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Rewriting the Object of Study_Round 2

 

World of Warcraft. Image hosted on IGN.

Guilds of World of Warcraft. Image hosted on IGN.

As the semester advances, steadily gaining on the last month of Spring 2014, my peers and I have been asked to rewrite our Object of Study Proposals. My original proposal stated that I was going to look at guilds in MMORPGS like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2. However, I found that all of my case studies have revolved around WoW, so this is part of how I wish to narrow down my object of study version 2.0 here.

From my original proposal, I am keeping my description of the guilds: Guilds essentially allow players to form small to large groups, with smaller questing and dungeon parties being formed either on a need-basis or more permanently. Unlike more traditional Role Playing Games (RPGs) on video game consoles where a player usually ventures into the virtual world alone as a single character (like Assassin’s Creed) or as a group of controllable companions (like Final Fantasy games), MMOs create environments that encourage player-player interaction within the game as certain activities like raids and dungeon boss battles are easier to navigate when players take on different roles (the healer, the tank who draws enemy attention, and the character classes that do damage-per-second are some of these roles) in order to enhance the effectiveness of the group. Guilds are not only for questing and raiding, but are also ways for new players to be mentored by veteran players and come with a number of perks and opportunities that a lone player would not have access to, such as item trading. Though MMOs do have an underlying storyline driving the game world and creating overarching goals for players, it is the interaction between players that comes to embody the bulk of their experiences within the games, transforming individual gameplay from a solitary experience to one with a seemingly infinite number of connections. One of the biggest draws of guilds is the communication nexus that exists between members, as players find not only companions within the game worlds, but also connections outside of the games, through general discussion forums on official game websites, guild forums, in-game channel chats, social media like Facebook, and personal emails and phone calls.

The further I work through applying network theories to WoW guilds, the more I understand them as ecosystems, as social dynamics playing out on a microcosm space, but I have not (as I originally intended) sought to understand the social dynamics for how students in classrooms could work more cohesively or for how the application of narrative elements by players enriches the group’s overall experience (beyond the occasional comment about role-playing guilds). Instead, I have found myself looking at the social facts and speech acts that gather together to create genre sets used by players, granting them greater agency as a group and as individual nodes within those groups; the rhetorical situations and discourses that emerge through player-player interaction, leading to the creation, maintenance, and dissolution of those groups; and how taking technologies into account as “objects with agency” changes the shape and angle of scholarship looking into the rhetoric playing out within the guilds. Looking back at my original proposal, I was not expecting to tackle rhetorical activity, but scholarship rarely takes the pathways I expect of it.

With rhetorical activity being what emerges through my case studies, guild members are still that which I believe to be the framework and nodes of the network. However, how that framework appears to be structured seems to depend on the theory being applied. For Rhetorical Situation theory, there is the idea that certain veteran players taking officer-style positions within the group creates a fluid hierarchy of speakers and mediators of change who can take that rhetoric and improve the group’s experiences. In that hierarchy, each player who is invested then becomes a link (rather than a “mere hearer or listener”) to other players, taking on battle and questing roles and keeping in communication within their parties. In other theories, the hierarchy is flattened, requiring a more collective agreement among players on activities, or there is a demand for the increased understanding of how technology allows for that guild, that hierarchy, and those activities to exist. Code and rhetoric become twin elements moving among and through the nodes of the network, something that will become even more important in English Studies as our discipline adapts to changes in technology and continues to implement those technologies for our work.

For the rest of the semester, my new proposal for WoW guilds as my object of study is to continue exploring how that virtual environment allows for the guild to become an ecosystem that extends even beyond its programmed borders. The players’ abilities to harness the technology of the game and use it parallel to other software and technological devices shapes new boundaries for a human-constructed ecosystem of minds, rather than physical proximity of bodies. I am curious to see how rhetoric molds and is molded in return by gamers who voluntarily enter into a community and struggle to maintain and redefine the group(s) they have chosen for themselves.

Just One of Those Nights:


Case Study #1: To the Guild Network, I Present a Bazerman

Image hosted in article "Drama Mamas: How to find a World of Warcraft guild" on Joystiq's WoW Insider

Image hosted in article “Drama Mamas: How to find a World of Warcraft guild” on Joystiq’s WoW Insider

In the worlds of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games, there can be two levels of networks in regards to guilds: on a game-global level (I make this specification because some games are actually global, with players from around the world joining in on different servers), the guilds themselves are part of a larger network as they compete against one another, and on a game-local level, the members in each guild represent nodes in their particular guild network. For this particular Case Study, I am going to be dealing with the game-local level in relation to World of Warcraft (WoW) as I best understand the framework of the game, and members have quite a bit of support in-game and out-of-game with the creation of, acceptance into/experience within, and dissolution of guilds. The concepts within Charles Bazerman’s chapter “Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems: How Texts Organize Activity and People” provide interesting insight into how members of guilds become part of the mini-societies within gameworlds, especially in WoW, through the speech acts and social facts that emerge through player-player interaction.

