World of /2 WTS: World of Warcraft’s capitalist agenda (an academic essay)
Ed: The following is an academic essay by Media student Nermin Bajric about capitalism in World of Warcraft. It serves as a great example of how to address game topics in academic fashion and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in writing about games.
Written by Nermin Bajric
Author’s note: This essay was submitted as part of an assessment at Macquarie University (NSW, Australia), and was awarded a High Distinction. Its brevity is due to the 1500 word limit imposed as part of the assignment criteria.
More than forms of entertainment, interactivity, and/or art, video games are products which are channelled with specific intent; as new media, they are the “locus for enacting and exploring the contests and puzzles of the new global community and the postmodern inner life” (Murray 2005: online) through a flexible virtual medium which allows for deliberate promulgations. This paper therefore aims to analyse and demonstrate the way in which World of Warcraft (WoW), through a carefully crafted web of interlaced game mechanics and narratives, reconstructs and perhaps even reinvents contemporary capitalist and consumerist society within a digital fantasy setting. It does so by encouraging participatory culture through extensive communicative and interactive alternatives which promote a bourgeois culture where commoditisation of processes of production are key. This will emphasise that it is a hyper-mediated cultural artefact built through a system of signifiers to produce what Jean Baudrillard refers to as a hyper-reality; a ‘reality’ which blends the ‘real’ world with the digital environment, removing the ability to distinguish between the two. To cement these ideas and highlight how they are possible, I will explore WoW’s game rules and storytelling ability in order to evaluate its position within the ludology versus narratology debate. This will emphasise the significance of each within a larger cultural framework, and in turn showcase how the two are reliant upon mutual interaction and cooperation in order to achieve the designer’s intended result; in this case, capitalist ideology.
WoW (launched in 2004 by Blizzard Entertainment) is an open-ended expansion of the Warcraft RTS franchise, reconstructing it within a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) context. It is open-ended in that it is designed with no definitive conclusion; there is no singular way in which the game can be played, nor is there consensus on whether it has a conclusion at all as it is permanently subject to additions through the form of expansions, updates, and patching. The game’s primary focus is participatory culture by offering customisation via user interface, avatar, (non-)narrative progression, and overall game-play; the player is able to decide how to play, what to play, and in what order – the only real restraint is the level structure. Importantly, there is the option of whether to engage with the underlying narratives, or ignore them and approach the game for its aesthetics and mechanics. It is this complexity of design and function (which surpasses the scope of this paper) that brings forth the argument between ludology and narratology: which (if any) is more important, and why? Although dated, as it stems from early video gaming culture (Juul 2005: 15), the debate is significant as it showcases how each stance operates within WoW to produce capitalist simulacrum. Before we get to the cause, let us first cover the issue.
Through a digital environment and fantasy context, WoW utilises a system of factions (allegiances, reputations, etc), currency, means of production, trade professions, trade chat, auction houses, vendors, and so on, to mirror and encourage the contemporary capitalist and consumerist world, exaggerating the power of exchange in developing a global cyber community. As Corneliussen and Rettberg emphasise in Digital Culture, Play, and Identity, the game is successful precisely because it offers this “convincing and detailed simulacrum of the process of becoming successful in capitalist society... [it is] both a game and a simulation that reinforces the values of Western market-driven economies” (2008: 20).
At all points of the game, currency is used as an incentive for progress, and is nothing short of an asset; it is required for purchasing spells, skills, materials, enchantments, and the list goes on. In this way, the NPCs (non-playable characters) are the burgeois (in an extended sense of the term) within the WoW environment – they hold the means of exchange, and exploit proletariats, the players, who invest their time to complete tasks. The existence of two opposing factions is also at play; players are forced to make allegiance and can only communicate with those within their faction, simulating the former divide between the West and the ‘unknown’ Eastern world. Within these, a new-age bourgeois culture appears within the player demographic; through trade professions and ‘farming’, for example, where players go to different lengths to attain means of production and exchange. After they have a product, they resort to the auction house to sell it, using the trade chat channel as a means of advertising. WoW therefore goes a long way in educating its players in “a range of behaviours and skills specific to the situation of conducting business in an economy controlled by corporations” (Corneliussen & Rettberg 2008: 20), promoting the capitalist agenda as beneficial and profitable. This capitalist framework acts as a gateway to consumerism. As an economic order focused on promoting and catering for the demand to consume and purchase, its presence in WoW is cemented most prominently through vanity – countless items (pets, mounts, decorations, etc) are designed with no purpose apart from aesthetic appeal. The influence of the social factor begins to dictate behaviour, which results in the trade of in-game or real life currency for these items for personal satisfaction or status.
