World of Warcraft is a massive multiplayer online role playing game created by Activision Blizzard. The game was initially released in 2004. The game has continued has continued to operate as a pay to play subscription game now for over a decade retaining over millions of players. This semester I’ve primarily focused on the user interface of WoW, focusing both on the default user interface that players use upon opening the game for play the first time as well as the use of add ons also known as mods, or community created interface modications that players create in order to meet certain needs for play that the default interface does not provide. Blizzard has even taken this into consideration as it has modified the default UI several times over the course of the game, often implementing modification ideas that users had created in order to make the default UI a better experience for the player.

I chose WoW was my OoS this semester because my focus in English studies is partially focused in Game Studies. WoW’s long life allowed me to see changes that have taken place within the user interface over a period of time, as well as allowed me to consider the UI that has become a convention for MMOS–considering the ways that games may adopt or deviate design elements from the WoW UI and how that affects the way players respond to the UI.  My familiarity with the game also allowed me to bring knowledge of the UI without having to do extensive research that wouldn’t have been possible to complete this semester with someone unfamiliar with the game.

Game Studies, while interdisciplinary, has a lot of scholars that work in Game Studies that are housed in the English department. Game Studies also intersects with several larger areas of English Studies including Rhetoric and Composition, which is where I come at this OoS from. Discussing UI, design, and the tracing of associations that players make as they play is of particular interest to rhetoric, with a strong emphasis in visual rhetoric. These intersections open up the potential of considering the visual rhetoric and how we read games within English Studies–considering not only critically reading narrative elements, but procedural rhetoric, visual rhetoric, as well as considering the production of texts (in this case modifications and the documents that accompany them) by players and the labor of game creation that players take on in addition to their play.

My goal in this synthesis is to begin discussing several theories, or a frankentheory that could be used to discuss user interface design, visual rhetoric, and how players make sense of and read the game they are playing. In order to do that, I’ll be pulling from three theories that we looked at this semester– Actor Network Theory, Hyptertext, and Norman’s Perceived Affordances and Contraints.  Case Study #2 and #3 in particular helped me to make connections between these three theories and the ways in which these theories allow (and don’t allow) me to look at the game through certain lenses.  Ultimately, it seems necessary that these three theories work together in order to have a better understanding of how players navigate the game space based on the UI experience and their own associations and way of reading the game.

Theoretical Framework

The main theory that I am working from is Latour’s Actor Network Theory. Latour calls for a sociology of associations, which is focusing the tracing of associations, or “social does not designate a thing among other things, like a black sheep among other white sheep, but a type of connection between things that are not themselves social” (5, emphasis his).

One of Latour’s focuses is on trying to make researchers aware that the experiences of the actors and how the actor should be able to have a role in describing the action taking place; to trace the associations themselves. It privileges these narratives, encouraging actors to have an active role in how their narratives and their own thought process of connections should be viewed. Latour points out that it is actually a drawback for sociologists (or researchers of any kind, really) to just assume that they know more than the actors (participants). I could see how actor-network theory could draw from narratives for the purpose of studying these traces.

Since Actor Network Theory encourages actors to narrate the social associations, or the agency taking place, I think it would be very beneficial to actually have actors (players) in the network discuss how they interact with the interface because it may provide insights that the researcher may have overlooked. So it would allow the researcher to trace associations between the actor and the interface. Especially when actors may modify the interface in a game like World of Warcraft by creating their own interface add-on or using a community made one, rather than the default one in the game. Coupled with a think aloud protocol and eye tracking software, and I’m thinking about the video Dan made with the eye tracking software of him playing World of Warcraft, a researcher could have several sources of data for an actor network theory reading of someone’s play session.

For instance, I looked into several different user interfaces used by various players of WoW, that I included previously in reading notes. The following tiled image can be clicked and viewed individually with captions.

However, Actor Network theory doesn’t necessarily provide me with the language to talk about the tech or design issues within the network, such was when describing the user interface, which I think are necessary in order to look at this part of the OoS and to do the kind of research to have a critical understanding of the visual rhetoric at work here. This gap in language is why I chose Hyptext and Norman’s Affordances and Constraints piece to help fill in these gaps.

Hypertext allows me to begin to fill in some gaps, particularly when it comes to tracing the agency or movement within the network of an actor’s play session. Also multiple discussions of hypertext could potentially be used here, I think that Joyce in particular allows me to fill in this gap while also complimenting actor network theory and it’s privileging the narratives of the actors. Joyce feels that one of the possibilities for hypertext lies in the ability of the reader to become the author in some ways. He writes, “Hypertext readers not only choose the order of what they read but, in doing so, also alter its form by their choices” (19). Ultimately the author holds the ability to decide what to read and in what order, which alters the message of the text. While I don’t think he was originally considering the reading the hypertext of an interface of a game, I think his point here fits better within a game system than a typical text, even an online text that follows typical written conventions. The interface hypertext communicates player choices to the game and the game responds based on the player’s choices. It acts as a much less linear space than typical online texts like web articles that tend to mimic traditional print media.

