John Brindle is a writer and journalist who grew up in Scotland and lives in south London. By day he is a mild-mannered editor for a metropolitan newspaper; by night, he writes about games, and the strange things people do with them.

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.

  1. Blizzard is the owner or licensee of all right, title, and interest in and to the Client,, the Games, Accounts, and all of the features and components thereof… The following components of and/or the Games, are owned or licensed by Blizzard:
    • All virtual content appearing within 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, 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

  1. he steps upon the land belonging to another, or any part of that land; and
  2. knowing that the land belongs to another, is without permission of the owner; or
  3. 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
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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.

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 20.08.01

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:


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.

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 20.08.19

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.

Community structures

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.

The old holding cells - site of a thousand jailbreaks

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.


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.

For many years, Lucas has experimented with interactive narratives, game systems design, and emergent storytelling. He is an author, game designer, producer, storyteller and partner at the narrative design consultancy and game developer Silverstring Media.

Trying to enforce a narrative on an otherwise emergent story can have unintended consequences Click To Tweet

Let’s talk sports. In 2002, the English football club in Wimbledon was purchased and moved to Milton Keynes. The local supporters felt betrayed by having their club taken away, and so founded a new local team, AFC Wimbledon. This team would not be owned by one person capable of taking it away again; instead, it would be jointly owned by its fans. You too can be a part-owner of AFC Wimbledon.

Unlike North American sports leagues, teams can move up and down through the leagues of English football: just because you are a top-tier team this year doesn’t mean you’ll stay there, and just because you’re amateur now doesn’t mean your team can’t become professional. There are nine leagues of football, and the top teams from each year move up to the next league, while the bottom ones are relegated.

So while AFC Wimbledon was forced to start in the 9th league of football, over the past decade they have managed the stunning feat of being promoted five times. As of 2011, they compete in League Two, the fourth tier, and the lowest tier of professional football, marking a huge success for the new team. Being in the professional leagues also means that AFC Wimbledon appears in the FIFA videogame.

AFC Wimbly Womblies

For a couple of years, famed YA author and vlogger John Green hosted a series of Let’s Play videos of him playing FIFA Soccer with a fictional team called the Swindon Town Swoodlypoopers. Last year, he left that team to instead play as a fictional version of AFC Wimbledon, which he calls the AFC Wimbly Womblies.

From his early vlogging days in 2007, Green has had a very close relationship with his audience. “Nerdfighteria” — his fandom — has a history of actively participating in multiple projects such as the charity event Project for Awesome. Most of Green’s work has an interdependence with his audience; he relies on their passion and direction as much as they rely on him.

It’s in part because of this relationship that Green was inspired by the story of AFC Wimbledon and their legacy of being owned by their fans, and decided that rather than simply make money from YouTube ad revenue on his videos, he would instead donate all proceeds from his FIFA videos to the actual AFC Wimbledon team, making himself, and in a way, every single viewer of those videos, a part-owner and supporter of the club. Today, the club’s stadium even has posters and banners designed by Nerdfighteria, and the fandom’s slogan, “DFTBA,” (“Don’t Forget To Be Awesome”) appears on the players’ shorts. DFTBA is an important ethos for Green and Nerdfighteria; it’s a commitment to empathy, to fighting to decrease “worldsuck,” to viewing others complexly and engaging in intelligent, thoughtful discussion. The comments sections of YouTube videos are normally notorious for bile and trolling, but for years Green’s were full of meaningful conversation.

What makes Green's FIFA videos more than just playthroughs is the stories he tells about the team. Click To Tweet

As he plays the game and talks over it (with the occasional interruption of “ohgodohgodohgod everything worked out better than expected”) Green gives distinct personalities, backgrounds, and stories to each of his players. He refers to himself as the manager of the team, and references the talks he gave to the players between games. Some of the players are completely fictional, such as his lead strikers, Bald John Green and Other John Green (a married gay couple, “teammates in life and in love”). Many were originally real football players (from FIFA‘s roster) that Green turned into fictional identities.

