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Frankentheory, Your Time is Now_Final Case Study

Welcome, my dear readers, to my final case study, known as Frankentheory.  Shall we begin?

You don't have to answer that question.

You don’t have to answer that.

And Away We Roll

As I have discussed in my previous case studies, World of Warcraft (WoW) is a massive, complex, global network composed of nodes functioning on different levels inside and outside of the gamespace. Attention to this Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game has been directed towards its ability to offer teachers and students a virtual environment in which to learn, while other studies have looked at MMOs in terms of what observers see as the game’s ability to fulfill player needs (social needs) and side effects (like addiction and escapism). But what are other aspects of the game and gamespace that would be of interest to someone in the field of English Studies? It is with this question that guilds and what is happening amongst their members become of interest. Since WoW’s guilds and their activities have been my focus this semester, I have been looking for a theory that would allow me to better explore guilds and their members’ positions within and outside of (though still related to) the gamespace. However, for each of the theories I have applied so far, they usually do not focus both on what is occurring in the gamespace at large as a network and what nuances are occurring on the local level within the guilds. It tends to be one or the other, especially since the players are heavily dependent on game software and hardware and on communication technology to be part of and help shape the network in which they play. So, what do we do when our theories cannot completely cover our objects of study and have blind spots? Theoretical synthesis, which is better known among my peers as Frankentheory. But how will this Frankentheory help us decide how studying WoW can be useful to English Studies?

First, let’s list my theories on the field:

Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman’s Networked Individualism

Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory (ANT)

Bitzer’s Rhetorical Situation Theory and Vatz’s “Myth of the Rhetorical Situation”

Networked Individualism and MMOs, But What Could Be Missing?

To begin the rise of Frankentheory, I have to start with a strand: Networked Individualism. Rainie and Wellman’s theory looks at how the three revolutions of Social, Internet, and Mobile are reshaping the fabric of social groups, what they call the “social operating system” (6). It is now normal for people to exist outside of close-knit communities and instead primarily operate within a variety of more loosely connected groups, with different groups fulfilling specialized needs that often have nothing to do with proximity. These new social groups, generally mediated by advancing communication technologies, allow people to enter into a number of networks that are more connected and have greater access not only to information but also to virtual spaces in which they can create and share media of their own. People become the nodes of the network, constantly exchanging information with one another: “When people walk down the street texting on their phones, they are obviously communicating. Yet things are different now. In incorporating gadgets into their lives, people have changed the ways they interact with each other. They have become networked as individuals, rather than embedded in groups. In the world of networked individuals, it is the person who is the focus: not the family, not the work unit, not the neighborhood, and not the social group” (Rainie and Wellman 6). In the changing landscape of social relationships that Rainie and Wellman find is occurring as more people are turning towards their communication devices (cell phones, tablets, computers) to center their everyday communications, information gathering and producing, and their relationships within a group, online games have become part of the “new neighborhoods” that are popping up as the social operating system shifts gears towards networked individuals rather than physical communities of people (13).

People as nodes in the network. Image hosted on VectorStock.

For gamers, this reshaping of the social operating system allows them to craft social groups for themselves (inside and outside of the game) that fulfill needs prompted by their experiences within the gamespace and, more specifically, by being members of the same guild. There is no longer the need to play games with the people who are physically close (though that does still occur) as players can now log on to servers with others from around the country or around the world, creating communities of people who may only ever meet through text chat, in-game voice chat, discussion forums, Facebook, YouTube, and Skype. Here, we have groups of people whose main connection is their interest in a computer game, though they may have other interests, characteristics, and connections that could then bind them closer together during their interactions in the game, but this depends on how much information they are willing to provide and how closely they bond with their teammates. To be in an active member of the gamespace (as opposed to a casual gamer) and to be an active member of a guild, takes work and effort, just as it does to be part of any virtual group (Rainie and Wellman 9). There is no physical presence to say “I’m here,” so the player must renew his/her account, take time to level up, and take time to talk and quest with guild members. The gamespace and the guilds let these players from all different backgrounds come together for a few hours or so a day to engage in group raids or role-playing scenarios, to talk with others who share common interests that extend beyond their daily physical lives, and to play specialized roles in a group (which is another point Rainie and Wellman point out that is happening to networked individuals).

WoW Guild. Image hosted on PC Gamer.

PC Gamer’s WoW Guild. Image hosted on PC Gamer.

WoW brings together gamers from all walks of life and gives them common ground, with fan culture emerging. Image hosted on website Intense Gamers.

WoW brings together gamers from all walks of life around the world and gives them common ground, with fan culture emerging. Image hosted on website Intense Gamers.

Rainie and Wellman’s theory acknowledges that communication technologies and people’s desires to be continuously connected are reshaping the ways in which we interact with one another and how we (re)align with social groups. By looking at the form and function of this new social operating system, application of this theory takes a look at the fabric of guild members’ interactions with one another in-game and how they keep connected even when they are outside of the game. Questions can be raised about players’ empowerment within new social, virtual dynamics as they access a wide variety of resources: Since WoW players do have access to many more resources than those found within the gamespace (official and unofficial forums, guild websites, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, guild ranking websites, and Wiki pages for the game), how does this empower players as players in the gamespace but also as members in their guild? Players are, essentially, not alone in the challenges they face in raids, on quests, and within social guild dynamics the way they would be if communication technology was not as far along as it is, but how does a player harnessing the “information at his/her fingertips” change the dynamics of the group? If the players are nodes in various networks and WoW and their guilds are only a small part of the network that the players themselves have become, where and how do players gain their agency?

Within the scope of Networked Individualism, players gain agency by doing something with all of the information accessible through their devices and making the effort to be part of the groups they have joined. Just like within physically close-knit communities, players have to reach out and engage one another, because if they do not, they will eventually lose their places within the group, even more so than if they were dealing with their teammates in person. Let’s take an example, for a guild member, there can be several forms of the group within which to stay active and to have agency. By having an interest in WoW and signing up to play, the player is taking the first step and putting in the initial effort that will lead to guild membership. The player then has options: he/she can just play the game and either stumble upon or be recruited into a guild he/she comes into contact with over the course of gameplay, or the player can look through guild rankings, explore guild websites and forums, and talk to other players about guilds and potentially joining. There are options as to how a player chooses to operate within the gamespace network and how much agency he/she takes for him/herself. Once a player has joined a guild, a new set of social dynamics occurs that does not usually happen for a player going solo through the gamespace. Most guilds set up a mentor-mentee relationship among new and veteran players in order to ease the new players into the game, into how the guild works socially, and also to train them for the specialized they will take on during quests and raids. This new player again has options to how much agency he/she has within this guild. The player can research his/her role, profession, and class in order to better acquaint him/herself with his/her character’s potential but also to become a more effective teammate. A player who does not know how to do something like add-ons for battles has a steeper learning curve than someone who actively sought out the knowledge and used his/her place in the network to better understand the gamespace and his/her group. Information is out there, across a multitude of websites, discussion posts, and player-player interaction.

This sounds like a great theory for looking at guild members playing in World of Warcraft as we are looking at players not just as nodes, but as focal points of networks themselves. By being a node in many loosely connected networks, the players become networks in themselves and has agency in how he/she uses that connectivity. So what could be missing from this theory?

Add the Second Strand as ANT Comes Marching in

While Rainie and Wellman’s theory of Networked Individualism looks at the ways in which communication technologies are allowing people to reshape their social communities (branching away from solely functioning within local groups to take part in a variety of networks in which they often play specialized roles), Actor-Network-Theory fills in the gaps of Networked Individualism in that it allows the very non-human entities of hardware and software being used by people to have just as much agency as the people themselves. For my study, this applies to the hardware and software guild members use and interact with when playing WoW. The programming code that makes everything work is not pushed off to the side; it is allowed into the discourse, becoming a major (and acknowledged) part of the network. With ANT, the actors are the nodes, but who are the actors? Gamers, of course, are on the list of actors, but so are representations of the code through non-playable characters (NPCs), loot from raids, quests logs, monsters, characters’ pets, parts of the environment, and other objects that can be handled in the game. But our list is still incomplete. We have to step outside of the game and look at what allows gamers to actually play: keyboards, CPUs with monitors or laptops, mouse, and headphones, as well as additional technologies that can now be used to access the game (thank you, add-ons from Blizzard) like cellphones. In Networked Individualism, the emphasis is on people using these technologies, but with ANT, the technologies are just as important as mediators as other people. By linking ANT to Networked Individualism, we are broadening out the scope of who/what should be studied when looking at WoW. So, is this a more complete list? Sort of. Guild activities do not only take place in the gamespace, but outside of it as well in forums, through software like Google Hangouts and Skype, through social media like Facebook, and through unofficial game websites. There could be other actors involved, especially if the guild members know each other in person, but this will be okay for now as our list is more robust than simply just listing humans. This is what a WoW ANT network for a guild would like.

