In Which ANT Meets Rhetorical Theory, And Even Objects Have Agency_Case Study #2 WoW

WoW Guild. Image hosted on Think Tutorial.

WoW Guild. Image hosted on Think Tutorial.

For this second case study, I am approaching guilds in World of Warcraft from Rhetorical Situation Theory (Lloyd Bitzer and Richard Vatz) and Actor-Network-Theory (Bruno Latour). While Rhetorical Situation is focused on humans as rhetors and the functions and effects of rhetorical discourse on and within audiences,  ANT looks at non-human as well as human actors as they are constantly defining and redefining groups and what is, ultimately, the social. Both of the theories look at those who are acting within a group, with one being more inclusive as to who/what can be an actant, and effects of the actors’ movements rippling through the network rather than looking at the network from the outside in.

Literature Review

The research that surrounds computer and video games is usually limited in terms of what is being analyzed. The major scholarly tracks seem to be violence, effects on children, Hzuinga’s “magical circle,” how games can be used for learning, gamer-avatar identity, and addiction (with this last one being a major component of research done on WoW). The international popularity of WoW (and some other MMORPGS, though WoW tends to have the most active subscriptions) is reflected in the scholarship surrounding it, as researchers from around the world turn their attention to the game and the effects it has, or can have, on its players. Scholars like Shelia Murphy as well as Nicholas Hoult and Douglas Klieber attempt to understand how computer games and video (console) games provide spaces for players that draw them in to identify with their characters (as well as how that gamer-avatar identification can be disrupted) in a way that television and movies do not, drawing upon the psychological needs being fulfilled. Like Murphy, Alex Golub also explores the visual elements of computer games, with WoW as his primary object of study, but ultimately concludes that the players’ experiences in virtual worlds are not based on enhanced sensorial realism, but on downplaying that realism because, “Rather than describe people who turn databases into worlds, I will describe a community which has taken a virtual world and turned it back into a database” (19). Golub finds that players use what the game provides them to strip away the levels of realism to work more closely with the code, the language of ones and zeroes, to enhance their experience of the game and their activities within guilds, and such activities take place not only in the game through verbal and textual communication between players and actions of avatars, but also through out-of-game spaces like websites and forums, email, phone calls, and through software like Skype and Google Hangout. Work like that of Chien-Hsun Chen, Chuen-Tsai Sun, and Jilung Hiesh is an outlier to the usual research being done on computer and video games as they use quantitative analysis to track the constant evolution and dissolution of WoW guilds in Taiwanese servers, finding that there are patterns to the creations, maintenance, and disbanding of guilds, based on players’ movement between guilds based on level ranking and quality of guild management.

Rhetorical Situations in a Game?

For the first part of this case study, I am going to be working with Rhetorical Situation Theory (focusing on the works of Bitzer and Vatz), looking at moments of rhetorical situation and the boundaries within which rhetors produce discourse in the gamespace of WoW.  But, are there moments of rhetoric in an MMORPG? If, as Bitzer says, “rhetorical discourse comes into existence as a response to a situation,” what kinds of situations in-game would create moments of rhetorical discourse (5)? It’s just a game, isn’t it?

Well, yes, it is a game, but it is also an environment, one that is heavily grounded in social interaction. Rhetoric is everywhere as players move as network nodes between interactions, joining and leaving guilds as well as joining and leaving raiding parties. Within guilds, players must convince one another of battle strategies as raids can often be difficult undertakings, requiring hours of planning and hours of execution, sometimes with little success; in player-player conflicts, with some players defending themselves and their potential virtual property against other players; when player-player conflicts cannot be resolved, there are ruptures within guilds, leading to the creation of separate guilds; and within the creation of new guilds, the recruitment of players into the guilds, especially when the gamer is new to the server or has been relatively isolated prior to creating a guild charter.

Guild social dynamics are essentially playing out in a microcosm of social and political** (usually within the guild, not in the gamespace at large) tensions, mediated through character avatars over Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and textual messages. But rhetorical situations do not only occur in-game for guilds, but also outside of games: in forums (official and unofficial), on guild websites, through YouTube videos, and in personal communications. Much of this discourse is written by guild members for guild members, creating a circular audience, though gamers outside of the guild and even non-players (depending on the medium) can have access to out-of-game texts about in-game activities.

