A "Digital Culture, Play and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader" Readerby Richard Bartle
I was not pleased when I was asked to review this book, for the simple reason that I’d bought it the day it was published and so would not therefore be receiving the complimentary copy to which I was entitled for reviewing purposes. If only I’d held off a while…
I never was going to hold off, though, because this is an important book for Game Studies. As far as I can tell, it’s the first time an edited collection of papers has appeared concerning a specific game, written by academics who actually play that game extensively (the game being World of Warcraft, for those of you whose attention span didn’t stretch to reading beyond the colon of the book’s title). This makes it a paradigm-setter.
There is an as-yet-unresolved dialectic among Game Studies researchers: to immerse or not to immerse? If you don’t immerse yourself in a game - especially a virtual world such as WoW - then how can you write with any authority about it? The defence, which is that you don’t need direct experience of something to understand how it works (the “most gynaecologists are men” argument), is not entirely persuasive: when it has been attempted in the past, too many times the result has been an arrogant, comically naïve blundering premised on misinterpreted facts that is screamingly, obviously wrong even to players untrained as academics, let alone to experts. Except when you did it that one time, of course.
Digital Culture, Play and Identity comes down strongly on the other side of the fence: all the chapters - which are written by some of the biggest names in the field - are grounded in the experience of many, many hours of play. The clear danger here, though, is that researchers might lose sight of why they were immersing themselves in the first place; are you truly writing as an academic who uses play as a tool to further your understanding of your field, or are you really writing as a player who uses your academic background as a tool to further your understanding of your play? Put more formally: will you use your player skills objectively so as to say subjective things in the service of your academic discipline (good), or will you use your academic skills objectively so as to say subjective things in the service of your player needs (bad)?
Thankfully, there is a riposte to the suggestion that immersion leads to a loss of academic objectivity: if this were indeed a problem, then how come Anthropology has got away with it just fine for the past century and a half?
Given this background, Digital Culture, Play and Identity therefore represents a conscious attempt to advocate that practitioners of Game Studies should be practitioners of the games they study. So, does it make a good case?
Ultimately, I believe that it does, but that the very question misses the point. To explain what I mean, let’s look at its content. This is going to take a while, by the way…
The book is organised as four sections, entitled Culture, World, Play and Identity. I’m not entirely sure why only three of those made it to the title, but no matter: it’s with these divisions that we find the first signs of the perhaps unwanted consequences that can arise from immersing yourself in a game for months on end and then telling people about it.
Here’s the problem: if researchers are writing in the light of their experience as players, isn’t there bound to be an unhealthy correlation between what they find fun as players and what they regard to be significant as researchers?
For virtual worlds, what players find fun is often discussed in terms of Bartle’s typology, which, my being Bartle, I know quite well. Over the years, I’ve noticed the emergence of an unspoken convention in papers about virtual worlds: when researchers use the codeword culture, they’re basically saying “I am a socialiser”; when they use the codeword play, it’s “I am an achiever”; when they use the codeword world it’s “I am an explorer”. The catch-all condition is identity, which can mean one of three things: “I am a designer”, “I am a role-playing socialiser or explorer or achiever” or “actually, I haven’t been playing this for long myself but I have friends who are really into it!”. Killer types will write under one of these four headings too, but you can easily spot them because the politician sub-type will also have edited the book and the griefer sub-type will make you want to throw it across the room.
Sure enough, this is pretty well how the book breaks down, except it’s missing a griefer (which is a shame, because you can sell more copies of a book if readers continually have to buy replacements for ones damaged by being thrown across the room).
This variety presents a difficulty, though. To understand virtual worlds in any depth, you have to appreciate them from all perspectives - not just one. When researchers are writing from a position informed only by their own playing style, they can’t do that - or they can, but then they’re supporting the other side of the dialectic. This is where the genius of presenting a multi-faceted compilation of articles in a single volume wins through, though: sure, individual authors may write from a very situated standpoint, but the book as a whole reaches the whole spectrum. It’s a very neat solution.
Alternatively, you could get a designer schooled in academic practice to write the entire book; that also works.
I guess I should now iterate through the individual chapters for you. This is a tricky task, because I could write single reviews the size of this one for each chapter alone, which would exceed my allocated word count by a factor of 28 (my already having exceeded it by a factor of 2); I shall therefore attempt to limit what I say to an overview of each piece, with additional comments on common themes that emerge through the volume as a whole.
Before I do this, though, a general point: because academic publishing is conducted at a pace that wasn’t increased by the invention of the steam press, let alone computers, by the time the book made its appearance the shiny new The Burning Crusade expansion of World of Warcraft - which is referred to throughout as a hot new addition to the game - had been turned into a deserted wasteland by the appearance of the shinier, newer Wrath of the Lich King. Lesson: don’t encourage contemporary references if their only purpose is to make your work appear up-to-date, because by the time the monks have finished inscribing it on auroch-hide vellum it will be anything but.
