In the worlds of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games, there can be two levels of networks in regards to guilds: on a game-global level (I make this specification because some games are actually global, with players from around the world joining in on different servers), the guilds themselves are part of a larger network as they compete against one another, and on a game-local level, the members in each guild represent nodes in their particular guild network. For this particular Case Study, I am going to be dealing with the game-local level in relation to World of Warcraft (WoW) as I best understand the framework of the game, and members have quite a bit of support in-game and out-of-game with the creation of, acceptance into/experience within, and dissolution of guilds. The concepts within Charles Bazerman’s chapter “Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems: How Texts Organize Activity and People” provide interesting insight into how members of guilds become part of the mini-societies within gameworlds, especially in WoW, through the speech acts and social facts that emerge through player-player interaction.
Bazerman’s theory of speech acts and systems of human activity can define the local level of MMO guilds through interactions between players and the cohesion and disruption felt once those interactions begin to collect into trends and movements. What makes guilds in virtual environments so interesting is that players conform to rules and norms much as they would in the “real world,” which is an idea that plays into the concept of “social facts” that Bazerman describes as “those things people believe to be true, and therefore bear on how they define a situation” (312). In order for the guild to work, players have to agree on certain organizational methods (usually in the form of hierarchies based on player rankings, group goals like raids or more storytelling play styles, and newer members being linked with mentors), or else the guild divides and falls apart. Guilds themselves can have very fluid hierarchies, as players establish themselves and gain rank, or as other players drop out of the guild or the game for a variety of reasons (work, family, school, injuries, financial issues, and so on). Much like “real world” groups, communication styles in guilds differ, but tend to be two-way as members offer suggestions for how to approach a particular raid, where to find the best armor, and what strategies are useful against specific creatures or bosses.
As a whole, these gamers generally agree on ideas like ranks as rightfully earned, that (most of the time) there should be a leader (or leaders) for raids and for the guild itself, and that the guild is a space worth joining. These agreements, or disagreements, come to define how the system works: are the raiding teams cohesive? Is there in-fighting among guild members? Is the guild strictly run or does the Guild Master encourage a more laissez faire style? Are newer players mentored by more seasoned players, or are they expected to learn on their own? The atmosphere of the group is determined by the group and the norms to which players are willing to submit, whether it is through explicit agreement or a quiet submission (though most gamers can be fairly vocal when they disagree or feel they are being treated unfairly).
Almost all of the interaction between players is done through speech acts, whether verbal or written. Players can either found their own guild or seek one out (through in-game means or through forums) that has already been established, and then gain acceptance into that guild (with a growing trend of actually having to file an application, especially for the more prestigious guilds). Once in a guild, players find that they have a balance of how much agency they can have within the group. Their abilities and experience define what role(s) they may play when raiding (tank, damage per second also known as dps, or healer), but the player can choose to hone skills that would give them access to other roles or make them more desirable as a combat buddy. Guild members can contact other members through the guild window (displayed above and below) for small raiding parties, or they may choose to join in larger raids (though stricter guilds demand players be present or they may be kicked out of the guild), and loot tends to be shared among players, with certain pieces being set aside for players trying to finish an armor set or guild officers being allowed first pick. For guilds that are more story-based, players have the chance to introduce origin stories for their characters, drawing on the mythology set up by the game creators, which allows players to carve out a space for themselves in the gameworld and establish their character as a more three-dimensional entity within the world and the group.
As social networks, guilds in WoW are the embodiment of communication technologies. While players initially had to depend on keyboard chats in order to communicate with other players, advancements in technology have opened the way for players to chat over headphones and now remote chats on cell phones. Players also communicate using official forums, through emails and phone calls, and may utilize websites like WoW Guild Hosting to stay in touch. One of the major motivations for a strong communication network within the guild is to prepare for and execute raids that require larger numbers of people. While there can be unexpected obstacles, guild and raid leaders focus on ensuring that members of raid groups understand their roles and the strategy the guild has decided on. Breakdowns in communication can be disastrous, ending with entire teams being slaughtered in more difficult dungeons (any experienced WoW player will shudder and laugh at the Leeroy Jenkins incident).
