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‘Are Blue Posts a Primary Source?’: Progress Notes on the Real Warcraft Thesis

January 22, 2012
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New year, new post, new project. Some of you may remember my post about being asked to deliver a paper on WoW in a formal academic setting a few months back. I’ve made a resolution to be accountable for this project in the new year, after the wild two months that was BlizzCon + my international holiday travel wound down. To that end, I’m hoping to regularly update Flavor Text with how my work is going, similar to the Thesis Thursday feature at Got Medieval. [If any of you share my interest in marginalia (which is a sort of flavor text in its own right!) I highly recommend that blog.]  These posts will be more informal and free-flowing in nature — and more importantly — NOT IN ANY WAY A FINISHED PRODUCT OR CONCLUSIVE. I put that in capslock for a reason.  These are, essentially, my process notes and thoughtdumps on the project.

So far, I’ve found that working as an independent scholar who’s been out of the pool of academia for a few years can be a bit isolating, and I miss the exchange of  ideas I once had over delirious tea breaks at ungodly hours with fellow grad students while working on my own research. I’m hoping to re-create that sense of dialogue here with this post; comments are not only welcome but actively encouraged. Even if you disagree with me. Actually, particularly if you disagree with me.

Before I dive into telling you more about the topic I’m going to tackle, I feel I should probably give you a bit of insight into the area of research my MA covered, so you have a better sense of my background and how it’s informed the way I’m going to approach this project. About this time six years ago, I was researching depictions of scenes from Norse sagas that occurred on medieval Manx grave markers. The carving in the photograph below is one of my favorites from the corpus of these sculptures; known as Sigurd’s Cross or Fafni’s Bane,  this stone depicts some of the exploits of the Norse hero Sigurd that would later be codified in prose as part of the Völsunga Saga.

Cross No. 121, Kirk Andreas, Isle of Man. (Sigurd says: "DRAGONFLESH! OM NOM NOM.")

What made this stone –and others like it–so interesting to me was that they demonstrated the important role that Norse myth and folklore played in medieval Manx culture. For those of you who aren’t up on the history of  the minor islands that make up Great Britain, the population of the Isle of Man through most of the first millenium CE was of Celtic extraction. At the time this stone was carved, settlers from Scandinavia had begun to arrive on the Isle of Man in droves, resulting in a cultural melding between them and the established Celtic (and Christian) population. Think about that for a moment — these are non-Christian stories about heroes and deities that have managed not only to persist within a Christian culture, but also to permeate that culture so deeply that their iconography is directly represented in the sacred context of a memorial or grave. In medieval Europe, that’s worth noting. Why do these stories persist across cultures, across media, across millennia?

I’ll be up front: my academic training was largely in the fields of history and art history, and I don’t have a scholarly background in the field of game studies. I’m trying to put my MLIS to good use by trying to track down relevant and useful texts: Homo Ludens is winging its way here courtesy of Amazon, and Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality arrived the other day, but I also welcome any recommendations you may have. (Bonus points if there’s an ebook version available.) I suggest picking up Eco’s book if you find that this post interests you–I’ve not gotten to my ‘close reading’ phase of it yet, but I already find myself stunned by how fresh and relevant its content is.

It's a start.

Returning to the project at hand, the panel I’m presenting on will be focusing on medievalism in video games and new media. Flavor Text’s inaugural post by Lani dealt with the concept of the MMO as an emergent storytelling medium, and indeed here we are, using this relatively new medium to tell very old stories.  While nearly all of WoW is rife with aspects of medievalism and neomedievalism,  I’ve chosen to focus on the heavily Nordic-influenced Wrath of the Lich King expansion for the scope of this paper; it’s where my research background is the strongest. The references are obvious; for example, anyone who has quested in Storm Peaks will remember the Thorim/Loken/Sif questline. This appearance of Norse myth in WoW isn’t at all unique, either, as the Vrykul installment in Perc’s archaeology series indicates. (I have to confess to having a lot of fun behind the scenes with her on that one — any excuse to get the Urnes Stave Church and Sutton Hoo find into the WoW blogosphere is a good one.) In addition, the fantasy genre–regardless of medium–has been drawing on these influences long before the world tree Yggdrasil Nordrassil was ever planted.

I REMEMBER YOU . . . from the Edda.

So, why investigate the topic further if the presence of these stories, particularly in terms of  ‘geek culture’,  isn’t anything new? For me, it comes down to a desire to examine what WoW’s specific re-interpretation of Norse mythos represents for us. In an earlier post, I looked at how fanart and machinima created in response to the events of 4.0.3 acted as representations of the playerbase’s collective memory. Now, I want to take some of those points one step further: what is it about this body of myth that not just suits this medium, but this particular storyworld? How do we engage with it to make sense of our relationship with Azeroth (and possibly even ourselves)? What, if anything, can we learn from that?

There’s a quote from a recent post over at Brainy Gamer where Abbott discusses the four pillars of video game storytelling that’s stuck with me as I’ve started to sink my teeth into researching for this project. In part of the post, Abbott utilizes aspects of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword to formulate his critique:

Zelda narratives are rituals, with each game re-telling the same essential story, set in a familiar universe with recurring motifs. Exploration and puzzle-solving are similarly ritualized, with iteration gently rounding the edges of the series.

I’m fascinated by this concept of narrative and ritual in games.  If you’re familiar with Skyward Sword (or any of the Zelda series, really), you’re aware of how oral tradition factors into how the game unfolds, and the development of Link’s identity as the long-awaited mythic hero.  In many Zelda titles, even the act of Link receiving his trademark green outfit has become an action of ritual significance in its own right. Skyward Sword actually makes this point about oral tradition fairly explicitly–and for any player who is familiar with the series, this reveleation is hardly breaking news. The question is, can we find similar instances where ritual and narrative intertwine in WoW?

Let’s go back to the earlier example of the Thorim/Sif/Loken arc for a moment; in addition to witnessing cutscenes and NPC dialogue, players are asked to carry out the task of cutting out Loken’s Tongue.  As with the mythological figure of Loki himself, Loken has committed several acts of trickery and deceit against both his brethren and the order of the world itself through his lies, and so the punishment is a poetic fit for his crimes. Outside of this particular questline, adventuring in Wrath of the Lich King allows us to do other Norse-inspired things, such as asking the Bone Witch to cast her runes and determine our fate, or examining artifacts from the grave hoards of noted Vrykul. All of these actions serve as flavor that further immerses us in Northrend’s Nordic playground.

