Archive for February 2009

Ways that WoW frames individual identity

When people ask me what my dissertation is about, and their interest level warrants a more detailed answer than “World of Warcraft,” I’ll usually say, “the ways WoW frames individual identity.” As in, the ways the total sum of the game’s gameplay modes (all of the challenges it presents and the actions it allows) plus its user interface (the medium through which the game represents its gameplay, as well as its aesthetic elements) communicates to the player with regard to that player’s identity as an avatar in the game world. Man, that was hard to condense into a single sentence, even an unwieldy one. I’ll have to work on that.

Anyway, I sat down this morning to try to list off all of these ways. Not really to say anything about them (yet), but to make sure I named ’em all. And thus to consider whether I’m trying to bite off more than I can chew here. For lack of time to do a fancy Photoshop illustration, I’ve put them in a table. But don’t be fooled by the neat, rigid columns: this is really a continuum.

Social, extra-game: having nothing to do with gameplay and existing outside of the game Social, intra-game: having little or nothing to do with gameplay modes, but still enabled by the game and existing within it Hybrid: Involved in gameplay modes and social relationships Gameplay only: Involved only with gameplay modes
  • Ethos based on contributions to WoW-affiliated forums, wikis, blogs, etc.
  • Appearance (face, hair, tattoos, skin color, etc.)
  • Gender
  • Name
  • Guild affiliation
  • Rank within guild
  • Ethos within guild
  • Ethos within your server
  • Small pet(s)
  • Faction
  • Race
  • Class
  • Class talents (a.k.a. “spec”)
  • Level
  • Gear (appearance and abilities)
  • Quest progression (where you are in certain quest chains, which grants you access to certain quests and/or instances)
  • PvP rank (arenas and battlegrounds)
  • Physical location in game world
  • Title
  • Mount(s)
  • Combat pet(s)
  • Achievements
  • Economic identities:
    • consumer
    • producer
    • service provider
    • farmer
  • Quest narratives (the narratives that frame the quests’ gameplay)

Let me know if I’ve missed anything. I’ll begin fleshing these out in later posts.

A fantasy in theory

As many of you know, I’m writing this dissertation thing. For this project, I am tasked with not only coming up with some interesting/new/significant analysis of a videogame, but also with an interesting/new/significant way of analyzing videogames. A new theoretical approach. A toolkit, if you will, which others can use after I present it.

In academia, theoretical toolkits are usually packaged in big long chunks of text – books and, for the smaller ones, articles. We’re trained to produce work like this, and it has lots of great features: depth, sustained thought, nuanced argument, careful attribution, etc. However, academic writing (not to mention print in general) has a few of shortcomings that make academics’ theoretical toolkits kind of unwieldy for future users. One is that it doesn’t do nonlinearity well.  Since text is a linear medium, written arguments have a hard time describing nonlinear things, like networks. Plus, historically and culturally tied as it is to print, academic work usually isn’t very good at portraying things visually, or, more accurately, multimodally – using words and visuals.

Broadly speaking, I want my theoretical toolkit to let me map networks: networks of ideological, rhetorical, technological, economic influence that run amongst and between videogames and players. Something that can address a game as text and a social space; that can describe players’ relationships with the game and each other; that can get to larger forces that help explain why players find those affinities with the game and each other. I envision it as a 3D web, like those ones you see of the whole Internet. Each node in the web would be an “agent” of influence: a player or a group of players; a game’s rules, characters, or narratives; the game’s developers; an ideology; a cultural myth; a dialectical struggle. At the heart of the web would be a story – a specific time and place where cultural meaning was made or maintained, minds were transformed or significantly untransformed.

This has me fantasizing about programs. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could make a software program that would let me (and future scholars) create such a map? Like any scholarly theory, the program would contain a description of why it works the way it does, i.e., my basis for my theory. But it would also be functional. Thus, the web it makes would serve as a central illustration of my argument, but it would also function as the work’s main mode of organization: readers would click on nodes in the web and read about the agents in detail. And so the program would let me preserve the best features of academic writing while adding some of the best features of electronic communication.

Could such a program exist? Does one already exist? How hard would it be to make one?

Crysis and class warfare

The story of my dealings with Crysis has thus far been a classic case of tweaking and frustration, the kind of stuff that gives console jockeys their best arguments against PC games. Crysis, as we all know, is not of this world; I’m pretty sure it sailed out the window of a flying Delorean. When you try to run it, it scoffs at your system, declaring that it and you are just simply not worthy.

Well, it wasn’t supposed to be that for me. I have resisted trying Crysis until recently, because I knew my poor old GeForce 8600 GTS 256mb was going to fail miserably. But then I got this sexy new Radeon 4870 1gb, the first really nice video card I’ve ever had. No, I’m not all über 1337 – I don’t have two of them in Crossfire – but that’s because I like to preserve peace and harmony in my marriage.

In short, I expected wonderful things from my new card. Fallout 3 obliged, giving me almost no lag on its highest settings. But Crysis did not. On top of that, it developed a very odd and very obnoxious problem after I’d played it two or three times: the game would run okay (framerate issues notwithstanding) unless I hit a keyboard key like Tab or Escape, at which point it would take anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds to open a simple menu.

