The Implications of (Diverse) Participatory Surveillance on the MMORPG Universe

Reference Article — “Does World of Warcraft Change Everything? How a PvP Server, Multinational Playerbase, and Survellance Mod Scene Caused Me Pause”

The article begins with a cautionary note not to focus too narrowly (the likes of which are found in any number of qualitative research articles) regarding the academic research field of MMORPG’s that might seek to establish an “implied generalized theory of online games.” (187) He instead urges us to expand studies to include other facets of MMORPG’s that complicate the established understanding of game worlds. In the proceeding article Taylor considers how player-created modifications to the User Interface (UI) of World of Warcraft (Wow) might inform the “role systems of stratification” within the game to form a superpanoptic mode of social control play. His argument is that within various game worlds, specifically with WoW because of their broad use (and encouragement from Battlenet), constitute complex player-created culture that is shaped by the technical (and, as I argue, hacker-esque, protological) aspects of each game universe or environment.

The malleability of WoW’s UI in the form of mod intervention is profoundly important to Taylor when considering norm construction, in spite of the face that many players may be ambivalent to such interventions, even if they deploy them.

Furthermore, he warns against a utopic view of such mods, but nonetheless points to the importance of their relationship to players and systems, and the productive player community. What he seems to be saying here is, in part, reminiscent of so much other philosophy that we have read for this course—that the important of mods lies in the potential that they extend to players.

He looks specifically at damage meters—private or public notification systems that show the amount of damage being done by a single player or group to opponent(s)—as a “a powerful stratification tool.”(190) He is concerned primarily about the ambivalent view of their use among WoW players, due to their biased view of group contribution.  He notes that they can be used as incentive devices of guilds, many feel they are disruptive by promoting unhealthy competition that is ignorant to a groups overall goals. Still other players use such mods solely for occasional personal use, as a way of tracking their own performance or achieving better results in battles. Thus, Taylor concludes, the meaning of a damage meter as a technical tool can only be measured in specific contexts.

“There is an interested tension between play becoming sharply rationalized, not only in its execution but in its evaluation, via these tools, and the more qualitative assessments of players that emerge over time within groups. The tool becomes an actor involved in the ongoing construction of play in a particular form. And to do this kind of work—for the system to be instrumentalized in this way—there must be in place a method to watch.” 191

This system is exceedingly developed within WoW, as mods exist to consistently “monitor, survey, and report at a micro level.” (192) It is here he turns to Foucault’s panopticism, and further to Mark Poster’s “superpanoptic” view in which we are not only accustomed to, but actively participate in surveillance. While such superpanopticism is certainly present in WoW, what complicates our participation is that these methods of surveillance are used is myriad ways to achieve diverse ends, and further, that they are created by users themselves in a moment of sanctioned hacking. Taylor recognizes that control, norm establishment, and codified activity emerge in player culture under many gaming platforms, but here we look to how these technological mods effect these processes.

CTRA is a system for “monitoring, quantifying and ranking players progress.” (195) It is one of the more advanced player mods available for WoW. Taylor uses CTRA to explore the complications such tools that monitor, stratify, survey, quantify and regulate fellow gamers create to previously researched MMORPG theories of emergence, productive gamer communities and player engagement. He recognizes that while mods enhance group coordination, they are heavily weighted towards rationalization and quantification lead to norms of good vs. bad play. The tools have become so normalized that choosing not to participate in the mod system is a strong signal.

They can also can cause tension among players who rely on different technological artifacts, or use such mods is different contexts. These socio-technical actors are powerful in that they that shape gameplay and change what is possible and expected. Taylor comments that “In many ways World of Warcraft is not a single place open to all, and the play within it is fairly divergent.” (196) Because of this, the creation and implementation of new mods, and the decision to use them or not (further, how to use them) creates a dialogue that forces players and designers to confront what constitutes legitimate play, and what the game is itself.

Taylor touches on so many different topics that I felt similarly with his chapter’s completion as I did through Bogost’s book—he was only beginning a much larger conversations involving several complex topics that revolved around participatory surveillance, most prominent among them: public discipline, culture emergence, and norm formation. His essay leaves much room to consider the ways in which surveillance affects online identity formation in MMORPG’s, for instance, or how it affects socialization in the game world.

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