Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Question of Player Status in World of Warcraft

The Question of Player Status in World of Warcraft

By Bryan Tu Tran, Claire Hayati, Rebecca Lin, and Hank Whitson

Inside every server of World of Warcraft (WoW) there exists an eclectic community of players from all over the planet who participate in a complex cultural system where co-operative dungeon raids, gladiatorial duels, and constant multi-channeled communication are just part of the daily grind. Yet in a world where such fantastic activities are mediated by an invisible system of intricate calculations, and every character is designated a numerical value, what, aside from the raw math, determines a character’s status? By examining four central aspects of WoW’s game play—race and class configuration, guild membership, participation in player vs. player combat (PvP) and role playing (RP)—our study offers new insights concerning online impression building and the nature of interpersonal status in virtual worlds.
As in real life, a character’s race and class play key roles in determining status on WoW, having dramatic influence on both appearance and abilities. According to the well-known anthropologist Max Weber, there are three factors that may determine one’s social status: Property, Prestige, and Power. We would argue that since property and prestige must be obtained by a player’s actions in-game, his character’s inherent power, based on the criteria of race and class, is of paramount importance.
In order to examine the social influence of a character’s class and race, we conducted research through extensive participant observation and gathered data through semi-structured interviews with participants in person, as well as online through the private chat function. A sum of 120 hours was spent inside of the game. Eight in-depth interviews were obtained from age 15 to age 48. Half of the participants were between the age 18-24 and two were female. These consisted of gamers who just started playing to veterans with at least three years of experience.
In WoW, there are two factions which are called Alliance and Horde. Inside the Alliance faction, there are five races: humans, dwarves, night elves, gnomes, and draenei. Inside the Horde faction, there are also five races: orcs, undead, tauren, trolls, and blood elves. Each race has its own background story as well as a unique appearance. Alongside the physical differences, are the different “racial traits” or special abilities or powers granted to a character based on its race. For example, the blood elf race has a passive magic resistance that reduces the chance you will be hit by spells by 2%. Another example is the racial trait of ‘shadowmeld,’ which allows Night Elves to slip into the shadows, reducing the chance for enemies to detect their presence.
The specific race of the character does have an effect on one’s ascribed status, comparable to the status which is fixed for an individual at birth. In this context, the ascribed status is embodied by racial traits which are given to the character upon creation. According to the interviewees with at least one level 80 character (currently the highest level attainable), racial traits play a crucial role in organized battles such as raids or arena matches. Because the special abilities granted by a character’s racial trait may give a desirable advantage, the preferred race is depicted with more social value. For example, the tauren race, which resembles muscular anthropomorphic bulls, are considered to make better warriors than other races because two of their racial traits: 1) “endurance” in which the base health is increased by 5%, and 2) “war stomp” which stuns the enemy for a small time period, are particularly useful in melee combat, where extra health and a few seconds to get in an extra hit can make all the difference.
In regards to the physical appearance of a race, interviewees who have just started the game would rather choose the more attractive looking races. However, they believe it is relatively insignificant when asked if it has any importance in relation to social status. According to the piece, “The Role of Friends’ Appearance and Behavior on Evaluations of Individuals on Facebook: Are We Known by the Company We Keep?”, “Online users can organize the information flow and enhance self-image by strategically selecting how and what to convey to the receiver” (Walther et al.). However, this is not necessarily true when applied to WoW. Players with more experience in the game tend to disregard the physical appearance and focus more on things that enhance power such as class specialization and racial traits. Appearance then only holds importance to newer players.
