What can you own in World of Warcraft (WoW)? Ostensibly, everything: swords, shields, leather boots, witches’ hats, wedding dresses, romance novels, ice-enchanted mithril battleaxes, flutes which are also flamethrowers, gold-embroidered sombrero hats, motorcycles, helicopters, shrinking rays, grenade launchers, pet rocks, and dragons. Yet all of this can vanish in a heartbeat if Blizzard wants it to.
Few countries have clear laws about virtual property, and Blizzard’s End User Licence Agreement is clear: it and it alone owns the consumerist tat which floods its auction houses and which the player merely rents. Criminal courts have sometimes treated virtual goods as property for the purposes of inter-player theft, but this is not the same as upholding players’ ownership against the corporation. Developers sued by players have tended to settle out of court in order to avoid setting precedents.
- Blizzard is the owner or licensee of all right, title, and interest in and to the Battle.net Client, Battle.net, the Games, Accounts, and all of the features and components thereof… The following components of Battle.net and/or the Games, are owned or licensed by Blizzard:
- All virtual content appearing within Battle.net or the Games, such as:
- Visual Components: Locations, artwork, structural or landscape designs, animations, and audio-visual effects;
- Narrations: Themes, concepts, stories, and storylines;
- Characters: The names, likenesses, inventories, and catch phrases of Game characters;
- Items: Virtual goods, currency, potions, wearable items, pets, mounts, etc.;
- All data and communications generated by, or occurring through, Battle.net or the Games…
The same rules broadly apply to avatars, accounts, and, in most countries, even the game itself (though EU law gives users an ambiguous right of resale). But there is another kind of ownership which is distinct from the type enshrined by property law and backed by state violence. It’s the kind that supporters of a British football team might claim for their lads regardless of which plutocrat’s name is on the deed. Truculent sportswear baron Mike Ashley is the legal owner of Newcastle FC, but its fans will always say that by blood, love, and history, it is theirs.
From early 2006 until 2014, I spent a lot of time roleplaying in World of Warcraft. Inside its fictional world I ran a newspaper, staged a failed revolution, practised medicine, and fought a guerrilla war. Outside it, I also helped edit my server’s lore wiki and wrote policy documents for in-game law enforcement guilds. The law book used today by the Stormwind Guards is a much-modified version of the one I wrote for them. Still, in all these years, I never found a perfect way to determine ownership.
A citizen shall be guilty of ‘Trespass’, if
- he steps upon the land belonging to another, or any part of that land; and
- knowing that the land belongs to another, is without permission of the owner; or
- while upon such land, and upon or after being made aware that he is unwelcome, does not leave with all reasonable swiftness.
Roleplaying in WoW means playing your character as if they were a real person. That means treating their actions, words and backstories as ‘really existing’, while ignoring or disregarding the inconvenient fact that they exist inside a videogame. That which is fictionally true is designated ‘in character’, or IC; the things which we disregard are deemed ‘out of character’, or OOC. Roleplayers differ about where they draw the line between these two states, with some cleaving much more closely to the game’s reality than others. But fundamentally all have to make this Manichean cut.
This essay is about what happens when a roleplayer decides that her fictional character owns property in the game. Some people are content to place their lord’s estate ‘off screen’ in an imaginary place. But WoW is full of atmospheric locations, from urban flop-houses through sun-baked shanty towns to towering mountain fortresses, and sooner or later someone – or, more likely, multiple someones – will want to claim them.
The drama of communal property
Two key features of WoW as a game condition its property dynamics. The first is its shared world. In the age of Twitter timelines and filter bubbles we’ve become used to inhabiting tailored slices of reality. But in 2004, hanging out together in one big shared space (multiple servers notwithstanding) was still the dream of the internet. WoW had no player housing, no private space, and while it has since added some of each, they are limited and not present in the big hub cities where most people want to RP. The result is a scarcity of useable space, even in the midst of geographical abundance.Prime real estate in WoW remains shared – and therefore, in roleplay, disputed. Click To Tweet
Take, for example, the large two-storey house in Cutthroat Alley, located in Stormwind City. Stormwind is the main human metropolis, full of cobblestones and cathedrals, a key destination for roleplayers who take their cues from the Discworld or Game of Thrones. Cutthroat Alley is an area explicitly themed around seclusion and criminality, which means that everyone claiming to play a bandit will sooner or later hang out there. If two or more of them do so simultaneously, that’s a problem.
