Traveling the Multiverse

Aka Ironyca Stood in the Fire – gaming blog

Are we “Alone Together” in WoW? – Solo Play pt. 10

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:

"I'm a lover not a fighter!"

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.

A PostSecret submission

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.

Also a PostSecret submission. In all fairness, I think the creator of this card was going for another message than me, but the picture reminded me of myself, although I don't have my laptop set up in the kitchen.

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?

Quotes on the pictures are from the Petopia and WoW forums.
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9 comments on “Are we “Alone Together” in WoW? – Solo Play pt. 10

  1. tomeoftheancient
    February 15, 2012

    I’ve had friends and acquaintances at places I’ve worked. When leaving for another job some I kept in touch with some I didn’t. I don’t see WoW players or online friends as any different.

    Oh, and Hunter pets, my first character, a Hunter died many deaths because she wouldn’t Feign Death and leave her pet to die alone, I still feel a twinge when a pet dies!

    Interesting post as always!

    • ironyca
      February 19, 2012

      It’s funny with hunter’s pets – I know a hunter player who refuses to let her pet tank at all, because then it would get hurt.

  2. Vaneeesa Blaylock
    February 16, 2012

    Reblogged this on I Rez Therefore I Am and commented:
    Part Ten! In Ironyca’s epic consideration of “solo play” in a massively multiplayer world. Lots of insights on identity, relationships, projection, instantiation. Awesome!

    • ironyca
      February 19, 2012

      Hehe thanks, and thanks for the reblog too!

  3. Navimie
    February 19, 2012

    I have loved reading the series Ironyca :) Great work

  4. Brian 'Psychochild' Green
    February 22, 2012

    Pardon the slight necro-posting here, a bit behind on my reading due to work. Very interesting stuff.

    Let me give some longer term context. I’ve been online since 1992, and started playing text MUDs around that time. I met a number of people, and still keep in touch with a few of them today. One person in particular become a very good friend and we talk to each other on a regular basis.

    I also keep in touch with a small group of people I met in Meridian 59. One person I’ve known for over a decade, although we don’t talk so much anymore as he’s gotten more frustrated with games. But, when I met him I saw a younger version of myself and we became fast friends.

    I think WoW has the disadvantage of being perhaps a bit too large to allow people to form such friendships easily. When you’re on a small MUD or MMO where peak usage is 150-200 players and that makes the world feel almost crowded, you get much different social dynamics. I’ve read a lot of people say that elements like WoW’s LFD tool has lead to even less social interaction, since the people you meet are unlikely to be met again, thus people are less likely to want to invest in developing a friendship; the activity becomes more like a business transaction than a social interaction.

    In my estimation, I think it’s more of a case of WoW’s development encouraging more of a solo-friendly mindset than it truly being what people prefer. I think it’s not malicious, just that while removing obstacles in game play socialization has been an accidental victim.

    My thoughts.

    • ironyca
      February 23, 2012

      “In my estimation, I think it’s more of a case of WoW’s development encouraging more of a solo-friendly mindset than it truly being what people prefer. I think it’s not malicious, just that while removing obstacles in game play socialization has been an accidental victim.”
      I believe you are right, I don’t think Blizzard designed with the intent of diminishing social interaction, but like you say, it took the biggest unforeseen hit.
      I also agree on the LF-systems being a large factor. I often wonder if the momentum these systems have, means it is impossible to revert to earlier times, and new measures need to be taken in the future to ensure some level of social cohesion. I believe guild xp and achievements are such measures, but I hope to see more focus on this in the coming expansion.

      Ps: I thought necro’ing was a forum specific term, hehe. I consider all my posts “alive” ;)

      • Brian 'Psychochild' Green
        February 24, 2012

        I often wonder if the momentum these systems have, means it is impossible to revert to earlier times, and new measures need to be taken in the future to ensure some level of social cohesion.

        The conventional wisdom is that it’s hard to go back once a feature like this is introduced. Players will demand it and will see it’s absence as a fault; witness the cry for an LFG in SW:tOR with people justifying it as needed because the rest of the game is so solo-focused. However, I think this is a major point in MMOs, the social aspect, so it might be worth trying to fight against the tide for longer term benefit.

        Ps: I thought necro’ing was a forum specific term, hehe. I consider all my posts “alive” ;)

        Fair ’nuff. I feel the same way on my own blog, but sometimes people ignore anything not on the latest post. I might recommend you look into a “recent comments” widget as that tends to help people see older comments when visiting the site.

        Have fun!

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