VoIP. Image hosted on official WoW site,

VoIP. Image hosted on official WoW site,

Unofficial World of Warcraft website for the guild Frostwolves.

Unofficial World of Warcraft website for the guild Frostwolves.

With this theory, rhetorical discourse always has a human agent, what Bitzer calls “mediators of change”: “Rhetorical  discourse produces changes by influencing the decision and action of persons who function as mediators of change” (7). This raises the questions of who would constitute the rhetors, the mediators of change, and the audience of those moments of discourse? The answer to these questions will always be guild members, but there are different kinds of guild members. There are differences between guild officers, raid leaders, guild leader, power players versus non-power players, and veteran players versus rookie players. The differences in-game are not based on outside elements like age, profession, race, financial status, or social class, but are based on experience and skill in-game. While the ideal is that every member of the group be given fair and equal treatment within the guild, there are often moments where players’ agency depends on their perceived level of commitment to the group and what level of guild hierarchy they have reached. It all depends on the rules established by the guild for how the guild operates in gameplay.

Oftentimes, a guild’s success at continuing to exist is based on the quality of guild management and how much agency each member (as a node in the network) has in the relationships formed through rhetorical discourse. The conversations that arise during the whole process of raids (from the pre-planning, the decisions as to who will play what role, the instructions and conversations that crop up as the raid is taking place, and the distribution of loot after the raid has been successfully completed) reflect the quality of leadership and companionship of the guild to its members, even if to no one else. If there is a break down in communication, if the leader (or rhetor) has no responsibility placed upon him/her for the rhetorical situation he/she has decided to take advantage of or ignore, the group may become fragmented as the members (who are more than “mere hearers and readers”) become mediators of change in a way that can ultimately dissolve the guild. Players may leave the guild (alone or with others) if they feel they are being treated unfairly (such as them feeling cheated if they are not allowed loot they have requested, if they feel the loot is being hoarded by guild officers, and so on), if they feel they have outgrown what the guild can offer their character, or if the guild is not operating efficiently enough (too many members missing raid meeting times). If the rhetorical discourse require for a situation is ineffective or absent when most needed, the guild as a whole may be left at a severe disadvantage if the best players leave. Even a player who feels he/she has no agency in the group, still has enough agency to leave the group and find a new guild.

From the angle of rhetorical discourse, what is moving through the network are the rules and guidelines that the members are continually establishing and putting into effect (or neglecting) for the experience they are seeking as a collective. Vatz states, “To the audience, events become meaningful only through their linguistic depiction” (157). Guild members could play the game alone (whether that gameplay would be successful or not would be another story), but it is the rhetorical exchange that underlies the guild activities that gives the events meaning for the players. A raid would be just hack-and-slash and magic-casting except that the players are using language to persuade themselves and each other that this raid, this dungeon, this boss fight means something for all of them. The raid leader may need to persuade others that a certain strategy is the correct one, but that explanation and the resulting discourse makes it a lived experience. Even a breakdown in communication or a consistent lack of quality guild management is a rhetorical discourse that can lead players to become mediators of change through guild dissolution.

**Side note: There are also times when political rhetoric crosses into a gamespace as players adapt the web of interconnectivity that a popular game can provide. An example of this is an in-game political rally for Ron Paul supporters that was established by players. These players carved a non-traditional space (non-traditional for a game, at least)for themselves within WoW by collecting supporters for an out-of-game cause.  Can the video below be considered a rhetorical text? Can these players be considered mediators of change as both rhetors and audience members?

Enter the ANT

While Rhetorical Situation Theory is very much about the human and the rhetorical discourse, ANT allows the very non-human entities of hardware and software as having just as much agency as the gamers themselves in a study on WoW. The programming code that makes everything work is not pushed off to the side; it is allowed into the discourse, becoming a major (and acknowledged) part of the network. With ANT, the actors are the nodes, but who are out actors? So yes, gamers, of course, are on the list of actors, but so are representations of the code through non-playable characters (NPCs), loot from raids, quests logs, monsters, characters’ pets, parts of the environment, and objects that can be handled in the game. But our list is still incomplete. We have to step outside of the game and look at what allows gamers to actually play: keyboards, CPUs with monitors or laptops, mouse, and headphones, as well as additional technologies that can now be used to access the game (thank you add-ons from Blizzard) like cellphones. Is this a more complete list? Sort of. Guild activities do not only take place in the gamespace, but outside of it as well in forums, through software like Google Hangouts and Skype, through social media like Facebook, and through unofficial game websites. There could be other actors involved, especially if the guild members know each other in person, but this will be okay for now as our list is more robust than simply just listing humans. This is what a WoW ANT network for a guild would like.

