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part two Active Aesthetic ExperiencePage 38Page 39
chapter three Play as Aesthetic experience
An obvious question about World of Warcraft is: Why do people like it so much? What is the nature of this human activity that captivates so many people? Why is WoW “addictive,” compelling, absorbing, pleasurable?
It is tempting, and for good reason, to see WoW’s hold on players as the outcome of an elaborately designed Skinner box (Ducheneaut et al. 2006; Yee 2006). The constant, predictable forward progress of moving through the levels is a strong motivator. As one study participant, Mark, a teacher in his thirties, said:
I think what drives the majority of the people is sort of goal orientation. You have goals. And so, there’s this very easy goal of leveling, right? It’s this numerically-defined kind of thing. You have this target. You get these rewards of experience. There’s also goals of, say, improving your character’s abilities through equipment. Things like that. So, you—really, you’re trying to improve yourself.
In addition to the regularized progress of leveling, there was the intermittent reinforcement of unpredictable rewards. We know that intermittent reinforcement is the most compelling schedule for both rats and people (Perkins and Cacioppo 1950). Although I have not seen a clinical analysis of World of Warcraft, a Canadian player who was a psychology student with a specialty in addiction wrote to me in an email (used with permission):
WoW rewards players systematically with level increases that happen fre- Page 40 quently at first and then less frequently as time goes by (and you and I both know the little thrill we get every time we “ding” [attain a new level]. This is also reinforced socially by the congratulations we receive from other players). So WoW uses the principle of shaping to reinforce play behaviour. There are also the randomly generated rewards of having good gear drop unexpectedly from mobs or [treasure] chests. This intermittent reinforcement may be the most powerful variable that maintains play. Gambling works on a similar principle. We’ve known since Skinner’s work in the 30s that intermittently reinforced behaviours are the most difficult to extinguish, and WoW capitalises on that.
Players watched the “experience bar” which visualizes experience points. It always, satisfyingly, moved upward. In real life, progress is up and down when there is progress at all. In WoW, play was rewarded with advancement. Many players started new characters because they liked the leveling process so much. In the interviews, players reported that they enjoyed leveling and considered it a major attraction of the game.
But as the psychology student pointed out, it is perhaps the intermittent reinforcements that really kept players hooked. When one sits down to play WoW, there are a thousand little opportunities for intermittent reinforcement. A miner might acquire a rare jewel stone along with his everyday ore. A mob might drop a rare item of great value. As a member of Scarlet Raven commented in guild chat, such game events “can brighten your day.”
One of the main forms of intermittent reinforcement in WoW was the acquisition of a piece of rare, high-end equipment. First there was a difficult mob to defeat. Then the equipment had to drop according to probabilities laid out in loot tables. Chances of the equipment dropping were often less than 10 percent (and in some cases much less). Then the player rolled the virtual dice against other players who might also want the equipment. When a player won, it was big! Players floated on the excitement for hours or even days. Skinner does indeed tell us something useful about World of Warcraft.
But there was more than Skinnerian dynamics at play in World of Warcraft. The gaming experience was woven of sociality, the visual beauty of the game world, and a sense of performative mastery.This chapter begins the task of exploring these themes, drawing on activity theory (Leontiev 1974; Kaptelinin and Nardi 2006) and the work of the American prag- Page 41 matist philosopher John Dewey. Ideas from these sources will be used throughout the book to examine issues of design and to critique theories of play.
In his book Art as Experience (first published in 1934), Dewey developed a theory of aesthetic experience that I have found useful for thinking about player experience in World of Warcraft. Dewey argued that aesthetic experience is part of ordinary life and should not be confined to viewing the works of a few elite artists presented in museums. Aesthetic experience for Dewey is participatory—not merely passive “appreciation” as we think of it in relation to high-culture art. Dewey complained that the English language has no word to capture a notion of active aesthetic experience. He reconceptualized the term aesthetic experience to express an active, participatory relation to artful material and collective activity.
Dewey’s work starts from the same fundamental principles as activity theory (Leontiev 1974; Kaptelinin and Nardi 2006), my own theoretical orientation. I will weave the two approaches together in what follows. Dewey appears to have independently arrived at certain formulations similar to those of activity theory. Many activity theorists read and appreciate Dewey, recognizing the resonance between the two approaches, as well as Dewey’s distinctive, complementary contributions.
Dewey’s account is in some ways less elaborated than activity theory’s, but addresses aesthetic experience in unique, useful ways. On the other hand, certain of activity theory’s concepts implicit in Dewey’s work are made more accessible by their precise definition in activity theory. I will utilize, in particular, the activity theory hierarchy which distinguishes three levels of activity of a human subject (Leontiev 1974; Kaptelinin and Nardi 2006).
Activity, at the highest level, is motivated by an object. A motivating object gives shape and materiality to a subject’s needs or desires (Leontiev 1974). Needs and desires are transformed to specific motivating objects which are a concrete instantiation of the need or desire. Motivating objects may be conscious or unconscious. They may indicate deep emotional engagement, what Kaptelinin and Nardi (2006) refer to as passion.
Actions are undertaken to fulfill the object. They are directed by conscious goals. Operations are unconscious, habitual movements underlying actions.
The hierarchical structure of activity. Activities are composed of actions, which are composed of operations. Activity is dynamic; it may move up or down the hierarchy.
To realize the object of writing the novel, the novelist sets about completing certain conscious actions—devising a storyline, imagining characters, securing a publisher, revising the manuscript.
To capture her words, the novelist types—a practiced, habitual skill, or operation in activity theory terms, that requires no conscious attention.
The novelist develops carpal tunnel syndrome requiring that she input words into the computer differently. Since activity is dynamic, with potential movement between levels in the hierarchy, the novelist will, for a time, consciously attend to the necessary actions for inputting words such as using an ergonomic keyboard or voice system. Eventually she will become familiar with the keyboard or voice system, at which point her actions directed at input again become operations.
Any level of activity may transform to an adjacent level. If, after many years of writing novels, the novelist no longer feels passionate about expressing herself and is merely writing for money, writing becomes an action directed at the object of financial security (about which the novelist feels very passionate).
Going forward, I will use the terms action, object, and activity in the technical sense established by activity theory.
Dewey’s Dimensions of Aesthetic Experience
We turn now to Dewey, who concerned himself with a particular kind of human activity: aesthetic experience. In Dewey’s usage, experience is a very broad term. For our purposes, we can regard it as a kind of activity. Dewey paid attention to the quality of experience; he believed that explaining and understanding aesthetic experience would be a means of promoting it, something he very much wanted to do in line with the philosophical preoccupations that shaped his life (see Hook 1995; Jackson 1998).
Experience is subjective; that is, it requires an active self or subject. Dewey and activity theory regard human beings as biological organisms with biological needs satisfied through interaction with the environment. Humans developed culture as a special means of managing such interaction. Culture manages biological needs but at the same time generates its own social and cultural needs and desires. Within this conceptual framework, the self is an active agent responsive to culture but not determined by it. Dewey said:
The self acts as well as undergoes, and its undergoings are not impressions stamped upon an inert wax but depend upon the way the organism reacts and responds. There is no experience in which the human contribution is not a factor in determining what actually happens. (2005)
Experience is subjective and thus variable across people. No experience is inherently aesthetic—the “human contribution” is always in play. As Dewey noted, the human organism is not an “inert wax”; the organism responds according to its own history. (See also Kaptelinin and Nardi 2006; Bardzell and Bardzell 2008; Spinuzzi 2008.)
Aesthetic experience is, then, a subjective disposition toward activity. Aesthetic experience incorporates the contribution of the subject as essential—aesthetic activity can never be realized purely through the structural or formal qualities of an artifact (such as a game). To understand aesthetic experience we cannot stop at analyzing an artifact as a text, or narrative or set of functions or composition of elements, but must also undertake to examine the actual activity in which the artifact is present.
Having established that aesthetic experience is a subjective disposition Page 44 toward activity, Dewey went on to describe aesthetic experience more precisely. He characterized aesthetic experience as composed of means-ends relations, phases, and collective expression.
Dewey asserted that aesthetic experience is “whole,” carrying with it “its own individualizing quality and self-sufficiency.” Aesthetic experience moves toward its own fulfillment or end:
Any practical activity will, provided it is integrated and moves by its own urge to fulfillment, have aesthetic quality. (2005)
Aesthetic activity is “a consummation and not a cessation” (Dewey 2005). Aesthetic activity flows toward a satisfying completion, or end, not simply the relief of being over with. The means to the end must satisfy in themselves.
There are ends which are merely welcome cessations and there are ends that are fulfillments of what went before. The toil of a laborer is too often only an antecedent to the wage he receives . . . The means cease to act when the “end” is reached; one would be glad . . . to get the result without having to employ the means.
Under this broad definition, a very wide range of human activities are potentially aesthetic. Dewey offered, for example, “The intelligent mechanic engaged in his job, interested in doing well and finding satisfaction in his handiwork, caring for his materials and tools with genuine affection.” In describing the aesthetic he enumerated:
A piece of work is finished in a way that is satisfactory; a problem receives its solution; a game is played through; a situation, whether that of eating a meal, playing a game of chess, carrying on a conversation, writing a book, or taking part in a political campaign, is so rounded out that its close is a consummation and not a cessation.
In World of Warcraft, much of the pleasure of questing or running dun- Page 45 geons lay in devising the particular means by which to accomplish a quest or defeat a mob. The means themselves were of interest to the player, not merely the experience points. At the same time, the completion of a quest or the conquest of mob were moments of pleasure. Aesthetic experience entails a temporal flow of actions that are valued in themselves, ending in a satisfying “consummation.”
Dewey, however, wanted us to understand aesthetic experience as something more complex. He pointed to the “successive phases that are emphases of [the] varied colors” of aesthetic experience. In other words, aesthetic experience requires an internal structure of differentiated phases. A simple repetitive behavior such as pulling the handle on a slot machine would not, for Dewey, count as aesthetic experience. Leveling a character in World of Warcraft (so long as the player enjoys the necessary actions) can be considered aesthetic because the completion of a series of quests, each unique, eventually leads to a new level. The successive phases of aesthetic activity in World of Warcraft recurse; the goal of reaching a new level is internally differentiated into a series of quests. Each quest itself is structured as a goal and a “description” which entails fulfilling the goal, with the description, or backstory, adding further “color.”
A challenge for game designers is to create an environment in which a lot of paying customers will experience aesthetic activity—that is, they will enjoy the actions necessary to play the game.
But again no experience is inherently aesthetic. Take character leveling. While most study participants reported that they enjoyed leveling characters, others did not. What was a pleasing aesthetic experience for some was irksome to others. Some players simply wished to reach the level cap in order to access high-level game content (which for them was aesthetic). They may have been in a hurry or they may have leveled other characters and found repeating the same quests uninteresting. Our free market economy readily obliged these players; they could purchase an account on eBay and other places on the Internet (see Lin and Sun 2007). Players sometimes sold their characters when they left the game, as a side business, or when they got tired of a particular character. One of the young players in my guild sold his well-equipped warrior for 900 dollars when he lost his job Page 46
Players were of two minds about buying and selling accounts. The vast majority of players I knew found the idea of buying a character nonsensical; the whole point for them was to actually play. They observed that you cannot learn to skillfully play a character unless you play it. They made derisive comments about “eBay characters” when, for example, they encountered a poor player in pickup groups. On the other hand, there were many online discussions about busy people who did not have time to level a character but wished to participate in World of Warcraft. Aesthetic experience, as Dewey formulated, is variable because it is subjective. We can understand these variable responses to the experience of character leveling only by attending to the subjective dispositions of players with their own personal histories, Page 47 beliefs, and inclinations. As World of Warcraft itself ages, and players accumulate personal histories with the game, the game changes in response through the mechanisms of expansions and updates. Understanding the histories of the human subjects playing the game materially influences game design.
Dewey spoke of the “flow” of aesthetic activity from “something to something,” that is, from a set of satisfying actions needed to complete an activity to the completion itself.The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed a notion of flow somewhat related to Dewey’s. Csikszentmihalyi observed that creative or accomplished people experience a state of deep focus that occurs when they undertake an activity that is challenging but still possible. The activity has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Csikszentmihalyi’s formulation pointed, like Dewey’s, to the temporal flow of satisfying actions leading to completion (not cessation).
However, Csikszentmihalyi (and other theorists such as Stevens ) emphasized means over ends. Csikszentmihalyi (1997) suggested that attaining an end can even be “anti-climactic.” Dewey’s conceptualization, by contrast, specified the unity of means and ends, their dependence on each other for meaning, purpose, and satisfaction. Part of the appeal of aesthetic activity, as formulated by Dewey, is a satisfying completion in which we eventually experience a distinctive, concrete moment of pleasure.Collective Expression
Where Csikszentmihalyi focused on extraordinary, high-performing people, Dewey held to the promise of incorporating aesthetic experience into everyday collective activity. Dewey hoped to promote aesthetic experience in all walks of life:
Works of art that are not remote from common life, that are widely enjoyed in a community, are signs of a unified collective life. But they are also marvelous aids in the creation of such a life. The remaking of the material of experience in the act of expression is not an isolated event confined to the artist and to a person here and there who happens to enjoy the work. In the degree in which art exercises its office, it is also remaking the experience of the community in the direction of greater order and unity.
For many who played World of Warcraft, the game was a stimulus to the “remaking of community” (see Steinkuehler and Williams 2006; Williams 2006; Williams et al. 2006). As Arian, a Scarlet Raven player, posted to the guild website:
Welcome to a group of people who’ve built a guild “empire” around this game. Including: Forums, Vent, and Late-night hilarity.
Arian invoked ways in which players came to feel connected in and around World of Warcraft: forums on the guild website, the use of voice chat (“Vent”), and a spirit of fun, often heightened by the loss of inhibition induced in the late hours.
Collective expression in World of Warcraft constitutes a huge topic; I touch briefly on it here to introduce a tenet of Dewey’s formulation of aesthetic activity. Notions of collective expression will be woven into subsequent discussions in the remaining chapters, all of which analyze, in varying ways, how aesthetic activity played out in multiple, varied game activities.
To summarize, Dewey’s understandings of active, participatory, aesthetic experience incorporated community as well as decomposing the internal structure of aesthetic activity into temporal and structural dimensions. Dewey formulated aesthetic experience as participatory engagement in activity that is organized in distinctive stages and in which a satisfying completion is the end point of actions which are themselves pleasurable. To invoke concepts such as “pleasure” or “satisfaction” is to invoke an active subject for whom pleasure and satisfaction are products of a particular personal history rather than inherent characteristics of a set of actions. Aesthetic experience for Dewey required collective expression; it connects us to others in relations of community and “common life.”
We might ask why Dewey selected these particular elements to identify aesthetic activity. Dewey was a philosopher interested in questions of virtue and excellence. He found much of modernity disappointing, criticizing its “monotony,” “stasis,” and mindless convention. (We will hear echoes of Dewey in the comments of World of Warcraft players in chapter 5 as they discuss the disappointments of their school and work lives.)
Dewey sought movement and development, noting their roots in our animal past. He observed:Page 49
The live being recurrently loses and re-establishes equilibrium with its surroundings. The moment of passage from disturbance into harmony is that of intensest life.
He sensed that our animal energies are most satisfyingly discharged when channeled in a pattern of “rhythmic and developing” activity:
An engraver, painter, or writer is in process at every stage of completing his work. He must at each point retain and sum up what has gone before as a whole and with reference to a whole to come . . . The series of doings in the rhythm of experience give variety and movement; they save the work from monotony and useless repetitions.
Dewey thus argues (as activity theory does) that the human condition is continuous with our existence as animals in productive interaction with the environment:
At every moment, the living creature is exposed to dangers from its surroundings, and at every moment, it must draw upon something in its surroundings to satisfy its needs. The career and destiny of a living being are bound up with its interchanges with its environment . . . in the most intimate way.
Dewey observed that these biological realities “reach to the roots of the aesthetic in experience.” He urged us to consider ourselves living creatures primed by millions of years of evolution to engage deeply with our surroundings, to meet its challenges responsively, and to move, grow, develop. For Dewey the “enemies of the aesthetic” were the inflexibilities of modernity that defeat such engagement: “convention in practice . . . rigidity . . . [and] coerced submission.” He was saddened that the modern economy reduces much human activity to “the toil of a laborer” wherein living shrivels to the acquisition of a wage.