In Zelda, new iterations of motifs (such as Link’s green tunic) often derive their significance from earlier titles that are ultimately still set in the same universe, whereas in the case of the Thorim/Loken/Sif story, we are participating in a retelling pre-existing ‘real-world’ myth which has been transposed from its original setting into Blizzard’s constructed one with mostly superficial alterations. (I don’t want to give the impression that WoW lacks Zelda’s self-referential aspect, however — there are many instances of it ingame.) ‘Participating’ is the key word here; we are not simply reading about these actions, but are able to feel as if we are contributing to the story’s progression in an active way. (Some parts of WoW are more successful at achieving this sense of ‘active participation’ than others, and the fact that the ‘quest on rails’ debate persists is testament to that fact.) This point in particular is something I want to focus on in my research — what experiences, if any, are shared by a player questing in Northrend and a medieval Manx person listening to someone narrate Sigurd’s destruction of Fafnir? I believe that there are indeed commonalities here, and thus a game like World of Warcraft allows us to synthesize at least part of the medieval mindset.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@catulla) have  probably seen me singing the praises of this collection of essays: Digital Culture, Play and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, published by the MIT Press. The chapter entitled World Creation and Lore: World of Warcraft as Rich Text (by Tanya Krzywinska) gives support to this idea. She writes:

Because a player is an active choice-making agent within a gameworld, narrative becomes in this context more structurally complex. Unlike stand-alone games, or other media, World of Warcraft offers a persistent world in temporal terms that exists whether or not an individual player is playing. In this, the gameworld has a material presence beyond the sphere of the player that resembles in some respects the way that a so-called primitive mythologically based worldview functioned . . . Nonlinearity and player agency therefore make for a significant material difference to myth-based narratives found in other arenas. (Krzywinska, 2008)

Where did these stories originate from, if not ‘mythologically based worldviews’? (I know I’m asking a lot of questions in this post, but for the sake of clarity, I’ll note that this one is rhetorical.) Do games like World of Warcraft help to fill some sort of latent desire on our part to re-create this worldview? To wrap this litany of questions up, I’ll leave you with a quote from Eddo Stern’s 2002 articleA Touch of Medieval: Narrative, Magic and Computer Technology in Massively Multiplayer Computer Role-Playing Games:

One could say that technology operates to realize what was previously in the hypothetical realm of magic. There is definitely some connection in the way both magic and technology create a sense of wonder as they seem to expand upon the notions of what is or has been feasible in the realm of the real. The assessment that they are part of one and the same wonder is quite pervasive; just remember Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Stern, 2002)

Is this what we’re trying to formulate, this sense of awe and fear of the unknown? That’s a a concept which is integral to the ‘mythologically-based worldview’ that our friend sitting by the hearth and listening to the exploits of Sigurd a millennium ago would have held. And with that, I’m off to log into the game myself. One must always keep up on one’s research.

In Defense of Exploiting

December 7, 2011

This blog is a collaboration between Perculia and Hamlet. It does not represent the views of FTL or any other communities at-large.

Edit: There was a blue post that explained the specifics of LFR, which adds to the evidence that Blizzard handled this situation better than other occurrences in the past.

Also again to clarify–LFR and similar extreme exploits are not the focus of the post–it’s about more general issues and the wider definition of an exploit. 

Introduction

Few events are more irritating to the experience of a competitive or semi-competitive raider than the discovery of a potential exploit in the raid game. It immediately sparks debates within guilds and across the community over the most efficient and ethical way to proceed. We want to make the case, in short, that Blizzard should be disinclined to punish all but the most stark cases of abuse, and that guilds should have fewer qualms about taking advantage of unintended techniques that arise.

While this post was prompted by the recent LFR-related ban, it’s meant to be a general comment on how to approach these irregularities. We are not looking to rehash what many other bloggers have covered already about the recent situation. Instead, we are curious to analyze how raiding culture encourages creative problem-solving, leading to ambiguity over what truly counts as an exploit, and not just at a world-first progression level. In raiding, putative exploits create a tension between a competitive instinct to do anything necessary to succeed (cf. endless farming/wiping/class-stacking with alts) and a nebulous discomfort about whether this or that particular technique violates ill-defined community expectations.

When a debate over whether some technique is an “exploit” flares up, there is always one party that has clearly made a significant mistake: Blizzard. They’ve presented their players with a situation where the rules are unclear, anathema to any gaming endeavor. Setting the limits of what’s allowed and not allowed is Blizzard’s job (in fact, conceptually as creators of the game, it’s their entire job). The players are paying for the privilege of exploring a game space where the limits are thoughtfully crafted so as to create fun challenges. Whenever players start having to make their own decisions about what techniques are valid, they are doing Blizzard’s job. In this situation, Blizzard’s only duty is to rectify the deficiency in their product as painlessly as possible for their customers. We don’t expect Blizzard’s QA to always be perfect (or even close really)–this is merely about how to handle things when it’s not.

Suspending players from WoW in some unpredictable subset of cases is not a solution; at best, it’s a short-term action that does not free Blizzard from the onus of ensuring the rules and raiding parameters are clear and bug-free. The group of players who derive enjoyment from putting in great effort and doing what it takes to conquer new content have already been denied a clean and error-free experience for a tier.  (And by new content, we again aren’t thinking of LFR–if you follow our twitters, you know we have qualms about LFR existing in the first place. New content for raiders refers to appropriately challenging content for their skill level.) There are faulty player choices, but also errors on the part of Blizzard from failing to address well-publicized bugs to greyer areas that less-progressed raiders are relieved never got fixed.

Cheating

By far the largest confusing point we see in all discussion of these issues is the nearly universal assumption that making use of a debated exploit is an action that carries some kind of moral gravity. They cheated. They deserve punishment. They should have known better. We say: why? What exactly is the ethical transgression here?

People who play games have encountered the word “cheating” in two contexts. Cheating in a competitive endeavor, which we’re taught not to do since childhood, denies an opponent their sought-after experience of entering into a fair contest. This is universally condemned for good reason. Cheating in single-player computer games (the ubiquitous God mode) on the other hand, is a  matter of personal preference. People with a well-curated understanding of video games tend not to, because it undermines aspects of the game they appreciate, but nobody would consider it some sort of misdemeanor if they did. It seems clear to us that gaining marginal advantages in raid progression is much more akin to the latter.

“But,” you interject, “it affects the other groups trying to compete.” Somewhat. The only way a team is materially affected by the rankings is that higher placement can give increased exposure for recruitment. First of all, have some perspective: if you are (to use the parlance of our times) in the 99%, you are unlikely to have any measurable effect from this. But more importantly, raid progression ladders are a creation of the community, not a product provided and supported by Blizzard. As we discuss soon, proper resolution of these situations is best done by the community. If the only actual benefit and harm related to an exploit takes place in third-party ranking sites, not even in the actual game, then those sites are best equipped to respond.

To use an well-known example from a recent tier, since the current scenario isn’t finished playing out: Atramedes was subject to variety of unintended strategies before falling into his final form. Indeed (despite the protestations of our friends in various high-end guilds), there was no evidence of a “legit” kill until he was nerfed heavily after many weeks, while hundreds of teams with no other measurable accomplishments mysteriously logged kills on the ranking sites before then. Let’s compare multiple ways this could have played out:

1) The “Punishment” model: Knowing there was a threat of punishment, but unsure whether it would be used here, top guilds would have heated internal debates over whether to kill him and risk sanction, or fall behind. Everyone watches the charade on rankings sites as some groups claim the extra kill and others don’t. Blizzard figures out how to detect who killed him by using extra gongs, or tanking him outside the room, or any of the other various tricks discovered (assume this is possible for purposes of discussion), and gives them a suspension. Ranking sites try to figure out which kills to remove. Guilds who are suspended are angry, for all the reasons described here. Guilds who aren’t now move up the rankings while some of their competition is offline–hard to say this is a fulfilling “victory.” In short: nobody is happy.

