Sunday, April 18, 2010

Review: The Warcraft Civilization

I just finished William Sims Bainbridge's sociological study of World of Warcraft, The Warcraft Civilization: Social Science in a Virtual World (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2010).

I picked it up because I think MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role playing games) form potentially interesting social groups. I've played World of Warcraft (WoW) a little (I got a char up to level 20, so not a huge amount), and Everquest (EQ) a lot (though not for a number of years, now). (My advice to grad students and new faculty: do not play either unless you have a lot more self-control than I do.)

For those who haven't played one of these games, imagine Tolkien's world, with all the back history and lore. Now imagine you can start a nobody avatar or character in that world, and adventure around, killing dangerous enemies or nasty beasties, and learning in the process. Many computer games are built on the idea of levels or experience. In MMORPGs, geography often works in a similar way. Players start their avatar (or player character) in a relatively safe "home area" where they kill rats or bugs or local nasties. The avatar can get killed by these nasties, but generally there's a mechanism to make dying not too much of a penalty for the player (but enough of a penalty in time or whatever to make dying unappealing). As the avatar gains levels, s/he moves from the home zone into increasingly more difficult encounters; often death becomes a greater penalty.

Like many computer games, these games quantify learning into experience points and levels, which seem to me sort of like grade levels or scouting ranks if they actually mean something and were highly individualized.

Now add a lot of other people, all contributing in varying ways.

In a way, it's sort of like a Renaissance fair. You have a big "backstory" of history and lore and practice, some of which is more fanciful than not, and lots of people participate with varying degrees of engagement or buy-in. Some people visit in street clothes and watch the entertainment, enjoy some food, buy some handcrafts. Some people visit in costume, but do basically the same things. Some people know other people in the community, and become more involved, creating character identities, organizing, and so forth. And some people make crafts, pay rent, make sure the modern toilets work. Most people don't "believe" the lore, but enjoy participating.

Back to Bainbridge's text. It's very readable, and does a good job of explaining some of the basic terms gamers use (at least, it seems so; I recognized some of the terms and the explanations seemed good). But I think it falls short in some interesting ways, at least for me as a reader. I'm not sure other readers would find the same problems.

One of my friends likes to say that we English scholars steal from pretty much any field we can. Another likes to add that we steal badly from many of those fields. Nonetheless, lots of English scholars have read enough Durkheim to be dangerous, as it were, and that includes me. So I found some of Bainbridge's book most interesting in helping me get a better sociological understanding of some of the theoretical folks I've glanced at. There's a level of recognition for me that helps me add a bit of knowledge and pleasure at the same time.

I see MMORPGs as being complex texts (the backstory, game mechanics including non-player characters, aka NPCs) in which regular people interact through avatars. To some extent, the regular people interact with the backstory, but most interact far more with the game mechanics and with other people.

So it seems to me that if you're really interested in the backstory stuff, you approach that through textual analysis, as you would Tolkien's works, or Beowulf.

And if you're interested in player interactions--with the backstory (through role-playing, for example), with the mechanics, or with other players/player characters, then you take a socological approach or an economics or a game theory approach.

A Short Discourse on Reading Games as Texts

The designers of MMORPGs are incredibly creative in terms of graphic design, backstory, and game play. Players tend to learn the backstories by interacting with NPCs or other in-game experiences, or by reading outside the game, including materials created by the game company and materials created outside the game company. I think this is fascinating, because it reminds me a lot of fan fiction, where people will write stories about Star Trek characters and such. In a way, these are a lot like reading Shakespeare's histories; for some people, Richard II is how they understand late 14th century English politics. But Shakespeare took information from a variety of sources and made drama. Yes, something happened way back, but we only have information about the events from texts. And Shakespeare's play has become one more text, though historians will tell you that it doesn't accord well with more authoritative texts. That's important, because we care a lot about which texts have more authority and why in the real world.

