Hunting for Identity: Community, Performance, and the Curious Case of the Huntard in World of Warcraft

The hunter marked her prey and crept closer, careful not to alert her enemy to her presence. She had followed the same tactics for hundreds of battles and honed her skills: send in her faithful hunting pet first to attack, let loose her array of arrows and traps, run away if the enemy came too close and—above all—try not to die. Now, it was her first chance to fight alongside friends and allies, who had invited her to battle alongside them, and she was eager to show off her skills. No one had made a move yet, so she decided she would try to kill the enemy first, to be the hero, to show how powerful she was, and how valuable to the group. She sent her pet in, waited a few seconds, and fired her own shots. She expected a quick kill—they had almost always been that way so far, after all—but it did not come. Instead, other nearby enemies noticed the commotion and joined the fray, swarming the allies and sending them scattering and shouting. In the chaos and confusion, she watched her companions die before being overwhelmed herself. As the dust settled, the recriminations began, chastising her, mocking her, calling her names: “huntard” they shouted, then kicked her from their group and far away into a another place in the world, with wounded pride and little confidence, left wondering: what had happened? Why had her companions abandoned her? What had she done wrong?

In this case, Moxie—a player in the massively-multiplayer online game World of Warcraft (and whose name I have changed for this paper)—ran head first into the sticky problem of her identity in all its manifestations: how she thought about herself, how others thought about her, what she actually did, and when she did it. Each of these are a particular way of thinking about what identity is, from a functionalist view (“what are the actions taken”) to an ontological view (“what are the nature of the things involved”) to an epistemological view (“what do the actors know about and believe they are doing”). Considered together, however, they form a more complete understanding of identity in all its complexity. Indeed, when considered together, these facts make up the ways we define ourselves and others, how we orient ourselves to the world, and how we act within it.

This understanding of “identity” relies heavily on a social constructivist view in that it assumes that our understanding of the world comes from our engagement with other actors, institutions, and constructs; it does not discount the individual experience, nor the “brute facts” of reality, but contends that meaning-making occurs primarily through our social interactions (Vygotsky 1978; Searle 1995; Latour 2005; Kress 2010). This observation is important for three reasons: it allows for an external reality in which we exist but do not have access to all information; it relies an an interpretive, experiential understanding of reality; and it assumes that this interpretation is filtered through both our previous experience and—more importantly—with the norms, customs, and institutions which exists outside of our control.

This social co-construction of identity is especially important when considering spaces like World of Warcraft, which often rely on cooperative performance to “do” the game, particularly in higher-level content. While players can and do operate successfully within World of Warcraft without much interaction with other players, the game is designed around the goal of reaching this higher-level content, and “true” performance depends on the success to operate as part of a group with shared goals. There are exceptions depending on how “success” is defined, such as exploration of the world or completing a significant number of quests. The game supports this kind of play; however, this type of gameplay is arguably not the normal encounter an “average” player has within World of Warcraft and can be considered as an interesting deviation rather than the majority of a player’s experience. And, in a more limited sense, even this kind of gameplay is not entirely bereft of social interaction, as a player will likely encounter others in the world, read world-wide chat text from other players, even simply be seen by other players—these may not be major influences in the creation of an identity, and they may never connect with each other in a meaningful way (that is, the “solo” player will never know what others think about him, and vice versa) or influence the actions of one another in a significant way. If nothing else, this extreme case demonstrates the plasticity of identity, and the ways in which individual features (such as the self-projective identity or the “social” identity) play a larger or smaller part in the overall interpretive process.

Further, identity also depends explicitly on the particular circumstances at any given moment, that the the actors, objects, spaces, and relationships present determine that “version” of what an identity is. Some of these versions are more stable than others; being “American” is an identity that relies on numerous traits shared across time, while being an “ATM user” is more isolated and temporary. Some may be more “dominant” than others as well; again, being “American” entails a whole slew of customs, expectations, behaviors, and beliefs that influence being an “ATM user,” like expecting other users to stay a certain distance away. So the actions taken and the actors involved significantly influence how an individual defines themselves and how others define them. These contingencies—on time and place and relationships—help determine the identity of those involved. They also further suggest the variability of identity—who I am is really about who I am right now.