2) What actually happened: Nothing particularly dramatic. Many guilds came out of nowhere with a fake “top x” rank that meant nothing meaningful, as Atramedes in turn was counted as a legitimate encounter on all ranking sites. Guilds that put off the encounter were hurt by rankings, while guilds that got a false rankings boost soon saw their enterprising guild-hopping recruits leave when the numbers settled down.

As there were multiple tier 11 encounters that had unintended strategies (atonement in its original state on Halfus, tanks kiting constructs across BWD on Magmaw, players RP-walking on Nefarian), the raiding community was not particularly worried that killing Atramedes in various unintended forms would lead to severe consequences. But in general, adding the threat of punishment to the mix only heightens the uncomfortable tension when deciding to take advantage of a bugged encounter or not. You’re choosing between passing up an opportunity, and being suspended. At least without the punishment, it is up to individual teams what course of action they feel best comports with their goals in this game.

3) What we propose (the community handles it): Those who feel like killing Atramedes do so. Soon knowledge of the fight’s problems is well-known, and it’s accepted that killing him represents no accomplishment. Ranking sites choose a solution reflecting the common understanding (for example, by simply making him worth 0 points to everyone). Super-competitive guilds can kill him for their 3 pieces of loot, those who wish to “save” the fight for when it’s fixed are free to do so at no detriment. The result reflects the reality of the situation: 1 of the 13 encounters is wasted for progression purposes because Blizzard put it live in broken form.

We believe the latter is better for everyone involved. It’s not perfect, but given that the mistake was already made by Blizzard (putting faulty content live), the situation is mostly salvaged.

But in order to make the second option work, the raiding community would need to become more openly analytical of their progression. Currently, the raiding community tries to find unintended efficient ways to progress–but on the sly, disguised as “cleverness.” Time and time again, someone will post a recruitment add referencing top kills, later revealed to be the product of an unintended encounter. And even when encounters are not specifically cheesed–the community likes to cut corners and obfuscate the facts. A 13/13 Tier 11 guild could be farming all encounters every week, skipping boss, never repeating anything, or achieving Al’akir hardmode on 10. And all that–on a personal level–is fine. Raiding is a business and there’s a dwindling number of interested and qualified players able to put in the time commitment. You need to do what it takes to keep your guild afloat–whether it’s taking a week off to skip an encounter or downsize to 10s to secure a realm first Heroic Rag. You’re simply trying to operate within the constraints and unintended challenges Blizzard has set up.

When interacting in the general community, people like to feel that they are operating under the punishment/prestige binary–that they’re not in a top-world guild, so the temptation to exploit or find clever ways of completing encounters doesn’t apply to their realm of raiding. That’s not true. By constantly gloating over mid-level ranks on encounters like Atramedes, no progress will be achieved. A rank is what the community makes of it. If the community would critically view the progression system they’ve invented in the first place, then accomplishments would be weighed accurately. And if it turns out a rank is particularly hollow, then it would be stripped of meaning instead of falsely praised.

Fun

We want to just flag one other reason, which you may not have thought of, to go and do things that are arguable exploits: it’s fun. You may remember a theme in our last essay about how the little chinks in a game’s smooth perfection that can give it a lot of added life. People who play games a lot know the feeling of reading about a hilarious bug in their favorite game and simply wanting to go check it out (Skyrim players: don’t you dare try to deny it). Players in vanilla liked wall-jumping into Old Hyjal, the dancing troll village, and the Ironforge airport, even though they were technically off-limits, because the scenery was quirky and completely different from anything else in game (down to the cute “under construction” signs in Hyjal). There were safe spots from which to dps Heigen and Prince Malchezzar, as well as unintended bizarre strats like mindcontrolling UBRS trash to provide entire raids with fire resist debuffs on Ragnaros, or enslaving an imp from the Edge of Madness to nuke Jindo’s adds in old Zul’Gurub. While these additions trivialized the encounter, they were also novel, weird, and amusing to discover. For each of the above bosses, killing them once or twice the unintended way is a memory of WoW that adds some spice to our memory of killing them 50 times each the normal way.

To be clear, no part of this essay is arguing that Blizzard shouldn’t fix errors. The sole issue is whether players should get punishments (e.g. suspensions) that go beyond merely rectifying bugs. Everyone has been talking about last week’s heirloom transmogrification bug–you could send heirlooms to your main, transmogrify them into elite tier, and mail them to another character. Transmogrification has strict requirements–players can only transmogrify gear they currently own on a specific toon, but for one week, transmog fans got to run around with their low-level alts decked like level 85 raiders. Blizzard fixed this, but people got to have unintended fun in the interim–and nobody suggested they should be punished for it.

Conclusion

All of this said, we’re not proposing some kind of anarchy where players have free rein to whatever they want. When Overrated was banned for hacking the AQ environment models, we were right on-board with that. And we don’t purport to give a clear rule in this one article on what should be punished as an exploit and what shouldn’t–just to encourage far more leeway in situations where Blizzard has failed to provide clear guidance. The ambiguity in the boundary of what’s okay and what’s not is the whole point, in fact. People hardly ever agree on whether a particular irregular behavior was an exploit or not. And for that reason, selectively applied post-hoc punishments are very unlikely to produce satisfying results.

One simple guideline would be that anything Blizzard has publicly commented on is fair game. Back at Chromaggus, they were clear that meleeing a mob which can’t melee you back due to geometry is never correct. At Yogg-Saron, they were clear that evading adds so they attacked nobody during an encounter was also incorrect. All players now have a clear warning going forward that these activities will never be acceptable, and there’s no ambiguity as to whether they will be punished. It’s unclear why Blizzard couldn’t do this more often. [Edit: In the case of LFR, they publicly "ruled against" the exploit as soon as it became well-known, and those who continued to ignore it faced consequences. Statements like this leave no justifiable reason for people to continue doing it, and no grounds for complaint when they get suspended. But there are many other situations, both large and small, that have gone unchecked.]

There’s a very wide sliding scale between acceptable and abusive behavior, and the exploits people argue about always fall in that grey middle. Players will have quite different preferences as to how far along the scale to go, to maximize their enjoyment of the game. Even we don’t propose any particular boundary line that we feel is more correct than any other. We merely say that everyone shouldn’t be so quick to condemn players for how they handle situations that are by their nature unideal. The community at large is free to choose how impressed or nonplussed to be with anyone’s raiding accomplishments. So analyze the full situation, play how you want, and let others do the same. There’s a whole world of game mechanics awaiting our creative use.