Let me give you an example from Everquest. When I started playing, the game came with a booklet that had basic maps for the starting cities. But the game didn't provide maps for other areas (called zones). But there was an EQ map site that had basic maps for different zones; I could print them out and find my way to different spots (and even note grid locations from within the game) in a new zone. In a way, it was antithetical to the spirit of exploration to some extent, but as I got more into the game, it also helped me use my time more efficiently and have more fun. Similarly, there were non-company sites explaining quests, game mechanics, etc. (Eventually the makers of EQ realized that people were using maps and computer add ons to have in game maps, and added them to the game interface.)

I want to get at two points with this example. The first is that non-game text may be accurate and useful, though not condoned by the game company. In this way, these texts are like fan fiction that's disavowed by the author who created a given text-world and characters (think Harry Potter slash fic, for example). The second is that games are dynamic in terms of mechanics and backstory; companies add and change things all the time in response to players. (There are things that changed in the Harry Potter world as Rowling received critiques on the earlier books; think about the representations of race and race relations, for example.)

All this means that it could be fascinating to read these games as texts, including considering the in-game textuality, extra-game company textuality, and non-company textuality. But you have to think about how these different sorts of texts mean differently.

And that brings us back to Bainbridge's book. He needs to think about the texts he's using as texts. He needs to explain when he's "talking to" an NPC, when he's reading Blizzard materials, when he's reading novels approved by Blizzard, and so forth. It's not that any one of these is invalid, or even "less valid," but that they mean differently. He's not sensitive to those nuances. Partly that may have to do with his being a sociologist rather than a text person. Partly it may be because he's trying to look at both the game as a text and the game as social/cultural space. I think the book would have been stronger if it had focused more clearly on one or the other aspect of WoW.

A Short Discourse on Player Interactions

Once you've played EQ or Wow for a bit, you begin to realize that only the most naive (in terms of new to the game) players don't distinguish in their behavior between other player characters and NPCs. And so you should be careful to think about the ways players make those distinctions and how they work.

Here's an example. When I was first learning EQ, one of my characters got in trouble and was helped out by a more advanced character, Snork. (If you know Snork, give a shout out!) Not long after, Snork took my character (a Wood Elf druid) to meet Bonecaster, a necromancer, which is a character class in EQ that has to do with interacting with disease and death. The thing was, I didn't quite know that Bonecaster was a player character and not an NPC. Nor did I realize that a player character couldn't directly attack me without my consent (through a "duel" request).

In my experience, most advanced players in EQ learn the lore so that they can use the game mechanics as effectively as possible, rather than for the lore in and of itself. Understanding how that works would be fascinating, much as understanding how a pitcher uses some arm/hand motion to throw is fascinating in terms of how the pitcher understands physics and morphology (or not) is different from understanding the actual physics. You can understand the physics beautifully without being able to throw, and you can throw without knowing much physics.

Here's another example from EQ. In EQ (before, say, the Luclin expansion), characters started with a faction based on race and character class that made them relatively safe in some city zones, and very unsafe in other city zones. So, as an Wood Elf, my character was welcomed in the Elven and Halfling communities, well tolerated in most areas of the Gnomish, Dwarven, Erudite, Barbarian, and Human communities, and unsafe in Dark Elven, Troll, Ogre, and Iksar areas. (Players describe unsafe in terms of being "Kill on Sight" or KOS; the NPCs may not be able to kill a given character, but if you get within range, they'll try.)

At low levels, characters of some races rarely interact, and roleplaying characters may roleplay the racial antipathies. But no one (well, no one sane) really believes in the racial antipathies of Dark Elves and Wood Elves. We joked about such things, but no one really believes in Tunare. And that's hugely important, because at higher levels, there's a huge advantage to a guild to have players of all character classes for groups and raids. So druids of nature cooperate with necromancers and shadow knights. That is, the mechanics of the game give an advantage to those who have access to different character spells and abilities. (To be honest, a guild could do fine without druids, but having access to necromancers was vital for raiding before the PoP expansion.)

WoW enforces the distinction between Horde and Alliance factions through game mechanics in a way EQ didn't (doesn't still, I'd guess). Horde and Alliance characters can't group, talk, mail directly, or auction easily with each other.

