Saturday, May 23, 2009

Constructing and Manipulating Identity in World of Warcraft

Constructing and Manipulating Identity in World of Warcraft

By Elizabeth Hill, Scott Maeda, and Aakash Mehta


We examine the construction and manipulation of identity in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, World of Warcraft. We describe construction of the individual player’s character in relation to the balance between appearance and tactical advantage. We then explore the interactions between character look and in-game societal perception while considering the ambitions of power and status. Finally, we analyze the manipulation of player identity outside the virtual realm, within open online platforms. In doing so, we uncover that complexities of virtual identity within World of Warcraft as they are shaped between three spheres of the individual, the private in-game community, and the public out-of-game internet audience.


While one may like to believe that the individual’s sense of self is formed from the inside out, the construction of identity is rarely that simple. Rather, more often than not, identity is a complicated construction of inner perceptions influenced by external, societal guidelines. Likewise, the creation of a single player’s character within a virtual reality environment is far more complex than the initial customizable attributes of “race” and “class” may seem to suggest. The planet’s largest massively multiplayer online role-playing game (or MMORPG), Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft (or WOW), illustrates the complexity of identity development by way of its over 10 million active, international subscribers1.
WOW’s extensive user population engages in more than the surface game play of principally leveling up of one’s character from 1 to 80. The in-game experience is amplified with an additional assortment of comparatively superfluous recreational features. Thus, while a player is leveling, he or she may also choose to participate in otherwise diverting content that does not contribute to their leveling. These activities have a near endless scope and include selling and buying items on the Auction House, exploring unmapped territory, gaining reputation in cities, working in a separate profession, and creating usable items. To outline all possibilities for game play in the vast and diverse virtual reality of WOW would be cumbersome and nearly impossible. As such, the player experience consists of basic character leveling and extracurricular activities, in which the goals of both areas differ substantially. We maintain that, much like the real world, the visual aesthetic of a player’s character is formed through the balance of the individual’s tastes and practicalities, as enhanced and effected by the desired mode of game play.
In addition, once a player’s character has reached level 80, otherwise known as a “cap” on game play, more time and more options are made available for recreational activities. On top of the possible actions already listed, level 80 characters also have the opportunity to collect rare items for prestige or enhancement, engage in mutual “arena” combat with a fellow player, and enter high level dungeons in order to complete collaborative achievements. The change in player atmosphere that results from the max in leveling is also mirrored in the change between player interactions. Whereas a lower-ranking character may be more practical in their aesthetic choices in order to ease the difficulty of leveling, a capped or maxed character may turn their attention to earning prestige and status. Like the upper crusts of the real world, receiving and then maintaining power and renown are accomplishments worth flaunting to the right group of people; a similar philosophy dictates the collaboration and relations of WOW’s level 80 players.
The virtual world as an extension of the real world is a truth that makes itself clearer with the development and growth of new computer technologies. Likewise, the virtual atmosphere generated by World of Warcraft’s extensive base of 10 million worldwide users provides extensive insight into the construction and manipulation of player identity in response to the ever-shifting mode of game play. We have narrowed our study to the realms of “player versus environment” (PVE) combat, which requires mutual combat between players only and differs significantly from the more blitzkrieg-style realms of “player versus player” (PVP) combat. It is important to acknowledge the undoubtedly different player atmospheres that are fostered by these contrasting modes of game play; just as society mediates one’s own interactions within the real world. On PVE servers, our observations begin with a focus on the balance between visual appearance and character performance on the lower level spectrum. We then analyze the modifications and enhancements of a character’s aesthetic in response to ambitions of power and reputation. Ultimately, even as the edges of World of Warcraft’s universe seep out-of-game and into third-party realms on the internet, the motivation toward status and prestige does not wane.

