«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»
Not unlike other computer games, World of Warcraft has certain technological and contractual thresholds and barriers, often working in conjunction, which must be traversed in order to actually arrive at the playable part. In this chapter, I will discuss three such thresholds – the network, the platform technology (both hardware and software) and the game configuration – each playing its own role in affording and imitating certain forms of play. These technological and configurational thresholds convey the amount of control Blizzard has given itself over World of Warcraft, both enabling and restricting play before it has even started as well as influencing what you can and cannot do with(in) World of Warcraft during play.
Network play World of Warcraft offers networked play, where players are connected to each other over the Internet through a system of servers managed by Blizzard Entertainment.
Without an Internet connection, you cannot play World of Warcraft; you might be able to open the game software, but engaging in play remains impossible. What you install on your computer is, as Blizzard calls it in the EULA, the ‘game client’.
This client might be able to load, render and animate the virtual environment, but it only does so through requests from a server located elsewhere. Therefore, a permanent Internet connection is one of the primary technological preconditions players must meet in order to play, in addition to the actual computer the game client runs on (which will be discussed below).
Making the game client connect to Blizzard’s servers requires a contractual hurdle. The road to accessing the World of Warcraft network begins with buying the game client or, to be more precise, the serial number included with every copy of World of Warcraft as commercially sold. It does not matter where you actually get the installation software, as long as you buy a unique serial number. Each player needs an individual serial number to set up an account which gives access to the actual game by logging into the network. Buying the game client’s serial number is, however, not enough to enter the network. Activating the account also requires players to choose one of the many monthly payment options. World of Warcraft is a subscription-based service, so no pay equals no play. In addition, installing the game client (and every subsequent software update or patch) part ii controlling the game requires players to accept World of Warcraft’s EULA and Terms of Service. Refusing to do so means you will not be able to access the software.
When access to the game has been arranged, players are connected to a server, called a ‘realm’ by Blizzard. Communication and interaction with other players always passes through these central hubs, not peer-to-peer directly. If one of the data centres hosting the realms is inoperable, it will take down all of its subordinate realms, showing that, on a physical level, World of Warcraft’s network is highly centralized.20 As soon as you log on to World of Warcraft, the distributed network of the Internet – where ‘no single zenith exercises control over all others’ (Galloway 2004: 31) – is therefore replaced with a classic decentralized network, with multiple central hosts each with their own sets of satellite clients. As all zeniths in World of Warcraft’s network are controlled by Blizzard, one single control point still exists. Additionally, players always login through the login-server, a single server point through which all connections between clients and the decentralized realms are made possible (the one for the European realms is located in Paris), which implies the presence of an actual, physical centralized network. For these reasons, within the World of Warcraft network, Blizzard is in full control.
Centralized and especially decentralized networks are, however, not unique in the world of online gaming. In fact, most online multiplayer games are played with one host acting as a server and all others acting as clients. Not all online multiplayer games have fixed, company-controlled servers, however. With many PC-based first-person shooters, players themselves are able to act as servers and are then in charge of the central network hub by doing so. This gives the party running the server considerable power over the others, because they can stop play whenever they wish. World of Warcraft, like most other MMORPGs, does not allow self-hosted games. As players share the same game space in MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, keeping security tight is vital; one devious player could hack his or her client and, through the network, destroy the game experience for many thousands of players. As game designer Richard Bartle emphasizes in a similar discussion on MUD security: ‘absolutely no decisions with regard to what happens in a
virtual world can be relegated to a client. No decisions. That’s no decisions’ (2004:
109, emphasis in original). Therefore, when designing World of Warcraft, Blizzard kept control over the game’s network centralized and limited the amount of freedom that players were allowed over the game client.
The result of the regulatory security measures might keep evil-doers at bay, but it also turns World of Warcraft into what media theorist Eugene Thacker calls ‘a new kind of gated community’, with its borders being controlled through surveillance (Thacker 2004: xvii). Evoking the concept of the panopticon, Blizzard even installs a software programme called Warden alongside the game client, monitoring computer activity that goes on while the game is played looking for thirdparty applications that violate the EULA. Warden is part of Blizzard’s ongoing struggle against cheaters and/or hackers using non-approved third-party software 48 battlefields of negotiation to alter the game.21 It also provides players security against keylogging and other malware. When Blizzard finds an application it deems to be in violation of the EULA, players will not be able to access the game. In contrast to the panopticon, where people discipline themselves because they know someone might be watching, most WoW players are not aware of Warden’s presence on their systems, even though Blizzard has never made a secret of its existence and it has been part of other Blizzard games too. It was for long unclear what this programme actually does behind the scenes. Security software engineer Greg Hoglund decided to investigate the Warden programme in October 2005. He found that, apparently, the watchdog software did not just scan for third-party software in violation of the EULA but looked at any program running on the computer, including those which might include private information (Hoglund 2005). While Blizzard promptly denied that Warden reviews or retrieves any information identifiable as personal information, a wave of discussions on spyware and privacy issues ensued, mostly from the security software and user interface modding scenes (Fulton III 2005; Ward 2005; Hoglund & McGraw 2007).22 Blizzard Entertainment thus controls the game and its usage by controlling the network on which it exists. The first thresholds that need to be overcome in order to play are signing World of Warcraft's EULA, which you must do in order to be able to play, and entering Blizzard’s decentralized network of servers. These thresholds ensure a reliable multiplayer experience in terms of client/server stability and safety by limiting what players may do with the game software. Privacy concerns remain; the game communicates all in-game practices back to Blizzard, while the Warden programme quietly monitors other computer uses. Players might disagree with this situation, but there is no alternative other than not to play.
