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Written Component of my World of Warcraft Presentation

            On September 2, 2001 Blizzard Entertainment announced that they were developing World of Warcraft (WoW), the company’s first massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG or MMO).  This was somewhat surprising considering the company was most famous for its real-time strategy games such as Warcraft III and Starcraft.  After nearly five years of development the game was finally released on November 23, 2004 to widespread critical acclaim.

            WoW is a MMORPG which means that it is a role-playing game that takes place in a persistent online world where space is shared with large groups of other players.  Unlike some games that concentrate mostly on winning individual “games,” WoW focuses on long term goals with a consistent group of people.  In WoW your character is consistent and while he or she may evolve over time, they can no more change their key attributes than you and I can.

Two predecessors to WoW were Everquest and Ultima Online.  Ultima was a sequel to an already existing single player game franchise and therefore relied mostly on their already established niche community.  Ultima also had a steep learning curve and had little to no protection from “griefers” or players who spend inordinate amounts of time attempting to ruin the experiences of beginner and casual players.  Everquest improved many of these problems and introduced rudimentary 3d graphics.  The result essentially set the standard for most MMO’s to come.  Despite this, it still had its share of problems that kept it from reaching the mainstream, most notably the hours of mindless grinding necessary to level up characters as well as the unforgiving level of difficulty. 

Although WoW works on a similar template to Everquest, it acknowledged and fixed many of the things that held its predecessors back.  Unlike both games, WoW has almost no penalty for death.  Making for a far less frustrating experience.  WoW also introduced a far smoother learning curve that introduced game concepts slowly over time so as not to be overwhelming.  WoW also had the most impressive graphics of any MMO at the time of its release.  They weren’t just sharp, but also stylized and diverse, giving the user the impression that WoW is a breatihing real world.  Similarly to Ultima, WoW also came prepackaged with an audience, but the Warcraft universe games were far more popular and therefore brought over larger numbers of players out of the starting gate.  Lastly, WoW links up directly with the story and mythology of the previous games which makes the player feel like they are an integral part of a struggle they have been following for years.

When a player starts a new game of WoW, the first thing they must do is join a server and create a character.  Servers are divided into normal, pvp and role-playing.  This gives options to players who would prefer not to engage in combat with other players or for people who enjoy playing their characters as if they were actually part of the WoW mythology.  Character creation is very important because it determines an unchangeable path that the player must follow.  For instance a gnome mage will start in a different place and have a completely different play style from an Orc Shaman.  Players can choose from ten races which are split into two opposing factions.  Each race has slight statistical differences but are most different aesthetically.  Class choice is also essential as each class plays radically differently although they are each created to balance with each other so no class becomes overpowered.  Lastly, players must choose how they will distribute their talents.  Each class has three distinct talent “trees.”  Each level a player gains also comes along with a talent point which can be placed in any of the trees to further customize the character’s specialties such as healing, offense etc.  This wide breadth of options ensures that there are rarely two players with the identical characters or play styles. 

A large portion of the game is spent questing and leveling up.  The higher level a character is, the more powerful he/she becomes.  Increased levels are gained by getting experience points (xp) from quests and monsters.  The amount of xp needed increases greatly with each passing level, forcing the player to constantly search for new challenges in order to progress.  Characters also increase in power as they acquire gear, a task that takes precedent over leveling when a player reaches the “endgame” or the highest possible level.  Gear is generally considered the primary means by which a character’s skill is judged since epic level gear can only be acquired by completing long and extremely difficult and/or tedious tasks.

Because I was already familiar with leveling and doing group dungeons, I decided to concentrate my presentation on the pvp (player versus player) aspect of the game.  When WoW first launched, there was no formal pvp in place.  Horde and Alliance players were free to kill each other, but there was no rewards for doing so.  Eventually the honor system was introduced and offered rewards for players who were unusually proficient at killing players of the opposing faction.  Later on, Blizzard added the Battlegrounds which matched similarly leveled pvp seeking players together in an enclosed area to do combat with each other.  The battlegrounds eventually became the most predominant form of pvp in WoW, but many players felt that the ability to quickly come back to life in battlegrounds made it a question of time, not skill when it comes to receiving rewards. 