Glass Houses: On Alyzande and Rape Culture in Azeroth

November 17, 2011

[Trigger Warning for discussion in links of rape, violent sexual assault, and hate speech.]

Last week, there was a great deal of activity in the feminist blog-and-twittersphere over the #mencallmethings hashtag. Men Call Me Things is a product of Sady Doyle’s post at In These Times, where she details the unfortunate issues surrounding being a visible female blogger.

What does this have to do with World of Warcraft?

Recently, Alyszande at The Gold Queen has been using her blog as a platform to discuss her feelings on being a victim of sexual assault. For more information on the resulting situation, we recommend reading Apple Cider Mage’s writeup, entitled When Blogging Imitates Real Life: Rape Culture.

Alyszande was brave enough to speak out about her experiences. For this, she is being called (among other unflattering things)  a liar.

Why?

  • Because she chose to look towards WoW as coping mechanism while she processes what can only be an unimaginable amount of trauma.
  • Because she turned to a community that has historically brought her joy, hoping to find a source of solace during a time of great personal duress.
  • Because maybe, for just a few moments, she wanted to have a few moments of something resembling normalcy.

The women of Flavor Text believe the strength of a community lies in discourse, not in attempting to silence through baseless accusations.

That’s rape culture, and like Eve Ensler, we are so over it.

We stand with Alyzande, the bloggers listed here at WoWEcon, and of course the men and women behind the White Ribbon Campaign.

Show your strength, Azeroth.

Mod note: The hyperlink under “a liar” goes to another post by Alyzande; in which a commenter calls her “full of shit.” There is a full blog post out there from someone who is cruel enough to challenge Alyzande’s right to speak publicly about her experiences. We are not linking said post because we have no wish to provide that person with page hits.

And now for something completely different!

October 28, 2011
by

Once upon a time, I was a graphic design major. Due to being critted by a complicated fustercluck of life circumstances when I was about 20, I had to abandon that career path. I sadly stopped doing much creative writing and visual art around that time, too — the demands of my degree (and later, grad school) sapped most of my energy for those sorts of activities. Changing my major is one of the big regrets I have in my life.

About this time last year, I got an email from Blizzard that helped me reclaim a part of myself that I thought I’d lost, in terms of my writing.

This year, I’ve come back from Blizzcon feeling full of creative, positive energy. I want to harness it to heal another part of myself, but I need your help. I know myself well, and frankly, I NEED DEADLINES. I need to be held accountable for creative projects.

So (and this is a little scary) I’m going out on a limb here. If idk mai bff Mordent Evenshade can help me out with personal growth via the writing contest, why can’t drawing portraits of the people who have come to mean so much to me?

I have never done any sort of Warcraft fan art before, so this is kind of scary for me.  I’m not going to charge, but please bear in mind that I do have a full-time job, a loving husband, and two hours’ worth of commute time. As such, I’ve set myself a deadline of getting five bust portraits done before Christmas. Full color.

Below are some samples of my work.

EDIT:

FULL UP!  Pewter, Cynwise, Rades  Restoisepic and Misaweha, thank you! We’ll see how this goes before I offer more. 

If you want to take a chance, take a chance, take a chance on me, leave a comment. These will be digital paintings.

Horsehead from Piazza Navona, Rome, Sharpie, 2008.

Dragon, chalk pastel, 2010.

Not Quite Green Man, chalk pastel, 2010

Horned Owl, 2011. My first foray with a Wacom tablet.

FANGIRLY SKETCH OF TIM BURGESS, pencil, 1999.

Pandystopia: Building A Zen New World Through Randy Panda Sex

October 26, 2011
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We’ve been told we need to wait and see how serious the Pandaran world will be, that we should not assume the content will be “light and fluffy”. There have been a few excellent theories going around about what kind of conflicts we can expect to see in Pandaria. Please do check out Anne Stickney’s “5 Reasons You Should Love Mists of Pandaria”and Rades’, of Orcish Army Knife,  “Meet the New Races of Pandaria” post, to which I owe this extrapolation. One indicator that there are serious, mind-meltingly convoluted reasons to be excited to meet the Pandaren is in the Sha.  Welcome to my tinfoil hat speculation. Do I think any of this will make it into World of Warcraft? No. Do I think it’s badass awesome? Maybe a little.

“And finally we’ve got the Sha. The Sha are really unique. Sha are the manifestation of negative energy on Pandaria. So if you imagine whenever someone gets killed or a fight happens, something like that on the island, any sort of battle (essentially what’s happening with the Alliance and Horde once they get here), it releases Sha energy into the land. It’s kind of a Shadowform creature, you’re going to see it all over the place. Super aggressive…” - Cory Stockton, WoW Lead Content Designer

Okay, so they’re aggressive shadowform creatures that show up when people fight, blah blah. Hold up, “the manifestation of negative energy”? So, the Pandaren have evolved in a world where negative thoughts and actions literally turn into and feed hostile demons.  Can you imagine what that would do to your culture? Have a fight with your wife? Demon shows up. Kids won’t stop pulling each other’s ears? Demon. Go to war with the creepy bug people that live next door? Demons, everywhere. Demons rampaging your villages, demons killing your children.  I’d imagine you’d learn pretty quickly to reduce all signs of conflict in your culture.

What we know about the Pandaren makes them look like a placid, harmonious culture. Metzen says that they’re not motivated by hatred, that they’ve completely subsumed that set of emotions. We know that they’re interested in zen, in the balance of the light and dark, and in meditation, which they can use for physical confrontations and to perform magic, like healing. This is just the sort of culture that might evolve over time when anything short of gentle peace creates shadowy demons running amok.

The existence of the demons might explain why they’ve built a wall dividing them from the Mantids, who have happily stayed on the other side of the wall until an unknown force caused them to go mad and start invading the Pandaren’s land. What caused the Mantid and the Pandaren to build the wall in the first place? If one side had been naturally aggressive, a wall would not have stopped them for millenia. But why couldn’t two reasonably peaceful species learn to share the rich, fertile land of Pandaria? Maybe the natural conflicts of having two such different races, two such different, if equally peaceable and sentient, peoples living in close quarters ended up involuntarily feeding the demons? It would be so tragic if the Pandaren had been forced to choose isolation when confronted with the natural conflicts of interacting with others.

Pandystopia

Speaking of interacting with others, what would Pandaren society do with dissenters? Remember, hostility amongst the people was not just a crime of disruption, theft, violence, etc, it also fed the Sha. If your society was beset by agitators, or even a multitude of people who couldn’t learn zen, you’d soon be overrun with negative energy beings.

It makes sense that the Pandaren would have to have force compliance amongst its population for the safety of all. Pandaren would learn to control their natural emotions and react peaceably, or die at the hands of a shadow monster, or be exiled or even killed in public defense. The Pandaren would naturally create a culture in which everyone’s actions would be everyone’s, perhaps even the government’s, business.  Perhaps the peaceful Pandaren culture we see today is the result of generations of bloody witchhunts for people unable or unwilling to control their emotions. What if the Asian influence was not so much tiger fairy tales as Mao’s Cultural Revolution, pitting family against neighbor, brother against sister, in an attempt to stay safe through orthodoxy?