Given all this, it is not surprising that Dewey identified the aesthetic as complexly phased action in which both the journey and the destination are rewards and within which we can be “fully present.” Stasis, monotony, submission, aimlessness were, for Dewey, antithetical to the potentialities of the Page 50 living being in intimate engagement with its environment—all senses on the qui vive, as he put it.
Dewey incorporated a notion of the collective into his ideas of aesthetic experience because his philosophy centered on society. His human subject is always present in a social matrix. Dewey perceived that collective life suffered distortions under the pressures of modernity—one social class was empowered to diminish the horizons of experience of other classes through the imposition of repetitive jobs undertaken only for a wage.
Dewey was no Marxist, but he had sharp words for plunderers and colonizers, observing that the aesthetic came to mean quiet, passive contemplation of “fine art” as a means of reinforcing the power of the ruling classes:
Most European museums are . . . memorials of the rise of nationalism and imperialism. Every capital must have its own museum . . . devoted to . . . exhibiting the greatness of its artistic past, and . . . to exhibiting the loot gathered by its monarchs in conquest of other nations. [This] testifies to the connection between the modern segregation of art, and nationalism and militarism.
Perhaps most important, Dewey wanted to “recover . . . the continuity of aesthetic experience within normal processes of living.” He was genuinely disturbed by what he called the “compartmental conception of fine art” in which art is literally picked up and moved to controlled cultural citadels, separating what is deemed excellent from everyday life:
[In times past,] [d]omestic utensils, furnishings of tent and house, rugs, mats, jars, pots, bows, spears, were wrought with such delighted care that today we hunt them out and give them places of honor in our art museums. Yet in their own time and place . . . they [were a] manifestation of group and clan membership, worship of gods, feasting and fasting, fighting, hunting, and all the rhythmic crises that punctuate the stream of living . . . The arts of the drama, music, painting, and architecture thus exemplified had no peculiar connection with theaters,galleries,museums.They were part of the significant life of an organized community.
Modernity sequesters the aesthetic in regulated institutions outside Page 51 normal processes of living. Dewey suggests how deeply peculiar this is. He argued that active aesthetic activity must be reconceptualized and reintegrated into everyday life to infuse normal processes of living with the “delighted care” and “genuine affection” that move collective life toward excellence of experience.
chapter four A New Medium
In an Internet cafe in Beijing, Huatong, a young female player, showed us her World of Warcraft character. She played a druid—a class that “shape-shifts,” or takes on different forms, including several beautifully rendered animals. She found these shifting forms stimulating, and presented to us, one by one, the druid’s shapes and abilities. Without being asked, she mentioned that she thought about the game when she was not playing because it was so “interesting.”
In this chapter, I argue that video games like World of Warcraft constitute a new digital medium. The fusion of immersive visual experience with intense, skilled performative activity, represents a significant evolution in the history of digital culture. Video games afford rich stimulation to visual sensibilities while at the same time developing complex spaces of performance with opportunities for mastery and active participation.
Each of these elements—visual experience and performance—is compelling on its own. Together they are intoxicating. In Huatong’s descriptions, both the visual and performative qualities of the druid’s varying forms were deeply interesting to her, and she elaborated on their manifestations in each form.
Visual and performative experience in World of Warcraft were entwined, feeding back into one another. Accessing new visual experience and advancing in the game were mutually efficacious; attaining a level of performative mastery was necessary for “seeing new content,” as players said, while at the same time experiencing new content opened possibilities for performative challenge.Page 54 attentiveness and skill. It is time delimited, entailing a specific instance of performance, and engages an audience, either others or oneself. I do not use “performance” as a metaphor for the reproduction of culture through certain actions (see, e.g., Butler 1990) in which people are unaware that they are “performing” but rather as it is used in sports or theater, where participants engage in specific, recognizable instances of performative activity.
Contemporary culture offers many activities that afford either a strong visual experience or a venue of performance. Film and theatergoing, for example, involve immersive visual experience, but the audience has no part in the performance. Bowling is an enjoyable performative activity, but bowling alleys are visually austere and uniform, as are the sites of most sporting activities.
Interesting visual-performative activities occur in the real world, and they seem to spark the same enthusiasm as video games. Dance clubs that feature square dancing, salsa, or ballroom dancing combine visual and per-formative experience. Participants wear colorful, stylized costumes and perform complex dances. Members of church choirs, alongside parishioners, sing in churches decorated with seasonal flowers and religiously themed accoutrements. Paintball pits teams against one another in competitive play in woodsy environments. Hunting and fishing take place outdoors, often in locales of beautiful open country or on picturesque waterways. Participants in U.S. Civil War reenactments recreate the extravagant clothing of the era and enact elaborately staged mock battles and other historically inspired activities. Fantasy masquerade balls invite guests to appear in costume to dance and revel, as do events such as Burning Man and Mardi Gras.
World of Warcraft is very much like these activities. But it is a packaged, self-contained, computer-based medium created and reproduced on a massive scale enabled by digital technology powering immersive graphics and complex game mechanics. WoW is more accessible than most real world visual-performative activities because the entry point was a cheap commodity—a networked personal computer. The genius of WoW, and other video games, lies in allowing millions of people to attain skilled performance in artistically designed spaces entered through an ordinary computer.
One of my guildmates succinctly captured the notion of WoW as a visualperformative medium when he said, “WoW is baseball in elf costumes.” The term “elf costumes” evoked the visuals so vital to players. Baseball was a Page 55 metaphor for the competitive contests central to play in World of Warcraft: quests, raids, duels, battlegrounds, and arenas.
When I first started giving talks about WoW, I emphasized community and collaboration. An audience member who played the game said, “Well, that’s interesting, but you’ve left out the most important thing—mastery of the game.” The comment indicated the need to attend to the development of skilled performance as critical to player experience. The emphasis in the interviews on leveling, constant player chat about attaining better equipment, and the seriousness of the collective organization undertaken to support raiding argued for mastery as crucial to game experience.
A notion of mastery complexifies an account of WoW as primarily a series of Skinnerian rewards. Yes, players wanted the loot and the experience points. But mere acquisition was not the sole source of satisfaction; the loot and points accumulated, over time, toward the player’s object of becoming a better player—of “improving yourself,” as Mark said. Focus on the object of activity proscribes reductive accounts such as Skinner’s as the end point of analysis. Attention to higher levels of activity moves analysis beyond the moment of reward to the larger historical trajectory of the activity, recalibrating the time horizon in which human activity is intelligible and for which analytical logics must be devised.
In the following sections I discuss the contours of performance in video games, the means by which visual/performative activity is encapsulated in digital rules, and the place of video games in mass culture.
Let us discuss WoW raiding as an example of the centrality of performance. (We might also investigate ordinary quests, 5-man instances, battlegrounds, and arena play, all of which entail performative challenge.) In a raid, as in a sporting contest, the outcome can turn on the smallest mistake or advantage. A spell cast a moment late can kill a player or wipe a raid. A player hanging on by a few points of health can still battle to victory. Raid action is in constant dynamic change. Players spoke of the importance of “situational awareness” (a military term), denoting the ability to mentally process rapid multidimensional environmental changes. The same ability is mandatory in team sports, where the positions of the ball (puck/Frisbee/ . . .) and Page 56 the positions of other players, as well as their specific movements, must be tracked and responded to rapidly. Golub (2007) provided a detailed account of the 25-man Magtheridon raid that nicely captured its performative demands:
Because the party will wipe if they attempt to fight both Magtheridon and the magicians, the magicians must be killed in under two minutes . . . Magtheridon will release a dangerous “blast nova” that will also kill the entire party. In order to prevent the blast, players must simultaneously click on the [magicians’] cubes to delay the blast for one minute. However, because a . . . player can only click a cube every two minutes . . . two teams of five players each must take turns . . . Finally when Magtheridon is at [a certain stage] he . . . will begin collapsing the walls of the room. Players must avoid the pieces of falling rock which will kill most of them instantly.
In this encounter, players are required to achieve precise timing in clicking the cubes. They must be vigilant of the magicians’ imminent demise and the point at which Magtheridon will issue the blast nova. Toward the end of the encounter, players perform the duties of their class while simultaneously moving their characters around Magtheridon’s Lair to avoid the collapsing walls. As Golub remarked, “The fights . . . can be quite intense.”
In my own raiding experiences I was acutely aware of the need to perform. During one encounter Scarlet Raven was just learning, the raid leader admonished the raid, “Innikka had demons three times and she survived and she’s a healer!” The comment was a rebuke to more powerful players. Though many had died, I had squeaked by even though healers have reduced power against mobs (demons here) which must be fought, in this encounter, by individual raid members.
Such scrutiny of player performance was deployed to direct and improve performance. Bardzell and Bardzell (2008) observed that a character in a virtual world is known to others through the performance of its actions. A character is “a subjectivity constituted by actions in-world.” (Their use of the word subjectivity is the same as the use of the word subject in activity theory.) A character is not merely an image or static representation but a performance. In Magtheridon’s Lair, either you can click the cube at the right moment or you cannot. There is no way to disguise an inability to Page 57 perform this action precisely and accurately. Bardzell and Bardzell said, “A subjectivity . . . cannot lie; it is as it does.”
The centrality of performative mastery in video games was noted by Kennedy (2005) who reported that the female Quake players she studied used terms such as athleticism, balance, coordination, and taking risks to describe why they liked Quake, a first-person shooter game:
Although it is the avatar that performs these feats of athleticism or coordination within the game space, it is the players’ skill in controlling the interface that shapes this performance. The sense of agency the players experience is doubled; the player experiences a freedom of movement and sense of authority and mastery within the game, alongside a sense of empowerment through their skill in mastering the technology.
Kennedy pointed to the same issues of performance, mastery, agency, and empowerment I discovered among WoW players (see also Turkle 1984). Drawing a further connection between games and performance in sports, Kennedy (2005) reported a comment from a woman who ran a gaming site:
“Women are starting to realize that they have the same abilities in sports— and things like sport—as men,” said Leann Pomaville, a 38 year old former school teacher who runs the girl gaming sites Da Valkyries and Quake Women’s Forum. “Quake is a game where your own personal skill makes all the difference, like in a sport.”
In the same vein, Taylor (2003) observed of EverQuest players that “the actual fight is as much an opportunity to demonstrate the valued qualities of game mastery as anything.” WoW players were deeply attracted to “the competitive atmosphere,” as one player put it, noting that she was fascinated with “learning what strengths and weaknesses your character has against another’s” (Choontanom 2008). Wine (2008) emphasized the “drive to be a good player” in her analysis of discourse on a WoW priest forum.
As in contemporary sports, performance in WoW was expressed in a series of publicly reported metrics (see Taylor 2008). Performance was measured and displayed in tables and logs. The “combat log” was a history of game actions, reporting in minute detail what transpired during a partic- Page 58 ular encounter, including metrics such as who delivered a “killing blow” and how much damage or healing resulted from a player action. Players seeking to improve their performance, and raid leaders critiquing an encounter, studied these logs carefully.
Players embraced performance measures. Going far beyond the tools provided by Blizzard, player-created software modifications computed and reported performance metrics. (“Mods” were available for free download on the Internet and placed in a folder provided by Blizzard.) One of the most popular categories of mods was “damage meters” (see Taylor 2008). Damage meters gathered game data, computed metrics, and output the results in a window. The results could be reported in chat. Meters measured not only damage, but healing and many other quantities related to game performance. The illustration shows a window from Recount, a player-created software modification.
Raiding guilds studied these oracles religiously. Players kept an eye on their own performance, striving to be near the top of the meters. After each raid, Scarlet Raven posted detailed statistical results generated by a program called WoW Web Stats (WWS). These metrics, archived on the guild website, became a permanent part of guild history.
Players’ obsession with gear derived from their interest in performance. WoW required skill, but if two players of equal skill competed the better geared player won. The impact of gear on performance was made plain in reports provided by meters; players could see the effects of the gear they were accumulating. Players often posted questions in guild chat of the form “Is X or Y better?” where X and Y were similar pieces of gear. Guildmates would discuss why a particular piece of gear might be better for the particular player asking the question.
Another series of player metrics ranked performance in terms of guild “progression” through more and more difficult raiding dungeons. Websites such as wowjutsu.com ranked guilds according to progression measured as dungeons completed and bosses downed. Players dedicated to raiding eagerly read these websites. Sean, an undergraduate player I interviewed and got to know as a student in several of my classes, was excited about the “leap in rankings” his guild experienced after completing the Serpentshrine Cavern and Tempest Keep dungeons. Progressing through dungeons “felt fantastic,” he said. WoW was “not a Harry Potter fantasy game,” as he put it, but a site of serious competitive play and performative challenge.Page 59
A member of an internationally known guild, Nihilum, wrote on their website:
Well, storming through BT [an advanced dungeon] and basically putting the smack down like we did killing Illidan [a difficult boss] way before many others would see him dead was probably a better experience than AQ40 [another difficult dungeon] was. God we owned BT! When Illidan died it was an amazing feeling.
Like Sean, who said it felt fantastic when his guild progressed, the Nihilum guild member expressed a release of positive emotion—“God we owned BT! When Illidan died it was an amazing feeling.” “First kills” in World of Warcraft were famously moments of performative ecstasy. Players savored them for days, they posted accounts and pictures on guild websites (see also Golub 2009).
At the other end of the spectrum of performative experience, when a boss or dungeon was under control, players having mastered it, the encounter was said to be “on farm status.” (Farming will be taken up in the next chapter; it referred to game activities lacking challenge.) Players linguistically marked the quality of dungeon experience according to the level of challenge, accenting the importance of performance. When encounters could be handled with aplomb, players engaged them not for performative experience but for loot—with loot, of course, always feeding forward to the Page 60 next opportunity for performance and improving a player’s numbers on the charts and meters.
A further indication of the salience of performance in WoW was player humor. Players made fun of each other’s abilities, joked about how opponents cheated when a duel was lost, or facetiously suggested raiding low-level dungeons. For Alliance players, a running gag was mock discussion of organizing a raid to kill “Hogger,” a level-11 “elite” mob (i.e., difficult-at-level mob). When a player in my guild would ask on a non-raid night “we doing anything?” someone might reply, “get ready for Hogger.” The player-created thottbot.com website contained comical accounts of fictional attempts to defeat Hogger. Players drove the satire home by invoking WoW ’s performative constructs and lingo. Below is the first Hogger post and a few others. The first brief post inspired a cascade of ever more preposterous Hogger stories, some quite lengthy and one with original artwork:
Tried 2 solo him with my 70 hunter, got him 2 65% and i wiped. He hits like a truck.
My guilds current progression [ratio of bosses downed in a dungeon]:
- 12/12 - Karazahn
- 6/6 - Zul’Aman
- 2/2 - Gruul’s Lair
- 1/1 - Magtheridon’s Lair
- 6/6 - SSC
- 4/4 - TK
- 5/5 - Hyjal
- 9/9 - BT
- 6/6 - Sunwell
- 0/1 - Hogger Page 61
- Re: Hogger
- by belegamarth
Even with your guide, we had 2 40-man raids (lvl 80s with tier 12 gear) there and only brought him down to 64%. When he got to 70% he summoned the boars and most of our healers went down. Then he uber pwned us with his paw. One of these days we are going to get that Huge Gnoll Paw . . . As for the water, that sweet succulent spring water, I’ll keep grinding till I get it.
The jokes played off WoW metrics—“[we] brought him down to 64%” and “when he got to 70% [of his health]”—as well as character and gear levels and progression ratios such as 0/1 Hogger.
The Software Artifact
This section turns to the implications of the visual-performative medium as a digital entity encoded in rules. Among games, video games uniquely digitize rules of play, encoding and containing them in a software artifact. As Fron et al. (2007b) observed, “Video games . . . dictate and enforce rules automatically through software.” Taylor (2004) noted, “. . . we cannot overlook the role software and design play in shaping online life.”
In WoW, play was nearly perfectly reduced to performance and mastery of digital rules. Mechanical encapsulation (Kallinikos 2006) established and enforced rules automatically through the agency of the “black box” of software closed to user inspection and alteration. The kind of interpretive flexibility that, for example, a referee or umpire brings to a sport was absent. Mechanical enforcement of rules removed a source of social authority with whom to negotiate and rethink rules of play as they were followed (or not followed) during actual performances of play.