Among the different races in WoW, there are ten playable classes: death knight, druid, hunter, mage, paladin, priest, rogue, shaman, warlock, and warrior. Each class is drastically different from each other in that they all have unique abilities through their spells and skills. For example, the priest class is known for their healing abilities and the rogue class is recognized as the primary melee damage dealer because of their powerful attack abilities. Another crucial difference that distinguishes these classes from one another is their ability to wield different types of weapons and wear different types of armors. For example, the paladins, warriors, and death knights are the only three classes that are capable of wearing plate armor, which has the highest defense value. In addition, each character class utilizes unique resources and play systems to give each class a distinct feel. Rogues, for example, draw from a stamina gauge to perform attacks and accumulate combo points as they successfully land hits on enemies. On the other hand, priests draw from a manna gauge to cast spells that may either damage their enemies or heal their allies.
Given its drastic effect on character abilities, players are all but unanimous that class is the single most important choice to consider when creating a character. There is considerable debate however, about which class is the most powerful or important for group play. Most agree that classes who perform specialized roles, such as healers and tanks—characters designed to absorb damage from enemies to protect the rest of the party—are more important than damage dealing classes, which are plentiful. Priests, warriors and death knights were mentioned in almost every single interview. These classes tend to be more valued by the online community because they have more specific duties to fulfill in raids. Ironically, classes focused on dealing high amounts of damage-per-second, or DPS, tend to be the most widely played even though they are less ‘prestigious’ than tanks and healers. This may be accounted for by the fact that DPS classes tend to be more efficient at solo-play than healers and tanks, who enjoy most of their specialized, role-based prestige late in the game, when party organization is crucial for advancing.
Since multiple classes are able to fulfill different roles, there is considerable debate about which class is the best at its job, and frequent debates concerning the balance of power between classes. Blizzard Entertainment addresses these imbalances by adjusting a class’s abilities through the semi-monthly software patches released to fix bugs, and add new content to the game. When a class (or item, or race, or ability) is made stronger, players say that it has been “buffed,” while any weakening adjustments are referred to as “nerfs.” Another remedy that Blizzard Entertainment came up with is introducing new classes and races in expansion packs, to address shortages of certain character types. For example, the death knights were added in the recent Wrath of the Lich King expansion to address the scarcity of tanking classes. Consequently, the status afforded by class and race are constantly in flux.
It is important to understand that the status afforded to race and class is contingent upon the player’s ability to fulfill the role they shape. On occasion, new players who do not want to deal with the trouble of building a character will purchase high-level, well-equipped characters from other players, despite Blizzard explicitly prohibiting the practice in their terms of service agreement. In most cases, the new player’s inexperience will betray itself through foolish mistakes in group play and net them an extremely negatively reputation, despite the prestige of their experience, and the strengthened attributes of their equipment, or property.
Regardless of how powerful a class is at a given time, a single player cannot hope to tackle WoW’s hardest challenges alone. Guilds are essential for high-end game play, providing the support and connections necessary to take on the game’s greatest challenges. Although it does not affect a player’s external appearance as drastically as race, guild membership is prominently displayed under characters’ names in-game, and it plays a considerable role in establishing their reputation.
Blizzard devised guilds as the mechanism to ensure that a sense of community and social networking was present in WoW. Guilds function as support groups and friend databases in which a member is considered responsible for participating in guild activities, helping fellow members, and following rules set by the guild leaders. Guilds are especially useful for high level players and obtaining “achievements.” They are important to study because they provide insight into how relationships form between characters and how status relationships develop both amongst their members and in contrast to nonmembers. Based on the research on guilds performed by Chen, Sun, and Hsieh, we hypothesize that high-level guilds, also referred to as power-guilds, create a sense of community amongst their members and isolate outsiders. We tested our theory through participant observations and interviews.
Guilds in WoW are constructed by individual players and grow when other players join. Haris and Nardi say that guilds’ main “focus is [to collect] reliable players for advanced play” (Haris and Nardi). Each guild acquires a reputation and unofficial status based on the identity of its members. According to Chen, Sun and Hsieh “the percentage of avatars joining guilds [increases] steadily with avatar level” (Chen, Sun and Hsieh). Low-status guilds are not very selective; they tend to be more accepting of characters of all levels, classes, specializations, and races. Most do not have strict regulations, do not require much play time, and often do not have the same sense of community responsibility as other more powerful guilds. The size of the low status guilds varies between 30-200 people, but most of the smaller guilds are not as stable and tend to be less helpful to their players (Chen, Sun and Hsieh). High-status guilds, on the other hand, are very selective, often requiring many interviews and applications to become a member. They also require large amounts of play time, sometimes forty or more hours a week, and implement strict rules.
