Optimizing Play: How Theorycraft Changes Gameplay and Designby Christopher A. Paul
AbstractAs an emergent practice of World of Warcraft (WoW) players, theorycrafting is the search for the optimal set of strategies with which to play WoW. By using statistical analysis and mathematical modeling, theorycrafters seek out the underlying formulae that govern WoW, largely in an attempt to play WoW better. Using rhetorical analysis and game studies literature to analyze the discourse surrounding theorycraft, this paper discusses the implications of theorycraft, arguing that this player-created practice has fundamentally changed how WoW is played, while also reshaping the relationship between players and designers. Understanding theorycraft demonstrates a distinct approach of how to 'play' WoW, uniting game studies research that focuses on procedural rhetoric and paratexts, while expanding the role of rhetoric for the analysis of games.
Keywords: rhetoric, process, paratexts, gameplay, design, WoW, theorycraft, raiding
IntroductionOne of the striking things about games is that they can be played in many different ways. New tactics are tested and developed, allowing players to test new strategies and to improve their odds of success. When new approaches are successful they are often copied, imitated and integrated into other styles of play, effectively becoming new norms for the game, like the forward pass in American football or the offside trap in soccer.
Shortly after the release of World of Warcraft’s (WoW) expansion Burning Crusade (Blizzard Entertainment, 2007), I became interested in the emergence of theorycrafting, as it helped me play ‘better.’ Theorycraft, a strategy designed around the mathematical analysis of WoW, is a discursive construct predicated on advising players how to optimally ‘play’ WoW, suggesting what equipment to wear, what talents to choose, and an order in which to cast spells. I was focused on raiding, large-scale group player versus environment play; as a mage my primary job was to do as much damage as possible. One day I stumbled across the Elitist Jerks1 web forums. There I found a cornucopia of information about how to play WoW, with discussions of the optimal talents, the most valuable trade skills, and sophisticated analyses of my spells. It was my introduction to theorycrafting and I was hooked. Since then, theorycrafting has become a norm for WoW players, especially those who raid. The growth in the role of theorycrafting offers room to analyze how games change over time and how players can influence a game’s design by reshaping how they play.
Online games offer many ways to play, iterative design, and a social base upon which to test new approaches. The combination of these factors fuels the development of things like theorycrafting. Coinciding with an increase in statistical analysis in sports and society, theorycrafters developed and advanced a specific way to play WoW based on the theoretical potential of the game, seeking understanding of the rules behind the game. A community of theorycrafters emerged, eventually becoming a prominent force in WoW’s ongoing design decisions. Theorycraft is more than a word; it is a way of playing WoW that depends on work and analysis outside the game and a set of user mods and discussion within the game. The point where being a ‘good’ WoW player intersects with theorycrafting is worth investigation, as it changes the terrain upon which players engage games.
There are two key reasons why theorycraft is an important object of analysis. First, theorycraft is a productive discourse that reshapes play.2 Theorycraft alters how the game works, and with similar phenomena present in sports and other games, this type of discourse offers a glimpse of a different way in which to conceptualize “games.” Theorycrafting is as much a practice as it is a discrete thing. Theorycraft extends play and centres gamers, rather than developers, as authorities in a discussion of how WoW works. The rise in the profile of theorycrafting demonstrates how a new approach to a game can be developed by players and how online gamers can fundamentally alter their relationship with the developers of the games they play, shifting the ongoing procedures of the game world and notions of play within it. Second, theorycrafting marks a point of connection between Ian Bogost’s (2007) notion of videogames as processes and paratexts, the texts surrounding a primary text, as identified by Gérard Genette (1997) and which Mia Consalvo argues “work to shape the gameplay experience in particular ways” (2007, p. 9). Theorycrafters set out to best understand the processes of the game and, in mapping the procedures of the game by developing paratexts players have created a dynamic relationship that reshapes WoW’s ongoing design. Understanding the connections between process and paratext demonstrates the importance of a broad notion of rhetorical criticism as perspective for analysis of the discourse found in games, especially iterative games.
Addressing what theorycraft is and what its development means for online gameplay and world design requires several steps. First, extant literature from rhetorical analysis and game studies offers a backdrop for why theorycraft is important. Second, the increasing role of statistics in games and society sets up a history of the term theorycraft and how it grew in importance within the discourse of WoW. Then I will turn to an analysis of what players have to say about theorycraft, focusing on what they find to be the implications of theorycraft, which enables a discussion of what theorycraft means for game studies and game design.