First Sphere - The Individual Aesthetic

In the Metaverse of Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash, “Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment. If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful… You can look like a gorilla or a dragon in the Metaverse” (Stephenson 1992:36). Unlike the Metaverse, the variation and scope of customization is comparatively limited to humanoid form in World of Warcraft. Furthermore, perhaps as a result of the heavy fantasy influences, players do not consider their characters as extensions of their real life self and thus avoid the term “avatar” and its apparently misleading connotations. However, Metaverse and WOW exhibit one similarity: an in-game player is ultimately limited in their character’s customizations primarily by the choices in equipment. Before a character makes its first steps into WOW’s virtual world, the options held to a player are in deciding its race, class, gender, skin color, hair, and facial expression. Even at this stage, a player is required to reflect on his or her own aesthetic inclinations while also considering long-term practical implications for their character’s effective and easy leveling. That is, while the choices of gender, skin color, hair, and face do not directly affect a player’s course of leveling, race and class act heavily upon successful game play; both attributes provide beneficial statistics when exploited properly. Referring to Figure 1, while the gender of the character doesn’t provide bonuses or additional skills, the particular combination of the Draenei race and the Mage class form a character that is defensive racially and strengthened by its offensive class. However, while a Draenei may possess appealing racial abilities, many admit with ignominy that the race is also aesthetically alluring as a female. As one anonymous player remarked regarding their Draenei preference, “The one thing you ALWAYS see on your screen is your avatar, so it might as well look good.”
Similar aesthetics are also applied to the otherwise superficial aspects of a player’s character. Short interviews regarding these minor features were conducted between 10 players, each leveling a character ranging from 20 – 40 with an average level of 36, and revealed some interesting trends among basic visual attributes. While the popular myth holds that female characters receive special treatment over male characters in game, this is apparently not the usual case in WOW. Those who create a female character purely expecting extra help or special treatment are “delusional,” as many interviewees mentioned. Furthermore, all players interviewed had acknowledged their skepticism concerning the “real sex” of those they had never communicated with over voice channels. Clearly, the ability to distinguish between the realms of the internet and reality is not lost to the players of WOW. In an effort toward gender neutrality, players tend to avoid assigning the gender pronouns of “he” and “she” to other characters. Rather, during text and voice chat, players refer to one another’s characters using two-syllable short hands of their respective screen names. This practice is especially prominent when communicating with other players during collaborative efforts, as it also eliminates the difficulty of attempting to type unfamiliar names or pronounce strange words. All in all, a character’s gender poses no tactical advantages and does not contribute to successful game play. Gender decisions align themselves significantly with an individual’s personal aesthetic because a character’s sex plays a less significant role on game play than the aspects of race and class. Likewise, the choices of hair, skin tone, and facial expression are purely aesthetic. Within a particular character’s race, the scope of selection for these aspects is significantly limited. That is, to continue with the example above, all possible expressions available for a female Draenei’s face are “beautiful” and “composed.” As such, a player would find their efforts toward creating an “ugly” Draenei woman significantly impeded. Skin tones and hair also demonstrate such limitations. However, players find that these aesthetic constraints do nothing to detract from the overall essence of the game. Rather, character appearances are forced into stereotypes of “good” and “evil” through their “attractive” and “unattractive” qualities in order to enhance the main premise of fantasy-war within the realm of WOW. Additionally, these strict controls on the appearance of skin, hair, and expression limit direct associations with real world ethnic or racial backgrounds. Thus, the fantasy adventure environment fostered by these aesthetic restrictions is one of deep immersion, further detached from the real world.
After deciding on relatively basic visual aspects, race, and class, a player in-game must then consider additional facets of his or her character’s appearance, all of which display a significant relationship to game play itself. We have condensed these aspects into the following categories: armor, weapon, mount. Regardless of character level, these are unavoidable facets encompassing the individual player’s aesthetic. A character must be protected, must be able to engage in combat, and must have a means of traveling throughout the world. While a player cannot opt out of these requirements, a significant amount of control over a character’s appearance is retained. The customization and manipulation of a character’s armor, weapon, and mount are borne from the considerations of in-game tactical advantage and personal aesthetic preferences.
During early game play, a character is required to complete “quests” or missions that follow a given storyline and background. As quests are completed, a character is rewarded experience as well as equipment replacements that improve and add to base statistics or “stats.” As a result, a character grows in strength and enhancements while leveling. Additionally, a character may find usable equipment on the bodies of dead foes that are considerably higher in quality. However, an item’s heightened stats are not the only features a player takes into account. In the virtual world of WOW, visuals also play an obvious factor; and as such, an item may need to be visually striking or appealing to warrant wearing it. A preference toward appearance may also lend itself to a player’s decision in furnishing a character with weaker equipment that “just looks cool.” Short interviews were conducted between five characters, ranging from levels 68 – 76, regarding the balance between personal tastes and gaming advantages when judging equipment. Allarea, a level 72 female Draenei hunter in Howling Fjord, expressed that “I always take considerable efforts coordinating my wardrobe. Ever since I was a tiny level 10. And probably even when I’m a full grown 80. Most of the time, you’re not even in combat. So what good are stats when you look stupid?” Referring to Figure 2, Allarea’s armor “wardrobe” is fairly consistent in color scheme, texture, and fit. “I was so excited to buy [that] black helm because not only does it have crazy attributes but it… matches well. So I didn’t have to use WOW’s extra option of hiding [my helm]. Yay!” Winkie, a level 72 male Draenei shaman, conveyed a similar aesthetic sentiment, saying that “I had improved damage, stats, AND abilities with these [leggings] but they were like frayed pirate shorts cut mid thigh. Damn they were ugly. I couldn’t bring myself to equip them.” However, rarely is a player forced to exclusively choose between one’s personal aesthetic and an item’s potentially generous benefits. Most equipment from a similar region coordinates relatively well and most items appear as impressive as they perform.