Each has a nickname based on their actual name (George Francomb becomes “Francombstein”), each has a song sung when they score (“Bald John Green, John Green, he gives it all for the team, upon his mustache we’re keen, Bald John Green”), but most also have carefully detailed backgrounds. When Green brought two new strikers in (Deeney, (“Who? Deeney,”) and Dicko (which constantly leads to “context is everything” jokes)) he took the time over a couple of videos to explain what kinds of people these were. Deeney is an all-night partier, drinker, and has many sexual partners; Dicko is a family man with a college education, a wife, and kids. Seemingly polar opposites come together to form a great striker team.

These stories are constantly developing over the course of Green’s FIFA career. Things that happen in the course of a game help contribute to these character legacies, and ultimately the overarching story of the team. For instance, when Deeney failed to score a number of times over the course of a few games, Green blamed it on him being hungover, and that they were going to have a serious talk about Deeney’s future on the team. In a culminating match a little while later, Deeney scored a much-needed and improbable goal, though, and Green decided to keep him on for now.

The Johns Green, getting older now and starting to think about retirement, recently adopted a baby from Ethiopia (JJ, or “John John Green”); the process, however, took them out of the game for a couple weeks as they went to Ethiopia, leaving Deeney and Dicko to lead the team in their absence.

The old AFC keeper, Seb Brown, who Green constantly reminds viewers is the reason AFC even appears in FIFA ’14 for having saved two penalties against Luton Town to send them into League Two, furthered his legend with the Wimbly Womblies when he again saved two penalties in the final of the FA Cup to win them their first. And so the story grows as Green continues to play; some of the “lore” is purely constructed by Green (such as character backgrounds) but much of it arises as an emergent narrative, stories created by Green in response to what actually takes place in the game, leading to emergent personalities, legacies, in-jokes, and the arc of the team. So much so that the AFC Wimbly Womblies even have fanfiction.

It started to feel like the Wimbly Womblies had their own lives outside of Green's narration. Click To Tweet

He is the manager and directs the team, but to the audience, the players have lives beyond that. It doesn’t even feel like Green is directly controlling them in the game.

The Controversy

At the end of the in-game season last June, when the Wimbly Womblies were poised to move from League One up to the Championship League, John Green made a controversial decision. At the time, the team was in the top two teams of the league, which would mean automatic promotion; those teams in the 3rd to 6th place spots would have to go through a final tournament to see which additional team would advance.

Also in League One was the Milton Keynes team — the club that had “stolen” the original Wimbledon team away — who had been made into a major rival to the Wimbly Womblies out of a sense of justice. Nearing the end of the season, while AFC was set to advance automatically, Milton Keynes was close behind; they might also advance if they did well in the tournament.

Green decided then to try to create some narrative tension. He wanted to make sure MK didn’t advance to the Championship League as well, so that AFC wouldn’t have to face them ever again. The only way to do that would be to make sure they lost in the final tournament, by beating them personally. And so Green started purposefully throwing games by scoring own goals to drop AFC’s rank such that they would also have to play in the tournament and could beat MK in order to advance.

It’s important to note here that Green records several games at a time and then posts them on YouTube over the course of a couple weeks. So when he made this decision, he ended up playing several games with this strategy long before any of his audience could respond. But when the first video went up, respond they did.


Green had made some controversial decisions before, when he played as Swindon Town — decisions that hadn’t worked out very well. The audience was concerned, among other things, that this decision would end calamitously: what if he lost? All of the work of the season would be for nought, and their rival team would advance.

It almost seemed as though many in the audience didn’t feel like MK was much of a rival. They cared more about AFC and its players, and their lives. Other audience members noted that throwing games in real life is completely against the rules of the league, and AFC would have gotten thrown out. What Green was doing was decidedly Not Awesome.

What made it perhaps worse, though, was that Green put the idea in the mouths of the players: he explained that the fictional characters had come up with the plan as a way to prevent MK from advancing. This made the whole thing feel even less Awesome: Green was deflecting blame from himself for the idea (saying the players had come to him and he had to respect their wishes). But though the players felt like they did have lives of their own outside of Green’s control, the audience had great respect for them, and this felt more like something Green would do than something the players would.

