«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»
‘clearly, commercial entities have vested interests in commodifying as many elements of gaming culture as possible, to then sell those bits back to players as the most desirable forms of capital’ (2007: 184). Media scholars Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Whiteford and Greig de Peuter point out that games in general are increasingly becoming the product of ‘communities that extend beyond the workplace’, with paid corporate employees forming ‘only the core of a much wider circle or creativity [...] that includes a diffuse swirl of unpaid creators, test subjects, expert informants, and voluntary labour’ (2003: 201). The concept of convergence culture is in danger of overstating the eagerness of producers to allow full collaboration of users in creative processes. While the roots of participatory culture in online social networks like virtual worlds can be traced back to grassroots and “DIY” counterculture, participation is now embedded in and entangled with corporately owned control spheres (Galloway 2004; Turner 2006; Lessig 2006; Schäfer 2011).
40 battlefields of negotiation5: Battlefields of Negotiation
The previous chapters conveyed how one should not limit observations of a MMORPG such as World of Warcraft to one perspective. It does not do justice to its complexity, potentially limiting one’s understanding of the game. I have therefore tried to frame World of Warcraft through four main perspectives. First, I discussed World of Warcraft from a game design perspective, framing the MMORPG genre as a problematic type of game, as it defies classic game definitions. While part of the virtual worlds family, I argued that it is a gameworld first and foremost, with individualistic and instrumental play being important characteristics. I then discussed the game play perspective, giving more attention to these characteristics.
Play was furthermore framed as movement: players constantly change play styles between and even during play sessions. This movement extends from play styles to levels of immersion or engrossment, making game play in World of Warcraft highly diverse in nature and experience. In the following game contract perspective, I have shown how this diverse nature of play is still regulated to some extent by a range of social codes of practice and legal documents describing the accepted boundaries of play. Lastly, I discussed the game culture perspective, in which I framed World of Warcraft in terms of participatory culture, showing how the boundaries between player and designer are contested.
The multi-layered perspective allows me to explain in greater detail how and why claims about what World of Warcraft is (or should be) are different, and how these differences influence the game’s evolution. This lack of agreement is limited not only to differences between players and Blizzard but is also evident within the player community itself in the form of different practices of play, in some cases supported by unique cultural norms and values, representing different approaches to the rules and boundaries of play.
Players (in all their varieties) and Blizzard are all stakeholders when it comes to World of Warcraft – all strive to achieve what they think is in the game’s or their own best interest. Even if they pursue different values, the fact that these values in many cases need to be expressed and defended in order to arrive at their preferred version of the game unites all of the stakeholders. The resulting negotiations, dealing with differences of opinion and other asymmetries of power or agency over the game, take place on what I figuratively call a battlefield of negotiation. The use of the term “battlefield” sounds serious. And indeed, play can be very serious, part i framing the game and the stakes, both affective and financial, quite large. Negotiation practices are, however, all very different in form, context and severity; some of them can look benign, almost insignificant, to the stakeholders involved. Exploring the fictional world (game play) while ignoring the instrumental rules or goals (game design) to create a video showing the landscape of a particular in-game region (game culture) is, for instance, hardly seen as problematic by players and/or Blizzard.
Sometimes negotiations between stakeholders are more explicit, for instance when players unwittingly or actively break either social codes of practice or one of the licence agreements, attracting scorn from other players or repercussions from Blizzard. The release of controversial new content through patches can also provoke vocal opposition from player groups, as seen in the welfare epics example. A case included in Part IV of the book, to give another example, discusses the players’ ability to exchange virtual currency for real money and vice versa. This practice is shown to be highly controversial among players and is explicitly forbidden by Blizzard. Another extended example in that chapter shows that Blizzard does not shy away from pursuing (or threatening) legal action when it encounters activities it does not condone on websites outside of its direct control sphere. Here, a video hosting site is asked to remove a player-made video which shows how to exploit game flaws.
For Blizzard, arguably the most powerful stakeholder entity, the process of ensuring that all stakeholders (including itself) are satisfied with the game is a difficult creative and managerial task. Players, Henry Jenkins has pointed out, must feel a sense of ownership over a virtual world if they are going to put in the time and effort needed to make it work, for themselves and for other players. ‘You can't possibly mandate a fictionally involving universe with thousands of other people. The best you can hope for is a world that is vibrant enough that people act in manners consistent with the fictional tenets’ (2006: 160).19 As hope alone is not sufficient to keep players in check all the time, World of Warcraft remains tightly controlled by Blizzard’s control mechanisms, including the coded rules and the contractual agreements each player has signed. Through design, maintenance and customer support, Blizzard has the most options to deem certain practices of play as desired while outlawing others. More so, through interventions, adaptations, expansions and limitations brought forth by content patches and community management, it regularly adjusts World of Warcraft as it sees fit. Such changes, both on the instrumental (game rules, interface options, etc.) and fictional levels (additional narratives, expanding the virtual world’s geography) have nonetheless been appreciated by players, judging by its vast player community.