Oh, and I should say something else, too. What you’re about to read will look like a lot of cynical carping that may put you off the book entirely. Don’t let it. This is an anthology which every researcher remotely interested in MMOs should read, if they haven’t read it already (and if indeed they haven’t read it already, they should perhaps be asking themselves why not). This is a good book.
So, on with the iteration!
IntroductionHilde G. Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg (eds.)
It’s here that the narrative flow of the book is outlined, so it’s here that I have quite a lot to say about its nature. First, I should mention that on the whole the introduction does a very creditable job. It’s a little hazy about the facts at times, but then these falsehoods seem able to perpetuate all on their own anyway. For example, the first MMOG wasn’t Ultima Online, that’s just the first one you noticed; they don’t have their roots in D&D no matter how much you think they obviously must have; the first MUDs appeared in the late 1970s, not early 1980s. Yet you, reading this right now, having been told in the paragraph-before-this by One Who Was There (me) that these assumptions are wrong, will still be repeating them for the next decade. So it goes…
The introduction opens by nailing the book’s colours to the mast: this is an anthology written by people who actually play what they’re talking about. Proof comes in the form of a screenshot of a meeting of the researchers’ guild. Yes, there are WoW guilds set up by and for academics who are playing the game. On the face of it, this is an excellent idea: the guild is basically a research group, with all the benefits of synergy and interaction that this occasions. However, if it actually is a living guild and not just for show, this does mean that we see WoW only from the perspective of one group of individuals with common purpose, who are playing in one faction on one server. In practice, there are differences introduced at all stages. These can involve something as simple as whether it’s traditional to go left, right or up the middle in Utgarde Keep’s drake room, or they could be more subtle, for example the way in which female characters are treated. How far can you extrapolate from your experience in your own guild/faction/server to WoW as a whole? The question doesn’t appear to have been asked.
It’s with the introduction’s summary of its chapters that we first see a weaving together of its disparate threads to make a strong fabric. The pattern that emerges is on the whole very pleasing indeed; however, there are some implicit assumptions made which introduce small weaknesses. This may be a strong fabric, but it’s not waterproof. I could furnish several examples of what I mean, but rather than give the false impression that the book is a disaster I’ll merely unpick one to illustrate.
The example I’ll use is the introduction’s summary of the book’s section on culture. The important contribution of these chapters, it says, is “their definitive rejection of the idea of an innocent game, and their examination of the ways in which game references are constructed by and construct meaning in offline culture”. This is backed up by an extended quotation from John Dovey and Helen Kennedy on the undesirability of stereotypes. Reading this, it’s almost as if WoW is regarded as some kind of naturally-occurring environment that colonists have moved into in the touching belief they can build a utopia, of which the researchers are helpfully disabusing them. The fact that WoW’s is a designed environment is accepted, but the intelligence of the designers is woefully underestimated. Good designers - and WoW’s are very good - are perfectly well aware that what they are creating is art; they know that what they say through their design has meaning constructed by and in offline culture - and they design for that. They also design to say things about game design itself, which is apparent to other designers but not to many players (and that includes players who are academics). If they chose to put in a stereotype, then they put it in for a purpose: to accuse them of ignorance is to reveal an ignorance of your own. If Art Spiegelman can use stereotypes effectively in Maus, why can’t Rob Pardo do it in WoW? Don’t criticise the words until you know what they’re saying. Instead of assuming that game designers know nothing beyond game design, how about recognising that they’re probably more widely-read than you are, and starting from there? Some of my game design undergraduates have read Maus of their own accord. Have you?
I did mention that I was going to rant there, didn’t I? Hmm, perhaps I didn’t, thinking about it…
This summarisation does accurately reflect what goes on throughout the book, though. The rough formula for a generic paper is as follows:
• The researcher starts with a particular area of expertise.
• The researcher plays WoW.
• As with all who play virtual worlds for fun, the researcher adopts a particular playing style.
• The researcher interprets what they see as a player in WoW in the light of their academic expertise.
• The researcher triumphantly points out a structure that other players, who are not experts, have not noticed.
• The researcher critiques the structure they have noticed, using the terms of their area of expertise.
• The researcher fails to consider that this structure could have been put in place purposefully, partly informed by a passing knowledge of their area of expertise.
It’s as if they’re looking at an Escher etching and pointing out that there is a pattern of fishes and birds and that one gradually becomes the negative space of the other. Yes, we know that, we can see that: what we want to know is why it’s there and what it means. You’d say that for Escher’s work; why don’t you say it for WoW?
On with the iteration!
Corporate Ideology in World of WarcraftScott Rettberg
The premise of this opening
If, however, you want to know why WoW does this, well, there are hints that it makes for fun gameplay but little beyond that. Is it that the designers of WoW live in a society so consumerist that they couldn’t help but define a character’s in-game success in terms of its possessions? Were the designers aware of other approaches, but went with that one because that’s what their players would feel comfortable with the most? Was it done to criticise, or celebrate, the corporatisation of the real-world? Was it really only done because it introduced fun gameplay (and, if so, how come the idea flopped in text MUDs until they reached the USA 10 years after they were invented?).