Playing machines Digital games exist through hardware platforms – PCs, consoles, handheld gameplaying devices, etc. – as well as software running on this hardware. The game client discussed earlier represents World of Warcraft’s software, which is bound to either the PC (with the Microsoft Windows operating system) or to a Mac platform. While not as demanding as other high-end PC and Mac games, playing World of Warcraft also means certain minimum system requirements must be met in order for the software to function correctly (or even at all). The computer, however, is not just a host for the software, it becomes an actor through the software – you do not simply play on a computer but also with and against it.
Structurally, the rules of a game are similar to the inner workings of a computer. Game scholar Jesper Juul looks at computer science to describe the workings
of the rules of a game (digital or not) as a ‘state machine’:
part ii controlling the game A machine that has an initial state, accepts a specific amount of input events, changes state in response to inputs using a state transition function (ie. rules), and produces specific outputs using an output function (2005: 60, emphasis in original).
When calling non-digital games state machines, one is in danger of forgetting the fact that game rules are not always fixed but rather dynamic (Malaby 2007). The hardware and software, though, support a videogame in two distinct ways that separate them from non-digital games. Firstly, the computational power that forms the basis of the technology is able to uphold the rules; it decides what happens in response to player input. Secondly, it keeps track of the current game state through its memory (Juul 2005: 48-49).
In many ways, computer technology has taken over tasks players needed to perform themselves in non-computer games, especially in role-playing games. As sociologist Gary Alan Fine has shown, in a tabletop role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, the dungeon master acts both as storyteller and referee and ‘sculpts’ the way a particular scenario evolves on the fly (1983: 88). Emphasizing what is most appealing to the players is more important within this process than strictly following the rules; if something turns out not to be fun, the rules are adjusted or tweaked. With computer-based games, including World of Warcraft, many rules are coded into the software and are therefore largely fixed. The computer becomes an automated referee; it does not think about what’s appealing but instead follows algorithms written by the design team. In tabletop RPGs, cheating chance by controlling or changing dice rolls is also a well-known practice; as Fine showed, ‘the dice are used in conjunction with the logical structure of the game’, adding that most referees nevertheless give the aesthetic logic priority (1983: 105).
In computer-based games, the computer-as-referee does not follow aestheticbased logic founded on particular play situations. It follows the logic of coded rules.
With the computer as referee, the programmed rules and structures of a computer game are beyond discussion – player-created rules might exist on top of and in addition to the coded rules, but the coded rules themselves are definite and
unambiguous. As Juul points out:
What can qualify as an algorithm – and therefore what can be made a rule in a game – hinges on decontextualization: an algorithm can work because it requires no understanding of the domain and because it only reacts to very selected aspects of the world – the state of the system; the well-defined inputs; but generally not the weather, the color of the computer case, the personality of the computer operators, or the current political climate (2005: 63, emphasis in original).
50 battlefields of negotiation The only way to negotiate coded, algorithmic rules is to find loopholes or other design flaws or faults in order to exploit the rules, to hack the game software, to complain about the rules on the official forums in the hope that the design team acts on the complaints or, in an act of ultimate defiance, to simply refrain from playing. It should, of course, be noted that while the coded rules of a computer game are definite and unambiguous at the moment of play, over time Blizzard nevertheless adjusts them according to player (or its own) taste and wishes.
Except for hacking practices, players therefore only have indirect influence over changes in the formal, coded rules of play.
In a state machine governed by computational power and memory, the computer (or computers when one considers the networked interplay between client and server) is in charge of enforcing the algorithmic rules of the software but also controls all the mobs and non-player characters (or NPCs) the player meets in the virtual world.23 The computer therefore is not just a referee but also another “player” controlling virtual characters – some friendly, others hostile. The computer, for instance, decides whether or not a mob or a NPC will attack a player’s character (and how), whether it will present the character with a quest or not, or whether it allows you to buy something from his inventory. It does not judge your character to make these decisions but simply refers to algorithmic rules related to the player’s character data (his level, his faction, his class, etc.). The computer
thus functions as an important actor in the process of play alongside the players:
it enables and referees play, and controls every virtual life form in the game world not controlled by other, real players. Acting solely on rules designed by Blizzard, the computer represents Blizzard within the game.
Galloway reminds us that distinguishing between what he calls machine actions, performed by software and hardware, and operator actions, performed by the player, creates an entirely artificial division. ‘In fact’, he states, ‘in much of gameplay, the two actions exist as a unified, single phenomenon, even if they are distinguishable for the purposes of analysis’ (2006: 5, emphasis in original).
Being a virtual world filled with NPCs and mobs to interact with, machine actions form an important part of World of Warcraft’s appeal, especially for those players not solely interested in playing with other “real” players.