Doing well in raids and as a guild altogether has gained greater importance with the introduction of Guild Perks, moving from player motivation for guild banks (which is in-game storage) to actual competition to have and be included in a higher level guild. Guild perks, as defined by WoW Wiki, are “special benefits received when a guild reaches a particular guild level and the corresponding guild achievement.” This new dynamic of perks into the guild network has altered how WoW is played, with most players now belonging to a guild instead of traversing the world alone or with a companion/small group. Players come to be defined by what network they belong to, finding safety and prestige in being a connected node instead of a solitary adventurer.
Bazerman’s theory of speech acts allows me to look at how guild members become enough of a collective to create their own mini-society in a virtual space, which becomes even more interesting in light of the fact that these players may never meet in real life, are coming together based on common goals, and are being judged based on merit, personality, and design choices represented by their avatars’ appearances and classes. His theory is helpful in that it looks at how players’ interactions through speech acts start to create movements in the guild itself, helping to establish boundaries between players, norms for the group to follow as a whole, and can also bring about the dissolution of the guild. Though interaction between players is done through speech acts, Bazerman’s theories of genre, felicity conditions, and typification would help to define how the kinds of communication players have to enrich the game experience and ensure the success of their guilds.
When dealing with World of Warcraft at the game-local level of guilds and guild members, Genre Theory, namely Bazerman’s “Speech Acts,” reveals how the concept of a rhetorical community can evolve with and through technology to meet the demands of speakers and audience members who may not be explicitly aware that they are taking part in a genre system. For players in WoW, they are actively engaged as nodes in a network of gamers across servers, acting as virtual combatants for either Alliance or Horde and existing as a member of one of the game’s species. However, at a more microscopic level, players are also engaging in and changing how rhetorical activity in-game takes place, mostly through their interactions within guilds. The players work within the system set up by the game’s creators at Blizzard, but also harness in-game and out-of-game technology to enhance the experience of being within a community and being part of the gameworld at large, creating their own mode of creating and altering in-game reality.
For a player to join and remain within a guild, becoming an active participant within that particular group and the sub-groups necessary for raiding and/or role-playing, the player must accept that there are “social facts” underlying the construction of the guild. They must come to terms with the idea that there is always a guild hierarchy, fluid as it may be, with officers designated to certain roles, such as guild master, raid leader, and so on. Along with the hierarchy, individual players (within and outside of the officer ranking) are each assigned specific roles for quests and raids based on their avatars’ experience levels, professions, interests (as damage-per-second, healer, tank), and abilities and skillsets. Guild rules (such as how social that member may be with players outside of the guild and how much time must be devoted per week to guild activities) and goals are also established as social facts for the group as well, with the intention of making the group a more cohesive whole (though guilds break apart or simply dissolve for a number of reasons).
By accepting the social facts upon which individual guilds are founded, players find agency through speech acts like player applications, plans for raids, creation of character origin stories, player-player interactions during raids, role-playing interactions, and discussion forums for the guild and the game. These speech acts generally take place through in-game chat (via text or microphone), personal email, phone calls, social media (like Facebook groups), personal guild websites, and official or unofficial discussion forums. There are also guilds created by people who can have regular face-to-face contact, such as family members, computer game clubs, and friends, where speech acts can be done verbally and through handwritten/drawn texts. These speech acts are two-way, with players giving and receiving feedback not just by what they say but also through what they do. Operating as a group inside and outside of the game by utilizing various means of communication, players are not just passively accepting orders from guild officers, but helping to plan for guild events like raids and boss fights, and also establishing who and what their particular avatars are within the group, allowing them to make their experiences within the gamespace more their own than if they had just “played the game.”