Power-guilds collect players with high levels of skill and understanding, and therefore can become very insular, with their members rarely mingling with outside players. The players in such guilds rely on each other for any activity requiring multiple players, including raiding and making items for one another. Within a server the more powerful guilds can become famous and their players respected and well known by players in less powerful guilds. However, the well-known characters tend to keep to themselves and do not need to seek help from others not in their guild. Also these players are extremely hard to access to ask for help from non-guild members. The status of the guilds therefore creates a virtual boundary in which players are separated based on skill and guild association. With all the high-end, skilled players concentrated amongst themselves they are less likely to help less-skilled players to advance in skill or complete hard tasks in the game. This isolation controls which characters someone can play with and hinders access to the more challenging parts of the game. At the same time the skilled players are ever advancing and pushing the boundaries that Blizzard has created.
This separation between guilds and their players is one based on skills and understanding of the game. Within guilds it is not a requirement that in order to be in a high position one has to be more skilled than the others below. Guild hierarchies tend to be more about social relationships than ability. Once in the guild the only way to advance to a more authoritative position is through social connections. “Raider” is the only guild role based on playing skills (interviews). Within a guild there are two levels of authority that are similar to government roles. The top position is guild master, which can be reached only by creating the guild; any player can create a guild. The master has ultimate control over the guild no matter how powerful the other members might be. For example, the master has the right to kick out members, shut the guild down, take all items from the guild bank, and invite anyone into the guild. The next authority level is that of the officers, who have power to add or kick anyone out, have full access to all bank items, and can control who plays in which raid. The only way to become an officer is to be chosen by existing officers or by the guild master. Officers choose raiders to go on raids. Raiders have no authority over other players but do receive automatic preference to receive the best items and a guaranteed spot in raids. Raider status is achieved through merit and the player’s ability to be organized and effective (interviews).
Discrimination between guilds helps to separate people who are not in the same guild and at the same time brings people of the same guild closer together. The hierarchy and different status positions allow the guild to run smoothly, and despite these differences, companionship and friendship is readily available. Guilds create a WoW community that is much smaller than the entire server, thereby providing more opportunity for repeated interactions. Guilds also define and supply a method of approaching the WoW play experience, either technically or with greater social interaction. This, along with boundaries imposed by guild status, pulls together players of similar ability and “can be designed to create somewhat customized play experiences” (Nardi and Harris). By imposing responsibilities on players within the guild, a sense of real-world community develops.
Many of the guild members in power guilds actively play with each other for forty hours a week and constantly use voice and text chat. During these sessions personal information and daily updates are given, bringing the group together to share common interests and experiences that strengthen the relationships between guild members and can create long-lasting friendships. Without the guild structure these groups of strangers and intensive players would not be given the opportunity to come as close to other players and the game would not hold the same sense of reality (Nardi and Harris).
Character abilities and connections have significant influence on forming status in WoW, though few things have more impact on an individual player’s status than their personal skill. But while the dungeon raiding scene is rife with horror stories about reckless players whose mistakes wipe-out entire groups, and “ninja looters” (unscrupulous players who steal valuable items dropped by dungeon bosses without their party’s consent), status gained through Player-versus-Player combat (PvP) is solely focused on competition.
PvP takes a variety of forms in WoW. Certain servers are designated as PvP servers (as opposed to PvE or player versus environment servers), where players are allowed and often expected to attack characters of the opposing faction in zones regarded as contested territory. All servers have access to other types of PvP play, such as arena battles, a more formal system of PvP where players form teams and participate in gladiatorial matches against other teams. Finally, there are Battlegrounds: large scale, mission based skirmishes where one Alliance team and one Horde team compete by accomplishing various objectives.