That makes me wonder, though, if at higher levels of WoW, guilds worry much about faction except as it affects gameplay through mechanics? I seem to recall there can be advantages to killing player character members of the enemy faction who attack one's own areas. But do raiding guilds or most players get involved?

And that brings me back to Bainbridge's book, once again.

At the beginning of each chapter, Bainbridge sets up a narrative through the point of view of one of his characters. The narrative is set up as if the character actually "believes" the backstory; it treats the NPCs as sentient beings rather than characters in a complex text, undifferentiated from player characters. And it treats words by player characters as if the narrating character is naive of there being players "behind" the characters. In some ways, these narratives were fascinating for me, but they seemed unanalyzed and thus somewhat purposeless in the text except to establish that the character "existed" and that Bainbridge has authority to talk about the experiences.

On the other hand, these are also some of the more intersting bits of text in terms or representing the complexity of MMORPG interactions and experiences, where each character experiences some level of a unique story while roughly paralleling in many ways the same plot line that every character of similar race/class or profession experiences. (That is, pretty much all dwarven hunters start out in the same place, with the same equipment, and start off doing the same beginner quests, killing the "same" trash mobs, and so forth. Because of the quest organization, there's a whole lot more common experience between beginning characters in WoW than there were in EQ (where people spent a lot more time wandering around getting lost, at least in the earlier days).

Bainbridge hints at the complexity of WoW interactions between characters through groups and guilds, but doesn't focus on that in the ways that seem most likely to really shine through a sociological approach. He mentions in passing homophobic remarks, but doesn't really analyze gender/sexuality deeply. He doesn't seem to recognize the way clothing representations or dance graphics work in WoW, and takes an oversimplified approach to the ways characters embody and enact gendered avatars. I think there's real room for serious thought about how these issues work in Wow, especially since WoW and other MMORPGs bring together people from different cultures in new ways. It's especially interesting in terms of player ages, because a lot of younger players are encountering people from different cultures (within game culture and meat-space culture) through these games.

What sort of sociological study would help us understand WoW groups? Groups in WoW seemed to me to be short term, based on a need for mutual assistance in accomplishing a short-term goal such as a quest. That organization seemed very different from the groups in EQ that were often, especially in my earlier gaming, grinding experience in one place for ages. Thus, the WoW groups seemed to form short term, not include much conversation, and then disband. In contrast, in EQ, grinding groups would have downtime (for respawning and mana regeneration, especially), and so include time for chatting. And rather than disbanding as groups, people would enter and exit grinding groups as time and space allowed, so the group might continue with different player characters for hours on end. I have no idea how higher level groups work in WoW, whether there are grinding groups, whether guild groups form as they did in my EQ experience, or whether the typed chatting we did has become voiced chatting in WoW.

(One of the things I found frustrating about WoW was that social interaction seemed more limited; that's because Blizzard consciously minimized mana regeneration downtime and made all character classes able to solo content more than in EQ. It's a far faster game in terms of moving around and getting experience, but seemed too "twitchy" for me as a player. EQ, on the other hand, had gotten too grindy and I had computer issues.)

I'd love to read some really good analysis of how MMORPG guilds work, internally, with game mechanics, and in terms of other guilds. I know instancing has reduced some of the interguild conflicts that were rife in EQ (at least on my server), but I'm guessing there's still lots there.

Bainbridge also hints at the complexity of WoW player interactions with game mechanics. I didn't play EQ even at a high enough level to get really into mechanics, but I knew people who spent a whole lot of time parsing dps and healing, and figuring out high end strategies to beat encounters. There's an amazing mindset that really understands the mathematics behind the game mechanics. And even I learned to make choices based on most effective mathematical strategies in my character's development and encounters. My sense is that WoW is way beyond EQ in terms of what it enables in terms of player interactions with the game mechanics (allowing players to parse dps and such, for example). It would be fascinating to read really good game theory analysis of how players strategize in WoW, especially because character "builds" (the way a player chooses and trains specific aspects of a character's abilities) are so complex and variable.

