07 January 2010

[Literature] Strangers and Friends: Collaborative Play in WoW

Bonnie Nardi and Justin Harris, 2006. Qualitative work (semi-structured interviews and field observations). play is characterized by a multiplicity of collaborations. Indeed, the classes asymmetrical strengths and weaknesses encourage collaboration during battle as well as in brief encounters.

The fun of collaborating with strangers

Buffs are the simplest way of engagement between players. Buffs happen in a cohesive group but also from a player to another he/she does not even know. In the latter case, authors explain that on a volontary basis, players commit small acts of kindness to maintain a mutually beneficial atmosphere. On the other hand, ganking consists of players waiting for killing other players weakened by fights with monsters. Not all interactions are beneficial for everyone.

The authors explain that with the freer atmosphere of online communities, players do IG things they would never do IRL, such as dancing naked in a fountain, following a conga-line or flirt.

Guilds, knots and friends - social structures in WoW

The authors argue that having different possible ways to collaborate in the game provides a versatile, robust environnement for play and learning. Indeed, playing in a guild requires much more involvement than taking part in a "pick-up" battleground party. To my mind, the underlying game design suggestion is: include as many and various ways for players to interact with one another as possible.


Moreover, the article mentions 2 key game activities: having fun and learning the game. It depends on what is meant by "fun", but I am not sure if these are the only interesting activities possible in the game. Anyway, Nardi explains that the social structures in WoW provide an environement for learning. The zone of proximal development (see figure nearby) introduced by Vygotsky consists of the knowledge or skills a child can learn at the moment, that is to say the difference between what the learner can perform alone and perform helped by a teacher (ie "collective performance"). Ang and Zaphiris in Social learning in MMOG: an activity theoretical perspective have argued that WoW players learn new skills or information if this knowledge belongs to their ZPD.

As taught in HCI classes, the interviewed players reported they learned mostly through trial and error: people eventually read the manual after they have tried (and failed). In collaborative activities, players acquire new information not only by themselves, but also by other players. Unless reading forums or databases, a Mage player can not know that a Paladin is particularly efficient against undead monsters until he/she has played with a Paladin. In the end, players can choose among various learning resources (asking other players, consulting websites or trying solo) the one(s) that best suit(s) them. IG, both the game design and the (relatively) friendly social environnement help players learn. But outside of the game, a new player may read websites or forums to increase his/her knowledge, while an expert player will find the appropriate add-on on curse.com. A "social" player may post his/her questions on forums while a solo player may read but not particularly post on forums and if he/she can not find the answer, he/she may try by himself/herself until he/she finds what he/she wants. Giving so many kinds of players the information they want the way they want may be one of the reasons why WoW has become so popular.


According to Rapoport, if B and C are linked to A (cf figure nearby), there is a high probability that B and C are linked together. A weak tie is the link between B and C. A weak tie is the social network link between two acquaintances, whereas the link between two close friends or members of the same family is a strong tie. According to Granovetter, only a weak tie can connect two strong-tied social networks. I am taking an exampleFor instance, the Jones have seen on TV a commercial for a detergent. Their neighbors, the Smiths have no TV and therefore are supposedly not reachable by the detergent marketing. However, word-of-mouth marketing relies on this weak tie (neighborhood) between the Jones and the Smith, to make the no-TV family hear about the detergent.

Nardi et al. suggest that "friends" in WoW are not weak ties because in the game, friends do not help connecting strong social networks together and friendship remains a one-to-one relation. In WoW, the friends of a player appear in the friends list. The player can not organize conversations between a group of friends without being in the same party. So, except for guilds of friends, the usual interaction between friends is whispering, a typical one-to-one relation. Maybe players want to have this one-to-one exclusive chanel functionality with their actual friends, and use a more collective broadcast-like chanel for their guildmates who might not all be friends. In the end, I wonder if an "interconnected friends" functionality in the friends list in WoW could not make the one-to-one friend relations evolve into solid clusters of friends.


This paper gives a very interesting (and inspirational) definition of guilds: named groups of players that socialize and play together. This definition seems to put in parallel play and socialize. However, I think the reason why people socialize in a guild is because they have chosen to play together. Were they no guild activities, there would not be any socialization. In other words, socialization in WoW is a consequence of the game design.

Illustrating their argument with the small tightknit European villages of the 19th century where everyone knew one another and everyone shared the same history and tradition, the authors explain that guilds look like Gemeinschaft communities. However, guilds are not as isolated as 19th century villages: their members can easily group with strangers and find new people to talk to. While playing in a guild sometimes require an overhead of collaborating, playing solo may look like a break from the guild: assembling 25 players for a raid means waiting for the latecomers and forbearing the clumsy players, but exploring new places and accomplishing new quests alone or with players met on the way has a taste of freedom. PvP is another way to play solo.


According to the authors, knots are unique groups that form to complete a task of realtively short duration, like an airline crew or international research workshops. The concept of knots has been first described by Engeström et al.. Examples of knots in WoW are "pick-up" teams, trade partners, duelists or strangers dancing together.

To my mind, knots are the transitional phase between perfect strangers and in-game acquaintances and friends (see table below). A player who feels he/she truly belongs to a human-size community such as a guild (but not such as a 11-million-player game community) has a reason to stay in the game. I think game designers know very well how playing is not exactly what keeps players in a MMOG. As an example, between the solo-player and the guild master, who do you think is going to stay in the game longer? Hence a good MMOG game design should encourage players to participate in knot-like situations so that they later can get involved in guilds.

strangers -> knots -> acquaintances -> friends
solo players, auction house interactions parties, raids, duels, trades, global chanels of discussion guild membership, social events, private chanels of discussion guild creation/management, chitchat, oral chanels of discussion

A very interesting idea given by the authors is to tailor MMOG to fit elderly people's interests. Through knots of such an MMOG, elderly people could meet new players with whom they could share topics of mutual interest and participate in activities that provide mental stimulation. Hospitalized people could also benefit from MMOG knots. I recently read about the Compuserve story of Joan and Alex on Yann Leroux's blog: in the 1980's Joan has had a severe car accident leaving her disfigured and in a rolling chair. She decides to participate in the Compuserve forums and shortly becomes a model for her pugnacity. However, behind Joan was actually Alex, a prominent Jewish New York psychiatrist in his early fifties according to meatballwiki.org. This story makes me think that MMOG for specific "weak" populations (elderly fighting dementia or hospitalized children) can lead to many identity deception cases, and maybe cause particularly big trouble among these "weak" populations.

Playing WoW: escaping or increasing offline relations

The authors argue that sometimes players enjoy the virtual world because they want to escape the real one. A player acknowledges that playing WoW has made [him] less social in real life. Another explains that she uses the game as a break from real life: Her in-game friends were refreshingly casual and she sometimes likes to go and play alone.

On the other hand, the authors suggest that sometimes, playing WoW increases offline relations. They give examples of people of the same family playing together. One mother was thrilled to play with her son who lives in another state. For another mother, playing WoW with her children was just another shared activity. A third mother uses WoW to teach her children typing and mathematics. A brother explained that playing WoW with his much older brother made them share a common discussion topic.

The very last sentence of the paper suggests that WoW joins a long tradition of card and board games in which family and friends of different ages and genders may play together. Is WoW the new Monopoly? Ironically, according to an interview she gave to the Department of Informatics of UCI, Monopoly is the last game Nardi played before trying WoW.

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