Blizzard’s solution to this was to add the arena combat system.  Arena fights are either 2v2, 3v3, of 5v5 and when a player is defeated, they are out of the fight for good.  This forces players to refine their skills as one weak player can greatly weaken the team’s chances of victory.  Each week Blizzard ranks the teams against each other based on their win/loss record.  Although this system does force players to rely more on skill, the fact that some players have vastly superior gear still keeps many games hopelessly unbalanced.

As we saw in Morningstar and Farmer’s “The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat” creating online social worlds is ain inherently unstable process that can lead to unexpected occurrences.  In Habitat, players were able to exploit price differences to make extreme am oungs of money, or illegally obtain a death ray gun that was more powerful than the developers intended regular players to have.  Although WoW has been mostly successful in keeping players from cheating, unexpected things still happen.  The most famous incident was the “Corrupted Blood Plague.”  Blizzard added a new dungeon with a patch, the boss of which gave players a disease called corrupted blood that transferred to others around them.  Instead of disappearing after leaving the dungeon as was originally intended, the disease spread throughout the whole world, killing lower level players instantly and repeatedly.  Interestingly, the corrupted blood disease spread in much the same way that epidemics do in real life. 

One of the most interesting things I found in my outside research on the game was a website called “The Daedalus Project.”  The runner of the site named Nick Yee has surveyed over 35,000 MMO players and keeps the statistics available on his site for people to read as well as writing articles on his findings.  The site has a wealth of information, far too widespread to accurately cover here, but there were a few things I found particularly interesting.  Many people assume that the majority of online game players are children or teenagers, but Yee’s surveys show that the demographics are actually far more complex.  Only 25% of WoW players are teens, 50% work full time, 36% are married and 33% have kids.  This was interesting to me because it shows that WoW clearly has appeal to a wide group of individuals despite the seemingly niche market of fantasy and role-playing game fans.

One of the issues raised in Turkel’s article on videogames is that of potential gaming addiction.  She says: “If there is a danger here, it is not the danger of mindless play but of infatuation with the challenge of simulated worlds.  In the right circumstances, some people come to prefer them to the real.”  This has clear applications to WoW as many players seem to prefer the complex but ruled and ordered world of Warcraft over the often more mundane aspects of reality.  Yee also sees the potential for gaming addiction, saying: “There are a variety of mechanisms in MMORPGs that may encourage obsessive usage. MMORPGs employ well-known behavioral conditioning principles from psychology that reinforce repetitive actions through an elaborate system of scheduled rewards. In effect, the game rewards players to perform increasingly tedious tasks and seduces the player to “play” industriously. These environments also encourage making friends or joining guilds that then become sources of social obligations.”  I can personally attest to the truth of this statement, as the game starts out quite easy with tasks that are easy to accomplish and give good rewards but as the player grows in level it takes increasingly longer times to get things done.  This eventually creates a situation where the player finds him or herself playing for hours at a time and still not feeling like they have accomplished all they hoped to in the session which in turn makes the player feel like playing even more.  I hope this presentation has been informative and helpful to anyone who was interested in a brief introduction into the history, society and play mechanics of World of Warcraft.

Other links:

My character page on the WoW armory

My WoW movie

The Internet

There wasn’t too much in today’s reading that seemed particularly new to me, but it was definitely interesting to hear someone talk about the benefits of the internet before many of its most popular features were implemented.  Still, the most interesting part of the article was the discussion about http and how it allows for reaching information worldwide.  It made me realize that I have always taken the “worldwide” part of the www for granted.  It is interesting that the people that set all this up were able to recognize from the beginning that it could be used for worldwide communication, instead of just something works only within different state networks.   Although most of the sites I regularly visit are American, or at least created by and for English speakers, but it would be interesting to see how different the internet would be if each nation had their own individual version of it.

NINTENDO!