In the light of this dystopian society, the existence of the Shadow Pandas, a fringe group of Pandaren located in the north, may be more sinister. [I can’t find my source here, so I’m going from memory from BlizzCon. If I say something wrong, please correct me] The Shadow Pandaren are a faction that embrace both the light and dark side of the Chi energies that flow through Pandaren. Perhaps they were formed out of exiles from mainstream Pandaren society, who insisted that only the light side could be indulged, to avoid spawning Sha. Perhaps the Shadow Pandaren are outcasts, or even escapees, who were willing to face down demons in order to honestly feel their own emotions, both light and dark. This trope comes from a rich historic line, of a camp of scorned rebels facing down injustice or drugged oblivion for authenticity, despite the many dangers.

It also throws sinister overtones onto the Pandaren’s love of scrolls, literature, and written histories, along with their Loremaster faction. When your culture has evolved to be stoic to the extreme, controlling information might be a primary interest for the Pandaren who protect society. The why and wherefore of the society’s inability to embrace conflict could be a well protected state secret, with a propaganda machine intended to explain and obfuscate the truth. After all, wouldn’t society be calmer if they were told “we’re calm because we’re zen masters” and not “we’re peaceable people because if you start a fight, a demon might show up and eat your daughter, if we don’t muzzle you first.”

Coping Mechanisms and Insane Tinfoil Hat Theories

The Pandaren are thus faced with a permanent enemy that they cannot control head-on. They cannot fight the Sha, because the violence inherent in conflict would simply empower the shadow creatures. Instead, they must come to terms with coping mechanisms.

As the hippies say, MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR. If there’s anything the opposite of violence, it’s positivity and love. Perhaps the Pandaren, millenia ago, discovered that love-making would disempower the Sha, maybe even cause them to hibernate or disappear. This also provides a hilarious contrast with the stereotypes of earth’s pandas, who are notoriously difficult to breed and notoriously disinterested in copulation. I’d love to imagine the almost gender neutral (to us outsiders) Pandaren as fat and furry Lotharios. Yes, bring on the naughty bear sex, Blizzard.

Then again, perhaps the Pandaren are not so unlike earth’s Pandas, and have difficulty copulating. Perhaps they have low libidos, or perhaps Pandaren just find the opposite sex horrifically unattractive.  In a world where sexytime is the best guard against demons, they would want to encourage any cultural activities that lower inhibitions and engender romance. Something like, perhaps, brew mastery? Ringing any bells? Oh yeah. Drunk panda orgies. That’s what you’re coming to Flavor Text Lore for.

Another element of natural good will bound to offset the negativity of the Sha would be Pandaren cubs. Panda cubs are insanely adorable, and Samwise’s concept art of Pandaren children, especially his daughter, is no exception.

Zookeepers feed and play with panda cubs

Look at that black and white furry cuteness. I am filled with inner peace just looking at this!

Samwise Didier's drawing of a Pandaren and son in a cart.

The love of a happy Pandaren family might be enough to keep the Sha at bay, with careful management.

If children were enough to keep the Sha under control, there would be strong evolutionary and cultural pressure for Pandaren to have many children. Many children. So very many children. So many children that it might begin to be difficult to feed them all. After all, the Pandaren do live in an isolated environment with no room for expansion, and have few, if any, natural predators. They evolved sharing the land with the Mantid, who are well known to cannibalize their children and mates. If just LOOKING at a Pandaren cub could soothe a Sha, can you imagine how potent they would be if… digested?

Can you imagine having to cope with a peaceful, benevolent society that gently sacrificed its children to keep their shadow demons hibernating? Would we blame them for their apparent callousness, or would we accept it as a tragic consequence of living in a world infested with demons, like Arthas culling Stratholme. That would be some stirring conflict that Blizzard will never in a million years put in this game.

A Sha holds a folk while examining a pile of sleeping panda cubs.

Delicious, Soothing Pandaren Babies

Reasonable Extrapolations

I think it’s safe to say we won’t have any “throw your cubs into the volcano to appease the angry shadow gods” subplots on Pandaria. But that’s not to say the idea of having malificent shadow energies couldn’t be used in less dramatic ways.

For example, perhaps the Pandaren are able to keep the Sha controlled through self-control and management. Eastern cultures often have family shrines where ancestors are worshipped and gods are honored. Let’s check in with the art panel….
A collection of small shrines from the Blizzcon Art Panel

Yup, there they are! Instead of honoring ancestors, though, what if the shrines were in fact housing compartments for the family’s Sha. Perhaps the Pandaren are able to channel the inevitable hostilities and negativity of daily life into a small demon, rather than letting it coalesce into a larger, more dangerous, and less controllable creature.  Then they can defuse the energy by careful meditation. Pandaren mothers put their children to bed, saying, “Be nice to your sister or the literal monster in your actual closet will come out and eat you.”

There’s also some legitimate connections to be made between a “Light” creature that mysteriously speaks Demonic. (Go read Rades’ post now if you haven’t yet!)  Pandaria has been separated from the rest of Azeroth since at least the Sundering, meaning they may have dealt with consequences from the Burning Legion’s attempts to take over Azeroth through the original Well of Eternity that would be utterly unfamilar to the rest of us. Perhaps the Sha are a harbringer under the control of the Burning Legion, a perfectly insidious plot, since the hostility required to destroy them would only make them stronger, a demon that feeds on healthy emotions twisted. Or perhaps they’re not under the Burning Legion, but an eddy, a swirl in the Light force created by the methods the Burning Legion use to break into new worlds. Perhaps they’re the shadow, the chi balance, to the destruction of the original Burning Legion?

I’d love to see how Blizzard explains this odd Demonic connection. Also, it provides a perfect tie in to some of the classic villains of Warcraft. We know there are forces controlling the Aspects, forces controlling even perhaps the Burning Legion. This expansion needs to move through some of these ideas from Thrall: Twilight of the Aspects to move us into the end of Mists of Pandaria and the future of Warcraft. We need to know how the Burning Legion, the Scourge, and  the Old Gods are just toys in some greater plan, even if the whole mystery is not solved immediately.

Failure, Challenge, and the Decline of WoW

October 6, 2011

This essay is a collaboration between Wowhead CM Perculia and guest poster Hamlet. Hamlet has been raiding since 2005, and is best known as the author of several Druid guides on Elitist Jerks. He can currently be found on Twitter at @HamletEJ.

Update: Their replies to comments can be found here and here.

Introduction

If a game asks nothing of its players, what’s left of it as a game? It’s a harsh question, but it’s also the most informative lens through which to examine WoW’s current problem. Somewhere along the way, WoW has betrayed the spirit of games, by abandoning the fundamental concept of applying oneself to overcome challenges.