To research status relating to PvP, we participated in the Warsong Gulch battleground, the first and only type of PvP combat available to low level characters. Our findings suggest that status gained in Battlegrounds is like a sandcastle built near the shoreline, as it is constantly being wiped clean with each new skirmish. In their article, “Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as ‘Third Places’”, Dimitri Williams and Constance Steinkuehler cite “Players [ability] to enter a world in which success is based not on out-of-game status but on in-game talent, wit, diligence, and hard work” as one of the core appeals of MMO’s (Steinkuehler and Williams). Furthermore, they cite ‘a level playing field’ as one of the essential criteria for online games to serve as ‘Third Places’; relaxing social environments outside the work and home. There are many points where WoW wipes a player’s record clean. Character creation allowing players to build their legacies according to their tastes, and forgiving death penalties encourage player’s to take another stab at challenges they fail. Yet Battlegrounds seem to be the best example of this etch-a-sketch-esque cycle, giving players nothing but a blank score and an opportunity to do their best.
To examine the role of status in a PvP battleground match, one must first understand its mechanics. Warsong Gulch is accessible from any major city for all races, wherein the player enters a queue to join the next match. The majority of battleground matches are with pick-up groups, meaning the teams are randomly assembled from those waiting in a queue compiled from several different servers. A player from the Dragonmaw server could find himself with a mix of teammates from the Frostwolf and Blackrock servers. For these reasons it is unlikely a player will join a team with someone he had fought with in the previous match. Consequently, any respect or derision gained in the previous match is wiped clean. Depending on the time of day, queues take anywhere from two to twenty minutes. He has no status among his teammates when the match begins because they have no idea of his skills, save for speculation.
After joining a battleground, the 10-character team has two minutes to lay out basic strategies and buff one another—cast spells to increase damage, strength, health, and general survivability. Once the match begins, the two teams compete to capture the enemy flag and return it to their own camp three times to win. All basic strategies for Warsong Gulch involve three roles: a flag carrier, defense, and offense. The flag carrier, arguably the most important role on a team, enters the enemy camp and is the one who physically—in the game sense—brings the flag back to his team’s home base. Defense characters escort their flag carrier to and from the enemy camp; if the flag carrier is killed, the enemy flag is dropped on the ground and can be recaptured by the enemy. Offense engages the enemy team directly and prevents them from reaching their camp. If their flag is captured, the offense chases down the enemy flag carrier and kills him to restore their flag to its original location inside their camp. Players who fulfill their roles well are respected during the battleground match, and teams who play well gain honor—literally accumulate a PvP currency called honor that they can redeem for special items.
At the conclusion of a match, a chart appears showing the names of each participant, their level, class, damage dealt, health healed, and how many times they captured the enemy flag or recaptured their own flag after it was taken by the opposing team. The player’s status is summarized by the statistics displayed on this chart at the battle’s end. The player who dealt the highest damage or captured the enemy flag the most times is respected, and is thus granted a kind of high status, one that is supported by his apparent gaming skill, an inherent knowledge of the game that fellow players should aspire to. But this status is fleeting; even if the player lingers to look at the end game scoreboard, the battleground automatically closes within minutes and prepares for the next pair of teams to clash.
Given the brevity of each skirmish, players have little opportunity to form lasting impressions on their teammates, leading one to question if appreciable status is created at all. Juniper is a female college student who plays a level 80 character and participates in Battlegrounds almost daily, yet she rejects the notion that status in battleground PvP exists. “There is no status,” she insists. “You almost never have the same teammates again and you’re not going to remember them anyway. It just doesn’t work like that.” Her boyfriend Astrus, with two level 80 characters of his own, agrees: “I don’t think you’re going to find status the way you describe it, probably because they’re all random people, so you don’t feel that kind of connection—that mutual respect for people you do know.”