Given these assumptions, then, what can we say about identity? Partly that it’s performative; that is, identity relies on the various states of being and the actions taken. Partly, we can say that identity is projected; an individual actor assumes a position and performs actions that they intend to be interpreted by others around them (an outward projection), and other actors both create and enforce expectations that influence the individual actor’s choices (an inward projection). And partly, we can say that it is punctuated, that it depends on the specific contexts in which actors participate. These features are collectively a way of describing what identity involves.

It might prove useful, then, to examine specific examples of these features in action, how they are manifest in particular ways in particular spaces. Using the the previously mentioned World of Warcraft as a lens to focus this analysis—and particularly comments from players of the game around the hunter class and the derogatory terms “huntard”—I argue that identity in and around World of Warcraft is a socially constructed set of performative behaviors and beliefs that is context dependent and provisional. I explicate each feature individually first before looking at the interdependence of the performative, projected, and punctuated definitions of identity.

A brief history of the hunter class in World of Warcraft

Before proceeding, however, it is necessary to provide a brief sketch of the hunter class; its history, its characteristics, and its players. In the current iteration of World of Warcraft, the hunter is one of 10 playable classes; each class provides different attributes and skills and satisfies certain “roles” within the game, and especially within cooperative play. The game revolves around the notion of the “holy trinity” in group play: a player is assigned to absorb the damage and keep the attention of enemies (called a “tank”); another player heals the party members with a particular focus on the tank (known as a “healer”), and one or more players are assigned to provide offensive damage against enemies (known as “DPS,” a euphemism that refers to their “damage per second” and therefore their ability to inflict harm). This set-up of players describes general cooperative play, and higher-level content roughly follows the same distribution of roles, though as the player progresses higher in content they often group with a larger number of players; nevertheless, the “holy trinity” model remains relatively intact.

Therefore, a player of a particular class is expected to meet the roles that they are capable of performing; a hunter is a DPS-exclusive class, meaning that they are responsible for providing damage to enemies primarily. Their role is both one of support to and a primary function of the group, for they provide enough damage without interrupting the tank’s responsibility (keeping the attention of the enemy, otherwise known as “holding threat”). Without enough damage on an enemy, the group will be overwhelmed; but that damage output must be tied to the function of the tank in keeping threat, so the damage supports the tank’s actions. The hunter is expected to do high damage but not at the expense of the tank’s threat.

The hunter is equipped with multiple tools to provide their damage, primarily in the form of ranged damage; while hunters can fight in close-quarters (melee), they are far less powerful than at a distance. Perhaps the most distinctive tool at the hunter’s disposal, however, it their pet; the hunter is assigned a companion who is partly under the control of the player. These “semi-smart” agents can automatically attack enemies, but can also be assigned commands by the player in combat. The hunter’s pet can be a powerful weapon, providing up to nearly half of the hunter’s overall damage output. While other character classes have companions for combat, none have the range of abilities or the amounts of damage that a hunter pet does.

In their normal, solo-combat activities, hunters generally follow the strategy that Moxie used above: they first send their pet into combat to act as a personal tank, then engage the enemy while they are focused on their pet. This allows the hunter to stay at maximum range (and therefore maximize their damage output) while avoiding extensive damage to the player themselves. Importantly (as we shall see in the next section), the hunter has limited healing capabilities, so avoiding damage is a key tool to the success of a hunter, and the pet acts as a built-in “sponge” to absorb damage that would otherwise occur to the player.

In group play, the hunter (and other players) are “support classes” as described above (namely, one of their primary responsibilities is to not affect the tank’s threat management). They are therefore required to coordinate their damage abilities—including their pet—with the actions of the other players, and particularly with the tank, at least in ideal circumstances; players can and do successfully complete encounters while not operating with this coordination, but the failure rate is much higher. Nevertheless, hunters have particular expectations about their behavior and performance that are assumed by other players in order to cooperate effectively. It is this set of expectations that can cause the kind of confusion Moxie experienced, and that is the heart of this analysis; namely, that she did not understand these expectations and “mis-performed” in her role as hunter, and the group identified her as a particular type of player and responded accordingly (and negatively).

