Living in a World Of Warcraft: The Complex Sociality of Virtual Worlds
Through the convergence of gaming, the internet and Web 2.0 technologies, the virtual worlds of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) have emerged: complex new social and cultural environments that bring with them tremendous opportunities for learning. This convergence of contexts, a defining feature of new media, combines the potential sociality of the internet with the fun and challenge of gaming, blurring the lines between entertainment, play, information and socialisation (de Freitas & Griffiths, 2008, p.11). Through fantasy-styled role-playing MMOG (MMORPG) World of Warcraft (WoW), I will explore evidence of the benefits and drawbacks of these new forms of sociality, and examine ways in which of MMORPGs show potential to develop new social practices and ways of learning, both from a player/learner perspective (Jenkins, 2006; Shaffer, Squire, Halverson & Gee, 2005, p.106), and in terms of studying and understanding social dynamics of human groups on a larger scale (Szell & Thurner, 2010, p.314). WoW's enormous success exemplifies the massive social phenomenon of online gaming and virtual worlds (Shaffer, Squire, Halverson & Gee, 2005, p.106). Released in 2004, Steinkuehler & Williams describe WoW as “the latest step in a progression of social games” (2006, p.887), referring to the many evolutions in this style of game since its early origins in Dungeons and Dragons-style pencil and paper games (Bradford, 2010, p.57). Socialisation and the building of relationships is central to the game, which attracts an extremely broad audience worldwide: within 5 years of release, WoW's subscriber base grew to 11.5 million (Bradford, 2010, p.56). Steinkuehler & Williams posit that - as new social environments outside of home, school and work - virtual worlds can provide a social context akin to “pubs, coffee shops, and other hangouts” (2006, p.889). Chat channels within the game not only facilitate in-game activities, they also carry “constant conversation about the game and topics well beyond it” (Steinkuehler & Williams, 2006, p.894), to the extent that the in-game social interaction is considered by some players to be more important than the actual gameplay (Stetina, Kothgassner, Lehenbauer & Kryspin-Exner, 2010, p.473). The virtual worlds of MMOGs - such as WoW's Azeroth - are “known for their peculiar combination of designed 'escapist fantasy' and emergent 'social realism'” (Steinkuehler & Williams, 2006, p.887). Indeed, opportunities for socialisation in virtual worlds are incredibly diverse, evidenced by the unusual records WoW holds for the “Most People at a Virtual Funeral” and “Largest Virtual Beer Festival” (Guinness World Records, 2012). Real-world issues can impact the virtual world too, exemplified by WoW's annual “Running of the Gnomes”, where low-level pink-haired gnome avatars – most created or “rolled” specifically for the event - run through dangerous terrain to a designated location and, by grouping together, “form a heart for breast cancer awareness” (Iserloth, 2012). The event raises money for the Cleveland Clinic for vaccine research, and this year exceeded the $1,000 goal (O'Neal, 2012). Such events epitomise the unique social culture of MMORPGs: impervious to the physical boundaries of real-world events, creative player-instigated socialisation takes full advantage of the flexible social environment of the virtual world. Games, in all of their various forms, have given rise to “new forms of sociality” (Bradford, 2010, p.63), as evidenced by the role Communities of Practice play in game culture. Bradford's research shows that, whether a game is designed to be played with others or not, “communities which cluster around games constantly engage in negotiations over strategies, experiences and opinions” (2010, p.56). Like most video games, WoW is surrounded by a powerful network of knowledge (Gee, 2003, p.187) through these...
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