«media matters Battlefields of Negotiation Control, Agency, and Ownership in World of Warcraft rené glas amsterdam university press Battlefields of ...»
Machine actors can even function as a companion to players. My main character was a hunter, a class that is allowed to train a wild animal to become a fighting pet. These pets act according to player commands but can also be instructed to act on their own (which is to say: to follow algorithmic rules prescribed by the game). For instance, a pet that is ordered to be vigilant in dangerous situations will attack any potential threat without requiring a direct order from the player. I trained a rare sabre-tooth cat called Humar the Pridelord which I kept with me for years, even after acquiring other, newer pets that might have made more sense in terms of damage output. Rationally, I was very much aware that Humar was a machine actor largely following set algorithms just like any other pet in the part ii controlling the game game. I was nevertheless attached to the beast – an emotional link between human and machine.
Even though World of Warcraft’s appeal lies in the interplay between machine and operator, some players prefer to automate their own actions. Using bots, third-party software created to emulate human input, players can replace their own operator acts with machine acts. The use of bots creates a situation in which machines are playing each other (in this case, Blizzard’s server against the client operated by bot software). Players use bots for a variety of reasons, mostly related to either saving time or gathering virtual money. The advantage of using a bot is substantial: collecting items or gold via an automated process means a player’s character ‘reaps experience points and gold without the player investing any time in the game, as the bot can reap those rewards very efficiently 24 hours a day, without fatigue or boredom’ (Mitterhofer et al. 2009: 18).
an unfair advantage over “normal” play, making it a cheating practice (2009:
412). Blizzard fears that the amount of extra virtual income these bots generate might disrupt the in-game economy. While players using bots tend to keep their activities quiet so as not to attract scorn from other players, commercial bot software sellers have faced legal action from Blizzard. In one notable lawsuit, MDY Industries, creator of the Glider bot software, agreed to pay six million dollars in damages to Blizzard (Duranske 2008b). This case shows how large the stakes can be in virtual currency-related games of stake. Players who use bots and are caught (either by Warden or by other players reporting them) are in danger of having their accounts temporarily banned or, worse, terminated. Trying to abolish bots from a MMORPG like World of Warcraft looks like an uphill battle due to the everpresent demand for virtual money coupled with constant improvements of bot software in terms of detection avoidance. Through the enforcement of their licence agreements, Blizzard nevertheless tries to keep these malevolent machine acts at bay, ensuring that it alone controls what machine actors may do with the game.
To conclude, we can say that through the machine, Blizzard as a stakeholder is not absent during play but present by proxy. By interacting with the players vicariously through machine acts, the company remains at a distance when players want to negotiate the viability or desirability of certain rules or the fairness of their outcomes, positioning many of the rules of play and the way they are enforced as non-negotiable. This situation above is not unique to World of Warcraft; all digital games feature machine acts in conjunction with operator acts. It is, however, not the presence of a machine actor but the coded rules guiding the machine’s acts that informs the amount of control the game designers have over 52 battlefields of negotiation play. As I will show in the following chapters, World of Warcraft is tightly controlled, leading to certain preferred and therefore dominant play practices while limiting the options for alternative play strategies. In the last section of this chapter, however, I want to discuss the configurational threshold that precedes play.
Configuring play Before being able to interact with the game world, both new and experienced players of World of Warcraft will need to traverse the setup screens where the player’s character is configured. From the perspective of game design, the setup screens present moments not only where players configure the game they are about to play but also where designers configure the players into certain gameplay patterns.
Let us take a new player as an example. After having logged into the network by entering the account name and password, a new player is presented with a multitude of choices for their first character. There’s the choice of realm as well as the race, class, gender, name, look and faction allegiance of the to-be-created character. This process, which can be bewildering for the uninitiated, features many choices that cannot be reversed at a later stage of play without cost (financially and/or in terms of time investment). Such choices tremendously influence play, both setting up the range of gameplay options a player will have as well as defining part of the identity and role of their character within World of Warcraft’s fictional world.
In the case of World of Warcraft and other virtual worlds, the tools and affordances with which players are able to build their characters are embedded within a certain ‘world vision’, ranging from ‘aesthetic choices to deep value systems’, of individual designers or the organization as a whole (Taylor 2003: 28). Part of the world vision that Blizzard (or its individual designers) tried to inscribe into World of Warcraft can be discerned when analyzing the way the setup phase positions the players into certain fixed identities with limited options for deviation during play.
The setup phase also regulates the amount of freedom that players have for virtual identity creation in terms of the appearance and naming of characters. Setting up a new character through the afforded configuration options means setting up a player to participate in Blizzard’s world vision.
