Play In Contested Spaces: Exploitation Vs. Empowerment In World Of Warcraft's Online Forums

886 words - 4 pages

Recently, research withing digital media learning and literacy literatures has shifted toward analyzing the productive practices in online communities "around" popular videogames (e.g., Steinkuehler and Author, 2008; Author and Gee, 2008; Author, in press; Squire and Giovanetto, 2008; Gee and Hayes, in press). However, the rhetoric of these studies has often focused on the positive, productive, and empowering perspectives of some fans/players in the "affinity spaces" (Gee, 2004) around games. In this paper, I argue for the importance of understanding learning and literacy within online communities around games by addressing the tension between the goals of media producers and fans' goals using tools within these communities. This tension is key, I argue, to understanding the potential of these spaces as valuable learning/literacy domains, as well as the making of meaning within online fan communities.

World of Warcraft has been the largest massively-multiplayer online game for over five years running, featuring more than 11.5 million concurrent subscriptions (, 2009). Focusing on discussions within the World of Warcraft official online forums (, I present analyses addressing how players have engaged with the game's lead designer (Dr. Greg Street, a former marine science academic who has been very active within the game's fan communities), and vice versa. Presenting the results of content analyses (Mayring, 2000) and Discourse analyses (Gee, 2006) on online forum text, I highlight a revealing debate between these parties regarding the use of a specific data-gathering tool ("SimulationCraft," an open-source tool used by players to gather data on game mechanics). In this exchange, we can see conflicting framings of player activity: Street argued for forums as a "feedback space" ("'What do we have to do to get you to make this change?' The answer is there is nothing you can do") while participants defended their data gathering and interpretive approaches with appeals to privileged extra-game activities ("The World of Warcraft really isn’t that much different from the 'World of Science'"). The Discourse analyses, in particular, uncovered how players and Street differentially framed gaming practices, tool use around the game, the value of scientific epistemological stances in the process of design, and the ownership of fan community products.

Given a recent spike in participation within these online forums, I argue that these debates were a motivating factor for participation within World of Warcraft's online communities and constitute a legitimate form of extra-game play that gives participants the illusion of potential consequence for their activities. I forward a reconsideration of the struggle between exploitation and empowerment within these forums, viewing them as "contested spaces," stretching Jenkins and Squire's (2002) term for understanding in-game spaces into the online community...

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