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There is no doubt about the importance of sociality when it comes to describing the attraction of online worlds, but if the approach to online gameworlds is mostly focused on the social- and community-oriented aspects, we might not be able to explain why [...] some players enjoy playing and engaging with a gameworld mostly as a solitary endeavour (Klastrup 2010: 312).
Over time, solitary play has even become an issue within the game community in the form of the derogatory term “casual player”.12 During the period in which I was an active player, the game’s evolution in terms of game design progressively catered to individual, “casual” play practices through patches and expansion packs. One such design change was making the so-called epic items, which were initially rewarded only to those engaging in the most dedicated forms of instrumental group play (like raiding), reachable for solo play-oriented players. These easy-to-get epics quickly became known as “welfare epics”, a derogatory term 28 battlefields of negotiation used primarily by hardcore players who argued that these casual players did not put in the required group effort to get such rewards.13 As communication scholar Christopher A. Paul points out in his work on the rhetoric of rewards, ‘the underlying assumption that one should be sociable in MMOGs was present throughout the discourse [in response to the introduction of welfare epics, red.], which is underscored by the fact that, in out of game worlds, ‘‘welfare’’ is often distributed to help more fully socialize people into capitalist systems’ (Paul 2010: 171). Judging from my own observations of raiding forums, a considerable contingent of the hardcore players remains bitter about the introduction of these items. Casual, solo play-oriented players, however, use what have become known as welfare epics en masse in the game and do not seem to care much that the way they received them differs from how it was previously. According to some commentators, hardcore-versus-casual debacles like these are a key part of the more recent exodus of players from the game (Thomson 2011).
As should be clear from the welfare epics example, “casual” players form a substantial force within World of Warcraft. They might not be as vocal as hardcore players, but they do represent an important share of World of Warcraft’s paying customers, as this is reflected in the game’s design over time. While social group play in World of Warcraft remains a crucial part of this book, some of the extended examples deliberately focus on individual and individualized group play practices, most notably in chapter three. This should provide some insight into solitary play in gameworlds.
part i framing the game3: The Contracts of Play
Up until this point, I have mostly referred to game design as a way of affording and limiting certain play practices. These built-in affordances and limitations, one could argue, try to shape play in a sense that they convey what the game designers think the player might want to (or simply should) play. In this chapter, I will discuss forms of control that make sure this shape is retained – they are the rules, codes and contracts that players and Blizzard put in place, both implicitly and explicitly, to make sure players do not stray too far from intended and accepted play practices. It deals with the social and legal agreements that exist amongst players themselves and between players and Blizzard. These agreements, for which I use the umbrella term game contract, show which play practices and other forms of participation and communication are considered acceptible in and around the game. In contrast to the coded, non-negotiable rules of game design, game contracts present players with meta-rules – rules that are not impossible but rather impermissible to break.
Social codes, norms, and boundaries As should be clear, my use of the term contract should be understood loosely; as I use it, it includes both the legal documents that players agree to when signing up for the game (discussed below) and the whole gamut of player-created social protocols, etiquette and other social rules and guidelines. This second category, which I call contractual, forms what game scholar Esther MacCallum-Stewart aptly calls the social codes of practice: the ‘tenets laid down by individuals within the game who have no design power or automatically conferred authority’ (MacCallum-Stewart 2011: 45). These codes of practice, she points out, are strongly linked to what players perceive to be foul play, in the ‘spirit of the game’ or behaving ‘with honour’ (ibid. 45). As a form of social contracts, in other words, they depict the affordances and limitations of play as judged by the players rather than the contrived, coded affordances and limitations of play as a result of the game’s design.
In most games, cheating or other forms of unsportsmanlike behaviour “breaks” the game experience for others, resulting in play being momentarily or indefinitely suspended by the players and/or referee. As stopping play usually 30 battlefields of negotiation diminishes the enjoyment of those involved, the presence of certain socially negotiated boundaries ensures that in most cases players tend to obey or at least agree on the rules of play. MMORPGs, however, are persistent, resulting in play being continous even if players misbehave in the eyes of others. Divergent play practices are then no longer potential game-stoppers. The presence of social codes of practice, both implicit and explicit, nevertheless ensures that even if players decide to ignore all other players and strictly follow their own rules and pursue their own goals, they still do so within a community of players with established norms and values. Like the MMORPG itself, this community is persistent in its presence;
there is no offline, individual version of World of Warcraft for the socially averse.
Individualized group play practices like ganking might not necessarily stop play in a MMORPG, and players who wish to commit these anti-social acts could continue as they please because the game itself does not stop them from doing so, but they are breaking social contracts created by the collective over years of communal play and negotiation, risking further social exclusion.