It is important to understand that Moxie’s experience was not an isolated event, and indeed only happened because of a long history of the breakdown between a player’s “assumed” or expected performance and their actual performance. In particular, the hunter class has been subject of this breakdown at a higher-rate than other classes, or at least has been assigned to the hunter class more than other classes ( Historically, hunters have been considered an “easy” class to play since they combine a relatively high damage output with the built-in advantage of the companion pet to act as a shield from damage in combat. Because of this “ease” in playing the hunter class, they have attracted players who may not be familiar with the game or video games in general, and support gameplay that may not be considered ideal (fighting at melee range, for example) because they compensate with other abilities. Indeed, until recently the official World of Warcraft website recommended novice players play as a hunter because of these very features. The result is that hunters were often “bad” at playing the game, and became stigmatized over time because of this mismatch in the assumed/expected (and idealized) performance and their actual (poor) play.

And so, as often happens in situations like this, others came up with derogatory terms for these hunters; inspired by the long history of the “retard” insult, World of Warcraft players began referring to these players as “huntards.” Along with this insult went a new assumption about what huntards were and what they did; they would break the “rules” (often unspoken) about what they were expected to do as hunters, and take threat from the tank, leave their pets on aggressive (and subsequently engage enemies when the group may not be expecting it—Moxie’s particular sin), fight in melee range, and (in)famously not pay attention to the fundamental mechanics or requirements of effective gameplay. As Mortillicus noted in a post on the official World of Warcraft forums, “hunters are a somewhat maligned class, because of their play ease. Yes, I know there are plenty of awful hunters whose whole game consists of a keyboard faceroll,” meaning they put no effort or strategy into their play but rather just “mash” buttons. Mortillicus describes a recent group interaction where others “labeled [him] a high sinner of WoW: A Huntard [sic]” unfairly and explains that he felt “a little hurt….events like last night bother me.” Another poster, Xanik, responds that he “will always call you a huntard just cause [sic] you get one bad hunter and they ruin your whole name.” These attitudes—both Mortillicus and Xanik, and positions in between—are not uncommon, though there has been a trend away from the usage of the huntard title as other classes have attracted similar “bad” players, particularly the Death Knight class.

Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that the “huntard” identity did not spontaneously come into existence, but developed through a chain of interactions over time (even those that came from outside of the game itself, like the “retard” component). Further, because these interactions occur between various participants over time, players such as Mortillicus often have no control over what happens before them, and encounter a pre-formed expectation of what a huntard is and can do little to change this attitude. Moxie, for example, is a relatively new player, picking up the game more than six years after its initial release; she comes to an environment that has highly ingrained social constructs, and she failed in navigating them.

Whether this failure occurs out of genuinely innocent ignorance (Moxie simply had never played with other players, and didn’t know what they wanted from her) or an overt unwillingness to learn the “rules,” and whether other players have an ethical obligation to teach players when they mis-conform to their expectations, are important questions to consider. However, they remain outside the scope of this analysis; instead, it is a necessary limitation here to assume that aware or not to their performance, hunters face a particularly “institutionalized” set of assumed performances in the guise of the huntard that they must negotiate through their specific performance, and they may remain without control to directly confront this particular identity. It is this institutionalized identity of huntard that this analysis considers, whether justly deserved or not.

Interestingly, hunters have subsequently co-opted the term huntard; the “Huntard” page of the user-editable WoWWiki claims that “thinking that calling a hunter ‘huntard’ is derogatory now is kind of humorus [sic]. The best hunters on server [sic] usually call themselves ‘huntard’.” While this claim remains somewhat dubious, there is evidence that players have adopted the name as part of their formalized identity: a recent search of the official World of Warcraft Armory reveals that 238 characters (of which all but 6 are hunters), 9 guilds, and 26 arena teams are named “Huntard.” This number is even greater when considering variations on the name. Clearly, the stigma of the huntard can be considered minor or a source of some good-natured ribbing; but there are certainly also examples that suggest that the term and the attitudes towards the “huntard” can be emotionally impactful, as even Mortillicus’ understated response demonstrates. Perhaps the move by players to “officially” co-opt the term is an effort to de-value the slur and contest the power of those who use it, a practice not uncommon with other volatile slurs. While I’m careful not to assign too much weight to a casual insult used in a video game, it is not a trivial thing and deserves to be considered as such.

