WoW pet names and breaking the fourth wall

In the World of Warcraft guild I study, it’s not uncommon for the hunter character to name their animal companions after their friends in the game. This usually was done to either make fun of someone or to recognize the help that friend has given them in some aspect of the game.

With the latest patch to the game, all WoW players have the ability to name their non-combat pets. These pets are collectible items that never really had a battle-related function in the WoW universe before — they were vanity items, meant to provide uniqueness to the avatar. You could have your character summon your Worg Pup, for example, and a miniature black dog-like creature would appear and follow your avatar around in your adventures. The non-combat pet cannot be killed but it does not deal damage or affect the surrounding world (in most cases), and there are many rare ones that are worth thousands of in-game gold.

Before, these non-combat pets would just have names like “Captured Firefly” or “White Kitten”; only a select few had names assigned to them, and they were not unique to players. Now, all players can individually name their pets, and this has resulted in a number of interesting naming practices in the guild. As an extension of the hunter pet naming practice mentioned above, several players have taken to naming certain pets after guildmates who are associated with those particular creatures — for example, the pet Lil’ Tarecgosa, named after a legendary staff in the game, I’ve named after our guildmate who spent months and months in her efforts to acquire the staff. There’s the Alliance Balloon pet, which most people in the guild independently named after our druid tank who insisted the balloon pet was his good luck charm.

There are also clever naming conventions, usually involving cultural references. Personally, I’ve named my firefly pet Captain Tightpants, and I’ve heard of others naming cat pets “Cheezburger” and little bear pets “Pedo”.

And then there’s this conversation I had on Facebook with a guildmate with whom I regularly engage in hockey-related banter about the evil Philadelphia Flyers:

(Oh, Ilya Bryzaglov, your fascination with bears and tigers never gets old.)

The naming practices here are another way of linking WoW practices to broader cultural knowledge, which is something that has been done in World of Warcraft for a very long time. With the existence of non-player characters like “Haris Pilton”, who sells overpriced bags and sunglasses, and “Ophera Windfury”, a ‘caregiver’ — this practice of breaking the fourth wall is something that developers and players regularly engage in. These references may be departing from the idea of an ‘immersive experience’, but the practice reflects the idea that virtual worlds and games do not exist independently from the broader society. Especially in a game like World of Warcraft, which is so oriented to player socialization, the player base comes to expect that other players (and the game itself) will bring in elements of the “real world” to the gaming experience. Furthermore, WoW is so well-known outside of gaming circles that it is frequently adopted as a stand-in for gamer culture and even the Internet in general, from South Park parody episodes to the game’s name being a throwaway term in conversations about “net addiction”. In a cosmic reversal, WoW takes elements from the broader culture and makes fun of them inside of its own universe, reflecting the ways that elements of the game are used in other circles.

And now, with the naming of the pets, all players can engage in this practice on their own terms. Whether it’s honoring another player, poking fun at your enemies, or crafting clever cultural references, everybody breaks the fourth wall.

Game Theory and Loot Ninjas

In World of Warcraft, and any multiplayer online game, you have the “loot ninja” phenomenon. What is this? This is a person who greedily snaps up all of the loot, the person who takes an item because they “need” it even if they already have it, or the person who wins three of the same item in a raid group and refuses to share. We see this commonly in the new Raid Finder tool in World of Warcraft (I wrote about that here).

One of the features of the loot ninja is that they are always PUGs — people added to a “pick-up group”, or a random player that nobody else knows. Sometimes, as in Raid Finder, the entire group is full of PUGs and nobody knows each other. It’s been remarked in my guild over and over that they hate having PUGs in their raid groups, or even doing Raid Finder, because of the loot ninja phenomenon.

The loot ninja behaves this way because there are no repercussions. They can greedily take the items without sharing because it’s not prohibited by the game, and because they will never play with these people again. Loot ninjas don’t happen (or rarely happen) in guild groups, because you will be playing with these people over and over and over again. If you’re a loot ninja once, you’ll probably be ostracized, not brought back on raids, or kicked out of the guild. But there are plenty of people in my guild — heck, I might be one of them after so much exposure to loot ninjas in Raid Finder — who go into a Raid Finder and roll greedily on everything, get a lot of loot, and don’t share. Why? Because they won’t play with these people ever again, and chances are good that everyone in their Raid Finder group is going to be a loot ninja anyway. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Today, I was reading Robert J. Aumann’s Nobel Prize lecture from 2005, in which he discusses Game Theory (economic game theory, not video game theory) and its applications to war and peace in society. He argues that repetitively engaging in “games” — war games, too — enables cooperation (an peace). Why?