I've run up against my mechanical ability to read and proofread within the blogger box. Were this a for real review, I'd be working in a text editor and printing out to play with the text, but it's not, and I'm about to be done.

In Conclusion

I wanted more from Bainbridge's book about the social and cultural aspects of players interacting in WoW, and less about the game as a text, I think.

If anyone wants my copy, I'd be happy to send it along to someone else. I don't think I'll need to reread it, nor do I know anyone so into WoW that they'd love it.


  1. This sounds really interesting! I don't play WoW or EQ, but I used to play text-based MUDs, on which they are based.

    I'm trying to understand this distinction you are drawing between social interactions and texts. If you and I have a conversation, and someone else reads it later, isn't that a text as well as a social interaction?

  2. I haven't played WoW for a while now (and I've been out of EQ even longer) but I might have to pick this book up. I've played a bunch of MMOs (including DAoC and Warhammer, most recently) that are beautiful but don't catch on quite as much with the player base enough to stay viable in the long run. Not enough mass, I guess, to stay really viable.

    I agree with you that it would be interesting to see a more in-depth sociological study of guilds. I have to admit that I'm a very guild-averse player (because I find them to be either pulling you into a bunch of out-of-game emotional drama OR to demand all of your time, five week-night evenings, to support big raids). So I'm definitely not the person to give that study a try!

    For parsing the dps and examining the different qualities of gear for different situations, WoW does have EQ all beat. See for a taste of what's out there!

  3. Hi Human, Thanks for your comment. You've got a good point. I'm not articulating the distinction I see well. Maybe it's really there and I need to think more, or maybe it's a false distinction. :/

    Janice, I emailed you.

    Isn't Thottbot done by one of the old leaders of Afterlife? They pretty much had parsed EQ up the wazoo, too. But I think WoW is more friendly about add on mods.

    Guilds are tough. I was lucky to find two in my EQ experience that were both well led and well-balanced. But there were still some difficult times.

  4. I've never really enjoyed the group play in WoW. In fact, I can only think of two groups that I played with that I wanted to play with again. I usually just played with my husband. (I don't play during semesters I teach.) The main reason for this is the harassment I received for having a female avatar made me very uncomfortable. No one ever tried to pick up my husband, who plays a male character, but I was hit on and and then called a bitch when I didn't play along regularly (though I was usually polite). It's disappointing to hear that Bainbridge glosses over the gendered in-game relations.

    But it sounds like an interesting book that I need to read. I usually get at least one gamer/WoW paper a semester in my research comp class.

    Have you seen The Guild? It's a webshow about the real-life interactions of guild in a WoW-like game.

  5. Bardiac, I think you definitely are correct that there's a difference in how people interact with PCs and NPCs in such games, and that difference is important. That was the key thing I took away anyway... and... were you saying that the author treats those things as if they are the same when they're not?

    It's all complicated and stuff. But interestingly so!

  6. I play wow to the point of being in a pretty hardcore endgame raiding guild. I have yet to read an academic article or book from that perspective; most people writing about the game as a text have only really played the leveling game, which has always bored the crap out of me (but I never played EQ, which seemed more interesting). Yes, I have no idea how I got a tenure-track job.

    I think about writing this kind of book all the time. I probably should, and MANY more people would be likely read it than my dissertation-to-manuscript tenure book.

  7. I'm not sure if it's out yet, but Bonnie Nardi's My Life as a Night Elf Priest would be another book on WoW that I'd recommend. I've seen pieces of it, and while I think that it's more focused on cultural differences among players in the US and China, she herself does a lot of raiding--I can't say how much of it shows up in her book, but she definitely has the chops.

    FWIW, I definitely think that there's a great deal of work that could be done on groups/guilds who are working on endgame content. It's a very different experience from the leveling, pvp, trade chat kind of stuff that seems to dominate the scholarship...


  8. oops, one more thing, and that's that Nardi draws heavily on activity theory, which is one way of getting around (or encompassing) issues of text vs interaction