The relationship between look and statistical attributes is further complicated by the collaborations and interactions among players. Even in a more passive “player versus environment” setting, the immersive virtual reality of WOW grows from the necessity for group cooperation. As such, player attempts to balance personal aesthetics with the tactical advantages afforded by particular items also take into account the opinions of other players. Every player is given the option of “inspecting” another player’s character, if it is on screen. The feature reduces the physical appearance of a character down to the statistics and bonuses of armor and weapons. The option to inspect is available to all players regardless of server. That is, a need to inspect other characters occurs whether or not a player is fighting against others on a PVP server or fighting with others on a PVE server. We recognize that among these servers different motivations may determine the choice to inspect. Within PVE servers, intrigue or curiosity was cited as the most prominent reason for inspecting. “I might see something on someone that I’ve never seen before and that intrigues me,” Winkie noted at one point. Likewise, Allarea mentioned, “They may look pretty cool but I’d like to know if the quality of their gear is decent. Especially if they want to group [with me].” As such, the notions of a character’s appearance versus its playability are seen coming full circle.
Inspection also amplifies the importance of an item’s statistics and performance. The quality of an item is easy to distinguish during inspection because of a color-coding system. Items in green text are generally “good quality,” while items in blue text are “great quality,” and items in purple text are rare, “epic quality.” Understandably, a character that is equipped with several purple items is undoubtedly stronger than a character with green items. It would be difficult then, to justify equipping a green item against a purple item just because “it’s prettier.” Luckily, purple equipment is usually much more visually striking than green equipment. So much so in fact that many experienced players have noted their ability to inspect other characters without the inspection tool. “It’s just become second nature for me to sum up someone else’s skill just by looking at them,” Allarea noted. “Yeah,” Winkie chimed in, “I don’t inspect as often as I used to [when I was a lower level]. I’m more used to just knowing almost automatically if someone’s awesome or not.” Hence, the offered inspection tool does not mediate player-to-player assessments. Rather, it is simply a stepping-stool used as players gain quicker and keener judgments of one another.
Regions and territories throughout WOW vary on level of difficulty. Additionally, style subsets of armor and weapon are also related to particular regions. As such, not only can experienced players assess the skill level of a character by visual appearance only, they can also easily infer what areas a character has explored in the past. In particular, the higher-level regions of Northrend and Outland have certain styles of equipment that characterize their regions. Northrend weapons and armor tend toward very earthy tones, as seen in Figure 2, while Outland items possess an ethereal glow. Characters with items in these style subsets are plainly distinguished as higher-level; an easy inference to make without the need for inspection. In order to test the connection between character equipment and perceived equipment, we created a “quiz” online to test a player’s capability of accurately estimating the level of various anonymous characters caught on screenshot. Aside from preventing players from using inspection, the test contained low resolution graphics to blur the details of armor and weapon. 20 screenshots with styles similar to Figures 1 and 2 were given, each with the following choices of level range: 40 – 49, 50 – 59, 60 – 69, 70 – 79, and 80. The quiz was circulated among three WOW servers and over 50 players completed it, ranging in experience as indicated by Figure 3. The last questions of the quiz, purely for demographic insight, revealed that a majority of those quizzed were experienced players with several weeks of total playing time devoted to WOW. One may assume that this extensive amount played may have also given significant time to honing the skills of “automatic inspection.” However, the average score for level 80 players was 0.05 points lower than the average score for level 70 – 79 players. Furthermore, while only 66% of those quizzed had level
80 characters, no quiz takers scored lower than 90%; meaning then that no quiz taker got more than two questions wrong. One may inquire whether the high success demonstrated by all quiz takers in estimating various character levels was due in part to extremely apparent armor or weapon choices. However, while some screenshots included combinations of prominent equipment from specific regions throughout WOW, a majority of pictured characters were dressed in rather inconspicuous, generic items offset by one particularly stylized yet subtle piece. Furthermore, while a region’s armor and weapons may share similarities in texture and color that make them easy to identify, this is not to say that each region has items wholly distinguished in a certain style. There are hundreds of thousands of pieces of equipment throughout WOW and some will coincidentally exhibit a visual likeness to one another. That is, several forested regions will contain armor of greenish-brown shades with woody textures, which is expectedly acceptable. At the same time, quiz results indicate that a strong relationship between character appearance and assessed performance exists. Simultaneously, players must take into account their own appearance alongside the attributes of their weapons and armor while furnishing their own characters. The cooperative play environment fostered by the dynamics of WOW necessitates the inspection function and motivates players to assess one another.