The whole time I was reading Turkel’s article on video games, all I could think was how many more things she would have had to talk about if she had only waited a few years for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) to come out in America and confirm nearly everything she was thinking about video games.  More so than most arcade games of the time, games for the NES like Zelda and Mario were big breakthroughs as far as immersing players in unique and interesting environments that weren’t derivative’s  of other cultural objects like the knights in Joust.  The NES also solidified the “closed cartridge” system which started with the Atari 2600 and essentially kept everyone but Nintendo itself from making cartridges for their console which is something that Jarish was rightly concerned about.

Nintendo really took some of Turkel’s ideas to the next level by creating game worlds that were highly structured and rule based but also incredibly artistically inventive and make the player feel like they are in a truly unique space.  Of course this makes it very easy to get lost in the simulated world as Turkel puts it.  For instance, I can’t remember how to do long division by hand, but somehow I still know how to find the secret whistles in Mario 3 that let you skip straight to world 8.

One of the main aspects of the chapter that I will definitely need to spend more time looking at for my project is the idea of games as a sort of zen experience because they allow the player to be in an extremely focused state on something that is completely under their control.  Obviously this idea gets very complicated with the increasing popularity of online games where large groups of people of varying skills and attitudes are all expected to interact and play with each other in the same space.  Interestingly, instead of causing a chaotic experience that disrupts the zen, the opposite occurs and people seem to be even more entranced by massively multiplayer online games than with traditional single player games.  This is most likely because the introduction of other personalities makes the illusion of the simulated world even more convincing because of the inherent unpredictability that comes with actual human interaction but I need to think more about it.

Immigrant

I really enjoyed reading the story Immigrant, but I’m not sure how I feel about the ending. On one hand, it does make sense that there could be technological/cultural/biological improvements that could potentially be detrimental to humanity’s progress as a species (the atomic bomb anyone?) but that doesn’t seem like a sufficient reason to keep all of humanity in the dark the way the Kimonians do. My main problem with Bishop’s conception of the Kimonian’s plan as a form of education is the fact that so much of the time the humans spend on Kimon is devoted to the Kimonians and their way of doing things. If the purpose of people being there is to help “improve” them then one must ask if they are really being improved or just made in the Kimonian’s image. I agree with the idea that humanity cannot be forced to improve itself, but if we are to improve it has to be through a means that is meaningful to us and not through some outsider who claims to be inherently superior.

Another random thought: Are the Kimonian’s really helping humanity by taking all of its greatest minds and keeping them separated from the rest of their species that could benefit from their expertise?  Would Einstein and Da Vinci have been sent to Kimon to tell stories to alien children if they lived during the time of this story?

A Word on Laziness

I was a little bit troubled in class today by the number of people who seemed certain that Illich’s ideas will never come to fruition because of their belief that certain people just aren’t self-motivated enough to take their education into their own hands.  I talked a little bit in class about my belief that institutions make people apathetic because they are completely unresponsive to the specific needs of individuals and are almost always structured in a way that encourages promotion and power over justice and democracy.  I want to talk a little bit more about it because I feel that it is an excuse that has been justifying inequality throughout history.  Needless to say, I completely reject the idea that some people are inherently less motivated or educationally inclined to others.

I would challenge anyone to find someone under the age of 6 who doesn’t have big plans about all the things they are going to accomplish when they grow up.  We laugh at kids because they have no conception of how difficult it really is to become an astronaut or a doctor.  It’s when kids get into school and realize their dreams have nothing to do with the reality of their situation that they become apathetic.  Including preschool, I’m going on my eighteenth year of school, and I can count the number of teachers that actually inspired me to study further outside of the classroom on one hand.  Illich is totally right when he says that our current educational system is a colossal waste of money.  It may sound cynical, but I feel that if most people are honest with themselves, the lessons that they use every single day and affect their lives in the most meaningful ways by and large were not learned in a classroom, despite the fact that we each spent nearly forty hours a week there for twelve years of our lives.  This problem is compounded further for people that come from far less privileged circumstances than I do and may have to work or care for relatives in addition to taking a full course load in order to achieve equal status with those (like me) who have few impediments to their education.  It might be easy to say that certain people are unmotivated or unwilling to receive an education, but if you look at the circumstances of most individuals it becomes obvious that the vast majority of “underachievers” are people that don’t easily fit into boxes and as such have been pushed to the margins instead of being allowed to reach the fullness of their potential.