Another house near Stormwind’s busy market square was the subject of endless claims and counter-claims – so many that a few of us called it ‘the Trouble House’. First it was tussled over by the misanthropic Gnomish journalist Quintinius de Ferwood and the hot-headed Sir Aledri Dragonfury. Then it was claimed by two members of Stormwind’s security services, which helped reduce, but did not banish, the parade of alternative owners. A later dispute between a drunken Draenei and a wizard in red formed the basis of an article in the Alliance Herald newspaper:
DRAENEI WOMAN CAUGHT IN OWNERSHIP DISPUTE
A recent Draenei immigrant was forced out of her home on Tuesday 20th March when she became embroiled in an ownership dispute with an unknown man in red.
“The door was locked…I was drinking, alone in the house,” Marna Vanee Dulranius, a recent arrival in the city, told the Herald. The man in red, insisting that the holding was his and demanding she leave, eventually broke down the door and stormed inside. “He said to me ‘it’s my house now…get out.’ Then I started calling for help.”
Others soon arrived upon hearing the screams and attempted to reason with both parties, to no avail. Threats of violence escalated until an enforcer of the Ember Throne arrived.
Countless others go unrecorded. Eventually Blizzard updated the game, and the house became a barbershop overnight. That’s not to say our conflicts were in any way the reason for the update; as flies to wanton boys were we to the devs, who mostly had no idea we existed.
Settling conflict without combat
It is in the course of these disputes that the second key dynamic of WoW’s real estate market becomes apparent. Unlike early MMOs like Everquest, which was infamous for letting anyone kill you for any reason, WoW only allows combat between its two big factions – the Horde and the Alliance – and almost never within them.. That means disputes can never be settled by force. Instead they must be settled socially – and ownership battles are no different.
What does this look like? Imagine two characters standing at the doorstep of a wood-panelled Elizabethan style manor. Perhaps one has just been interrupted during some act of simulated elf sex. At first, they keep their dispute IC: “Yes? What is it?” “Er, this is my house.” “No it’s not. I live here.” “No, /I/ live here, and I’ve always lived here.” Since both of these claims are equally fictional, however, they cannot be resolved.
In my time, some players would try to produce deeds, using either game’s built-in mail system, which allows you to ‘save’ letters as transferrable items, or a mod which lets you create and swap items at will. If they were really serious, the deeds might be written by an actual player member of the Stormwind Guard guild or even a magistrate (if any existed). But rarely was this ever accepted. Even obsessive WoW players are not constantly online, and many exist in different timezones, so it’s easy for two people to have spent years roleplaying in the same house without ever meeting each other. Both of their experiences are ‘real’, and neither will accept the other person’s.
Now the players start arguing out of character. This is usually shrouded in ((brackets)) to indicate its OOC status, or otherwise conducted via channels such as private messaging (which most players treat as OOC by default). Sensible players will use this dialogue to work out some kind of compromise. But less sensible ones will be telling each other that they’ve been playing in this house for ages, that they’ve never seen the other person there, or that “everyone knows” the house belongs to them. The IC dialogue may continue alongside this, though nearby players will scold them to use private channels for the sake of others’ “immersion”.
At this point most people will find a way to move on. Perhaps they will temporarily ‘go OOC’ and run to a different house which they can use as a stand-in for their character’s fictional property. Perhaps they’ll make use of WoW’s mute function, and pursue their RP in separate floors of the house or separate corners of the same room. Perhaps they won’t even bother with that, and simply RP their separate scenes while mentally tuning out each other’s dialogue (which carries with perfect clarity through walls and ceilings).
Occasionally, though, the parties will stay in character, and have an actual fight. Maybe they’ll be frantically messaging their guildmates, who turn up on the fictional pretext of having been in the neighbourhood. As I mentioned, though, WoW permits no combat within factions, so either a duel or an ‘emote fight’ is necessary. Emote fights are a unique spectacle in which each side describes what their characters are doing and reacts to their enemies’ descriptions. Unless they mutually agree some method of judging victory, such as rolling dice or appointing a referee, they can easily continue for hours, with each combatant refusing to play the loser. Here’s a sample from one of hundreds of player-written guides:
“One point that is never stressed enough to start this section: game level means nothing. The game level of your character is there for game mechanics, not for the roleplay…
“You should imagine a RP fight like a two-sided game (there can be more players, but let’s just imagine two for a start). Somehow, one of both players start the game, and emotes the first action. Then, the second player reacts to this, and gets it’s own chance to emote as well. This keeps on going until one of them accepts defeat. Of course, it looks very simple in here. The problem is that both players want to win. And, of course, this cannot be.”