Normally, when a guild is mentioned, people imagine this:

WoW guild, anyone? Image hosted on the C Trust Network.

WoW guild, anyone? Image hosted on the C Trust Network.

When really, with our newly constructed list in mind, the mental image should include these two:

Example of what a screen for what a player sees during a raid. Image hosted on C Trust Network.

Example of what a screen for what a player sees during a raid. Image hosted on C Trust Network.

Guild playing at a tournament. Image hosted on website SK-Gaming.

Guild playing at a tournament. Image hosted on website SK-Gaming.

Now that we have our larger (if not totally exhaustive list) and our handy-dandy new mental image, we must deal with a new way of conceiving how the nodes in our guild network have agency and are situated within the network. Why would I choose to list these actors? According to Latour, “If we stick to our decision to start from the controversies about actors and agencies, then any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor– or, if it has no figuration yet, an actant. Thus, the questions to ask about any agent are simply the following: Does it make a difference in the course of some other agent’s action or not? Is there some trial that allows someone to detect this difference?” (71). Let’s see if we can tease out how this works within an MMORPG in a way that Networked Individualism Theory cannot. What do all of these actors even do for the network? The gamers, their hardware, and the game’s software have one major collective goal. They are all working towards the creation and maintenance of the gameworld in which the guild exists. Sounds odd that gamers are part of this, doesn’t it? But, that’s how games work. The developers design the code that then puts the gameworld into existence on the chosen platform(s) players will then access through their chosen hardware. If the gamers choose not to play, eventually the designers will have to shut the game down or the game remains in its plastic casing on a shelf. In order for the gameworld to be activated and maintained, it needs someone to be playing. But if the designers do not actively work to maintain their game and add new content, players will have no incentive to spend their money and continue populating the gamespace. A great deal of effort needs to be expended on both sides if this gamespace network is to remain active and be successful.

But, we need to narrow this down further. Our target network is not the game as a whole, but individual guilds. What gamers, the software, and the hardware do for the game at large works the same way for the guild on a more microscopic level. The guild’s boundaries must be defined and redefined constantly (which aligns with Rainie and Wellman’s discussion of the effort it takes to keep in touch with the various networks people engage in), which Latour mentions when discussing the creation and maintenance of groups: “all need some people defining who they are, what they should be, what they have been. These are constantly at work, justifying the group’s existence, invoking rules and precedents and, as we shall see, measuring up one definition against all others. Groups are not silent things, but rather the provisional product of a constant uproar made by the millions of contradictory voices about what is a group and who pertains to what” (31). In this sense, the guild is a network node inside a much larger, far more extensive network. And, the gamers, who would have been just one node among (literally) millions of other player nodes, and those are just talking about the human elements of the game. What being part of a guild does then is offer players greater agency in their own gameplay experience of WoW by making them a node in a network that is comprised of a more manageable (usually) number of human players.

However, if those guild members stop redefining the boundaries of their group, against the world, other guilds, and against players with no guilds at all, the guild itself will dissolve. The code and gamers’ hardware is not enough to maintain a guild. The guild may have an archive of some kind as having once existed, but the players are the core nodes who meet and interact in a way that makes a guild what it is. That being said, the guild would not exist without the code that is always underlining the game. There would be no reason for a guild unless the environment of the gamespace provided dungeons to conquer, raids to take on, a world to explore, cities to visit, and servers where players can face off against one another or players (PvP) face off against the environment (PvE). And, without the hardware of the computer and the headphones, players would not have access to the gamespace and to each other. All of the actors are necessary, especially with digital games.

What Ant can do that Networked Individualism cannot is allow me to follow the threads (or trace the associations) of players’ activities through the technology they are using and with one another to define what a guild is within and outside of the gamespace. What do players do with the technology of the game, their own hardware, and other communication devices, as well as resources found on the internet, to maintain the guild as a group? This complements Networked Individualism because it is adding in and granting agency to the non-human entities that help networked people to network. Actor Network Theory and Networked Individualism are similar in that they are looking at society with technology in mind: ANT as humans and non-human actants working together to create the boundaries and maintain the group (guild, in this case), and Networked Individualism as people (gamers) using technology to create diverse and yet loosely collected social groups that fulfill needs that traditional social groups (those once limited more so by proximity) cannot. For both of these theories, technology and the social are focal points in the sense that they are looking at how actors (human and non-human, though the agency is emphasized differently between the theories) are working together.

But what does Networked Individualism do/offer for ANT in regards to WoW and guilds? If the two strands are going to come together, they must each offer something to the other. Actor Network Theory takes a pretty broad view of human and non-human actors working together to define what is social (and, in this case, what is a guild). Networked Individualism narrows this focus to the needs being met for or sought by the humans within these social networks, and how these humans are using communication technology that is in turn reshaping how they interact with one another. ANT brings technology as an actant into the discourse, while Networked Individualism provides a framework for what people are doing within social groups and how they are defining the groups of which they are members. For my case study on WoW, these two theories combined will give me a macro and micro view of technology at play alongside humans, ensuring that the communication technology and game software are receiving as much attention and agency in developing and maintaining the networks within which the humans (physically, in some senses, and through their avatars) are operating.

Friends until the technological end: ANT & Networked Individualism. Image hosted on We Know Memes.

Friends until the technological end: ANT & Networked Individualism. Image hosted on We Know Memes.

Final Strand, or What is Moving through the Network

If ANT can give us a macrolevel view of how groups (in this case, guilds) are expending effort to define and redefine their boundaries in order to remain a group, and Networked Individualism is looking at how people are changing their relationships with one another by using communication technologies to have membership in different guilds that are not usually defined by physical proximity, we are still missing something.What is moving between these nodes (both human and non-human)? Rhetorical Situation Theory adds to the discourse between ANT and Networked Individualism because rhetoric is moving through the networks being defined by the human and non-human actors and shaping the kinds of experiences being had by the guild members using the technology. In a gamespace, codes in the forms of zeroes and ones are the not the only things moving within a network. In a guild, code helps to relay the rhetoric moving between players during situations (both formal, such as raid planning, and informal, such as conversations between players about the dividing up of loot). By threading Rhetorical Situation Theory in with ANT and Networked Individualism, we can explore how players in the guild are using rhetoric to define the boundaries of the group, while at the same time, the hardware, software, and players are working together simultaneously within a network defined by the relay of code and commands.

Rhetorical Situation Theory may seem to be the odd theory as it looks mainly at humans and human activity, but rhetoric is something being passed within a Networked Society (such as when networked individuals create content on the internet, read news articles, or communicate with friends and family) and may be part of the associations that ANT researchers trace through actors as defining and maintaining a group (such as the activities taking place within a labor union). All three of these theories are about the social (however each defines it) and about what happens within that social (to different degrees and outlooks). WoW may be an online game, but what is occurring between people, especially guild members, is what is happening among other networked societies. People still have to deal with one another, even if it is at a distance through technology with avatars in the place of human faces. By adding Rhetorical Situation Theory into the mixture, we are filling in the microlevel relay that is happening between the various nodes across the different servers that compose the WoW gamespace.

ANT diverges away from theories like Rhetorical Situation Theory because it complicates how we see interactions in a network, which is something we need now that people are producing rhetorical discourse in non-traditional spaces between people who are, often, only loosely connected to each other about social dynamics that are happening even during gameplay. So, what exactly can be moving through a guild network when we must take into account the software and hardware? How does it move among the different nodes? One of the major things moving through the network is code, zeroes and ones that render the visuals, relay information  about characters’ statuses, allow for environmental sounds and pre-established soundtrack selections, and initiate reactions from the environment, NPCs, and monsters in which the guild members interact. There are also the zeroes and ones that allow players to have their avatars do physical gestures towards one another and allow relay their textual conversations. But, that’s not all. The hardware players may opt to use like headphones and mics allow for verbal communications. Rhetorical discourse may be part of what is being conveyed, but, in this more inclusive list of network nodes, the code is central to all transmissions.

