«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»
One could criticize EULAs and ToUs for being excessively harsh. In her work on Everquest, Humphreys has summarized several of the problems she encountered. All EULAs tend to be alike, regardless of the unique features of the individual programmes or services they cover. Agreeing to the EULA gives the owner the right to terminate the service at will, without user consent or consultation. They allow for the collection of privacy information and covert social surveillance (active control) and take freedom of speech lightly, giving the platform owners
the right to silence voices or practices they do not condone (Humphreys 2008:
23-26). More to the point, the contracts allow owners to rewrite or rephrase sections of the contract at will ad infinitum. If players do not like the terms of the contract, they can always play another game. If they violate them, they can be denied access or removed from the service without any difficulties.
Even fair use, the right to use limited amounts of copyrighted material for your own creative productions or, as Lessig describes it: ‘the right to hire a lawyer to defend your right to create’ (2004: 187) is limited by these contracts. During a conference on law and machinima (animated films created through game engines), an attorney working for a law firm which, among other clients, has represented Blizzard in several cases – argued that, in terms of legal contracts, fair use can be signed away entirely.14 If critics want to dispute any unfair or unclear elements of EULAs in court, all a judge has to do is to rule that the relevant contract terms are valid, creating, as media journalist and gold farming expert Julian Dibbell puts it, ‘a sort of wet blanket thrown upon the sparks of intellectual controversy flying from the case’ (2006a: 139).
Together with socially negotiated protocols, the EULA and ToU form the constantly shifting boundaries of what is considered acceptable play and behaviour in and around the game by Blizzard. Being non-negotiable, Blizzard’s contracts are nonetheless far removed from socially negotiated codes of practice. As law professor Jack Balkin reminds us, together with the coded rules, these contracts create a basic architecture and set of behavioural rules for the game. World of Warcraft’s code and contract (pre)condition play and to a degree dictate the limitations of social codes of practice: ‘the players’ freedom to play is a freedom to play within the rules the platform owners have created’ (Balkin 2006: 87).
While issues concerning the EULA and ToU certainly exist and, as I will show in chapter four, can cause strife between Blizzard and players, they are not inherently malevolent contracts. While the degree of freedom to negotiate the terms and conditions may differ greatly, both social and legal contracts are aligned by 34 battlefields of negotiation their constitution and goals: to create an enjoyable game experience with a healthy, friendly player community. For most players, the EULA and ToU are not at all problematic. They potentially keep disruptive behaviour of other players at bay. Players and designers nonetheless do not always agree on what constitutes fun play, or fun social interaction. As this book shows, players often do go beyond the limits they have agreed to in the licence agreements, limits they themselves do not recognize or in fact take for granted.
Like play itself, game contractual issues, both in terms of the social codes of practice that players create as well as the legal documents that Blizzard provides, point at the fact that World of Warcraft is not a stable cultural artifact. Many of these issues, however, are not specifically limited to what happens within the game world. In the following section I will discuss this chapter’s final perspective on World of Warcraft, game culture, which shows that the negotiations taking place about what the game is, and/or how it should be played, and which forms of appropriation are acceptable, extend far beyond the boundaries of the game.
part i framing the game4: Play and/as Participation
This book is not only limited to what happens within the game world, it also looks at what is happening at the game’s periphery. A MMORPG like World of Warcraft is embedded in a network of a thousand satellite websites, web forums and other web applications. Game researchers Kurt Squire and Constance Steinkuehler have noticed that while there is a growing body of research on virtual worlds, there appears to be ‘a paucity of research on [MMORPGs] as bona fide cultures [...] – sites constituted through language and practice both within the game (e.g., virtual social interaction and joint activity) and beyond (e.g., discussion of game-related issues on player-driven web sites)’ (2006: 178-179). Research – most notably from the social science, STS and Human-Computer Interaction studies perspectives – has since produced several enriching works on MMORPG and/or virtual worlds in general (see Taylor 2006c; Malaby 2009; Pearce & Artemesia 2009; Bainbridge 2010; Nardi 2010; Chen 2011). In terms of culture, this book approaches World of Warcraft primarily from a participatory culture perspective, which has media and fan culture studies at its roots. From this perspective, the view is that consumers do not simply consume but participate as (co-)producers too. In participatory cultures, fans of cultural objects (like Harry Potter or Star Trek) not only engage in creative productions, they do so in an environment where creating and sharing these creative productions is seen as defining social connections (Jenkins 1992, 2006; Gray, Sandvoss & Harrington 2007). World of Warcraft is not just a game, it constitutes a culture in which meaning is developed and negotiated between players as well as between players and the developers.
Every player plays its part As one would expect, creative productions by consumers are not always in line with the main narrative or ideology of the core text. While fans of a film or book might not be able to change the core text, by producing their own material they can give a voice to their own interpretation of the work (alternative endings, short stories, drawings, videos, etc.) or create an expanded universe of interaction for the object (fan sites, forums, wikis, etc.). When dealing with a game like World of Warcraft, consumers – or players – can quite literally play with the core text. The most basic level at which negotiations about acceptable forms of participation 36 battlefields of negotiation (and through it, appropriation) takes place is therefore play itself. As games require active participation from the player in the form of play – without play, games remain inert – the notion of participatory culture in relation to games clearly needs some additional consideration. As Humphreys points out: ‘Fan cultures represent the small percentage of audience members who actively seek to create communities around their interest in a particular text or series. MMOGs require every player to be engaged in community’ (2005: 71, emphasis by author).
