When I asked players what they were doing when they were alone in the game, the notion of hanging out or idling in a capital city came up in almost every interview. I do this myself, so I was expecting it to pop up. This topic also turned out to be a long post. I tried to split it into more parts, but who wants a series inside a series? So I decided it worked the best as a whole.
Topics I’ll touch upon in this article are first shortly about playing the auction house. Then I go into the public virtual life aspects such as game space, other players/ourselves in the dual-position of being both the audience and the performer and finally transmogrification, status and reputation and how we use these to compare and map ourselves in relation to others.
Playing the Auction House
Idling or hanging out is often done in capital cities, which act as hubs of organization and trade. Players travel to these faction specific epicenters to deposit and withdraw items and materials. The player driven auction houses are also located in the capital cities and form their own little mini game of sales and profit.
Ironyca: You also mentioned hanging out at the auction house, what does that entail?
Dromdum: I sell almost everything
Dromdum: herbs, ores, gems, flasks, gear, you name it :)
Ironyca: okay, so you enjoy the whole selling/buying/trading part?
Dromdum: I love making gold
This type of solo play is by default an activity players engage in individually, and there are countless of blogs dedicated to earning gold in the game, optimizing the art of being a good virtual salesman.
Cities and settlements in the game world can often be found to be the backdrop to group play, such as fashion shows but also more elusive ways of spending time in the game, that hardly fall under a definition of play, as we shall look at next.
Firstly, if we consider how the game space is designed, a large part of the world in WoW is considered “the wild” according to Julian Holland Oliver (2002) the author of The Similar Eye: Proxy Life and Public Space in the MMORPG. The wild hosts the dangers that make wandering in these regions unsafe, risky and potentially deadly. These are areas where quests are usually put in context and where the player goes hunting. Settlements then play a different role, they are safe zones where the player returns to repair and recover.
In this way the MMORPG game-scape brings all flows of human action back to the settlement, ensuring that the public is based around a functional dependence on other people. At some point, co-habitation, regardless of moral alignment becomes an inevitable function of game-play; the city or settlement must be the first and final fold. This is how MMORPGs have, at their very core, a mechanism that produces and supports the formation of public-space. (Oliver, 2002, p. 175)
Considering the space inside an MMO to be public, almost resembling a physical city, yields a social angle of understanding player behavior, even when it looks detached from the presence of other players.
In the settlements, as Oliver depicted it, players engage in a type of solo activity they themselves denote idling or hanging out, but when examined further approximate character play or performance while in this social context. This brings us to the intersecting themes of the virtual flâneur, MMOs as reputation games and the occurrence of players engaging in “gear-fashion”.
Flâneurie in the virtual public space
The term flâneur stems from the participation and personified portrayal of the early 19th century urban Parisian life. While being a “stroller or “lounger”, which is the French root of the word, the flâneur is a type of character observed as a phenomenon of modernity. The flâneur displays the relationship between the individual and the masses, at the same time a metropolitan participant and a disengaged voyeur, the flâneur seeks an immersion in the sensations of the city, he seeks to “bathe in the crowd”.
The expression to “bathe in the crowd” I find really expressive and I can relate to the sensation of sitting in the very populated area between the bank and auction house. Alone, yet surrounded by players, submerged in the buzz of a virtual capital city.
We can view player behavior through the same scope of the concept of the flâneur. A well known example are characters put on display in particularly crowded districts, often for longer durations of time and frequently on an elevated spot.
Let me exemplify with a story from my server, an example that often makes me chuckle:
In front of the auction house in Stormwind there are often two players (a RL couple) mounting Corrupted Fire Hawks positioned on each side of the staircase. I just checked when writing this post and was able to catch one of them posing, but often the other will be on the other side also showcasing a Corrupted Fire Hawk.
I don’t think any WoW players are unsure about what is going on in the picture above – this player is of course showing off his admittedly impressive feat, and having an exquisite mount to show for it is the perfect setup for virtual flâneurie.
In “Alone Together?” Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (2006) Ducheneaut et al. makes this point:
“MMORPGs are in essence reputation games – an avatar wearing powerful items, for instance, is essential to the construction of a player’s identity.” (p. 7).
Flaunting one’s character is a way of enjoying the awareness other players bestow on you, while not needing to exchange gestures or phrases with anyone. The act is characterized by a subtle nonchalance, it’s hard to tell how purposeful it is, but that is in the heart of flânuerism.