Who/what are the mediators and what are the intermediaries making all of this possible? “Every time a connection has to be established, a new conduit has to be laid down and some new type of entity has to be transported through it. What circulates, so to speak, ‘inside’ the conduits are the very acts of giving something a dimension. Whenever a locus wishes to act on another locus, it has to go through some medium, transporting something all the way; to go on acting, it has to maintain some sort of more or less durable connection. Conversely, every locus is now the target of many such activities, the crossroads of many such tracks, the provisional repository of many such vehicles. Sites, now transformed into actor-networks for good, are moved to the background; connectors, vehicles, and attachments are brought into the foreground” (Latour 220). We are looking to ANT to understand how guild members are using the technology but also how the technology is taking an active role in transforming actors who come into contact with the code (through visual representations) and through the rhetorical discourse that is being relayed through the code. So, let’s talk Rhetorical Situations (myth or otherwise) and the discourse initiated in those moments by guild members acting as rhetors.

Within WoW, Rhetoric is everywhere as players move as network nodes between interactions, joining and leaving guilds as well as joining and leaving raiding parties. Within guilds, players must convince one another of battle strategies as raids can often be difficult undertakings, requiring hours of planning and hours of execution, sometimes with little success; in player-player conflicts, with some players defending themselves and their potential virtual property against other players; when player-player conflicts cannot be resolved, there are ruptures within guilds, leading to the creation of separate guilds; and within the creation of new guilds, the recruitment of players into the guilds, especially when the gamer is new to the server or has been relatively isolated prior to creating a guild charter.

Guild social dynamics are essentially playing out in a microcosm of social and political (usually within the guild, not in the gamespace at large) tensions, mediated through character avatars over Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and textual messages. But rhetorical situations do not only occur in-game for guilds, but also outside of games: in forums (official and unofficial), on guild websites, through YouTube videos, and in personal communications. Much of this discourse is written by guild members for guild members, creating a circular audience, though gamers outside of the guild and even non-players (depending on the medium) can have access to out-of-game texts about in-game activities. So, through Networked Individualism, if players gain agency by accessing information and creating media in order to make their presence known in the networked social groups they have joined, rhetorical discourse is what those players are creating and using the technology (ANT) to relay.

Rhetorical discourse always has a human agent, what Bitzer calls “mediators of change”: “Rhetorical  discourse produces changes by influencing the decision and action of persons who function as mediators of change” (7). Biesecker mentions that, for Bitzer and his Rhetorical Situation, rhetoric is the name given to “those utterances which serve as instruments for adjusting thè environment in accordance to thè interests of its inhabitants,” which occur in response to some event that “invites utterance” (113). Agency is taken by those who are willing to take charge and produce rhetorical discourse as a situation arises, and then agency is taken by others who hear this rhetorical discourse and do something with it, whether it is to add to what they have heard or in resistance to it as new situations arise and call for rhetorical discourse. This raises the questions of who would constitute the rhetors, the mediators of change, and the audience of those moments of discourse? The answer to these questions will always be guild members, but there are different kinds of guild members. There are differences between guild officers, raid leaders, guild leader, power players versus non-power players, and veteran players versus rookie players. The differences in-game are not based on outside elements like age, profession, race, financial status, or social class, but are based on experience and skill in-game. While the ideal is that every member of the group be given fair and equal treatment within the guild, there are often moments where players’ agency depends on their perceived level of commitment to the group and what level of guild hierarchy they have reached. It all depends on the rules established by the guild for how the guild operates in gameplay. And, by thinking about rhetoric as a way for speakers and potential mediators of change to adjust their environments to better align with their interests, this would (ideally) allow guild leaders to work within rhetorical situations (such as raid strategizing, conflicts between players over loot, other leadership roles) as they emerge to strengthen the group’s cohesiveness. Members who are active within the group’s activities are the mediators of change who will take what the guild leader says and apply it to the communal experiences within the game. If a guild leader is not successful at managing the rhetorical discourse happening within the group, then members of the group tend to splinter off to create new guilds in the hopes that someone else as guild leader may provide better group environments. The guild leader is not alone in managing the quality of the group’s interactions (as this is based on voluntary membership), but the guild leader is the rhetor in the group, one whose opinions hold the most weight in taking charge and offering solutions to problems. A guild leader who cannot successfully navigate situations that call for rhetorical discourse cause players to lose faith and find or found a new group.

Oftentimes, a guild’s success at continuing to exist is based on the quality of guild management and how much agency each member (as a node in the network) has in the relationships formed through rhetorical discourse. The conversations that arise during the whole process of raids (from the pre-planning, the decisions as to who will play what role, the instructions and conversations that crop up as the raid is taking place, and the distribution of loot after the raid has been successfully completed) reflect the quality of leadership and companionship of the guild to its members, even if to no one else. If there is a break down in communication, if the leader (or rhetor) has no responsibility placed upon him/her for the rhetorical situation he/she has decided to take advantage of or ignore, the group may become fragmented as the members (who are more than “mere hearers and readers”) become mediators of change in a way that can ultimately dissolve the guild. Players may leave the guild (alone or with others) if they feel they are being treated unfairly (such as them feeling cheated if they are not allowed loot they have requested, if they feel the loot is being hoarded by guild officers, and so on), if they feel they have outgrown what the guild can offer their character, or if the guild is not operating efficiently enough (too many members missing raid meeting times). If the rhetorical discourse require for a situation is ineffective or absent when most needed, the guild as a whole may be left at a severe disadvantage if the best players leave. Even a player who feels he/she has no agency in the group, still has enough agency to leave the group and find a new guild.

Vatz complicates Bitzer’s idea of agency for rhetors, putting more responsibility on the speaker and the moments in which the speaker decides to speak. The speaker, essentially, privileges the moments and subjects within, and chooses to discard or ignore others: “This very choice of what facts or events are relevant is a matter of pure arbitration. Once the choice is communicated, the event is imbued with salience, or what Haim Perelman calls ‘presence,’ when describing this phenomenon from the framework of argumentation” (Vatz 157). For Vatz, it is not solely that situations call for rhetoric, but that rhetoric can shape and define the character of a situation when the speaker chooses to give meaning to that situation and the rhetorical discourse happening within it. This is where the author/speaker of the rhetor gains agency, by being the person who takes the information selected for the situation and gives it meaning, especially since audience members only see an event as “meaningful only through their linguistic depictions” (Vatz 157). In this theory, agency is granted to the guild leader when he or she chooses moments in which he or she deems suitable or necessary for rhetorical discourse. This would be a guild leader finding “the right moment” to address something like player-player conflicts so as to manage the problem before it gets out of control, rather than just waiting for problems to arise and then speaking about it. There are dangers to this for the guild leader who is not at least semi-conscious about what he or she is privileging, what moments are deemed best (or better timed) and what rhetorical discourse is produced (what information is given meaning). This sense of agency for the guild leader allows him or her to establish the level of quality of the team’s work and play during raids and just as a cohesive (or otherwise) group.

From the angle of rhetorical discourse, what is moving through the network are the rules and guidelines that the members are continually establishing and putting into effect (or neglecting) for the experience they are seeking as a collective. Vatz states, “To the audience, events become meaningful only through their linguistic depiction” (157). Guild members could play the game alone (whether that gameplay would be successful or not would be another story), but it is the rhetorical exchange that underlies the guild activities that gives the events meaning for the players. A raid would be just hack-and-slash and magic-casting except that the players are using language to persuade themselves and each other that this raid, this dungeon, this boss fight means something for all of them. The raid leader may need to persuade others that a certain strategy is the correct one, but that explanation and the resulting discourse makes it a lived experience. Even a breakdown in communication or a consistent lack of quality guild management is a rhetorical discourse that can lead players to become mediators of change through guild dissolution. Rhetorical discourse is necessary for the networked individuals to stay together as a group, but they are the ones who must harness the technology and that which it affords them and actively work to maintain their boundaries. Rhetorical Situation Theory and the discourse that happens within those moments also draw attention to the networked individuals and their places within groups, drawing attention to the changes in the social landscape (social operating system) because players are aware that are meeting in non-traditional spaces and forming groups with people they would never have interacted with had the game not provided such a social space. For gamers, though, this rhetorical discourse also (often) acknowledges the technology that they are using, makings its agency and effect upon them part of their discourse.