While we were writing this post, Blizzard implemented nerfs to the Firelands content, causing a newly invigorated furor over the appropriate difficulty level of the raiding game. The ideas we’re writing about though have been brewing for much longer, and if anything, we worry that the timing of this post will make it look like an obvious or even trite rehash of the WoW news item of the week. What we hope to express, however, are thoughts on the direction the whole game has been taking for a much longer period of time, at all levels of play.

We can’t talk about this without cutting through a number of well-worn forum tropes, none of which we find informative on any point: “casual vs. hardcore,” “risk vs. reward,” “people want to see all the content,” “raiding is easy” (that one could merit an equal-length post all on its own), and all the others you’ve seen. Let’s simply look at how WoW gives any individual player their perception of progress as they continue to play the game. The players’ perceived progress is the beating heart of the MMO experience. No matter what walk of WoW life you’re in, you log in hoping to add something to your character sheet before you log out again, something tangible when you log in the next time. Though the reward mechanisms vary between low-level and max-level WoW, they all exhibit the same pattern: rewards have become increasingly detached from the player’s ability to overcome challenges.

Background: Yin and Yang

“Games” covers an enormous breadth of media. They can involve one player or more, cooperatively or competitively. They can have a clear end point and a winner (StarCraft, chess) or not (SimCity, World of Warcraft). In all cases though, what defines it as a game, as opposed to a passive medium such as film, is that the player makes choices in an attempt to reach goals. Those goals can be set by the game, by other players, or by the player himself, but in some manner the way the he plays influences whether he reaches them. And yes, sometimes he fails. His StarCraft plans are outsmarted by his opponent and crushed, his SimCity collapses into depression, or his WoW character is overwhelmed and dies. A point to be emphasized early on is that it’s very hard to imagine a meaningful game which is devoid of at least occasional failures. Any chess player will tell you that losing games teaches you far more than winning them. In the case of single-player computer games, nothing makes a game so irrevocably boring as to realize that nothing has a chance of killing you anymore.

RPG’s in particular are driven by the twin engines of progression through content and improvement of your character’s abilities. These are the yin and yang of WoW. Each brings about the other, and conversely, neither is possible without the other working in counterpoint. And when either is missing, the game stops. Steady progression through content rewards the player with commensurate bonuses to her character sheet, and those increases to the character’s power level allow for further progression into increasingly difficult content (without requiring any sudden jumps in player skill). The bulk of this essay discusses how modern WoW has broken away from this bedrock, detaching progress and upgrades from each other. In doing so, they have ousted the player from his position at the helm of his own gaming experience.

The Raiding Game: Progress and Reward

In low-level WoW, progress is given by experience points. This singlehandedly solves the need for tangible rewards from a play session, no matter what activities you take part in. The problems with the low-level game will be discussed below. Once you reach the level cap, however, that all-encompassing incentive vanishes, and the designers are challenged with providing the player an incentive and reward structure to participate in various activities. The first major point is that gear is the only mode of actual improvement of your character. We’re going to put side cosmetic rewards and achievements for now, because they’re a side activity that each player values according to her own idiosyncrasies, but they don’t tie into the underlying RPG engine described above.

Then: If at First You Don’t Succeed

On the scale of one individual player, there is an ideal, natural method for gameplay to progress. That player should master a piece of content, obtain gear for doing so (generally by farming the content for some amount of time) and take her newly improved character to the next piece of content. Each iteration flows from the last in a robust, continuous, organic, RPG advancement. The player has a meaningful investment in the character that grows over time because each step was tied to the last. One point that’s not initially obvious, but which winds up being absolutely critical: after enough cycles of that process, the player finds that something truly magical has occurred. She has learned to play the game better than when she started. That improvement is a slow, inconsistent, and invisible process. But all readers (and there are still some of you out there) who at one point struggled at Magmadar only later to kill C’Thun, Illidan, and The Lich King need no further proof that somewhere along the way, somehow, they got better at WoW.

WoW raiding in years past was far from perfect, but here we want to talk about what it did right. Even though the class balance, encounter design, and surrounding aspects of the game (e.g. consumables) were not up to today’s standards, the game allowed for deeply rewarding experiences because it remained true to the above ideal. Raiding in The Burning Crusade provided a perfectly good example. Freshly capped characters could run Karazhan, Gruul’s Lair, and Magtheridon’s Lair—easy, entry-level instances (putting aside the initial tuning difficulties those fights had, which are irrelevant here). Raiding the next tier, Serpentshrine Cavern and Tempest Keep, required completing some or all of the first tier (initially by attunements, and later simply due to gear requirements—again, details of the implementation are not critical). What matters is that SSC and TK were “open” long before the vast majority of players were done with the starting tier, and each each player (with her guild) was able to move into those zones at a time determined by one factor: when she was ready.

Whether the player was ready was determined by a variety of factors: how much gear she had from the prior tier and how strong her raiding fundamentals were, most importantly. Notably, back then, relevant gear from the boss came from the previous tier (not from 5-mans), and conveniently, farming more gear also caused players to practice their raid skills. She found out whether she was ready for the new boss in a simple way, by attempting it with her raid team. This process required some effort from the players involved, and may have been frustrating at times. But what we want to emphasize is that it was genuine. Bosses provided a ladder of progression, and you prepared as much as you needed in each rung to ascend to the next. Ascension was determined by merit only: the player could kill the next boss or she couldn’t. Some people might need more gear than others, or more time building their skills on easier bosses. Some groups may kill a new boss earlier simply by having the drive to attempt it for longer. In any case, it was always there waiting for her to either kill it, or not. And for that reason, and that reason alone, when she killed it, it meant something.

And if she didn’t kill it? That meant something too. It meant she had to figure out how to improve in one or all of the above ways. How she went about it was up to her and her guild, but when the next tier was up for grabs as soon as they were ready to claim it, there was no incentive but to try to find a way there. This wasn’t even a state of failure—after all, there was always an upcoming boss yet to be killed (unless you were in a tiny minority). It was simply the order of things, and any given time, the goal was use what you had in term of gear and skills to take another step forward. The player described here was having a true gaming experience: each goal was attained whenever she found a way to reach it.

Now: Success, on Schedule

We come now to the thrust of this section: how the current system fails so completely to create anything approaching what’s described in the last paragraph. Our focus here is the lower-end raider, the one who takes some time to work through Normal bosses with his guild, and who is intimidated by Heroic bosses long after the mythical uber-guilds have killed them, and for whom the final Heroic boss of each tier may even be a pipe dream. How can we describe this player’s RPG progression, in the context of the above discussion? New content comes and he clears partway through before it becomes difficult. He gets gear, mostly by running 5-mans for Valor Points every day, time spent not practicing raid encounters with his raiding team. Gear acquisition is steady but slow, mostly unrelated to progression through the content (first red flag). Eventually the content is significantly nerfed, allowing him to suddenly complete some more bosses, progressing through content for no reason related to either character strength or player skill (second red flag). The kicker, though, is what happens when a patch hits and the whole system is blown out of the water.