All of this was more commonplace in the ‘wild west’ days, when server populations were high and etiquette undeveloped. But I’m told it still happens on Argent Dawn, the last high-population WoW RP server in Europe. Either way, most people with a hint of maturity – whatever their age – will eventually realise the futility of these zero-sum conflicts and adopt a philosophy of live and let live.The only way to claim ownership of a shared space and have it upheld is to build community consensus. Click To Tweet
This could be on grounds of your long residence, your frequent use, or respect for you as a community figure. It could even be because you have been allocated the property (or a time slot in said property) by some kind of quasi-judicial process; some RP servers have attempted such things, although mine never did.
The main vectors for ‘community’ on a WoW RP server exist inside the game. Guilds are the most powerful and elemental: they have a tangible in-game existence (including their own chat channels) and their members can be expected to share information. Next come the default chat channels such as ‘general’ and ‘trade’, which are divided up by area, and player-created custom channels such as ‘Looking For RP’. But out-of-game websites are also important. Blizzard runs official forums which every account-holder can access, and each server has its own board; because they are official, they are always the first port of call for anyone seeking a discussion space, and therefore they take a primary role. Spin-off forums, guild forums, and server wikis complicate the picture, and beyond all this, there are temporary or permanent cabals: groups of players who share an outlook and frequently discuss things with each other using Skype, Teamspeak, or the game itself.
Sometimes things were simple. Player-run taverns are a constant of WoW RP, existing in any city with a decent player population. Most cities only have four or five appropriate locations, but a spontaneous, informal consensus evolved by which any player who could keep a service running in one of these was recognised as its informal owner. By and large, most people wanted tavern RP to exist, and were therefore willing to accept it where they found it. Usage became ownership, to the extent where, even if you weren’t around, people would treat the tavern as yours, and cleave to the atmosphere which you had established. Those hoping to create new taverns would negotiate timeshares with existing owners or otherwise wait until one of them became inactive.
At other times – such as in the case of in-game governments or judiciaries – things were more complex. For players of a certain attitude, collaboration and conspiracy through the vectors I described earlier took up just as much time and effort as the game itself. We were forever attempting to organise consensus, agitating in public or plotting in private for the acceptance of our particular vision. Given that so many of us were teenagers – children, really – this bickering and social climbing served as a kind of hormone-soaked test run for the office politics and awkwardly intersecting friendship groups which would later dominate our lives.
It’s hard to think of a time in which any individual person was accorded exclusive rights to an area through this kind of activity. The effort involved was just too much. Instead, it was mainly groups and guilds who argued for, and received, consensus around ownership. Three examples would be the Stormwind City Guard, which operated from the Command Centre in the Old Town District; the Church of the Holy Light, which roleplayed in the Stormwind Cathedral; and the Blackwald Partisans, my own guild, who were largely accepted as governing the wasteland nation of Gilneas.
From these examples we can infer at least two broad principles governing who succeeds and who fails in the bid for property on Azeroth – beyond merely the increased bargaining power of a group above an individual. First, two of these guilds were ‘essential services’. Guardsmen and clergy are crucial to the atmosphere of Stormwind, and to quasi-medieval urban fantasy in general. So almost by definition, someone choosing to roleplay in Stormwind, as opposed to the Elven glades or the Orcish homeland of Durotar, wants guards and clergy to exist. It was actually criminal roleplayers who had the biggest stake in maintaining these presences; crime is no fun without someone who is trying to catch you. So most people basically agreed that a Guard guild should exist, even if there was sometimes dispute about who should run it or how it should work.