So, why is studying World of Warcraft useful to English Studies?

Outside of pedagogy and player habits, MMOs like World of Warcraft are useful to the field of English Studies because it is, as Rainie and Wellman would say, a “new neighborhood” in the social operating system that is emerging through advancements in communication technologies and people’s reliance and implementation of those technologies. Within the gamespace and outside of it, guild members are employing rhetorical discourse to define their roles within their groups but also to define the boundaries of those groups. By studying WoW and games like it, and by studying how gamers are using the space and interactions with one another to fulfill social needs that had been filled (and are still being filled) by traditional groups, we can understand how the reshaping of our society around our virtual presences is granting us new avenues to gain agency. We are not just members of groups now, but nodes in a variety of networks, and we rely on technology to make ourselves present within those groups, reach out to new groups, and how to access and create media that engage us in the world at large. By crafting a Frankentheory from Actor-Network-Theory, Networked Individualism, and Rhetorical Situation Theory, we can start to understand how online gamespaces afford their players with spaces in which a microcosm of social dynamics can play out, but can be more inclusive in the study by understanding how technology acts upon us and changes our discourse as much as we act upon it and can change its code. For these networked societies and as networked individuals, we need the technology in order to have agency in the new landscape, and English Studies can benefit from taking the time to explore how rhetoric and interactions among people are adapting to the needs and demands being placed upon us by one another as start to navigate a more virtual society.

So long and thanks for all the network. Image hosted on tumblr, #whatshouldwecallgradschool

So long and thanks for all the networks. Image hosted on the tumblr #whatshouldwecallgradschool

References

Bitzer, Lloyd F. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 25 (Selections from Volume 1) (1992): 1-14. PDF.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Raine, Lee and Barry Wellman. Networked: The New Social Operating System. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. PDF.

Vatz, Richard E. “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 6.3 (1973): 154-161. PDF.

And Now I Bow Out

Bowing out or sinking down? Dean from Supernatural does it best.

Bowing out or sinking down? Dean from Supernatural does it best.

 


It’s All in the Way You Scaffold Your Theory_Assignment for Case Study #4

As my classmates and I head towards the final case study (in which the Frankentheories begin to emerge from the colossal stitching together from the breadth of theories we have read this semester), we were asked to do a scaffolding assignment (an outline in the best sense of the word) to begin thinking about how we would answer the question, “Why is studying my Object of Study useful to English Studies?” So, deep breath, and away we go.

1) Which 2 – 4 theories are you choosing and why? 

For this upcoming Case Study/Frankentheory, I am considering meshing together Rhetorical Activity Theory, Actor Network Theory, and Networked Individualism.

Rhetorical Situation Theory

-Looking at the ways in which rhetorical situations can occur within the gamespace of World of Warcraft. This theory helps me to look at the types of situations that produce rhetorical discourse for those within guilds, such as raid planning, player-player conflicts, and decisions regarding role-playing quests.

-With the application of this theory, I can look at how the quality of the rhetorical discourse within the guild can either mollify members (depending on the situation) or lead to ruptures within the group that may cause the guild to divide or fall apart completely. Vatz’s notion that rhetors must be held responsible for claiming the moment as a rhetorical situation as well as for what was done within the situation may be useful when going down this rabbit hole.

Actor Network Theory (ANT)

-This theory allows for me to explore technology as an actor (mediator as well as intermediary) alongside human actors to define and redefine the boundaries and existence of a group. It raises questions: What counts as an actor when looking specifically at a guild rather than at the gamespace at large? Are the actors the same despite narrowing of focus? And how do these actors work together, even though some are non-human?

-This theory also allows me to follow the threads (or trace the associations) of players’ activities through the technology and with one another to define what a guild is within and outside of the gamespace. What do players do with the technology of the game, their own hardware, and other communication devices, as well as resources found on the internet, do to maintain the guild as a group?

Networked Individualism

-I want to use this theory to explore how the social groups that are being created through the three revolutions (Social, Internet, and Mobile) are allowing gamers to craft social groups for themselves (in the game and outside of the game) fulfill needs prompted by their experiences within the gamespace and, more specifically, by being members of the same guild.

-Since WoW players do have access to many more resources than those found within the gamespace (official and unofficial forums, guild websites, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, guild ranking websites, and Wiki pages for the game), how does this empower players as players in the gamespace but also as members in their guild? Players are, essentially, not alone in the challenges they face in raids, on quests, and within social guild dynamics the way they would be if communication technology was not as far along as it is, but how does a player harnessing the “information at his/her fingertips” change the dynamics of the group?

How are they similar enough that you can justify getting them to work together?

Actor Network Theory and Networked Individualism are similar in that they are looking at society with technology in mind: ANT as humans and non-human actants working together to create the boundaries and maintain the group (guild, in this case), and Networked Individualism as people (gamers) using technology to create diverse and yet loosely collected social groups that fulfill needs that traditional social groups (those once limited more so by proximity) cannot. For both of these theories, technology and the social are focal points in the sense that they are looking at how actors (human and non-human, though the agency is emphasized differently between the theories) are working together. Rhetorical Situation Theory may seem to be the odd theory as it looks mainly at humans and human activity, but rhetoric is something being passed within a Networked Society (such as when networked individuals create content on the internet, read news articles, or communicate with friends and family) and may be part of the associations that ANT researchers trace through actors as defining and maintaining a group (such as the activities taking place within a labor union). All three of these theories are about the social (however each defines it) and about what happens within that social (to different degrees and outlooks, of course).

How do they fill each other’s gaps?

Actor Network Theory takes a pretty broad view of human and non-human actors working together to define what is social (and, in this case, what is a guild). Networked Individualism narrows this focus to the needs being met for or sought by the humans within these social networks, and how these humans are using communication technology that is in turn reshaping how they interact with one another. ANT brings technology as an actant into the discourse, while Networked Individualism provides a framework for what people are doing within social groups and how they are defining the groups of which they are members. For my case study on WoW, these two theories combined will give me a macro and micro view of technology at play alongside humans, ensuring that the communication technology and game software are receiving as much attention and agency in developing and maintaining the networks within which the humans (physically, in some senses, and through their avatars) are operating.

Rhetorical Situation Theory adds to this discourse because rhetoric is moving through the networks being defined by the human and non-human actors and shaping the kinds of experiences being had by the guild members using the technology. In a gamespace, codes in the forms of zeroes and ones are the not the only things moving within a network. In a guild, code helps to relay the rhetoric moving between players during situations (both formal, such as raid planning, and informal, such as conversations between players about the dividing up of loot). By threading Rhetorical Situation Theory in with ANT and Networked Individualism, I can explore how players in the guild are using rhetoric to define the boundaries of the group, while at the same time, the hardware, software, and players are working together simultaneously within a network defined by the relay of code and commands.

How do these theories align with how you position yourself as a scholar?

This question took me a little while to consider and I am still not completely sure about how all three of the theories align with my own position as a scholar (or what that position is or will, ultimately, be). While I do not consider myself a rhetorician, Rhetorical Theory meshed together with the more technologically-laden theories of Actor Network Theory and Networked Individualism seem to be inherently linked to Cultural Studies, which I am hoping to work with as I continue making my way through the PhD program. Both ANT and Networked Individualism include or revolve around, respectively, technology as working alongside the humans who are using them, which offers interesting insight into how players and software and hardware mingle together to create or disrupt the experiences that video games offer for a single player, limited groups of players, and millions of players across different servers.

How do these theories align with your own biases and background (the reason you came to this project in the first place)?