Normally, when a guild is mentioned, people imagine this:

WoW guild, anyone? Image hosted on the C Trust Network.

WoW guild, anyone? Image hosted on the C Trust Network.

When really, with our newly constructed list in mind, the mental image should include these two:

Example of what a screen for what a player sees during a raid. Image hosted on C Trust Network.

Example of what a screen for what a player sees during a raid. Image hosted on C Trust Network.

Guild playing at a tournament. Image hosted on website SK-Gaming.

Guild playing at a tournament. Image hosted on website SK-Gaming.

Now that we have our larger (if not totally exhaustive list) and our handy-dandy new mental image, we must deal with a new way of conceiving how the nodes in our guild network have agency and are situated within the network. Why would I choose to list these actors? According to Latour, “If we stick to our decision to start from the controversies about actors and agencies, then any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor– or, if it has no figuration yet, an actant. Thus, the questions to ask about any agent are simply the following: Does it make a difference in the course of some other agent’s action or not? Is there some trial that allows someone to detect this difference?” (71). Let’s see if we can tease out how this works within an MMORPG. What do all of these actors even do for the network? The gamers, their hardware, and the game’s software have one major collective goal. They are all working towards the creation and maintenance of the gameworld in which the guild exists. Sounds odd that gamers are part of this, doesn’t it? But, that’s how games work. The developers design the code that then puts the gameworld into existence on the chosen platform(s) players will then access through their chosen hardware. If the gamers choose not to play, eventually the designers will have to shut the game down or the game remains in its plastic casing on a shelf. In order for the gameworld to be activated and maintained, it needs someone to be playing.

But, we need to narrow this down further. Our target network is not the game as a whole, but individual guilds. What gamers, the software, and the hardware do for the game at large works the same way for the guild on a more microscopic level. The guild’s boundaries must be defined and redefined constantly, which Latour mentions when discussing the creation and maintenance of groups: “all need some people defining who they are, what they should be, what they have been. These are constantly at work, justifying the group’s existence, invoking rules and precedents and, as we shall see, measuring up one definition against all others. Groups are not silent things, but rather the provisional product of a constant uproar made by the millions of contradictory voices about what is a group and who pertains to what” (31). In this sense, the guild is a network node inside a much larger, far more extensive network. And, the gamers, who would have been just one node among (literally) millions of other player nodes, and those are just talking about the human elements of the game. What being part of a guild does then is offer players greater agency in their own gameplay experience of WoW by making them a node in a network that is comprised of a more manageable (usually) number of human players.

However, if those guild members stop redefining the boundaries of their group, against the world, other guilds, and against players with no guilds at all, the guild itself will dissolve. The code and gamers’ hardware is not enough to maintain a guild. The guild may have an archive of some kind as having once existed, but the players are the core nodes who meet and interact in a way that makes a guild what it is. That being said, the guild would not exist without the code that is always underlining the game. There would be no reason for a guild unless the environment of the gamespace provided dungeons to conquer, raids to take on, a world to explore, cities to visit, and servers where players can face off against one another or players (PvP) face off against the environment (PvE). And, without the hardware of the computer and the headphones, players would not have access to the gamespace and to each other. All of the actors are necessary, especially with digital games.

It is here where ANT really diverges away from theories like Rhetorical Situation Theory, complicating how we see interactions in a network. What exactly can be moving through a guild network when we must take into account the software and hardware? How does it move among the different nodes? One of the major things moving through the network is code, zeroes and ones that render the visuals, relay information  about characters’ statuses, allow for environmental sounds and pre-established soundtrack selections, and initiate reactions from the environment, NPCs, and monsters in which the guild members interact. There are also the zeroes and ones that allow players to have their avatars do physical gestures towards one another and allow relay their textual conversations. But, that’s not all. The hardware players may opt to use like headphones and mics allow for verbal communications. Rhetorical discourse may be part of what is being conveyed, but, in this more inclusive list of network nodes, the code is central to all transmissions.

