Here’s some of what I’ve written on a new paper/chapter. Feedback would be lovely. I mean to showcase data from some of the various fights in WoW, what it was like before threat meter, what changed after the addon was introduced, and especially how we actually adopted it and then used it to diagnose the Rags fight (and discover that threat wasn’t the problem).
The Enrollment of a New Actor and the Redistribution of Responsibilities in a World of Warcraft Raid Group
In World of Warcraft, each individual actor in a raid group is in charge of certain tasks and responsibilities. At one point in the life of the raid group I studied, a new actor was allowed into the group. This newbie rendered new services to the rest of the group. The services rendered were essentially rating the actions of the others in the group—that is, assigning a specified number value to their actions—and then remembering who did what to add up the ratings from each particular player. This newbie, though, didn’t actually care one way or the other if these services were used by the others, but if another decided to use them and have his or her rating displayed, that player had to abide by new rules associated with these new services. The newbie wouldn’t verbally announce others’ rating. Instead, a sign was held up and players had to manually look over to read what their ratings were. In that way, the newbie not only served but also demanded, not only taking on the burdens assigned with this new role but also prescribing new responsibilities on the others. Yet others in the raid group, first slowly then readily, came to adopt the use of these new services into their practice as the services’ benefits became increasingly clear. The group came to consider the new tasks as essential parts of its raiding activity, and players could barely remember a time when the rating-remembering services were not used. The newbie became one of them—not a newbie but a veteran—and the group merrily went on its way. But this veteran wasn’t one of them. In fact, it wasn’t even human. It was a technological device, a program, a construct, an “addon” modification to the game.
(More after the break.)
This paper documents the enrollment of this nonhuman actor and its history within the raid group that I studied. The addon was instrumental in helping the raid group become efficient and successful with many in-game battles. Interestingly, the addon played only a temporary role in the raid group’s assessment of a specific encounter, the last monster, Ragnaros, in a fiery cave system known as Molten Core. It helped the group by testing and ruling out a possible diagnosis of the problems with the group’s strategy. After eliminating that possibility, its use was no longer necessary, since its original intended role never needed to be filled in the fight against Ragnaros.
This paper helps us see that, within a learning space or network, people and their material resources collectively share responsibilities, and the distribution of these roles and responsibilities change over time as new challenges are met and as new actors enter the network. This is a story, in other words, of how a network is disrupted by unexpected events and the redistribution work done by the network’s dynamic, adaptable actors to overcome those events.
Roles, responsibilities, and aggro
Each character in WoW fits into an archetypal role based off of historical precedent in the fantasy role-playing game and MMOG genres. In representation, characters are warriors, mages, priests, etc., but for the purposes of the underlying game mechanics, these various hero classes can be roughly categorized into a function-based triumvirate consisting of “tank,” “healer,” and “DPS.” Each of these categories has specific duties and responsibilities to carry in a raid battle. Tanks, with their plentiful health points and massive armor, must keep the monsters occupied and focused on them while healers continually spend mana or magic points, casting spells to make sure the tanks stay alive. DPS (shorthand for damage per second, a way of valuing damage dealers) can then go about actually killing the monsters.
Each category of roles in the triumvirate is therefore necessary to be filled for a raid group to be successful. Without tanks, the healers cannot possibly cast spells fast enough to keep whoever is being attacked alive, and the monsters will kill everyone rather quickly. Without healers, the tanks will die, and the monsters will, again, chain-kill everyone. Without DPS, the healers will eventually run out of mana, the tanks will die, and the monsters will ultimately kill everyone.
The problem is that a monster generally attacks whomever it deems is the most threatening to their survival. If a DPS hits a monster particularly hard or a healer heals too effectively, the monster may take notice and decide to hit back. Whoever has the monster’s attention is said to have “aggro,” and the monster switches targets when players “steal aggro” from others. Tanks can try to prevent this by activating various abilities meant to maintain aggro, while the DPS and healers try to keep their performance at an even, consistent, predictable level without spikes that would make the monster take notice. In other words, many of the encounters in WoW, and indeed most MMOGs, are a balancing game where the three roles of the triumvirate work to maximize their efficiency while keeping the tanks the focus of the monsters attention. The fights, therefore, are engineered by the game developers to test and destabilize the triumvirate.
So, each role in the triumvirate (tank, healer, DPS) has specific responsibilities in a fight. Yet healers and DPS cannot “go nuts” with their abilities, “spamming” their most powerful ability over and over again. Rather, they are constrained by the need to make sure the tanks maintained aggro.
These games must obey some sort of algorithm, and, in this case, the way in which a monster decides who to attack is completely reactionary to the actions of the raid members. The underlying “brain” of the game creates a table that includes a row for each raid member, and in each row is a number that starts off at zero and increases a certain amount every time that particular raider activates an ability. The amount depends on the ability. This number is called the threat level. One of the jobs of the raiders, then, is to make sure that the tank(s)’ threat level is higher than everyone else’s.
When the raid group I was part of first started, we each had to internalize our threat level and play it by ear, so to speak. There was no common resource or explicit knowledge of specific numbers associated with specific abilities. We knew from experience that some abilities generated more threat than others, and we had to weigh their costs against the benefits of the abilities. Very often, when a player died, it was because he or she stole aggro from the tank(s). That is, he or she misjudged how much threat was being generated and accidentally raised his or her threat to a higher level than the tank(s)’ threat level. If this happened enough times during an encounter, it usually ended up as a raid “wipe,” where everyone in the raid group died.