I chose guilds in Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) Games, narrowing down to World of Warcraft while working on my first case study, as my Object of Study because of my interest in Video Game Studies from an English Studies point of view. At first, I thought of looking at how narratives bind members of guilds and how such interactions could be used for college students, especially those in Composition courses. This emphasis switched, without me recognizing it until we were asked to rewrite our Object of Study Proposals, to how rhetorical activity can take place in a virtual environment and be influenced by the technology players have access to.

While Rhetorical Activity Theory was outside of my range as a scholar (I had never taken a class on Rhetoric, and had only worked with concepts from Classical Rhetoric with my Composition students for lessons on argumentation), the idea presented in Latour’s Actor Network Theory of technology as something more than just hardware and software that we manipulate really drew me in. Technology as a mediator (rather than as just an intermediary, though it can also be that too) connected with what I want to study for Role Playing Games (RPGs) on consoles (primarily PlayStation and XBox). As for Rainie and Wellman’s Networked Individualism Theory, I was familiar with how communications between people in society has been altered through advancements with the technology they use, but I am curious now to see how that Networked Individualism can play out for players in guilds whose sole communication can occur because they are networked in this way. As video game console developers continue to harness and enhance players’ abilities to communicate nationally as well as internationally with one another through the developers’ networks (PlayStation Network and XBox Live), this idea of a networked individual becomes increasingly relevant.

Though I am relatively new to the direct (conscious?) exploration of rhetorical activity in video games (I was most likely doing it without realizing it), I could say that one of my biases that came with me as I approached this project (series of case studies) was the idea that technology has a greater influence on players than just being what the players use. Game Studies scholar recognize that the limitations of technology and the constructs/boundaries of the gamespace can push players in certain directions for how they behave, how they communicate with one another, and what kinds of work-arounds they often look for or create in reaction to the limitations of the gamespace (such as the use of forums, Skype if the in-game communication system is lack or non-existent, creation of YoutTube videos).

Rise, Frankentheory, Rise!


Virtual Ecosystems of World of Warcraft_Case Study #3

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm expansion. Image hosted on Blizzard's official website for WoW.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm expansion. Image hosted on Blizzard’s official website for WoW.

Literature Review

Much of the scholarship surrounding World of Warcraft (WoW) focuses on social dynamics, such as whether or not people are isolated or more connected, gold farming in China, and how Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games can be used in classrooms (the game specifically or skills learned and honed in-game by players. For Steven L. Thorne, Ingrid Fischer, and Xiaofei Lu, in their article “The Semiotic Ecology and Linguistic Complexity of an Online Game World,” explore the affordances and environment of what they term the semiotic ecology of the gamespace, though they conclude that “external websites function as keystone species within WoW’s broader semiotic ecology” as players in their sample admit to constantly seeking advice and information from these external websites in regards to quests, armor, and lore. They also found that, while in-game text chat functions can help gamers internationally come together and learn each other’s languages, “The analysis of the text samples from the external websites revealed a high degree of lexical sophistication, lexical diversity, syntactic complexity, and based on the D-level scores, a significant proportion of structurally complex sentences…the most popular WoW-related external websites are relatively rich in lexical sophistication and diversity, include multiple genres – from informational and expository prose to interactive ‘I-you’ and conversational text types, and illustrate a high proportion of both complex syntactic structures as well as interactive and interpersonally engaged discourse. It also bears noting that related research focusing on the cognitive content of strategy and game-play websites shows that these texts are rhetorically and logically complex.” MMOs like WoW may be games and research may fluctuate between considering such games as having positive and negative effects on players, but researchers are finding that these games and the literature that was created outside of the gamespace do provide players with environments in which learning can take place, especially that of the semiotic.

Other ecological theories, beyond that of semiotics have been applied to the MMO. In their article, “Social Mediating Technologies: Social Affordances and Functionalities,” A. G. Sutcliffe, V. Gonzalez, J. Binder, and G. Nevarez place WoW into discourse with other social media technologies, like Facebook, Wikipedia, and Blacksburg Electronic Villagein order to understand the affordances that the technologies provide to their users. They draw upon theorists like Gibson, Norman, and Ackerman, as well as “Clark’s common ground theory,” when giving a broader overview of computer-mediated communication (CMC). The authors found that, when looking at communication modalities, “The game provides visual and audio interaction, which meets most of the modalities criteria, with partial support for reviewability as long as the feedback from previous actions persists; the game does not meet the criterion of revisability unless editing settings and skills levels are considered.” The authors then drew upon other scholarship, and their own, in order to understand how the goals for players in WoW matched up with people who were using other forms of social media: “Sherlock (2007) explored the role of groups in WoW and compared the game with social networking websites, arguing that WoW ties the formation of groups to shared objectives and motives (i.e., guilds). When forming or joining a group for quests, the members need a good balance of skills and abilities and a shared goal. This contrasts with SNS, where interest matching, shared background, or other social factors shape group formation. WoW shares social affordances with Wikipedia and BEV, the other community based SMTs.” They conclude that WoW provides players with a variety of social affordances that allow them to keep in touch, exchange information in-game as well as out of game, and participate in multiplayer activities.

Let’s Begin

While World of Warcraft is an online game, the code underlying the game allows for virtual representations of ecosystems, but ones that truly alter only when an expansion set or a patch rework the code. The gamespace across the servers can be seen as a virtual ecosystem, separate yet not from the rest of the online world, and each server, in turn, becomes a smaller ecosystem. The same occurs for cities within each server. These cities, populated permanently by non-playable characters (NPCs) and temporarily by players, are surrounded by pixelated flora and fauna. What is interesting is that the cities do not really bleed over into the wilderness, and monsters from the wild cannot approach the city without NPC guards rushing forward to kill the monsters. In this sense, the programmed ecosystem of the gamespace can never fully emulate or imitate a natural ecosystem, as the software only allows for activity within the parameters of its code. Everything has its particular place, except the players, who are free to move as they will, looking for boss battles, dungeons, side quests, and one another.

A city center in WoW. Image hosted on the blog, World of Games&Fixes.

A city center in WoW. Image hosted on the blog, World of Games&Fixes.

For players, the programmed cityscapes and landscapes are the environments in which their avatars as beings-in-the-virtual-world maneuver, offering their avatars social affordances as well as virtual but purposeless representations of real world affordances. Each player lives in the “meat space,” operating within the ecosystem of his or her house, neighborhood, city, and so on, but, when they log onto the internet and a game, players allow their attention and activity to also blend over into an informational ecosystem, composed of digital content created by zeroes and ones. Their bodies tap keyboards, adjust screens, and shift in chairs, but their minds extend beyond the skin (as Bateson would put it) into a gamespace where they act as nodes in a series of ever-larger networks composed of millions of players whose physical proximity is not necessary. Players’ avatars can inhabit, interact, and move through the virtual gamespaces, with players’ physical presence only filtering in as voices and text across chat systems, as well as second-hand through avatars’ actions.

In order to apply Ecology Theory to a virtual world, we must acknowledge that a virtual world only functions within the parameters which had been established before and reestablished over the course of the game’s lifespan. Beasts (recognizable and fictitious) populate the gamespace, but only because they have been programmed into being visually represented as pixelated images. As well, the various ecosystems represented in the game, and the NPCs and beasts within them, behave in a certain way because of the code underlying them. It is not a natural ecosystem where surprising phenomena can take place and ecosystems can blend together, rupture one another, or disappear quietly, unless new codes are implemented into the software. The software does not age NPCs or monsters; no matter the length of time a player has an active account, most of the virtual inhabitants of the game will be moving through the same cycle of selling wares, wandering through streets or forests or deserts, and guarding or attacking those passing by. The only thing that can occur organically within the virtual gamespace are the relationships among the players-avatars. Even these relationships cannot totally escape moderation, but they do exist and function more naturally. For WoW, like other MMOs, it is a virtual world in which the outside world is constantly in contact. In this sense, guilds and guild members in WoW can be considered ecosystems and as parts of larger ecosystems, but such ecosystems are artificial. Ecology Theory looks as guilds as wholes, but also at guild members as beings in an artificial environment.