Rhetoric, Game Studies, and TheorycraftLooking at theorycraft from a rhetorical perspective, the term and its practice are rhetorical texts that create a preferred, proper way to play WoW. Contemporary perspectives on rhetoric often hold that “everything, or virtually everything, can be described as rhetorical” (Schiappa, 2001, p. 260). Kenneth Burke argues that language functions symbolically to structure our knowledge of the world. For Burke, reality’s “whole overall ‘picture’ is but a construct of our symbol systems” (1966, p. 5). R.L. Scott makes a similar argument, arguing that rhetoric “is a way of knowing; it is epistemic” (1967, p. 7). This has been expanded by other scholars, who hold that “one of the assumptions implicit in much contemporary rhetorical theory is that there is no way to ground representations of reality (rhetoric) in a reality independent of discourse” (Cherwitz & Darwin, 1995, p. 192). Under this construction, rhetoric is “a unique cultural practice” predicated on “locating the substance of rhetorical knowledge in the creation of a situational truth” (Greene, 1998, para. 6). In the wake of Scott’s work, attention moved from “how one resides in a framework of meaning and interests” to “how one articulates and uses these” (Lyne, 1998, para. 14). At stake in WoW are symbols ranging from specific terms to the structures that support them, including online resources forums, like Elitist Jerks, and in-game mods like damage meters (c.f. Taylor, 2008; Nardi, 2010). These objects support and advocate a way to learn about, think about, talk about and play WoW, predicated on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ approaches to the game.
Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca hold that “there is no neutral choice” in the use of language (1969, p. 149). Language, symbols and structures cannot be neutral because even things perceived as simple fact, like a report on damage done, foster a position predicated on the belief that more damage is better than less. Thus, the imposition of tracking mechanisms and theorycraft has a substantive impact on how the world of WoW is structured and the terms on which players engage the game. Schiappa puts a twist on this, positing that beyond the lack of neutral choice, rhetoric “functions ideologically as a strategy even if its use is not intentional” (Schiappa, 1989, p. 254). For rhetoricians, questions of intentionality generally take a backseat to concerns about how a particular approach shapes a world view. Effectively, rhetoric becomes “another perspective, one that accounts for the production, circulation, reception, and interpretation of messages” (Zarefsky, 2008, p. 635), a perspective by which “rhetorical critics bring to any object the focus of making arguments about how symbols influence people” (Zarefsky, 2008, p. 634). Why people develop and post theorycraft is far less important than that they do, and a rhetorician is interested in what influences those practices of production have on how players interact with games, how designers develop games, and how theorycraft-style approaches impact gameplay and design.
The most prominent union of rhetorical analysis and game studies is seen in the work of Ian Bogost. Bogost advances a conception of procedural rhetoric, which is “a practice of using processes persuasively” (2007, p. 3). In games, he argues that “the main representational mode is procedural, rather than verbal” (2006, p. 168). In sum, “video games make claims about the world. But when they do so, they do it not with oral speech, nor in writing, nor even with images. Rather, video games make arguments with processes” (2008, p. 125; emphasis in original). This notion of looking at process is linked to Michael Mateas’s notion of procedural literacy, which is about “the ability to read and write processes, to engage procedural representation and aesthetics, to understand the interplay between culturally-embedded practices of human meaning-making and technically-mediated processes” (2005, para. 2). Both scholars recognize the ability of games to function persuasively based on their deployment and execution of processes.
Though Bogost makes a strong case for procedural rhetoric, theorycraft indicates two tension points that require refinement of how rhetoric applies to the study of games. First, isolating procedure from external forces is particularly difficult in the analysis of online games. In these cases, the external discourse, the paratexts, can function productively to reshape how procedures are designed. Certainly, procedures function productively within the game, but forces from outside of games, like Dragon Kill Point systems, also shape the ways in which they are played (c.f. Silverman & Simon, 2009) and non-procedural elements, like clothing, can alter how players engage procedures within games (c.f. Klastrup & Tosca, 2009). Because online games are regularly patched, elements from outside the game can set the terms for how future processes will be designed. Second, Bogost’s approach to rhetoric is rather narrow. He holds that “video games have the power to make arguments, to persuade, to express ideas. But they do not do so inevitably” (2008, p. 137) and gives “the name persuasive games to videogames that mount procedural rhetorics effectively” (2006, p. 46). Though intriguing, these two statements are incompatible with the ‘big rhetoric’ approach outlined above. If rhetorical analysis is a critical perspective, focusing beyond mere persuasion, all elements surrounding games are influential symbols worthy of study, as all games function persuasively.
Other work in game studies is also pertinent to a rhetorical analysis of theorycraft. One key piece of game studies literature is the argument that games and virtual worlds are complicated, interconnected constructions comprised of a number of different forces. Malaby and Burke hold that “the empirical character of virtual worlds demands a multidisciplinary, methodologically polymorphous approach” (2009, p. 325). Mia Consalvo contends that the structures, real life influences, and gameplay experience in online games are interrelated, which presents a “need to understand how players understand, contextualize, and challenge MMO games” (2009, p. 411). T.L. Taylor offers a list of specific factors that shape play within games, ranging from “technological systems and software” to “the social worlds that infuse the game and situate us outside of it” and “the broader culture around us with its conceptual frames and tropes” (2009, p. 332). Theorycraft could not be executed without the game, as there would be nothing to develop theory for, but for a dedicated theorycrafter, it is difficult to imagine the game of WoW without theories designed to optimize play. The dynamism of WoW also means that neither the game nor theorycraft are ever fixed, final products. Analyzing the messy interaction of process and paratexts offers a way to better understand the ways in which games influence their players and players influence their games.
A rhetorical perspective, fused with game studies, offers a platform to analyze what the presence of theorycrafting says about WoW while discussing how theorycraft alters the context of WoW for both designers and players. Theorycrafting changes the construction of the game, while uniting procedure and paratext. The next step in recognizing the magnitude of its impact on gaming is to turn to an overview of the forces leading to the creation of WoW theorycraft.
Theorycraft: A HistoryUnderstanding the growth of theorycraft requires a discussion of the history of the practice and a broader look at a cultural turn toward statistical analysis in sports and society. The last twenty years have seen an explosion in the use of statistical analysis to facilitate understanding. The most overt sign is seen throughout society, with the New York Times recently describing statistics as an attractive college major for future employers, describing statistics as a “cool” and “sexy” area of study (Lohr, 2009). Some argue that the 2008 implosion of capital on Wall Street was largely driven by the influx of quantitative analysis into economics that began in the 1980s (Salmon, 2009). Nate Silver started with statistical analysis of baseball then turned to U.S. politics, leading to a 2009 nomination as one of Time’s 100 most influential people (James, 2009). Statistical analysis holds a substantive role in society that can propel a person to fame and fortune, cause a financial collapse, or make you even sexier.
Beyond the broad social trends toward the increasing role of statistical analysis, sports offer grounds upon which to see the roots of theorycrafting. In addition to the connections between professional gaming and professional sports, sports are generally subject to rule sets. Although the tracking of statistics has a long history in sports, the use of those statistics for team building and strategy is a more recent phenomenon. Michael Lewis detailed how Billy Beane sought to apply statistical analysis to the running of a major league baseball team, with the goal of valuing “the events that occurred on a baseball field more accurately than they had ever been valued” (2004, p. 131). Lewis shows how this approach allowed Beane to build a successful team on a budget, yet was anathema to the baseball establishment. Statistical analysis in sports has spread beyond baseball, with MIT graduate Daryl Morey working as general manager of the Houston Rockets, where he received notoriety for recognizing the value of players like Shane Battier, his “no-stats All-Star,” (Lewis, 2009) and founded an annual sports analytics conference (Baxamusa, 2009). Statistical analysis is a multi-million dollar budget line for many teams, one where Morey and others can invest resources that help teams win, without worrying about a salary cap for statisticians (Simmons, 2009). Effectively, statistical analyses seek out the hidden rules of their sport. What action will maximize the chance to score a run or a basket? What is the best defensive approach or who is the best defensive player? Prior to statistical analysis the answers to these questions were subjective, but statistics give the impression of clear, certain answers.
This desire to understand the rules of a game and maximize odds of success is where statistical analysis of sports connects to the approach of a particular kind of gamer. Often gamers are split into categories of casual and hardcore. According to Clive Thompson, Peggle became a hit with hard core gamers when they recognized the geometry built into the game. He writes that the hardcore “players are able to see past the apparent luck of Peggle, and to spy its underlying-if extremely complex-rules” (2009). In so doing, gamers are rearticulating what the ‘game’ is in a search for an optimal approach, similar to how Beane and Morey use statistics to understand their sports or how theorycrafters seek to understand how WoW works. Optimizing play can also be applied to other games, from the city experiments of SimCity or deck building in Magic: The Gathering to optimizing play of almost any game through the use of GameFAQs, which present an ideal route through a game. Gerald Voorhees briefly mentions a similar approach for Civilization players who offer “detailed roadmaps for civilizations that more resemble a math problem than a strategy guide” (2009, p. 267). These theorycraftesque approaches work from outside the game to change how it is played, potentially in ways that were not anticipated by developers, radically expanding the influential forces relevant to games.
The term theorycraft was coined before WoW, as Starcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 1998) players engaged in debates about optimal strategies and approaches (c.f. Urban Dictionary; WoWWiki). However, much like the reaction of mainstream baseball to Beane’s different way of building a team, theorycraft was a derogatory term, a dismissive rebuttal emphasizing the importance of playing the game in practice, rather than debating how the game works in theory. However, WoW players took the idea and ran with it, blending theory with practice to offer a form of theorycraft predicated on working outside the game to improve the quality of play inside the game, while radically expanding past efforts to optimize play in MMOGs.
Theorycraft in WoW began with Burning Crusade (Blizzard Entertainment, 2007), with several factors encouraging the move toward statistical analysis. New tools for tracking what was done in a raid, like WoW Web Stats, were developed, enabling clear, detailed data for subsequent analysis. Dr. Boom, an NPC, was a suitable testing dummy, as he could not be killed through normal player attacks and posed little risk to the player, which let theorycrafters bombard him with spells while testing various hypotheses. The tenor of raiding changed, as the profusion of enrage timers, which placed a time limit on combat, forced raiding groups to perform with greater skill to ensure success. The increase in expectations pushed players to better understand how WoW worked, driving the growth of theorycraft. One player defines theorycraft as “to hyperanalyze, mathematically, game mechanics and abilities to gain a deeper understanding and to ultimately maximize effectiveness” (Medawky, 2009). Theorycrafting shifts how the game of WoW is played for practitioners, focusing on “using math to guide your choices, instead of simply playing from your gut” (Christian, 2008).
Theorycraft is at the core of WoW metagaming, the game outside the game. In describing the idea behind metagaming for new players, Lisa Poisso writes “Welcome to metagaming. Researching your WoW game-your crunchy bits-can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of playing World of Warcraft. While some players relish tackling new content with no preparation and no spoilers, others enjoy digging up encounter strategies and mapping out intricate leveling, gear and crafting plans” (2008). For some players proper play means that “you’re going to have to theorycraft every piece of gear, every talent choice, and every ability that you use at any given time” (Christian, 2008) or that “we’re talking about squeezing the last bit of dps [damage per second] from your toon [character] (i.e. 902dps to 904dps) and then having the awareness to notice if, in fact, the dps changes are being effective” (trptscott, 2008). Although I am not sure anyone can parse such a minimal difference in damage, theorycrafters seek to eke out every possible advantage.
The importance of theorycraft was clearly acknowledge by developers when training dummies installed in all major cities with the advent of Wrath of the Lich King (Blizzard Entertainment, 2008). Training dummies allow players to test their theories and ideas about how the game works in a “more universally accessible” manner than previously available (Gray, 2008). Prior to the training dummies, theorycrafters relied on things like a “theorycraft suit” that let them test their hypotheses, but training dummy tests enable players to “find your flaws. Find why you suck. Or rock. The dummies are there, standing around, waiting only for you to go beat the tar out of them…It’s theorycraft in it’s [sic] most basic form. Standing there, casting spells, observing what happens. Ahh, science! And it’s science everyone can do!” (Euripedes, 2008). Theorycraft is a key part of the early preparations for the best guilds in the world with both Stars and Premonition citing the role of theorycraft in their Worldwide and US first accomplishments (Boubouille, 2009; Xav, 2009).
At the centre of the growing importance of theorycraft is the guild web site and forums for the Elitist Jerks (EJ). Generally hailed as a key source of theorycrafting information, the EJ forums get hundreds of posts a day and actively monitor the quality of the discussion on their site (bbr, 2008). The forums are “a high-end raid-orientated discussion forum (with a nice guild attached)” that is “read by almost half a million people each month. Yet Elitist Jerks remains the type of site that someone refers you to” (Howgego, 2008). Although a valuable resource, EJ is like the club relatively few people know about, as half a million viewers is still only about five percent of the WoW playerbase. However, that group is disproportionately influential and the word is spreading about the resources available on EJ. When one WoW blogger requested information on how to better play a particular class, another person promptly referred him to the EJ forums (Gevlon, 2009c). EJ is home to the Theorycrafting Think Tank, a project “aimed at condensing the large amount of information available on these [EJ’s] forums into an easy-to-reference, organized repository for the World of Warcraft raiding community” (Boethius, 2008). EJ is a central source for theorycrafting knowledge, a place where Blizzard developers exchange ideas with players and where cutting edge theorycraft is debated.
The growing application of a formerly marginal practice is fueled by its success, much like trends spreading throughout competitive sports. With a background in rhetorical criticism and game studies it is possible to look at key features of theorycraft’s discourse and how they impact the construction and design of WoW.
Theorycraft: Why Players Use ItThe greatest benefit from theorycrafting is most clearly seen in the play of those who choose to pursue player versus environment content, or raiding. The discourse about theorycraft indicates three main positive themes about how theorycraft impacts play. Theorycraft is generally tied to a higher quality of play; increased understanding about the game and how it works; and as fun.
The dominant reason why many choose to theorycraft is that it makes them better players. This idea frames almost all of the discourse, as being better at WoW is tied to understanding the game better, and having a good time playing the game. In response to a WoW Insider column about how to play a rogue, one commenter mentioned he was a fan of “combat daggers,” which prompted a number of responses, including Pokin, who wrote:
Bah, you can’t rain on his parade. Combat daggers are sub-par DPS for sure, but if he isn’t raiding he has every right to play how he’d like…In WoTLK [Wrath of the Lich King] the difference in DPS for combat daggers versus other specs is much larger and I’ve conformed to the cookie cutter mutilate spec. I’m no theorycrafter and I find that maximizing DPS is more important to me than play style-but not everyone has the same priorities. (2009)This idea is a nice introduction to how theorycraft leads to better play, as Pokin clearly states that he is not a theorycrafter, while simultaneously pointing out key holdings of theorycraft for rogues. Pokin observes that one approach to the game will generate more damage, and although he is not a theorycrafter, he certainly knows enough about theorycraft to know which approach will generate the most damage, even noting that doing more damage is more important to him than a particular style of play. This infusion of theorycrafting knowledge throughout the community is notable, as Pokin certainly seems quite knowledgeable about the approach, even as he disclaims his relationship to it.
The connection between theorycraft and better play can also be seen in player recruitment ads. Some key findings about guild applications were discussed by Taylor in her analysis of raiding and WoW (2008), but the guild recruitment forums on World of Raids offers perspective on the connection between theorycraft and quality of play assumed by many of the top guilds in the world. The guild recruitment forums are where guilds from around the world solicit new members by posting an explanation of their accomplishments and detailed terms of what they expect from members. Many of these guilds expect applicants to be well versed in theorycraft. Spike Flail, a U.S. based guild, expects applicants to “be able to explain your class weakness and strengths, know the theorycraft to min/max your class, and what abilities to use when,” adding “prospective trials must be completely knowledgeable of their class’s theorycraft and mechanics, dedicated and dependable raiders, and overall knowledgeable and skilled players” (Melbu, 2009). For applicants to Spike Flail, expectations about their knowledge of theorycraft come before their dependability. Bad Omen, a E.U. guild, puts their expectations more clearly, listing three expectations for prospective applicants in bullet form, the third of which is “If you do not want to min-max/theorycraft on your char[acter], do not apply” (Benita, 2009). Bad Omen places willingness to apply and knowledge of theorycrafting with expectations about attendance and availability, clearly linking theorycraft with a core expectation of better play. These are but two of scores of guilds that lay out theorycrafting as a key component of the application process, ranging from essential knowledge to a highly encouraged bonus. Much like computer skills are increasingly important to get a job, knowledge of and fluency in theorycraft is used to determine who is of sufficient quality to invite and who is not. Though the core participants in the production of theorycraft are but a small part of the WoW player base, expectations such as these mean that any player seeking to raid is directly subject to the ordering impacts of theorycraft on WoW play.
A second theme in the positive discourse about theorycrafting is how theorycrafting helps players understand underlying features of the game. In the introduction to a user modification designed to aid in in-game theorycrafting, Sean Forsgren writes:
You all know a World of Warcraft number cruncher. You may, in fact, be that person, the one who can spout of [sic] stats about your class or game mechanics. Although, in the beginning, I rolled my eyes at people who pondered the math of the game, today finds me holding a deep respect for you number junkies. You’ve all helped may of us become uncrushable, uncrittable and even understand how +spell damage and +healing work. (2008)In the midst of articulating that numerical analysis had moved from a marginalized activity that caused him to “roll my eyes,” Forsgren frames his respect for theorycraft in how it helps to understand how WoW works and the various dynamics of the game. Playing with numbers may be mockable, but once those numbers are put to use and Forsgren can see their practical application and respect for theorycraft can be garnered, similar to how Billy Beane’s approach to baseball was denigrated until proven effective. However, the understanding granted by theorycraft is generally incomplete, subject to testing and hypotheses, rather than definitive, as Blizzard rarely releases the exact formulae that govern play in WoW. In a forum thread where this general principle is overlooked, Blizzard designer Ghostcrawler presented the actual formula for armor penetration in WoW (2009, post 77). Later in the thread, after a player expresses dismay that hours of work testing were worthless, as it was based on incorrect assumptions, Ghostcrawler wrote:
This is honestly one of the reasons we don’t do this more often. There is a risk players will stop experimenting and theorycrafting if they think we will eventually just dump all of the answers on them. We like for players to experiment with gear, talents and the like. Having black boxes adds depth and a sense of exploration to the game. When everything is known with certainty, you can do things like definitively know the best choice in every situation. Theorycrafting is dead. (2009, post 97)Ghostcrawler resituates theorycraft, emphasizing it is incomplete, but a good way to understand the game. He posits that theorycraft helps Blizzard find bugs in the code that could negatively impact the game. Effectively, theorycrafting is the player’s guide to the game, which illustrates how the presence of theorycraft as a paratext has altered design of the game. Sharing some information is good and lets theorycrafters continue its development, fostering participation, but, given the ultimate answers, players would abandon the refinement of theorycraft, as the delineation between paratext and design would be erased and there would be no need to investigate the inner workings of the game.
The final positive thing associated with theorycraft is that theorycrafting can be fun. In response to a post about what players enjoy about WoW, Mike writes “being a mathematician, I totally get enjoying the theorycraft part. Some years ago, I tried designing a RPG-esque system, balancing stats and results, any [sic] boy were the equations difficult” (2009). Theorycraft involves a different form of play, one that can be fun in its own right. Figuring out how things work, like a person who likes to tinker with things, can be entertaining. Players who theorycraft also frequently link fun in the game with success. For them, losing is less fun than winning and, in optimizing play, theorycraft is fun because it increases the odds of success.
The positive associations about theorycraft frame the discourse about it. Theorycraft is tied with optimization and understanding; it makes players better within the game and a thorough understanding of it is considered a requirement for many high end raiding groups, but theorycrafting can be fun in its own right. That said players also see problems caused by theorycraft, as theorycraft normalizes and structures a particular way of playing the game, limiting choices by dictating an optimal approach.
Theorycraft: Why Players ResistDespite the positive associations surrounding theorycraft, there is some vocal opposition to the impact theorycrafting has on WoW, especially when familiarity with theorycraft is perceived as being connected to success or opportunity within WoW. This side of the discourse is best encompassed in a forum thread entitled “Does Elitist Jerks make everything suck?,” as it emphasizes two themes frequently used in critiques of theorycraft, that it restricts approaches to the game and can often lead to misunderstandings. These critiques focus on the ways in which theorycraft is not just a way to play the game, has become the way to play the game, and the means by which players justify perceived imbalances in the game, locations where procedure is not functioning ‘properly.’
“Does Elitist Jerks make everything suck” is a 13 page, 256 post forum thread on the North American version of World of Warcraft’s official forums. The thread was started by a warlock named Angkorwat and includes a response from WoW developer Ghostcrawler. The initial post lays out three reasons why EJ has a negative impact on the playing environment in WoW: “it fuels a kind of dismissive attitude in the player community that actually diminishes the quality of debate,” it “discourages experimentation with unique play-styles/specs/glyphs,” and “it fuels outrage in places where there would often be none” (Angkorwat, 2009).
The central point of the critique is that EJ changes the way in which players engage the game. Instead of simply ‘playing’ a game, the goal becomes attempting to optimize one’s approach. In doing so, the game shifts from something where there are choices to make to one where there are clear rights and wrongs to follow.
The second and third issues are connected, as they are both about how players engage the game and the amount of choice players believe they have in WoW. Technically, WoW has an incredible number of choices available to players. The game features ten races and ten classes, with three different talent specializations for each class, on top of an immense number of customization options available when one considers other aspects of the game, like gear, glyphs, gems, and enchantments. However, the goal of theorycrafting is to figure out what is best and, once the best is determined, the choices are distilled to the single best choice. The moment ‘total’ understanding is derived, or the perception of total understanding exists, there is only one choice for ‘good’ players to make and, consequently, a host of problems are created as players see many options that are not ‘best’ as broken. Effectively, theorycraft alters how players engage WoW. The game shifts toward what one player describes as “largely ‘math with pretty scenery’…This game is a [sic] Economic/Mathematical simulator with pretty picture [sic] not a Fantasy/RP game” (Petitmort, 2009). Theorycraft shifts WoW from a fantasy world to be experienced into a math problem to be solved. This changes the mode of play, and when extended to other games (c.f. Voorhees) marks a situation in which the nature of play is altered. Certainly games are an assemblage of procedures, but when they are reduced to the algorithms that drive them, a risk is run that the fantasy melts away, reducing a game to a system of rules. In the case of theorycraft, its prominence marginalizes all other modes of play, creating a situation where you either use it or are left behind, which is compounded by mods like Gearscore, which boil down the evaluation of a player’s potential contribution to a number based on their equipment and is frequently used as a means by which to exclude less accomplished characters from activity, and guild applications that require knowledge of theorycrafting, like those discussed above.