Etically, one could argue that the post-match scorecard conveys a degree of status on participants, but from an emic point of view, status in battleground PvP is nonexistent, because one’s teammates are randomly selected and it is unlikely that they will be encountered again. Since many players are driven by the desire to compete in as many matches as possible, they leave the Battlegrounds without examining the score. At the same time, there are dedicated teams of players who enter the queue as a group, and conquer other teams with a combination of superior communication and rehearsed tactics. This practice is perfectly legal, but uncommon due to the large of amount of planning necessary, which is comparable to a guild’s preparations for a raid, but yields no experience or equipment. Consequentially, such teams are easily recognized and greatly feared by their competitors.
Another niche activity with considerable impact on player-to player perception is role-playing, (or RP). Throughout our experiences in WoW, we noticed, through conversations and remarks in public chat channels, that the general opinion toward RP and Roleplayer’s is largely hostile or disparaging. This strikes us as both curious and ironic considering WoW’s classification as a Role-playing game (RPG). Our examination produced a fascinating insight concerning the correlation between game design and player behavior.
Before one can examine the effects of role-playing on player status, it is crucial to appreciate the distinction between the class based mechanics that structure role-playing games, and role-playing as a multiplayer activity. As a gaming genre, RPGs use a combination of character-specific categories (in WoW’s case, race and class) and statistics (that gauge attributes like strength and stamina) to determine characters’ abilities and power respectively. As discussed earlier, a character’s race and class have the most impact on a player’s duties during group play in WoW. Therefore, from an etic perspective one might say that people are always playing a role of some sort when they play WoW together. However, the emic definition of RP refers to playing the game in an in-character fashion, where users chat and “act” (through emote commands) as if they are their character, as opposed to their operator.
As with other types of social play in WoW, there are casual and serious role-players. Casual sessions tend to be more improvisational, with participants reacting to in-game events as if it were their reality. Serious role-players generally meet at agreed upon times to act out a storyline in game, and restrict technical discussions of game play to an Out of Character (OOC) chat channel. Serious RP sessions also do not usually take place in dangerous environments; nor are they accommodating of other players who try to jump in uninvited, since unplanned player deaths and arrivals can disrupt the story.
Once again, our research consisted of participant observation and several semi-structured interviews taking place in game and online via an instant messenger program. It is worth noting that Blizzard has taken a decidedly hands-off approach toward facilitating RP in WoW. While there is a matchmaking system and chat channel to help people find groups for PvP and dungeon raiding, the only feature deliberately designed to facilitate role-playing are designated RP preferred servers. Yet this designation does not require players to engage in role play, nor does it give role play any type of priority treatment. This makes sense given the subjective nature of the activity, but one of the first lessons we learned about RP in WoW, is how difficult finding a session to participate in can be, even on a RP preferred server.
Currently, the most used chat channel in WoW is the Trade channel, accessible in each of the game’s capital cities. As its namesake would suggest, the channel is intended for players to conduct business, allowing players to advertise their wares or request goods. Since it is visible to every player in the capital city and moderated only by player complaints, Trade is frequently used for general chat and by role players searching for groups, much to the chagrin of actual traders whose chat logs are crowded with unrelated information.
During research, we witnessed a particularly passionate argument arise when two players started to role-play in Trade chat as if they were bartering in the game world. The traders, frustrated by the extra chat, lambasted the role-players who cited the game’s role-playing status. Without any official statement from Blizzard awarding precedence to the RP status of the server or the functional purposes of the Trade channel, the matter is left up to players to determine. In his article, “Beyond Management: Considering Participatory Design and Governance in player Culture” , T.L. Taylor notes that “Players are not merely consumers of games, but actively contribute to their creation,” and goes on to detail the numerous ways players voice their opinions to game designers, citing one example of an in-game protest about the warrior class that occurred in WoW (Taylor). It is interesting to note that when the protest began to affect game play, Blizzard was quick to respond with a message threatening “actions against user accounts.” In the instance of the great Trade channel debate, those opposed to RP suggested that the issue be settled with a vote and claimed that the server was no longer RP preferred according to the results. Proponents of RP argued that the verdict had no ‘official value’ since it was unsanctioned by Blizzard and that the issue was not up for debate. Other parties argued that RP should only take place at specific locations in game.