Throughout the gamespace, there are different kinds of terrains, each sporting different types of monsters and dungeons. Cities are scattered throughout the servers, offering players transportation (in the form of flight paths, teleportation, zeppelins, or trams), banks, inns, and auction houses (for Faction cities). Though these are virtual spaces, the different terrains in Azeroth (name of the game world) have a variety of affordances for players’ avatars. The code creates a landscape upon which avatars can walk, climb, run, swim, and ride, but if there are bugs in the system, the landscape has moments where that affordance disappears (such as when a character falls through a wall or drops through a floor into virtual nothingness. There are also virtual solid substances in the game, such as weapons, armor, clothing, food, oils, stones, with the list extending outwards. Some of these items come pre-crafted, but others can be, in a sense, “fabricated by hand,” though the concept of manual labor in a game is never an accurate description of what occurs in-game (Gibson 131). Each of these affords players, through their avatars, something that will, hopefully, aid them in the game, but the gamespace does not change because of them, so players, even working within guilds, have limited agency within the scope of the artificial ecosystem.

Players only truly have control over how their avatars move through the various ecosystems represented throughout the game. An example of this would be a guild moving through a city. The city does not change because of their presence, their money does not alter how a vendor operates, and the city guards do not react when a large group moves through the space. Instead, players’ behaviors change due to the new environment in which they are playing (some players use the safety afforded by cities and towns to let their characters idle while they attend to responsibilities in the “meat space” or search online for advice and guides for in-game activities). They are not engaging bystanders in battle, they may be using a guild bank, and gathering supplies in the form of potions and armor. Once they leave the city, the behavior of the guild alters to adapt and meet the challenges of dungeons, random battles, and quests.

Where guilds and guild members have the greatest agency in-game is though the social affordances of the game, with pathways like text chats, voice chats, message boards, and guild banks. Through these social affordances, it is information (strategies, character details, object details, quest advice, social facts about the guild and the gamespace at large, roles of the sub-groups) moving within the microscopic level of the guild and between the members, not flowing down in a hierarchical fashion, but like a spider web of information to all members. Because the guilds are part of the ecosystem and do not quite compose an ecosystem onto themselves, guild members as nodes can do little to affect the programmed ecosystem around them. Instead, they leave their marks through reputation, activities, and guild rankings outside of the game, and the existence of their guild for other players. The guild as a node is only as important as the draw and interest in produces in other players throughout the gamespace. Guild officers have more power, in a sense, than non-power and new gamers because they have greater access and (usually) more experience with what can be accomplished through the social affordances provided by the gamespace, but even they do not have much agency in the ecosystem of the server or the ecosystem of WoW. The social affordances allow these nodes to have access to one another, sharing similar experiences with their avatars as beings-in-the-virtual-world, and carving out a communication and informational space that they can use to craft spaces outside of the gamespace as their own, causing the activities in the artificial ecosystem of the game to bleed over into the informational network of the internet.

However, affordances in the gamespace are not only directed at avatars or as social affordances for player communication. Some perceived affordances, Don Norman’s concept, are equally useful for players, especially for advanced players, and their navigation and success in the gamespace. Players can access addons in order to modify and enhance the user interface, such as damage meters, performance measurements, and raid cooldowns as well as communications. These perceived affordances, which can be created officially by Blizzard or unofficially by players, can help give players greater agency in-game, especially during group raids where information can be crucial for the team to perform cohesively (with each player successfully fulfilling his or her role) but also to look back and judge places where performance could be tweaked or failed completely, as a way to enhance group performance for the next raid or the next completion of the same raid.

World of Warcraft Usability. Image hosted on the website, elsabartley .co.uk

World of Warcraft Usability. Image hosted on the website, elsabartley.co.uk

Because gamers are dealing with a virtual ecosystem, what they can physically do to interact with the gameworld is afforded to them by the keyboard and the mouse, and how they can interact with their fellow guild members is afforded to them through the keyboard and/or a headset. While only certain keys afford certain actions in-game, running, cast spells, healing, attacking, making gestures, and so on, not all keys will afford players actions. The software of most MMOs also sketchy when it comes to touch-screen affordances, as touching such screens will cause movement of the player or the camera angle, but do so sloppily because the software is not truly programmed for such technology.

The perceived affordances of the gamespace are based on cultural constraints and convictions, but they also help to redefine those same constraints and convictions internationally. The layout, however, was constructed by Blizzard, a company that is located in the United States, so the cultural conventions and constraints are heavily influenced by US cultural norms. But, since the game has been around for almost a decade or more, the visual layout for things like the menus, the action boxes, and help guides are now familiar to players, regardless the country from which they are playing. These players may not be from a single culture, but they do constitute a group. They are WoW gamers, which becomes an aspect of their identity tying them together. These are perceived affordances players expect to be there when they log on to the game, and their familiarity is useful for new or returning players because it is a system where they can seek advice in-game and out of game.

Like any group of organisms functioning within a much larger ecosystem, guilds do emerge and disintegrate, mutating into smaller and larger versions of themselves as people begin and quit the game, separate into separate guilds due to in-fighting or stagnation, and vanish altogether. These guilds use the various kinds of affordances offered to them within the gamespace (as well as those external but related) to enhance their performance as individuals and groups, to stay in contact and relay information (though that information can sometimes become misinformation), and to share experiences that bind them as a unit (though such experiences and players’ interactions with and reactions against each other may also be what destroys a group). The guilds as groups and players as individuals are the organic reactions within a highly artificial set of ecosystems.

Where to Go From Here?

While Ecology Theory is very interesting in looking at what an MMO gamespace can afford players (as visual imitations of real world affordances—houses, banks, transportation—, social affordances in the way information can be relayed throughout the virtual environment, and perceived affordances granted to players from the creators and through player-innovation), from the theorists we read, it is hard to talk about the ecosystems of the gamespace. I was surprised by how hard it is to reconcile conversations about organic ecosystems with virtual ecosystems that have players’ avatars moving through different terrains, because the artificial ecosystem is programmed to run on a cycle and be the same for everyone. Players of MMOs have very little agency in the workings of the gamespace, finding only small alterations that respond to their actions, generally with certain NPCs making comments about a quest being completed.  Players are operating their avatars within a sandbox world, and yet there is very little they can do to affect the world at large.

Instead, it is the interactions of the players and the information moving between them where they have the greatest agency in WoW’s different levels of ecosystem. As well, players have greater agency in how they can tap into the information output of the game and their (and their fellow guild members’) activities by using addons. It is the perceived affordances of the gamespace that allow players to move more successfully through the gamespace as individuals and as groups. It was also intriguing to realize that the artificial ecosystems being depicted in-game are so strictly divided: wilderness does not intrude upon civilization, or at least not for long as city guards are programmed to fight and defeat any monsters who leave their territory. If I were to try discussing the ecosystems of WoW on a scale beyond the theorists we have read, I would definitely look more into virtual environments and how the perceived affordances of the gamespace make up for the meaningless imitations scattered throughout. The gamespace is an ecosystem, one that could still continue existing (for a while, at least) without people connecting to it, but the people, especially through guilds, are where the most interesting analyses of WoW come into play as their avatars moving through the virtual space are the “organisms plus environment.”

References

Bateson, Gregory. “Form, Substance, and Difference.” Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1987. [PDF].

Gibson, James J. “Theory of Affordances.” The Information for Visual Perceptions. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986. [PDF].

Norman, Don. “Affordances and Design.” JND.org. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

Sutcliffe, A. G., V. Gonzalez, J. Binder, and G. Nevarez. “Social Mediating Technologies: Social Affordances and Functionalities.” International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction 27 .11 (2011): 1037-1065. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 Apr. 2014.

Thorne, Steven L., Ingrid Fischer, and Xiaofei Lu. “The Semiotic Ecology and Linguistic Complexity of an Online Game World.” ReCALL 24.3 (September 2012): 279-301. Cambridge Journals. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.

Just Because I Can

 


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:


In Which ANT Meets Rhetorical Theory, And Even Objects Have Agency_Case Study #2 WoW

WoW Guild. Image hosted on Think Tutorial.

WoW Guild. Image hosted on Think Tutorial.

For this second case study, I am approaching guilds in World of Warcraft from Rhetorical Situation Theory (Lloyd Bitzer and Richard Vatz) and Actor-Network-Theory (Bruno Latour). While Rhetorical Situation is focused on humans as rhetors and the functions and effects of rhetorical discourse on and within audiences,  ANT looks at non-human as well as human actors as they are constantly defining and redefining groups and what is, ultimately, the social. Both of the theories look at those who are acting within a group, with one being more inclusive as to who/what can be an actant, and effects of the actors’ movements rippling through the network rather than looking at the network from the outside in.