We don’t get any answers to these questions. What we do get, though, is a catalyst for other people to seek those answers - if they ask the questions. From this perspective, this is an exciting paper: here’s a phenomenon, now go away and explain it. I just hope that someone indeed does do that…
“Never Such Innocence Again”: War and Histories in World of WarcraftEsther MacCallum-Stewart
The central theme of this chapter concerns how the idea of war is built into WoW. In particular, it examines the fiction’s never-resolved Horde/Alliance conflict, and what this says about how we regard war in the real world. This is all good stuff, and if you want to understand the ways that WoW handles the concept of war, this is the paper for you.
However, we see here the first appearance of another thorn in the foot of researchers who write as players, namely not addressing the question "how else were they going to do it?" The franchise is Warcraft, therefore WoW was always going to have war in it - it’s part of the specification: war, craft. Furthermore, the way that the world’s 3D graphics were obliged to be implemented client-side, along with the fact that a consistent narrative had to be supported across hundreds of servers, meant that no Horde/Alliance conflict could ever be allowed to be resolved by the players. That war-with-a-lack-of-resolution trope wasn’t the result of a major decision on the part of the designers, it was pretty well a given. Conflict had to be meaningless and artificial - just as it had to be in Dark Age of Camelot (which uses the same technique but predates WoW by several years) - because how else were they going to do it? It’s just as easy to read too much into symbols as it is to read too little into them.
The chapter ends with an interesting discussion that associates WoW’s state of uneasy truce with the way the real world was after the First World War, and makes further suggestions that it reflects the designers’ attitudes to the Iraq War (looming as WoW was being developed). This leads to a further point that bemuses designers when academics hypothesise about their work: why not simply ask them if this is what they were saying? Wouldn’t it save a lot of fuss and potential embarrassment? The answer is that yes, it would if you were writing about their work as craft, but not if you were writing about it as art. Sadly, too few players (academics included) do see MMO design as art, though (a topic I shall return to later).
World of Warcraft as a Playground for FeminismHilde G. Corneliussen
The thrust of this chapter is how gender construction in WoW can profitably be viewed in terms of several feminist positions, of which the Parité movement’s appears most appropriate. It assesses a wealth of evidence regarding WoW’s treatment of gender, developing a view that while it is progressive and does challenge real-world cultural perspectives of gender, it still has some way to go. If you want to understand how WoW constructs gender, this is the paper for you.
The chapter does, however, have two blind spots.
The first blind spot is that it treats the designers as if they were ignorant of feminist theories. They are not. Really, they’re not. If they chose to implement gender the way they did, it was not through lack of awareness of what their decisions meant; rather, it was because they had particular reasons for doing so. Whether these were to do with wishing to “help” as best they could without alienating too many prospective players, or whether they baulked at what introducing genderless characters would cost to implement, or whether they were merely following in the grand tradition of MMOs (which have had enlightened agenda for thirty years) - who knows? Well, the designers know, obviously. Why not ask them why they did it the way they did, instead of guessing - or, worse, assuming?
The second blind spot relates to something uncomfortable for a number of feminist theories when it comes to MMOs: many female characters are played by male players. There are two levels of gender construction going on: the player’s and the character’s. The Parité approach to WoW fits if it abstracts the gender of characters without reference to the players in control of them, but it would be ironic indeed if the main reason that gender in WoW is “present, but practically meaningless” is because the men playing female characters wouldn’t stand for their loss of privilege otherwise. Personally, I don’t believe this is the case, but the fact that it wasn’t even considered came as a surprise to me.
The Familiar and the Foreign: Playing (Post)Colonialism in World of WarcraftJessica Langer
This chapter builds very nicely on the two that precede it. It mirrors Corneliussen’s view of how gender should be treated, except it concerns race; it further has to position this view in a Warcraft fictional universe that has two warring sides in an edgy peace. To achieve this, it examines the way that race is embedded within WoW, finding useful analogy in contemporary views of the legacy of colonialism. If you want to grasp how WoW deals with race, this is the paper for you.
Yeah, I know, you’re waiting for the “however”. Actually, the first “however” is one made by the Langer herself: these may be called “races”, but actually they’re more like species - cats versus dogs, rather than labradors versus dalmations. That said, the paper proceeds to regard orcs and humans etc. as distinct races rather than species, on the basis that this is how the game itself characterises them and how the players refer to them. Fair enough.
To be honest, though, the result is a bit patchy. In the words of the book’s introduction, the paper “shows how the representation of the Horde races draws on colonial images of African, Jamaican, Native American, and other peoples”. Well yes, but it’s pretty damned obvious, isn’t it? Truthfully, how many players didn’t spot that all by themselves? A more useful question is why the designers went with this. Was it lazy design (WoW does contain a lot of this, for example its interminable pop culture references)? Was it some desire to promote liberal, post-colonial opinion? Were they commenting on the way the real world is? Were they perhaps commenting on post-colonialism itself, playfully suggesting that a demonisation of the western view is itself a western view? I don’t know the answer, of course, but I’d like to have seen the question. I’d also like to have read Langer’s opinion as to why WoW has African, Jamaican and North American “natives” in preference to, say, Australian, Asian, Middle-Eastern or South American.