Many others have pointed out that playing a game adds user functions like exploration, modification and construction to the more interpretative user function of “passive” media like film, books and television. These additional user functions enable players not just to interpret the content of a game but to explore, reconfigure and, depending on the amount of freedom given, add to it also (Raessens 2005). Play does not simply require participation, we could argue that it is participation.
World of Warcraft is designed with exploration, reconfiguration and, to a degree, modification in mind, resulting in profoundly different play practices and outcomes, some of which Blizzard and/or other players may view as unwelcome. In the same way that players’ play preferences and/or levels of engrossment might differ, players do not all share similar levels of participatory activity or even necessarily a social orientation towards participation. Different forms of play and therefore participation do not always serve common goals. Divergent, transformative and even anti-social play forms constantly challenge the core game experience as intended by the designers as well as the boundaries of what is considered acceptable participation by other players.
On the many communication platforms outside of the game itself, participation is more on a par with fan cultures of traditional media. Where the practice of play makes everything within the game participatory, on the websites surrounding the game, few are responsible for most of the creative cultural production. To describe this situation in online social networks and communities, web usability researcher Nielsen has put forward a “90-9-1 rule” of user participation, where 90% of all users are lurkers, 9% contribute from time to time and only 1% accounts for most creative contributions (Nielsen 2006). Large-scale quantitative research has shown that World of Warcraft players, however, tend to be more active on web forums, with only 30% of players indicating that they never post on forums and well over 30% of players saying they do so once or several times a day, usually on guild-related forums (Yee 2006). The differences between levels of participation, then, are less drastic than the 90-10-1 rule would suggest. A relatively small portion of all players is nevertheless accountable for the vast majority of contributions from participation. Due to play’s participatory characteristics, players will nonetheless never reach a point where they do not participate at all.15 The differences between active and relatively passive participation in World of Warpart i framing the game craft’s subculture might be substantial, but each player still contributes his or her
part through play. As Humphreys explains:
While we can identify the hardcore, who go and make the websites that surround the game and produce much of the material that is useful to playing, we can also identify that every single member of the MMOG ‘audience’ is productive of material that can be used by other players and the publisher (2005: 71).
The addition of the publisher in the final sentence of the quote signals that the participatory activity of World of Warcraft is not just beneficial to participants themselves. It ultimately serves its creator, who can harness participation in order to use it as a force of co-production. Even if participation is limited to individual play practices, the actions within the game can be data-mined to see what players like the most or where they get stuck and stop playing as a result. In this way, all forms of player participation become a co-productive force for future versions of the game.16 The result of World of Warcraft’s participatory culture is a disintegration of the traditional distinction between consumer and producer. Players become ‘prosumers’ (Toffler 1981) – active participants in the process of World of Warcraft’s creation and evolution. In Henry Jenkins’ seminal book Convergence Culture, new media users are positioned as being active, emancipated, creative and communityoriented while new media companies (among which game companies) are ‘collaborationists’ in the process, ‘experimenting with new approaches that see fans as important collaborators in the production of content and as grassroots intermediaries helping to promote the franchise’ (2006: 134). These collaborationists sharply contrast with old media companies (film, tv, music) who deny users the ability to tinker with their products. These he calls ‘prohibitionists’ – and even they are slowly turning to collaboration (ibid. 134). Without question, participatory contributions from active players are key to the success of the overall community and subculture and therefore the success of the game. Frank Pearce, Blizzard’s senior
vice-president, recognizes this fact:
It’s not just a bullet point for the back of the box: I really view the Blizzard community for each specific game to be a huge feature that adds value to the product. So it’s important for us to nurture that community and ensure it has a long lifespan (EDGE 2004: 80).
Active players literally add value to the “product” in the form of content and/or function as structural roles within the subculture’s networks of communication, dispersing information to less active players – and they do it all for free. One could even say that players have moved beyond prosumerism to what new media scholar Axel Bruns calls ‘produsage’, the collaborative and continuous building 38 battlefields of negotiation and extending of existing content in pursuit of further improvement that we see for instance on newly emerging sites, Wikipedia and blogs (2005, 2008).
Participation as exploitation?
The situation of mutual benefit between consumer and producer should, however, be approached with caution; World of Warcraft is not at all the kind of “Web 2.0” open source system in which Bruns’s ‘produser’ thrives. As new media scholar Mirko Tobias Schäfer points out, popular discourse on participation often neglects the fact that social progress is not inherent to user participation; that participation is not always explicit, community-based and primarily intrinsically motivated; that participating in cultural production does not automatically mean participating in power structures or benefitting from generated revenues; and that many participatory practices are often implemented into software design (Schäfer 2011: 45).
And indeed, creative cultural productions resulting from active player participation are actively appropriated by game developers. As Consalvo reminds us: