Lookin’ for an ‘in’

So I’m going to do a bit of the “writing-as-thinking” and see if I can somehow crap something out…er, develop a possible research question.

*These are in no particular order or meaningfully positioned relation. I’m just a’ sayin’ as I’m a’ thinkin’.

• Guilds — Yes, the cliques of WoW. There’s a lot going on with these, so let’s dive in.

Guilds are self-organizing, hierarchical subsets of players who cooperate in real-time (play together), share resources (items, knowledge), and communicate (dedicated guild chat, game and non-game conversations). This last one (communicate) might be a little weak; other players communicate (Trade channel, PUGs, in city chatting, on message boards, via email, posts, pictures, etc). However, in my experience anyway, I communicate more deeply and richly with my guild members. When I log in, I normally open the guild tab to see which guild members are online; I’m far more apt to ask a guildmate for advice before checking a website, and long before asking a random player. I ignore most in-game chat channels, but read along with the guild channel even when I’m not quite sure what they are talking about, and will interject rather freely. I know somewhat intimate details about several of the key guildies; where they are from, their occupations and relationships (my guild has several sets of parent-child players, and is made up almost exclusively of adults, many with children), and other somewhat personal information. I have, in a very real sense, developed a sense of community with my guild, one which I don’t really feel with other players who I happen to encounter within the game (though I do have a tremendous loathing of the Horde, and will fight any Hordie on sight. Must….kill…..Horde…..! Still, this is a bit of a design decision, and a response to playing on a PvP server as Alliance. So I guess I do have a kind of ‘community’ with Hordies in general, in that I want to exterminate them completely. Hating is caring, right?).

Guilds are also tremendous sites of instruction; teacher/learner roles drive much of the interaction. *I’m going to pause here and make a general caveat and state that much – perhaps all – of my writing here is based on my own experience and is not exactly empirical or reliable. I am looking for some things, admittedly, and am not conscious of many others. End qualification statement…now.* So, when a guild member has a problem, they often come to the guild first and solicit advice. These can be procedural questions (how to locate someone/thing, what equipment to use), or more general questions (such as meta-game questions – like what type of alt should I roll, or how to organize the guild bank vault – and even non-game questions – how do you clean wax from the carpet, for example). Similarly, when guildmembers are running lowbies through an instance, they are teaching (overtly or otherwise) how to do the instance, how to use the class, and how to interact with other people. Granted, many of these lowbies are just alts for high-level guild members, but nevertheless many guilds are made specifically as ‘teaching’ guilds (on my server, a guild called is a great example – they explicitly recruit new and inexperienced players with the intent of protecting and teaching them. It’s a very interesting dynamic.

What is even more interesting about it, to me, is that these high-level players are volunteering their efforts and don’t generally receive any particular reward for their action. Blizzard (developers of the game) doesn’t exactly design for this, but has created a system where people can self-design goals/actions (here, I’m reminded of Gee’s projective stance, and how gamers come to games with their own intentions that may or may not coincide with those of the avatar). Still, the benefits to these helpers is not really tangible (even virtually tangible) but, arguably, about social grooming and community-building.

Guilds also accommodate many play styles. My guild, for example, is very casual and supports soloers who occasionally play together in instances or quests. The total population of the guild is around 75 characters, but many of these are alts; the total player population in the guild is likely closer to 30-40.

Other guilds, however, are massive, with dedicated recruiting teams, a regimented leadership structure (where there are ‘leaders’ for healers, for DPS, for tanks, for crafters, etc). These guilds are built for serious end-game content, including 10- and 25-character raids. They can have rigorous screening processes for new recruits, and can be highly selective when allowing applicants entry into the guild.

Still other guilds are just loose collections of strangers who simply share materials via the bank vault. These guilds, because of the minimal social structure involved in creating and supporting the guild, often fall victim of ‘ninjas’ who join simply to raid the guild vault and don’t contribute to the overall health or community of the guild.

• Forums — I’m not quite sure how to even catalog these, as there are hundreds of different forums. I’ll be a bit general.

The official forums are the first destination for many new WoW-ers – or at least, they were my first forum visit. The official forums are sub-divided into categories (guild recruitment, technical issues, role playing, etc) to help guide users to the appropriate space for their questions or comments. While these features are common to most forums, the official forums also have the added value of officially sanctioned interaction by Blizzard employees. Blizzard employs dedicated forum posters (not just moderators but employees whose specific function is to read forum posts and comment, clarify, and contribute to the discussion) who act as representatives for the company. Several of these posters are well-known and respected in the community (for example, Senior Game Designer Greg Street, aka Ghostcrawler, is a frequent denizen of the boards and responds to many posts).

What’s personally interesting is that these official Blizzard posters (known as ‘Blues’ since their icon and in-post text is blue) not only respond to user feedback, but will incorporate that feedback into revisions of the game. Essentially, the forums are a giant beta zone that the Blues can mine for data to see how the game is operating, and then use that feedback to change the iteration. This is a bit tangential, but I am very interested in the way that WoW is a ‘text’, and how that textuality reinforces and undermines traditionally notions of ‘text.’ That is, we can see WoW as a progressive text, in that it is revised in each iteration so that it is still “WoW” but not exactly the same WoW.

Anyway, the official forums serve as an opportunity for the community to influence the development of the next iteration of the game. When a player class is out of balance, the community will respond, often passionately and in great numbers. I find this dynamic – that of direct feedback between player and developer – to be somewhat unique (other games certainly have this, but because of the massive player base of WoW, perhaps no other game has such a wide and prevalent system? I could certainly be talking out of my ass here. Fanboys are notorious for their passionate feedback to the objects of their…well, their fetishes, for lack of a better term). Simply put, I think it is very interesting that Blizzard can use these spaces (the official forums) to develop a mechanism to incorporate user-feedback into the design of the game (and by user feedback, I mean beyond limited-scope beta testing or focus group-type feedback; rather, I mean potentially all 10 million users can communicate directly and publicly about their particular concern).

Let’s see…other things happening on the forums….

Here’s a brief list of the major types of activities on the forums:

Posting (starting threads)

  • Soliciting advice— users come to the forum primarily to look for help. These solicitations can be further broken down into sub-categories:
    • Object-related – what type of gear to equip, where to find a character or item
    • Action-related – how to do something (how to use the item, how to complete a quest)
    • Meta-game-related – not exactly what to call this one; ostensibly, this is about which guild or server to join, what to name their character, how to balance RL/WoW
  • Ranting — essentially, this is a form of digital venting. Posters will generally point out an aspect of the game with which they disagree (class balance, play-style, add-on policy, etc) and give an explanation why (I’m being somewhat generous here – there are many, many examples of cogent arguments about gameplay, but there are many, many examples of plain greifers and whining. See the bullet below about greifing/trolling).
  • Polling/Opinion mining — This is a bit more of a social act, where posters generally solicit feedback about experiences or preferences (for example, this bizarre post about cooking and eating other races). While the polling can also be about play style (what talent build to use, what tactic to employ), polling is also much less practically-oriented; that is, many polls are not about gameplay or gaming at all, but rather, the experiences others have had or would like to have.
  • Guides — Posters will put up guides on gameplay, classes, professions, or questing in the official guide sectionof the forums. Here, posters are fulfilling several roles:
    • Expert – posters are demonstrating their expertise of a particular mechanic
    • Teacher – they are using this expertise to teach other players
    • Socializer – posters are also demonstrating how to ‘be’ in the world, act as models of behavior
    • Other? – am I missing other roles?
  • Offering advice — I guess this is just an extension of the guides function, but a bit more generalized. Not even sure if it deserves its own bullet…unless it’s to the head.

Responding

  • Providing advice — this is a correlate to the solicitation of advice. Here, posters act much like the ‘guide’ bullet above; they offer knowledge and demonstrate appropriate ways of acting in game
  • Griefing — posters intentionally mock a post, answer disingenuously, and otherwise just act as dicks. It’s actually pretty funny. See this post for a pretty good example. Mwaaa-haaa-haaa…
  • Hijacking — a little similar to griefing, hijackers take a thread topic and make it something else. While this may be unintentionally, they are usually reprimanded to either start their own thread or, well, go to hell.
  • Official Responses — here, the Blues are acting as representatives of Blizzard and add legitimacy to some conversations. Seeing the blue icon automatically carries some gravitas and might make posters/lurkers more apt to read/contribute.

