I’ve read the articles for class this week. But I have something to share which dovetails nicely with the subject matter. Especially Huizinga’s consideration of “playing” as fulfilling some kind of spiritual need, or applying equally well to childhood romping as it does to organized priestcraft and established religions.
I’ve developed my own philosophy concerning games online, and it has to do with crossing the premise of Tron with the mechanics of WarCraft. Settle in and enjoy the ride, this one is a little bit out there even for me. It developed as I played Warcraft from a newbie to a ‘capped at level 70’ Troll mage named Runika. Yes, there’s some odd questions I get about gender bending, but I didn’t exactly plan for Runika to be my “main” for so long. However, I like the mage, so here I am still, playing a female ‘toon.
Tron Meets World of Warcraft
In the movie Tron, cyberspace was given human form and human societal equivalences to corporate practices which were going on at the time of the movie. In Tron, you play a video game and nanite-sized cyber-people who live in your computer went and actually played in a kind of gladiatorial death-match against each other. When you ‘died’ in the video game, your program person assigned to your login also faced death or destruction.
I don’t keep the death part, but as I faced long hours of grinding through different levels and quests on WarCraft, I found myself thinking again and again about Tron. Over time, I developed a complex spiritual understanding which borrows on animism/totemism and complex social hierarchies. Here it is for laughter and enjoyment. For clarity’s sake, when I talk about a ‘mob’ it’s a (typically hostile) computer enemy which it is your Warcraft character’s job to defeat. When I say ‘grinding’, I mean that you go to an area where the mobs are you need to kill based on the quest story arc you’ve chosen to complete, and you pit yourself against them one at a time until you either kill the required number or are given the required quest reward. Every time you kill a mob, you earn experience points, and when you earn enough experience, you raise in level, power, and prestige within the game world. Levelling is the first part of the game, but there’s a whole other set of game content which is called ‘Endgame’ because you can’t get to it until you’ve reached the highest level available.
The life and times of a WoWTron
Inside the computer are little electronic people I call WoWTrons. When you play World of Warcraft (WoW for short), you have a player avatar or ‘toon’ assigned to represent you. That ‘toon’ is actually a little electronic person that gets assigned to you when you generate the character. You can only play one character at a time, but you may have up to 8 per server, I believe. The toon WoWTrons represent the highest level of prestige that a WoWTron can accomplish, but not every toon gets played all the way to endgame. Like harem wives in the Ottoman Empire, the toons all vie for your attention when you first log in and select which character you’re going to play that day. Sometimes a new character just isn’t working out for you, so you trash it and make another. Toon WoWTrons take a bit of a risk, because although they can end up the kings and queens of the gaming world of WarCraft, it takes so long to level one to the high levels that you will tend to only have one ‘main’ character, all the rest will be classified as ‘alternates’ or ‘alts’. A WoWToon Main is one of the movers and shakers of the cyberworld behind the scenes of the Warcraft Stage. A WoWToon Alt often lingers and languishes, unloved and unattended for far too long, a mere shadow of their potential in WarCraft cybersociety.
Now, there are more than just Toon WoWTrons. There’s a second class of computer denizens who have chosen to follow a different track of advancement. They are the bits of computer programming which run the mobs themselves. When they go to work, they put on a costume and are assigned an area to go stand in, or go wander in. When a player Toon interacts with them (kills them) they receive a fraction of the experience points the player earned against their own separate account. When they earn enough, they get to move to a different location, rising in ‘level’ the same way that the player Toons do. When a WoWTron actually succeeds in killing the player Toon (it happens all too often for -my- taste), they get the full Experience Point value of that player’s level. Therefore, the Mob WoWTrons all desperately want to kill your PC Toon WoWTron, because the death of the Toon gives great experience and helps them climb the cyberspace social ladder.
