The World of Warcraft trade chat is, ideally, a chat specifically dedicated to the exchange of virtual goods and services. However, it is most often not used for this purpose. In an (extremely scientific) experiment, I went through the chat box, as far as it would go (probably about an hour’s worth of posts), and kept tally of how many comments were trade related and how many weren’t. Out of 84 comments, the tally was 4 trade related to 80 trade irrelevant comments. On average, one in every twenty comments was related to the intended purpose of the trade chat. Obviously this ratio fluctuates dependent on any number of factors, but the fact that the chat is used more for general conversations then trade is interesting, especially considering there is a chat channel called general, for that explicit purpose. I will be looking at the trade chat through the lens of Torill Elvira Mortensen’s essay “Humans Playing World of Warcraft: or Deviant Strategies?” She defined deviance as “deviance from the plans of the game designers.” What caused the deviance from the designer’s intended purpose? What aspects of the trade chat’s mechanics were desirable enough that the collective choose the trade chat as the tool for this deviance? Does using it in this way over its intended purpose harm the players? Does using it in this way provide any benefit for the players?
Here is the WoW Wiki’s description of the trade chat and its mechanics, for I’m sure they can summarize it more succinctly than I can.
Trade Chat is a common Chat channel that only works in capital cities and certain sanctuaries (unless you manually join a channel out-of-zone). This channel is intended for buying, selling, and trading of items and services, but is often used for general inane chit-chat.
Players in the same faction will see messages sent from players of the same faction, wherever they are, be it a Sanctuary, an allied city or an enemy city.
Trade chat, from what I can see, is the only chat channel that exists that isn’t restricted to small subgroup of the total faction playerbase (be it a guild, a party, etc.) that can spread across multiple zones (a zone being a distinct area, like Elwynn Forest or Dun Morogh). This makes it the perfect medium for faction wide communication, because in most MMORPG’s, people who are “not busy” playing and are willing to talk, or sell items like the trade chat was originally intended for, tend to hang out in the games major cities, where trade chat functions (and also where auction houses are located).
Mortensen divides deviance into two separate categories: counterproductive (hinders personal progress) and destructive (ruins the progress of others). I argue that this change in the purpose of the trade chat is both. The trade chat has been corrupted, which in Mortensen’s (and through Mortensen, Caillois’ terms), structurally alter an aspect of the game.
In basic terms, the trade chat’s intended purpose is to exchange an item, service, or currency in exchange for another item or service. In this situation, all parties are rewarded with either an item or service they wanted, or an increase in cash. “General inane chit-chat” on the trade chat is both counterproductive and destructive within the game’s design because it inhibits your own potential rewards and the potential rewards of other players. When the trade chat is mostly used for social purposes, people (like me) often find the trade chat annoying (with rampant trolls, it’s easy to see why) and remove it from the chat box, lessening the exposure of the good or service you are looking to buy or sell. Even if you still follow trade chat, you are less likely to see an offer because the conversations push the relevant posts upwards. And knowing that all of this happens, you are less likely to advertise your own good or service on the chat, rendering trade chat functionally useless, at least for game defined purposes. The reward for using the trade chat in this manor is much less clear. You may find a conversation you had with another player rewarding, but that cannot be measured and compared to a physical reward (using physical in its loosest sense because WoW is still virtual). This is what Mortensen defines as true deviance, because is not when you’re following or breaking the “rules”, the intended purpose, that you are a deviant within the game but whenever you ignore the existence of the rules entirely. “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…Gaming shows us that the real threat to a rewarding, functional system is when the participants don’t care.”
theterrible’s comment on this post that the trade chat is “useless”
Torill Elvira Mortensen’s essay within Digital Culture, Play and Identity