Response to Illich

Anyone who read my previous blog post on popular education knows that I agree pretty much whole heartedly with what Illich talks about in Deschooling Society.  I’m not sure I would go as far as he does in his condemnation of the traditional classroom style, but his ideas about removing “the curriculum” are dead on I think.  I also don’t know if I agree with his belief in the master apprentice system as being the best way to learn.  I don’t think that it is necessary for any member of a group to be an expert on a particular subject in order for the group to collectively learn about it and help each other shape their understanding of concepts.  One of my most positive high school experiences was in AP Literature senior year when our teacher had a medical emergency that forced the class to have a long term substitute teacher for most of the year.  It was an interesting dynamic because the substitute knew just as little about the subject matter as we did, but her eagerness to understand the material in turn made us feel more willing to put our opinions forward without fearing disagreement from the always-right teacher.  I think this unguided discourse was ultimately a more effective educational tool than listening to the teacher lecture on the standard interpretations of canonical texts.

My main disagreement with Illich however, comes from his ideas about peer matching.  Although it would certainly be useful to easily group together people with similar educational (and recreational) interests, I feel that this has the potential to cause factioning which could ultimately create new institutions along different but equally limiting borders.  Illich’s main complaint against the social aspect of the classroom seems to be that students are placed together arbitrarily.  Although I understand where he is coming from, I think encouraging diversity is more important than grouping together only with people that have similar goals and interests.  People should have the opportunities to follow whatever course of study they choose in their life, but it is also important to surround yourself with people that have vastly different interests and ideas because seemingly unrelated topics almost always connect in some sort of interesting way if you look at them hard enough.  Communities are often very diverse, and this diversity should be reflected in the classroom because it should be an extension of the community as a whole.

And here I was thinking that McLuhan was confusing

If I’m being honest, I’d say that my comprehension of todays reading was shaky at best.  I think I understand Viola’s ideas about the potential for movies with branching plots and film editing over a computer, but I’m not sure I really understand what is so revolutionary about this idea.  Although I definitely remember a time before I could easily watch videos on my PC, the ability to do so seems like a natural step that was bound to happen.  I guess my main confusion is what specifically about computers and videotape has revolutionized the way we conceive of film.  Obviously quality and methods of delivery have changed and improved with the advent of digital technology, but this doesn’t seem to be what Viola is getting at in this article so I’ll be interested to see what other people think of it in class.

Habitat and modern mmo’s

I was only somewhat surprised by how similar some of the problems Habitat had when compared to the problems with popular games like World of Warcraft.  It was almost comical when Morningstar and Farmer talked about allowing players to use weapons and kill each other, but expected users to do so in a responsible manner.  Although they never fully articulate it, I think the main barrier keeping virtual worlds from being taken fully seriously is the fact that there is complete anonymity and no real consequences.  Player vs. Player combat (pvp) is still a major question in online games.  WoW solves the problem by forcing players to choose at the outset whether they will fight on the side of the Alliance or the Horde, a decision that affects the entire course of the game.  Generally speaking, players are only able to kill players from the opposing faction with whom they are unable to speak.  This system works fairly well but is obviously just another work around such as the inability to fight within cities in Habitat.

The part about not being able to anticipate which design flaws will be seized upon by the community with disastrous results is also still very prevalent.  One of the most famous examples of this in WoW was the Zul’Gurrub disease glitch.  Soon after the game’s release, the developers released a new dungeon that extremely high level players could explore.  One of the bosses gave players a disease called “poison blood” which slowly damaged players and also jumped to other players who were nearby.  The unintended consequence of this was that the disease traveled from player to player until it reached the starting zone where low level players were unable to survive the effects of the disease for more than a few seconds.  Because of this, the game became completely unplayable for most of the low level players on any given server until the problem was fixed several days later.  It’s also worth noting that almost monthly, the developers release new updates and changes that try to make the game more fair but never quite succeed.