The social codes of practice defining what kind of play practices and other behaviour is deemed acceptable do not, however, necessarily apply to World of Warcraft’s community as a whole. Many of the codes of practice are part of cultural norms and values that players bring to the game (play remaining grounded in the real world), others are more specifically generated and negotiated in terms of the game’s rules or the game’s fiction. While most players, for instance, agree on what is considered harassment, what players interested in hardcore instrumental group play might consider acceptable in terms of game play could easily differ from the desirable play styles that representational role-players uphold. In a discussion of players and the way they deal with the virtual economy of a MMORPG, cultural historian Timothy Burke, for instance, paints the difference between individualistic players aiming to maximize their progression and players oriented towards a distribution of wealth based on social and cultural rules or ethics (Burke 2002: 10-11). The first group of players ‘understand the argument of moral economy players, but find their vision confining, regulatory, and elitist, one that replaces a concrete economic hierarchy built on measurable achievement with a slippery hierarchy built on rhetorical and cultural skills that originate from outside the frame of the game’ (2002: 28-29). Players of different types and/or with different preferences and interests organize themselves both loosely and tenaciously in groups. In his work on tabletop role-playing, Fine refers to groups of
players as ‘idiocultures’, or:
Systems of knowledge, beliefs, behaviors, and customs peculiar to an interacting group to which members refer and employ as the basis of further interaction. Members recognize that they share experiences and that these experiences can be referred to with the expectation that they will be underpart i framing the game stood by other members, and can be employed to construct a shared universe of discourse (1983: 136).
A larger community thus consists of a large set of small groups with potentially unique codes of practice, but they nevertheless exist within the context of the larger player culture. ‘As a result’, explains Fine, ‘every small group can be said to be an interpreter of this larger culture’ (1983: 238). Sometimes these interpretations are on a par with those of other groups, but differences in opinion can cause disagreements between players about their particular play or (other) behaviour.
While Fine limits his observations of idiocultures to small groups interacting face to face in real-world locations, like the Little League baseball teams and tabletop role-playing groups that he originally studied (1979, 1983), when dealing with virtual communities one could stretch the notion of idioculture to include larger, less formal groups. As World of Warcraft’s community is not location-based but exists in the virtual, and does not (necessarily) involve face-to-face interaction, the groups that form around specific play practices and preferences can become rather large. Player groupings might start out informal and temporary but can develop into more sustained and organized forms like player guilds. Guilds might consist of small, easily defined groups of players, but some of the raiding and role-playing communities encountered during my research consisted of hundreds, even thousands of participants, especially when including outside observers and/or fans of these groups who follow their cultural lead. Even with this immense size, they often still showed distinct social codes of practice. Just as players can be part of different groups with different characters, they can be part of different idiocultures sequentially and simultaneously (the latter implying a range of identity play options which are part of several of the extended examples throughout this book).
In terms of game contract, we can say that the various overlapping and sometimes contended social codes of practice in and around the game define what players need to do and especially what they should not do to be an accepted part of the community, or to those parts of the community in which they wish to be included. At the same time, social codes of practice enable players interested in anti-social individualized group play practices to act in a manner least appreciated by other players, like ganking. Furthermore, the interactions between the different groups, each with its unique interpretations of how the game should be approached, shape both the community and the game itself, as the constant negotiations about the proper codes of practice can also be said to be negotiations about the boundaries and meaning of play.
Players are, however, not the only ones involved in the creation and enforcement of contracts when it comes to play. In fact, the legal boundaries set by the game developer, stating what players may and may not do with the product they 32 battlefields of negotiation have purchased, are among the first rules that players encounter after buying the game. It is this side of World of Warcraft I will turn to next.
Like many software license agreements, signing these document means clicking on the “I Accept” button when prompted during the installation of the game software. Choosing not to accept is always an option, but this choice will simply block access to the software – to play the game, signing these documents is compulsory.
The End-User License Agreement is a key document because it ensures that players understand that they have not in fact bought the game software but that Blizzard licenses its use. This is worth repeating, as it influences how to think of World of Warcraft as a cultural artifact: it is not a product that is published but a service that is provided. As Internet researcher Sal Humphreys, who has written extensively about EULA-related issues concerning the MMORPG Everquest, points
Structurally [publication and service] are built on different mechanisms. Publication is an industry built around the notion of property. Powerful discourses circulate that construct publications as property subject to ownership and theft. Service industries on the other hand, are structured around process and relationship. They are not about the exchange of property. There is an exchange of money for service (2005: 92).
How Blizzard deals with its role as a service-provider will feature more prominently in chapter four. For now, it is important to note that legally, players never actually own the game; they pay for the rights to play it through a monthly subscription.