By Daniel Lende
World of Warcraft is a MMORPG. And what is that, you ask? A massively multiplayer online role-playing game, in this case the most successful one in existence. It is run by Blizzard Entertainment, based on fantasy role-playing (i.e., swords and sorcery), and has more than 9 million subscribers worldwide. These subscribers pay a monthly fee (currently $14.99 if you pay month-to-month) and for that, Blizzard says, “thousands of players adventure together in an enormous, persistent game world, forming friendships, slaying monsters, and engaging in epic quests that can span days or weeks” in the realm of Azeroth.
Blizzard has built a game that appeals to both causal and persistent players, though most of its monthly income is derived from people who put in lots of hours (Ducheneaut et al. 2006; http://gac.sagepub.com/cgi/content/short/1/4/281). It relies in part on an underground economy, including Chinese “gold farmers” (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/17/magazine/17lootfarmers-t.html) to help create some of the in-game wealth that rich players can then utilize in achieving higher and higher levels and better and better items and spells. Besides the joys of “leveling up” and coordinating massive attacks on either mythical monsters that no one hero can slay alone or on other “guilds” of human players in Azeroth, research has shown that “in keeping with current Internet research findings, players were found to use the game to extend real-life relationships, meet new people, form relationships of varying strength, and also use others merely as a backdrop (Williams et al. 2006; http://gac.sagepub.com/cgi/content/short/1/4/338 ).”
They also piss each other off. One of the main draws of Wow is PvP, person versus person play. Just as with first person shooters, there is plenty of fun in the single-player game, the mastering of a particular level or killing a “boss” (a hard monster or enemy), but a lot of the persistent fun is in making those rag dolls fly—in winning “the game” when playing against others. A new art form has developing in filming these encounters: “the proliferation of players, clans, Web sites, and community forums for creating, consuming, and commenting on WoW movies is remarkable” (Lowood 2006; http://gac.sagepub.com/cgi/content/short/1/4/362 ). The one I will talk about today has been seen over two million times on YouTube.
“Serenity Now bombs a World of Warcraft funeral” is its title, where the Serenity guild goes and attacks an in-game funeral ceremony being held in a public PvP space. The funeral was held for a player who had died in real life, and members of her guild lined up to pay their respects to the character. The clip is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHJVolaC8pw.
In commentary on the clip at http://wow.incgamers.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-366556.html, the reactions can be divided into two basic types: “i loved it . laughed hard. i got the high quality video burned to dvd” versus “If you haven’t got enough common decency to leave some people alone to be sad about their friends death then your pretty pathetic.” Given that I am more the ironic type and don’t know the girl in question, I must admit that I found the video clip more on the amusing side. Maybe not lol, but I smiled.
So, how are we to make sense of a game where millions of people play all around the globe, brought together in virtual interactions dictated by a company where much of the action is at the level of the people who have little say in the overall classes and goals set up by others? It sounds like a perfect example for cultural anthropology to reveal its accumulated strengths.
There is just one problem, as one recurring stream of comments on the raid point out: it’s a video game, not real life. How can we reconcile our concepts of “culture” and “power” to an entirely artificial realm where people do not even interact face-to-face? Where “culture” is literally not all around the person, and where “power” can literally be killed by the flip of a switch?
The video clip concretizes these questions: Why do a group of people decide to create a funeral on-line? And why is there both humor and condemnation in the raid that is technically within the rules set by Blizzard, a generally encouraged part of gameplay in Azeroth, yet against “common decency”?
In my previous post on Video Games and Cultural Perception, I spoke on how designers work to get a cultural “buy-in.” That buy-in builds on the interactions between the game, the virtual world, and the players—“culture,” in this sense, is not something separate from these components. One way to figure out what the different elements of the “buy-in” is to look at more and less successful versions of specific cultural traditions, whether they are MMORGPs or bowling leagues or the new mega-churches. (The one in our town has daycare for kids, arrived at through slides down into the rooms, as well as a self-help feel that downplays sacramental elements—and it is booming!)
Detailed studies of the particular processes involved will be necessary—what Greg and I do in some of our respective research. But a quick-and-dirty way might be to see what works and what doesn’t. And gaming, as I analyzed in my first blog in this series, represents one great way to understand that. So go for it!
To sum up so far what I’ve done in this series, I see at least four factors in understanding video gaming through neuroanthropology:
-interface: how people have shared engagements
-cultural biology of the brain: what people bring to the table
-competition/buy-ins—how local practices/traditions promote or turn off engagement
-structuring processes (which can be both local and macro with respect to a particular cultural environment or context)
But I am also intrigued in how people create a “virtual culture” on-line. Here some other comments on the raid are interesting. Interpretations of context, people’s interactions and how the setting shapes those interactions, the consequences and judgments of peoples’ behavior—all of these are prevalent in the descriptions. These are how people are understanding their own ability to create a virtual culture, and like good anthropologists, I do think we should take our informants seriously. So I’ve posted a selection of their statements below. I look forward to some comments on this one!
-i love the irony. one group takes role playing to the next level by holding a funeral in-game, not realising that another group would remain true to the war / fantasy setting takes advantage of their enemy’s weakness with an ambush. this is what makes wow so popular, the human interaction is often surprising, and can’t be predicted as in single player games. unexpected outcomes like this… are keeping it real.
– True, it is a video game. And true, the game itself is not real life. BUT, the real world is very present. There are living, breathing human beings controlling all those characters in the “game”, and your actions *do* affect those people in a real way. The moment you interact in any way with another person, real life is present. Even if “its only a game”
– I guess I’m just trying to get people to think about what the appropriate actions in a social game should be…. what is the balance between game mechanics (i.e. “allowed” actions) vs. the social interaction (i.e. how should you treat the real person behind the avatar).
– On the topic of whether this is just a game… It is and it isn’t. All online games are like that, if you make friends, decent friends, then it becomes more than a game. Its a place to talk to your mates, chill out and not worry about RL [real life]. You can’t do that in any single player game ergo it IS more than just a game.
– Just because it is an allowed game mechanic does not mean that Blizzard blessed it. That type of thinking is at the heart of the dispute. Just because something can be done does not mean it should be done. This whole issue comes down to what are the ethics of social interaction in a game. Since it is not a single player game, you must consider the consequences of your actions. If you do not, then you are incredibly selfish.