Literature Review

The research that surrounds computer and video games is usually limited in terms of what is being analyzed. The major scholarly tracks seem to be violence, effects on children, Hzuinga’s “magical circle,” how games can be used for learning, gamer-avatar identity, and addiction (with this last one being a major component of research done on WoW). The international popularity of WoW (and some other MMORPGS, though WoW tends to have the most active subscriptions) is reflected in the scholarship surrounding it, as researchers from around the world turn their attention to the game and the effects it has, or can have, on its players. Scholars like Shelia Murphy as well as Nicholas Hoult and Douglas Klieber attempt to understand how computer games and video (console) games provide spaces for players that draw them in to identify with their characters (as well as how that gamer-avatar identification can be disrupted) in a way that television and movies do not, drawing upon the psychological needs being fulfilled. Like Murphy, Alex Golub also explores the visual elements of computer games, with WoW as his primary object of study, but ultimately concludes that the players’ experiences in virtual worlds are not based on enhanced sensorial realism, but on downplaying that realism because, “Rather than describe people who turn databases into worlds, I will describe a community which has taken a virtual world and turned it back into a database” (19). Golub finds that players use what the game provides them to strip away the levels of realism to work more closely with the code, the language of ones and zeroes, to enhance their experience of the game and their activities within guilds, and such activities take place not only in the game through verbal and textual communication between players and actions of avatars, but also through out-of-game spaces like websites and forums, email, phone calls, and through software like Skype and Google Hangout. Work like that of Chien-Hsun Chen, Chuen-Tsai Sun, and Jilung Hiesh is an outlier to the usual research being done on computer and video games as they use quantitative analysis to track the constant evolution and dissolution of WoW guilds in Taiwanese servers, finding that there are patterns to the creations, maintenance, and disbanding of guilds, based on players’ movement between guilds based on level ranking and quality of guild management.

Rhetorical Situations in a Game?

For the first part of this case study, I am going to be working with Rhetorical Situation Theory (focusing on the works of Bitzer and Vatz), looking at moments of rhetorical situation and the boundaries within which rhetors produce discourse in the gamespace of WoW.  But, are there moments of rhetoric in an MMORPG? If, as Bitzer says, “rhetorical discourse comes into existence as a response to a situation,” what kinds of situations in-game would create moments of rhetorical discourse (5)? It’s just a game, isn’t it?

Well, yes, it is a game, but it is also an environment, one that is heavily grounded in social interaction. Rhetoric is everywhere as players move as network nodes between interactions, joining and leaving guilds as well as joining and leaving raiding parties. Within guilds, players must convince one another of battle strategies as raids can often be difficult undertakings, requiring hours of planning and hours of execution, sometimes with little success; in player-player conflicts, with some players defending themselves and their potential virtual property against other players; when player-player conflicts cannot be resolved, there are ruptures within guilds, leading to the creation of separate guilds; and within the creation of new guilds, the recruitment of players into the guilds, especially when the gamer is new to the server or has been relatively isolated prior to creating a guild charter.

Guild social dynamics are essentially playing out in a microcosm of social and political** (usually within the guild, not in the gamespace at large) tensions, mediated through character avatars over Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and textual messages. But rhetorical situations do not only occur in-game for guilds, but also outside of games: in forums (official and unofficial), on guild websites, through YouTube videos, and in personal communications. Much of this discourse is written by guild members for guild members, creating a circular audience, though gamers outside of the guild and even non-players (depending on the medium) can have access to out-of-game texts about in-game activities.

VoIP. Image hosted on official WoW site, Battle.net.

VoIP. Image hosted on official WoW site, Battle.net.

Unofficial World of Warcraft website for the guild Frostwolves.

Unofficial World of Warcraft website for the guild Frostwolves.

With this theory, rhetorical discourse always has a human agent, what Bitzer calls “mediators of change”: “Rhetorical  discourse produces changes by influencing the decision and action of persons who function as mediators of change” (7). This raises the questions of who would constitute the rhetors, the mediators of change, and the audience of those moments of discourse? The answer to these questions will always be guild members, but there are different kinds of guild members. There are differences between guild officers, raid leaders, guild leader, power players versus non-power players, and veteran players versus rookie players. The differences in-game are not based on outside elements like age, profession, race, financial status, or social class, but are based on experience and skill in-game. While the ideal is that every member of the group be given fair and equal treatment within the guild, there are often moments where players’ agency depends on their perceived level of commitment to the group and what level of guild hierarchy they have reached. It all depends on the rules established by the guild for how the guild operates in gameplay.

Oftentimes, a guild’s success at continuing to exist is based on the quality of guild management and how much agency each member (as a node in the network) has in the relationships formed through rhetorical discourse. The conversations that arise during the whole process of raids (from the pre-planning, the decisions as to who will play what role, the instructions and conversations that crop up as the raid is taking place, and the distribution of loot after the raid has been successfully completed) reflect the quality of leadership and companionship of the guild to its members, even if to no one else. If there is a break down in communication, if the leader (or rhetor) has no responsibility placed upon him/her for the rhetorical situation he/she has decided to take advantage of or ignore, the group may become fragmented as the members (who are more than “mere hearers and readers”) become mediators of change in a way that can ultimately dissolve the guild. Players may leave the guild (alone or with others) if they feel they are being treated unfairly (such as them feeling cheated if they are not allowed loot they have requested, if they feel the loot is being hoarded by guild officers, and so on), if they feel they have outgrown what the guild can offer their character, or if the guild is not operating efficiently enough (too many members missing raid meeting times). If the rhetorical discourse require for a situation is ineffective or absent when most needed, the guild as a whole may be left at a severe disadvantage if the best players leave. Even a player who feels he/she has no agency in the group, still has enough agency to leave the group and find a new guild.

From the angle of rhetorical discourse, what is moving through the network are the rules and guidelines that the members are continually establishing and putting into effect (or neglecting) for the experience they are seeking as a collective. Vatz states, “To the audience, events become meaningful only through their linguistic depiction” (157). Guild members could play the game alone (whether that gameplay would be successful or not would be another story), but it is the rhetorical exchange that underlies the guild activities that gives the events meaning for the players. A raid would be just hack-and-slash and magic-casting except that the players are using language to persuade themselves and each other that this raid, this dungeon, this boss fight means something for all of them. The raid leader may need to persuade others that a certain strategy is the correct one, but that explanation and the resulting discourse makes it a lived experience. Even a breakdown in communication or a consistent lack of quality guild management is a rhetorical discourse that can lead players to become mediators of change through guild dissolution.

**Side note: There are also times when political rhetoric crosses into a gamespace as players adapt the web of interconnectivity that a popular game can provide. An example of this is an in-game political rally for Ron Paul supporters that was established by players. These players carved a non-traditional space (non-traditional for a game, at least)for themselves within WoW by collecting supporters for an out-of-game cause.  Can the video below be considered a rhetorical text? Can these players be considered mediators of change as both rhetors and audience members?

Enter the ANT

While Rhetorical Situation Theory is very much about the human and the rhetorical discourse, ANT allows the very non-human entities of hardware and software as having just as much agency as the gamers themselves in a study on WoW. The programming code that makes everything work is not pushed off to the side; it is allowed into the discourse, becoming a major (and acknowledged) part of the network. With ANT, the actors are the nodes, but who are out actors? So yes, gamers, of course, are on the list of actors, but so are representations of the code through non-playable characters (NPCs), loot from raids, quests logs, monsters, characters’ pets, parts of the environment, and objects that can be handled in the game. But our list is still incomplete. We have to step outside of the game and look at what allows gamers to actually play: keyboards, CPUs with monitors or laptops, mouse, and headphones, as well as additional technologies that can now be used to access the game (thank you add-ons from Blizzard) like cellphones. Is this a more complete list? Sort of. Guild activities do not only take place in the gamespace, but outside of it as well in forums, through software like Google Hangouts and Skype, through social media like Facebook, and through unofficial game websites. There could be other actors involved, especially if the guild members know each other in person, but this will be okay for now as our list is more robust than simply just listing humans. This is what a WoW ANT network for a guild would like.