Imagine the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Two men are arrested, but the police do not possess enough information for a conviction. Following the separation of the two men, the police offer both a similar deal—if one testifies against his partner (betrays), and the other remains silent (cooperates), the betrayer goes free and the cooperator receives the full one-year sentence. If both remain silent, both are sentenced to only one month in jail for a minor charge. If each ‘rats out’ the other, each receives a three-month sentence. Each prisoner must choose either to betray or remain silent; the decision of each is kept quiet. What should they do?

The sole worry of the prisoners is to benefit themselves. Even when seemingly the best outcome is for both to cooperate, Prisoner A can betray Prisoner B and receive no jail time (that is, get the maximum benefit).

Aumann’s argument is that in a single, individual instance of this game, the prisoners will think about their personal maximum benefit, because there are no repercussions. That is, if Prisoner A betrays and Prisoner B cooperates, Prisoner B gets a full 1-year sentence and can’t do anything about that rat bastard Prisoner A.

However, Aumann says, if this game is repeated, there is the possibility for punishment. That is, if these two know each other and work together on the crime syndicate, this situation may happen again. And if Prisoner A screwed over Prisoner B, B is going to remember that and betray him the next time, and they’ll both wind up in jail.

It’s the same thing in war, Aumann says. That’s why the Cold War never escalated — because there was always the possibility of retaliation.

And this explains the loot ninja. In one instance of the Raid Finder game, everyone will be attempting to maximize their benefit. However, when in a guild group or a regular raid team, there are plenty of opportunities for punishment and retaliation, so cooperation is more beneficial to all. And this further explains the increasing loot ninja mentality of most people going into Raid Finder (even myself) — we have all been punished enough in the ongoing Raid Finder game that we are in retaliation mode.

I don’t think this was the intent of Blizzard when they created Raid Finder and the loot distribution system. I think they thought people would be “nice” and not try to take things that they already have. The reality is much, much different.

The De-socialization of World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft has steadily been moving towards an automated playgroup generation system. I’m not sure if that’s a technical term or not, but it’s a fairly accurate description.

The game has always been a social-based game, meaning that you had to interact with others in at least some capacity to advance in the game world. There have been server-wide events like the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj and the Sunwell events that required the cooperation of everyone on the server to collect items to unlock new parts of the game world. These are rare events, though — social interaction and cooperation is built into the most mundane of activities in the game. Whether it’s seeking out an alchemist to make you a potion or grouping up with other players in your area to complete a group quest, the game has an intricately-woven system of social interaction.

In the latest expansions, though, there have been in-game mechanics to facilitate this cooperation. When I first started playing (not to be one of those “GET OFF MY LAWN!” old players), if you wanted to do a dungeon, you had to advertise for it in chat channels to the people on your server. Getting a five-person group with the right composition together to run Sethekk Halls was an hours-long affair. People would add competent players to their friends lists and wait for them to log on, and small groups became a test of social networks. The question was, inevitably, “Does anyone know a tank?”, and everyone would consult their friends list to see if one was online. Tanks (this is a jargon term for a player who occupies a particular role in a group, that is the one who distracts all the enemy creatures while the other players kill them) are a rare commodity on the server I study, since tanking generally requires a fair amount of skill and knowledge of game mechanics. Having an active tank player as a friend was a great blessing. (Healers, too, are in great demand, but since I regularly play a healer-class character, I’m never looking for one!)

The first game-based modification to this was a proto-dungeon finder tool, which I’ll call LFG (Looking For Group). A player could list themselves in LFG and what dungeons (or raids) they were looking to do. This was a way to meet random players, but you never knew the skill level, and it still required sending a message to the player asking if they were available and whether they were a tank or not.

The second modification was a more advanced dungeon-finder tool for five-man dungeons, which I call LFD (Looking For Dungeon). In this system, you list yourself (“queue”) as the role you play (tank, healer, or DPS [damage-dealer]), and then wait for the system to automatically match you up with other players. These other players may not even be from your server, and you can’t interact with them ever again once the dungeon is over (unless you go to their home server). Social interaction is gone – the game puts you in a group with four random players, and everybody has their roles assigned. With expert groups, sometimes you can go through the entire dungeon without exchanging any talk at all. This randomness seems to encourage (or bring out) the aggressive players. Every player has a story about “some asshole” they encounter in LFD, usually involving someone either not knowing how to play their character, or purposefully acting in an inflammatory way. My stories usually involve people with offensive names, or those who degrade players by comparing them to women – the “get back in the kitchen” insult. These stories are for another blog entry, though.