The use of post-colonial theory here is constructive, but I feel that at times it’s pushed too far. If it breaks down, OK, that shows its limits; trying to find an analogue for the undead “race” in the palpable absence of one only weakens the argument as a whole by making it look stretched. Likewise, although the central platform (that the Alliance represents the “familiar” and the Horde the “foreign”) is solid, it’s not perfect: night elves are not “familiar” - they are nothing like Tolkien’s elves, who must surely provide the template for “familiar” when it comes to such matters. Trying to argue that night elves are familiar, but that undead aren’t (even though we’ve all seen horror films) is a little over-eager.
The analysis is very thoughtful and persuasive in this chapter, but again the designers are treated as if a modern appreciation of race issues has passed them by. It hasn’t. Nakamura’s Cybertypes book, referred to here, is on their bookshelves too; I’m pretty sure, because I’ve seen it there (OK, not at Blizzard because I’ve never visited, but at other MMO developers’ offices). If WoW’s designers put in racial stereotypes, they didn’t do it because they were brought up in the Deep South in the 1930s; they did it to say something. Start from that position, and you’ll get a better understanding of race in WoW than if you assume the designers to be lamentably educated.
A further point I feel it’s worth mentioning (at the expense of extending this chapter’s review yet further), is that the paper itself occasionally slips up in its language. In referring to the Horde, at the very least, “African” should be “Sub-Saharan African”, and trolls always seems to be specifically “Jamaican” rather than, say, “Caribbean”. Knowledge of the distinction between “British” and “Scottish” would be a help, too. For the record, my own point of view picks up from what Langer herself noted: the worst thing about “races” in MMOs isn’t that they exist, but that they are treated as species. Where are WoW’s elf/dwarf shared parentage NPCs? There are none. The game seems to be saying that races are “meant” to be kept separate, with their own separate cultures. This is bad news for mixed-race individuals, and in my view is much more insidious than the easily-mockable “all dwarfs are crude beer-lovers with bad Scottish accents”. In the real world, race is constructed just as much as, if not more than, gender; that WoW’s treatment of it as a discrete rather than a continuous concept was not pursued in this chapter is, I feel, a missed opportunity.
A Hollow World: World of Warcraft as Spatial PracticeEspen Aarseth
The World section of the book begins with a short but very engaging chapter that considers how WoW thrives despite (or, as Aarseth suggests, because of) its obvious limitations. Its players can’t do anything to change the world, its continents are smaller than Manhattan, it introduces no new ideas for MMO design, and it’s realised using cartoonish graphics. How is it that the players lap this up instead of revolting? The chapter supposes that it’s because the world is designed for the experience of play, rather than the reverse. In other words, the designers weren’t in it to create a world given meaning by gameplay, they were in it to create gameplay given meaning by a world.
OK, now although I’ve characterised this paper as being explorer-type in nature, I have to confess that actually it isn’t: it’s beyond that. It does perhaps look like classic explorer material, which indeed superficially it is, but that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s about an issue of MMO design, considered as an issue of MMO design, and based on evidence observed from playing MMOs as, if not a designer, then at least a detached observer. It’s pure Game Studies. I’d like to heap praise on this approach here and now, but it will make more sense if I hold off until the end of the review of the book as a whole, so you’ll just have to wait. For the moment, I’ll merely offer a criticism so you don’t think I’ve abrogated my responsibility to be curmugeonly: the paper affords only a glimpse of its true potential. It’s nowhere near long enough.
If you want to appreciate what Game Studies is, this is the chapter for you.
World Creation and Lore: World of Warcraft as Rich TextTanya Krzywinsca
The purpose of this chapter is to draw attention to the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that WoW mythologises its content, and what this approach buys the game in terms of the roundedness and richness of its virtual world. If you want to understand how the use of myth can structure the believability of a world, this is the chapter for you.
It’s hard to argue with Krzywinska, too, because all her points are good ones. WoW really does draw on its backstory to present a consistent and all-pervading mythical world that affects at all levels even players with no interest in its narrative whatsoever.
It’s exasperating, though, that her points made, Krzywinska doesn’t explore any particulars. Blizzard didn’t have to base its world on established mythological constructs, but it did: why? Having made the decision to do so, why did it stop short of layering its own fiction on top of an entire tried-and-tested cycle? It’s well known that designers think a great deal about this (the developer of Dark Age of Camelot, which did do such a layering, even calls itself Mythic Entertainment); what’s special and interesting is why designers choose the solution they do rather than the other possibilities. The reason this is special and interesting is that if, as Krzywinska argues, the mythology of WoW provides a symbolic language, then to make sense of it we really need to know what the symbols are, what they say, and how we can read them. This must involve looking at what is being said and how it is being said. I guess we’ll have to wait for Krzywinska to elaborate in another paper.