Second Sphere - The Collaborative Aesthetic

The myriad role-playing features that comprise World of Warcraft allow vast customization of a player’s character and, depending on how they are exploited, reveal how a player chooses their character’s function in relation to game play. According to the study “Strangers and Friends: Collaborative Play in World of Warcraft,” Bonnie Nardi and Justin Harris assert that there are “diverse types of collaborative play in World of Warcraft, ranging from lightweight encounters with strangers to highly organized groupings with well-known friends” (Nardi and Harris 2006:1). Players engage in numerous forms of cooperative play, with each player’s character fulfilling a specific role. The allowances afforded to players in constructing and manipulating their characters’ roles to suit collaboration in turn creates a powerful process of identity formation for players and their fellows alike. When a character is “capped” upon reaching level 80, the player no longer needs to consider the basic goal of leveling. Rather, more options are made available to them in pursuing otherwise superfluous objectives.
For example, while armor, weapon, and mount, are necessities for a leveling character, the player of a capped level 80 may instead turn his or her attention to achieving a special title. Character names are restricted to 12 letters in WOW. However, game designers have implemented a series of achievements that, upon completion, give a prefix or suffix to character names. Titles are a powerful visual component to the aesthetics and identity of players within WOW. Players can collect and choose between various titles they have earned or, in rare cases, choose to have no title displayed. A title, by stating or referencing the name of a particular dungeon or defeated boss, supply the prestige of complete series of quests called achievements, that once completed allow you to display a prefix or suffix to your character name. While all titles carry a sense of achievement, they vary in source. Some titles are attained through the completion of a particular dungeon or the slaying of a difficult boss. In these cases, a title displays a character’s combative strengths. A title may also be attained by mastering a certain profession; a passive ability which does not lend itself to combat. In such cases, these character titles flaunt complete control over a perfected skill and may lend a player more attention when in marketplaces and cities. There are even titles earned by those who have explored every square foot of the WOW map. Whatever the case, a player is limited to displaying only one given title at any one time and their decision over this title reflects an image they wish to portray to others. All cultures are based on notions of power and meaning embodied into a system of symbols (Boellstorff, 2009). Likewise, the titles of WOW culture are obvious symbols of power, displayed for all others to see. Power does not necessarily infer strength or command. Rather, as is the case with character titles in WOW, power is superiority. A player will flaunt their character’s title much like a peacock will flaunt his tale, displaying their particular assets and affirming their sense of supremacy.
The titles of WOW are enjoyed by players regardless of nationality or ethnicity. Players from around the globe in Australia, Canada, North America, and South East Asia all expressed an enthusiasm and respect for titles. Additionally, all players surveyed within this subject possessed at least one title on any one of their characters and conveyed an interest in gathering more. Thus, regardless of a player’s upbringing or respective real-world society, the sense of power and respect afforded by titles makes them an alluring accessory across borders. The general consensus among those surveyed was, in advertising a character’s specific achievement, titles generate an easily recognizable power differential, displaying to others a level of involvement, prestige, and performance in-game. As one anonymous player explained, titles are “a way for the kids to show what they’ve accomplished and [titles] place a ranking to which they can judge themselves and compare themselves to others.” As such, titles directly contribute to the formation and manipulation of a player’s identity.
While titles are superfluous and present no benefit to in-game combat, players with characters capped at level 80 can still pursue rare equipment and special mounts to enhance the image of their character. The mounts, or transportation, of WOW are a necessity for every player as they replace a character’s slow moving travel by foot. Mounts help to distinguish characters as their possession tends to vary from race to race. For example, the race of Orcs are known to ride wolves while the race of Humans are known to ride horses. However, game developers have made it possible for all characters of any race to attain a variety of different mounts, if the aesthetic desire is there. Mounts are expensive to acquire with in-game currency and require a high level of reputation and prestige within certain cities. As such, considerable work is necessary to gain the goodwill of a city, as well as earn the money necessary for purchase. However, the wide variety of mounts available to a player’s character is enticing, to say the least. A player may obtain a flying mount, a mount large enough to carry three people, or a mount that runs at speeds up to twice as fast as normal. As such, mounts represent a key aesthetic representation of a player’s character. The currency and effort required of rare mounts presents a distinct level of prestige and wealth. Like the automobiles of the physical world, the mounts of WOW are status symbols. As Jennifer Martin explained in the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, players attempt to obtain rare points in order to “fill their need and desire for items that will allow for the appearance of status and uniqueness in the virtual world” (Martin 2008:1). Because of the difficulty inherent in their possession, mounts carry strong associations with power in WOW, contributing to a system of status symbols that are reinforced through competitive game play.