Who/what are the mediators and what are the intermediaries making all of this possible? “Every time a connection has to be established, a new conduit has to be laid down and some new type of entity has to be transported through it. What circulates, so to speak, ‘inside’ the conduits are the very acts of giving something a dimension. Whenever a locus wishes to act on another locus, it has to go through some medium, transporting something all the way; to go on acting, it has to maintain some sort of more or less durable connection. Conversely, every locus is now the target of many such activities, the crossroads of many such tracks, the provisional repository of many such vehicles. Sites, now transformed into actor-networks for good, are moved to the background; connectors, vehicles, and attachments are brought into the foreground” (Latour 220).

**This quote always reminds me of Tron: Legacy.

In ANT, there are mediators (those that cause other actors to do something) and there are intermediaries (objects that relay information without causing change), though intermediaries can become mediators. How to picture this, though, when zeroes and ones are at the heart of everything in-game and players must continually be mediators while they are immersed in the gameworld? The hardware seem most likely to be continually be mediators so long as gamers are playing, in much the same way as Latour’s example of telephone wires being persistent mediators for the British Empire. It took me a while to puzzle this one out, but the best example I could think of for an intermediary in relation to a guild in WoW would be NPCs and monsters populating the world. As guild members move through the gamespace, signing off and returning to the world of the game when the guild and the meatspace demand, NPCs and the other creatures of the gamespace continue to exist, but what are they doing? In a sense, they are code-in-waiting. They are physically representing the zeroes and ones that program an NPC or a monster to be in a particular location, but they are not really causing change in the network of the guild until a player (or the group of players) interacts with them. These digital entities are always ready, either standing in the same physical space or roaming predetermined pathways, waiting for something to trigger them (through conversation or battle). Once activated, the NPC or monster then becomes a mediator by either giving players details for a particular quest or transporting them for the former, or attacking them for the latter. The players may then be sent in a new direction (to find an item, location, or just to run away), or find themselves needing to defend and attack.

Example of an NPC. Image hosted on the WoW Insider on Joystiq.

Example of an NPC. Image hosted on the WoW Insider on Joystiq.


When applying ANT to guild activities in WoW, there is as much need to define and redefine the boundaries of the network for the researcher as the actors when they are defining and redefining the groups within which they find themselves working. The code of the game may play a major role in what the guild can do in the gamespace, but it does not limit itself to that. The code is always working throughout the game, across the different servers in the different countries where people are playing. When talking about this angle in my case study, I always get the sense that I am stepping away from my object of study as the boundaries blur. The zeroes and ones are hidden from the more casual player under layers of what they render, though the games allows players the option of stripping away the visual elements in order to have greater access to the code underneath. This makes tracing the associations in ANT a little more difficult. Game developers make the world as seamless as possible so that players can immerse themselves, and hardware and software are only truly noticed when they malfunction. In comparison, Rhetorical Situation Theory seems easier to implement, primarily because it is not as inclusive and, therefore, more manageable. By only focusing on humans dealing with other humans, the extra variables made visible in ANT are left out.


Bitzer, Lloyd F. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 25 (Selections from Volume 1) (1992): 1-14. PDF.

Chen, Chien-Hsun, Chuen-Tsai Sun, Jilung Hsieh. “Player Guild Dynamics and Evolution is Massively Multiplayer Online Games.” CyberPsychology & Behavior 11.3 (2008): 293-301. Academic Search Complete. Web. 18 March 2014.

Golub, Alex. “Being in the World (of Warcraft): Raiding, Realism, and Knowledge Production in a Massively Multiplayer Online Game.” Anthropological Quarterly 83.1 (2010): 17-45. JSTOR. Web. 26 Jan 2014.

Holt, Nicholas A. and Douglas A. Kleiber. “The Sirens’ Song of Multiplayer Online Games.” Children, Youth and Environments 19.1 (2009): 223-244. JSTOR. Web. 26 Jan 2014.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the SocialAn Introduction to the Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Murphy, Sheila C. “‘Live in Your World, Play in Ours’: The Spaces of Video Game Identity.” Journal of Visual Culture 3.2 (2004): 223-238. Sage. Web. 17 March 2014.

Vatz, Richard E. “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 6.3 (1973): 154-161. PDF.

Sunday Begins and Ends with Music

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