The newest modification is a raid-finder tool, LFR (Looking For Raid). Raids are large dungeons, and in this particular incarnation, the tool matches you up in a group of 25 to take on raid bosses. (Note that LFR raids are an “easier” version of what I might call guild-raids, that is the raids that guilds will attempt as a group. The guild-raids are harder and have better rewards for players.) Raids were once the pinnacle of World of Warcraft gameplay, accessible only to elite players. Now, most players raid at least part of the time, and with the new LFR tool, raiding is incredibly accessible and doesn’t require membership in a guild (although you still need that to get to the most difficult level of content). The thing that I have noticed about LFR is that nearly every time I have done it, some drama has happened. Usually someone will suggest that the group kick out the person doing the least amount of damage or someone who died. Sometimes these people deserve it — there certainly are many unskilled players who enter the LFR system who aren’t of the skill or gear level to be there — but more often than not, it’s about other players not wanting to have to bother explaining the mechanics of the fight. Nobody wants to take the time to stop and explain what players have to do during a fight in order to avoid death. They want to just cruise through the raid with everybody knowing what’s happening, and nobody having to talk to each other.

Increasingly, raids and dungeons aren’t about working together as a group, but about quickly going through the content to get the rewards. Anything that gets in the way of that — whether it’s a player who doesn’t know the mechanics of a fight, or someone who doesn’t play their character very well — can be a cause for verbal aggression. Players who don’t know what to do are afraid to speak up, because they’ll be called a “noob” and removed from the group. There is an experience barrier quite evident in the game now, moreso than it ever was; if a player doesn’t have raiding experience, few will want to “carry” them along and teach them. LFR was intended to be a “raiding light” experience to allow more players to access the raiding experience, but it’s been subject to the same problems.

From what I can tell from talking to other folks in other guilds, this mentality is carrying across to the guild-based raiding system as well. Since the guild raids are generally more difficult, players are getting upset when a boss does not die on the first try, or even in the first week or attempts. Players are becoming used to “easy” raids, to working together wordlessly with strangers, and some may think that guild raiding is an extension of this. That is not the case — guild raiding requires cooperation and communication between players, something that many people seem to be less interested in doing as the game’s grouping mechanics change.

As a social scientist, I wonder – is this change in mentality being pushed onto the player base by the developers with the mechanics of the game, or are the mechanics being created to reflect the mentality of the players? Do people really want to play a game where you work together wordlessly with strangers, assuming that everybody knows what they’re doing? What’s the real game, for the people who thrive in this system?

style, bartering, and Auction Hunters

One of the students from my Cross-Cultural communication class sent me this link. First: I’m always happy/impressed when a student sends me something related to a class she or he has taken… after the class has ended. It makes me happy that they’re still thinking about the class!

This link and the series that it’s part of would have been great to use in that class. Americans like to use a lot of words and silence in conversation indicates something bad — usually. The other articles in the series point to similar conclusions: Americans like to talk a lot, they like to use numbers, they hate silence, and they are generally well-prepared for negotiations but aren’t very good at being flexible.

This got me thinking about the reality television show Auction Hunters, which I watched recently late at night while visiting my family. If you’ve never watched Auction Hunters, it’s not all that exciting – it’s basically two guys who rummage through abandoned storage spaces looking for valuables. Typically, the show features both auction settings (where Americans tend to excel) and bartering settings (where Americans are stereotypically awful). The auctions feature an auctioneer talking quickly and bidders making small motions to place bids. The auction settings seemed very natural in the show, if hectic, and the two hosts seemed pretty comfortable with setting a maximum price they would pay for things and having a strategy for approaching the auction. Conversely, I thought all of the bartering sequences in the show seemed stilted, or scripted. It could be that they’re re-enacting something for the cameras, or that the presence of the camera makes people nervous, but perhaps the American business conversational style figures into it.

Auctions – lots of talking, lots of words, fast speech, strategy.
Bartering – negotiating, being flexible, considering offers.

With auctions, we anticipate a regular progression of events that follow a script in a particular style. We can research and develop strategies. However, with bartering, there are general expectations for how the interaction will go, but much is dependent on the people involved, their motives, and their conversational styles. Perhaps the stilted nature of the bartering sequences I saw on the show were a manifestation of conversational footing as the participants attempted to negotiate each other’s styles.