Likewise, armor is a necessity that can morph into a luxury. Regardless of level, armor can be obtained through four methods in WOW: questing, raiding, crafting and PVP combat. Questing, as discussed previously, is the simplest method for players to obtain armor. By simply following the storyline as outlined by game developers, a single-player can earn green and blue level equipment. However, once a character reached level 80, and the storyline stops, a player can no longer rely on questing for items. “Raiding” is cooperative group play that involves 10 – 40 players navigating a complex dungeon and slaying difficult “elite” bosses. Raiding is a complicated process that relies heavily on player coordination and contribution for successful completion. The navigation of the dungeon, as well as the complex strategy required to defeat bosses, necessitates high individual player involvement. However, the entire maze of a dungeon only contains a few elite bosses, each of which “drops” one randomly generated, scarce and high-level item when they die. Group players must then “roll dice” to determine who wins each item in a game of chance. As such, upon successful completion of a dungeon, only a select few players will be rewarded with prestigious rare equipment while all others simply receive “gold” or in-game currency. Typically, a player must “run” a dungeon multiple times before earning specific equipment for their character. However, a player may only run a particular high-level dungeon once per week. If a raid player fails to obtain their desired item, they must wait a full week before their next attempt. This so-called “time sink” further contributes to the fascination with and prestige of raiding equipment. In some cases, it is the rarity of such items that motivates hundreds of players to try their efforts and luck every day. As one Southern California player noted regarding the allure of raiding gear, “It’s another way to make your character personalized and unique, which is what MMORPG is all about to some people.”
If a particular player desires the essence of uniqueness, he or she may even opt to craft armor within WOW. Certain sets of skills or professions, when highly trained, allow a player to create certain pieces of armor. For instance, a blacksmith may construct chain-mail armor while a tailor may construct cloth-armor. However, the level of gear afforded by these professions, in comparison to raiding, is mediocre at best and does not carry with it any essence of prestige. Rather, outwardly prestigious armor can also be obtained through mutual PVP or player versus player combat. In such cases, players partake in “battlegrounds” to fight and compete against other players, either singularly or in groups. For every defeat delivered, a player is given “honor points,” or specialized currency that can be used in considerable quantities to purchase admirable equipment. PVP or battleground armor conveys combative authority over other players and a player who chooses to dress their character in such armor no doubt aims to suggest such sentiments.
Similarly, the “arena” is another system of PVP or player versus player combat. This distinctive aspect of WOW has fostered another subculture of competitiveness built on respect and trust. Small teams of two, three, or five, are “equally matched” by a sophisticated system to battle one another to-the-death. Unlike the larger combat of the battlegrounds, arena combat is more seeped in equality and belies a higher sense of skill and strategy. Furthermore, arena teams foster a sense of loyalty and intimacy similar to guilds. As Nardi’s Collaborative Play study indicates, “Players establish guilds which are named groups that socialize and play together … and can be designed to create somewhat customized play experiences” (2, 2006). In this same manner, arena teams are persistent groups of players rallied behind a special name and symbol. The specialized play experience, no longer focused on the basic goals of leveling within WOW, is alternatively centered on enhancing an arena team’s rating. Ratings are the combined scores of a team’s wins and losses. Furthermore, ratings are used to earn “arena points,” similar to honor points, which are paid out on a weekly basis. As to be expected, the combination of a team’s rating and arena points allows them to purchase certain items. However, only the highest rated teams, with a generous number of arena points, are allowed to purchase “Gladiator Armor.” Gladiator armor has become a symbol of skill and dedication throughout World of Warcraft, even among non-arena players. As such, the arena system significantly augment’s a player’s interaction with the virtual reality of WOW, fostering a sense of pride, allegiance, and proficiency among the “elite” players in World of Warcraft.