Digital encapsulation curtails (but does not eliminate; see Consalvo 2007) the possibility to engage rules at their margins to gain advantage. In sporting contests, by contrast, players are constantly aware of rules Page 62 they might usefully bend and manipulations players on the opposing team might be planning to leverage. The software artifact’s mechanics permit constant, reliable vigilance and enforcement that give little quarter to ambiguity or interpretation; they eliminate the vagaries of the different personalities and proclivities of human agents such as referees and the impact they might have on the interpretation of the rules. As inscriptions within a machine, digital rules are not established and reestablished in interactions between human agents meeting in a shared space of performance; rules are removed from such influences.
WoW players could not critique or question human judgments about particular instances of play during play, but they could air their concerns and grievances about rules of play on official forums maintained by Blizzard. A different mechanism, then, for moving the game in new directions was in place. Rather than actual performances instigating change, player discourse about performance was encouraged and analyzed. As each new patch was issued, it was obvious that players’ opinions had been considered and their concerns rewoven into the software artifact. The black box was thus breached, although indirectly, through conversations about the game that occurred outside the game.
The dialectic between players and the corporate provider was an important means by which World of Warcraft was altered and refined. However, this set of interactions, and their useful consequences, should not cause us to be inattentive to the force of the software as a designed entity. Activity theory and actor-network theory posit that technology embodies a powerful agency not strictly under human control (Callon 1991; Latour 1994; Kaptelinin and Nardi 2006; see also Mumford 1934; Ellul 1964; Kallinikos 2004,2006,2009).Technology forcefully shapes human activity and invariably entails unintended consequences (Winner 1977).In formulating WoW as a performative medium, I want to draw attention to the importance of the design of the game itself, its potent agency as a particular kind of medium that engaged players in certain kinds of regulated performances.
A revealing instance of the powerful shaping of the game’s design occurred in the wake of the first software expansion of World of Warcraft. The expansion, for which players purchased and installed new software, extended the game with significant content. “The Burning Crusade” added new geographies, quests, and dungeons. It was released in North America and Europe in January 2007 and in China in September 2007. Players Page 63 spoke of “TBC,” as it was known, and “pre-TBC,” indicating its importance as a critical juncture in the history of the game.
The expansion brought the addition of ten levels of play. Players could level their characters from level 60 to 70. The 20- and 40-man dungeons became obsolete. They still existed, but new, superior 10- and 25-man dungeons were introduced. The loot in these dungeons was so amazingly better than the old loot that players abandoned the pre-TBC dungeons (although after awhile some players started conducting nostalgia runs).
TBC dungeons were exciting venues for fresh performative challenges in new visual surroundings. They contained clever storylines, imaginative graphics, and crafty bosses.
All this new content sounds like a great thing. And, in many ways, it was. It enabled players to improve their characters through enhanced loot and to enjoy novel visual-performative events—exactly what I am arguing WoW provides as its core experience. However, amid the happiness was a decidedly negative outcome. For many guilds, TBC entailed a transmogrification of guild social dynamics. Guilds such as Scarlet Raven, in which players had been playing peaceably together for months or years, suddenly fractured into two groups: players who advanced quickly through the new levels and acquired desirable new loot, and players who progressed more slowly and could not keep up with the swift progress of their peers.
The single biggest source of the fracture was a new 10-man dungeon named Karazhan. Acquiring equipment from Karazhan was necessary in order to advance to 25-man content. For guilds going from, say, raiding Molten Core, an old 40-man, to a sudden focus on 10-man was jarring. Only 10 people got a chance to raid. And they all had to perform to a high standard. In good old MC, a few players not really doing their jobs would not wipe a raid. In Karazhan, every player had to know what they were doing and be reasonably geared. The composition of the raid involved a precise balance of classes. On raid nights often there was a single group going to “Kara,” leaving behind many players who had previously been raiding.
An apparently simple solution would have been to start another Kara raid with an additional 10 people. But often the right combination of player classes was not available. Players grew discouraged at not getting a raid invite and would sign up for raids less frequently, exacerbating the problem.
Within Scarlet Raven, considerable disturbance ensued. Incipient guild Page 64 cliques became more visible. Players advancing quickly wanted to play with others doing the same. They expressed irritation at slower or less skilled or geared players. The advanced players did not consider it their obligation to help the slower players, who were described in Scarlet Raven website posts as “less dedicated.” The design change from 20- and 40-man raids with some latitude for error, and openings for nearly all who wanted to raid, to a 10-man raid requiring better performance and precise class composition, generated a situation in which the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Skilled, geared players preferred raiding with skilled, geared players. They did so, getting better and better equipment. Others, squeezed out of the raids, progressed even more slowly.
Not surprisingly, when the “dedicated” were geared and ready for 25-man, they found that having left others behind, they were impeded in their efforts to form a large raid. One solution was to recruit from other guilds. Scarlet Raven recruited successfully, although this action created fresh tensions among existing members. The 25-man raids came onboard much more slowly than everyone thought they would.
A little over a year after the launch of TBC, frustration among the ambitious raiders reached a tipping point. Raid progress had been too slow. Some of the most serious, best-geared players defected to hardcore guilds where they would be assured a rigorous schedule of disciplined raiding. Scarlet Raven tried raiding with those available, but gear limitations made it impossible to defeat new bosses. Within three months of the departure of key raiders, the guild closed down 25-man raiding. Scarlet Raven’s rapid descent from the server’s most successful casual raiding guild (according to wowjutsu.com rankings) to a guild with limited 10-man raiding was wrenching.
Many of the Scarlet Raven players who left had been with the guild a long time and were popular, visible members. They had hung in, waiting for others to catch up. But by refusing to institute a systematic program of helping the less geared, their departure was inevitable—if we understand WoW as a visual-performative medium. The social glue was insufficient to sustain the community building necessary to properly equip enough players to perform in the difficult dungeons. Nor was the simple fact of community adequate to retain geared players. It is a cliché of multiplayer games that players “come for the game and stay for the people.” But relations between game and people must be understood in more complex terms. WoW was Page 65 engineered to require sociability for the most challenging content, but it only weakly developed community as shared commitments and durable social bonds.
It was players’ desire to grab the TBC opportunities to enhance performance and experience new visual content that led more advanced players to push forward with their own progress, altering social dynamics. Hypothetically, it would have been possible for Scarlet Raven to devise a social solution for a challenge imposed by a technological design decision. The guild could have slowly accommodated the less geared or skilled members. But such a solution would have abrogated the logic of the game, which was to perform to one’s fullest ability. WoW was a voluntary space of performative play, not a place in which players wanted to spend hours helping the less fortunate. Efforts to mitigate the disruptions entailed by TBC were difficult to institute because they violated the spirit of free play and the very reason to play the game, which was to perform and see new content—to engage the visual-performative medium. Once the new content was locked up in the 10-man dungeon with its limitations and constraints, and once this dungeon became a bottleneck to other content, guild dynamics altered dramatically.
This powerful design dynamic created what activity theory calls a contradiction. A contradiction is a systemic inconsistency or discrepancy (Engeström 1987; Groleau et al. 2009). Raiding guilds were formed for the purpose of raiding. At the same time, guilds were supposed to be friendly, supportive groups that a player could count on. These two purposes stood in relations of tension with the changes brought by The Burning Crusade; it was difficult for guilds to accommodate both.
The contradiction between raid progression and group support led some well-geared players to depart. On the other end of the gear spectrum, players who identified themselves as “nonelite” also became frustrated and /gquit. For example, one player wrote on the guild website in her good-bye message:
I came into the guild about 7 months ago and was quite aware of the elites versus the non, and I persevered to make my character good enough. I built some great friends and wish them all nothing but good fortune however in all my time here my class captain did not address me even once and even ignored me one day I sent him 3 whispers asking for a good time to help Page 66 me. I read all the forums and did research on my own however sometimes you just need some advice from those who have gone through it. I made myself available for raiding at least 4 times per week and often was called in to fill a vacant spot. I believe I was respectful and tried to help all my guildies when asked.
She ended somewhat bitterly:
I am sorry this was not the type of mature player you needed and again wish you the best.
Thus, one change in dungeon design—a change that had some positive effects—also had a significant negative impact on many guilds. Sean described how he left his guild because he desired “an environment that I want to play in” which he defined as
players that are same skill level as me or better, people who share the same goals of progression, a guild with my friends that I select and who respect me.
He said that in TBC, “I could not do my job”; in other words, he could not perform adequately because less skilled players were unable to raid effectively. He invoked the social: “a guild with my friends that I select and who respect me.” However, the nuances of “social” in this discourse were linked to the performative; Sean wanted to be surrounded by other performers of similar skill level who shared mutual respect for the “jobs” they did.
A Scarlet Raven player wrote sadly on the guild website:
i remember the old guild, the ones who would always be up for Scholomance or ubrs even strat [dungeons] to help people get there gear. this guild was built on helping . . . but tbc has changed all that.
I have spoken with European players who told the same story of post-TBC disruption. (At the time I was in China they were still waiting for TBC.) Scarlet Raven was irreversibly altered after The Burning Crusade. Page 67 The relaxed atmosphere in which guildmates engaged each other in playful player-designed activities and a lot of wacky humor was gone. Pre-TBC, for example, Scarlet Raven had “gnome races” in which guild members created level-1 gnome characters and undertook various challenges (of a very silly, very delightful nature). The guild used to conduct competitive timed runs of one of the old dungeons, Upper Black Rock Spire. (I have fond memories of being on the first winning team in which we did UBRS in 53 minutes.) Such activities, and the guildwide camaraderie that generated them, fell away from the guild.
I left Scarlet Raven in June 2008 for a new raiding guild. My research in Scarlet Raven was extensive enough for the analysis I wanted to do, and I wished to continue to learn from raiding both as a researcher and a player. I kept in touch with friends from Scarlet Raven, and found the new guild through a former Scarlet Raven player. I often checked to see who from Scarlet Raven was online (using a simple WoW command). Usually only a few people were logged in; the guild was on life support awaiting the next expansion. Eventually the guild was dissolved, and players split into two small guilds.
Why did Blizzard institute such an abrupt change? Karazhan was created with the best of intentions—to open raiding to small guilds that could not muster enough players for larger raids. This was, in some respects, a good thing. The Derelict would never have been able to experience 25-man content unless it partnered with another guild, a difficult exercise in coordination undertaken by few guilds. However, the Derelict enjoyed Karazhan. The problem was in positioning a difficult 10-man dungeon as an obstacle for 25-man and in instituting such a change in a context in which many guilds had been raiding with large groups which could no longer easily be accommodated.
The design of a software artifact, then, may powerfully shape human activity. The pervasiveness of the disruption of guild dynamics following the TBC changes, across guilds, countries, and cultures, suggests the enormous directive influence inherent in rules encoded in digital technology. In the next section, I consider the disquiet often aroused by the power of digital rules and ways in which they have been analyzed in the literature. I argue for seeing rules as a potential resource rather than a hindrance to positive human activity.
The story of TBC indicates that we pay special attention to the influences of artifacts on human activity. While it is clear that player experience refigured World of Warcraft in significant, meaningful ways (chapter 7 will address this topic), on balance I argue that the software artifact was uniquely powerful in creating the world experienced by players.
In examining such software artifacts, we turn to their encoded rules which embody directive force, giving designers the tools with which to transmit designed experience. While all artifacts mediate our relation to reality in important ways (Vygotsky 1986), the expressive flexibility of software rules entails not merely mediation—as a hammer mediates our relation to a nail—but the remarkable ability to conjure worlds of participatory aesthetic activity which can continually develop and change, generating historical depth and context. Karazhan was an important moment in World of Warcraft that occurred at a point in time. Through new content embodied in rules, World of Warcraft has moved on and will continue to do so as long as it is a viable commercial product. WoW is thus in some ways like life itself. But it is very much unlike the ineffable processes of ordinary life in that software artifacts can be deliberately constructed and implemented according to strict, articulated design goals authorized by designers. Rules are the vessel in which designers’ intentions and creativity are expressed in a machine-readable format and delivered to a large public.
In the context of this discussion, “rules” are taken as structures in a software program. In digital games, software rules also embody game rules. We might use the term algorithm to refer to the software structure, but for our purposes the emphasis on control connoted by rules is needed (rather than sequencing of instructions).
In his analysis of enterprise resource planning systems, Kallinikos (2004) noted:
The study of technology and its social impact cannot be exhausted at the very interface upon which humans encounter technology. Essential strips of reality are not observable or even describable at the level of contextual encounters.
Kallinikos urged that we examine the qualities of software itself, in particular Page 69 its capacity to direct activity through encoded rules. In studying only “contextual encounters,” we miss the stuff of the artifacts themselves—the powers flowing from their form and function. In essence, Kallinikos says there is something to learn about hammering not from “contextual encounters” involving watching people hammer but from addressing the hammer itself. How much does it weigh? What is its shape? Of which materials is it constructed and why? How does the hammer fit into a human hand? (An analysis certainly more easily done when the hammering is not taking place.)
This line of inquiry would appear to contradict the emphasis in Dewey and activity theory on studying the actual activity of human subjects. However, what Kallinikos noted was that we seem to find it difficult to attend to both the artifacts themselves—with their capacities for mediating activity—and the lived experience of engaging them. Kallinikos observed that in studies of software artifacts examination of the artifact itself is often sidestepped in favor of asserting the importance of user resourcefulness in dealing with the artifact. Studies center on managing software in practice. Analysis often addresses the ways in which people work around the perceived ill effects of the execution of software rules in human activity or how rules are manipulated. Orlikowski (1992), for example, conceived a notion of interpretive flexibility through which workers managed problems created by computer-aided software engineering tools in their organization. Other research celebrates resistance to the power of rules—for example, that of hackers (see, e.g., Consalvo 2007; Jordan 2007)—or ways in which human actors such as game masters (employees who provide in-game customer support) and guild leaders smooth the bumps that invariably issue from the inflexibilities of rule-driven systems (Ryan 208).
Kallinikos argued that such analyses of “contextual encounters” construct a user control that is largely illusory, downplaying or even denying the astonishing capacity of software to call worlds of human activity into being and to sustain, within narrow limits, specific actions in those worlds. While user actions such as devising workarounds or hacking are important, Kallinikos (2004) suggested that the user contribution in a rule-generated world (such as a video game or enterprise resource planning system) “must be attributed its right proportion.” The world created by the rules is huge; user response is relatively small, reactionary in nature, and sited within the framing established by the rules. It is the very rules that give meaning to the activities of hackers trying to break them, to employees finding local solu- Page 70 tions to the inflexibilities of large software systems, and to game masters and guild leaders patching over the rough spots. Rules direct and motivate the activity of these actors, not the other way around. As Kallinikos (2009) observed:
Emerging use of artifacts and workarounds are efforts to reinvent or resist the expectations tied to a technology, and in this regard are inescapably framed by the functions and forms embodied in the artifacts.
To a considerable degree, we are products of our technologies. Kallinikos provides a strong version of this claim:
The agent that acts upon, interprets, or reshapes technology has, to a significant degree, been made an agent by, among other things, technology itself.
At a workshop on “productive play” sponsored by the National Science Foundation and hosted by Jason Ellis, Celia Pearce, and me in May 2008, virtual worlds pioneers Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer touched on the debate, remarking on what they called the “tyranny of emergence.” They observed that we all hope that online communities will emerge in bottom-up fashion from participatory activity, and we approve as participants take whatever technical affordances they are offered and appropriate them to their own ends. But at the same time these veterans cautioned that we cannot forget the “hand of God” that is the software artifact and the power of designers to shape activity (see Nardi et al. 2009). As Kallinikos said, it is the “right proportions” of the relative contributions of users and software we seek to apprehend.
Pickering’s (1995) notion of the “mangle” is a distinctive formulation of the relative contributions of user practice and technology. Unlike Farmer, Morningstar, and Kallinikos, who urged attention to the primacy of software rules and their directive force, Pickering proposed that a mangle—a mélange of user practices, socioeconomic conditions, and technologies—produces experience. This vivid metaphor suggests the entanglement of diverse elements; taking the metaphor at full face value, the conceptual mangle “mutilates” the varied elements it passes over, pressing them into one another.
