Hordes of people spend countless hours creating detailed strategies, online resources, and video tutorials. An alliance of like-minded individuals discuss data, learning how to optimise situations from wildly varied minutiae. Statistics are analysed, theories crafted, support networks activated, reflective debriefs held, and cross-functional teams brought together from across the globe to pursue shared goals. While this may sound like the mechanics of a high performing business or organisation, it’s from a different world altogether – Azeroth, the fictional lands in Blizzard Entertainment’s massively popular, massive multiplayer online role play game, World of Warcraft (Version 6.1, Blizzard Entertainment). World of Warcraft (in its most recent expansion, Warlords of Draenor) constitutes a vibrant knowledge ecosystem (Seely Brown, 2010), growing in and around itself participant driven knowledge networks where information is generated, dispersed, and analysed. Information production is collaborative, not the property of a single person and participants navigate in and out of the game, over multiple media modes, generating group and personal data; both creating and consuming. Through an examination of the information flow both inside and outside the game, this case-study aims to provoke thinking about the nature of information behaviour in our connected times, the literacies needed to successfully navigate these currents, and the role digital games could play as contexts for learning them.
Three layers of knowledge creation and information flow are identified in this examination of World of Warcraft: virtual communities outside of the game, in-game guilds (groups of likeminded players), and self-monitoring via interface addons. The examples of information behaviour described in this case study come from the personal experience of the author as a participant in World of Warcraft, with interactions ranging from casual to ‘hardcore raiding’, over six years, from the Burning Crusade expansion to its current iteration, Warlords of Draenor.
Layer 1 – Virtual Communities Outside of the Game
World of Warcraft is incredibly complex. To organise and make sense of this multitude of information, a thriving network of sites, forums and wikis have formed (Schrader & Lawless, 2010, p9). This runs in parallel with wider societal shifts towards a more participant driven knowledge society, underpinned by enabling technologies (Web 2.0 platforms and social media) and highlighted by key worldwide collaborative projects such as Wikipedia (Pfister, 2011; Conole, 2012). As the real world has begun to see the benefits of connecting – the amplification of knowledge and exponential learning possible (Siemens, 2005; Surowiecki, 2004; Conole, 2012), so to has the World of Warcraft. Virtual communities where ideas and data are disseminated such as Wowpedia, Wowwiki, the official Blizzard forums, Wowhead, and MMO-Champion, offer a plethora of user-generated data (Conole, 2012). As of 2010, Wowwiki had 80,000 pages and 4 to 5 million pageviews a month – half of the World of Warcraft gaming population (Flavelle, 2010). As World of Warcraft is in a constant state of patch tweaking and content release, editable sites like wikis are important tools to grapple with the contingent nature of the associated knowledge (Carrington, 2009; Coulter, 2014). Wikis are able to respond quickly to nerfs and buffs and content evolution, keeping their information relevant. Even in public forums, where information exchange and collaboration can often descend into “flame wars” or “trolling”, Steinkuehler and Duncan have found that the vast majority (86%) of the posts and discussions in these contexts are “social knowledge construction rather than social banter” (2008, p530). For example, a World of Warcraft based subgroup on Reddit host weekly forum discussions (Tanking Tuesdays, Midweek Mending, Firepower Friday) where high-performing players drop in to offer technical assistance and advice. The collaborative knowledge construction within these virtual spaces creates valuable networks of information for World of Warcraft players – both experienced and newbie alike (Chiu, Hsu & Wang, 2006).
Of particular note are detailed and complex theorycrafting sites; theroycrafting being “the attempt to mathematically analyze game mechanics in order to gain a better understanding of the inner workings of the game” (Theorycraft, 2015, “Definition” para. 1). Elitist Jerks, Icy Veins, and a multitude of class specific blogs offer opportunities to engage in theorycrafting. What makes these virtual communities of particular interest is they require empirical and quantitative data to support complex arguments, in much the same way academic papers do (Steinkuehler & Duncan, 2008, p531). The theorycrafting community has its own set of checks and balances in order to maintain information validity – a requirement not particularly seen amidst more socially influenced networks of knowledge (Lorenz et al., 2011).
Information is both sought and communicated over other media types, particularly video, as well. As Schrader and Lawless posit – information creation and consumption is increasingly multimodal, and gamers have the opportunity to author, consume, and exchange these multimodal resources (2010, p206). Youtube is the host of numerous video tutorials, guides, and commentaries, while Twitch.tv offers the opportunity to watch streamed, live gameplay. This is often of considerable benefit for players, as World of Warcraft relies on spatial, aural, and visual awareness (positioning, the enemy’s abilities, environmental details) to defeat the most difficult enemies, as well as maps and locations of different NPCs or structures being essential to navigation. Podcasts, such as The Instance Podcast, offer other avenues with which to access game information and news. The rise of these multimodal layers have instigated a change in the way we read and access information; much of the high-end knowledge which was once communicated via the written word is now being “offloaded” to graphical and video media (Beetham & Oliver, 2010, p160). Digital games are a significant player in this expanding information environment.