Third Sphere - The Out-of-Game Aesthetic

Most would categorize the player environment in World of Warcraft as friendly, with strangers and comrades alike joining together in mutual pursuit of similar goals. In “From Tree House to Barracks: The Social Life of Guilds in World of Warcraft,” Dmitri Williams and others explain that “players have an awareness of the benefits and costs of starting, maintaining, and ending friendships and interactions in World of Warcraft” (Williams et al. 2006:342). Over time, players gain experience and harness the fundamental skills necessary to become “great” so that they can accomplish more and gain the abilities to make themselves valuable within the community. Yet, this sense of greatness varies from player to player, and is the foundation for the competitive nature inherent in WOW. Even when a player has become capped with a level 80 character, they reach past the confines of their guild or server to attain reputation and renown by “playing outside” the game. These second party players, or SPPs as we have coined them, are involved within the WOW community in an entirely different sense. SPPs push the boundaries of WOW’s virtual reality by creating and sharing videos of their characters in combat, providing advice and input to others through forums, and participating in rankings systems on well-known gaming websites. As such, attempts by second party players to enhance the reputation of their fantasy reality characters has created another layer of virtual identity manipulated by online mediums outside the bounds of WOW.
To examine this trend further, we conducted a two question survey among 100 forum users who identified themselves as WOW players with level 80 characters equipped with elite gear. Firstly, we asked who would be more trustworthy: a player from an arena team that had just beaten you in combat, or a player from an arena team with their recorded game play displayed online. 74% of forum users overwhelmingly agreed that a player from an arena team with public footage of their combats would easily gain their trust. The phenomenon of trust being more associated to indirect strangers than those with which a player has had recent and close contact further highlights the growing prominence of the SPP experience. Secondly, we asked whether or not it is necessary to watch online videos of professionals and engage in forum discussions for a player to improve in WOW. 90% of those surveyed expressed that watching others and receiving advice are necessities “on the path toward greatness.” Clearly, many players see the outside mediums of WOW as tools to enhance their in-game success.
As one anonymous player wrote in a forum, “The max level turns into a tedious grind. You aren’t simply leveling anymore. Now there are honor points, arena points, raiding… All of this leads to the ultimate goal of obtaining better gear. The only thing that holds you back from your personal best is time, knowledge, and skill.” This is a similar situation many high-level players find themselves in. As such, eyes wandered away from the limitations of WOW, focusing on new sites that allowed players to “refine skills,” “improve personal game play,” and “play with others better than myself,” as expressed by the general consensus of five interviewed forum members. Many SPPs agree that in order to “become better,” one must engage with those who are better. As an extension of this understanding, in order to be viewed as “better,” one must establish and maintain a respectable identity within the outer, online community. This achievement is “to become known,” and provides a player with an intense following and grand publicity. Therefore, while a player aims to better their in-game performance, they also labor to achieve fame and a label of greatness.
Blizzard Entertainment has recognized that the realms of WOW have seeped out of the servers and into the internet itself. In response, official game developers created The Armory, which serves as a massive reference database for every character of every player throughout the world. The Armory operates in much the same way as inspection, providing a detailed textual inventory of a character’s equipped pieces. However, whereas the option to inspect a character in-game is limited to whether they are present on the screen, The Armory has no such limitations. The benefits of the Armory have made it an integral tool for second party player interaction that supplements the discussions and videos of forums and websites with indisputable statistics. As the 303rd ranked player in the world stated, “The Armory can be used outside a WOW server to see who the best players are, to model yourself after a better player, or to get [information] that assists you on your way to the top.”
Furthermore, the accessibility of The Armory to players inside and outside of WOW has enhanced the competitive sentiments of SPPs both within and beyond the originally intended spectrum of WOW. The characteristics of SPPs are not unique, however. The Armory is a testimony to the growing opinion that, in order to successfully enhance one’s performance, “playing outside” the boundaries of WOW has become essential. Such notions of self-improvement are also seen in the real world attitude that self-improvement necessitates looking beyond the scope of one’s local environment. Whether in the virtual world or the physical world, the innate desire for progress and perfection contributes to one’s personal identity and constructs an understanding of power wherein people will naturally rank themselves.