From a personal perspective, I’m gratified to learn that so much of WoW is myth-making because that’s how I also see virtual worlds - as a living embodiment of the monomyth. To me, the fact that WoW is steeped in myth both of its own and of other (intertextual) making is yet further evidence in support of my theory. Myth narratives are tools for delivering identity, which is also what MMOs do; this makes myth a natural fit when used to contextualise an MMO such as WoW.
I thought I ought to point this out this bias of mine, just so you remember I’m not normally this agreeable…
What Makes World of Warcraft a World? A Note on Death and DyingLisbeth Klaustrup
The premise of this chapter is that understanding the way virtual worlds in general and WoW in particular treat the concept of death is key not only to the analysis of their mechanics, but also to comprehending the way that players see the game as a whole. To this end, Klaustrup investigates the different ways that death in WoW is regarded by players, and examines their function. If you want to know about death in WoW, this is the paper for you.
Only one thing bothers me about this: it’s not so much “death” that’s being discussed here as “losing”. The word death is merely the label that has, for historical reasons, become attached to the condition of “mini-game over”. Players say “I died”, but their version of “death” has none of the anguish or gravitas that accompanies real-world death (nor even the permadeath that was a feature of early MUDs). The same stories about death that players offer for WoW would still be related if the concept were fictionalised as something else (such as Lord of the Rings Online’s “morale failure”) or if the setback didn’t involve combat at all (you might say you were “knocked out” by a training robot, for example). I’m prepared to believe that the term “death” does have connotations that are not shared by other ways to refer to the same experience, it’s just I’d liked to have seen further discussion in the paper about what these are.
Yes, you’re right: whatever the detail any of these chapters had gone into, I’d still be asking for more..!
Quests in World of Warcraft: Deferral and RepetitionJill Walker Rettberg
The assertion made by this chapter is that by studying the dominant patterns and quests in a game, “we gain access to some of the basic patterns of the game itself”. It’s archetypal advanced-explorer stuff - the study of the arcane to shed light on the divine. The paper focuses on the notions of repetition (multiple cross-references to a quest component) and deferral (rewards promised at the beginning of a quest chain but not given until its end); the former act to bind the fiction and the world together, and the latter act to bind the world to the player. If you want to understand the relationship between quests and the worlds in which they are set, this is the paper for you.
There’s a lot of very interesting material here, including an excellent couple of pages on how to parse quests (or at least how to read the kind that are in WoW). The connection with mythic structure is (satisfyingly) noted; less satisfyingly, however, the designers’ almost certain awareness of and consideration of these structures is not noted. This places a rhetorical interpretation of quests on shaky ground: you can’t be sure that what you’re reading is purely literal or whether it contains an element of knowingness. It could even be worse than that: it’s not unprecedented for designers to place bait in their work simply to tease what they see as pompous or earnest academics (not that Walker Rettberg would qualify for either, I hasten to add!).
My generally positive feelings about this paper are tempered slightly by its determination to see quests only in terms of what they mean for the virtual world itself. It’s a matter of emphasis. Walker Rettberg does concede that quests have other purposes, explicitly referring to those outlined in Krzywinska’s chapter, but she concentrates on how the devices of repetition and deferral are used to accommodate the changing needs of players. This is fine, except that’s not what quests are for - quests are primarily to make a game more fun. Designers do use these rhetorical artifices to keep players absorbed and break up the grind, but, given that other reasons dictated their having quests in the first place, how else were they going to do it?
Does World of Warcraft change Everything? How a PVP Server, Multinational Playerbase and Surveillance Mod Scene Caused Me to PauseT. L. Taylor
This very thoughtful and reflective chapter opens the Play section of the book, and was one of the highlights for me.
In some of her earlier work, Taylor was very enthusiastic about empowering the players of virtual worlds in general and MMOs in particular, primarily because of what she saw as the controlling behaviour of designers and developers. Here, however, having been exposed to what happens when players get a taste of such empowerment, she finds herself reappraising her view. Given enough power, it seems that players can be just as controlling as designers.
This conclusion would perhaps comes as no surprise to MMO designers (almost all of whom became designers precisely because the virtual worlds they played didn’t provide the level of control they craved), but it marks a sea change in the prevailing academic view of the power relationship between MMO players and designers. This has, in the past, typically characterised players as the put-upon victims of designers’ fascistic whims; if it turns out that the more like designers you allow players to become then the more like designers they will behave, well, that’s awkward at the very least.
Taylor’s line of argument is interesting for its own sake, too, because the way she came to this issue was through studying emergence. She is critical of the commonly held belief that all emergence is by definition good, citing examples from WoW where the creation of addons (an emergent phenomenon) was in some cases a hindrance to players in general, rather than a help. She also takes a sideswipe at people who over-generalise from their own experiences, her having played several MMOs on servers either side of the Atlantic for extended periods and observed substantial differences in their cultures.
This is all great stuff - essential reading for any researcher new to MMOs who may be hoping to discover therein unsullied forms of idealised behaviour: instead of trying to find evidence supporting what you’d like to be true, you should instead be gathering evidence and determining the truth from that. If you want to see a paradigm shifting, this is the paper for you.