Layer 2 – In Game Guilds
A guild is “an in-game association of player characters” (Guild, 2015, para. 1) who have banded together to access harder content, assist with gameplay, learn from each other, and as a social layer through gameplay (Curry, 2010). John Seely Brown has likened guilds to personal learning networks, where groups act as knowledge-refining communities, curating the torrent of information available, making it manageable, and working together on shared goals (2010). In this respect, guilds can be positioned as communities of practise – groups of people with a goal to extend understandings in a particular knowledge domain (Wenger, 1998). In many cases, guilds are stronger and more permanent than what Gee terms an “affinity space” (2005) as they entail a certain belongingness and membership; social interactions are frequent and significant, and bonds of friendship can grow from working together in shared endeavours (Curry, 2010, p251; Anderson, 2010, p66). Guilds communicate in-game via a chat panel, which shows when a “guildy” logins in, and a social panel which lets you know who is online or when they last logged in, their location, and what level they are (Schrader, 2010, p210). Guild chat is generally bubbly, with greetings, discussion (both on topic and off), and public congratulations of achievement. Typically, guilds are organised around a hierarchical rank system where a Guild Master has overall leadership responsibility, a small number of second-in-command deputies, a roster of raiders, and then a social rank for non-raiders (Anderson, 2010, p66).
Guilds offer a powerful means of information flow, particularly in terms of mentorship and feedback. Novice players have direct lines of communication to more experienced players and can learn directly through tutelage, as a part of guild-formed groups, and incidentally as conversations take place around them (Curry, 2010, p251). With the release of Mists of Pandaria, World of Warcraft’s fourth expansion in 2012, Blizzard introduced the Guild Mentoring Program which sought to leverage this aspect and support new and returning players to Azeroth. Guilds offer a supported way for characters to develop skills and tacit knowledge, flowing from raid teams, into the wider guild, then into guild created websites and discussion forums (Nymann, 2011, p3). Guilds benefit from distributed, collective intelligence, which constitutes a significant part of the gaming experience for many players (Voulgari & Komis, 2011, p375). This increased opportunity for peer and tutor dialogue being a positive, impactful characteristic of new communication technologies (Conole, 2012, p55).
In addition, high-performing guilds generate data from their raids and take part in after action reviews, parsing raid data called “logs”. This adds to the information picture groups have available, inserting detailed, specific data sets into the usable knowledge economy. It allows guilds and raid groups to learn and practise together and test ideas, then reflect on and critique the actions they took in order to improve (Seely Brown, 2010). These logs can then be uploaded to analysis websites such as World of Logs in order to disseminate winning strategies, raid compositions, and spell rotations throughout the wider World of Warcraft community.
Layer 3 – Interface Addons
Blizzard Entertainment allows players to develop and install third-party interface customisations called addons. Addons run the gamut from full user-interface (UI) replacements, such as EluvUI, to changing certain colours or moving certain items, to displaying, adding and modifying information functionality. The use of addons constitute information seeking behaviour for players wanting to find out more about their role, their impact, and the world around them. What is interesting here is that many World of Warcraft players actually make their user interfaces less realistic in order to gain more information about the world around them (Golub, 2010). Golub calls this “decomposing” the virtual world in order to create useful forms of information in the service of goal attainment (2010, p19). Information generation is so integral to the success of an in game endeavour, that players are willing to forgo much of the rich visual and aural world of Azeroth that Blizzard developers and artists have designed (Chen, 2009).
Of particular note is the popular addon Recount, with over 68 million total downloads since its creation in 2007 by author, Cryect. Recount is a graphical damage meter, which takes data from the in-game combat log (a record of exact damage and healing points in any given time period where actions are taken) and provides tables and graphs for the player to interpret. The visual information is rendered in real time, so a player can see their damage or healing output mid-fight, or available for analysis afterwards. The data which becomes accessible can be filtered down to a very fine level – uptime of particular debuffs, percentage of shadow-damage, overhealing, raw damage versus damage per second for example. This information is used in a number of ways. Typically, the damage per second (DPS) meters are used to determine the most effect DPS character, and as Recount data can be directly posted into group chat channels, a bragging mechanism to show who was “on top” in certain events. Prax calls damage meters “social actors” which can change the culture of a game, becoming a huge motivational force as players compete for position (2012, p5). Raid and group leaders can also use generated information to determine raid composition and as evidential data for choosing certain players over others, and as feedforward for future raid attempts. This ability to audit yourself and your groups is a marker of an information literate individual (Webber, 2014).