James Bond and International Women’s Day

I am intrigued by this video of an advertisement for International Women’s Day which was going around yesterday.

In case you don’t know, the narrator is Dame Judi Dench and the actor in the film is Daniel Craig — these actors portray M and James Bond, respectively, in the latest James Bond movies. The implications for these actors, and the invocation of James Bond, in this advertisement is really interesting. I have engaged in a fairweather study of James Bond films for several years now, sparked by a class project undertaken in 2006. There are gender ideology implications tied up in the James Bond series — arguably, James Bond is supposed to be an icon of masculinity, of everything the “real man” is supposed to be. If you observe the character throughout the film series — which has been produced since 1962 — you see a change in James Bond’s character. (The books by Ian Fleming are quite a different thing — my focus here is on the films only.)

My course project explored this through the use of address terms between James Bond and the various women of the series, but that is just one aspect of the behavioral changes.  In the 1960s, Sean Connery’s Bond was a suave, cool player. He effortlessly handled any task, often with witty quips. Women fell at his feet, and he had sex with them as a victory prize and moved on. The women who weren’t Bond Girls were like Number Two in From Russia With Love — an androgynous enemy who displays little femininity, a role that many less widely-recognized feminine women in films are relegated to — or they were Moneypenny, a secretary with a hopeless crush on Bond which is never fulfilled.

As the years went on, women in the series started filling the role of a consultant or an attractive agent from another country — Halle Berry in Die Another Day, for example. The women started to have strong personas of their own, and roles in the film that were outside of the damsel in distress or the androgynous evil. In 1995 with the film Goldeneye, Dame Judi Dench stepped in to portray M, or James Bond’s superior in MI6. This was an astounding move, as M had only been portrayed by men before, and having a woman in charge brought a whole new dynamic to the interaction of James Bond and his associates. Bond, a notorious womanizer, was suddenly being ordered around by a woman. The choice of Dame Judi Dench for the role is no surprise — she is an attractive older woman and therefore outside of the usual mold for a Bond girl, lending her more credibility as an authority figure in the context of the series. So M — Dame Judi Dench, the narrator in the advertisement above — is one of the first women in the series to be seen as an “equal” to Bond, as someone who is not a conquest for him.

Then there’s the subject of Daniel Craig — the newest James Bond as of 2006’s Casino Royal. Paul Baines at CitizenShift has an interesting blog post about him here, and there are many others out there on the web. Craig’s Bond is a new breed — as is the treatment he receives in the films. Bond himself is the sexual icon, not the women of the film. Even in the opening credits of Casino Royal, Bond is the figure being depicted, a deviation from previous films which feature female silhouettes. The fanservice centers around Bond’s body — the camera lingers on him, and there are gratuitous long sequences of him emerging from the water shirtless (reminiscent of Halle Berry in her bikini in Die Another Day. His character is also different — Craig’s Bond is a klutz in his action scenes, getting beaten up, injured, tripping and falling, flailing on ladders, hitting his head on the ground and grimacing. He’s also considerably more emo than his predecessors, and the storylines and his motivations focus strongly on his own personal feelings, especially about his lady love. The feelings for the Bond girl, in fact, drive the plot of the films, rather than vice versa.

So what does this say about the advertisement for International Women’s Day? For one, the invocation of James Bond, our masculine icon, gives a certain tone to the ad; however, Craig’s Bond is a different Bond than the ones before him, and it can be argued that he displays a number of “less-masculine qualities”. I’ve argued, and several people agree, that this isn’t Bond being “less masculine”, but rather the character being updated to reflect the new views of masculinity that we have in modern society. The ideal man today isn’t anything like he was in the 1960s, and it’s only fitting that one of the iconic males of film reflects that. What other Bond would be dressed in drag, and would be even mildly believable? Roger Moore’s Bond would have never even been considered for such an advertisement. That James Bond himself is so accessible to this type of an advertisement, with such a serious message, is an incredible shift in views on masculinity. In previous incarnations, this would have received a howl of laughter, not the chuckle and then the consideration of the message that it’s received from the folks that I know who have seen it.

Additionally, the narration by Dame Judi Dench, the voice of the woman who has ascended higher in the ranks of the film than any other, asks us to question equality. She, as M, represents the ultimate authority in the film, but yet she still asks us to question the equality status of men and women. Her words invoke the idea that M, who has the top job in the film and is supposedly untouchable, is a rare exception and still an anomaly. People still question whether a woman should be playing this role in this film. When will that not be the question anymore?

This is a powerful message.