I do, of course, have a criticism of this chapter, although it’s not related to the substance of the discussion. It’s just that there seems to be an implicit assumption that emergent behaviour is necessarily unplanned. Often it is, yes, but there are plenty of occasions when it isn’t. For example, Blizzard may have expected players to write certain addons to do particular things, which Blizzard could itself have easily provided as built-in functionality but didn’t. Allowing the player community to create such tools would save Blizzard work and also ensure that the functionality it offered was not available so soon that its presence would spoil the critical sense of awe experienced by the game’s first players. Later, had players not actually created all the ease-of-use addons hoped for, Blizzard may have released its own versions. Thus, what looks like emergent behaviour was actually planned for, and was always going to happen.
Yes, that’s just a probably-false hypothesis I made up on the spot, and I’m not going to spend a month trying to get Blizzard to respond to it any more than you are. However, the basic point is sound: emergence alone is no guarantee that the resulting behaviour wasn’t controlled, merely that it’s less likely that it was.
Humans Playing World of Warcraft: or Deviant strategies?Torill Elvira Mortensen
The essence of this paper is that players often do things that designers didn’t plan for them to do and really, really wish they didn’t do. Some players want to play the game the designers designed, and some don’t; these latter, “deviant” players are the ones Mortensen concentrates on, and she investigates a number of different categories of deviant behaviour that are exhibited in WoW. If you want to know the ways in which players subvert WoW’s design, and why they do it, this is the paper for you.
Mortensen’s own view is detached from the rights or wrongs of the matter. She doesn’t judge players who, in defiance of the EULA, engage in RMT anyway; rather, she considers why it is that behaviour such as this is regarded as deviant. She concludes that deviance is a disregard for the prevailing rules, whether these are rules set by the game designers (as with RMT) or by groups of players (role-playing may be deviant in a guild of hard-core raiders). She asserts that the threat that deviant behaviour poses for a game lies not in the specifics of the behaviour itself - that’s merely symptomatic of the underlying cause. The heart of the issue is that those engaged in deviant behaviour don’t care. This is a powerful insight. When people don’t care about a game, is it, for them, still a game?
I quibble with some of the chapter’s definitions of what constitutes deviant behaviour, primarily because they’re so reliant on an understanding of what the designers intended. Without asking them, how do you know what the designers intended? Yes, WoW is billed as an achiever-style game, but it’s inconceivable that it was designed with this as the sole aim in mind. MMO designers generally do want socialising, guild-leading and role-playing, and while they may decide not to advertise their virtual world in these terms they can certainly design to accommodate and encourage such activities. Yes, the mechanics will only reward achievers, but then achievers are the only group interested in being rewarded by the mechanics anyway.
Thankfully, as you’d expect from a quibble, none of this undermines the paper’s main argument, which is very strong.
Role-play vs. Gameplay: The Difficulties of Playing a Role in World of WarcraftEsther MacCallum-Stewart and Justin Parsler
This chapter explains exactly what its title suggests: the difficulties of role-playing in WoW. It categorises the basic problems, suggests some workarounds for each, and concludes with a generally pessimistic view of the future of role-playing in MMOs, tinted with just enough hope as to stave off complete despair. If you want to know the obstacles faced by role-players in WoW, and how they surmount or avoid them, this is the paper for you.
You have to admire the dedication with which role-players ply their craft in WoW in the face of much indifference and occasional hostility. The main issue seems to be that the virtual world is not designed with role-players in mind; there are very few concessions towards the activity, and no policing even on supposedly dedicated RP servers. MacCallum-Stewart and Parsler make a very firm argument that role-playing is an important aspect of MMOs that should not be allowed to wither and die - so firm, in fact, that when you realise what a shocking state this venerable style of play has fallen into in WoW it’s quite saddening.
Although this chapter does seem to be a prima facie case of researchers using their academic skills to argue for improvements in their experiences as players, for once I don’t begrudge them it. Even though strong role-playing was always a minority activity in what are still formally called MMORPGs, it was also a defining one; its decline diminishes virtual worlds as a whole, and this heartfelt paper shows why we should be concerned if it is allowed to reach extinction.
Character Identification in World of Warcraft: The Relationship between Capacity and AppearanceRagnhild Tronstad
The first paper in the final, Identity section is, I’m afraid, the one with which I personally am least happy, basically because it treats a waypoint as an endpoint.
The chapter’s starting position is that players identify with their character based on what the character can do, but that some of what it can do depends on what it looks like and some of what it looks like depends on what it can do. How do we separate a character’s form (its appearance) from its function (its capacity)? This is a reasonable question; I have concerns, however, in how it’s answered. In particular, the paper’s lack of recognition that “identification” and “identity” are not the same thing really weakens it. It could be so much better if only it had kept going.