The WoWTron Rat Race
What this means is that eventually a WoWTron will earn higher and higher/stronger and stronger level assignments, wearing the ‘skin’ of many different mobs as time goes on. Eventually, they might become eligible to wear the costume of a Raid Boss, one of the highest powered enemies run by the computer on the server. The Boss fights give the best loot, and they are the reason that everyone enters certain areas, vying for a chance to get some ‘phat loot’. The risk that WoWTron Mobs run is that when level caps are raised, the previous “endgame” content becomes just another dungeon on the way up the ladder of advancement, so the King of the Hill in Raid Bosses has a limited lifecycle before they get stuck with no one coming to fight them, and none of their glory, and none of the experience to be earned by killing not just single PC Toons, but entire 40-man (or 20-man) raids of PC Toons.
Because the cyberpeople are formless and shapeless in their native cyber environment, they get given form when they are assigned a role to play within the great stage that is the WarCraft servers. Just like in totemic traditions of animistic beliefs, there is a though that there are no individual ‘animals’ or ‘monsters’ within the game, but that each WoWTron occupies an intersection between the cybersoul and the ‘instance of graphical manifestation’ within the cyberworld of WoW. What that means is that when you are tasked with going out and killing a certain number of mobs looking for rare loot that they drop, it is best to adopt an attitude of appeasement for the cyberspirits which populate these ‘otherworldly’ realms.
Propitiation of the Totemic WoWTron Spirits
For instance, one well-known quest in the Hillsbrad region has folks out hunting Grizzly Bears, looking for a certain number of Bear Tongues. My my, but Darwin would be perplexed at all of the Grizzly Bears who, upon examining their bodies after death, are shown to have no tongue at all. This means that it can be hours before you complete this quest.
Whenever humans are faced with an extra-personal power which seems capricious and definitely in control over some aspect of our experience, we tend to start trying to appease it. Therefore, even though the WoWTrons are motivating the animal graphics, I’ve found it very helpful to adopt an almost shamanic attitude. Every time I kill one of the electronic Grizzly Bears and I find that it is one of the rare ones that has a tongue, I mark an expression of gratitude within the game by bowing over the corpse (you can make your avatar do certain actions or emotes, and bowing or kneeling is one of them). Does it do anything to speed the occurrence of random drops of Bear Tongue? Well, I’m not sure, because I’m not about to tempt the Cybergods by refusing to show respect to their cybertotem animals.
What Would Huizinga Do?
While I’m not exactly the most ‘normal’ person to begin with, I’m fairly certain that Huizinga would love to study me because I’m not kidding about the little mental subtext that goes on in my mind when I play WarCraft. It’s a repetitive exercise in many cases, so it helps to alleviate the boredom by giving my imagination something to do, some way of convincing myself that I can actually tip the random number generators in the code. I imagine the WoWTrons lining up to pass by a time clock and waiting for breaks and chatting with their neighbors about the kinds of adventures they had that day fighting such-and-so, or congratulating each other on the promotions of their friends from, say, ‘Grizzly Bear’ to ‘Cave Yeti’. “Only three million more exp and I get to leave Hillsbrad for the Outlands!”
I bring all of this up because it’s real, first of all, though few who don’t know me would believe it. However, my imagination is terminally engaged, so this is just the tip of the iceberg in my own personal episodes of Ally McBeal. (Weird by birth, annoying by choice. Gotta make that a bumper sticker.)
All three of the readings touched upon the idea of how play is an experience, or how experiences are the new source of value. I don’t know necessarily about what kind of ‘value’ I add to my experience of playing WarCraft by spiritualizing the little Tronpeople, but I do know that WarCraft has definitely added value to my experience, and my day, by allowing me to have a little delusion of a system that makes sense and provides rewards at regular intervals.
Maybe that’s what gaming is all about. Since the world refuses to give us the graded steps toward accomplishment and certainly doesn’t break up positive rewards according to a statistical curve for maximum enjoyment, maybe that’s why we play. We play because we can conceive of a time and space where what we do is not only natural and good, it is a part of the greater system as a whole.
Even if that ‘greater system’ is only WoWTrons and their ancestral totemic spirits.
- Huizinga, J. (1950). Nature and significance of play as a cultural phenomenon (pp. 1-27). Homo ludens: a study of the play element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Hinton, A. (2006). We live here: Games, third places, and the information architecture of the future. ASIS&T Bulletin, August/September.
- Pine, B.J., & Gilmore, J.H. (1999). The Experience Economy. Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, pp. 1-26.