Data generation and analysis in World of Warcraft is an example of a wider trend towards the importance of computational thinking as a key element in information behaviour – being able to abstract, and filter the information you need from the information you don’t (Wing, 2008, p3718). Computational thinking “entails logical analysis and organization of data; modeling, abstractions, and simulations; and identifying, testing, and implementing possible solutions” (Johnson et al., 2014, p24). Computational thinking within World of Warcraft can also be framed as problem solving – being able to analyse a situation, implement a possible solution, and gauge its effectiveness (Barr, Harrison & Conery, 2011). In a world littered with information, being able to harness the right data and use it in creative ways is a critical skill – one an effective World of Warcraft player leverages constantly.
Through examining the information behaviours evident within World of Warcraft, it is clear there is more at play here than meets the eye. There exists a rich tapestry of information flow, from the minute vagaries of individual data collection, through guild-based learning and mentorship, to wikis, Youtube channels and podcasts. This raises some key questions regarding information literacy, and the role digital games may have to play as rich contexts for developing these skills.
The impact of virtual communities is becoming increasingly pervasive and proliferating through many of our traditional sectors – business, education, health, and technology – over social and economic activities (Chiu, Hsu & Wang, 2006, p1872). There is a disconnect here between the types of literacies that were once important, those of print literacy and the moral code surrounding it, and what literacies are needed for effective participation in the new, collaborative knowledge paradigm (Carrington, 2009, p. 68; Gunnels & Sisson, 2009). Many educators are still attempting to teach students as though they live in an individual vaccum, thinking and working and learning alone (Curry, 2010, p253), whereas what is required are deliberate and comprehensive strategies to help grow the information literacy of students; finding and validating appropriate resources (Conole, 2012, p55), social negotiation skills (Jenkins, 2009, p14), sharing, reusing and remixing (Bruce, Hughes & Sommerville, 2012, p. 47; Bruns, 2008), and computational thinking (Wing, 2008). Traditional, formal learning has been slow to take up this challenge and not coping particularly well (Thomas & Brown, 2011) whereas the informal networks students participate in outside of school are in a real position of becoming the most relevant forms of learning many of these students experience.
The rise of this participatory culture is not without its issues, however. Wing notes scientific and technical challenges in terms of identity, anonymity, and accountability, while Conole considers security and privacy as barriers towards more mainstream educational uptake (Wing, 2008, p3724; Conole, 2012, p51). With a torrent of user-generated knowledge being pulled together online, inaccuracies and misinformation can propagate quickly (Fetzer, 2004). This makes information literacy an essential element in education; to be critical and careful around information usage, to evaluate the usefulness of information, and to foster a “healthy skepticism” (Jenkins, 2009, p. 81).
Digital games are contexts where much of this learning can be enacted; the situated learning which occurs when a new piece of knowledge, a data set, or an information seeking strategy is successfully employed within a meaningful context, creating powerful, effective learning (Gee, 2005, p36; Van Eck, 2006, p18). Digital games offer a way to enact understanding immediately – the proximity of learning to relevance is close. Games based learning therefore, could be a context within which educators can begin to pursue information literacy, as teachable moments can be crafted around information evaluation and retrieval, multimodal sources, collaborative authoring, and teamwork, and then enacted in game – the teachable moment having direct relevance. Pre, during, and post game reflective sessions could be held, where students discuss the information behaviour enacted, and strategies and tools highlighted which were helpful in the process (Van Eck, 2006, p22). The WoW In School project currently offers a curriculum document “for exploring Writing/Literacy, Mathematics, Digital Citizenship, and Online Safety” which has numerous avenues of investigation for educators wishing to leverage the unique information biosphere which encompasses World of Warcraft.
This case-study has aimed to provoke thinking regarding the complex nature of information behaviour within World of Warcraft, and how this environment could be leveraged in the development of information literacy. As the world becomes more flooded with information, having the literacies to successfully navigate these waters is becoming increasingly essential. World of Warcraft, with its rich, all-encompassing knowledge economy, offers a unique context in which to study, practise, and enact these literacies.
Youtube Video One: “John Seely Brown: The Knowledge Economy of World of Warcraft” by Ecorner via Youtube Terms of Service
All other images taken by author.