This seems particularly useful when considering that players will likely encounter a different narrative based on the choices they make in the game–even from the onset of clicking “Play” in the Battlenet requires players to make decisions such as the server to join, the faction to join, and then the race and class of their player. A player is likely going to experience the exact same starting zone in terms of code differently playing a Troll mage on the Dalaran server than on the Cho’gall server for instance–And this only considers the server alone. The server type changes the social exchanges that people may experience, whether they will receive guild invites right away, how many people will be talking in chat, etc. Players may also be more interested in gear rather than reading quest text, or the opposite could be true. Maybe one player tends to play through trial and error while another player clicks and reads through tool tips. Hypertext provides a way to think about the way that players interact with/read the same code differently and how their “reading” paths diverge and line up.

Looking back at my ANT/Hypertext analysis in Case Study 2, when I considered my ANT reading of the ways that I read the hypertext when planning to do a pet battle, I have a pretty specific organization strategy that I use when I plan to do pet battles.

Typical interface I use when pet battling in WoW

I gave a step by step discussion of my typical actions before engaging a baby spectral spider in pet combat. While I gave a step-by-step ANT reading, paying special attention to the ways that Hypertext functioned in that reading, I think if I watched a video of eye tracking or even click tracking of when I play, there may be pieces that I missed. The tracking of the hyperlinks clicked would allow me to have a path for reading my play session. Tracking that would also be useful in addition to think aloud protocols, because some of the clicking becomes so routine and ingrained in the player after extensive time has been spent in the game that it may be something the player doesn’t even register as taking place, or it becomes so normal to them, they don’t consider the thought process behind doing it unless it is pointed out. Ultimately, the hypertext in games like WoW allow us to see the different path that players may take in reading the text–unlike a typical article for instance that is typically read from top to bottom, left to right (obviously, people can scan, skim, look at headings only) and this is typical. It would be interesting to see if games are typically read the same way, even initially, or if the reading path is vastly different depending on the player.

So while Hypertext does allow me to have the language to talk about that reading path, it’s only because it fits in with actor network theory when considering a video game that it works–Hypertext on its own isn’t enough to do this. The tracing of associations, particularly with attention to how the actor narrates that tracing using actor network theory, is necessary to actually gather useful information using hypertext about how games are read. While Hypertext begins to allow me to have the language to discuss issues like this, it doesn’t necessarily take into account design elements, both as perceived by developers and by players (this last part is key, since it works directly into the actor network theory).

Don Norman’s Affordances and Design, particularly his discussion about perceived affordances is useful when thinking about World of Warcraft‘s interface and about the customizability of that interface. I think talking from Norman’s work also allows me to discuss the ways in which WoW’s commercial success and domination of the MMO market for over a decade allowed them to make design choices that are now seen as the norm among MMOs and other MMOs are often expected to conform in certain design ways or risk players becoming frustrated with the user interface and experience.

Norman’s Affordances and Design allows the OoS to be looked at as both a whole or in pieces, depending on what aspects of design the researcher is interested in looking at. In this case, it would depend on how users discuss the design in their think aloud protocols or during interviews where a researcher is tracing their use of the user interface. In using Norman’s affordances and constraints in terms of design, players, or users are the those privileged with agency in the network. He writes, “for in design, we care much more about what the user perceives than what is actually true” (1). We rely on conventions that users are familiar with, as well on the individual users’ perception of the design to make decisions about layout. This is certainly the case in World of Warcraft, in a number of ways. One of WoW‘s interface design has become a cultural constraint for other MMOs because the interface design has become a convention among MMOs, due to when the game began (over 10 years ago now) will a large following. Many MMOs have tried different kinds of interfaces or battle systems and have been met with critique, usually comparing that MMO to WoW. There are expectations of the MMO interface that fit solidly within WoW’s interface design style. While there are constraints involved here, it is one that Blizzard placed upon itself, but left loopholes for additional changes for its own interface. They have used player innovation to allow them to make small changes over time without disrupting player experience. The interface has not remained static for a decade. Rather, WoW developers have turned to addons and the features that addons give to the interface to help them figure out how to adjust their interface in order to provide a better user experience for their players.

The relationships between nodes using Norman’s affordances and designs theory is mediated through the player and the types and directions of the relationships between the nodes depend on the play style of the player, as well as through how the player has modified or chosen not to modify the user interface. While developers provide the interface, it is vast enough that two players doing a similar activity will interact with the nodes in very different ways. To be able to confirm this, I’d likely need to do more research. I thought particularly of the work Dan and Alex are doing with the eye tracking software, especially Dan’s recent video of him playing WoW. Think aloud protocols would also be helpful here, to determine how players are navigating the interface and how their intentions move through the network between nodes, specifically in regard to how their avatar moves through the network between the nodes.Norman’s discussion of “perceived” affordances is particularly useful when thinking about World of Warcraft’s interface because the affordances can be different depending on the player, which is important for design purposes, but also in terms of tracing the network and the associations. Players likely navigate the interface as well as use modifications based on their perceived affordances of the interface, or what they believe the interface allows them to do.