The discussion gradually died down, though many comments from both sides of the debate suggested that it was a common topic of discussion, and that it would not be the last. Given Blizzard’s prompt and serious response to the warrior protest, it seems curious why the matter of RP in trade has not been laid to rest. Though having identified character class as a primary component of a player’s power over, and status within the game world, it seems reasonable to assume that it was given much higher priority than issues pertaining to RP, which has a very insignificant influence on game mechanics.
It seems that the functional goal driven mechanics seem to stifle the social aspects of the game crucial to role playing. This observation is consistent with Williams and Steinkuehler’s findings, which concluded “As complex, long-term collaborative activities become increasingly prevalent [in MMOs], the game becomes increasingly more entangling, time-consuming, and work-like, diminishing its status as a relaxing social environment” (Steinkuehler and Williams). Having no place to belong to, we expect role-players to feel frustrated or alienated by the generally hostile tone toward their activity.
Yet during our interviews, most role-players stated that they were indifferent or amused by the debates. “It’s easy enough to ignore people online,” said Silver, a level 78 Paladin, “but I think it’s kind of hilarious that you have these people calling us geeks while they’re here in our world, trying to sell virtual dragon teeth.” Hornz, a high level Night Elf Mage who had role-played in other MMOs explained that he did not play in WoW because most role-players seemed inexperienced. He actually felt that the debates on Trade were good, because they served to help weed out less dedicated players: “The ones who get upset are usually just trying it [RP] on. If they like it, they keep at it. If not, it really isn’t for them anyway. I don’t roleplay on WoW because there are too many of those people here.”
When asked about their primary motivations for engaging in RP, most interviewees cited creative expression, immersion in the game world, or a mixture of both. Surprisingly, none of the subjects cited socializing as a primary motivator. Silver observed that RP could make it harder to socialize with other gamers, due to the fabricated personalities players adopted for their characters. Another player, Sage, suggested that role playing does not necessarily need to be a strictly multiplayer activity, feeling single person activities such as Machinima, which use the game world to create movies, constituted role playing as well.
Overall, one’s status in WoW is primarily focused on a player’s power. Classes and races enjoy prestige based on their abilities to help parties achieve specific goals. Power guilds serve as an extension of such practices, fine tuning their ranks to take on the greatest challenges the game has to offer. By contrast, status gained through participation in RP and PvP is largely unrecognized, since the personal satisfaction afforded by such pursuits cannot be precisely quantified by the game’s system. Ironically, even though the interactions of online games occur in virtual worlds which we navigate alone from our computers, there is a strong emphasis on tangibly increasing one’s power, and working with others to achieve great things.

Works Cited

Bonnie Nardi and Justin Harris, Strangers and Friends: Collaborative Play in World of Warcraft, 2006.
Chien-Hsun Chen, Chuen-Tsai Sun, and Jilung Hsieh. Player Guild Dynamics and Evolution in Massively Multiplayer Online Games. Cyber Psychology & Behavior. 11(3), 2008.
Constance Steinkuehler and Dimitri Williams, Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as “Third Places.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 11(4), article 1, 2006.
Interviews conducted. February 20th- March 5th of 2009.
Joseph B. Walther, Brandon Van Der Heide, Sang-Yeon Kim, David Westerman, & Stephanie Tom Tong, The Role of Friends’ Appearance and Behavior on Evaluations of Individuals on Facebook: Are We Known by the Company We Keep? Human Communication Research 34(1):28-49, 2008.
T. L. Taylor, Beyond Management: Considering Participatory Design and Governance in Player Culture. First Monday, Special Issue #7, 2006.