The Friday Night Travesty, or how an eLinguist deals with strange social behavior

Let it be known to the world that I am a relatively new hockey fan. I was converted after living in Pittsburgh for a few years, after meeting several people who were great fans of the game and willingly shared their enthusiasm with me. It was a conscious decision to try to understand hockey, because it is important to the city that I currently call home, and because it is a main preoccupation of people who are important to me. I absolutely cannot claim that I know everything about the sport — sometimes, I feel like I don’t know anything at all — but this past week I have been struck for the first time by an all-out obsession with it.

On Friday, February 11th, the Pittsburgh Penguins played against the New York Islanders. If you haven’t heard about what happened during that game, there are plenty of places that you can go to read about what went down (try here for a story and here for videos). This has caused a flurry of debate — on one side, that the Penguins deserved it because in the last game one of our guys broke their guy’s jaw, and furthermore we have a player on our team, Matt Cooke, who is known for being rather brutal from time to time. On the other side, the Islanders clearly went over the line of what’s considered acceptable in gameplay, by doing things like jumping a Penguin from behind when he wasn’t looking, and taunting an injured player while he was down.

All of this aside, I have personally been absolutely mystified as to why this would happen. First, about why the referees would allow the brawls to continue and not stop it before it started. Second, about why the Islanders would go beyond the accepted societal norms in order to have revenge, at great cost to their team (a hefty fine and suspensions of many of their players). I have had discussions with my hockey-knowledgeable friends and read some books on the sociology of sports and violence.

There are a lot of books out there about the sociology of sports.

I’ve been reading one edited by Jeffrey Goldstein called Sports Violence, which I gather is kind of a landmark book on the subject, which has gotten me to thinking a lot about sports in ways that I haven’t before. It isn’t really news to most people (myself included) that a sport is an entire society in itself with its own rules for interaction and behavior. Just like any other society, there are laws which will get you punished (e.g. time in the penalty box, or a game suspension), and there are also ways that people can transgress the law which are approved of generally by the society (e.g. dropping the gloves and engaging in a fight, which will get you penalized and possibly thrown out of the game, in order to send a message to another team or repay them for some other event). All of these things fall within the social-conventional norms, which Haan (1977) discusses. They may transgress the “law” of the society of hockey, but they fall within the norms.

Because of this, and because of my understanding of the way the society of hockey works, I can understand why the Islanders would be more aggressive against the Penguins. We beat up a couple of their guys (within the social-conventional norms), and so one expects a response within the norms. It’s clear that they’d come out ready to play — and they did, on Friday when the Islanders scored a bunch of goals early and thoroughly trounced the Penguins — and even ready to fight — which they did, when Maxime Talbot was challenged to fight.

What I was trying to figure out is why the Islanders would go so far beyond the boundaries of social conventions, at great expense to their team’s finances, player base, and reputation, in the final period of that game on Friday. The closest I have gotten to an explanation is perceived injustice, the type discussed by Mark, Bryant, and Lehman. They talk about this in regards to fan behavior, but I can see its effects in this situation too.

So something happens, and it’s perceived as unfair. Hard hits don’t get punished as harshly as they should. The Islanders have suffered some unfortunate circumstances in the league in general. Fans rail on Marc-Andre Fleury for laughing after the fight between Johnson and DiPietro — even if, as has been discussed, he was laughing at the absurdity of a goalie fight, not at the injury to DiPietro which no one knew about until the next day. Whether these actions are unjust or not, they are perceived that way, and that is the motivation for going beyond the conventions. The perceived injustice is highlighted with over-the-top behavior as a means of drawing attention to their frustrations, and since frustration often leads to aggression in sports (as documented over and over in Goldstein’s book), it followed that such fighting and aggression was the chosen way to attract this attention.

Of course, after I’ve written this, I discover that someone else has written about it with information that corroborates my analysis, albeit defending the behavior of the Islanders. I’m not really interested in arguing about who was right and who was wrong; I embarked on this adventure as a way to help me understand the motivations behind what happened from a social standpoint. And now it makes a little bit more sense, at least to me.

Yeah, this post has nothing to do with linguistics, so let me add something: in all of this, I have seen an interesting linguistic phenomenon in that the arguments of people who can’t spell “hypocrisy” are often devalued because of their spelling. It goes back to what I talked about in a previous post about raiding guild applications, that proper spelling indexes a number of other features including interest in the topic. With this particular topic about “hypocrisy”, it seems that proper spelling indexes either intelligence or one’s right to make a statement in a public forum.