The status and reputation of fashionable clothing
When characters are put on display, gear is often one of the central show pieces, although I suspect gear-flâneurie was more common back when raid-progression was steeper. Still, players are always able to get information about what others are wearing by the act of “inspection”, which is possible when the targeted player is within reach or through the Armory, a huge log of everything related to our characters.
Besides flâneurie as purely visual, the players in proxy distance are able to see exactly what clothing others are wearing, the rarity of it and which stats the clothing provide its bearer. It’s like being able to view all the price tags and labels of the clothing someone is wearing in the physical world, but without touching them. The player being inspected is not notified and so this act becomes largely invisible, both to the player being inspected, but also in a public sense, to others.
This allows for what Klastrup and Tosca in “Because it just looks cool!” Fashion as character performance: The Case of WoW (2009) calls “status awareness” and “status anxiety” – the ongoing act of inspecting someone else’s equipment in order to compare one’s own status, both as a way of gauging whether one’s own paraphernalia is up to the general standards, but also out of interest in other player’s creativity in their choices of clothing.
In WoW, the combinations available in the character customization mode when creating the character is limited, and besides some players putting efforts into creating a character that in itself looks unique, a large part of the individualization process is also done by dressing up of the character.
Ironyca: What did you like about roleplaying?
Dromdum: oh hehe dressing up finding special gear showing off my collection companions and mounts and titles
This emphasis of outlining one’s own character from the masses is also noted by Klastrup and Tosca, when players seek individualization through character fashion. Their study showed that players primarily pay attention to what others are wearing when inside a city, and they go on to argue that fashion should not be considered a private state of being but that “It is a social investment that has rewards beyond the aesthetic, as it can reinforce player status […]” (p. 10). Hvaskjer, a player I interviewed says it outright: gear, but also other items and feats, become entrancing when they are rare and sufficiently few players own them.
Hvaskjer: hmm I like having a lot of mounts and trying to have stuff and achievements not everyone got.
When thinking about enjoying the attention of an audience, Dromdum’s story came up when she and I were talking about interacting with random unknown players, and she noted that she also enjoyed interacting with her audience:
Dromdum: ooh hehe well I own some really cool stuff on my main like Sandbox Tiger
Dromdum: and almost all gadgets from archeology
Dromdum: I just put up a sandbox tiger and peeps talk to me asking where I got it
Dromdum: I have a dragon kite which gives me a lot of whispers.
Dromdum says this is something she does more often while in Orgrimmar, a popular capital of the Horde faction and therefore greatly suitable for gathering a personal audience. This example is also related to the notion of a spectacle, preferably one of humor, where familiar players but also strangers can pose as a great source of unexpected entertainment.
In relation to this, check out the picture to the right, you’ll need to click it bigger.
I’m wondering if having something this rare and unique, triggering so many responses from others, can be overwhelming. I get the impression Saate is prompted to interact with his audience constantly, unless of course, he dismounts. If I had an item like this, I’d sure think twice about when and where to mount up – it’s like being a server celebrity!
With the upcoming feature Transmogrification, character looks will become central to everyone. How you present yourself in terms of gear and weaponry is no longer a matter of which gear you have right now, instead you can choose to show off old treasures or a really well put-together set. Furthermore, dressing up is no longer restricted to safe areas, players can now look as they wish all the time, even when in combat, expanding character performance into raids and battlegrounds.
Still, I’m imagining hanging out in cities in the future will provide even more spectacle and showcasing when 4.0.3 and Transmogrification goes live. Personally, I’m looking forward to this dual-position of being both the audience but also the performer.
Through the act of flâneurie and performance, the players differentiate themselves as individuals in the public landscape of other characters. Checking the gear of others while perhaps even showing off a little yourself, is part of the many joys of an MMO, whether you engage with the audience or just enjoy the bustle of your chosen hotspot.
It is these factors that Duchenaut et al. in “Alone Together?” Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (2006) say can appeal to solo players:
While many of WoW’s subscribers play alone, we believe they prefer playing a MMORPG to playing a comparable singleplayer game because of a different kind of “social factor.” Indeed, the other players have important roles beyond providing direct support and camaraderie in the context of quest groups: they also provide an audience, a sense of social presence, and a spectacle. (p. 7)
Next part will look a little further into the experience of social presence, basically the sense of being present in a virtual world that is inhabited and alive.