Engaging Pickering’s notion, Steinkuehler (2006) discussed ways in Page 71 which player practice modulated undesirable effects of the rules in the video game Lineage. She described how high-level players traveled to areas with new, low-level players and repeatedly killed them. As upsetting as this was for the low-level players, such activity was permitted by the rules. In response, Lineage clans (i.e., guilds) organized themselves to periodically sweep through low-level areas to establish order by killing offending players.
Clan action was a resourceful response to a perceived problem of the rules. Following Pickering, Steinkuehler argued that a mangle of player practice and game rules “interactively stabilized” the game world, relieving new players of the predations of advanced players. She observed:
This “interactively stabilized” system (Pickering, 1995) emerged from the mangle of both designed-in technologically instantiated rules and human intentions.
However, it would have been trivial—a matter of a few lines of code—for the game’s designers to change a rule to make it impossible for a high-level player to kill a low-level player in designated areas (as in World of Warcraft). Lineage’s rules were in place to promote a certain style of play. The story of the rescuing clans presumes that we cheer them on as they scour the countryside meting out justice to errant players. But we must also acknowledge the fun high-level players were having pwning nubs—actions Lineage’s designers chose to preserve through the rules. A world in which ganking is possible was precisely the world intended by designers, and it was that world they encoded into the rules.
While “interactive stabilization” is one possible outcome of the function of any system, the mangle suggests that equilibrium is the expected outcome of dynamics within a set of interacting variables or factors. The events surrounding Karazhan did not result in stabilization but destabilization. Notions such as mangles appear to be a small subset of general systems theory, which elaborates varying system dynamics (beyond stabilization) (see Ashby 1956; von Bertalanffy 1968).
The mangle, it seems to me, underplays not only relational dynamics but also temporality. In the account of the Lineage clans, the temporal flow of events is clear. Clans acted in response to realities entrained by game rules. The necessary accommodations, reactionary in nature, followed Page 72 events engendered by the rules. Rules established conditions that made killing low-level players possible, which in turn led to clan posses. I see less a mangled hash of interacting elements in which rules lose their directive force, surviving simply as one element in the mix, and more a temporal progression from rules to reaction.
Paradoxically, the clans’ (re)actions served to reinscribe the very rules whose outcomes distressed them. Lineage’s designers had no need to exercise their power to change rules because the clans instituted a workaround. Clan actions, rather than asserting dominion over the rules, redoubled the rules’ power.
Metaphors such as mangles are useful in calling attention to a heterogeneous mix of practices, economic conditions, and technologies that shape experience. But in the context of digital artifacts, such metaphors may camouflage the outsize contribution of software shapings, imputing, indirectly, a sort of equality between elements. Notions such as stabilization mask asymmetrical accommodation to the power of digital rules. Steinkuehler (2006) described the lengths to which she went as clan leader to ensure that her guild participated in policing low-level areas, including an elaborate rewards system. Rather than a natural merge of practice and rules, practice was forced to stretch and extend itself to accommodate the rules—which remained untouched.
In assessing user response to rules in enterprise resource planning systems, Kallinikos (2004) observed:
Interpretation and local reshaping of the package can take place only within those narrow limits allowed for by the constitution of technology . . . To navigate effectively in the engraved routes of large-scale information platforms entertains the hope (or illusion) of gradually acquiring control over them. (emphasis added)
Attention to the “constitution of technology” is necessary for understanding how we encounter digital technologies. Kallinikos’s argument that we attend to the precise ways in which digital rules shape experience suggests that theories that itemize elements of experience without assessing their relative contributions and particular means of influence (such as the narrow range of possible customizations in enterprise resource planning systems), cannot account for the capacity of digital technology to direct activity (see Page 73 also Taylor 2006a; Fron et al. 2007b). A kind of figure-ground reversal seems to occur in which actions such as the heroism of the Lineage clans, which was a relatively small adjustment to the world shaped by the rules, become emblematic, defocusing the larger shapings entailed by the execution of rules. Kallinikos’s argument indicates a need to rise analytically to the level of the world of human activity created by the rules of software systems, examining, in the large, the quality of experience produced by the rules in dynamic interplay with human action.
Rules May Nurture
It is just that quality of rule-based worlds to which I turn now. Notions such as mangles and interpretive flexibility suggest that, with some effort, the ill effects of digital rules can be managed. A different response to the power of rules is to denounce them as “totalizing”—figuring rules as entities that brook no interpretative activity and restrict the moves a subject can make (see, e.g., Jordan 2007). Based (somewhat loosely) on the work of theorists such as Foucault and Lyotard (1984), the notion of totalizing rules in computer games draws attention to the foreclosure of “metagaming” in which players alter the rules to suit themselves, as we all (putatively) did with Monopoly and other board games ( Jordan 2007).From this perspective, the fact that we cannot alter rules within digital games is troubling. Jordan pointed to the problem, proposing hacking as a solution:
Academic programs in game studies are in the unique position to offer institutional support for hobbyist emulation and ROM-hacking communities, and it is our obligation to utilize the resources of thousands of programmers and gamers in our common goal of reverse-engineering and documenting, recontextualizing, and reworking these products beyond mere objects for consumption.
It is through hacking, Jordan argued, that we may “transform, adapt, and distribute the systems of rules themselves.”
Whether viewing rules as manageable because they can be flexibly gotten around, or declaiming rules locked down and in need of being broken into, both arguments cast digital rules in a bad light. Analyzing World Page 74 of Warcraft invites us to examine rules from a different angle, considering them as resources preserving good design. In WoW, the artistry of the graphics, the excitement and imaginativeness of the quests and raids, the careful progression through increasingly challenging levels of play, the interdependencies of character classes were undeniably grounded in the creativity and ideations of World of Warcraft’s designers. Their labors were caught up in the inscriptions encoded in the software and made available to players in replicable form through execution of the rules.
Anyone who has played World of Warcraft knows how vibrant and present player interaction and negotiation are in the experience of play. I will give an example of such interaction and negotiation, indicative, I hope, of the texture of everyday play. At the same time, I argue that such texturing is largely (though not fully) engineered by the rules, as it was in Lineage.
As noted, when players are grouped and a mob drops a valuable item, players must decide who will receive it. The decision can be highly charged, as a desirable new item invariably and inevitably enhances the player’s abilities (themselves a product of the rules of the game encoded in the software).
In group play, it was sometimes unclear which player was most deserving of an item. In a raid, perhaps a member of an appropriate class rolled for an item but another player of the same class was equipped with inferior gear.It would benefit the guild as a whole were she to get the item.The raid leader might step in and allocate the item to the player who lost the roll but appeared to need it more. Even when guilds used systems in which players bid for items based on points accumulated through raid participation, raid leaders might dictate or suggest that a player who had bid fewer points receive the gear. The point systems, intended to remove ambiguity, were, in practice, deployed flexibly in response to judgments about guild and player needs rendered in the thick of play. Guild leaders sometimes negotiated these matters among themselves in voice and chat chaels reserved for officers. It was not simply game rules that decided the crucial matter of who attained prized gear; complex, occasionally contentious assessments, shaped the process. These assessments, and the negotiations that generated them, loomed large in player consciousness, producing an ambience of constant human interplay.
Player practice shaped loot distribution in another way; under some circumstances, in particular in pickup groups, but also 5-man guild runs, players had to decide whether to cheat. Page 75 One of the game’s mechanisms for allocating loot was a roll of virtual dice by typing the /roll command into the chat window. The odd thing was, players could cheat by using an addon that mimicked the output of the roll:
Zeke rolls 75 (1 — 100)
The player who won picked the item up from the mob.
Cheating could not be detected by other players unless someone recorded a series of rolls and came forward to say that so many rolls in the nineties were statistically impossible. Some players did not even roll; they simply walked over to the mob and picked up an item, a practice known as ninja-ing. Player practice materially figured into loot distribution; it was trivial for a player to defeat the virtual dice or ignore them altogether.
Players could also choose a system of loot distribution in which they selected “need” or “greed” for an item. If the item was appropriate to their class, need would be the correct choice. If more than one player chose need, the system rolled the dice and the player who won would find the item automatically placed in his or her bag. But sometimes players chose need even though another player clearly deserved the item more—another type of ninja-ing. When a ninja struck, a good deal of ill feeling ensued.
One of the most important aspects of play, then—loot distribution— was subject to player intervention; crucial decisions about whether to cheat, and assessments regarding who should receive loot, were shaped by player practice and interaction.
Without denying the centrality of such practices and interactions, we must regard them as materially constituted through the engineering of the rules. World of Warcraft might easily have been designed differently so that a high roll would automatically place gear in bags, or so that classes could not roll on gear they could not use. The design of a game dictates where opportunities for human intervention shall be offered; a hand of God is embroidered into the software. It was not simply player inventiveness that gave rise to the negotiation and sociality that molded game experience; latitude for such player activity depended on specific rules of play. Just as fractious Lineage players were permitted to rampage, so were WoW players afforded means by which to cheat, as well as means by which to share wealth if they so chose.Page 76
Hunter and Lastowka (2004) observed of an early virtual world, LambdaMoo, that its founder, Pavel Curtis,
. . . and the other four [programmers] who worked with him could quite literally reshape LambdaMoo’s heaven and earth, which was nothing more than a database of textual representations and coded rules that governed the objects within that represented space.
Hunter and Lastowka recounted that when Curtis and the programming team came to a point at which they wanted to abdicate responsibility for running LambdaMoo (which became a burdensome responsibility), they realized they could not because the software, which they controlled, was so definitive of participant experience.
The design of a software artifact dominates experience while not completely determining it. This asymmetry of player and software shapings is desirable when good design is encapsulated in digital rules with their capacity to reliably reproduce experience. In the case of video games, invariant execution of rules constitutes a resource for preserving and propagating vision and artistic imagination. World of Warcraft, whose software encoded elegant artwork, clever game mechanics, and support for specific forms of social activity, gave rise to play experience that found appeal to millions of people from diverse national, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. I suggest that we examine outcomes of rules as situated in particular artifacts rather than as a monolithic category, conceiving rules of well-designed software artifacts as neither inflexibly totalizing nor calling out for user remedy but as nurturing, protective, caring.
In WoW, the enforcement of game rules conserved a rich, complex play experience. The design was hardly perfect, and the experiences surrounding Karazhan indicate the troubles that may issue from design decisions, but, taken in the large, World of Warcraft was an out of the park, bases-loaded home run, becoming a de facto standard for multiplayer games according to most any metric we might consult, including sustained player base, formal awards, and (presumably) profitability.
Let us now consider a case in which participants in a virtual world are responsible for its creation and content is not pregiven, locked down in rules, by designers working for the corporate entity. A point of comparison with the highly designed universe of World of Warcraft comes ready to hand.Page 77
We will inspect a virtual world devoid of its own content, dedicated instead to participants’ creations: Second Life.
In Second Life, participants construct content using tools provided by Linden Lab, Second Life’s purveyor (Malaby 2006, 2009; Boellstorff 2008). Malaby conducted extensive field research at Linden Lab, reporting that the design of Second Life was guided by a philosophy of emancipation endorsing whatever creativity might spring from the hands and minds of Second Life “residents,” as they are called. From the beginning, Linden Lab’s ideology centered on the importance of furnishing participants tools to build whatever they wanted (Malaby 2006, 2009).
Launched in 2003, Second Life has had considerable time (in an Internet sense at least) to establish its trajectory. The practical results of the radical freedom envisioned by Second Life’s designers, have been, I would say, mixed. While Second Life contains a rich assortment of diverse activities (Boellstorff 2008), on the whole, participants have gravitated toward creating content devoted primarily to two activities: shopping and sex.
In a world in which people can do whatever they want, the reproduction of consumption as a primary activity is, in my view, a somewhat disappointing turn (though consistent with the larger culture). The prevalence of sexually themed activity is a draw for some but uncongenial to others. Hansen and his colleagues (2009) analyzed the written responses of senior business executives who spent time in Second Life as part of an assignment for an MBA class:
Anonymity is considered a likely contributing factor to the often alarming pornographic activity within Second Life. In the words of a program management executive, “In my 40 years of life I don’t think I have ever run into so many sexually-motivated characters.” Stories of sexually-oriented activity and rudeness abounded in the data. Executives reported a multitude of situations where they were harassed, stalked, and on one occasion, sexually violated. One executive indicated that he cannot see a way to control such activity, which greatly limited any significant conceivable role for the medium in organizations.
Another executive observed:
In addition, even if you filter out mature content, the risqué clothing, skin, Page 78 and parts business is unbelievable, so you are never safe from a flash of some body part while walking through a Herman Miller studio or Coldwell Banker’s HQ.
One executive highlighted the impact this could have on business:
If we recommended our customers to use this site, and they subsequently were propositioned or mistreated in any way, I believe that our reputation would suffer irreparable damage.
In practice, the freedoms cherished by Second Life’s designers resulted in the dominance of certain activities, pushing away other activities into which potential participants, disaffected by the dominant activities, might have entered. This is not to say that sex and shopping are bad, or should be dismissed, but that they constitute a narrow range of experience. Sexually themed activity has a powerful dynamic; its presence in Second Life draws sharp lines between those who will enter a world where it is pervasive and those who will not.
A partial solution to the problem of off-putting content is to pay for private spaces within Second Life that are inaccessible to the general public. Many businesses and organizations maintain them. They serve an important purpose and are integral to the success of Second Life. But at the same time we may view such spaces as a retreat to walled gardens, defeating the ideal of an agora of diverse activities in which we might browse and learn and be enchanted. If participants enter only into restricted areas in Second Life and must stay off the streets, so to speak, the impact of the creativity Linden Lab’s founders envisioned is diminished in its capacity to generate abundant, varied experience.
Malaby (2006) noted another sequela of residents’ activities. Visually, the virtual world evolved into something of a junk heap. Malaby reported that Linden Lab employees complained that Second Life was “ugly, trashy, and junk-filled.” Malaby remarked that
the Second Life built landscape is remarkably variant, with giant advertising signs next to enormous modernist skyscrapers next to medieval castles next to five story dinosaurs next to perfect recreations of art deco gas stations. With no gravitational limits on building, the skyline is cor- Page 79 respondingly unconstrained, and the word that springs to mind . . . is, indeed, “trash.”
Without the gifts of artists to compose the landscape and rules of governance to channel participants’ creations, the ensuing hodgepodge dismayed those who worked at Linden Lab, and even sympathetic observers such as Malaby commented on the infelicitousness of the visual prospect in Second Life.
That some Second Life residents rejected its “trashy” aspect was evident in the practice of residents moving to private spaces in which elements of order and unity were exactly those reintroduced. Malaby reported that one of the first things owners of private spaces did was establish rules. Private spaces asserted “sovereignty . . . to build . . . in a particular style . . . with restrictions . . . and covenant[s]” (2006).
It is perhaps ironic to locate finer sensibilities in a video game centered on killing cartoon monsters than in a virtual world devoted to the creativity of the citizenry. But there is no substitute for good design; a well-designed digital artifact such as World of Warcraft—with its rules and constraints and limits—can be constitutive of a “work of art . . . not remote from common life,” as Dewey said. The design of Second Life—its bid for tools-withoutrules—and the pursuant disorder and disunity, made its public spaces less works of art for common life and more environments that provoked the “lamentations” of its own designers that it was not more beautiful (Malaby 2006).
Second Life is, of course, a digital object with its own software rules; rules per se guarantee nothing. My argument is that digital rules provide a special kind of resource with which good design can be preserved and protected through encapsulation in the black box. In this sense, rules may nurture by providing a safe haven for cultural objects of integrity and excellence. I see the design encapsulated in the rules of World of Warcraft as a work of art—one that gives rise to participatory aesthetic experience, to the remaking of experience and community, as Dewey formulated.
Thus, I view with caution proposals to instigate more player control and “community participation.” Taylor (2006b) suggested that participatory design techniques could be utilized in multiplayer video games for the purpose of “according [players] some power and responsibility to govern their own community and world.” While there is appeal in this idea, Page 80 I believe it is quite difficult to determine where the design of a game such as WoW leaves off and “governance” begins. Obviously players shape game experience, as Taylor (2006b) and others have pointed out and as I have discussed. But I wonder if allowing players latitude in matters such as character design is a workable idea. Taylor (2006b) described a protest that took place within World of Warcraft instigated by players displeased with changes in their characters. She noted that multiplayer games have few spaces for such protests and that corporate entities such as Blizzard do not encourage them.
