Hello, and thank you for the opportunity to share my research with you. Hopefully, this post isn’t a tl;dr moment for you.
I recently defended my dissertation at the University of Washington College of Education, and, as you can guess from this post on Terra Nova, it was on learning in MMOGs. Specifically, I looked at the change in raiding practice of a group of World of Warcraft players as I played alongside them for 10 months. Of particular note, my data is from the early days of WoW, spanning the life and death of a Molten Core (and later BWL and AQ40) group that came together out of a multi-guild alliance. We were on a role-play server, which I think is important to note, given the group’s shared values and goals of hanging out and having fun over and beyond itemization and progression. That said, eventually, some players did become more loot focused over time, and the fragmentation of individual motivations and group values definitely contributed to its eventual dissolution. Also of particular note, when my raid group started, theorycrafting was still a budding practice, and we did not have access to threat meters and other popular third-party add-ons that today’s WoW raiding relies on. In fact, a major section of my dissertation chronicles the change in the various material and other resources that were assembled for raiding once the first threat meter came out in Spring 2006.
For the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to attempt to describe the major findings in a simple bullet list (and go cry in a corner, as I successfully pull it off, thinking ‘what the hell did I just write 200+ pages for??’):
- Expertise is not measured by an individual player’s content knowledge and skill in the game but rather by the player’s ability to successfully assemble / arrange / create-a-network-from the social and material resources (including external websites, sticky notes, add-ons, fellow guildies, etc.) that allow the player to do the work of playing.
- Much of the practice around the assemblage becomes normalized as players discover efficient ways of doing stuff (though, there’s probably a wide variation to individual configurations).
- I think a lot of the propagation of which add-ons and websites to use happens through the social networks players establish while playing. If this is true, expertise development therefore depends on access to what has become expert practice, and I don’t think all players are on equal footing here. :(
- As players move on to joining a raid group, the nature of the assembly changes. Individual configurations give way to group configurations as certain tasks become shared and new add-ons are enrolled to take on some of the responsibilities of raiding (e.g., threat meter).
- For a raid to be successful and sustainable, all objects in the raid (whether human or nonhuman) must be in agreement on how the work is distributed and what the raid’s goals and values are.
- Players have to be able to trust each other to play their roles. The raid I studied built this trust on the shared value of camaraderie and the expressed goal of hanging out with friends instead of individual loot potential.
- When Kenco’s Threat Meter was enrolled into the raiding activity, the source of trust shifted such that some players could use the meter to assess whether other players were playing their roles effectively. In other words, the way threat (and performance) became transparent meant that less weight was put on the social bonds and camaraderie between raid members. The distribution of work changed, changing the nature of trust.
- Ultimately, the raid suffered a meltdown as members started playing for different reasons. Their shared goal became fractured and the trust from how the work was distributed was not enough to overcome the lack of trust from disparate goals.
I’m not sure “trust” is the right word, but there you go: my dissertation in a relatively short bullet list. Feedback is more than welcome! :)
The full version is online in PDF (alternate link in case that one is broken) and videos of my defense are on YouTube.