Myth Making and the Everyday World of WarcraftJuly 9, 2007
On his blog Bob Sutor is thinking about my suggestion that to be considered a virtual ‘world’ a 3D space needs to have a ‘mythology’.
‘Mythology’ is probably another one of those over-used words that I ususally try and avoid, let me try and clarify what I mean. I suppose ‘mythology’ is similar to values and meaning in some ways, but values and meanings are relatively static, it’s difficult to interact with values and meaning, you either agree with them or you don’t and if you don’t your attitude towards a given brand is, in all likelihood, going to be negative. I use the term mythology here to mean a set of contested values and meanings, a framework within which people can choose to identify with x instead of y or z. Given this framework ‘myths’ are better able to emerge through the virtual world population and create the dynamics around which societies are built – thus becoming virtual worlds rather than 3D interactive spaces.
For example in World of Warcraft there is a commonly held myth that Horde are more successful than Alliance in PvP scenarios and in Second Life the oft-blogged ‘flying penises’ are referred to by both player and non-players alike, despite this only occuring once to my knowledge, but it is representative of some kind of contestation over the meaning of Second Life. Both these examples show ways in which people attempt to understand the world they inhabit.
Richard Bartle’s player types and Hamlet Au’s attempts to categorise Secodn Life users tend to be resisted because they make explicit something that the inhabitants of these worlds prefer to explain through anecdotes and, well, ‘myth’. While it is true to say that all brands divide their users into ‘typologies’ brand users tend to share a set of values which diverge only in terms of demographic differences, in Second Life the notion of a Metaverse itself is contested.
But to get back to the issue of whether or not virtual worlds need ‘mythology’ let me be more specific, virtual worlds need a framework in which myth can evolve organically. World of Warcraft for example asks players to make a decision from the off about which side they’re going to be on, they’re immediately immersed in a cosmic battle (which only gets more complex as their exprience progresses). Similarly character classes, the bane of the experienced MMOer, act as a simple guide about how players would like to interact with the world. Second Life’s Orientation island could offer users avatars based on their in the virtual world, whether we’re talking, sex, teaching, building, researching etc. and give them pointers to places they should explore based on their interests. For example on The L Word orientation island users can choose an avatar in the form of characters from the show, asking them to make choices based on preferences – who I like, who I don’t like etc. This doesn’t necessarily involve roleplaying the character, but it does mean that users have to consider hwo other users might think of them.
THE EVERYDAY WORLD OF WARCRAFT
The second part of this post is an example of how, what seems on the surface to be a typical game of pseudo-medieval good vs evil is at heart about making sense of a world that even the most experienced players have only a few years experience of and how these attempts themselves are contested.
World of Warcraft to the outsider is usually seen as a standard ‘fantasy’ computer game (often said with distaste), but as many games critics have pointed out, usually in a negative way, in WoW you’re not the hero, in fact the chances are you’re just another adventurer trying to make a living. In fact you might spend as much time dealing with the mundane issues of virtual life as killing demon lords (this Escapist article deals with precisely this issue).
Now I don’t normally go in for ‘computer games are like art’, because while they have aesthetic similarities, ‘art’ to me describes market value and the MMO market is a completely different animal to the art market. But I think these two paintings by Pieter Breugel, a 16th century Flemish artist, Peasant Kermis and Peasant Wedding are quite appropriate here. Both are incredibly rich images of everyday life, depicting working people rather than coutisans. The events shown taking place aren’t particularly dramatic but they are rich and fascinating all the same. WoW reminds me of these pictures because most players aren’t out bringing Gruul to his knees they’re doing fairly mundane things, completing little quests for NPCs, gathering materials for their crafting skill, hanging around postboxes in their underwear, dancing by the auction house, sitting on the cactus by the bank in Orgrimmar and so on. When I hear players talking about having to ‘grind’ it isn’t usually stated in a negative tone, rather it’s full of ambivalence; it’s not as bad as ‘work’ even if it isn’t the most fun activity. Some of these activities might be referred to as ’emergent gameplay’, but I think it deserves a more profound label, Ithink it deserves to be called culture. The people of WoW are transforming the materials available to them into meaningful activities, just like the two men in teh foreground of Peasant Wedding who have constructed a makeshift trestle from a barn door. The reason seemingly mundane activities in WoW are not considered as boring as their real-life counterparts is that they take place in a context of greater possibilities; the ever-present promise of acheivement, the irregular appearance of seasoned raiders arriving in twon dressed from head-to-toe in purples. For the everday folk of WoW the dayjob is framed by the excitement of the acheivements of others, that’s why multiplayer worlds can get away with the mundane while single player worlds struggle.