To grasp how this is enabled, we must rewind and assess the basics: game rules and narrative. Narratology, a concept which originated in Aristotle’s Poetics (Juul 2005: 15), is concerned with the storytelling aspects of video games (and other mediums). It posits narrative structure as the most important aspect of game, and concentrates on how such an infrastructure makes games possible. In this way, the idea labels video games as an extension of storytelling mediums. Narratives within WoW are built through a combination of what Perry defines as linear branching and web models. Linear branching “consists of a linear story with choice points... like a logic exercise in which you have essentially either/or choices” (Perry 2009: 85). This form of storytelling is present during level progression, and disappears once the player’s avatar reaches maximum level, transitioning to the web model; “a series of interconnected paths of branches that can be taken in virtually any order to accomplish a particular phase, mission, level, or other determinable section of the game” (Perry 2009: 85). At this point, players are allowed the freedom to explore all areas of the game, including raid MUDs, arena combat, PVP battlegrounds, and so on. It could be argued that such flexibility resembles the snowflake model, although the waypoint constraint keeps it within the web. Ludology on the other hand, a term which first appeared in the work of Csikszentmihalyi in 1982, is commonly regarded as the study of video games for their design, aesthetic, mechanic, and game-play properties (Juul 2005: 16). It separates itself from game story, preferring to position the cultural significance of a game at the forefront. This is the heart of our analysis; the manner in which WoW has been programmed is indicative of its capitalist perpetuation.
The fact remains that a game can exist without a story (eg. Tetris, Pacman), but a story cannot make a game. At the same time, narrative contributes to the relevance of the designer’s intent. The two are therefore bridged through the design process. Quests, for example, “can actually provide an interesting type of bridge between game rules and game fiction in that the game can contain a predefined sequence of events that the player then has to actualise or enact” (Juul 2005: 17). And although one may choose to just carry out commands rather than read the story, the infrastructure still remains. As Baudrillard states, “in the late 20th century... something has disappeared: what we have is a world that produces images of a reality that have no ‘real’ origin... The postmodern world is constituted as and by a precession of simulacra, copies of things which have no original object” (1994: 11, cited in Stephens 2008: 115). The way in which the contemporary world has been mapped and edited (in accordance to such simulacra) has been translated by Blizzard into WoW. The game then, as a simulacra itself (both because it is a game, and due to its perpetuation of the capitalist world), becomes a reflective representation of ‘real’ life simulacra that can be played out in a virtual context. From the onset, the player is conditioned to behave in a capitalist way like the human is taught to become a part of such culture; when an avatar is created, it must learn skills by progressing through levels and attaining currency, while the human child is sent to school and lectured to find an occupation and raise funds. As the world changes, so does the game (Corneliussen & Rettberg 2008: 25).
Blizzard Entertainment, through a specific blend of game rules and narratives, has recreated the contemporary capitalist and consumerist world in WoW by using a series of signifiers which blur the line between the ‘real’ and virtual world. With a heavy focus on participatory culture, players have been granted the opportunity for subconscious education in regards to the operation of the economic climate, channelling their gaming skill in such a way as to exert their skills within a hyper-reality. This has given way to a player culture that validates the importance of means of production and exchange, which has, in turn, reinstated bourgeois culture (and perhaps oppression). WoW is therefore testament to the fact that games are channelled with specific intent, highlighting their importance within the larger cultural climate. As a result, the game becomes a simulacrum of the ‘real’ world, and is itself created of a multitude of simulacra.
- Corneliussen, H. & Rettberg, J.W., 2008, Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: a World of Warcraft Reader, MIT Press, pp. 19-29
- Frasca, G., 2001, Simulation 101: Simulation Versus Representation, <http://www.ludology.org/articles/sim1/simulation101d.html>, accessed 1st October, 2011
- Juul, J., 2005, Half-Real: Video games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, MIT Press, pp. 15-20
- Murray, J., 2005, From Game-Story to Cyberdrama, <http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/firstperson/autodramatic>, accessed 1st October, 2011
- Perry, D. & DeMaria, R., 2009, David Perry on Game Design: A Brainstorming Toolbox, Charles River Media, pp. 69-128
- Stephens, E., 2008, “Flesh machines: self-making and the postmodern body” in Anderson, N. & Schlunke, K., Cultural Theory in Everyday Practice, Oxford University Press, pp. 114-121