I am skeptical that those gathering to protest were representative of the millions of people playing World of Warcraft or that there is any way to develop representative political processes within a game such as WoW. I am skeptical that the protesters were better equipped than Blizzard designers to alter character design. I have discussed ways in which Blizzard consulted players. They had their own methods for doing so; it is hardly the case that players were silenced by the corporation.
Methods of participatory design are intended to balance power among stakeholders. Participatory design is deliberately democratic. I cannot speak too highly of democracy as a political system, but artistic production is, to me, another matter; it is inherently singular, anomalous, moving on the edges of culture. It has no interest in balancing competing claims through fairness or compromise, although it is, of course, not immune to influences outside itself.
When I attended the “UI and Mods” session at BlizzCon, I was cheered to hear one of the panelists declare that World of Warcraft was intended to be an immersive experience of a lively visual world in which the mobs are moving, the scenery interesting, buildings and landscape features designed to be woven into strategies for fights. In other words, the gestalt of the designed world was the basis of play experience. The designer said:
Don’t play the user interface, play the game . . . [We want you] to look at the world not the bars.
Another panelist said that World of Warcraft should be “organic and fun.”
In contrast, many player-created software modifications redirected the game, moving it toward a focus on numbers. The interface to these numbers became a central focus of player attention. As with much quantifica- Page 81 tion, numbers rarely tell the whole story, but they become the salient point of contact between actor and world.
I confess I loved Recount. But at the same time, it frustrated me that certain aspects of my healing activity were not represented in its calculations. Recount computed only direct heals, ignoring the mitigation of damage provided by the “shields” a priest can cast or the fact that priests have an ability to increase the armor of the player being healed, also preventing damage. Many guilds chastised players whose WWS numbers were not as high as a class or raid leader thought they should be (see Taylor 2008; Wine 2008). At one point, a (misguided) priest captain in Scarlet Raven declared that I was casting too many “Prayer of Mending” spells, which he had determined by studying WWS reports. This efficient spell did not reveal all the healing I was actually doing because, in the modification that measured heals, healing activity from Prayer of Mending was attributed to the players who received the healing (due to a technical complexity in the design of the modification). The class leader wanted me to move up in the rankings by reducing my use of the spell, even though the spell was beneficial for the raid.
I have seen more and more use of player-created software modifications in World of Warcraft. Mods often push the game away from the gestalt identified by Blizzard as core to WoW play experience toward a world of meters, alarms, shortcuts, and annoying announcements cluttering the chat window. I was forced to adopt the mods Clique and Grid in order to speed my healing to maintain my position on the meters. The use of Clique did nothing but allow me to mouseover to heal more quickly. WoW encounters were designed to allow players enough time to click on a target and then select a spell. (Blizzard did not design a game impossible to play.) My use of Clique was a defensive maneuver in response to the power of player-created meters. Likewise, I was pressured into using Grid, which I grudgingly admit had some very useful features not found in the standard WoW UI, but which also lacked some features (such as the ability to move individual raid group windows).
Golub (2009) argued that mods help players in difficult raid encounters. This is certainly true, but many of the mods players used simply were not needed once an encounter was learned. For example, Deadly Boss Mods (DBM) warned players of impending events, allowing them to prepare and take action. I used Deadly Boss Mods until it stopped working (I tried Page 82 everything to restore it, and eventually did). But for a time I got used to not having it. Golub observed that players used mods like DBM for mobs such as Akil’zon the Eagle Lord who casts a devastating electrical storm that can only be avoided if players run to him. But if a player’s situational awareness is switched on, there is a warning from the game and time to run.
Golub reported that players in his guild used an audio alert mod when battling the dragon Sartharion to anticipate when lava walls rise up and must be negotiated by running to a gap between them. I died several times in the lava walls but became an ace at them in pretty short order. Sartharion was one of my favorite encounters in part because it was so visually stimulating. Lacking mods, I was forced to maintain visual attentiveness.
So, while mods were helpful without question and I see them as critical to player experience, as I will discuss in chapter 7, some mods served to hasten progress in the game rather than to make it “organic and fun.” I would not trade the fun of having gained command of the lava walls for quicker progress in the game, and, indeed, some of my guildmates who used mods got the hang of the lava walls after I did. It is not always the case, then, that “the community” is invariably right; there are competing perspectives on what makes for good play. Although she is in favor of strong player participation, Taylor (2008) observed that
[T]hrough [modifications’] rationalization and quantification of action, they . . . strongly inform (and potentially limit) what is seen as “good play” or what is viewed as reasonable.
In analyzing discussion on a priest forum, Wine (2008) remarked:
The mistakes healers make are some of the most public, and posts in the forums try to head this off by letting priests know the “right way” will be expected of them in a raid.
The limitations entrained by modifications and narrow concepts of the “right way” do not open games to a wider variety of experiences and personal preferences but move to rationalized systems of control. With respect to player-centered governance, we may need to be careful what we wish for.
I am doubtful of the feasibility of participatory design methods in large Page 83 virtual worlds. At the time of this writing, World of Warcraft had 11 million players. These players lived in countries as different as Denmark and Dubai. They spoke different languages and came from diverse cultures. How are we to engage them in exercises of participatory design? While I am sympathetic to the aims of participatory design, its techniques were developed in the context of a specific local culture (Scandinavian trade unionism), and the techniques it devised are accountable to particularities of that culture (see Kensing and Blomberg 1998). There is little evidence that participatory design techniques scale to large multinational, multicultural venues.
The question, then, is how best to sustain and develop communities that spring up in and around video games and virtual worlds. My discussion of design and governance is intended to problematize participant input, to call into question a propensity to see all participant input as an a priori good.
Indeed, the very notion of community must itself be reexamined. It is perhaps not so simple as community = players, when surely community is a complex assembly including, in the context of World of Warcraft, Blizzard and the corporate entities behind websites such as Wowhead.com, from which players derive critical information, as well as advertisers who support these sites.
Developing nuanced understandings of the varying roles of participants and corporations in online worlds is a daunting task. Devising ways to attain dialogue between interested parties remains a challenge, one we will struggle with for some time to come. Productive interchange must reckon with the diversity and complexity of authentic participant experience, the visions of artists who design games, and corporate realities.
I mention a final testament, in the context of World of Warcraft, to the power of a well-designed software artifact to preserve and propagate vision and inspired imagination. The potency of WoW’s artistry gave rise to the player practice of conducting “nostalgia runs” in old, pre-TBC dungeons. Having gained a foothold in TBC, some players journeyed back to old content they had not seen. Dungeons such as the Temple of Ahn’Qiraj and Blackwing Lair, extremely difficult at level, offered imaginative settings and contests players wished to experience. Players whose characters were not geared enough when TBC arrived, or who had not had time for advanced content, went back to see what they had missed. These players could not obtain a single piece of equipment better than that of the Page 84 new TBC dungeons; acquiring gear was moot. Doubling back to the old dungeons was purely for the pleasure of novel visual-performative experience.
Since players were equipped with powerful new gear, the old dungeons provided visual experience for the most part, although players were sometimes surprised at their performative difficulty. They still had to figure out what the mobs were up to and how to defeat them. Some players upped the ante by returning with small groups, refiguring performative challenge by attempting, say, the 40-man Blackwing Lair with a smaller group.
Players’ sustained drive to “see the content,” as they put it, whether in high-end dungeons or quotidian quests, owed much to the care and nurturance afforded by the black box, sheltering, as it did, code in which was registered the desires and visions of talented designers. Empowered through digital technology to call forth complex worlds of human activity, creators of the virtual world preserved their artistry, ensuring its continuance through inscription in digitally encoded rules.
Performance and Participation
I have proposed that video games constitute a unique visual-performative medium, affording—on a massive scale, by way of cheap, commodity technology—visual-performative experience available in the real world in more limited ways. The accessibility of desirable participatory experience has enabled a significant evolution in digital culture with global impact.
Dewey’s notion of participatory aesthetic activity, on which I have relied, is one of many concepts of participation in the literature on video games. Raessens (2005) observed:
Many authors refer to concepts such as . . . “participation” to characterize the distinctiveness of computer games and the media culture that has developed around them . . . [But] these terms are used in various and sometimes contradictory ways, a situation that leads to confusion.
Huisman and Marckmann (2005), for example, suggested that participation must involve “an open dialogue between user and designer.” Unless players are extending a game through their “own imagination,” play activity Page 85 is merely consumption. Huisman and Marckmann observed, “[I]t turns out that [participation] is interesting only when the number of users is limited . . . The smaller the number of users, the greater the influence each one can have.” This formulation excludes World of Warcraft and other popular multiplayer games and seems limiting.
Without exhaustively analyzing notions of participation (see Raessens 2005), let us examine Raessens’s thoughtful construction of participation in video gaming. I will suggest that it has some limitations, while recognizing that it identifies certain critical aspects of participation.
Raessens’s notion of participation is theorized at the action level of the activity hierarchy. He formulated video game participation as comprised of three elements: interpretation, reconfiguration, and construction. Interpretation is figuring out how game rules work. Reconfiguration builds the player’s game world by selecting objects and actions from a fixed set offered by the game. Construction adds new game elements such as player-created software modifications.
These elements of participation were present in World of Warcraft, and they faithfully capture a good deal of the texture of everyday WoW activity. Structural decomposition of participation into its actions, as Raessens has done, is useful and necessary. What is missing for me in Raessens’s depiction is the passion that animated participatory activity in World of Warcraft—the object of activity that imbued actions with intensity and interest.
I began my investigation wondering about the undergraduates’ excitement over multiplayer video games. The actions of interpretation, reconfiguration, and construction, while pleasurable in themselves, were deeply absorbing, not merely momentarily diverting, in building toward something bigger, specifically, the development of performative mastery. Dewey noted that the flow of aesthetic activity moves from “from something to something.” Actions such as interpretation and reconfiguration satisfy in themselves, but at the same time they advance toward an object—a horizon of fulfillment in a larger trajectory (see Kuutti 1998).
In analyzing participation, it is useful to attend to both short and long time frames, as activity theory and Dewey’s conceptualization of aesthetic experience indicate. Ethnographic methods play well with this strategy, mindful as they are to nuances of small moments that embody larger themes, while sticking, over time, with the subject (in both senses of the word) to trace paths visible only as they emerge in their particular temporality. For Page 86 analyses grounded in notions of texts (such as Raessens’s), temporal flows of human activity may be less salient as structural characteristics of artifacts predominate the analytical field of view.
Game design that provides pleasurable means building toward the possibility of a kind of greatness in a player’s personal history produces a compelling form of participation. Sean’s discussion of his choice of guildmates, frustrations with certain players, and elation at progression were indicative of a larger object of continually improving his performance in World of Warcraft. For him, knowing rules, configuring objects, and reconstruction were organized and motivated by the object of becoming a better player. By themselves these actions cannot explain Sean’s attachment to World of Warcraft or the meanings of the game for him. The object of performative mastery imbued his actions with significance and interest.
The Spectacle of Images
I want to end this chapter by looping back to Huatong’s fascination with the druid character type and her contemplation of its varied renderings. Performative activity in World of Warcraft took place in a rich visual matrix. Analogizing video games and sports takes us only so far, lacking, as it does, acknowledgment of the brilliant visual spectacles that constitute contemporary video games.Metrics and competition suggesting sportslike activity tell half the story, but instead of the literal uniformity of sporting uniforms and the plainness and predictability of, say, basketball courts or soccer fields, video games conjure striking visual worlds remarkable in their vivid realizations of unique imagined universes.
In the interviews, players often discussed and evaluated WoW’s visuals. They talked about the game artwork, mentioning colors, character images, animations, buildings, and game geography as important aspects of play experience.
An American player was touched by the animation of a leaf falling from a tree.
Sheryl: I love the scenery. It’s just beautiful, the animals, everything. You know the little leaves that they’ll have falling. Or, like a feather on the Page 87 ground. It’s just like, out of all the things they had to do in this game, they remembered to do a little leaf.
Chinese players commented:
Chen: It seems the game is done with a lot of devotion and heart by its producers and every [visual] detail is elaborate.
Bao: I like the characters, the pictures, the production. And the characters have a vivid performance.
A player in Shanghai said:
Liu: My guild members and I fight the monsters and then we rest and look at the area together. We explore and wander through different areas . . . Looking at the scenery is recreational.
Players conversed about how gear looked:
Herold: Not all AQ40 [a dungeon] sets are ugly, personally I like the leather ones for rogues n drood [druids].
They expressed delight when a new piece of gear (or an enchant) was sparkly, showy, unusual (in a cool way), evocative of the class, or otherwise well designed.
Dimminix: Priest T6 [a category of gear] is HAWT
Players registered disappointment in gear that copied old designs, was clumsy looking, or ugly. It was especially regretful when a piece of gear had “good stats,” that is, powerful attributes, but poor design:
Rigg: man, I hate it when ugly sets have good stats.
The notion of seeing new content alluded to both visual and performative experience, but new content had tremendous visual impact when first Page 88 encountered, bringing forth complex visual worlds no one had ever seen before. Juul (2005) observed:
Most video games . . . project a fictional world: The player controls a character; the game takes place in a city, in a jungle, or anywhere else.
Juul theorized that fictional worlds are, in part, imagined by players who “fill in any gaps.” While agreeing that video games bring forth imagined worlds, my data suggest that these worlds are less a fiction in which players fill in gaps and more a powerful visual experience like viewing a striking landscape—the world is fully realized, and one need only gaze at it.
This emphasis on the visual is not to say that textual representations were not important in World of Warcraft. They were very important—in chat, quest descriptions, character statistics, and other game elements. We might call video games such as WoW visual-performative-textual media, if it weren’t so inelegant. But I don’t think we need do that. “Baseball in elf costumes” crystallizes what brings video games into the realm of the deeply compelling for a vast audience; the marriage of performance and stimulating visual experience impels players to spend long, dedicated hours engaged in activity in game worlds.
We have a handy comparison with which to argue for the primacy of the visual. Text-based role-playing games (such as Arctic or Avalon), while similar in certain ways to their image-rich cousins, never attained the wide appeal of video games. Text-based games utilized similar storylines, offered opportunities for performative excellence, and engaged players with challenges. But despite a core audience of enthusiasts, text-based games have always been, and remain, a niche. The performative element, sans visuals, seems insufficient to enable these games to break into the big time, even though they go back to the 1970s (Jerz 2007). Players today could choose such games, which are cheaper to produce and require less bandwidth, but they overwhelmingly select games with graphics.
The notion that video games are themselves texts, i.e., a form of narrative (see Murray 1997), is another sense in which we may consider the question of textual representation. Games such as A Tale in the Desert engage true narrative; game play changes based on a clever mix of player activity and designer storytelling (see Fujimoto 2005). However, the blockbuster games, including multiplayer role-playing games and first-person shoot- Page 89 ers, are only weakly narrativized as far as play goes. One can play without knowing a shred of what players call “lore.” Contemporary video games utilize narrative, but they are not essentially stories in the way that “narratologists” have argued (see Aarseth 1997).
World of Warcraft was indeed based on a rich textual backstory. In the forests of Tirisfal Glades, the Scarlet Monastery, once devoted to the Light, was conquered by fanatical zealots. The rocky environs of Shadowmoon Valley sheltered the powerful warlock Gul’dan, who transformed the Black Temple into headquarters of the Shadow Council, an organization bent on destruction. Silithus, an insect-infested desert, was home to the fallen Aquiri Empire, whose capital, Ahn’Qiraj, housed a temple sealed off by Night Elves in an effort to prevent complete infestation.
This is beautiful stuff, but I had to look it up on WoWWiki. The lore does not come through seamlessly in play experience as the surface of the visual world does. Some players loved WoW lore and would have known what I looked up. But they were a minority; guild chat almost never mentioned lore while players constantly talked about how their equipment looked and discussed their desires to see new content.