Another design flaw that WoW has completely failed to address is the fact that most of the new content that is introduced is only enjoyed by the select few players who are willing to spend countless hours of monotonous play time to see it.  This is a major problem with almost any mmo and leads many players (including myself) to “burnout,” something I’ll hopefully talk about more in my project presentation.

A Word on Popular Education

I want to expand a little bit on what I talked about in my previous post.  When Papert talks about using computers to let children develop their own learning styles without the authoritarian intrusions of the omnipresent curriculum, he is essentially talking about what many people refer to as “Popular Education.”  Although he uses computer programing as an example, the method can really be applied to any discipline.  Essentially the idea is centered around the belief that true education can only come from a willing community of learners and not from any one “expert” or teacher.  In practical terms, it means that the classroom as a whole, and not just the teacher is responsible for the direction the class goes, as well as the support and empowerment of each individual member.

The point isn’t to let student’s only study what they want and ignore everything else, but rather to find ways to make education relevant and applicable to individual’s lives.  Obviously this is a completely different educational philosophy than the system we currently have that is based on standardized test scores which attempt to apply the same standards on large numbers of individuals without any recognition of different circumstances.

In class, there was a lot of discussion about how teachers are expected to react when certain students are more educationally advanced while others need constant special attention.  Popular education’s answer to this problem would be to have the more advanced students help out those that are lagging behind.  A struggling student may be more willing to respond to someone his own age rather than the imposing presence of an adult.  By encouraging individuals within the classroom to take an interest not only in their own education, but the education of their fellow students, the class takes on a structure that allows the teacher to take on the role of helper and facilitator instead of taskmaster.

Despite agreeing with his philosophy on education, I still strongly disagree with his insistence that computers are the best way to educate young students.  Obviously computers are hugely important to every day life and people need at the very least to have a working understanding of them, but Papert’s whole argument seems to be centered around the idea that learning to program will improve our ability to think rationally and analytically.  It’s easy to see why he was getting carried away, especially when home computers were starting to take off, but to me this kind of thinking has no more inherent validity than any other academic saying that their field is best.  Obviously programming can and is a helpful learning tool for some, but for others (like myself) it isn’t.  The best way to make sure our schools are educating people properly is by giving them as many opportunities to discover whatever they’re good at as possible, putting every kid in front of a computer is too simple of a solution.

This Turtle is fun I guess, but when do we get to play Oregon Trail again?

Although I’ve had a computer in my house for as long as I can remember and have been playing games on them (and other game consoles) for nearly as long.  That said, I don’t think computers were ever a major part of my formal education.  With the exception of a basic programming course I took in high school, my only other use of computers in school came in an hour long twice a week block of “computer class” that my fifth grade class went to.  I don’t remember much from those classes, except that by far the hardest part of it was when we had to learn to use LOGO.  In his article, Papert talks about the potential for teachers to use LOGO in the wrong way.  I can definitively say that my teachers used the program in a way that he would have fundamentally disagreed with.

I specifically remember our teacher giving us some very vague instructions on how to use the program then handed each of us a thick photocopied instruction manual, along with a check list of different things our program had to do in order to pass (have animation, different colors, curved lines etc.)  Luckily I had a more computer savvy friend sitting next to me that helped me out, but I definitely didn’t learn anything about computer programing or gain any “formal” knowledge from the experience.  My main concern at the time was finishing as early as possible so I could resume my game of Oregon Trail and maybe get a little bit of Math Munchers in before lunch.

I’m going to take a stand and say that this wasn’t completely my teacher’s fault.  One of the main problems is that the school system was obviously implementing computer education in an extremely half-assed way.  In order for the kind of education that Papert talks about to work, it must be fully committed to, not scheduled in as another part of an already over scheduled school day.  Another fundamental roadblock to Papert’s ideas ever coming to fruition is just the fact that LOGO seems incredibly boring compared to the computer entertainment that children already have access to.  Even over ten years ago when I last used the program, it seemed very basic and not nearly as fun as something like Mario Paint for Super Nintendo.  I can only imagine how dry and boring it must seem to kids now, who have access to even more complex electronics.  I’m not trying to say that putting computers in schools is a lost cause, but it will be if it isn’t committed to in a more real way.

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