As guilds grow, creating a space for themselves on their server and gaining a reputation for their completed quests and boss fights, the speech acts of the members become foundations for various genres of their communication. For example, a role-playing guild’s decision to have members write and share their characters’ origin stories, then creates a genre of origin stories for the group. New players then add their own texts into the larger narrative of the group, weaving a tale of how the members’ avatars found each other and strengthening the network. The same expansion occurs with raid activities, as members’ (usually) meticulous plans for how their quest in a dungeon should play out become a series of trial-and-error attempts, with members reacting and responding over verbal (and sometimes text) chat. In order to better facilitate players, the creators of WoW introduced the use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) during the game’s second patch, enticing gamers in guilds to move away from tools like Skype and to become more fully immersed in the gamespace as they would not need outside communication software (WoW Wiki). This addition to the game for guild members altered how players could communicate with one another, as they no longer needed to rely on writing out messages, video chat outside of the game, or calling through cell phones. However, the speech acts and the genre of player-player raid communication was not and is not solely based on VoIP as they post videos of their raids and all of the vocal communication embedded within the experience. Videos posted Youtube and shared on game-related sites are where players begin to invite outsiders into their experiences, which potentially brings with it censure, praise, constructive criticism, and trolling from guild members, other guilds, and non-guild viewers.
Breakdowns in communication among guild members can also be apparent through VoIP interactions and sharing of videos, such as the now infamous Leeroy Jenkins incident. Players who resist and ignore the direction and actions of their companions, or who fall short of the teams’ expectations, may find themselves berated, kicked out, or sent to train/retrain with a mentor. There are incidences where members who are unhappy with the direction of the guild or with the actions of the officers may split off to form a guild of their own or leave the game entirely. The very social facts and speech acts that can make a guild more cohesive may be a major cause for a guild’s disintegration or rupture. Players can be particularly vocal when they feel they are being neglected, cheated, or thwarted in regards to their own personal goals, and complaints and reports are a genre all their own. This genre of discontent, while seen as negative, allows players to have just as much agency in defending themselves against slights and trolling as regular communication has in that player becoming established within the group.
Though much of the activity is at the level of guild members participating within their own particular groups, the genres that emerge from their speech acts are mirrored across the gamespace as many different guilds participate in the same activities. Activities by raid guilds and activities by role-playing guilds (with guilds who alternate between the two) each become genre systems, and are sometimes separated even by servers as there are servers dedicated to such things as role-playing or player-vs.-player. Again, these two systems branch and connect to the world outside of the game. For role-playing parties, players draw upon the official in-game histories of the world and the species, mythology, and new information released with patches concerning the state of the gamespace (especially when a new species is introduced). Players are then free, and feel free, to craft spaces for themselves on the game’s official website and forums to share the stories they have created, allowing them to engage the larger WoW community. Raiding guilds also find spaces for their accomplishments as ranking websites emerge and track the competing groups, even though they are not directly competing against one another.
Most of the players’ actions revolve around crafting a space for themselves within their guilds, within the game, and within the gaming community. By expanding the ways they use the technology to relay their social facts to new and existing members, to collaborate through speech acts to constantly improve the activities and reputation of the guild, and to connect within and outside of the game to feel like a guild, players are reshaping the gamespace and technologies for their own means. MMORPGs like WoW are attractive to players not because of the open space of the game, which gets boring after a while, but the social interactions amongst players that are promised by the game creators. Though these games can be for the solitary player, everything about the game world encourages group play. However, for players to feel comfortable and active within groups, they carve out connections and use technologies that grant them agency to establish and defend themselves, while also helping to enhance the groups’ performances. Players exist as nodes in the overarching gamespace, in which ever servers they play in, in which side they choose (Horde or Alliance), in the guilds they join, and in the sub-groups they are selected for, but those same players use varying levels of communication as links between themselves and nodes inside and outside of the gamespace. The game and the experience belong to them just as much as their avatars belong to the game and its creators.
To Make This Quest Just a Little Easier:
Bazerman, Charles. “Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems: How Texts Organize Activity and People.” What Writing Does and How It Does It: An Introduction to Analyzing Texts and Textual Practices. Charles Bazerman and Paul Prior. (Eds.). London: Routledge, 2004. 309-340[PDF]
WoW Wiki. Wikia, n.d. Web. 09 Feb. 2014.