WoW ’s visual world borrowed elements of theater; characters accumulated wardrobes of colorful, fanciful costumes and props and participated in encounters in stagy settings. A cast of fantasy beasts, such as the druid forms Huatong loved, were on display, as well as demons, ogres, trolls, giants, dwarves, and dragons. The costumes, props, and characters afforded direct visual experience that did not require the mediation of narrative or the need to “fill gaps” in an incomplete fictionalized world. Visual elements were intact and complete in themselves. As Andy Warhol said of the importance of surfaces:
If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am.
The impact of WoW’s visual surface was evident in consistent player comments about animations, landscape, gear, and so on—players were sensitive to, and liked the way things looked.
But the visual surface of the game had other important work to do. Players interacted with visual elements with more than gaze; much of what they saw was intended to be interpreted for purposes of play. The visual Page 90 environment contained quest items, friendly and unfriendly NPCs and players, flowers to be picked, ores to be mined, bodies of water to dive into, forges at which to smith weapons and armor. In battle, “line of sight” was critical; players carefully arranged their characters around walls, buildings, and hills so that their spells could reach those they were healing or fighting or to prevent an onslaught of mobs which would be riled if approached “in the open” rather than from behind the safety of a door or wall. Players knew well what the fantasy world looked like from a performative standpoint: where a flag carrier might be hiding in the Warsong Gulch battleground, how to jump from a ledge to a balcony in Blackrock Spire to get to the entrance of one of its dungeons, ways to use the pillars in the Ring of Trials arena to competitive advantage.
Players not only interpreted visual elements; their actions altered the visual world—unlike other visual media such as television or film. One of the most satisfying aspects of play was the impact of action on the world— watching an enemy’s (usually rather comically enacted) death, seeing a raid member appear beside one through the magic of a warlock’s summoning ability, calling forth a “pet” such as a baby wolf or tiny, psychedelically colored bat.
WoW’s design, then, was a kind of theatre in which audience and performers were one. There was plenty to look at, but at the same time, players themselves were onstage. In boss fights, players performed in spaces very much like stages; in some, bosses stood on literal platforms exactly like stages. In others, a confined space such as a cave or library delimited a stage in size and orientation. The Zul’Gurub dungeon, for example, was gaudily theatrical—amid Mesoamerican ruins decaying in a jungle, crocodiles, panthers, tigers, serpents, and giant spiders guarded bosses who, during battle, transformed to huge, powerful animals. The biggest boss was Hakkar the Soulflayer, visible on a high platform as players moved through the instance killing lesser bosses.
It was an exciting moment when players assembled on the virtual stage in anticipation of a challenging fight. The relation of player to play was given literal form in the Opera encounter in Karazhan. A stage manager, Barnes, invites the “audience” of players to watch a play. But when the curtain rises, the characters onstage transform from actors to mobs, attacking the players—who are required to perform to avoid death. The flip from viewer to actor dramatizes players as agents who do not merely watch but Page 91Page 92 themselves act. The encounter subverts pervasive cultural instructions to sit quietly, passively, one’s activity constrained to viewing (recall Dewey’s impatience with high-culture art). By abruptly inverting audience and actor, the directive authorizes, indeed demands, participatory activity.
WoW ’s visual surface, then, did double duty; players could gaze appreciatively at their surroundings, but, simultaneously, the world’s visual features invited players to participatory activity.
Within commodity culture such as television, visual elements lack the capacity to instigate participation. Baudrillard (1983) asserted that mass media produce a “narcotized,” “mesmerized” consciousness of passive immersion in a spectacle of simulated images. Turkle, a pioneering media theorist, noted that with television, “the body of the television spectator is not in the picture” (1984). While television may have its social side (see Jenkins 1992; Mankekar 1999), I believe Turkle’s powerful observation, and the arguments of theorists such as Baudrillard, are generally descriptive of the medium.
In the early 1980s, Turkle began to report the engaged, active experiences of computer users, including gamers, arguing that computers afford an experience in which the (virtual) body is in the picture. Even before Turkle’s work, in the late 1970s an immersive text-based game, Colossal Cave Adventure, generated a cult following. Colossal Cave Adventure established a digital space that described a game geography in words, offering players interesting performative opportunities. The game began:
Somewhere nearby is Colossal Cave, where others have found fortunes in treasure and gold, though it is rumored that some who enter are never seen again. Magic is said to work in the cave . . . You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully. (Jerz 2007)
The game spread like wildfire across the Internet, inspiring such obsessive efforts to solve the game that it is rumored numerous college seniors did not graduate that year as a result.
The entire computer industry was set back by a week. (Rickadams n.d.)
Though tongue-in-cheek exaggerations, these statements indicate the excitement and intensity players experienced in response to Colossal Cave Adventure’s performative challenges—the same excitement that suffuses today’s video games, which reach a much wider audience through their image-rich design.
New text-based games, worlds, and communities continued to develop after Colossal Cave Adventure such as LambdaMoo (Cherny 1991; Mnookin 1996; Damer 1998, 2009), Habitat (Morningstar and Farmer 1991), and the Well (Rheingold 1993), as well as console and arcade games (Hunter and Lastowka 2004; Huhtamo 2005; Malliet and de Meyer 2005). Mass culture, with its accumulation of images, seems quite capable of generating participatory experience; video games afford arenas of activity in which visual experience is unified with active performance. Baudrillard’s fear of the “simulacrum,” i.e., simulation that devolves to ersatz experience, and his rejection of the virtual appear to have been based on too narrow a sampling of virtual media, one that neglected the rapid development of interactive networked media.
Participation in virtual worlds is not simulation but performance. There is no faking performance; it is brutally honest. The software enforcing the rules and the players watching to see whether you click the cube at the right moment compel honesty. Postmodern theory asserted the delusional quality of mass-produced images, but even as those images were proliferating, new means of authentic expressive performance, embedded in vivid visual spaces, were emerging as forms of mass culture.
chapter five Work, Play, and the Magic Circle
Gaming is of course a kind of play. This chapter connects World of Warcraft to long-standing debates about the nature of play, in particular, examining issues of play and its putative opposite, work, that have preoccupied play theory for decades. Entangled in these debates is the idea of play as a magic circle—a protected space defended against the encroachments of everyday life such as work, school, and domestic duties.
Play theorists have struggled to define work and play. While seemingly straightforward notions, when scrutinized, they seem to dissolve into inconsistency and contradiction. I will inquire into play theorists’ notions of work and play, as well as those of World of Warcraft players.The analysis is grounded in Dewey’s broad concept of active aesthetic experience, of which game play is one example, and draws on the work of theorists whose focus is more narrowly on play and games. The discussion maintains a distinction between “game play”—i.e., the performance of a game—and “games” as cultural entities such as hide-and-seek or World of Warcraft. A good deal of games scholarship focuses on games, in particular, their structural characteristics, e.g., Juul 2005. For Juul, games are games whether played professionally or for leisure. That distinction is important for me (as I will discuss). The chapter develops a conception of game play as constituted in part by subjective dispositions toward activities involving the cultural entities we call games.
Work and Play
Dewey contrasted aesthetic activity with the “the toil of a laborer” in which Page 95 the wage is the sole reward. Taking certain forms of play as a kind of aesthetic activity, the contrast implies the traditional work-play dichotomy. While it seems only common sense to suppose that work and play stand in relations of opposition, this opposition has been questioned by scholars observing that, on the one hand, video game players often engage in worklike activities, and, on the other hand, sometimes our jobs can be fun (Stevens 1978; Pearce 2006, 2009; Yee 2006; Poole 2008; Rettberg 2008).
WoW players seemed to agree with Dewey, as well as play theorists such as Turner (1982), Callois (1961), and Huizinga (1950), that play is not work. Early in my research I was struck by the explicit and emotional juxtaposition of work and play in chat conversations and posts on the Scarlet Raven website. The website had a forum thread in which prospective guild members introduced themselves and applied to join the guild. The following messages were exchanged between an applicant and two guild officers:
Hello, I filled out an application pretty recently [and I have a question] . . .
Okay, gotta get back to work
Wait, Myrna. . . . what is this “work” you speak of?
I’ll go google that word.
Im not really sure but . . . but . . . i tell ya, I have heard nothing but bad things about “Work”! If i was you I wouldnt even go there . . .
Arian and Takamu bracketed work by putting it in quotes, setting it outside the realm of the game. The pretended unfamiliarity with “work” indicated its disjunction from play and suggested that it might have a pretty bad reputation. In a similar post, Zaq, a bartender, wrote:
since the date [of the guild event] was moved from tuesday to monday, I won’t be attending. I do that thing called “employment” on monday.
A player preparing for exams for graduate school explained why he had not been in-game much recently. Darkstorm wrote:
just on the off chance that anyone from [my company] is reading this and knows who i am, i was just kidding before about leaving my job this spring. i love working in accounting. i . . . um . . . set up vendor codes. and i ask for w-9 forms. and i . . . um . . . receive them. and write reports about it. what could possibly be soul-crushingly boring about that?! nothing! hoooray for accounting! and hooray for beer! i was kidding about the beer just then.
An uncannily similar piece of dialogue occurred in the opening episode of the popular American television comedy The Office. Jim, a young employee, says:
My job is to speak to clients, um, on the phone about, uh, quantities and uh, type of copier paper. You know, uh, whether we can supply it to them, whether they can, uh, pay for it and, um, I’m boring myself just talking about this.
The Office, based on a British show of the same name, plays on the boredom of work and the stratagems employed by a group of office workers to make it through the day. Many worker/viewers identify with the acerbic portrayal of the tedium of work and its characterization as “boring.”
In describing Scarlet Raven, a guild leader wrote on the website:
Our main priority is to have fun! World of Warcraft is a game, not a job.
A Chinese player said:Page 97
Let the game be a game and not work.
Players commonly gave precise times when they would have to return to work or school, marking the transition out of World of Warcraft and back to real life. Guild chat:
Beehive: well people, i think it’s bedtime . . . gotta be at work in 6 hours, so i MIGHT need sleep if they’re going to get anything outta me. g’night all
Malita: k i have about 10 mins then i have to go to sleep lol school tomorrow blah!
Malita: i have to be up at 5 am, and out at 6 am . . . it’s 10:38 now
It was 1:00 a.m., and a player who had to leave in the middle of a quest typed:
Malinstrife: gtg [got to go] really sorry, i have to be at work at 9
Johan Huizinga, a Dutch play theorist, affirmed Dewey’s distinction between work and play (1950). Huizinga observed that play is “never imposed by physical necessity or moral duty.” In our culture, work, as well as school, are, by and large, involuntary and imposed by a range of physical and moral duties.
But it is also true that shifting subjective boundaries between voluntary and involuntary, work and play, problematize a simple dichotomy. The fluidity of the boundaries is nicely illustrated in chapter 2 of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, “Tom Sawyer Whitewashing the Fence.”
Aunt Polly has given Tom the onerous job of whitewashing a large fence. This task, imposed by moral duty as well as the potential depredations of Aunt Polly’s slipper, has sunk Tom into a “deep melancholy” as he contemplates his foiled plans:
[Tom] began to think of the fun he had planned for this day, and his sor-Page 98
rows multiplied. Soon the free boys would come tripping along on all sorts of delicious expeditions, and they would make a world of fun of him for having to work . . .
Freedom and necessity, work and play, seem to inhabit clear categories. But Tom knows that these categories are open to manipulation precisely because they are subjective. Tom’s rival, Ben Rogers, approaches, mocking Tom.
“Say—I’m going in a-swimming, I am. Don’t you wish you could? But of course you’d druther work—wouldn’t you? Course you would!”
Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said: “What do you call work?”
“Why, ain’t that work?”
Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly: “Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer.”
“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”
The brush continued to move.
“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”
That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth—stepped back to note the effect— added a touch here and there—criticized the effect again—Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:
“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”
With a bit of intersubjective work, Tom enlists Ben, and then the other boys who come along, to whitewash the fence as he idles pleasantly in the shade. Here work and play are disjoint not by virtue of specific actions that are inherently “work” or inherently “play,” but as separable subjective experiences. I see no reason to dispute Tom Sawyer, Huizinga, or Dewey on the subjective voluntariness of play (see also Garvey 1977). Dewey said, “Play remains an attitude of freedom from subordination to an end imposed by external necessity.”
While WoW was a voluntary activity, players experienced certain aspects of play as worklike. The pressures of raiding and the need to continually “farm” materials for raid consumables began to feel like work for some. Farming referred to repetitive actions undertaken to acquire game materi- Page 99 als such as killing the same type of monster over and over again. (The term grinding was also used.)
Both Chinese and North American players reported that sometimes WoW felt like work. Peng, a 24-year-old employee at a small venture capital firm in Beijing, and Chiu and Lefen, two students from Beijing, were guildmates. In an interview in an Internet cafe, they explained:
Peng: Our guild is like a work unit, you belong to a certain team.
Chiu: You have to participate [in raiding] everyday from 7 p.m. to 12 p.m. That feels like work.
Lefen: It is very exhausting to participate in regular guild activities, especially for classes whose task it is to watch the combat for a very long time. Thus, after finishing a guild activity, we are too exhausted for anything else.
Yee (2006) observed that players may “burn out” as gaming becomes too similar to work.
In a gaming context, the nuances of the word “work” were context dependent. When Chiu said raiding could “feel like work,” he expressed a wearying shift from enjoyment to obligation. By contrast, raiders might also experience the preparation needed for raiding and its seriousness as “dedication” or “hard work.” In this context, “work” was energizing and positively valued; it connoted focus, concentration, and empowerment.
“Work” was sometimes invoked in a celebratory mode to acknowledge teamwork and success in performative activity. The Scarlet Raven website posted raid progress:
From 2/6 in SSC to 5/6 in one week! Let’s keep up the hard work!
The guild progressed in one week from defeating two of six bosses in the Serpentshrine Cavern dungeon to defeating five out of six. This rapid progress was hailed as a result of “hard work.” Likewise, after killing Illidan, Nihilum posted on its website:
Half of us don’t realize what was behind all of it. Hard, grunt work. The Page 100 determination to learn this encounter to its fullest extent. The next day— after 3 hours of tries on Illidan, he finally fell, and his cruel grasp on the world of Outland had been released by Nihilum.
Raiders sometimes likened raiding to the seriousness of a job:
When you are raiding, remember that upwards of 24 other people are counting on you to do your job and do it well
wrote one player on the Scarlet Raven website. (Recall also Sean’s reference to “doing a job.”) In describing how he felt about raiding and the preparation required, another player, Jerzey, posted:
My raid time is precious (with family and work), so I invest much into the 1–2 raids I can attend and commit to each week. For this I actually work very hard in my other time, grinding heroics for gear, and getting mats [materials] to craft almost half of my raiding gear.
He ended the long post (of which these sentences were a part) with a comment that underscores the subjective separation of work and play:
I hope that made sense. Wrote this from work . . .
When Scarlet Raven experienced the crisis in which players were leaving for hardcore raiding guilds, the guild master posted:
So where does that leave everyone? People are free to remain here or to go their separate ways if they so choose. If guild is more important than raid to you, that is fine. If raid is more important than guild to you, that is also fine. It’s your game, you choose how you want to play it.
It is rare to have such latitude at work or school. Mandated activities in these settings entail strict schedules and obligations inside of which people have limited room for negotiation or choice. The guild master’s words were not mere rhetoric; players weighed their preferences and desires. Some stayed; some left to participate in guilds structured very differently than Scarlet Raven.Page 101
Dewey captured the paradox of the freedom of play and its coupling with seriousness:
Play remains an attitude of freedom from subordination to an end imposed by external necessity, as opposed, that is, to labor; but it is transformed into work in that activity is subordinated to production of an objective result. No one has ever watched a child intent in his play without being made aware of the complete merging of playfulness with seriousness.
In sum, play is, at the highest level, a freely chosen activity while at the same time opening the potential for worklike results. A notion of freedom must be understood in its social matrix, not as a philosophical absolute. Jerzey delimited three categories of activity he managed: family, work, and play. Family and work entailed serious obligations in which he was enmeshed, while the “precious” raid time was handled as an activity subordinate, and requiring accommodation to, demands of family and work.
