«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»
Bartle actually goes on to argue that ‘anyone who advocates privileging play at the centre of Game Studies is dooming themselves, because either they are incapable of gaining any meaningful insight into their play or the gradual accumulation of such insight will rob them of their ability to enjoy playing’ (2010a). According to Bartle, the bonus (or price to pay) for grokking games is that rather than finding fun in play, you now find fun in thinking about play (2010a). There is, however, another argument to be made when it comes to diminishing returns after prolonged play. I would argue that for the study of negotiation processes in and around games, prolonged play and even the potential reduction of fun Bartle warns against do not diminish returns per se.
At moments where play seems to become repetitive and intuitive rather than challenging, players are more prone, I argue, to engage in devious, transgressive or otherwise divergent play practices. Players usually do not use walkthroughs when they experience the game for the first time; they do so when they need to revisit it for the umpteenth time. They do not twink their first character either but use the knowledge of the game they gained with their main characters to shape a new character into a twink. Players make machinima when they have “grokked” the game. Many battlefields of negotiation, then, are born from the interplay between boredom and fun, and to truly understand why players engage in various processes of negotiation, grokking a game as a researcher can be as valuable as playing it for the first time. Whether play should be at the centre of Game Studies might remain debatable, but without prolonged play, studying – and most importantly – understanding battlefields of negotiation can be difficult indeed. For this reason alone, play is of great value to this type of research.
While play provided insight into complex processes of negotiation which was otherwise hard to attain, many of the cases presented still lean towards the activities of the more vocal and/or participatory players, especially in the later chapters. This relatively small contingent of players is responsible for the large majority of participatory contributions to the game – not only in the form of the production of creative material (fan fiction, UI mods, information wikis) but also in the form of active forum and guild participation. Both for in- and outsiders, the most vocal/active players are the face of World of Warcraft’s player culture, and naturally their voices are heard by Blizzard and inform the decisions the company makes in order to improve the game. They do not, however, represent all players.
176 battlefields of negotiation We must not underestimate the influence of the “silent majority” of players who play rather individualistically or even anti-socially; who do not engage in the more socially oriented endgame content due to time constraints; who simply like to follow World of Warcraft’s preferred play strategies without much deviation; who may be deemed “casual” by hardcore players. These players do not just represent the lion’s share of players. More poignantly, they represent the lion’s share of World of Warcraft’s paying customers. For Blizzard, catering to their needs through game updates in patches and expansion packs is just as important for sustained success as focusing on the most active and vocal players. As these players do not stand out from the crowd, both their play practices and its influence on Blizzard’s design decisions remains elusive; they are less active on forums and, arguably, deviate less dramatically (or at least less visibly) from the game’s dominant strategies. I have nevertheless dedicated considerable attention to individual and individualized group play throughout this book, and investigated the way World of Warcarft’s design shapes such forms of play in terms of affordances and limitations, in order to provide insight into play practices that might be overlooked when only focusing on the more active, participatory players.
Additionally, there is an argument to be made about the level of control, agency and ownership that casual players wish for – both in terms of the freedom they desire in their engagement with World of Warcraft and in terms of the amount of authority they concede to Blizzard. Whereas the more vocal, participatory players shown throughout this book claim the game to be their own, in my experience many casual players do not seem to mind following the dominant strategies as provided by the game’s design, nor do they object to Blizzard’s sometimes tough enforcement of the rules. They like their play environment to be managed by an external controlling force, which they do not consider antagonistic. Game scholar Espen Aarseth negatively compares World of Warcraft with a theme park, a ‘hollow world’ where players are ‘allowed to see, but not touch – let alone build or destroy’ (2008: 121). For many players, however, the safe, self-contained, tightly controlled characteristic of the world of World of Warcraft forms the main attraction, in the same way that shopping malls, gated communities and, indeed, theme parks themselves form attractive environments for many people. This argument once more suggests that the traditional dichotomy between consumer and producer as well as the concept of convergence between the two as recognized in participatory culture are limited. In a game like World of Warcraft, consumers and producers do not exist in an oppositional relationship, nor are they in perfect unison when it concerns control, agency and ownership. Instead, we should think of players as a highly diverse group of stakeholders with very different needs, desires and stakes in the game. Similarly, we should be hesitant about identifying power over the game – or participatory media in general – as either a (negative) top-down or (positive) bottom-up force. Many consumers desire producers to control their leisure pastime of choice.
part iv claiming the game The fact that players with a preference for individual and individualized group play perform an important role in World of Warcraft’s evolution does not mean that a company such as Blizzard does not listen to the most active, communityoriented crowd. Conventions such as the one described earlier are a prime example of such attention. Other MMORPG developers take it one step further. Game developer CCP Games, for instance, has set up a “Council of Stellar Management”, made up of players chosen through election, for their MMORPG EVE Online (CCP Games 2003). This council represents the player community in CCP Games-organized meetings and at a certain point was even transformed into its own formal department within the company (Augustine 2010: 21). Developer Bioware also initiated a player summit for their MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic (Bioware 2011), stating that the goal is to ‘facilitate an open discussion between guild leaders and the game design team’, adding that the event provides ‘an opportunity for attendees to voice their feedback directly to the teams responsible for the design of Star Wars: The Old Republic, hear the team’s thoughts and reasons behind design decisions, and discuss the current direction of the game’ (Bioware 2012). The results of such conventions, councils and summits are subsequently communicated to the greater player base through the various community websites and other game-related websites.