A number of WoW blogs weighed in on the thread, with responses ranging from “you cannot escape mathematics!” (Gevlon, 2009a) to those who agreed with the original poster. Bilsybub wrote:
If WoW’s high level game can be said to be worse because of the low choice, highly modellable systems, then I would suggest that the evolution of early theorycrafting indeed helped prompt that...All of which is to say, yes, Theorycrafting probably does help make WoW suck. (2009)Although you likely cannot escape mathematics, the focus on math changes the way in which WoW works. Unlike the live role-playing and dice rolling that happens in a traditional RPG, videogames like WoW are ultimately inflexible and rule-governed. The intent of theorycraft is to divine these rules and present them as math equations. Once the right answers are attained, there is no need for or possibility of a saving roll, the discourse surrounding WoW shifts from a focus on fun or options to figuring out which choice is ‘right.’ A practical impact of theorycrafting on WoW is that it checks attempts to make the game approachable to more players. Despite the general sentiment within the WoW community that content and raiding has become more accessible for players, the acceptance of the benchmarks theorycraft facilitates alters the way in which the game plays in practice. As one observer puts it, “All those ‘accessible’ raids and achievements and gear are suddenly sounding more and more like ‘requirements.’ DPS minimums, required achievements and Armory checks serve as your credentials to get into groups. Everywhere a new level 80 turns, there’s something new to measure up to” (Poisso, 2009). As acceptance of theorycraft seeps into the discourse of WoW, expectations of players change, especially as there are far more ways to compare performance to expectation now than in classic WoW. From looking at a player’s gear, to looking at their achievements, to searching for their Armory page on the WoW web site, perceptions of players performance can be shaped well before one actually plays with them. This is exacerbated by a condition where theorycraft encourages players to see things as right and wrong, which effectively means that a very good, but newer player, with lesser gear, fewer achievements, and an unimpressive armory page may have a more difficult time latching on to a group now than they did when WoW launched.
The final issue with theorycrafting is that the analytical mode it promotes can give a partial, slanted view of what actually occurs within a dynamic fight by fostering an overreliance on quantity of production over quality. Although aggressive tracking of data, may be a good way of assessing the skill of damage dealers, evaluations for other members of groups, particularly healers, is a more complex process than simply looking at quantity. Gevlon argues that:
When complicated decisions are to be made, “better” or “worse” depend on the effect on the outcome that cannot be measured during one fight. It could be measured by comparing 10 fights where the first healer was present with 10 with [sic] the second was not, though such experiments would be quite hard to make.The presumption lurking behind theorycraft, that more is better, runs the risk of homogenizing jobs and not offering the flexibility of looking to the other things members can add or detract from a group. Situational awareness and larger social issues, like attendance and collegiality, cannot necessarily be tracked by theorycrafting. Theorycrafting gives a picture of the game, but the way that it is often situated within the discourse about WoW makes it central to all decisions, even if it only focuses on part of the picture of play. Procedure is overcome by paratext and the game changes. The desire to understand and optimize creates a lens through which what counts is only what can be counted. Lacking other modes of analysis the game loses depth, variety, and choice, as one approach marginalizes all others.
The McDonalds employee who packs 2x more hamburgers is 2x better than the other employee. The university professor who does 2x more lectures is definitely not 2x better (often not even better at all) than his [sic] colleague. (2009b)
Theorycrafting is always partial, as players only know so much about the rules that govern WoW, so attempts to deduce ‘the answers’ to how the game works are frequently checked by the limited number of actual, published formulae that dictate action within the game world. This leads to situations where players cry foul about mechanics of the game because they think they have a working understanding of WoW, even if they do not. One such example can be found in Landsoul’s “Newly Discovered Rage Ghost Nerf Unveiled!” thread (2009). The thread led to a Blizzard investigation on the issue, which found that “it was not true-the rage generation formula has not changed anytime recently” (Bornakk, 2009). Central to the misunderstanding is that players were using old numbers that had been changed. The problem is that players read the situation as a horrible affront to warriors, one that was both a ‘nerf,’ something that made warriors weaker, and needed to be ‘unveiled,’ as Blizzard was not forthcoming about the supposed change. Likely by virtue of both the assumptions of theorycraft, that math is right, and the dynamics of discussion online, deliberative debate was not encouraged and sweeping statements were made. In these cases, developers are put into a limited, structured box by players, as they must defend themselves and WoW from accusations based on incorrect information.