Miller (1973) observed that play is characterized by “a degree of autonomy for the actor who manipulates the processes at his disposal.” Vandenberg (1998) noted, “The excitement of play results from the sheer exercise of freedom over necessity.” The voluntariness of play is evident in the relative ease with which people abandon play activities. Players leave WoW (and other games) all the time, making deliberate, conscious, thoughtful choices. A Scarlet Raven player posted the following:
Since a few weeks ago,WoW has been well ...boring ...The hardest part is to say farewell to the friends I’ve made, so I won’t do that until I’ve made my decision.In addition,i’m thinking about giving away my account,so if anyone wants it, send me an email at . . . @gmail.com. Better not to waste 3 [characters] and I wouldn’t feel comfortable auctioning the account on ebay.
The consequences of cutting loose from work and family are much more serious, tied to the “moral duty” of which Huizinga spoke, as well as a great many practical constraints. Freedom in the context of play is not to be taken in a heroic Ayn Randian sense, but certain aspects of contemporary life are chosen; our society is predicated on the buying and selling of “leisure” activities in which corporations compete for discretionary dollars and hours.Page 102
Within play, then, elements of “work” enter in two ways. First, play may manifest seriousness and dedication which players refer to as work. Second, play may demand obligatory actions such as farming that are necessary to accommodate the larger play activity—the activity that players find pleasurable. Dewey observed that few aesthetic experiences are “wholly gleeful”; they require some actions that afford less pleasure than others. It is useful here to analytically separate actions and activities in a hierarchical manner, as activity theory does; a pleasurable activity can proceed even as some of its required actions are, in themselves, less pleasurable.
Huizinga further specified that play occupies a “magic circle” separating it from other activity. He observed that play, as a domain separate from work (and anything else), inhabits its own space or “sphere.” Play is, according to Huizinga (1950):
a stepping out of “real” life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition of its own.
Play takes place within a magic circle into which players move in order to adopt a particular, recognizable set of rules and practices (Huizinga 1950). Boellstorff (2008) noted that crossing such boundaries “can strengthen the distinctiveness of the two domains that [the boundaries] demarcate.”
To summarize, play theorists assert that play is characterized by:
- A subjective experience of freedom
- An absence of social obligation and physical necessity
- A subjective experience that is absorbing, compelling, or pleasurable
- Occurrence in a separate realm sometimes referred to as the magic circle
I add that play requires active cognition and/or physical skill. Juul (2005) described games as requiring “effort.” Malaby (2009) spoke of play as engaging “a readiness to improvise,” indicating active, creative participation on the part of the player. Play happens when the imagination is stimulated, when there is an alertness to the surroundings and sometimes an engagement with physical activity. We may distinguish between, say, a child listening to a story being read and taking her dollies on an imaginary picnic. The activities are not unrelated, but one requires a more vigorous exercise Page 103 of the imagination with the possibility of ending up in new places of the mind rather than more predictable outcomes of a story. Both are valuable experiences but distinctive in their potentials.
This notion of play is very broad, descriptive of many activities. Game play is a specific form of play, involving all the elements of play and three additional elements: contingency, rules, and “limited perfection.”
Huizinga observed that game play “brings a temporary limited perfection” through activity that involves “uncertainty” and “chanciness.” Players want to “achieve something difficult, to succeed, to end a tension” (Huizinga 1950). The notion of limited perfection recalls Dewey’s emphasis on the satisfying completion of aesthetic activity, but specifies a relation to contingency (“chanciness”). Callois (1961) also emphasized the importance of “chance” in games. Garvey (1977) remarked:
A game has a clear beginning and end, and its structure can be specified in terms of moves in a fixed sequence with a limited set of procedures for certain contingencies.
Malaby (2007) noted that games provide “contrived contingency.” A game establishes a table of contingencies in which players take their chances, through skill and/or luck, to attain a desired outcome. Contingency is necessary for the activity to be playfully interesting and for the gratification of limited perfection that apparently satisfies psychological needs (Huizinga 1950). Play involves a “contest for something,” resulting in activity that is “absorbing” (Huizinga 1950), “compelling” (Malaby 2007), “fun” ( Juul 2005), or “pleasurable” (Miller 1973; Taylor 2003; Hayes 2005; Kennedy 2005).
Game play is characterized by:
- A subjective experience of freedom
- An absence of social obligation and physical necessity
- A subjective experience that is absorbing, compelling, or pleasurable
- Occurrence in a separate realm sometimes referred to as the magic circle
- Activation through cognitive and/or physical skill
- Opportunities for limited perfection
This characterization draws on the work of several theorists. While I believe it is descriptive of World of Warcraft, as well as the game play familiar to most readers, whether baseball, bowling, poker, pinball, or Pong, we do not have sufficient cross-cultural data with which to assess whether such a characterization describes play in every culture or even whether every culture has a concept of play (see Malaby 2007). However, I think it tenable to argue that game play is an identifiable human activity whose structure includes both subjective dispositions, such as a sense of freedom, and specific cultural constructs such as rules. Game play is complex precisely because it comprises both subjective dispositions toward activity and concrete, culturally defined elements. Attention to the subjectivity of play is particularly important; the formal characteristics of games, such as contingency and rules, are not the same as the activity of game play. Participating in a lottery to be selected to receive a Green Card (which establishes certain rights for foreign visitors to the United States) involves rules and contingency but is hardly play; getting—or not getting—a Green Card may have extraordinarily serious consequences for individuals and families. One would choose to just get a Green Card if one could, not to enter a space of contingency through a lottery with an uncertain outcome.
How do game play and active aesthetic experience relate to one another? Neither fits neatly within the other; they crosscut. Dewey’s notion of aesthetic experience, while broad, does not subsume all game play. It incorporates two elements missing from a baseline definition of game play; aesthetic experience involves a collectivity and it is phased. Game play should include a game such as Solitaire, for which a significant collective element is absent, and it should include playing slot machines, an activity with a simple repetitive structure. We must, then, stretch across two related theoretical approaches to understand the activity of playing World of Warcraft, seeing it broadly as aesthetic experience and more narrowly as a kind of game play.
With these conceptualizations in mind, let us return to the WoW players and their discussions of work and play. The explicit separation of work and play in player discourse is especially notable in light of the sizable numbers of students and working-class people playing World of Warcraft—those most likely to be confronted daily with boring, insufficiently rewarded activity. Player discourse expressed a desire to “step out” of “real life” as, in part, a response to the boredom of school and work embodied in their lack of both Page 105 playful and aesthetic elements. At the end of August, as school approached, guild chat featured laments about the impending doom such as:
Leorith: night ppl [people] c u [see you] after the first day of hell i mean skool
A Chinese player said:
When I stopped playing WoW because of my exams, I felt like I did not want to stop. The way of playing is very creative.
Darkstorm called his job “soul-crushingly boring.” Nylere, a druid in Scarlet Raven, wrote on the guild website:
I am stuck back at work, and it’s blessidly quiet enough for me to do some research on becoming a better [player] . . . I found the following page to be incredibly helpful and by far the most comprehensive so far [http://elitistjerks.com/f31/t17783-druid_raiding_tree/]. It even goes into gems, flasks and enchants! (. . . I am bored, lol!).
Nylere, who was employed in a low-level job so undemanding that she had time to surf the Internet, became absorbed in the “incredibly helpful,” “comprehensive” website about her character class, druid. She juxtaposed the action of studying the website to being “stuck back at work” and “bored, lol!” Her statements separated work and play, consistent with other players’ characterizations. Even though she was “at work,” she removed herself through immersion in the gaming website. Her actions demonstrated the dedication and seriousness of play as she did “some research on becoming a better player,” delving into the particulars of her character’s options for “gems, flasks and enchants!”
A guildmate indicated that he was not afraid of homework as long as it was interesting:
Carloh: i do more homework for wow than I do for school lol
Another player, surreptitiously reading humorous posts on the Scarlet Raven website while at work, wrote:Page 106
And I am now laughing so hard I’m drawing stares from the other cattle in the cube farms . . . I’d better stop.
The bleak image of “cattle in the cube farms” is a devastating comment on modern workplaces, making a desire for vivid, challenging play spaces unsurprising.
Darkstorm’s account revealed his work as entirely routinized, without contingency or challenge. While not all jobs are as boring, many do not provide regular, orderly satisfaction of needs to succeed at something difficult. Activities at work and school not only fail to yield perfection, they are cessations not consummations, as Dewey said—activities in which the actions needed to attain ends are not in themselves absorbing or compelling.
The activity of “gold farming” nicely exemplifies the riddle of work and play. Gold farmers play World of Warcraft (and other games; see Dibbell 2006; Steinkuehler 2006) as a job, generating game gold to sell for real money (Dibbell 2007). But are they playing? I argue that gold farmers are not engaged in the same activity as players who voluntarily play for what they call fun. Game lingo reflects this disjuncture; the very term gold farmer is intended to establish a firm boundary between ordinary players and gold farmers.
Gold farmers may find gold farming preferable to other work that their education would enable them to obtain (Dibbell 2007), but that does not mean they are playing. As with the Green Card, it is useful to distinguish the formal characteristics of cultural constructs (such as World of Warcraft) from a more complex entity identifiable as play involving a subjective disposition yielding absorbing or compelling activity. Dibbell reported that the Chinese gold farmers he interviewed were entirely focused on farming— during 12-hour shifts they repetitively killed the same monsters. Farming was not subordinate to other exciting game activities; it was all the gold farmers did. Confinement to farming activity was, of course, not the pattern of normal World of Warcraft play among gamers.
Gold farmers worked “twelve hours a night, seven nights a week, with only two or three nights off per month” (Dibbell 2007). It is difficult to interpret such a pattern of activity as playful. Dibbell reported that gold farmers sometimes played World of Warcraft as a leisure activity after work. While the lack of leisure time in the gold farmers’ schedule makes this a surprising claim, assuming that at least some gold farmers played WoW Page 107 after work, Dibbell’s story of a gold farmer known for after-hours play is telling—the player did not farm after his shift, but enjoyed difficult dungeons, testing, and showing off, his performative abilities.
Professional gaming appears to blur the lines between work and play. Work that is subjectively experienced as deeply pleasurable may merge, at least sometimes, with play. Paid work, however, tends to rapidly develop strong elements of obligation—obligations to make money, to be accountable to interests such as corporations, universities, advertisers, or family members, and obligations to be performed at certain times and in certain places, with constraints imposed by others. I continued to be impressed by WoW players’ self-determination in deciding if, when, and how to play World of Warcraft—something rare and difficult with paid work.
Rea (2009) discussed gaming in Korea, including its amateur and professional aspects. He noted:
The Korean language encodes a strict conceptual boundary between what counts as “work” and “play.”
Gaming was unambiguously identified as play, but some young players aspired to gain paid work as professional gamers, who are celebrities in Korea. Rea designated the activity of these young gamers “aspirational gaming”—not yet paid but directed toward the object of professional status and high income. Rea (2009) observed:
In order to hope to become a pro-gamer, one must begin honing one’s skills early and invest a considerable amount of time practicing, often in PC Bangs [Internet cafes]. I call this phenomenon “aspirational gaming,” meaning that it indeed does count as “work” in the Korean context because it is an activity performed by those that aspire to become professionals.
The actions of gaming were the same for aspirational gamers as for any young player, but their disposition toward gaming activity was markedly different, oriented toward the object of professional play. Rea observed that aspirational gamers had a clear object in mind; they were keenly aware of the rewards of a life as a professional gamer:
Professional gamers, recruited from around the country usually through Page 108 success in local tournaments sponsored by PC Bangs, can make six-figure salaries and receive corporate sponsorship and room and board from the leagues they join. The top pro-gamers occupy celebrity subject positions similar to music and movie stars and are even seen as sex symbols by Korean youth.
For some Korean youth the object of going professional, expressed in a vivid scenario of life as a pro, moved gaming from play toward a form of education in preparation for a specific kind of work and career.
A Partial Separation of Play and Not-Play
The notion of a magic circle asserts that play is separate from the rest of life. Malaby (2007) suggested that play is “relatively separable from everyday life” (emphasis added). Taking up this more qualified notion, I will discuss ways in which WoW game play impinged on nonplay and vice versa. Malaby reminds us that play has consequences outside itself and cannot, by definition, be entirely separate. Castronova (2005), for example, examined ways in which activity in virtual worlds extruded into the economy and polity outside the worlds, such as people selling characters on the Internet or litigating issues related to game activity. Play does not, and cannot, exist in an imperturbable magic circle; it is always in dynamic relations of tension to other activities in which a player might engage. Play is calibrated against competing activities, as we saw in Jerzey’s accounting of his time. Play is linked to the demands of the body, to others in the player’s social environment, and to notions such as work, which it partially defines. Let us examine how these links were manifest in World of Warcraft.
WoW was so absorbing that it was sometimes difficult to find time to eat, drink, and go to the bathroom while playing. When these activities became urgent, players typed “bio” into the chat line, a signal that collaborative play must cease for at least a few minutes while the needs of the body took precedence. The mind encased in the body came into play as well. Game activities entered the conscious and unconscious mind outside playtime; players said that they daydreamed about WoW when not playing or dreamed about it at night.
Game play was entwined with the demands of others in the player’s Page 109 social milieu. Players spoke of “spousal aggro,” or “family aggro,” metaphorically invoking the term for the game mechanism by which monsters are engaged in hostile interaction. In the context of family and friends, aggro signified that play might be interrupted by the needs of others who were not-playing, and who might evince a certain level of hostility. In the wee hours one evening, a player in The Derelict who had laboriously assembled a pug had to leave shortly after we began to play.
Gork: sorry guys, gotta go. gf [girlfriend] pissed
In a more positive vein, Sutton-Smith observed that play may result in “adaptive potentiations” in which people take vocabulary, practices, and attitudes from play into other arenas of life (1975). We form the “A Team” at work to tackle a difficult problem or use sports metaphors to describe our actions or urge people to adopt a “winning attitude” (see Dutton 2008). Sutton-Smith argued that differentiated spaces of play encourage potentiations to emerge. People enjoy opportunities to “step out,” to be creative, to think outside the box, to experiment, to fool around with doing things differently.
A website in which players discussed how WoW linked to the rest of life included the following post showing a way in which WoW game mechanics could inform personnel management practices:
When I was assigned to an HR [human resources] project in the company I work for, I noticed how WoW can be useful in real life. After much debate, we realized we could structure our career plans as talent trees on WoW—as people studied and made progress, they would improve certain “talents” that were linked—so after being considered fully prepared in a certain “talent”, a person could pursue two or three different specialization paths related to that talent, with an increasing salary the “deeper” that person went in one of the trees. They could also go for a “hybrid build”, incorporating talents from different trees. Career choices became pretty much like deciding if you’re going to be an Elemental/Enhancement/Restoration or Hybrid Shaman!
Since WoW is a big hit among the people who work at this company, everyone quickly understood the concept and what they needed to learn in order to evolve and grow within the company, and where they could Page 110 eventually get if they invested their time and effort in developing certain talents.
The only hard part was convincing the “conventional managers” that they would have to respec in order to understand these new ideas ;)
Posted at 9:35AM on Jun 14th 2007 by Kabbalah (Schramm 2007).
Talent trees allowed players to specialize a character by emphasizing and strengthening certain abilities (Choontanom 2008). Kabbalah formed a creative link between game mechanics and workplace needs in imagining how talent trees could be used to structure employee advancement.This is a striking example of taking a game construct—a talent tree—and transporting it to a new arena of activity. Such transposition embodied a cultural critique of an existing practice; Kabbalah not only examined current practice and saw that it could be improved, she called out “conventional” managers in need of “respeccing” if they were to see the larger issue her suggestion addressed. In this way, play may be subversive, moving to arenas in which its modes of activity suggest new ways of acting (see Turner 1982).
There is another sense in which we may argue that work and play are only partially separated. Conceptually, work and play are linked; as opposites we use them to define one another. Does this opposition come into play in active relations between work and play? How does one affect the other? These are complex questions, but I believe farming in World of Warcraft entails an interesting interplay between work and play. I focus here not on gold farming but the native player practice of farming.
As noted, farming boils down to a lengthy set of repetitive actions with little contingency. (Juul 2005 observed that such actions are often part of games.) Killing mobs to gain gold or specific items dropped by mobs (typically needed for crafting), or repetitively collecting resources such as herbs or minerals, are typical farming activities. A close synonym in game lingo is grinding—suggesting the onerous nature of the actions.