The Blackwald Partisans – a group of Gilnean guerrillas trying to overthrow the undead occupation of their country – were clearly not an essential service in this way. Still, people did have an interest in their existence. Gilneas is an area rich in potential, conveniently empty of all NPCs. But at a time of serious depopulation on my server there was almost nobody around to exploit its vast moors and rivers. So a lot of people were amazed and glad that someone, anyone, was managing to make use of this space. As long as we were there, we opened it up for others to join us, however briefly (nobody can RP where there is nobody else to RP with); even if they chose not to visit, we made the world feel a little bigger. Besides, Gilneas was not in high demand, and we didn’t really have any competition. All these factors led people to accept our de facto control over the area, and follow our pronouncements about the state of the war in the area – even though they drastically diverged from what the game engine represented. Here’s the forum thread where we urged people to follow our lead (check out my grubby guerrilla chic):
“As the zone is entirely static – and empty – we as roleplayers have to use our Powers of Immersion ™ to imagine enemies for ourselves. This means that our Gilneas contains much that you cannot see in-game. For us to roleplay productively with anyone they must know and accept our vision of the situation. We don’t wish to force this on anyone, but we have invested much in our imaginary Gilneas and fought for every inch of it IC, so we hope you can respect our view. If not, we can simply agree to ignore each other. But on the whole we would rather engage with you than ignore you.
Therefore we’ve made this Campaign Thread, which describes the world we are living in and which will be updated regularly as our war continues. If you plan to roleplay with us, or indeed to join us, consult this thread to get a sense of what’s currently going on, and what you might encounter on your way.”
The second thing to note about all these examples is that the collective bargaining power of the guild was backed up by or coincides with a strong unity of theme. The Stormwind Guard rule the Command Centre because that’s where the Stormwind Guards are canonically based. The clergy own the church because (duh) it’s a church. The Blackwald Partisans control Gilneas because they are Gilneans, and their dour, Victorian appearance rhymes perfectly with its dour, Victorian ambience. The same principle was followed for the House of Nobles, whose right to meet in Stormwind Keep was never questioned; for criminal guilds, who were left to scrap among themselves IC for the ownership of grimy pubs and run-down alleyways; for the Ironforge Guard in Ironforge, the Night’s Watch in Darkshire, and the various army guilds which time-shared Westbrook Garrison.
Yet even ownership with this level of consensus was never safe from encroachment. Realistically, the ‘community’ I’m describing only ever constituted a small part of the player base. Of all the people who have characters on an RP server, very few ever visited the forums, and the percentage which knew about the server wiki must have been even more miniscule. I can’t back this up with statistics, but my experience suggests that the vast majority of players on these servers were and remain ‘outlaws’, who didn’t engage with and may not even have been aware of the discussions the rest of us shared. As in national politics, the so-called ‘community’ is often in substance a conspiracy of some single-digit percentage of the population who share the same assumptions and spaces.
The limits of consensus
The upshot is that most people you encounter in RP will not have heard of you, and won’t know what “everyone knows”. That is one reason why fitness of theme (i.e. clergy inhabiting the church) was so important: most people will respect your claim without knowing anything about you if it makes intuitive sense for you to be where you are. But no two roleplayers have quite the same interpretation of Azeroth. There was constant conflict between people who figured that doing dark magic in the Cathedral should be legal and accepted and people who believed it would never be tolerated. Blizzard’s laid-back approach to worldbuilding didn’t help: the Cathedral also contains a torture chamber run by the fundamentalist Scarlet Crusade and a conspicuously evil crypt inhabited by cultists. Even the Partisans would frequently meet random passers-by who interpreted Gilneas in a completely different way and demanded to know what we were doing there. Usually we would simply ignore each other.
And sometimes winning ownership was actually a trap. Consider the Stormwind Guard and their HQ. Because it was recognised as the centre of law and order, it was constantly under assault from criminals, cultists, revolutionaries, and Scarlet knights. Cowled warlocks would jostle in its corridors with masked thugs trying to free their imprisoned comrades. The very theme which permitted the Stormwind Guards their residence also obligated them to respond to such efforts, and so, while their ownership was accepted, they could never enjoy it in peace. In the high population days, they would work in shifts: half of them holding the ground floor like hyper-violent receptionists, while the others interrogated prisoners, filed reports, or relaxed around the steampunk coffee machine. On one occasion they had to quit the city completely to do training events in secret locations. You can imagine what our newspaper made of that.
RIOTS IN STORMWIND AS GUARDS RETREAT
The bulk of the Stormwind Guard abandoned their city for five days last week, leaving only a skeleton garrison as a bloodthirsty spirit possessed the city with several districts consumed by rioting and spontaneous fighting.
Amidst furious violence, widespread disorder, street brawls, near-constant attacks on the Command Centre and even a rise in crocolisk activity, the majority of the Guard, along with Commanders Kazimira Shadowsong and Falrin Gathstrad, evacuated the city from the 20th to the 25th of March to protect and train recruits at a secret location, rumoured to be somewhere in Kalimdor. They were hotly pursued by a screaming crowd, but returned this Monday to a quieter Stormwind – and in fuller strength.
