Networks within networks tangled with networks: Mechanisms of human connection in and around the World of WarcraftIn a virtual world, “importance” and “reality” are constructed in the same way they always have been—socially. So we must keep in mind that although networked computers allow the existence of these virtual worlds, it is the human networks within and surrounding these worlds that gives them their true significance. As Edward Castronova has stated, “Everything that happens in a synthetic world is the consequence of the interactions of human minds” (2005, p. 48). It can even be argued that virtual worlds are much more a “meeting of minds” than the physical world, as rather than being governed by the laws of nature, a virtual world is governed by a mind—a developer. Just as human minds are unpredictable, the networks we form online are chaotic and fractal, as one network, like those in the game World of Warcraft, can generate subnetworks and metanetworks through its importance to players.
One goal of the developers of a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG), such as World of Warcraft (WoW) is to tell a story, a story which is the world that players inhabit. Within this story—the story of Azeroth, a world invaded by demons, corrupted by malevolent influences, attacked and defended by dragons—players form social networks, often joining formal organizations called “guilds” in order to find players with similar play styles as themselves, or perhaps creating a guild in order to play with real-life acquaintances. These are formed by members of the same basic in-game network, i.e., the same realm (or server), and the same faction, Alliance or Horde. The guild is the most common persistent subnetwork found within WoW. Guild members have in-game methods of communication and incentives for grouping together rather than with strangers. As discussed by Williams et. al., guilds can generally be classified as belonging to one of four types: social, raid, PVP (player vs. player) or roleplaying (2006). In addition, guilds vary in size from very small (it is possible to have a guild with only one player) to very large (due to various game mechanics, the maximum number of players in a guild is 1,000 (McCurley, 2010)). Guilds facilitate gameplay chiefly by providing a group to play with, but their importance to players is largely social. Williams et. al. conclude that a major factor in the guild’s importance to players is as a source of social capital, similar to a civic organization where individuals may have close friends in the organization but also take advantage of a formal organizational structure to meet strangers and interact with casual acquaintances. It is, by the way, important to note that I have classified guilds as a “subnetwork” because all the characters in a guild must be a part of the same in-game network. The players, however, are connected to each other by more than just their WoW accounts; guilds often have websites with forums, use VoIP services to communicate by voice, and contact each other by email, instant messaging, or even SMS and telephones. It is also not precisely true to say that these subnetworks draw from preexisting realm/faction networks; it is not unusual for guildmates to have met in real life or elsewhere online before choosing to play WoW together, and an individual may choose a realm and faction because of a guild they want to join.
In-game, players cannot communicate with their enemy faction verbally or group up to accomplish in-game goals, and not many kinds of groups can be formed across realm boundaries. WoW players who are not necessarily able to connect in-game have connected out-of-game in a wide variety of metanetworks, whether centered in discussion forums, informative blogs, or even derivative creative works. Many of the metanetworks of World of Warcraft stem from a desire to be better at the game. For example, the forum Elitist Jerks describes itself as “a WoW discussion forum targeted towards topics regarding high-end raiding and analysis of game mechanics” (“Welcome”). It is very clear from the site’s FAQ that this is not a place to joke around and have fun; in this particular network WoW—and mostly just raiding in WoW—is serious business. Other WoW metanetworks facilitate the kinds of fandom interactions common to many popular intellectual properties, including fanfiction, webcomics, and speculation. But any game as big as WoW—with 11.1 million active players worldwide as of June 30, down from a world record maximum of 12 million (Cifaldi, 2011)—is big enough to generate what can rightly be called major online media outlets. WoW Insider, a blog about World of Warcraft, hires writers and editors to cover many aspects of WoW, from news about upcoming game content, to how to play your class, to discussions of the in-game lore (or story), to humor, to features about the fan community itself.
It could be argued that subnetworks and metanetworks come about because of game mechanics (and, in some cases, a profit motive). But there are many video games—indeed, many Massively Multiplayer Online Games—and their game mechanics don’t all generate how-to sites, let alone enough pageviews to generate ad revenue. Players who don’t care about the game world or community don’t stick around long enough to form guilds. The importance of a network to individuals is crucial to the ability of that network to successfully generate other networks. Metanetworks to WoW can even generate subnetworks. The guild AIE (Alea Iacta Est), for example, is described on its website as “a casual Horde Guild that was started by the creators/fans/friends of The Instance/ELR/Buzz out Loud/Jawbone Radio/Mahalo Daily on the Earthen Ring (RP)-US Realm of World of Warcraft” (“Charter”). (The Instance is a World of Warcraft podcast whose listeners and fan community are another WoW metanetwork.) Tracing the “network generation”: First, some guys that play WoW started a podcast. As the podcast grew in popularity, it became the focus of one WoW metanetwork. The members of this metanetwork created a WoW guild: a subnetwork. This WoW guild has in turn generated “co-networks” in other online games. The podcasts only thrive because of the importance of WoW to hosts and listeners; the guild came about because the podcasts were important to many people; and the guild became so important to its members that they not only communicate out-of-game but have created a formal mechanism to create subnetworks within other virtual environments. It’s now possible to regard AIE: Azeroth as just one subnetwork of AIE as a whole as well as a subnetwork of the World of Warcraft.
If we participate in any information society, we presume we are and will continue to be able to communicate at a distance. With the infrastructural revolutions of the network society, we have a previously unparalleled ability to communicate across human space and time. Many see this as an intellectual paradise and a breeding ground for social change. Yet amidst this tremendous potential, we are more likely to use the internet to tweet at writers we reference in our papers and kill dragons with friends in Omaha than to exchange intellectual or spiritual ideas with strangers. Some consider this a waste of the internet’s potential, but what else would we use it for? Social connection—staying connected with our loved ones, making connections with like-minded individuals—is a basic human need that has always driven the revolutions of the information society.
Castronova, E. (2005). Synthetic worlds: The business and culture of online games. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Charter. (n.d.) Retrieved Sep. 20, 2011, from http://wiki.aie-guild.org/index.php?title=Charter
Cifaldi, F. (2011, Aug. 3). World of Warcraft Subscriptions Continue To Decline, Though More Slowly. Retrieved from http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/36351/World_of_Warcraft_Subscriptions_Continue_To_Decline_Though_More_Slowly.php
McCurley, M. (2010, Oct. 8). Cataclysm: Guild cap revised, now 1,000 members. [Weblog post.] Retrieved from http://wow.joystiq.com/2010/10/08/cataclysm-guild-cap-revised-now-1-000-members/
Welcome to Elitist Jerks. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://elitistjerks.com/faq.php?faq=forumrules#faq_introduction
Williams, D., Ducheneaut, N., Xiong, L., Zhang, Y., Yee, N., Nickell, E. (2006). From Tree House to Barracks: The Social Life of Guilds in World of Warcraft. Games and Culture, 1, 338-361.