New content arrives. Valor points now give gear commensurate with the new raid content. The player has a steady income of this new gear from clearing 5-mans and/or older content (now nerfed with extreme prejudice). He jumps into the new content, regardless of where he was in the prior content, what gear he has, or how good he is. He gets new gear steadily, regardless of his ability to master any part of the new content, and certainly without having to master anything more difficult than what he’s done before. In initial 4.3 Valor Point announcements, Blizzard stated that Tier 13 set items would not be obtainable from Valor Points, a hint of a welcome reversal that proved to be a red herring: later announcements clarified that VP can now buy T13-equivalent gear in nearly every slot. Yin and yang have unraveled at both ends—progression and reward neither feed each other nor even pay attention to each other. The player plods along getting gear and seeing content, both at a predetermined rate. And the saddest part of all is what’s not in this picture: nowhere is it the slightest bit relevant whether, from one tier to the next, he improved at the game.

Summary: Heroes No More

It should now be clear how vastly different these two worlds of older WoW and current WoW are. In the former game, the player experienced a game that was ongoing and natural, and most importantly, honest. At each step she succeeded or failed, and consequences flowed from that. She was Theseus, using whatever resources were available to overcome each foe. In the current game, without the chance of success or failure, there is no such drama. Blizzard, in their wisdom, have sought to protect the player from the dreaded nightmare of his own failure. In doing so, they have turned him into Sisyphus: proceeding along ever upwards, but with no ability to influence his own fate.

The Low-level Game: From Quest Progress to Progress Quest

Below max level, WoW is a different game. This is actually the game the majority of players play, and in particular it is of paramount importance to Blizzard, who has to draw new players in perpetually. The problems discussed so far are particular to the raiding game, but we find that low-level players are ultimately subject to the same fate. They have been overwhelmingly sheltered from that green-eyed monster: failure. And the result is the same. Without a chance of failure, there is no challenge. Without challenge, all that is left is a hollow shell that once contained the essence of a meaningful game.

New Cataclysm Quests: Grey and Green

A controversial aspect of Cataclysm was the decision to revamp the level 1-60 questing experience in Azeroth. This new questing experience streamlined the flow of many zones, and in the process, heightened faction tensions and killed off beloved characters. Each zone now provided properly-itemized rewards for all classes, questlines that logically progressed, and minor conveniences such as additional flight paths and mailboxes. These changes were helpful and allowed players to quest without irrelevant distractions. Each zone traces several relevant lore figures with unexpected twists, even in the starting zones, providing an effective narrative as well as decent rewards. The revamp was handled well, except for one part: the XP curve.

This new leveling content is touted as one of the most important parts of the expansion. Players won’t be experiencing it, though, if they take advantage of any XP bonus. Heirlooms (helm, chest, cape, shoulders), guild perks, and zone-wide or holiday buffs are utilized by most players. Gathering nodes provide experience boosts that quickly add up over time, as does Archaeology. Taking a break from questing to run any dungeon or participate in PvP will find the player several levels higher with a mix of grey and green quests in his log. Even without doing any of these, players so far outstrip the quest curve that it’s difficult to complete zones properly. Because of Blizzard’s zeal to make absolutely sure no player following the scripted path will ever manage to encounter a quest that’s even slightly above level, the new zones can’t even be experienced in full without becoming trivial and pointless. The fear of challenge is so extreme that it ruins the content.

Combat: God Mode, or Deal with the Devil?

Even if a player is missing some appropriate-level gear after skipping a few zones, it hardly matters: combat is much more forgiving in Cataclysm. A player wearing imperfect gear and using subpar skills/talents will still not struggle to kill outdoor mobs, and even this is a huge understatement. Better to say, a player wearing a complete mishmash of gear and using clueless skills/talents can pull a large group of outdoor mobs, haplessly slaughter them, and come away completely unscathed.

While instances currently serve as a vehicle to quickly obtain rare-quality loot and complete quests for large amounts of experience, before the addition of LFD, clearing instances with an at-level group required additional amounts of planning. Wailing Caverns and Sunken Temple had additional confusing wings. Deadmines required players to navigate a maze of Defias even before stepping foot in the instance. Everyone has fond memories of aggroing too many trolls on the Zul’Farrak stairs. Something as simple as removing keys from several instances demonstrates how expectations have changed for low-level characters. Instead of preparing for an instance and then learning how to do it better each time, there is now only one requirement for the accelerated rewards given by dungeons: show up.

Two iconic quest chains were removed in Cataclysm: the Hunter and Priest class quests for Rhok’delar and Benediction, respectively. While it may be argued that the removal of these quests was simply an unfortunate casualty of reworked zones, the loss of quests forcing players to sharpen their playstyles has deeper repercussions, than say, wondering where Nibsy the Almighty has gone. These quests presented players with meaningful failure. Priests aiding Eris Havenfire were forced to wait 15 minutes in between failed attempts, and their failure was broadcast throughout Eastern Kingdoms with a yell. Hunters, after being defeated, were unable to fight the same demon again for several hours. This type of failure forced players to read up on strategies, min/max even on solo content, and learn patience. Compare this to current legendaries, which are acquired in roughly the same way as the Molten Front title. Show up daily for several weeks, receive weapon components from ordinary Normal-mode bosses, and have your diligence rewarded with much fanfare.

The cycle of mindless leveling leads to monotony and stagnation, where success and failure are measured in terms of hitting max-level quickly with the proper heroic-level accoutrement, instead of learning how to master a character. Leveling is not an meaningful process for many, but rather an accelerated experience for alts. After a player has finished grinding out Valor Point gear on his main, they are encouraged to buy some BoA gear and repeat the process on an alt while waiting for the newest round of raid nerfs. Much can be written about the evils of maintaining a bevy of alts, but the relevant part is that repeatedly rushing through leveling to endlessly grind Valor Points on each new alt has become the expected mode of progress for many players.

It is tempting to react cheerfully to every new announcement that makes things superficially easier: nerfed content, better epics, a new quest hub with vanity items. Players who are overwhelmed by the large amounts of required daily grinds outside of raiding are only too happy for some temporary relief. But it is important to note that these short-term changes are a result of the game’s current environment: if the existing situation were different, these drastic changes would not be needed. While many view heirlooms as a convenience and may find this section perplexing, it’s really the same principle as the problems with Valor Points: immediate benefits mask long-term problems. It’s a Faustian bargain, where characters easily gain impermanent power at the expense of genuine player knowledge, in a vicious unsustainable cycle.

A Look Back and a Look Forward: Ah, Fresh Meat

The best piece of low-level content ever created by Blizzard is found not in current WoW, nor even in old WoW, but 15 years ago in Diablo. The Butcher.

Every NPC in town warns you about The Butcher before your first trip into the dungeon. In case you didn’t bother talking to them, just outside the dungeon entrance you find the previous adventurer who tried to delve in, bloody and dying. Before killing your first mob, a villain is set up. The first half hour of dungeon crawling goes by uneventfully. But somewhere on the second level down, starting to get a little comfortable with your level 4 character, you come upon a small square room completely covered with blood. Maybe you remember the warning, maybe you didn’t, but in either case, it’s your first time playing and you want to know what’s in there, so you open the door. And you get Butchered.