Even if the players who read about these gatherings do not actively engage in the practices these gatherings often deal with (high-end raiding and PvP combat for instance), many still read about it. To use the analogy that Ducheneaut et al.
give to explain how MMORPG are as much about audience/player interactions as social play, playing World of Warcraft is ‘like playing pinball in a crowded arcade, where spectators gather around the machine to observe the best players’ (Ducheneaut 2006: 7). To observe the spectators, however, participant observation through play is not always enough. Procuring access to Blizzard’s databases for data mining purposes of casual play practices would, for instance, produce a valuable addition to the more qualitative research found in this book. Game researchers Nick Montfort, Nick Yee and Scott Caplan, for example, were permitted formal access to the back-end database of the MMORPG they studied, Everquest II, from its operator, Sony Online Entertainment, offering them a wealth of data on player behaviour beyond the most active ones. As they pointed out in 2008, ‘this level of access and cooperation between a game developer and an academic research team is the first of its kind’ (2008: 999). Blizzard appears to be hesitant to allow outsiders direct access to its game development. To my knowledge, Blizzard has, as of 2012, not allowed external parties direct access to their back-end databases. Without such access, Nick Yee et al. more recently compared online survey data with a large set of data made accessible by Blizzard through the Armory, a web portal that published in-game statistics of all player characters in the game. The result, a mapping between in-game preferences and real-world demographics, provides quantitative date that underscores ‘a crucial point about 178 battlefields of negotiation gamers: they play the same game for very different reasons’ (Yee et al. 2012). This book has shown how these different reasons result in battlefields of negotiation through which not just play but also the game itself is subsequently defined.
While there remains much to be studied when it comes to the influence of the various different play practices as well as the battlefields of negotiation initiating or resulting from them, World of Warcraft’s influence is felt throughout the game industry and beyond. It has become a model for successful game development, not just in terms of income but also in terms of its huge, diverse but at the same time loyal user base who, through their participatory activities, are just as much a part of its massive success as its developer. World of Warcraft certainly was not the first MMORPG but it might just be one of the last of its type, at least in terms of its business model. The competition in the MMORPG genre never caught up with World of Warcraft’s player numbers over the past years but, at the same time, had to keep up with or surpass its production values to attract – and keep – players. The game’s success forced competitors to adopt new business models, including various free-to-play options with monetization systems like micro-transactions, which no doubt influences the stakes and subsequent negotiation processes for both players and developers.
For these types of games as well as similarly shared (and therefore staked) environments beyond the realm of gaming, investigating issues of control, agency and ownership by looking at ongoing processes of negotiation between many different stakeholders on various levels of engagement shows us how complex these products of contemporary participatory culture have become. As I have demonstrated, a game like World of Warcraft is played, created, owned, shared, appropriated and negotiated by game designers, role-players, raiders, customer service employees, Chinese gold farmers, machinima filmmakers, UI mod builders, twinkers, Game Masters, casual players, cheaters and, yes, even researchers.
part iv claiming the gameNotes
World of Warcraft was released for the Windows and Macintosh platforms in November 1.
2004 in the US, Australia and New Zealand. The South Korean and European releases followed in early 2005, with China and other Asian countries following suit in late 2005.
2. The writer and exact origin of this text remain unknown. Who or what caused the leak has also remained unclear, even though a hacker named “Skull” was supposedly involved. Information retrieved from the WoWDev EmuHistory (available through the Internet Archive, http://web.archive.org/web/20091208044610/http://wowdev.org/ wiki/index.php/EmuHistory).
3. Blizzard Entertainment is a subsidiary of American game publisher Activision Blizzard Inc., one of the largest companies in the game industry, which in turn is majorityowned by French media conglomerate Vivendi SA. According to Activision Blizzard’s annual report for fiscal year 2009, a ‘disproportionately high percentage’ of their profits come from a relatively small number of popular franchises, among which World of Warcraft – a game that, according to the report, surpassed the one billion dollar in net revenue threshold (2010: 4). As such, Activision Blizzard and Vivendi SA have major stakes in Blizzard and its game. The negotiations concerning World of Warcraft’s evolution on the corporate level between Activision Blizzard/Vivendi SA and Blizzard Entertainment are, however, beyond the scope of this study.
4. Non-humanities disciplines have developed a wide range of methodological approaches to digital games and play, some of which do not necessarily include play.
Examples are surveys, interviews, server data analysis and observation of gameplay practices (for an overview, see Montfort, Yee, & Caplan, 2008).
5. A similar argument is made by anthropologist Bonnie A. Nardi, who also studied World of Warcraft extensively. She refers to Dewey’s theory of aesthetic experience (Dewey 2005) to understand the process of playing a game. As she points out, ‘to understand aesthetic experience we cannot stop at analyzing an artifact as a text, or narrative or set of functions or compositions of elements, but must also undertake to examine the actual activity in which the artifact is present’ (Nardi 2010: 43).
As Nardi shows in het anthropological account of World of Warcraft in China, Chinese 6.
players are not that different from western players, liking the same elements of the
game. A significant difference, however, is the setting in which the game is played:
not alone at home but surrounded by fellow players in wang ba or Internet cafes (Nardi 2010: 179). For more studies about Chinese and other Asian World of Warcraft players and cultures, cf. (Lindtner et al. 2008; Kow & Nardi 2009; Nardi & Kow 2010; Lin & Sun 2011).
notes In the original MUD1, the ‘D’ stood for dungeon, as it was based on a derivative of 7.
ADVENT called DUNGEN which Trubshaw and Bartle played often (Koster 2000). The game was called DUNGEN rather than DUNGEoN because of the limitations early computers had for filenames. At the time of this writing, a version of MUD1 was still playable at http://www.british-legends.com.