There are certainly issues of legitimacy on the forums – who is an expert? How do we know? – and reputation plays a big part in it. I’m not sure quite how to tackle this, but upcoming readings (Week 12) look like they might provide some insight.

Also, of course, there are the usual suspects (identity/identity play, lurking, specialist language, etc.). Lots and lots going on in the forums. And I didn’t even get to some of the other, non-official forums (WoWHead, Thottbot, WoWInsider). Yowsa!

• Sites — Not quite sure where I’m going with this one, but I find it interesting that there are different sites for different purposes that are nevertheless centered on WoW. For example, players can go to WoWHead to find out about properties of an object, or the location of a questgiver; they can go to CharDev to find out how equipment will affect their character’s stats; they can go to the forums to find out how to complete a particular quest or how to set up a spell rotation (these are somewhat arbitrary distinctions and there is certainly some permeability here – on WoWHead, for example, users can see info about an item but also read comments from other players on how they completed the quest to obtain it or alternative strategies). Still, users come to these sites for very different purposes (object-oriented, subject-oriented, action-oriented) but which are still part of the larger game.

What is even more interesting is that most of these sites are user-created and –operated. While Blizzard does offer the official forums, a news site (via the official World of Warcraft site), a character development site (The Armory), there are hundreds, even thousands, of player-produced sites dedicated to all sorts of information about WoW, from game play to merchandise to role playing to fan fiction to data cataloging to development/programming to academic research to business and beyond. That these sites are user-developed – and further, that may of them are quite sophisticated (WoWHead and CharDev are great examples of complex, interactive sites) – is a testament to the connection between the game and the community of players. These players are obviously passionate about the game, and put their specialist skills to use to fill a perceived need within the community (again, I’ll use CharDev as an example – a group of players developed a site that lets players model gear, talents, and buffs on their character to develop a plan of action within the game).

• VL/RL — While I hate the term “RL” (I much prefer Zachary Waggoner’s term “non-virtual” since RL privileges “reality” over digital reality…but I’m getting off track), I think it is still an important distinction to make between what happens in virtual space and what happens outside of it. A couple of different angles to consider here.

  • Transferrence — While Slice has undermined some of my notions of transferring skills between contexts, I want to highlight some of the interesting ways in which the game contexts might be extended. For example, Blizzard’s official fan convention, BlizzCon, is an officially sanctioned opportunity to congregate and interact with other WoW players in RL. Other fan conventions offer the same opportunity, as well as opportunities to role play in RL (cosplay, for example).RL is also a site for WoW to manifest itself physically, in the form of merchandise, character statues, t-shirts, the official WoW card game, etc.Further, gamers can meet in RL, and game together socially (LAN parties, guild meet-ups). While they are still participating virtually (they are playing the game), they are also doing it in the presence of others, and are both distributed across a network and co-located.
  • Conflicts between spaces — This is a pretty tricky subject, but interesting. A blogger whom I followed pretty regularly – and one who was well respected by the community – recently decided to stop playing and blogging, citing a need to “rededicate [himself] to [his] family”. Essentially, he had spent more time playing WoW than with his family, and felt a conflict between his game persona and his RL persona.Other bloggers have faced the same conflict (Phaelia from Resto4Life, for example) and come to similar conclusions: playing WoW should be a complimentary activity to living, not a primary one.*Update: WowInsider had an interesting article about ‘balancing’ WoW time and a “non-gamer girlfriend”. Even more interesting is that Blizzard has recognized the contributions of these community members; Phaelia received a tribute from the developers in the form of a high-level item in her namesake (the Resto4Life article linked above has some more information on it); Blizzard is also rumored to be working on a similar tribute to BigRedKitty. I think that is a unique relationship between developers and players, and one which again demonstrates the connectivity of the WoW community.

So, lots to think about, but I’m not sure where I’m going with any of these. For this class, I see a lot of the key terms popping up as potential subjects (participation, community, authority, user-generated content, social networking). I’m just not sure I have a decent enough question to start writing…

Updated: Monday, March 30, 2009 @ 22:41 PST
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