The option that precedes all and presents itself the moment after a new player logs in for the first time is the realm choice for your character. At this point, a character’s place within the network of World of Warcraft is decided. As I mentioned earlier, hundreds of different realms exist. These realms are not all the same. To begin with, each realm carries a unique name which is derived from elements of Warcraft’s fictional world (Moonglade, Burning Legion, Hakkar and so forth). This name is mostly cosmetic: what matters is the realm type. On the rules level, there is a distinction between a PvE (Player vs. Environment) and a PvP part ii controlling the game (Player vs. Player) realm type. This distinction is based not on social agreements about fair play in combat situations but rather on non-negotiable code: in PvE realms the game simply prevents you from attacking someone when this person has not given his explicit consent. Choosing a PvP realm means you can play more aggressively against other players, but it also means subjecting yourself to the potential of unexpected (and sometimes unwelcome) combat situations. On the level of fiction, players can furthermore choose between a “normal” realm and a realm dedicated to (representational) role-playing, the latter falling under additional role-playing policies (some of which will be discussed below).24 In many cases, the initial realm selection is a choice for (virtual) life. Players are allowed to change realms whenever they please, but switching costs are high. You cannot easily transfer established characters; you must create new ones, each requiring the same time investment.25 This means that players’ particular experience with and/or view of World of Warcraft as a whole is actually based on a fragment, which can differ greatly from other fragments. For instance, one battlefield of negotiation, discussed in chapter fourteen, deals with an instance of community breakdown due to differences between player groups concerning a new content patch released by Blizzard. This breakdown, however, took place in the realm in which I was playing and observing; in other realms, players might have embraced the new content without any problems. A game design choice further emphasizing the fragmented nature of World of Warcraft is the lack of in-game play and communication options between players in different realms (except from some PvP situations), making sustained in-game social interaction between realms nearly impossible.
A result of World of Warcraft’s fragmentation into strictly separated realms is the creation of realm-unique communities. Some realms attract relatively more instrumental play-oriented players due to the presence of renowned raiding guilds. Other realms might have become famous for their role-playing activities.
Players sometimes loosely organize themselves in order to create their “own” realm. Before Blizzard added a dedicated Spanish-language realm, Spanish players had already colonized an English-language realm called Agamaggan.
According to a wiki entry on the background and history of this realm, at one point its population was well over 50% Spanish-speaking, creating large rifts regarding the realm’s official language.26 Blizzard’s decision to break up World of Warcraft into many parallel realms, a decision that was for a large part more practical than ideological, has resulted in a host of world visions rather than a singular, unified world vision. The fragmented nature of World of Warcraft thus can result in realm-related negotiation processes, triggered by the concentration (or segregation) of player groups. The different realm types designed by Blizzard and the unique nature of realm communities as organized by players still present considerable freedom of choice for players. Survey data has, however, shown that many players tend to play with 54 battlefields of negotiation people they know in real life (Yee 2005d). My initial choice of realm was based on real-life reasons, too; a friend had started playing World of Warcraft in a particular realm a few weeks earlier and I followed to join him there to learn to play the game together. Whether friends, family or romantic partners are already playing in a certain realm can be as important a factor in choosing your own realm as any play preference-related reason. With realm choice based on such social factors, winding up in a realm that might not fit your preferred play style (or language) is therefore possible.
After having picked a realm to play in, a new player is allowed to create his/her own in-game character. Where realm choice influences your instrumental and representational limitations and affordances on a macro level of play – what you can do within the boundaries of your realm – character creation dictates the way you play on a micro level – that is, what you can do within the boundaries of your character(s). On the one hand, you are asked to make a choice in the type of instrumental role you want to play within the game which defines your options for ludic role-playing. On the other hand, you are asked to create a virtual identity for this character in terms of look, name and faction alliance – setting up your character for representational role-playing. The difference between ludic and representational character options signals the persistent double role of the ingame character. As game scholar Ragnhild Tronstad points out in a study on character identification in World of Warcraft: ‘on the one hand, [the character] represents the player vis à vis other players in the game. On the other hand, it functions as a tool for the player’s agency in the game’ (2008: 255).
When it comes to ludic role-playing, there are several classes to choose from for your character – druids, hunters, mages, paladins and so forth – each offering a unique style of play.27 Choosing a particular class means choosing a particular style of play. This is what ludic role-playing is all about: you take up a role within the game from which you can only deviate within boundaries set by the game’s design. For many classes, certain play styles are simply impossible: a warrior or warlock cannot heal other players, mages or priests are too fragile for close combat, etc. Some classes are “hybrids”: they allow for different play styles. In many group play situations, however, hybrid classes are required to specialize in one play style to prevent becoming a jack of all trades but master of none. From a game design perspective, the class system means that players are forced to work together in order to overcome challenges they cannot overcome themselves due to class weaknesses. I will discuss the interplay between the classes and the way it affects group play later in this chapter. For the character creation phase is it
important to emphasize that players are not limited to playing only one class:
they may create and play several characters if they wish to and if they want to make the time investment. They are, however, limited to one play style of ludic role-playing for each of their individual characters – you cannot switch your character’s class should you not like it, only to start a new one. Within each class, part ii controlling the game there is a lot of flexibility for those looking for it. In terms of ludic role-playing, switching between classes is, however, not an option with Blizzard’s world vision – if you would rather be a warrior than a priest you have no other option than to start anew with a fresh character.