“We have riots every day now,” Commander Kazimira Shadowsong, who was seriously injured in the fighting at Redridge, told the Herald on the eve of her surprise escape. “People attacking Guards for no reason and right now I cannot feel safe in this city…we have been trying to find a safe place just to train our recruits…we ended up with a mob of bad assassins after us.” The attackers were said to be affiliated with the Rose, the prolific crime syndicate.
This article actually ended with this OOC plea from the Guards themselves:
((“Please remember, people, that the Guards are also people trying to enjoy the game and have fun. Coming without any reason to just slap us, insult us, attack us, or draw us into storylines that go nowhere and will not give both sides any fun – just because you are bored – makes things worse for us, and also prevents people with actual storylines or roleplay we could both enjoy from interacting with us. Please hug your guards, and tone down the random hating without reasons. Thank you.” ))
Player tavern-keepers had a similar problem. Anyone who runs a tavern does so because they enjoy the kind of RP that it generates: shady meetings, drunken sing-alongs, and general good cheer. They can accept the occasional fight as part of the cost of doing business. But there are often enough people who want to throw their weight around that it risks disrupting the tavern theme which other people have come there to enjoy. So tavern-keepers face a difficult balancing act between permitting spontaneity and preserving theme. In pursuit of the latter they would often claim limitng powers which would raise eyebrows in any other context. For example, the owner of the Slaughtered Noble in Stormwind’s park district claimed to have a steampunk anti-magic device which hung from the ceiling, and multiple blunderbuss-armed bouncers. But these often drew objections along the lines of “who are you to claim such powers for yourself?”Ultimately, this is the hard truth every WoW roleplayer must learn: nothing is actually yours. Click To Tweet
Your rules, your space, your lore, your interpretation of Azeroth, your history, and your property claims, are only shared between your group and whoever chooses to accept your group. And your attempts to claim ownership of ideas, institutions, law enforcement positions, and all other niches in the lore – however successful they are among your limited ‘community’ – will always be unknown to most people, and ignorable by everyone and anyone. Case in point: here’s a forum thread in which American players seem to have lifted my server’s law book while claiming it as their own creation. And hey – more power to them.
Of course, it helps to cleave as close as possible to the reality depicted by the game engine. An orc is an orc, a tree is a tree, and because everyone can see it, everyone can probably agree on it. If you’re wearing a Guard outfit and there are a lot of you physically standing there, even an outlaw can see what you’re getting at and play along in a fun way. This kind of correspondence to observable reality is the best allowance one can make for the limits, the narrowness, of ‘community’.
But roleplayers, again almost by definition, crave verisimilitude which goes beyond the cartoonish style of the game itself and which is not satisfied by what Blizzard have given us. We are pulled in two directions, between the client running on our computers and the vastly more complex fictional interpretation living in our heads. Some people try to keep a balance; others pretty much give up, secede in spirit from the polygons, and play exclusively with friends who share their particular vision. Earlier, I talked about how the internet’s ideals had shifted since the release of WoW. By layering ornate interpretations over the raw videogame, WoW RPers sliced up their shared reality into private pieces long before the filter bubble arrived.
How many ‘outsiders’ were there really? What percentage of players even looked at the Blizzard forums? There must have been thousands of people on each server at their peak, and perhaps a few hundred active forum users at most. That means thousands who had no idea what any of us were talking about, and did not care.
So no space, no niche, was ever really ours. There were others who shared it with us invisibly. They logged in while we were asleep, or went AFK while we chatted, or tried on outfits in the upstairs room while we discussed the King’s latest proclamation in the basement. Maybe we muted them once in the marketplace for braying out “LOL” in an IC channel, and never lifted it. Maybe they’re with us right now, blabbering away.
All we actually had were our small circles of friends, associates, and deadly enemies, who we convinced ourselves were ‘the community’. Our ownership of anything went only as far as the borders of this circle – if it was even accepted inside it. There was no system of law defining ‘property’ in a formal sense, but nor was there any kind of de facto ownership which could emerge through the use of force. There was only the game world, which we couldn’t control at all, in which all space was shared, and property as such did not exist – or the community, in which acceptance was a function of power and personality, and anyway provisional.
To put it in a manner more appropriate to the fantasy genre: in Azeroth, the only real things are steel and consent. Everything else is a dream.