Normally, when a guild is mentioned, people imagine this:

WoW guild, anyone? Image hosted on the C Trust Network.

WoW guild, anyone? Image hosted on the C Trust Network.

When really, with our newly constructed list in mind, the mental image should include these two:

Example of what a screen for what a player sees during a raid. Image hosted on C Trust Network.

Example of what a screen for what a player sees during a raid. Image hosted on C Trust Network.

Guild playing at a tournament. Image hosted on website SK-Gaming.

Guild playing at a tournament. Image hosted on website SK-Gaming.

Now that we have our larger (if not totally exhaustive list) and our handy-dandy new mental image, we must deal with a new way of conceiving how the nodes in our guild network have agency and are situated within the network. Why would I choose to list these actors? According to Latour, “If we stick to our decision to start from the controversies about actors and agencies, then any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor– or, if it has no figuration yet, an actant. Thus, the questions to ask about any agent are simply the following: Does it make a difference in the course of some other agent’s action or not? Is there some trial that allows someone to detect this difference?” (71). Let’s see if we can tease out how this works within an MMORPG. What do all of these actors even do for the network? The gamers, their hardware, and the game’s software have one major collective goal. They are all working towards the creation and maintenance of the gameworld in which the guild exists. Sounds odd that gamers are part of this, doesn’t it? But, that’s how games work. The developers design the code that then puts the gameworld into existence on the chosen platform(s) players will then access through their chosen hardware. If the gamers choose not to play, eventually the designers will have to shut the game down or the game remains in its plastic casing on a shelf. In order for the gameworld to be activated and maintained, it needs someone to be playing.

But, we need to narrow this down further. Our target network is not the game as a whole, but individual guilds. What gamers, the software, and the hardware do for the game at large works the same way for the guild on a more microscopic level. The guild’s boundaries must be defined and redefined constantly, which Latour mentions when discussing the creation and maintenance of groups: “all need some people defining who they are, what they should be, what they have been. These are constantly at work, justifying the group’s existence, invoking rules and precedents and, as we shall see, measuring up one definition against all others. Groups are not silent things, but rather the provisional product of a constant uproar made by the millions of contradictory voices about what is a group and who pertains to what” (31). In this sense, the guild is a network node inside a much larger, far more extensive network. And, the gamers, who would have been just one node among (literally) millions of other player nodes, and those are just talking about the human elements of the game. What being part of a guild does then is offer players greater agency in their own gameplay experience of WoW by making them a node in a network that is comprised of a more manageable (usually) number of human players.

However, if those guild members stop redefining the boundaries of their group, against the world, other guilds, and against players with no guilds at all, the guild itself will dissolve. The code and gamers’ hardware is not enough to maintain a guild. The guild may have an archive of some kind as having once existed, but the players are the core nodes who meet and interact in a way that makes a guild what it is. That being said, the guild would not exist without the code that is always underlining the game. There would be no reason for a guild unless the environment of the gamespace provided dungeons to conquer, raids to take on, a world to explore, cities to visit, and servers where players can face off against one another or players (PvP) face off against the environment (PvE). And, without the hardware of the computer and the headphones, players would not have access to the gamespace and to each other. All of the actors are necessary, especially with digital games.

It is here where ANT really diverges away from theories like Rhetorical Situation Theory, complicating how we see interactions in a network. What exactly can be moving through a guild network when we must take into account the software and hardware? How does it move among the different nodes? One of the major things moving through the network is code, zeroes and ones that render the visuals, relay information  about characters’ statuses, allow for environmental sounds and pre-established soundtrack selections, and initiate reactions from the environment, NPCs, and monsters in which the guild members interact. There are also the zeroes and ones that allow players to have their avatars do physical gestures towards one another and allow relay their textual conversations. But, that’s not all. The hardware players may opt to use like headphones and mics allow for verbal communications. Rhetorical discourse may be part of what is being conveyed, but, in this more inclusive list of network nodes, the code is central to all transmissions.

Who/what are the mediators and what are the intermediaries making all of this possible? “Every time a connection has to be established, a new conduit has to be laid down and some new type of entity has to be transported through it. What circulates, so to speak, ‘inside’ the conduits are the very acts of giving something a dimension. Whenever a locus wishes to act on another locus, it has to go through some medium, transporting something all the way; to go on acting, it has to maintain some sort of more or less durable connection. Conversely, every locus is now the target of many such activities, the crossroads of many such tracks, the provisional repository of many such vehicles. Sites, now transformed into actor-networks for good, are moved to the background; connectors, vehicles, and attachments are brought into the foreground” (Latour 220).

**This quote always reminds me of Tron: Legacy.

In ANT, there are mediators (those that cause other actors to do something) and there are intermediaries (objects that relay information without causing change), though intermediaries can become mediators. How to picture this, though, when zeroes and ones are at the heart of everything in-game and players must continually be mediators while they are immersed in the gameworld? The hardware seem most likely to be continually be mediators so long as gamers are playing, in much the same way as Latour’s example of telephone wires being persistent mediators for the British Empire. It took me a while to puzzle this one out, but the best example I could think of for an intermediary in relation to a guild in WoW would be NPCs and monsters populating the world. As guild members move through the gamespace, signing off and returning to the world of the game when the guild and the meatspace demand, NPCs and the other creatures of the gamespace continue to exist, but what are they doing? In a sense, they are code-in-waiting. They are physically representing the zeroes and ones that program an NPC or a monster to be in a particular location, but they are not really causing change in the network of the guild until a player (or the group of players) interacts with them. These digital entities are always ready, either standing in the same physical space or roaming predetermined pathways, waiting for something to trigger them (through conversation or battle). Once activated, the NPC or monster then becomes a mediator by either giving players details for a particular quest or transporting them for the former, or attacking them for the latter. The players may then be sent in a new direction (to find an item, location, or just to run away), or find themselves needing to defend and attack.

Example of an NPC. Image hosted on the WoW Insider on Joystiq.

Example of an NPC. Image hosted on the WoW Insider on Joystiq.

Conclusion

When applying ANT to guild activities in WoW, there is as much need to define and redefine the boundaries of the network for the researcher as the actors when they are defining and redefining the groups within which they find themselves working. The code of the game may play a major role in what the guild can do in the gamespace, but it does not limit itself to that. The code is always working throughout the game, across the different servers in the different countries where people are playing. When talking about this angle in my case study, I always get the sense that I am stepping away from my object of study as the boundaries blur. The zeroes and ones are hidden from the more casual player under layers of what they render, though the games allows players the option of stripping away the visual elements in order to have greater access to the code underneath. This makes tracing the associations in ANT a little more difficult. Game developers make the world as seamless as possible so that players can immerse themselves, and hardware and software are only truly noticed when they malfunction. In comparison, Rhetorical Situation Theory seems easier to implement, primarily because it is not as inclusive and, therefore, more manageable. By only focusing on humans dealing with other humans, the extra variables made visible in ANT are left out.

References

Bitzer, Lloyd F. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 25 (Selections from Volume 1) (1992): 1-14. PDF.

Chen, Chien-Hsun, Chuen-Tsai Sun, Jilung Hsieh. “Player Guild Dynamics and Evolution is Massively Multiplayer Online Games.” CyberPsychology & Behavior 11.3 (2008): 293-301. Academic Search Complete. Web. 18 March 2014.

Golub, Alex. “Being in the World (of Warcraft): Raiding, Realism, and Knowledge Production in a Massively Multiplayer Online Game.” Anthropological Quarterly 83.1 (2010): 17-45. JSTOR. Web. 26 Jan 2014.

Holt, Nicholas A. and Douglas A. Kleiber. “The Sirens’ Song of Multiplayer Online Games.” Children, Youth and Environments 19.1 (2009): 223-244. JSTOR. Web. 26 Jan 2014.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the SocialAn Introduction to the Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Murphy, Sheila C. “‘Live in Your World, Play in Ours’: The Spaces of Video Game Identity.” Journal of Visual Culture 3.2 (2004): 223-238. Sage. Web. 17 March 2014.

Vatz, Richard E. “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 6.3 (1973): 154-161. PDF.

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