Now that I’ve thoroughly stickied my fingers with semantics, more on WoW as societal fantasy.
This pretty accurately sums up the first post in the series:
People don’t play WoW to escape into a story, they play WoW to escape into another society that celebrates social awkwardness and in general, provides you with an immersive place to interact. If they wanted to escape into story, there are plenty of great console and PC games with no online, social components. Really, WoW is just a more complicated Gaia Online, or a multi-tiered chatroom with PvP combat. It’s a place for gamers to congregate or for new gamers to get a taste, like Bainbridge did. I don’t see it as any different from any other online community; people gravitate toward others that have the same interests, form tribal bonds and identify allies and opponents.
I will agree with Bainbridge that WoW poses alternatives to reality, but it’s not through the NPCs and the environments of the simulated world of Azeroth; that’s just window dressing, a necessary point of reference for the establishment of an integrative, alternative society of players.
I don’t want people reading this to take this the wrong way and think I’m a WoW-hater or some sort of gaming snob. Blizzard has created a cultural phenomenon in World of Warcraft and has basically set the standard for all other MMOs on the market. Beyond that, I played the game – at times intensively – and enjoyed the first expansion, The Burning Crusade (TBC), very much. Had a great time exploring with my brother, creating a guild and making friends in the process. I went super casual in WotLK because the game had changed too much and the MMO grind was starting to wear. I think a lot of players experienced this. I left and probably won’t return at this point, but it wasn’t a bitter departure.
So I got a good taste of the societal makeup of WoW at different levels, on different servers, and was always fascinated how close people got (including myself) to the components, the competition and the culture, especially when much of it was contrived through Blizzard itself and independent promotional websites and blogs who aren't so independent now.
Instead of defining themselves according to the lore of the game, I think players fall into their place in the larger server-society mostly by the gameplay choices they make, starting with character creation. These parameters determine the niche you inhabit according to the established status quo; given five years of in-game play and interaction combined with threads on the WoW forums sometimes hundreds of pages long, standards, prejudices and societal niches are identifiable. As to whether or not they're accurate or effective, there's not much of a difference online as there is in reality, but the complex layering of avatar and gameplay specificity creates the perfect escape into a culture that values power and competition without the in-person social/physical appearance requisites of reality.
We'll start with character specificity for now and move on to gameplay choice in the next post:
Faction: It's speculated that younger players tend to choose the Alliance for the typical "hero" look. The Alliance has a reputation of being less talented in the more difficult aspects of the game, particularly PvP and raiding. This is primarily a lore choice unless you are making strategic choices based on the faction population of a Battlegroup (a cluster of connected servers that form the basis of random PvP Battlegrounds and dungeons) or a server. The Horde, in general, is has been traditionally accepted as the more "grown up" faction choice.*
Race: While the initial choice of your race is based on the lore and personal preference, you will be judged by more experienced players based on the race you choose. There are stigmas associated with each, particularly with the elven races, the Blood Elves and Night Elves. It's assumed that new players tend to choose these races based on their previous fantasy experiences in other games or books. Here's a common insult: "That sure means a lot coming from a Night Elf," or something similar.
Class: This is important. Similar to race, there are social stigmas on certain classes, especially the Hunter and more recently, the Death Knight (known colloquially as Huntards and Deathtards), but each race is purported to attract a particular kind of person, and this element of gameplay is the most important and most talked about element in the game. People's identity gets tied up in this aspect the most as it pertains directly to your gameplay prowess. The class you choose determines the abilities you'll be able to use or provide to a group and ultimately, the ways in which you interact with the environment. Naturally, in order to keep the game relatively balanced between the different class in effectiveness, the developers have to tweak or completely change certain aspects of spells or abilities. When a class is "nerfed", when it is reduced in power, players of that class flock to forums to express their discontent, sometimes in long-winded posts, multi-bulleted with provocative titles on the Damage Dealing, Healing or Tanking forums. This aspect has always fascinated me. They speak in we terms, as in "We Hunters" or "We Warlocks" and are supported by other members of the class (though, since this is WoW, there are sure to be dissenters and trolls). Here's an example:
At the very end of the last expansion, The Burning Crusade, there were three classes that topped the damage dealing charts: Hunters, Rogues and Warlocks, all so-called pure classes because they cannot heal or tank, they only deal damage. However, there was one other pure class, the Mage, which was being benched in hardcore raiding guilds because of its relatively low damage output/utility in the endgame content. Hunters, Rogues and Warlocks could perform better and there were dozens if not hundreds of threads about why this was unjust, why so-and-so prominent Mage quit playing and how the problem could be fixed (it wasn't until the following expansion). So Mages were judged in general as weak and therefore incurred sympathy and support or ridicule and bullying. So the class the player had chosen months before the Mage was suddenly and temporarily considered ineffectual and this became a direct reflection on the player him/herself. This was not determined by the story in any way; this was purely a gameplay shift that subsequently caused a shift in the class's stereotype.
Class type: Very simple stereotypes here: DPS (damage dealing) classes are lazy and take less skill than tanking or healing classes. Healers are played by girls. Tanks are played by men.
Spec: Each class has three talent trees that players dump points into to increase the power of their character, and your "spec" is the number of points you have dedicated in each tree. If I were asked "What's your spec?" I would say something like 0/16/55, resto, meaning that the majority of points are placed in the Restoration tree of my Shaman, meaning that my character is a healer. This works a lot like class. There are players that will stick by a spec no matter what's been changed, even if it's the weakest spec for the class at the time.
Typically, there are accepted specs that have been quantitatively tested by players in communities such as Elitist Jerks that are proven to be more potent or efficient. Just by saying I'm 0/16/55 or whatever it happens to be, if that number does not match the accepted norm, I could be removed from a group or ridiculed as a noob with a suboptimal spec. Having the accepted spec says something about a player, usually that they have done their research and care about getting as much out of their character as they can.
Gear: This is another check to assess the quality of player. It can be a bit complicated to determine what armor or weapons one class should be using versus another, so the choices that a particular player makes, which can be inspected by others, says something about the quality of player. It's accepted that if your character is wearing spell power gear on a physical damage class, you're either kidding around or you don't know what you're doing (or more likely, don't care), but if you're able to demonstrate that your choices of gear (and gems) are optimal and point to a supporting argument for making those choices, it can glean respect. This is another sign of your personal prowess or your desire to be accepted by the upper echelon of players.
Every element I've described so far has little or no influence from the story, that is, there is no necessary injection for lore into any of these elements for the societal implications of these choices. The majority of these choices are based on gameplay, not lore; the latter takes a backseat to the former from a development perspective and from the player's perspective, which is generated from the human composition of each server, not the established storytelling devices. Your avatar gains prestige by gaining the respect of other players through gameplay.
Next post I'll detail some of the more gameplay-specific social factors, and describe how even roleplayers are bound and forced to play according to the status quo. We'll go in to PvP and raiding as well.
In the future I want to address the question of worth and the usefulness of these virtual worlds, especially since claims are being made that fantasy can inform real life. I have sincere doubts that on any large scale WoW provides people an engaging intellectual environment much less encourages them to produce outside of Azeroth especially if they're not already inclined to do so, but that's a topic for another day.
*Some of these factors are probably becoming less and less applicable since WotLK since Blizzard has opened up many options to move between servers, factions and classes with greater ease.