Last part (part 9) was about secret alts and the need for time outs. This post may take some of that conversation and turn it upside down.
Hunter’s Pets and Companion Pets
When I spoke to my teacher about this project, he reminded me that perhaps players could also get a social effect from NPC’s. We are generally very capable of projecting an identity, a sentience, onto things we are perfectly aware are not alive and thinking, but we like the idea, it speaks to us, it’s appealing.
None of the players I interviewed mentioned this, but I remember back when I was leveling my priest, I would sometimes bring out my white kitten when I was out questing. It gave a sense of company. So I thought that perhaps hunters could the best example of this in WoW, maybe some hunters feel very attached to their pets and don’t feel like they are playing by themselves even though they actually are.
A quick search on Petopia led me to a discussion a group of hunters had had about this:
They may be just pixels, yes, but if you have even the slightest mentality of roleplaying or immersion in your character you can find how every pet has their own personality and identity. This creature will fight by your side and stay with you as you venture through the game world. Naming it and seeing the subtle hints of character within that pet is something that really broadens the enjoyment of the hunter class and brings a little more life to it. (from a Petopia thread)
I think the above quote says a lot, this hunter has taken notice of his/her pet’s “dedication”, it stays and fights for you! As a hunter, you tamed your pet yourself, you gave it a name and you feed it regularly. Back in the day, if you took good care of your pet, the pet tab would let you know that its loyalty was high and that it considered you its best friend. As Sherry Turkle puts it, the author of Alone Together (2011) a book about virtual intimacy and sociable robots:
As human beings, the way we’re wired is that we nurture what we love, but we also love what we nurture.
Risk Free Companionship
Outside of WoW we may find even better examples – remember the (in-?)famous Tamagotchis? I didn’t own one myself, but some of my class mates did and they took their little digital imprisoned pets very seriously, after all, these were capable of dying.
This area of technological advancement is progressing fast, synthetic companion pets are common toys amongst children and robots that mimic human interaction and pose as our friends are under constant development, sometimes with creepy result.
But why are these synthetic pets, or as Turkle call them “Relational Artifacts”, even an interest to us when you can have real pets and real interactions with living feeling people?
One of the answers is that synthetic companions are less risky – they might die like the Tamagotchi or a WoW pet, but we can start over, resurrect. They will never reject us and they are always available. If the social robot isn’t gamified, they might be entirely risk free, we are in control and the interaction happens on our premises, it’s all about us! Sherry Turkle puts it this way:
We bend to the inanimate with new solitude. We fear the risks and disappointments of relationships with our fellow humans. We expect more from technology and less from each other.
When we feel a connection with our hunter’s pet, it’s mediated through our character, and it has to be said that not everyone feels this way. Some see the pet as an extension of the hunter-character or as a flashy accessory.
With the promised Pet Battle System in Mists of Pandaria, maybe companion pets will become even more meaningful to us.
What about online Friendships?
When Turkle in her book Alone Together makes a point about sociable robots as substitutes for the vulnerable relations to others, she turns it around and claims that we are largely doing the same thing when we engage in mediated relations:
We discovered the network – the world of connectivity – to be uniquely suited to the overworked and overscheduled life it makes possible. And now we look at the network to defend us against the loneliness even as we use it to control the intensity of our connections. Technology makes it easy to communicate when we wish and to disengage at will.
Her point is that when we engage in mediated communication, we’re also given more control of how we present ourselves, we’re less caught in the moment and can spend more time preparing the right response, the funny response, the authentic response (I know I do). We’re also able to cut the connection and leave immediately if we don’t like it anymore (have you ever faked a dc?). It’s harder to leave f. ex in the middle of a dinner out, but with computers it’s pressing one button. Overall, it makes us less vulnerable, we keep others close, but not too close – we’re in control.
The control and comfort plays out in several ways, f. ex when people maintain multiple identities online with both benign and malign intentions, others feel they are able to express their “true self” best online.
If you’ve read part 9 where I discussed RealID’s lack of a “show-as-offline” function, it was mostly a criticism of the lack of acknowledgement that sometimes WoW players want to play the game uninterrupted. Looking at RealID through the lens of this post, it’s another measure of control we can exert on our contact to the online network, especially as our presence online envelops more and more of every day life.
But Turkle says that perhaps this type of companionship that doesn’t demand our intimacy – that is without emotional risk, is teaching us this new kind of intimacy, one where we can be, as the book title states, “Alone Together”:
After an evening of avatar-to avatar talk in a networked game, we feel, at one moment, in possession of a full social life and, in the next, curiously isolated, in tenuous complicity with strangers. We build a following on Facebook or MySpace and wonder to what degree our followers are friends. We recreate ourselves as online personae and give ourselves new bodies, homes, jobs, and romances. Yet, suddenly, in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone. [...] In all of this, there is a nagging question: Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?
Turkle says some provoking stuff, but for the sake of it, I’ll play on her team for a while. I can to some extent relate to what she’s saying.
I remember in my TBC days I was a member of a small raiding guild. I liked these people, I cared about them, chatted to them and was in the company of them almost every day for more or less hours.
At the same time, it was hard to merge the offline life with the online. My online friendships were also incredibly tied to WoW and the activities within the game. It was impossible to explain guild drama or a raid night of progression to anyone not playing WoW, I could never bridge the two. Sometimes it did feel as if I had a lot of friends in WoW, while sometimes it felt empty.
It also felt as if my guildies were only a subset of online friends, they were more specifically WoW-friends. The likelihood of the friendship being maintained beyond WoW was very low and today I don’t talk to any of them. In a way it’s sad, and in a way it’s probably the natural course of things. Despite my efforts and engagement, that’s all it was – temporary WoW-friends. I have made other friends in WoW that also became my friends outside of WoW, but those are only a fraction of the pool I was in contact with.
I can also relate to the attraction of chatting over any other form of communication. The conversation could be controlled so easily, it was as if language when tailored could be so powerful. I remember wishing more of my offline friends would spend more time on Messenger so we could chat. I saw them regularly, but I would have loved chatting with them too – that would leave me to be able to go about my stuff while still being able to plug in and out and socialize whenever I wanted. I guess this is what Twitter does these days.
There was without a doubt comfort in the distance and control the computer gave me.
Is WoW catering to Solo Players or creating Solo Players?
As I’ve described throughout the series, solo play has different functions and can meet the current need the player has: better immersion, smoother leveling, stress release. A lot of solo play in WoW, I’d claim, also offers a social component: social presence, an audience, a spectacle. Solo play might not be as rigidly lonely as it looks.
However, WoW has changed and is now offering quicker and more convenient access to parts that were previously reserved for “dedicated” players. Content originally aimed for raiding is now also offered through the “Looking for”-system – LFR.
The question is, was LFD/LFR products that were in demand by the (majority of?) players? Are these new convenience systems with low to no dependence on sustained relationships with others a symptom of the digital age we’re in? Or are we being taught by the game itself to consider other players only as a resource for our own advancement? Egg or chicken?
Now that we already filter companionship through machines, the next stage, Turkle says, is to also allow machines to be our companions.
Would players decry or praise a new patch to WoW that allowed us to group up with four intelligent NPC’s for a heroic? People can be so fallible and unreliable with their dc’s, standing in fire and ninja’ing, they are after all only human.
Finally, I want to present the picture below with a quote from the WoW forums.
Even though I have not been fond of the direction WoW has taken, I believe that the RL-meetings players arrange, pose a fact that counters the image of us as vehemently solo players.
If we prefer to only engage our WoW friends online, why ever go offline to meet them face to face?