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an instrumental quality to free play itself to the extent that each move backand-forth is an attempt to establish meaning and decide the outcome (2000:
part i framing the game This way, actual play situations are located somewhere along the continuum between instrumental and free play, never quite reaching either end.
The movement of play Even though World of Warcraft is built as a system with a formal structure of rules and goals, it is the movement of play between free and instrumental that makes it difficult if not impossible to see it – or any other game for that matter – as a stable object. This quality of play as movement is not present in prevailing definitions of what constitutes a game, as destabilizing game structures through play makes it even harder to define them. For Malaby, who refers to the destabilizing nature of play as ‘process’, it is reason to argue that ‘any attempt to formalize games by defining them essentially in terms of their rules or through a taxonomy of types [...] falls short because it fails to capture how games are moving targets, capable of generating new, emergent effects that then inform the following instances of the game’ (Malaby 2007: 103). For a game like World of Warcraft, which offers a highly instrumental goal-driven structure of levels, quests and other objectives but, as a virtual world, also presents a space where players can play freely in unpredictable, innovative or subversive manners, the distinction between instrumental and free play is not conceptual but very real. Play in World of Warcraft, then, is not stable but rather the result of constant oscillations between free and instrumental play practices.
If free and instrumental play form two opposing points on a scale between which players move, individual and group play is another. Some games are designed for solo play, others require player groups of various sizes in order to function. World of Warcraft offers options for both, with players constantly shifting between individual and group play situations. A shared environment by definition, playing entirely solo is difficult if not impossible to achieve, as other players’ characters are always near, but it is nevertheless still possible to enjoy most of the game’s content without ever having to communicate or work together with other players.
Put these oppositional pairs – individual and group play as well as free and instrumental play – on imaginary axes and you get a basic framework, with play moving between them. Such a framework is not meant to create a taxonomy that confines players into certain practices of play, like Bartle’s well-known player types (Bartle 1996, 2004) but rather to provide a basic overview of the possible forms of play in World of Warcraft.10 Instrumental play, both in its individual form and group form, should not need much explanation. Playing solo by doing quests or pursuing other game objectives are forms of instrumental individual play, while cooperative and competitive practices, like doing quests together or engaging in group-based player-versus-player (or PvP) battles, are forms of instrumental group play. As both individual and group-based forms of free play are not 24 battlefields of negotiation bound by any particular predefined goal structures or rules, the amount of possible play practices is almost endless. Examples of free individual play would be exploring the vast and detailed fictional world without any other goal than just wanting to see “what’s out there”, or collecting items of clothing to dress a character to personal aesthetic taste (rather than gathering such items for instrumental reasons like combat). A good example of free group play would be roleplaying. In World of Warcraft, we can see players inventing a large variety of roleplaying practices, often having nothing to do with the goals and challenges that World of Warcraft as a game offers. Many of these role-playing activities force roleplayers to work around the limitations of the game’s design, which is not always set up for their role-playing needs (Copier 2007; MacCallum-Stewart & Parsler 2008).
Ludic vs. representational role-playing There is a reason I mention role-playing as an example of free play above: it is part of the MMORPG or, more generally, the role-playing game genre’s name. In genre terms, the term role-playing is far more instrumental in nature, having less to do with acting and more to do with playing/managing a character which, as game scholar Mark J. P. Wolf points out, is ‘represented by various statistics, which may even include a developed persona’ (Wolf 2001: 130). In some RPGs such as the popular Final Fantasy series, players even control several characters at once, managing their strengths and weaknesses in such a way that a goal (like defeating an enemy) is achieved. This type of instrumental play is what can be called ludic role-playing, while the acting variety can be referred to as representational role-playing. Cooperative forms of instrumental group play are good examples of ludic role-playing, as each player in such a group controls a character with a certain function – they each have an instrumental role to play within their team in order to defeat the adversaries opposing them. Most of World of Warcraft’s most challenging content is geared towards these forms of tightly organized ludic roleplaying.
The difference between ludic and representational role-playing is not always recognized. In his study of World of Warcraft, sociologist William Sims Bainbridge notes that ‘because World of Warcraft is a role-playing game, it seemed appropriate to use role-playing in the research’ (Bainbridge 2010: 16), hereby referring to roleplaying practices I would call representational in nature. In a study of the MMORPG Everquest II, Williams et al. point out that representational role-players form a small community ‘playing their own game, largely independent from the other players and the larger world they populate’ (Williams, Kennedy & Moore 2011). In World of Warcraft, this larger world seems primarily interested in ludic role-playing, making a representational approach not necessarily as appropriate as Bainbridge suggests. Even on the dedicated (representational) role-playing serpart i framing the game vers I was active on, representational role-playing was relatively rare. An in-depth analysis of the possibilities and limitations for both ludic and representational role-playing afforded through World of Warcraft’s game design will be provided in Part II of the book.
Another reason to point out the difference between ludic and representational role-playing has to do with the levels of engrossment they induce. In his study on tabletop role-playing games, Fine uses Erving Goffman’s method of frame analysis (Goffman 1974) to distinguish three frame levels of engrossment in the games that he studied: the real world in which all activities are grounded, the game context in which players deal with the rules and structures of the game, and the fictional world within the game in which they are present as characters. Each of these frames create other levels of awareness, meaning and immersion for the user, resulting in different forms of interaction with both the game and other players (Fine 1983: 183-186). The concept of frames also reminds us that play is always grounded in the real world and never wholly separate (cf. Lehdonvirta 2010; Jørgensen, Mortensen, Rossi & Glas 2011).