The vast virtual reality of WOW affords players, casual and serious alike, a variety of methods for constructing and manipulating character identity. Much like the real world, an individual’s sense of self is not simply fashioned from the inside out, but rather, is a complicated formation of internal aesthetics subjected to exterior social guidelines. As such, whether simply leveling or struggling to raid, the interactions between players strengthen and enhance the formation of character identity. Likewise, a player’s exploitation and expression of equipment, mount, and even title, provide deeper insight into the complexities of the in-game aesthetic. Yet ultimately, the collaboration of these elements reaches its limitations, as players stretch the boundaries of WOW in their utilization of forums and videos as well. We have uncovered that virtual identity within World of Warcraft is created and maintained through the spheres of the single player, the collaborative society, and the out-of-game public. Whether online, or in the real world, the desire for advancement creates perceptions of power in which individuals will inevitably be ranked, by others or themselves. As such, while we may have only scratched the surface of a player’s character construction in World of Warcraft, we are consistently reminded of the notions of power that comprise identity and culture.

Works Cited

Blizzard Entertainment. (2008). World of Warcraft Reaches New Milestone: 10 Million Subscribers. Retrieved March 1, 2009 from Blizzard Entertainment Web Site:
Tom Boellstorff. (2009). Culture, power, cyberspace [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from University of California, Irvine Web Site:,%20Thursday.htm.
Jennifer Martin. (2008). Use-Value, Exchange-Value, and the Role of Virtual Goods in Second Life. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 1(2), 6.
Bonnie Nardi and Justin Harris. (2006). Strangers and Friends: Collaborative Play in World of Warcraft. Retrieved March 1, 2009 from Web Site:
Neil Stephenson. (1992). Snow Crash. New York: Bantam Books.
Dmitri Williams, Nicolas Ducheneaut, Li Xiong, Yuanyuan Zhang, Nick Yee and Eric Nickell. (2006). From Tree House to Barracks: The Social Life of Guilds in World of Warcraft. Games and Culture, 1(338), 350-357. Doi: 10.1177/1555412006292616.
1 Official statistic from Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft website. Please refer to Works Cited as well.