Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of an Expert Player Group in World of Warcraft
by Mark Chen
Mark Chen’s book is an ethnographic study of a World of Warcraft raid group in Vanilla WoW (the term used for the original game before any expansion packs were added.) He discusses his introduction to the game and 8 month immersion process before joining a raid group and documenting the 40-person raid group that met up each week (1-3 times) to “raid” the dungeon Molten Core over a period of 10 months—October 2005-July 2006. Chen’s chosen OoS seems to be the specific players as much as it is the game.
Chen’s particular focus seems to be on expertise acquired through gaming and how that can be seen as a type of literacy. He also focuses on issues of communication and chat norms within the game, cooperative strategy, coordination, and camaraderie (I think he likes alliteration).
The book tackles issues such as level grinding and gear acquisition for being “raid ready,” how strategies for boss fights were put together and executed, division of labor within the group, dealing with failure (which is pretty much continuous wipe fests in WoW raiding– meaning you die over and over again as you try to work out what the team is doing wrong), and social dilemmas such as deciding who in the raid gets rare loot that bosses drop after defeat. He also goes into more detail about the specific group members and their roles and responsibilities, schedule and raid roster changes, and the drama of the meltdown that led to the dissolution of the raid group.
He also breaks up the larger chapters by focusing on specific instances within the game that he experienced outside of raiding in order to elaborate on the larger community and virtual world. He discusses questing, chat norms, roleplaying, player theorycrafting about in-game items and encounters, and his own tension between being a researcher and player.
One of my particular favorite sections of the book is the interlude section that is only a few pages long called “Chat Norms.” Chen describes coming across another player while questing. He starts a conversation with the other player and feels frustrated when the player responds in short and curt replies and later doesn’t respond to his messages. He tries to offer advice to the player for finding a quest item and whispers (private message) the player to see if it worked out. The player doesn’t respond.
Chen’s way of trying to explain this is almost funny to me. He tries to figure out what may have been going on with the player– maybe he had a bad day, maybe he was busy doing something else– that must be why he is acting in this particular way. This other guy just doesn’t get it. He writes, “At the time I felt slightly jilted…The more I think about this, though, the more I am willing to believe he just did not have time to talk to me or he just did not understand the situation’s social norms” (52).
Or Mark, he just didn’t want to talk to you. This sounds maybe a little mean, but I’m talking from experience as a player of WoW. While I didn’t play in Vanilla, I did play in the following expansion pack. Despite the fact that WoW is a multiplayer game, a lot of people DO NOT play for the social aspect, or at least they don’t all the time. And I don’t think that’s actually out of the norm, despite what Mark’s sense seems to be. Through my own research, I’ve talked with players who enjoy playing solo and primarily leveling alternate characters through questing. Actually, I enjoy doing that a lot too. While I enjoy raiding on my main character and I know a lot of people that I talk to through my friendships running dungeons, raiding, and being in my guild, I often also like to play by myself. In fact, women that I’ve interviewed before, while acknowledging that they have many friends within the game and enjoy socializing, did mention that they rarely talk to players they don’t know through general chat channels.
I spent a lot of time specifically looking at Chen’s methodology section. One of the things that struck me was the time frame for his work. He writes, “During the time of data collection for this project, WoW had a level cap of 60, which means that characters started out at level one and could only advance to level 60, at which point no more XP could be gained. (The level cap at the time of writing this is now 85)” (11).
WoW release (Lv. 60 cap): Nov. 2004
Chen’s Raiding Group: October 2005-July 2006
Burning Crusade release (Lv. 70 cap): Jan. 2007
Wrath of the Lich King release (Lv. 80 cap): Nov. 2008
Cataclysm release (Lv. 85 cap): Dec. 2010 – Chen says his data is being put together in writing.
Mists of Pandaria release (Lv. 90 cap): Sept. 2012 – Chen’s data is published.
Warlords of Draenor release (current content; Lv. 100 cap): Nov. 2014.
I’m well aware that ethnography takes a long time. I’m aware it takes a long time to begin working with the data. But 5-6 years in the writing? By the time Cataclysm had come and was wrapping up, the game was incredibly different than it was in Vanilla WoW. The quest zones for low level players weren’t even the same–they were redone in Cata. I began playing WoW in 2007, a few months after the release of Burning Crusade. For starters, Chen is discussing a 40 man raid group. 40 mans ended when Burning Crusade came out for current content. Instead, 25 man raids became more common, with also a 10 man raid being available. As the game has progressed, 10 and 25 have both become staples as the raid size.
I don’t necessarily have a problem with it still being published. The research is still useful. But this huge shift in the structure even specifically of what he was dealing with in his research (raiding), let alone the rest of the game and the significant changes that were made to overall gameplay, weren’t really discussed at all, despite the fact he was putting the work together 5-6 years later (some games don’t even last that long). It just seemed like a major oversight to me that would probably do a bit of a disservice to other researchers interested in taking something like this on without realizing how much a game can change in a few years time.
Blizzard Entertainment. World of Warcraft. Activision Blizzard, 2004-2015. Online.
Chen, Mark. Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of an Expert Player Group in World of Warcraft. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. Print.