“I got a recording. I got a recording of this idiot.” A Scandinavian-accented voice declares over voice chat. “Can someone tell the people from [the other player’s guild] what he just did?”
That was the subject of a Reddit post giving a “daily reminder that Sharphealz is a ninja.” Instead of shuriken-wielding shadow warriors, “ninja” is here slang for a thief of valuable in-game items. The above video was taken from a private World of Warcaft (WoW) server, emulating the 2006 iteration of the popular online game, soon to be officially re-released by Blizzard as World of Warcraft Classic.
Yet, the bootleg version of the massively-multiplayer icon is a special beast beyond just game mechanics. Some of its core social dynamics serve as excellent – if accidental – microcosms of real-world phenomena.
These servers are third-party clones of proprietary software, and hence are of questionable legality. Taking advantage of spotty IP protections, most are hosted overseas – in Russia, for example. They are typically organized into non-profit “projects,” or amateur initiatives to create versions of the 2006 iteration of the game. Each private server project hosts at least a couple of “realms” or instances of the game world in which players can interact.
Most large private servers carry thousands of people, and tend to be radically weighted towards a single primary realm in population. Players from around the world fight, banter, organize and develop a virtual social system in their free time. It is a fairly close-knit group, but only lightly moderated by volunteer Game Masters. Players themselves must play a role in this community moderation if they wish to coexist productively.
The mixture of old-school WoW’s original quirks, private servers’ laissez-faire ethos, and their small but dense populations render them petri dishes for “natural” social experiments. At issue is how near-total strangers are able to make their own rules and institutions, and cooperate effectively and on the fly for common rewards.
Servers may have their share of delinquents – okay, a large share – but the anarchy is more orderly than you’d anticipate, given the difficulty of developer-side rule enforcement. In fact, the conditions that allow for unplanned cooperation among strangers are extremely important topics among the big debates in social sciences and public policy. Political scientist Mancur Olson identified problems in the real world in which individuals’ conflicting interests impede common goals as “collective action problems.” Concern with such dilemmas dates back to philosophers David Hume and Thomas Hobbes.
One of the largest and most consequential collective action problems is the “Player vs. Environment” (PvE) raiding scene in the game. Old-school WoW has several large “raid” dungeons pitting 20 and 40-player teams against powerful computer-controlled monsters. These encounters are typically the most difficult end-game challenges, but also the most rewarding. Not only is the loot found within among the best around, but “raid gear” confers a sort of prestige, and obviously, we all want to saunter around Ironforge with shinier stuff than the next guy.
So there’s huge incentive to raid, but you might have to spend often upwards of six hours in the crucible of high-end PvE with 39 other people, many of whom desperately want the same valuable stuff you do. They are also probably total strangers.
That’s basically what Blizzard left us with in 2004, and it sounds like a powderkeg of potential disputes over who deserves loot, or whom is at fault for getting everyone killed. Yet, players have overcome these challenges, using a variety of creative avenues.
With nobody officially in charge at the outset, leaders come out of the woodwork to direct these complex operations. Some raid leaders do it for the joy of accomplishing something difficult or for the bragging rights provided by a “server first” boss kill, while some experienced players may behave entrepreneurially by putting together raids for in-game money. In a scenario of mutual efforts but uncertain, scarce rewards, one of the first things that must emerge is a rule system. This is a de facto necessity – even “first-come-first-serve” is a rule system. Since the infancy of this gaming genre, enterprising players have invented various systems of their own, with no one system being “official.” It’s a marketplace of institutions in which players converge on the rulesets that that benefit them most.
Eventually, a few dominant systems rose from the massively-multiplayer gaming community. The iconic DKP system is a points-currency scheme, where players receive “Dragon Kill Points” for participating in raids, which they can save or spend in player-organized auctions for loot, whereas “gold-bid” systems use in-game currency (the proceeds of which often provide income for those “entrepreneurial” leaders).
Most raids, especially informal pick-up-groups, tend towards “Need Before Greed” (NBG) systems. Players can roll the virtual dice against each other for items their characters genuinely need for advancement, as opposed to items that are more of a luxury. Since what constitutes real need is frequently disputable, secondary rule systems dictating priority in cases of competing claims on a given item may crop up in NBG raids as well.
Sometimes new, influential raiders can introduce rule schemes. On one server, the status quo consisted mostly of Need Before Greed and auctions, but after a merge with another server, a large influx of experienced raiders became the new kids on the block. Having many successful dungeon runs under their belt, they imported the “Wishlist” system, in which each raider may reserve one item for themselves. If multiple players reserve the same item, they then roll the dice on it. The efficiency of this idea soon became obvious, and within a few weeks Wishlist (and the players that imported it) took over the raiding scene.
Joining a raid group is a significant investment, in time, effort and in-game resources. Players are putting a lot on the line, and expected rewards can be highly uncertain. Given this investment risk, players have sought out means to ensure not only the use of fair loot rules, but institutional mechanisms to make sure they can complete the dungeons regularly and smoothly. Hardcore raiders’ best tool for this is the game’s Guild system, offering built-in organizational features such as a common chat channel and active roster of members. A competent raiding guild offers members a chance to clear dungeons in an organized manner with skilled leadership, and to win items in a loot system that is reliable and fair.
Like “Sharphealz,” the ninja looter in the video, there is a strong incentive to abscond with others’ items, or to just coast on everyone else’s efforts in the heat of battle. To hedge against this behavior, guilds offer ingredients to reduce the likelihood of cheating: longevity and reliability, accountability, as well as simple bonds of friendship. Guilds frequently expel members who violate rules or behave boorishly, and a player without a guild is one at a big disadvantage. A player can get to know and care for their guildmates’ welfare, and everyday social interaction builds rapport between members. It’s tough enough to be kicked from a guild, tougher still to lose your in-game friends.
The accountability mechanisms within guilds rely heavily on reputation, much like within the broader game community. Since the vast majority of players are stuck on the same realm, and the community is fairly small, informal social sanctions provide punishment for rulebreaking. Sharphealz’ widely shared video provides documentation of his crimes, and it cemented the player’s reputation as a troublemaker for quite some time. It is not uncommon to hear public shaming in the game’s chatbox, marking various players as cheaters or slackers. A person with a bad reputation doesn’t get invited to groups – a big handicap in an inherently collaborative environment. Indeed, many hotly contest public accusations for this reason.
There are, of course, “troll” players who thrive on infamy. The original ninja looting video was recorded by the thief himself. Indeed, a side effect of this melting pot of a server is that although players may cooperate to achieve certain gameplay goals, large strains of animosity and angry flare-ups run through the community. Many raiding guilds keep “blacklists” of prohibited players for this reason, while others collapse from their own internal strife. Some particularly frustrating raid encounters are wryly dubbed “guild-breakers” for their propensity to spark conflict.
What is clear from the common problem of raid organization is that players can figure it out naturally, overcoming complex challenges of focus and coordination as a hobby. They jerry-rig institutions to provide accountability and avoid disputes, as well as to bring people together in the first place.
The power of community networks, anticipation of future opportunities, and high-value payoffs influences our behavior on Earth in myriad ways, and there is no reason why it would be otherwise on Azeroth.
Anne Hobson is a program manager at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Leo Plumer is an MA Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.