For those who use it, Theorycraft is often portrayed as a clear good, something that helps WoW players understand the game and experience success in their raids. Unfortunately there are collateral impacts, from the way discussion about WoW is changed to the attitude theorycraft fosters, as the means by which games are played have a material impact on their rhetorical environment.
ConclusionsThe emergence of theorycraft is telling about the WoW playing community, but also offers key insights into gaming and game studies as a whole. It indicates the WoW community is robust and seeks to develop approaches to change how they play the game. It shows players are interested in the process of meta-gaming and are interested enough in the game they play to pursue lengthy discussions outside of it. Beyond the bounds of WoW, there are two keys to what theorycraft presents: a changing notion of the forces shaping a game and a rearticulation of procedure and process that is shaped through both game design and paratexts.
Most clearly, the development of theorycraft shapes what counts as knowledge and ‘good’ play. Theorycraft changes how play occurs, shifting it from sifting through a sea of choices to a search for the optimal solution, resulting in what are often called “cookie cutter builds.” This fundamentally changes the way WoW works, as it ceases to be a dynamic role-playing world that is ventured through with friends and becomes a series of math equations to be solved and lists of buttons to push. Although this may not be a change felt by every player and some could even resist dominant norms, all are impacted when getting into certain groups requires specific choices or when game design is altered in order to please the vocal contingent of theorycrafters. Beyond the game, theorycrafting also changes the way that discussion occurs, as math equations are often a search for the ultimate correct answer, rather than a discussion of the relative merits of different options. This means that debates are often framed in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ and ‘good,’ rather than focusing on the relative merits of a number of different decisions with a focus on ‘better’ and ‘worse.’ This is a lesson that could apply to other games, as the increasing role of statistical analysis in sports and the presence of similar kinds of activities in games like Civilization and SimCity alter how the games are played and how they need to be studied. The single minded pursuit of a ‘best’ or an ‘optimal’ approach stands to reshape notions of play and redefine how games work in practice, especially when one considers the size and scope of both WoW’s player base and its rule set. Further analysis of similar trends throughout games, especially those that focus on observing gamers at play, may redefine expectations about how games are actually played.
A second key result of the emergence of theorycraft is an understanding of how much impact the development of paratexts can have on the process of games. Theorycraft drives design and consumption of various encounters in WoW. Top guilds expect new recruits to be fluent in theorycraft and game designers expect the same of guilds. This altered relationship expands the surfaces for analysis of games. Although the processes of games are persuasive, they are not the only thing scholars should be analyzing. In this case, theorycraft rearticulates what counts as knowledge about WoW and how WoW is played, for both better and worse, and critics are likely to find other interesting insights in the intersections between procedure and paratext. In the case of MMOGs this relationship is especially dynamic, as MMOGs are regularly in a state of development, with player behaviors dictating future processes, which requires looking beyond the strict boundary of game procedures to understand the discourse of MMOGs.
Theorycrafting is something that is almost exclusively developed outside of the game of WoW, but is aimed at understanding and modeling the interactions that happen within the game. The depth and volume of theorycraft offer a slice of how the practice of play in MMOGs is often a complicated, complex process that reaches well beyond the limits of the computer programs that govern it, yet ultimately structures how the computer programs are played. In this case, theorycraft is a discursive construction that changes how World of Warcraft, potentially games in general, is played, illustrating the relationships between process and paratext.
1 The name of the forum is particularly notable and members of the community revel in the general belief that they are better than the average World of Warcraft player. Unlike the mainstream, members of Elitist Jerks are encouraged to be both elitist, as can be seen in their accomplishments, and jerks, seen in the dominant mode of discourse on the site, where everything is question and arguments must be advanced with mathematical precision. Although the name is used somewhat ironically, the choice of moniker is certainly meaningful.
2 Similar efforts can be seen in other games, from chess to Magic: The Gathering and Civilization or earlier versions of MMOGs. What makes theorycrafting in WoW particularly notable is the size of the overall player base of the game, as more people are exposed to a discourse of optimization, and the size of the rule set for WoW, which contains thousands upon thousands of choices for each of many hundreds of encounters and situations. The level of detailed pursued by theorycrafters is also compelling, as vast swaths of possibilities are reduced to singular answers through the use of complicated mathematical analysis.
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