Performative identity

Why the focus on performance in identity creation? Primarily, it stems from a belief that doing and being are intimately related (Dourish 2004). That is, the actions we take both reflect and create the sense of self and—more importantly—suggest that identity is not a static “thing” but rather a dynamic way of describing something. As Holland et al. (1998) argue, “[w]e are interested in identities, the imaginings of self in the worlds of action, as social products; indeed, we begin with the premise that identities are lived in and through activity and so must be conceptualized as the develop in social practice” (5). This is significant for two reasons: first, it suggests that not only are individuals “acting” in the world, but that others also act on and around the individual—indeed, that the world is experienced as a space for action and experience; secondly, it establishes that the “worlds of action” that we exist within have a direct influence on how we choose to act. This premise supports our working notion of identity as socially co-constructed, and that individual choices on how to act are influenced by the “larger world.” This is an important consideration, which I will return to in the next section; for now, it is enough to understand that it is through our ability to act and be acted upon which helps us define who and what we are—how we form an identity.

The second major reason for focusing on action as a key component of identity creation is that it aligns closely with the space of this particular study, namely World of Warcraft. As a game, it is designed to be played, and this play consists primarily of acting upon and within the game world itself (though certainly not exclusively, which I will happily ignore for now except to acknowledge it). In other words, it is a “world of action,” and one of a very specific type which can be delimited somewhat explicitly. Unlike the “real” world, World of Warcraft has a rather narrow set of explicit actions that can be taken as well as explicit limitations; whereas in the real world, the possible actions one can take are almost countless, World of Warcraft has a much smaller “pool” of actions and states a player can choose from.

A critical observation here is that these affordances and limitations in action are intentionally designed by a specific entity (Squire 2006), here Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. (hereafter referred to simply as Blizzard). Blizzard establishes the rules and systems players use to play the game, and controls the implementation of these systems; they are the “gods” of the game, capable of changing the rules (and therefore the types of actions a player can take) at any time. Importantly, World of Warcraft is a “living” game in that it changes over time. Unlike a game like, say, Final Fantasy VII, which remains essentially unchanged more than a decade after it was released, World of Warcraft has undergone hundreds upon thousands of major and minor changes since its initial release, from altering the design and shape of the world to adding and removing abilities to creating all new character classes. This iterative nature makes describing the game a bit of a moving target, and some things that are important at a given time may not exist at all in a later version of the game. For example, hunters recently received an ability that lets them launch traps which freeze or damage enemies; prior to this ability, hunters had to lay the trap directly at their feet. This change alters how hunters can perform—and in turn, how others expect them to. If nothing else, this iterative nature also supports the assumption that identity is provisional, as the game world can change such that a player literally cannot do something that was previously a key characteristic.

Because Blizzard designs the particular ways a player can act, they prescribe the ways identity can be formed; for if we assume that identity can be described by the types of actions an individual is capable of, then these defined limitations bound the potential actions, and therefore the potential ways of describing them. For instance, a hunter is given a wide range of offensive abilities, both ranged an melee; though greatly inefficient at melee range, they can still fight this way; so they can be called melee fighters. However, a hunter cannot heal (outside of very minor things like bandages and some small race-specific bonuses); they cannot be healers. The types of actions available to the hunter, then, defines what they are capable of and, by extension, how they can be identified.

The flipside to this, of course, is that a player must actually do those actions in order to be identified that way, that they emerge from the performance of the player. Just because they are capable of an action does not mean it becomes manifest; they player must actually perform the action for it to be recognized (Gee 2002). A good example of this is in the hunter’s pet as a built-in tank, as described above; depending on the type of pet and other choices made by the player in “building” their character, the pet can be a highly effective tank. Some hunters can use their pets and complete difficult, cutting-edge content by themselves if played skillfully, an action known as “extreme soloing.” However, this capability is used only by a very small portion of the hunter population and is considered the sign of a skilled hunter. The game allows all hunters to extreme solo, but not all hunters can or do. This is an important distinction in terms of identity, because identity creation depends not just on what a player can do, but what they actually do; it is enacted by players, and it is through this enactment of the afforded actions that they express themselves.