In the light of these frame levels, one could say that ludic role-players tend to approach the game from the game context whereas representational role-players go to a fictional level by approaching the game “in-character”, resulting in a noticeably different game experience. Bartle describes similar levels of immersion that are analogous to Fine’s frames. These levels – player, avatar, character, persona – are seen as ‘conceptual or emotional barriers’ between which players must pass to become more deeply immersed in the game (Bartle 2004: 154, 155). Not all players, however, want to fully immerse or engross themselves in a game’s fictional world, instead choosing to enjoy themselves on the game level. I would also be hesitant to claim that players who remain on a game level are less emotionally involved or immersed in the game. Many of the extended examples throughout this book show the contrary. Similar to my approach to different play forms, however, players should not be seen as “stuck” on one level of engrossment or immersion but rather as constantly moving between levels depending on the play situation they encounter. In other words, representational role-players can easily switch to ludic role-playing and vice-versa. Different frames or levels of immersion do, however, lead to situations where players have a very different understanding of what the game is or how it should be played.
Following this overview of play forms, we can say that World of Warcraft’s design allows and even encourages players to constantly move between free/instrumental and individual/group modes of play, and on different levels of immersion/ engrossment, all within a shared, persistent game world. This relative freedom of play both liberates players and brings with it negotiations between players about whether some play forms are “better” or more socially accepted than others. I would therefore like to add another form of play which I will call individualized group play. This form of play, where players play alongside each other rather than 26 battlefields of negotiation with or against other players within the same game, can only exist in games where players are free to move between individual and group play at will without bringing play to a halt. The notion of individualized group play again brings forward that, even though World of Warcraft is a thoroughly social experience, “social” does not always indicate meaningful or positive interaction and communication between players.
Problematizing Social Play Contrary to what outsiders might potentially expect from a multiplayer game like World of Warcraft, individual and individualized group play (rather than group play) amount to a large part of the overall game play experience. Results from largescale data-mining carried out by games research collective Nicolas Ducheneaut, Nick Yee, Eric Nickell and Robert Moore, for example, show that grouping is seen as an inefficient way to get through the game. Many players choose only to begin grouping when they reach the higher levels with their characters, ignoring grouping possibilities until this moment (2006: 4).11 Such an example of individual play is part of what Ducheneaut et al. call playing ‘alone together’: being ‘surrounded by others instead of playing with them’ (2006: 4, emphasis in original). They do not
necessarily consider players who prefer to play individually as anti-social players:
While many of WoW’s subscribers play alone, we believe that they prefer playing a MMORPG to playing a comparable single-player game because of a different kind of “social factor.” Indeed, the other players have important roles beyond providing direct support and camaraderie in the context of quest groups: they also provide an audience, a sense of social presence, and a spectacle (2006: 7, emphasis in original).
In other words, gazing at other players, showing off your newly created gear or just reading the endless banter on the game’s many chat channels provide much pleasure for non-socializers. The “direct support and camaraderie” of group play situations should, however, not be overestimated as social play. Even when players decide to group up, not all play is socially oriented. The classes available for play in World of Warcraft are not equally equipped for solo play. This means individual players need to form groups for particular goals with the sole intention of using each other’s character abilities. Group play then becomes a result of game design, forcing players to do so, not the result of players actually wanting to play with others. Game scholars Jaakko Stenros, Janne Paavilainen and Frans Mäyrä, who provide an overview of different forms of sociability and social play in games, refer to this situation as ‘a neutral tendency towards co-players’ (Stenros, Paavilainen & Mäyrä 2009: 87). It is not uncommon, when grouping up with strangers, for communication to be limited to an austere minimum. While players part i framing the game who group up temporarily to accomplish a particular quest might technically be playing with each other, they do so in an “every man for himself” manner. In this way, they too are playing alone together.
Individualized group play also exists in the form of anti-social behaviour.
Ganking, for instance – the practice of randomly killing another player’s character and then waiting for him to re-appear or “respawn” with the intention of killing him again – is condemmed by most of the player community, but players can do it if they want to. These are forms of what games researcher Torill Mortensen calls ‘destructive deviance’ – ‘that which ruins the progress of others’ (2008: 208) – and can seriously reduce the enjoyment of those involved as victims. As the option for ganking is, however, part of the game’s design – nothing in the game’s rules prevents them from doing it – gankers usually do not see their actions as transgressions of the rules. There is, however, a difference between what the game allows and what the player community deems appropriate (a topic that will be discussed below).
The inclusion of individualized group play – both in free play form (like ganking, which serves no other goal than personal enjoyment for the ganker) and in instrumental form (playing ‘alone together’) – help to clarify two things about game play in World of Warcraft. First, individual play is always embedded in a social environment, making true individual play as seen in single-player games impossible. Second, we should not think of, or at least should not overestimate, World of Warcraft as a purely social environment in terms of game play. This is a gameworld, not a social world. As Ducheneaut et al. observe, ‘the prevalence and extent of social activities in MMOGs might have been previously over-estimated,’ adding that ‘gaming communities face important challenges affecting their cohesion and eventual longevity’ (2006: 1). Klastrup agrees with Ducheneaut et al.,