Farming could take hours and hours of playtime. I once spent nearly six hours (not at a stretch, thankfully) collecting materials for a set of gear used to fight only one boss, a powerful gal named Mother Shahraz. During this time, Innikka did not die once; she simply flew around Shadowmoon Valley on her mount, swooping down to extract motes of shadow (the required element for the gear) when they appeared on a little map in the corner of the screen.Page 111
Given that players agree to undertake such activities, some researchers have suggested that repetitive actions in video games (not just WoW) constitute preparation for the work world. Yee (2006) remarked:
. . . video games are inherently work platforms that train us to become better workers. [T]he work being performed in video games is increasingly similar to actual work in business corporations.
Poole (2008) observed:
[Games] hire us for imaginary, meaningless jobs that replicate the structures of real-world employment . . . If games are supposed to be fun . . . why do they go so far to replicate the structure of a repetitive dead-end job?
Rettberg (2008) asserted that in players’ “subconscious capitalist minds” farming is an expression of the “Protestant work ethic” and, moreover, a “sustained delusion” that play equates to work.
I was puzzled that so many World of Warcraft players spent so much time farming and did not complain very much (given that player forums were replete with grievances about minutiae such as the color of the glow of a weapon enchant or the degree to which pieces of armor coordinated visually). The sheer boredom of farming and players’ acceptance of it were surprising. Chinese players, too, commented on farming; they used the evocative term “brushing” to connote the execution of small, simple, repetitive game actions.
But from the players’ point of view, farming in World of Warcraft was a logical activity undertaken for well-defined ends. Players wanted to acquire materials with which to craft equipment or enchantments or make gold with which to buy these items in order enhance performance. We might ask, though, why such an activity was part of the logic of the game at all. Why did Blizzard include so much farming as part of World of Warcraft? I cannot agree that video game companies have taken it upon themselves to train us for the workplace. Is farming in WoW like being a bank teller or checking groceries or performing secretarial work? If there is a move on the part of game corporations to prepare us for capitalist jobs, such a claim needs to determine for itself how it can be substantiated, how it can be more than a moment of radical mischief.Page 112
Rather than games as training grounds for the workplace, a more straightforward explanation is ready to hand, at least for farming in World of Warcraft. Farming was woven into the game as a design element to provide game content at a cost that increased corporate profit margins. Farming slowed players so they did not rip through months of careful content development in a few days or weeks. Blizzard’s incorporation of farming reduced its need for development by inserting a necessary but time-consuming activity into the game that kept gamers busy. Blizzard did not want to create so much content that the game’s scope became unmanageable (such as having 250 levels and items that offer +10,000 stamina). Farming said to players, “All right, you want to be marginally better (enough to pwn them!) than the other players on the server? You want something in return for the hours and hours you put in? Okay, you can get that extra little bit, but it’s going to cost you. Go farm.” This allowed ambitious players to work hard for an edge.
That Blizzard wanted to slow players was pervasively evident throughout the game.Travel times across the game geography were egregiously long. Blizzard must have received player feedback on this issue because I heard players complain about it often, but Blizzard steadfastly required players to laboriously travel long distances. At one point I established a set of metrics for myself involving how much housework I could get done while traveling from one spot to another. For common journeys on mounts that delivered players to their destinations without the need for player control, I could, for many travel paths, unload a whole dishwasher full of dishes, gather up and put in a load of laundry, and take one out of the dryer. That seemed like too much work accomplished while “playing.” There were many other mechanisms to stretch out game play such as “cooldowns” on crafting activities, which required players to wait a day before a new item could be crafted (or even longer to “discover” new crafting recipes). Blizzard altered the timing on certain actions in professions such as mining and alchemy (e.g., how long it took to mine a node), so I know they were paying attention to player feedback. But these were reductions in seconds, not minutes as with travel.
While Yee’s statements about relations between game play and capitalist labor were broad claims about video game companies’ inclinations toward repetitive activities, Poole (2008) was more direct in attributing conscious purpose to the inclusion of these activities, calling them “a malignly perfect Page 113 style of capitalist brainwashing.” Even allowing for rhetorical flourish, such provocative words indicate something very wrong with farming. Rettberg’s notion of a “sustained delusion” suggests a major hoodwinking. While I share the interest these investigators have put forward in drawing attention to the surprising appearance of repetitive activity in video games, I have come to see farming in World of Warcraft as an activity with its own potentialities and affordances, meaningful inside the magic circle.
To think about farming, let us consider a conception of play as a complex activity expressive of a duality in its relation to ordinary life. Turner (1982) theorized play as underwriting cultural norms and, at the same time, providing an arena of potential cultural critique (see also Sutton-Smith 1975). Play may both conserve and reject cultural themes outside itself, and is powerful precisely because it affords grounding through a capacity to reproduce the familiar while simultaneously yielding the potential for transformative activity.
Farming in World of Warcraft transformed the pervasive, familiar cultural experience of boredom—which we all undergo, to varying degrees, in school and at work—into one with positive valences. It allowed players to confront anxieties about boredom and recast and reshape them in a context where they were played out and resolved differently than in ordinary life. In the everyday world, boredom is frequently an isolating, frustrating experience. The end result of perseverance in sticking to necessary but boring activities is too often an inadequate paycheck or report card or just another load of laundry. The culmination of farming in World of Warcraft, on the other hand, yielded a meaningful, exciting reward. A new piece of gear or an enchantment emerged as the product of the tedium, advancing a player in the game and enabling measurably better performance. (And it might be sparkly, too!) The reward directly addressed a player’s object of performative excellence and continual striving to “improve yourself,” as Mark put it.
The acquisition of the reward—certainly a moment of limited perfection—was also a moment of social consequence. Other players offered congratulations, remarking on the attainment of the new gear in a spirit of shared celebration. In a raiding context, farming mats (materials) was a social obligation. For some encounters, success depended on players acquiring specially crafted gear, as with Mother Shahraz. I once mailed assiduously farmed mats to a player who could craft them for me. He returned the crafted gear in mail with a message saying, “Way to be on top of the Page 114
Note Stamina in Base States in the box on the bottom left. Stamina is an important stat for warriors.
The warrior adds +3 stamina by equipping the Knight's Gauntlets of the Bear, replacing the Sentry's Glove of the Monkey.
Players were required to come to raids with “consumables” such as elixirs and potions. As long as a player was raiding, there would be no end to farming. It was laborious gathering the materials for every raid, but again there was often a social payoff. Players exchanged potions, elixirs, food, and other enhancements to performance, developing exchange partners or becoming known for having unusual recipes or always being stocked up with appropriate consumables to share. The Fish Feast was a nicely communitarian expression of farming; players who fished and cooked could prepare a group meal, providing raid buffs, and a Fish Feast invariably appeared at appropriate moments during raids. Behind each feast was a player who had spent time in one of the game’s most repetitive, least challenging activities—fishing.
Repetitive actions in other domains rarely entail excitement and sociality; they tend toward boredom and isolation (housework, homework worksheets, bureaucratic paperwork). In World of Warcraft, the narrative and goals of the game world bound people in a shared fantasy in which repetitive actions could be generative of positive meanings and emotions. Within the magic circle, with its distinctive rules and stories not strictly accountable to everyday reality, the flax of boredom was spun into the gold of social capital and emotional wealth. The nuances of farming in World of Warcraft extended beyond the fact of its boredom (and a superficial appearance of being just like boredom at work) to its role as a resource deployed in performative development, the satisfaction of sharing in groups, and bonds of collective experience.
Miller (1973) noted that Freud believed fantasy to be “a tool for coping with the frustrating but uncontrollable events that are concomitants of life in society.” Gaming may allow players to take up the challenges and disappointments of contemporary life that eat away at all of us, working through them in fantasy. Rather than “brainwashing,” repetitive player activity suggests a process in which boredom is confronted and transformed in the hospitable environs of a game world. The game conserves socially valued qualities such as perseverance—which players must exhibit in order to Page 116 undertake repetitive activities like farming—while at the same time suggesting the fundamental inadequacy of the typical rewards for such perseverance. The often disappointing results of sticking-with-it in real life are critiqued; a deflating end to long toil is eliminated, replaced with rewards that delight, enhance, and create social cohesion—bright, glowing things moving players forward in the logic of the game.
The Magic Circle
We have examined several ways in which game play articulates with other arenas of activity; it is not a sequestered activity walled up in a magic circle. But, from another perspective, we must revive Huizinga’s notion of the magic circle in its fullness. The magic circle is expressive of one crucial aspect of play; the meaningfulness of play is bound within the activity of those who actually play. Miller (1973) observed:
Someone who is left cold by baseball wonders what someone else can see in hitting a ball with a stick and running around in a circle to his starting point.
Every WoW player has had the experience of friends and family who do not understand why he or she gets so excited about a video game. From outside the magic circle, we see a person staring at a computer screen, perhaps clicking furiously. The enticements of the game are invisible. Within the magic circle, it’s a different story. A player is developing a character, interacting with guildmates, descending into difficult dungeons, exploring new landscapes, watching the (virtual) starry night sky.
Huizinga (1950) observed that the magic circle entails a feeling of being “apart together”; it creates its own collective social order—one from which nonplayers are excluded. The meanings to do with game play are created within a play world and are legitimate and coherent only within that world. Interpersonal “aggro” in one sense breaks down the magic circle by forcing players to attend to activity outside it, but in another sense such aggro is the very realization of the separation of players from those not-playing. Non-players are apart from the world in which a player’s actions are sensible, interesting, compelling, meaningful. The non-sense of the game viewed Page 117 from outside sometimes generated agitation, annoyance, even anger. One of my guildmates typed into guild chat:
Bagdieb: i may be a tank, but i still can’t handle gf aggro.
The ubiquitous use of the term “escape” to describe WoW play alluded to its separateness. Players mentioned such escape in interviews, and I saw it in chat. For example, a member of the U.S. Army with whom I played remarked in party chat (not in response to an interview question):
the game is escape, a great stress relief even my company commander plays lol he is a gm [guild master] for a guild on another server.
Salen and Zimmerman (2005) noted that entering the magic circle means making a commitment to play; such commitment is intelligible only from the player’s point of view. “Without the magic circle, the actions of the players would be meaningless,” they observed.
The social order manifest in the magic circle is constituted in (at least) three ways: through knowledge about structures and activities that occur inside its enclosure; in specialized discourse; and in designated spaces of play that mark and confine it. The following are some examples from World of Warcraft.
At the “UI and Mods” session at BlizzCon, the user interface design team assembled to discuss design philosophy and take audience questions. The room was packed with hundreds of people. During the Q& A, a player stood up and said:
I’m a hunter and for the love of God can we get the quiver off the bag space?!
The audience erupted in raucous applause. Only WoW players would know what the question meant, why a roomful of people would break into cheers on hearing it, and the reasons why a player might invoke the love of God with respect to a change in the user interface of World of Warcraft. (The player referred to space taken up by the hunter’s quiver, space normally used to hold another bag.) Arcane knowledge is shared inside the magic circle; it defines play activity and separates those who know from those who don’t.Page 118
Collective order in the magic circle is expressed through knowledge of the rules of the game. In the previous chapter I argued that rules can be seen as a resource. Schechner (1977) described rules as another kind of resource, observing that the rules of a game are designed to defend the activity against encroachment from the outside. The rules in part establish a magic circle; they create a model world of permitted behaviors. To be part of the world, players must develop knowledge of the rules.
The collective social order is pervasively apparent in player discourse; semantic and syntactic conventions reflect the specialness of play inside the magic circle. (When I first started playing WoW I felt I was deciphering a code.) Here are some utterances I collected from WoW battlegrounds (contests in which teams play games such as capture the flag):
- mage table plz
- drood buff ftw!
- help fc
- omfg get out of mf!
- f*ck st —- get bs
- ZERG AS
Such utterances were meaningful to a WoW player; these particular requests expressed actions needed to move collective play forward in ways deemed desirable by the speakers. The utterances are incomprehensible to those who do not play and are, as Huizinga said, apart from the playing of the game.
A collective order is realized in enclosures within which play occurs. Huizinga (1950) noted that activity that involves repetition in a limited space, such as a playground, creates its own order, generating a logic comprehensible only within its boundaries (see also Garvey 1977). Of course physical enclosure is not always necessary; as Juul (2005) observed, people play chess by mail. But it is undeniable that we gravitate toward play spaces ranging from constructs such as dollhouses and model trains (carefully laid out in their own reserved space) to the grand swatches of natural land appropriated for golf in medieval Scotland.
Not only did World of Warcraft provide a large, highly elaborated game geography, but a particularly striking feature was “instanced” play—a magic circle within the magic circle. Instances, in which players entered zones Page 119 inhabited only by a formal group (a party, raid, arena team, or battleground team) were distinctive enclosures productive of powerful play experience. Players encountered instances early in the game, and they were central to WoW’s design. Raiding dungeons such as Serpentshrine Cavern were instanced; it was impossible to even enter them unless grouped.
One of my most frustrating early experiences was a quest in Teldrassil, island of the Night Elves, which required descent into a burrow inhabited by members of the ferocious Gnarlpine Tribe. The quest involved navigating a cave of narrow, twisting tunnels wherein lurked a bewildering number of closely spaced Gnarlpine furbolgs. Unlike the beautiful scenery outdoors, the Gnarlpines’ dark, depressing den seemed broken down and shabby. Mushrooms sprouted, tree roots pierced the space from above, worn beams supported the dirt framing the den.
What was this abrupt shift from the lyrical landscape of Teldrassil to the damp darkness of the underground den? Over time I learned that such underground spaces were set-piece stages for critical encounters in World of Warcraft. The early quest with the Gnarlpine was not actually an instanced dungeon but an experience prefiguring instanced play, requiring descent into a confined, occult space. Later I would spend a good deal of time swimming to encounters in watery caverns, traversing the partially buried earthen remains of an ancient city, extinguishing fires within a sunken temple, battling orcs in the depths of a burning mountain, fending off death in crypts and tombs, and, of course, avoiding the elevator boss in Serpentshrine Cavern. Instances removed the group from others and sent them far away—usually downward—into private spaces. The descent underground (hence the term dungeon) cut raid members off from normal life aboveground and allowed a close visual encounter with a uniquely designed space different from that found everywhere else in the game.
The inclusion of instances was consistent with WoW’s design as an arena of performance. Instances eliminated the presence of players who would certainly interfere with performative activity by ganking or otherwise harassing players engaged in the serious matter of downing difficult bosses. Whether intentional or not, cutting players off from all but those in the raid generated closeness and social cohesion; players depended on the group with which they faced the game’s biggest challenges. Enclosure in a confined space unambiguously identified, in the context of guild raids, a player’s closest partners. Raiding late at night with guild members and no Page 120 one else, listening to their voices in voice chat, knowing how they played and tailoring performance in accordance, teasing, joking, and bantering within a small, known group—these actions were productive of considerable geniality and intimacy.
Taylor (2006) suggested that instancing might be less “interesting” than games designed to “facilitate large scale collective action.” While not disagreeing that such action would be desirable in the context of some games, I think the special affordances of instancing were, within the logic of a game such as World of Warcraft, generative of an amazing level of amiability and positive sociality. Steinkuehler and Williams (2006) described WoW as a “third space.” Third spaces are not venues of large-scale collective action but deliberately small enclosures designed to encourage bonhomie and cordiality among peers. Moments such as first kills, a guild member finally getting a purple she has longed for, or a player managing a tricky maneuver (such as killing the demons in time), are moments of mutual celebration not to be tampered with by players (like the Lineage gankers) who would happily disrupt them. The magic circle, rightfully, keeps out as well as keeps in.
Contemporary theorizing suggests that the magic circle is partial. I have identified ways in which World of Warcraft interpenetrated real life. At the same time, the magic circle lives, bracketing meanings within an enclosure into which a player steps in order to play. Turner (1982) identified the limen, or threshold, as necessary to play and ritual. Players cross the threshold out of ordinary life to engage distinctive kinds of performative activity in a game space in which the rules are different, the culture unique, the rewards sensible only within the enclosure. It is no accident that game spaces delimit clear, identifiable geographies: the baseball field, the basketball court, the boxing ring, the casino, the arcade, the playground, the card table, the tree house, the game board, the golf course, the bowling alley, the World of Warcraft. These spaces take us away from work, away from school, away from the ordinary. We enter a smaller, more perfect universe in which satisfaction is not guaranteed, but we gain a pretty good chance of achieving moments of limited perfection.