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.


  1. Cho says:

    And you call yourself a rhetorician! There is no individual identity outside of a group to identify the self to (cept w/ Burke’s I talking to its me). To continue Burkean metaphors- WoW is a glorified parlor, right? So, why’d you leave out the chat function on the trade and other channels? I thought that was gonna be one of your primary sites of analysis- tho if you were concerned that it doesn’t construct individual identity- I beg to differ big buddy (referring to lvl, not physical stature necessarily). Also- the auction house. And maybe even region specific alerts. And guild quotes of the day. That is all, my dorky friend. See you in 2 weeks!

    • critt-r says:

      Uh, all of the ways individual identity is portrayed in WoW are group-based: they’re all about his/her relationship to the game world and the other players.

      I spent a long time trying to decide where to put the chat function, actually. In the end, I left it out of this taxonomy because it’s not itself an element or marker of an avatar’s identity. It’s a medium through which players manage their identities. As such, it’s one of the mediums through which the game lets players build ethos with each other: ethos within the guild and within the server. So for my analysis’s sake, the chat window and the AH fall into the same category as the other parts of the game’s structure (its rules plus its user interface): their design mediates the ways relationships can happen between player/game and player/player.

      (It’s also the medium through which the avatar conducts business, as is the AH. So thanks for bringing the AH up – it reminds me that I need something like “Ethos/identity as a producer/gatherer/seller/consumer” in there somewhere.)

  2. Alexius Maximus says:

    What about, and I shudder to mention this because it is so damned dorky, virtual familial bonds within the community? I.e. the phenomena of “marrying” two avatars, and the even more disturbing practice of “giving birth” to new PCs. This “family bond” adds an odd dimension of pathos to character interactions, reshaping how people represent themselves via their in-game personae.

    • critt-r says:

      In-game families are an interesting if still-marginal element of MMORPGs. In WoW, I’ve heard of people on Role-Playing servers enacting marriages between their avatars, but other than providing in-game items like diamond rings and tuxedos and wedding dresses, WoW has no gameplay structure for marriage. And it doesn’t do children at all. But that doesn’t mean these things will never exist in MMOs – see this discussion on Terra Nova from a few months ago, for example.

  3. Alexius Maximus says:

    Whether there is structure provided or not, I have actually seen people “innovate” children (basically, they start a new character when the time comes). It takes a little imagination, but by equating level to age/experience (not a stretch at all) they are able to make the story work.

    Back in the days of Everquest, some people got highly involved in the family making process. I didn’t know too many, since it seems an adolescent phenomenon, but it was out there (in both senses).

    Anyway, this is probably more of a fun aside than anything.

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