have less to do with consumers vs.
producer dichotomies than they have to do with the stakes these negotiating parties represent in terms of control, agency and ownership.
Looking at negotiation processes by “going native” – becoming an active player and participant in the game’s community – has other benefits for research. Having spent a substantial amount of time playing the game and participating on the many websites surrounding it, I not only became a highly proficient player but, as researcher, I also managed to understand the game and the way it is played in ways not possible without actually playing. Game designer Richard Bartle has pointed out that researchers who play a game to study it eventually reach a point where they “grok” (ie. profoundly and intuitively understand) the game’s conpart iv claiming the game cepts (2010a). He does not, however, consider this process of grokking games as
Study game after game after game, eventually you’ll reach the same point that game designers reach: you’ll merely have to read the manual to know what a game is going to play like. Actually playing it will tell you more, yes, but with swiftly diminishing returns (2010a).