Sep 14 2008 2:24pm

World of Warcraft as a Social Operating System

LeafshineBritish journalist-turned-blogger consulted Adam Tinworth, someone on whom I rely a lot for interesting insights into our shared interests, is at it again with his explanation of how World of Warcraft is a Social Operating System.

The basic framework is familiar enough: when you get a bunch of people talking to each other and doings together, they form real attachments regardless of whether the tasks are mediated via software and distributed across great distances or are up close and at physical hand. This is the stuff of many interesting pieces by folks like Clay Shirky and Cory Doctorow and all the Boing Boing crew, for instance.

Nonetheless, Adam brings some fresh things to the conversation, starting with his personal experience.

Not long ago, he left his longtime guild after a bout of drama, and while he was welcomed into another, it turns out that without the long-time background of familiar friends and acquaintances, he’s just less motivated to play. (I’ve had that feeling as well, and also in smaller degrees when the folks I like best are on vacation, sick, fleeing hurricanes, or what have you. He describes it well.)

In addition, he touches on two factors that I think are underestimated in almost all conversation about things like “What will be the next great big thing in MMOs?” and “What will displace Blizzard from the top of the heap?”

#1: Macintosh support. Sure, Macs are a minority choice. But there is a significant chunk of the population out there who, like Adam and me, use Macs and like social gaming. Blizzard is head and shoulders—heck, head and knees—above nearly all the competition in this regard, and it contributes to that very loyal customer base so often discussed. We favor Blizzard because Blizzard treats us as much like equals of Windows-based gamers as possible. We’ll see whether Spore picks up some comparably loyal following for doing the same thing; certainly it’s an audience most companies are passing by. And when you have a real community going, the real inability of some members to move to a new location matters. If, for instance, Lord of the Rings Online had Mac support, I’d be part of a crowd going to at least check it out.

#2. Original setting. Blizzard’s fans aren’t spending a lot of time arguing about how this element contradicts something in the 1967 series, or the 1984 novelization of the previous year’s movies. There’s no backstory except what Blizzard presents, and the environment doesn’t have to match any outside expectations. Now there’s plenty of room for argument about various versions of Blizzard’s own world (just ask any fan of the setting’s details about changes in the role of the eredar, if you’ve got a lot of free time). But even so, it gives a tighter framework to the whole thing—newcomers need to learn what’s come so far in Blizzard’s own work, and the website has a lot of that, but there’s nothing else they need to learn to enjoy the environment.

Adam mentions the role of humor in the setting, and I’d like to expand on that a bit, while I’m commenting. The Warcraft setting is rich in drama, epic adventure, high tragedy, and all...but it’s also got a lot of just plain fun touches. This makes some actual or potential players very angry, and occasionally one stomps off, refusing to go along with a grin or giggle. I’ve come to regard this as an advantage to WoW. Anyone who’s been around fannish speculation and commentary knows the person who will not let themselves have fun. (I think this is often the result of untreated depression or other physical problem, but that’s a separate article.) Any analysis of the game world as it actually is has to take into account the goofiness, and this favors (though it doesn’t mandate) a certain lightness of touch. One can—this report has—subvert some escalating arguments by shifting the topic to favorite funny bits, without losing the sense that we are talking about the details of this cool environment.

One thing that Adam doesn’t touch is the role of, well, what he’s doing himself: blogging. WoW came along at a great time to pick up support from blogging, but so did other games. WoW happens to have a fanbase including a lot of folks who genuinely like talking to each other and helping each other out. Blog Azeroth is one current pillar of this phenomenon, a set of forums for WoW bloggers to trade tips, chat, and also to settle on topics of mutual interest that they go off to blog about. Adam’s own Leafshine: Lust for Flower maintains a formidable set of links to and comments about blogs by people playing druids of various sorts, and it seems like many WoW blogs are very rich in shared links.

Much of this happened without anyone planning it. It will be interesting to see if publishers recognize the strengths here and tries designing in some support for it next time around.

[Screenshot taken by Adam Tinworth, used with permission.]

rick gregory
1. rickg
There's another thing Blizzard has done right - deemphasized what high end gamers care about in favor of a more inclusive attitude. For example, my Macbook runs WoW fine. Not in the highest graphics settings, but it's fine. That means I can sit on the sofa, feet up, coffee or beer at hand and relax as I game. I don't have to get up and sit at the desk with the high end computer and monitor all of which make me feel like I'm working.

And there's more things along this line. A new player will hit level 2 almost without trying and can easily hit level 10 or so the first evening if they want. 70 levels feels less intimidating when you get that first rush of progress. The penalty for dying is not bad and while really getting a character to max level and at the top of what they can do takes work, it's achievable by people who can only play casually.

In some ways, WoW is the Wii of MMOs - approachable, good quality and fun with a twist that works. To your point about the social aspect though, I also left my first guild after some drama and a bunch of friends stopped playing over the summer as we all wait for the expansion to ship - and that made the game much less fun. Ultimately it's not about what I do in the game, more about who I'm doing it with. Several of my friends are coming back to the game now and it's fun to just mess around with them
2. anonymous
I'm probably the only person in the world who plays WOW because I like the GAME. I don't do any socializing - I didn't start playing it to socialize. I don't belong to, and never have the entire time I've played it, any guild. I don't do the quests in groups (well, I did do one yesterday and got the shaft. Which is what I always believed about groups.) To me, it's just a game - not a substitute for social interaction on a human being, not pixel, level. I really enjoy its humour - try typing /silly or /flirt, especially if you have one of the elf races. The other thing I really enjoy about it is that I could play it every day for the rest of my life, and always find something new that I'd never noticed before every day. And the fact that a new player can hit Level 10 the first evening is probably one of the Top % Things Blizzard Did Right - it's very encouraging, and definitely makes the game have a anyone-can-succeed-in-this-game feel to it.
Torie Atkinson
3. Torie
@ 2 anonymous

I wonder then if I'm the only one who has issues with WoW the game. I wouldn't rank it on my top 5, 10, or maybe even 20 games. I find its gameplay absurdly repetitive and overly dependent on ideal group compositions. But I play it more than any of my other games purely because of the social factor--my friends play it and I play with them.

I've tried some other MMOs (City of Heroes, Lord of the Rings Online) and while I think LOTRO in particular was a much better game, it lacked the major social network that Blizzard has and I lost interest as a result.

As for the future? Well, the Star Trek MMO will have a great universe to build from--but will it be able to replicate the genius social engineering of WoW? Probably not, and honestly, I don't think anyone will for a while.
Bruce Baugh
4. BruceB
Torie: Just to state the obvious, the fact that there are, what, 10-12 million accounts total suggests that literally billions of people aren't happy enough with WoW to pay for it. :)
Torie Atkinson
5. Torie
@4 BruceB

There are people who don't play WoW?

Adam Tinworth
6. adders
@5 Torie

Oh, yes. I'm reminded of this every time my wife peers over my shoulder and goes "Oh, you're pretending to be broccoli again."

The shame of tree form...
7. madeupfile \ to lazy to log in
every time i see some thing about wow...
*goes to play wow*
Dave Rutt
8. rutty
Please don't make me play it again! I have a real life now!

*curses the new expansion*

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