This experience is hard to convey in text to people who’ve never played Diablo. Ask anyone who has if they remember their first time being killed by him. It’s sudden, surprising, and scary. It’s probably your first character death. He does a huge amount of damage, stuns you, and holds you in melee range. He has a loud yell the moment you open the door, an elaborate bloody apron, and a ridiculously-sized cleaver. You’re mostly likely dead before you take in everything that’s happening. And for some reason, it’s the one moment that makes everyone’s eyes briefly glass over in nostalgia.

Thinking back on this now, especially in juxtaposition with the WoW changes described in the previous section, one thought keeps returning to us: they would never do this today. When it happened to Diablo players in 1996, we laughed, we said “this game is great,” and we resurrected in town. Some people tried it again, maybe with a friend or two. Others left the door of that square red room firmly shut until they’d gained a few more levels. But for all of these people, it brought the whole game to life. And in the world where any chance of player death is eschewed (it’s all too easy to imagine an executive saying, “if you let the player die, it’s just a chance for him to log out and go back to FarmVille”), a new generation of players are protected from ever having that experience.

Similar events have happened on a smaller scale within WoW itself. Perhaps some veterans reading this once had a Hogger experience that’s reminiscent of the above. In all cases, we hate to see the richest and most memorable moments ironed out in the name of the perfectly smooth, straightforward gaming experience. But events that are unexpected, unusual, or or otherwise “imperfect” prevent the game from being sterile. When the game is too perfect, each quest leading to another that you know in advance won’t present any new challenge, you can follow directions and go through the motions as much as you like, but nothing will ever stand out or be remembered.

So where do we go from here? WoW has been amazingly successful at attracting people who have no background in older games like Diablo, instead often coming from free-to-play or casual games. Each of these new players has decided to spend $15 per month on a game (including those stepping up from free-to-play WoW), and as gamers, we want to welcome them. But as gamers, we also know that bringing new people into the nascent gaming culture isn’t a mere matter of having them pay money to Blizzard: what we want is for former nongamers to care about games, experience gaming moments like many that we’ve described here, and move on to other games once they’re done with WoW. If WoW walked the middle ground between the Diablo player’s experience and the FarmVille player’s comfort zone, it might be able to accomplish this, thus truly enriching the gaming community. But moving WoW all the way to the latter end of that spectrum is the easy way out, achieving nothing in the long run. WoW gets the immediate rush of players, but those new subscribers haven’t actually made any lasting jump into the world of games. WoW got their immediate business by compromising whatever was necessary to do so, and we’ve all come along for the ride.

Conclusion: An Exhortation

Without darkness, we cannot know the light. True in games as it is in life. Without the chance of failure, there is no chance of success. Failure, in current WoW, has been twisted beyond recognition as the game becomes an unsophisticated to-do list: failure to cap Valor Points, failure to level an alt quickly, failure to receive loot from a PuG clear. And it can all simply be remedied by logging on another day. The rewards from Valor Points will improve, alts will plow through a few more identical quests, raid content will be nerfed. There is no constructive and useful failure that pushes you to think about how you play the game. And the hidden casualty is even more painful: there are no moments of true victory.

In the end, the only thing players of all types can do is send a message to Blizzard. And the message we exhort you to send is: you have some pride. In order to make a game for you, they do not need to coddle you and make it impossible for you to fail. You are not children who will take your ball and go home at the first whiff of difficulty. You do not want a game which gives you rewards without asking anything of you, stripping them of all meaning. You’re not blindly appeased by content nerfs that give an empty veneer of success. If that’s not who you are, tell them. Tell them on the forums, in feedback on changes to WoW, or by exploring the fulfillment other games can give you. Because if you don’t, they will continue to treat you like the kind of player who needs to be sheltered at every moment. And you will wake up one day and find that, in your name, they have sold the soul of WoW.

The Fake Warcraft Thesis: A Call for Papers

October 4, 2011

Friday morning, I received an unexpected email in my inbox.

It was from an academic at the University of Leeds, where I earned my MA in Medieval Studies back in 2005. He was putting together a panel on Medievalism, New Media and Video Games, and apparently my name had been bandied about  as a possible presenter at the panel.

My mind was blown. I’d left the ivory tower behind professionally over three years ago, so to have someone from my alma mater contact me out of the blue about presenting at one of the most well-known conferences in my discipline ABOUT MY HOBBY just did not compute.

It still doesn’t, really. How did this happen?

I’m still not sure.

Let’s talk about hashtags instead.

I’d promised the panel organizer that I’d have a title for my presentation by Monday at noon, and of course, Monday morning rolled around and I still had no title to send. I had a topic I was excited about (truthfully, I had about FIVE), but I was having trouble crystallizing it into something snappy.

When in doubt, procrastinate on Twitter. Enter the Fake Warcraft Thesis. I started coming up with a few joke titles. Then, a few hours later, my friends started to play.

(I thought about posting a list of my favorites here, but there are just too damn many. Search #fakewarcraftthesis and #fakewarcrafthesis [with 1 or 2 t's], because I promise you won’t regret it.) 

And then the internet exploded, and it went blue.

Why am I posting this? The phenomenon may have originated out of my last-minute desperation, but the Fake Warcraft Thesis isn’t about that, or me. What I saw yesterday was equal parts clever and fascinating. There are a lot of Really Smart People who have gone to Azeroth to die.

What really struck me, however (despite the fact that we invented most of these #fakewarcraftthesis titles out of humor) was that the one comment recurring as it trended throughout the day was people saying “um, I’d actually read that” or #IKindOfWantToWriteThisOne.

Why can’t we read them, my fellow denizens of Azeroth? Why can’t we write them?

There is no good reason why we can’t. I think academia is at a crossroads right now, but that’s another post entirely. The nature of collaboration, of scholarship, of research itself is changing. When I got that email from Leeds, I was actually far more excited over the fact that the panel had passed muster for the IMC than the fact that I’d been asked to participate it. In about ten months, a gaggle of scholars is going to be discussing the cultural ramifications of internet dragons with deadly srsfaceness. And they decided to do that before they ever asked me to be a part of it.

That is undeniably cool.

With that in mind I suppose I’d like to end this post with an exhortation to you all. Go forth, fellow nerds, and write. Write those Fake Warcraft Theses, and make them real. Write the articles you want to read. If you want to write and don’t have a platform, contact us and we would be thrilled to guest host here at Flavor Text. We’re at the start of something, I think - World of Warcraft is gaining legitimacy as a subject for analysis in the greater academic sphere, but a movement needs momentum in order to sustain itself. It’s in its infancy right now.

Let’s take on the Ivory Tower. This boss isn’t going to go down easily.

(Yeah, this post was a little starry eyed. You know what? I don’t even care. What’s a life without passion?)

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