Further, its important to recognize that being a hunter is in some ways a sub-discourse to being a World of Warcraft player (which itself is a sub-discourse which we could spread many layers thick; I am not so inclined here other than to suggest this layering is worth considering). So many of the actions that a hunter can take can also be enacted by other classes as well; movement commands like jumping and turning are common across all classes, and many of the fundamental actions like offensive actions are fundamentally, if not exactly, alike. Still, even these non-class specific actions can be associated with a particular class because they tend to use (or, more often, mis-use) it more often than others; a prime example is the notion of “hunter loot.” After a group defeats an enemy, players are given the option to compete with each other to obtain high-quality gear through a random-number-generating tool within the game interface, a practice known as “rolling for loot.” This action is an explicitly designed tool implemented by Blizzard as a way of promoting fair competition for the spoils in question. However, over time the custom has developed that only players capable of using the equipment and having a clear need for it should actually roll for that particular loot. Nevertheless, hunters became well known for rolling on all loot and claiming that it was usable by them; and indeed, while hunters did have a somewhat broad range of statistical bonuses that were important to them, loot never overwhelmingly favored hunters as recipients. Thus, a disparaging joke arose that claimed all loot was hunter loot. Rolling on unusable or non-beneficial loot was a key characteristic of the “huntard” identity.

Here, it is interesting to note that this action was not explicitly endorsed or supported by the game’s designers, Blizzard; rather, they provided a tool for players but it was up to them how to decide how to use it. The actual usage of the tool, and in the case of hunter loot, the mis-use of the tool, created the defining characteristics of the particular manifestation of the huntard. So identity does not rest solely on the actions possible in the world, but also on the actions taken. Similarly, Blizzard designed the game to promote certain behaviors (fighting at range, for instance) and penalized players for mis-performing (giving the hunter in melee a severe handicap in damage and abilities); in this way, they serve as an institutional guide steering players towards certain “preferred” actions. Nevertheless, players had enough freedom to not use these actions correctly, and their mis-performance (that is, their mis-alignment with the intentions of the designers, and therefore the other users of the world as well) gave rise to an alternative identity of the hunter which became the huntard, with all its various deviations from the preferred norm. Thus, performative identity relies both on prescribed and emergent actions; that is, what can you do as well as what do you do.

Projective identity

This mis-alignment highlights one of the most complex and problematic elements of the co-construction of identity; namely, the potential for variation from what an individual sees themselves doing and being and what others see. Put another way, social actors can misrepresent, misinterpret, and misbehave with each other, and these misunderstandings come from the various perspectives of the participants. Even more directly, what one person thinks they are can be vastly different from what someone else thinks they are. Where do this variations come from? To start, it might be useful to think about them individually before considering how they align (or don’t).

Outward projective identity

An individual possesses some greater or lesser imagination about what they are, what they look like, what they do, what they believe in, and so on. When they act, they act with the belief that they are a specific person doing a specific thing; how they act is determined by what they want to accomplish and how they think it will best be realized. It should be evident that even this view, which greatly privileges the individual actor, suggests that they do not act within an vacuum but rather in a constellation of other objects and actors, in Holland’s “world of action.” Indeed, as evidenced above, the specific interpretation of an individual identity is colored through the social institutions and other actors that populate the world of action (Gee 2002), so while there is room for “native” interpretation of stimuli, truly nuanced interpretations require access to the social forces which shape the world.

Nevertheless, an individual actor assumes a position in which they project outwardly what they believe they are and how they want to express it; this is a performative function (what I do) as well as a more conceptualized function (what I “say” about what I am, for example). When considering a video game, which requires a mediative tool within the construct of a designed space, one way of describing this projectionis in terms of the player’s relationship to their avatar (the most direct mediator in-game); Gee (2007) offers a description of this kind of “projective identity” (p. 70) as:

virtual character (player surrogate) ← → character’s goals + player’s goals ← → virtual world

This is an example of what I call functional projection; it describes a way of relating to the tools available (the avatar and its functionality), the things the game wants you to accomplish (what Gee calls the “character’s goals”), what the player wants to accomplish (the player’s goal) and the world which provides the space and context for acting. In this sense, the functional projection serves as a way of understanding what a player wants to do and the way in which she can do them.

This model can also be adapted to describe the way a player relates to the other actors involved in and around the actions, what I call the social projection:

afforded actions ← → societal goals + player’s goals ← → social context/audience

Here, this relationship describes the ways a player can act (afforded actions), what the other players want or expect (societal goals), what the player wants to do (player goals), and the space and actors which define the context for the action (audience). In this way, a player thinks about what might be expected of him, how that compares to what he wants to do, and what means he has available to accomplish this. Further, it also suggests that the player’s goals are always a compromise with what others want and expect. Certainly, this pressure can be greater or smaller, but there might always be some negotiation occurring between the individual and the social goals at stake.