Identity in an MMO is not merely about being able to label something as being “you”. Neither is it about feeling empathy towards the character or “being” it. It’s about becoming your character to become yourself. It’s the end state of a process of immersion that begins when the player first creates a character and enters the virtual world. Your character changes to reflect and suggest changes in your self-understanding, until eventually they align. Tronstad doesn’t ever really seem to appreciate this, regarding player and character as always-separate entities; this means that much of what she says only applies to a phase of MMO-playing that most people pass through fairly rapidly on their way to becoming immersed. That doesn’t make it wrong, it just makes it of frustratingly fleeting relevance.
This has consequences. For example, using the concept of flow to describe how the player treats the character as “an extension of the player” (ie. flow leads to presence) is an interesting argument, but it stops too short. What happens afterwards is that the character becomes a conduit for the player to engage in self-communication: the character as a separate self is a step on the way, not the destination. We get no sense of that from this paper (I suspect because Tronstad hasn’t achieved full immersion in WoW herself, but I could be wrong). However, because she stopped at this point, it makes the concept of flow look more important than it really is. In later stages of play, flow isn’t actually necessary for either immersion or identification, because you can flip in and out of a state of flow while remaining in a state of immersion or identification with your character.
As an aside, flow is a concept that’s often over-used in Game Studies; it’s useful, yes, but not universally useful. Here, it’s being pushed to answer questions it can’t answer. For example, if flow leads to “loss of self-consciousness”, how can that mean you can “identify” with your character? Who’s the “you” here? This is a general problem for any work on identity: how do you pin down to what entity the flux of identity refers? If “the player” begins with no identification with “the character”, and then gains it, this means “the player” has somehow changed (previously it didn’t identify; now it does). That being the case, what can “the player” mean? It’s a moving target.
The paper’s conclusion is that character capacities cannot be treated independently of character appearance, because they both contribute to how players perceive themselves and are perceived by others. I agree with this; my frustration is that it doesn’t pursue the argument to its end. Changing how others see you must be subservient to seeing yourself as how you are, because if you want to change how others see you, that can only be because you see yourself differently to how you think they see you - or how you want them to see you. How could it be otherwise?
Nevertheless, if you want to understand how appearance and capacity are inextricably entwined in MMOs, this is the paper for you.
Playing with Names: Gaming and Naming in World of WarcraftCharlotte Hagström
The final chapter of the book concerns the names that WoW players give their characters. If you want to know how players choose names, this is the paper for you.
The categories of names uncovered are interesting and sometimes amusing, but the overall effect is a bit “so what”. OK, WoW players have lots of different types of names and lots of reasons for choosing those names, but how many people would find this altogether surprising? If you asked players themselves to speculate as to how people thought up character names, would they really come up with anything much different? The paper’s conclusion - basically that names are important and say something about you - is also not exactly controversial. It isn’t that there’s anything annoying or pointless going on here, it’s just it feels (to me at least) as if it’s missing something. It’s small and well-formed, but what do we do with it?
I’d like to have seen some further examination, although I’m not sure that this would have helped either. For example, Nick Yee did some automated gathering of names from WoW and subjected them to statistical analysis; he discovered, among other things, that the commonest three letters that begin a tauren name are “Moo-” and for a night elf, they’re “Sha-” (for which the last three are “-ria”). People may choose names for different reasons, but there’s enough of a consensus about those reasons that patterns can emerge. Hagström’s more in-depth approach to discovering why people choose the names they do might similarly unearth patterns, but collecting the data is such a time-consuming exercise that it’s probably too much to ask that she do it for this paper.
I guess what’s niggling at me here is that once we have a handle on why people choose the names they do, then what? Can we say things about players that we couldn’t before? Can we design better MMOs in the light of it? Can we discern anything about an MMO from the names players use, or make useful comparisons between games using lists of player names? What, in short, does it buy us?
Well, whatever use it may or may not have, the study of names in MMOs has to begin somewhere, and this chapter is just such a place to start.
* * *
Having finished my enumeration of each chapter, I’m now in a position to summarise my thoughts about the book as a whole.
Well, that’s easy: if you study MMOs, you should read it.
I’m also in a position to discuss what the book contributes. This is not so easy, so I’ll break it down into three (ultimately related) areas.
1) Play as a Qualification for Writing about PlayAs a standard-bearer for the “if you want to write about it, you have to play it” battalion of Game Studies researchers, the book makes a very strong case. Almost all the chapters give a sense that the author has played WoW a great deal and has a huge amount of experience in it. Those chapters simply could not have been written by anyone who had not played WoW extensively.
Well, except they could. As I flippantly stated at the beginning, a designer with an appropriate academic background could have come to similar conclusions having played for only a fraction of the time that the researcher did. What’s important here is not how much you’ve played; what’s important is how much you’ve understood. From a player’s point of view, that means you have to have put in the hours; designers, having already put in the hours many times over for other games and MMOs, don’t need to have put them in - they’ve grokked the concept. With around 30 years of virtual world experience, I knew what WoW was going to be like by level 10 - I didn’t need to play it beyond that to talk confidently about it, as by then the gameplay had unfolded before me. I only played through to the end because of this player-led attitude that you have to do so to earn the right to talk about it. I can say with some assurance, having done just that, that no, I didn’t need to do so, and had basically wasted my time.