Bazerman’s theory of speech acts and systems of human activity can define the local level of MMO guilds through interactions between players and the cohesion and disruption felt once those interactions begin to collect into trends and movements. What makes guilds in virtual environments so interesting is that players conform to rules and norms much as they would in the “real world,” which is an idea that plays into the concept of “social facts” that Bazerman describes as “those things people believe to be true, and therefore bear on how they define a situation” (312). In order for the guild to work, players have to agree on certain organizational methods (usually in the form of hierarchies based on player rankings, group goals like raids or more storytelling play styles, and newer members being linked with mentors), or else the guild divides and falls apart. Guilds themselves can have very fluid hierarchies, as players establish themselves and gain rank, or as other players drop out of the guild or the game for a variety of reasons (work, family, school, injuries, financial issues, and so on). Much like “real world” groups, communication styles in guilds differ, but tend to be two-way as members offer suggestions for how to approach a particular raid, where to find the best armor, and what strategies are useful against specific creatures or bosses.

As a whole, these gamers generally agree on ideas like ranks as rightfully earned, that (most of the time) there should be a leader (or leaders) for raids and for the guild itself, and that the guild is a space worth joining. These agreements, or disagreements, come to define how the system works: are the raiding teams cohesive? Is there in-fighting among guild members? Is the guild strictly run or does the Guild Master encourage a more laissez faire style? Are newer players mentored by more seasoned players, or are they expected to learn on their own? The atmosphere of the group is determined by the group and the norms to which players are willing to submit, whether it is through explicit agreement or a quiet submission (though most gamers can be fairly vocal when they disagree or feel they are being treated unfairly).

Example of a "guild window" from WoW. Image hosted on WikiHow.

Example of a “guild window” from WoW. Image hosted on WikiHow.

Almost all of the interaction between players is done through speech acts, whether verbal or written. Players can either found their own guild or seek one out (through in-game means or through forums) that has already been established, and then gain acceptance into that guild (with a growing trend of actually having to file an application, especially for the more prestigious guilds). Once in a guild, players find that they have a balance of how much agency they can have within the group. Their abilities and experience define what role(s) they may play when raiding (tank, damage per second also known as dps, or healer), but the player can choose to hone skills that would give them access to other roles or make them more desirable as a combat buddy. Guild members can contact other members through the guild window (displayed above and below) for small raiding parties, or they may choose to join in larger raids (though stricter guilds demand players be present or they may be kicked out of the guild), and loot tends to be shared among players, with certain pieces being set aside for players trying to finish an armor set or guild officers being allowed first pick. For guilds that are more story-based, players have the chance to introduce origin stories for their characters, drawing on the mythology set up by the game creators, which allows players to carve out a space for themselves in the gameworld and establish their character as a more three-dimensional entity within the world and the group.

Each guild window includes a roster of members, which include options for each member to contact another member or to leave the guild altogether. Image hosted on WikiHow

Each guild window includes a roster of members, which include options for each member to contact another member or to leave the guild altogether. Image hosted on WikiHow

As social networks, guilds in WoW are the embodiment of communication technologies. While players initially had to depend on keyboard chats in order to communicate with other players, advancements in technology have opened the way for players to chat over headphones and now remote chats on cell phones. Players also communicate using official forums, through emails and phone calls, and may utilize websites like WoW Guild Hosting to stay in touch. One of the major motivations for a strong communication network within the guild is to prepare for and execute raids that require larger numbers of people. While there can be unexpected obstacles, guild and raid leaders focus on ensuring that members of raid groups understand their roles and the strategy the guild has decided on. Breakdowns in communication can be disastrous, ending with entire teams being slaughtered in more difficult dungeons (any experienced WoW player will shudder and laugh at the Leeroy Jenkins incident).

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Doing well in raids and as a guild altogether has gained greater importance with the introduction of Guild Perks, moving from player motivation for guild banks (which is in-game storage) to actual competition to have and be included in a higher level guild. Guild perks, as defined by WoW Wiki, are “special benefits received when a guild reaches a particular guild level and the corresponding guild achievement.” This new dynamic of perks into the guild network has altered how WoW is played, with most players now belonging to a guild instead of traversing the world alone or with a companion/small group. Players come to be defined by what network they belong to, finding safety and prestige in being a connected node instead of a solitary adventurer.

Remote WoW guild chats on an android phone. Image hosted on Curse.

Remote WoW guild chats on an android phone. Image hosted on Curse.

Bazerman’s theory of speech acts allows me to look at how guild members become enough of a collective to create their own mini-society in a virtual space, which becomes even more interesting in light of the fact that these players may never meet in real life, are coming together based on common goals, and are being judged based on merit, personality, and design choices represented by their avatars’ appearances and classes. His theory is helpful in that it looks at how players’ interactions through speech acts start to create movements in the guild itself, helping to establish boundaries between players, norms for the group to follow as a whole, and can also bring about the dissolution of the guild. Though interaction between players is done through speech acts, Bazerman’s theories of genre, felicity conditions, and typification would help to define how the kinds of communication players have to enrich the game experience and ensure the success of their guilds.

To Make This Quest Just a Little Easier:

Works Cited

Bazerman, Charles. ”Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems: How Texts Organize Activity and People.” What Writing Does and How It Does It: An Introduction to Analyzing Texts and Textual Practices. Charles Bazerman and Paul Prior. (Eds.). London: Routledge, 2004. 309-340[PDF]

WoW Wiki. Wikia, n.d. Web. 09 Feb. 2014.