To demonstrate this more explicitly, let me use an example: Lolnerd is a max-level hunter who is part of her particular server’s top-rated guild. This guild has completed all of the current raids in both normal and hard mode, and is generally regarded as composed of elite players. Lolnerd has equipment that is considered “best-in-slot” or the best available at the moment, and is significantly geared above even most high-end players. She has a number of difficult achievements completed on her character which award titles, indicators of a particular accomplishment that serves as a reliable signal of mastery (Donath 2007). Lolnerd can often be found during peak play times parked outside highly populated parts of the major capital city like the auction house and bank, usually with a hard-to-find Spirit Beast pet at her side or hovering in her Head of Mimiron mount, a rare reward and another strong, reliable signal of her mastery.

What Lolnerd is doing here, arguably, is projecting a display of mastery of the discourse, of verifiably high-level performance and her superior abilities. She assumes a position of “leet” hunter by demonstrating her rare pets and equipment. What she projects, or thinks she projects, is uncertain, but it can be assumed that she is “showing off” how good she is and how much better she is than virtually any hunter that might happen to pass by. However, what others see might vary significantly. Some may see her as a role-model of sorts, or something to aspire to; they can look at her gear and see how she has “built” her character through talents and equipment and use it as a template for their own performance. Others might, however, see it as a form of braggadocio or bravado, as pretentious or even disrespectful since she will hover for hours at a time near highly trafficked areas of the world. While this is only one somewhat muddled example of the outwardly projective identity at work, it demonstrates the potential divide that comes from how others see her. To better describe this potential division, I shall turn my focus to these other actors and their influence on the individual.

Inwardly projective identity

These other actors have preconceived notions of the worlds and others that they bring to any interaction; often, as established above, the subject of their current attention may have little to do with these previous assumptions and may have little chance to contest or alter them. These notions might be explicitly codified and institutionalized (such as those of a school, for example, or a bank), or they can be individual interpretations (though also developed within the institutions and social groups with which they have previously encountered) (Gee 2002). And—importantly—the individual at the center of their attention may have no access or even knowledge that they are being defined and “identified.”

The inwardly projective identity is hard to define exactly, and it takes many forms. It is the source of identities like “American,” or “woman,” or “student.” These definitions rely on the support of the community at large and these “given identities…can primarily be underwritten and sustained by an institution or institutional forces or not. When an identity is underwritten and sustained by an institution, that institution works, across time and space, to see to it that certain sorts of discourse, dialogue, and interactions happen often enough and in similar enough ways to sustain the [institutional identities] it underwrites” (Gee 2002, p. 105). This positions the individual, then, as a subject to the power of the community around them and on which this community influences the decisions made by the actor. These pressures can build such that they becomes normative, as in the case of “American,” to such an extent that they become universal expectations within the community, and the actor is expected to meet these criteria.

Here we can return to Moxie’s experience in her first cooperative gameplay for a better understanding of the inwardly projective identity at work. As a group of (presumably) more experienced players grouped with her, they brought specific expectations of what constituted a “good” hunter. These expectations were forged through the institutions of both the game itself (Blizzard, as designer who sets the rules) and the community of other players, who had developed normative assumptions about effective play. Unfortunately for Moxie, she was unaware of these expectations; indeed, the game had been training her to play one way (aggressively and at her own pace) and gave her little or no direct support for understanding the new conditions for her engagement with others. When she mis-aligned her performance (she pulled threat and didn’t wait for the other players) with the expectations for “ideal” hunter play, the group had another set of performative expectations to call on and assign to Moxie, that of the huntard. With these new expectations and assumptions about how she might perform going forward, the group assumed it was easier to kick her out of the group than suffer through her bad play. While Moxie had enacted some of the “huntard” characteristics inadvertently, the group assumed that was her “actual” identity and acted accordingly.

Moxie had, to that point, no direct access to the expectations that other players had for her; the group similarly had no interest in trying to express them. After she was kicked out of her group, she asked other players about the experience and they provided some insight into these expectations, and Moxie changed how she behaved based on this feedback. Here, the inwardly projective identity provided pressure (through fear of being shunned by others) to conform to the institutionalized expectations of the other players. As a result, Moxie changed her performative and outwardly projected identity, and has never been called huntard again. This, of course, suggests the third key element of the creation of identity, that it is punctuated; Moxie might have been a huntard with that first group, but she is not universally a huntard.