For example, a perceived affordance of WoW’s interface may be that it is customizable. This allows players to change design elements in order to make their user experience better depending on their individual needs. The interface provides an array of information about the avatar so that the player can interact with the game, and the customization allows the player to receive this information in preferred ways. Being able to understand the perceived affordances that the player sees when working with them through think aloud protocols for instance, may provide us with insight of where players see these affordances, as well as the constraints. This information would probably be particularly useful when considering things from a visual rhetoric perspective.

Why Bring ANT/Hyptertext/Affordances and Design Together?

I ended up coming to the conclusion that these three theories would mesh well together into the Frankentheory as I worked through looking at my OoS in terms of user interface, especially when working through the second half of the semester. Writing Case studies 2 and 3 solidified this in my mind. For me, looking at interface design and user experience is a new OoS, something I was interested in, but wasn’t entirely sure how to approach. As I’ve been piecing things together this semester, one of the themes of all three of these theories is the emphasis placed on the user/player/actor/reader. I think it is this central connection that allows these theories to work so well in tandem.

I imagine the research questions being something along these lines:

  1. How do players narrate their own experiences with the user interface?
  2. How do players perceive design and how does it affect their choices in a game?
  3. How do players navigate the user interface network and how is their perceived navigation different from the navigation in terms of moving from node to node via hyperlinks?

While these research questions would be of particular interest to me specifically looking at World of Warcraft, I think these questions could be applied to multiple types of games, including over MMOs. I also think that researchers interested primarily in user experience in regard to the customization of interfaces might benefit from the use of these theories together too.

Using the theoretical framework of the ANT/Hypertext/Affordances & Design frankentheory would be useful in addressing these questions. I specifically considered a study that used eye tracking software/click tracking software while research participants played World of Warcraft. Using interviews and think aloud protocols would be a key component to the study, which would mean that the user/player would be a central part of the analysis. While I discussed this briefly above, each of the parts of this frankentheory prioritize the user/player. In ANT, Latour spends time discussing how important it is for an actor to be given the ability to narrate the tracings and that their point of view is important for the researcher to consider in their analysis. Since the theory I’m proposing, while a frankentheory, is very focused as an ANT reading, interviews and think aloud protocols are necessary so that the player has a voice in narrating their play–discussion their intentions and logic for the choices they are making. It also provides insight that the tracking software pay potentially miss since the researcher may be more likely to come to conclusions based on their own experiences and logic, rather than that of the participants.

Joyce and Norman work their way in mostly in terms of their vocabulary, as well as conceptualizing of technology and design and the impact those have on how a player reads a game differently than a traditional text. Joyce discusses the potential of hypertext because readers not only choose their own path of reading when using hypertext, but these choices impact alter the form of the game in this case. The reader/player focus of this fits closely into analysis of gameplay, because the play style and activities of the player ultimately form the game for that particular player–it creates a reading that could be potentially different from another player’s.

Norman’s perceived affordances focuses on the user/player because the use of perceived means that the reading of the design elements will be different among players, that there are an infinite amount of affordances and different players/users will notice different affordances.

It is this central point where all of these theories mesh for me– providing adequate tracing of connections with vocabulary that tackles several aspects of the UI and how players read the game (including the design). Norman and Joyce account for issues of design and tech that may not be seen as easily in ANT without them, especially when doing an ANT reading of a video game.

What the Theory Brings to English

I think the proposed theory is particularly useful in the subfield of Game Studies under the umbrella of English Studies. It provides a way of looking at the game beyond simply analyzing only the main narrative of the story presented by developers, or focusing entirely on narratology. Also, since the frankentheory is interested in participants’ readings of the games, it isn’t entirely invested in the other extreme of ludology either. Rather, it seems value in both what the game presents, as well as the various ways that users/players/readers navigate the game and considers several elements including design, game mechanics and user interface, as well as individual play styles and perceptions.

I think that this Frankentheory brings something to English Studies because it provides a way of looking not just at games (which scholars in English are interested in!) but also ways of looking at multimodal texts that are very interested in visual rhetoric and how users/players/readers “read” and navigate these kinds of texts, bringing in vocabulary that covers hypertext and design. It also lines up nicely with usability studies within the digital humanities, connecting to another area of English Studies. Having the ability to move across the discipline is useful and provides opportunity for bridging work between subfields.

Also, since the frankentheory centers on the user/player/reader experience and values the voice of the participant in the research process, the theory fits in with larger conversations within digital writing research about ethics, including seeing the value in participants acting as participants (and the researcher being able to use participant language). Perhaps this is where I see a lot of potential for this frankentheory, as I see it blending technology work with the humanities, rather than separating the two.

Works Cited

Blizzard Entertainment. World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor. Activision Blizzard, 2012. Online Video Game.

Joyce, Michael. Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann Arbor: U of MI P, 1995. PDF. Class Google Drive.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social. Hampshire: Oxford University Press (2007). Print.

Norman, Don. “Affordances and Design.” 1-6. Web. Class Google Drive.