Searching for support on the forums returned nothing (other than showing me just how many poor saps have problems with this game, and how we players are pretty much left by EA to fend for ourselves with this stuff, like little kids who get “taught” to swim by being tossed into the deep end and then left). But I did find a fabulous tweak guide site, self-published by one Koroush Ghazi, the kind of Internet saint who toils away by himself making free software guides that pick up the enormous slack left by program developers. His Deluxe Vista Tweak Guide is a steal at $5, and taught me more about Vista than I’d learned in two years of playing with it myself and getting little fixes here and there. Wish him well.

So I work my way through the Vista Tweak Guide over a couple of nights and finally move into Ghazi’s Crysis Tweak Guide. Work through it, learning a lot about shaders and volumetric effects and post processing. Get the game to about 25 fps. And yet the menu lag problem persists. Noting a couple of sideways references to Logitech keyboards on EA’s forum, I open up the good old Device Manager to see about my keyboard driver. And, lo and behold, I notice that I’ve got two keyboards installed, using the exact same driver and resources. I delete one and the problem disappears.

At least I had the computer plugged in.

My (embarrassing) lag problem now gone, I’m still faced with the framerate thing. Of course, I could crank down all of my settings to Medium (!), which is what the game does when I hit the “auto-detect” button. But am I alone in feeling insulted when a game does that? Obviously, I’m not enough of a gear head to go out and buy a HP Blackbird, or two video cards. I made certain concessions in the mobo and CPU when I built my rig; I knew that. But where I’m trying to lead to here is something about videogames and class – especially PC games. One of the unique features of the PC game industry is that it lets game developers push the limits of people’s hardware far and fast. There are plenty of advantages to this, quicker evolution of games’ visual quality being the most obvious. But in a realm that already requires a certain amount of class privilege to even enter, the PC games sector seems to have an additional gradation of hierarchy. Or maybe it’s more like four gradations: Very High, High, Medium, and Low. “You can come in,” the game says to me haughtily, “but you must ‘ave ze chicken. We can take you in eight weeks.” Well, I’m here to tell you: I heard that Crysis has a big sore on its lip.

The secret language of World of Warcraft [gasp] exposed!

Here’s some more evidence for why The Daily Show is brilliant for lampooning the news media: an NBC Bay Area report on “The Secret Language of World of Warcraft.”

Okay, what it’s really evidence of is the ability of the mainstream media to take a topic that’s complex and interesting and boil it down into a grey glob of blandness. And manage to get a bunch of details wrong along the way.

But what’s even more interesting are the comments about the video after the stories on Kotaku and Worldofwar.net, which exemplify some of the ways the WoW community functions. My personal highlights:

  • Players’ analysis of their own rhetorical norms. There are long debates over the popularity (or even existence) of the terms the guy in the video used, over the spelling of certain terms, over the way usage of those terms mark you as a player. There are a surprising number of grammar nudniks in here – people that abhor all abbreviations and leetspeak and popular misspellings. I used to be one of these, but I find myself typing “lol” more and more these days. Cultural usages work their way into you.
  • Personal attacks on players who brag about themselves. There seems to be no quicker way to incur the wrath of WoW players than by bragging. Or, in this case, letting your girlfriend brag:  the reporter claims that her boyfriend is “ranked in the top ten out of 12 million people who are playing World of Warcraft.” That’s asking for it. As a result, someone in the discussion forum posted a link to his avatar’s page on the WoW Armory. (For those of you who don’t know, the WoW Armory is a function in the game’s official website that lets you check out any avatar you want – their armor, talent spec, PvP ranks, achievements, etc. Basically, everything but the player’s account information. It’s a special kind of surveillance: the officially sanctioned, publicly available kind.)
    • (Side note: Dan – notice his server? Do you know this guy?)
  • Players’ deep scrutiny of the game. Most of the discussion on Worldofwar.net is about the validity of the guy’s claim that he “5 capped AB in under 2 minutes” – whether it’s physically possible, whether the Alliance can do it, the strategies for making it work, etc. It’s a good illustration not only of the enormous microscope the WoW community applies to individuals’ claims about their achievements but also of the enjoyment many players get from analyzing the living hell out of this game. If only I could get my students to practice that much attention to detail.
  • Players’ defensiveness about their representation. Amongst various complaints about how the video makes them look, a few of the commentators psychoanalyzed the reporter herself, delving into her blog and concluding that her hidden agenda is hatred for WoW. I’ve noticed that WoW players (myself included) tend to be very defensive about depictions of themselves in the mainstream media. Which is understandable, given recent stories.

UPDATE: It seems that KNTV-TV NBC has removed the video from YouTube with a “copyright claim,” and there’s no evidence of its existence on their website. (I wonder if they got spammed with complaints?) If anyone can find this video, I’ll give them a dollar.

I hate myself for loving the Super Bowl

Here’s some more evidence for why the RIAA should embrace Rock Band/Guitar Hero as sales tools.

Guitar Hero Aerosmith introduced me to the Joan Jett song, “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” It’s an okay song; I hadn’t paid a whole lot of attention to it. That is, until last night, when Faith Hill sang a re-lyricized version of it at the beginning of the Super Bowl.

Am I the only person that finds that song choice deliciously ironic?