Punctuated identity

This notion of temporary or provisional identity relies, of course, on understanding the world as a place in motion, that it is a dynamic space. While it is worth trying to capture a “slice” of the world, of one particular state, any slice is ultimately arbitrary and remains only a piece of the whole. Further, punctuation does not refer simply to temporal features (when did it happen), but rather to all of the circumstances of the “moment” including the actors, objects, spaces and other features of the world. Though it is only a “slice,” it is a full one in that it covers a tremendous amount of potential territory.

Heedless of these challenges, it is necessary to understand, as Moxie demonstrated, that an identity heavily relies on these features. One group of players saw one instance of a player and positioned it as an example of a “huntard,” and took action accordingly. But subsequent groups of players that Moxie has played with have never identified her as a huntard, at least not overtly. She admits, however, to identifying herself as a huntard on occasion when she slips up; indeed, she once apologized to a group before they started playing that she was having a “huntard day.” Interestingly, she internalized the identity that was given to her (or, more accurately, that she co-created and was given a specific term for it by the group of players) and used it as a way of thinking about herself, but only under certain circumstances. That is, she recognizes that she can be a huntard at certain times because of certain behaviors, but that it is not “who she is.”

Some characteristics or “identities,” as noted above, can be more persistent than others. A player who makes a trade with another player takes on the short-lived identity of “seller” during the duration of the transaction (roughly, though she will always remain the “seller” of that object as long as it’s around and people recognize her as the seller). The same player maintains a stronger identity as “hunter” since she is locked into that role for the course of the game; she is even more strongly tied to the identity of “player” since her game play requires her to act; (arguably) nothing can happen to or by her without her “real life” interaction with the game, and so on.

Similarly, some identities are voluntary, or at least accepted; being a “seller” is a necessary state for a sale to occur, and the player is forced to assume this position, but likely does so readily in order to complete their intended goal (financial gain). Being a good player or “leet” is an aspirational identity which the player actively works to project. Being a huntard is likely not a voluntary identity (or even intentional, disregarding griefers), but one projected onto the player. And, as established above, some identities are unknown to those it is ascribed to; the actor may have no knowledge that they have been identified and described a certain way. In this case, it might seem that this identity is of no use since the actor has no access to it; however, this identity might still prove important since it can be tied to reputation (other players might talk about the hunter, for example, and decide they would never group with her going forward). Though the hunter has no knowledge of the effects of this identity, she is still affected by it.

Putting it all together and future research

So here we have a real “chicken and egg” scenario: if identity is a situated instance of individually enacted (re)configuration of a socially constructed set of performative expectations based on actual, lived experience with the performance of these actions within a construct of afforded and limited actions, where does identity really come from?

In the case of World of Warcraft, we might be able to say that it begins with Blizzard, the gods of the world who breathe life into a particular tool set that becomes “hunter” that players then inhabit. But even here, the outwardly projective identity comes into play because Blizzard does not prescribe the actual actions that help create and define the huntard. That comes from the players themselves, and the community of non-hunters who witness and label the behavior the propagates as huntard, and so the inwardly projective identity is in play too. Finally, it relies on a particular confluence of actors, events, and orientations and remains ephemeral and subjective, so any attempt to locate its source might be a futile endeavor by default.

Nevertheless, this analysis has demonstrated several manifestations of these key ways of thinking about identity; that it is performative and defined by what actions a player of World of Warcraft can and does take; that it is projected both by the individual actor outward and by the community of other actors and institutions inwardly, and these various alignments together co-create identities; and that it is punctuated by when we are, what we’re doing, who we’re doing it with, and why. It may be enough, when trying to determine the source of identity, to say that it is an emergent property of the individual and social actors in a particular time and place for a particular purpose and depends on the perspective of those doing the actual “defining.”

The limits of this project meant that much of this analysis has focused on a theoretical framework for understanding identity supported by some empirical/ethnographic work, including player interviews and player posts on forums. A more robust analysis would include more detailed ethnographic work to support, refine, or refute the claims made herein. Part of this ethnographic work might include data collection via a survey or “quantitative” analysis; more in-depth interviews with players might yield more concrete examples or of interpretations that are not necessarily described in this theory. In a future iteration of this analysis, I would expect to conduct more field work as well as try to capture “authentic” examples of the huntard term in use; for example, screen-capping events where players are actually called a huntard or encounter the term (in Trade chat, for example) and test to see what effects, if any, it has on other players or their reactions.


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