Rethinking Deviance

Torill Elvira Mortensen uses Azeroth as a microcosm to examine the nature of social deviance in her essay “Humans Playing World of Warcraft: or Deviant Strategies.” “The heavily rule-based arena of gaming makes it easier to pinpoint when an activity deviates from the rules, the activities that are not breaking the rules but simply circumventing them or taking advantage of them, flourish,”(p.219). Her insights are not applicable only to WOW. Mortensen is as much a sociologist as she is a media ecologist.

Mortensen’s definition of deviant is more complex than just someone who breaks the rules. A deviant ignores norms. This does not mean blatantly or destructively breaking rules, but rather going against what is considered correct behavior. In her analysis, Mortensen divides deviant behavior into two categories: “counterproductive” and “destructive,” the difference being that destructive deviance hinders the progress of others while counterproductive behavior is harmful only to oneself.

Counterproductive deviance exists because not all players adhere to the same objectives. Scott Rettberg’s essay Corporate Ideology in World of Warcraft focuses only on the “raiders,” players who adheres to the objectives the game developers had in mind (p.219). Mortensen agrees that players who play with this goal are honing skills that will make them “good executives.” But not all players play to do so. Role-players are more concerned with ethics and honor, thus putting themselves at a disadvantage because they do not adhere to the dominant objective of the game.  Mortensen mentions a guild that split up because some players wanted to raid efficiently while others wanted to take more time for RP as an example of a clash between players with different priorities (p.212).

In the capitalistic flesh world it is expected that all members of the society will work towards increasing their net worth and social standing, just as the developers of WOW created the game with the expectation that players would play with the goals of the raiders. In capitalist societies, artists, survivalists, stay-at-home parents, philanthropists, scholars and anyone else who’s main goal is not success according to the capitalist sense of the word are all counterproductive deviants.

Destructive deviance is a threat for obvious reasons, but it is harder to pinpoint exactly how counterproductive deviation is harmful to a society. “We rarely consider that lack of understanding, involvement, or participation in the mechanisms of the world around us is one of the greatest problems we have,” writes Mortensen (p.220). She considers this sort of social nonparticipation something so normal that if often goes unnoticed (p.220). She closes her article with the line, “Gaming shows us that the real threat to a rewarding functional system is when participants don’t care.” This raises the question of just how dangerous our artist is to our capitalist structure and just how much of a threat RPs pose to Azeroth.

Consider RPs analogous to the artisans of the flesh world. Both are more concerned with craft and integrity than they are with productivity in the traditional sense of their respective societies. The artist would rather craft ten beautifully made things than 100 mediocre ones, even if he will be able to earn more of a profit from his 100 mediocre things. Because his goal is to master his craft rather than to make and earn as much as possible, he will not create jobs or produce a significant amount of his product. He is therefore a threat to the capitalist system, albeit not in a manner as obvious as that of the bank-robber (a perfect example of one of capitalism’s destructive deviants). But he is not participating to the best of his ability. Perhaps more people will be unemployed because he chooses to keep his operation small scale.

Capitalist societies and gaming systems are not the only ones susceptible to deviance. Any system where participants are expected to have a certain set of priorities will have both counterproductive and destructive deviants. In a school setting those who cheat and plagiarize are destructive deviants. They steal the ideas of others and then go on to compete against students who have done honest work. The counterproductive deviants are those who do not adhere to academia’s system of grading and ranking. A counterproductive deviant student may be one who wants to learn, but does not care about the grade he receives. He may lose incentive to participate in class and thus weaken group discussions.

A system will crumble when too many participants become counterproductive deviants. Mortensen does not say that this is inherently bad. It is only a problem for those she describe as “crusading reformers” who believe in the system and do not want to see it undermined (p.207). If even more people adhere to an alternative set of priorities the system will become irrelevant. When more players prefer to RP than to raid or when more people prefer to make art than money the dominant system will have to change.

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