While Blizzard undoubtedly is the most powerful stakeholder within World of Warcraft, players usually do not feel underpowered or exploited. Through play itself, players can diverge from game design structures they feel conflict with or diverge from their wishes or needs. As long as divergent play practices or modifications are considered ‘creative use of game mechanics’ (as Blizzard tends to 42 battlefields of negotiation refer to activities going beyond the intended design), players are free to do as they please. Blizzard also allows players to adjust the user interface of the game to some extent with modifications created by players themselves, giving the game a more personalized look and feel during play. Again, user interface modification is allowed as long as Blizzard does not deem it inappropriate, in which case the company will block the modification’s functionality. Both divergent play and modification can be considered a kind of negotiation between players (through play) and Blizzard (through the game’s design).
While apt for a game which, as its title suggests, is all about war, the term “battlefield” in battlefield of negotiation should be read as the space within or between the different levels of negotiation where stakeholders meet. The battlefields of negotiation throughout this book show World of Warcraft as a host environment for playful interaction, a social environment, as a source for creative productions, a product worth protecting from misuse and so on, showing that World of Warcraft is a complex socio-cultural phenomenon, but always one embedded in a commercially controlled context. The variety of battlefields of negotiation, both within and around the game, remind us that World of Warcraft is not an easily defined cultural object to play, use, manage or study. Different as they may be, they all provide insight into the way the shifting boundaries of game and play define the World of Warcraft phenomenon, and how the line between developer, manager, owner and player becomes increasingly diffuse.
part i framing the game Part II Controlling the Game A game like World of Warcraft is always developed with an ‘attempt to embed within it particular forms of use and, by extension, particular users’, as game researcher T. L. Taylor puts it (2006a). In this part of the book, I will analyze World of Warcraft’s underlying technology, its coded rules and its fictional world as designed by Blizzard. By doing so, I will demonstrate how the game is indeed constructed with particular uses and users in mind. Individual and individualized group players with a strong emphasis on the instrumental parts of the game, for instance, might be very passionate about their play style but, as Burke argues, ‘at least some of that passion is less an expression of their own choice and more an adaptation to [...] foundational choices made by the developers’ (Burke 2002: 29).
Even with an ever-evolving game like World of Warcraft, an analysis of some of the key choices in its design will shed light on the affordances and limitations that form the basis of play. The following three chapters will therefore serve as both an in-depth introduction to the game as well as a reference point for the rest of the book, where player behaviour deliberately or accidentally diverges from Blizzard’s intended use.
While games in general might not necessarily be tied to certain media or platforms – you can play chess on almost anything – in digital games the practices of play are, as media theorist Alexander Galloway notes, ‘embedded inside algorithmic game machines’ (2006: 21). The technology that carries digital games, both in terms of hardware and software, shapes the possibilities for play as well as the game world in which this play takes place, in advance of the players’ arrival.
Game technology and design allow for certain play practices, while making others impossible or at least improbable or impractical. The game setting – the fantasy world of Azeroth – is furthermore carefully constructed to provide players with certain experiences while limiting the possibilities for other ways to engage with the fiction. On the contractual level, the End User Licence Agreements and Terms of Service play a part too, as they help to retain the intended uses of the game after players actually start to interact with the game.
To understand the battlefields of negotiation in and around World of Warcraft, we need to therefore understand the game itself as a cultural artifact created from a particular artistic but also commercial vision. As Nardi points out, the social negotiations that give shape to the game experience are materially constituted through the rules of play as created by the game design team: ‘the design of a game dictates where opportunities for human intervention shall be offered; a hand of God is embroidered in the software’ (2010: 75). The following three chapters will therefore investigate World of Warcraft on respectively the levels of technology, game rules and structures, and the fictional world it represents. Even though the practice of play leads to wildly different deviations from the way the design team envisions the average player will act inside the game, which in turn can lead to formal adjustments to the game, ‘users find themselves engaging with a world that has been created with a particular vision of community, identity, and social life’ (Taylor 2003: 28). These chapters will attempt to convey this vision.
Ultimately, my aim is to show that, as a result of Blizzard’s design decisions, players do not just play World of Warcraft but are played by it too.
46 battlefields of negotiation6. The Setup of Play