More to the point, it’s not just designers.
If you, as a Game Studies researcher, study game after game after game, eventually you’ll reach the same point that game designers reach: you’ll merely have to read the manual to know what a game is going to play like. Actually playing it will tell you more, yes, but with swiftly diminishing returns. This will happen to any researcher worth their salt, because how can it not happen? Your understanding of what MMOs are like will be such that you won’t have to play 3 or 4 hours every night for 18 months to figure out a new one: after a week or so, you’ll just know. Then, the whole “if you want to write about it, you have to play it” view will come back to haunt you.
If you want to write about it, you have to understand it. Playing it extensively is merely one way of doing that (but a way you probably ought to have done at least once).
Grokking isn’t without its side effects, however, which we’ll return to shortly. First, however…
2) Reading MMOsA number of the chapters extract meaning from MMOs, lit crit style, but they’re vague on where this meaning originates. Sometimes, the “author” of a target phenomenon is the lead designer, sometimes a systems designer, sometimes a level designer, sometimes the lead artist, sometimes a player or group of players. This makes interpretation a chancy business: if you don’t know who it is that’s saying what it is you’re reading, you can’t make the connections between symbols that allow you to understand what’s being said. Are you critiquing what designers call “the vision”, or are you critiquing one or more individuals’ compliance with the vision, or are you critiquing something that emerged through happy accident?
It’s valid, of course, to read and interpret the work of any of those who contribute to the creation of an MMO. It’s even valid (albeit not calculated to please designers) to read the MMO as a whole as if it were an entirely emergent art form. You have to be sure that you’re not constructing meaning from garbled signals, though.
As I mentioned in some of the individual chapter reviews, the lot of the Game Studies researcher is made more tiresome because, unhelpfully, game designers do not seek to avoid reading research on their subject. For example, if they haven’t read Csikszentmihalyi they’ve read Koster; if you see flow in a modern game, it could well be there because it was designed to be there, which makes the act of pointing it out rather redundant. Is the researcher merely reduced to pointing out how the magician did their tricks? Or is there more to it than this? And if there is more to it, then where does this sit? What is Games Studies?
This conveniently leads to the area of the book’s final contribution.
3) Game StudiesAll the chapters in this book could have appeared in Game Studies, this journal. Just one, however, could only have appeared in a Game Studies journal. All the rest could have appeared in another journal of one kind or another (media studies, communication, psychology, literature, whatever).
The exception is Aarseth’s paper. His is the only one that can’t be regarded as anything other than Game Studies; the only one which, if there weren’t such a discipline as Game Studies, could not find a journal in which to be published. Even Mortensen’s and MacCallum-Stewart and Parsler’s papers could find a home elsewhere. So why is this?
Well in my view, it’s because Aarseth is the only author not writing as a player. He’s played and grokked. This isn’t to say that none of the others have grokked MMOs (Taylor certainly has); it’s just to say that they aren’t using that eye in their chapters. Ultimately, though, they’ll have to do this. Here’s why…
Game Studies can’t be centred around the notion of playing as a player (ie. for fun), because that makes it self-defeating. If you think about your play, you grok it; if you grok it, then - and here’s the killer - it’s no longer fun. Raph Koster calls this “designeritis”: if you understand something so much that its deepest gameplay is effortlessly exposed to you merely on contact, all the joy of playing it disappears. Instead, what you now find fun is thinking about play, not play itself. Put simply: the more you study games, the less likely you are to find games themselves fun and the more likely you are to find studying games fun. You pay a price when you research games. They did tell you that when you started, didn’t they?
Because of this, anyone who advocates privileging play at the centre of Game Studies is dooming themselves, because either they are incapable of gaining any meaningful insight into their play or the gradual accumulation of such insight will rob them of their ability to enjoy playing. Thus, the banner-waving “we’ve played this game” attitude of this book is missing the point. Yes, you have the player-acceptable credentials now, but just because you had to play to write about WoW, that doesn’t mean you had to write about play.
ConclusionThe best thing that any academic tome can hope for is to make people think. That being the case, I can’t recommend this anthology more highly if you’re interested in MMOs. It’s extensive, it’s in-depth, and, most of all, it has things to say about what Game Studies itself is all about (although I’m pretty sure it doesn’t know it’s saying that; emergence doesn’t just happen in games).
What is the relationship between play and the study of play? Could it be said that Game Studies is where the two coincide? Where your play and your academic field are the same thing? Where subjectivity is objectivity? Is this Game Studies? Or is play merely a necessary step to understanding play, and the heart of the field is not the playing of games but something else - the design of them, perhaps? What, ultimately, does “Games Studies” mean - is it a bag to hold loose threads from other disciplines, or is it something in and of itself? If the latter, what is it that Games Studies studies that can’t be accommodated by some other discipline?
I believe that Digital Culture, Play and Identity ultimately fails in its aim to establish that researchers must play extensively what they write about, but in so doing reveals a clue to the nature of Game Studies itself: perhaps Game Studies is not situated in play, but is situated in having played so much that you don’t have to play?