For me it betrayed the entire theme of AFC Wimbly Womblies: the idea of ownership by the fans. Click To Tweet

The fact that no one person owns AFC Wimbledon, that by playing FIFA, Green and his fans were becoming part-owners, that the fans of Green’s channel were made to feel as important as Green in their relationship both to the virtual team and the real one. And then Green made a decision about the future of the team that went completely against what the fans wanted.

Green ended up playing the entire end of season before really seeing the fan reaction; after several episodes were posted, he made an apology video, acknowledging his mistake—in it, he reassured the audience that everything worked out okay, but that it had been a mistake to try it in the first place.

Thank you for reminding me that these are not just pixels; they are pixels that we collectively make kind of real.

I’d be one of the last people to say that the audience is always right; it isn’t. Sometimes they don’t know what they want until they’re given it. Just because they don’t want a character to die doesn’t mean it’s not the stronger narrative choice.

But sometimes, certainly, the creator isn’t always right either. When you’ve established a storytelling style around emergent narrative, trying to construct something outside of that emergence goes against audience expectations and can ruin the experience of the story. The AFC Wimbly Womblies embody an emergent narrative far more than an authored one.

When you have established a trusting and symbiotic relationship with your audience, predicated on a moral ethos such as Awesomeness, it’s vital to carefully consider the audience’s expectations and desires. AFC’s overriding theme is about audience ownership, and Green had failed to communicate effectively with his audience or react to their views.

You don't always need to do what your audience says, but you should always at least listen. Click To Tweet

Luckily, everything turned out better than expected. The AFC Wimbly Womblies continue to play and do well, now in the Premier League.

More recently, Green asked his audience how they should approach the end of their latest season: with caution and care to be better prepared for next season, or to take a risk and go for glory. Despite a large part of the audience desiring caution, Green explained that he “borrowed $10 million from the owners of the club in exchange for the promise that they would end in the top four of the Premier League” — this despite the fact that “the owners” of the Wimbly Womblies should be the fans. Did Green not learn his lesson? The reaction hasn’t been as loud, but only time will tell if everything works out. I watch every game with anticipation.

Apology video clip

John Green (2014) “Google Autofill ‘Is it Possible to…” (L-Z) AFC Wimbly Womblies #91″, Hank Games, YouTube 0:00-1:38

“A Change in Strategy” video clip

John Green (2014) “A Change in Strategy: AFC Wimbly Womblies #89”, Hank Games, YouTube 1:42-3:10

“Meet the New Kids” video clip

John green (2015) “Meet the New Kids: AFC Wimbly Womblies #179”, Hank Games, YouTube 0:40-1:12

For many years, Lucas has experimented with interactive narratives, game systems design, and emergent storytelling. He is an author, game designer, producer, storyteller and partner at the narrative design consultancy and game developer Silverstring Media.

When I started working on the science fiction game Extrasolar over three years ago, it was only the second game-related project I’d ever worked on. I was only a year out of school with a degree in creative writing, and had never imagined I’d actually be making videogames for a living. And Extrasolar promised to be something really interesting: a cross between an Alternate Reality Game and a more traditional casual free-to-play game. Created (and self-funded) by Lazy 8 Studios, which had already seen success in gaming and ARGs, it was an amazing opportunity, and I was confident the game would do well.

Whether it actually ended up doing well depends on your metrics. It was a finalist for many awards, including the IGF Nuovo Award and IndieCade 2013; it won Best Desktop Game at the 2014 Indie Prize Showcase. It didn’t make any money. But I did learn a metric tonne about game writing, design, and giving your audience a sense of personal ownership of their actions in a fictional world.

1: Constraints make for creativity

The premise of Extrasolar is that the player controls a rover on an alien world 10 light years away, much like NASA engineers control Curiosity on Mars: one move at a time. In the game, the player tells their rover to move and then to take a picture, and then comes back several real-world hours later to see what they took a picture of and study it.

It was a cool premise, a topical one, and one that would allow us to integrate typical free-to-play monetization—if you give us some money, you won’t have to wait as long between moves. But the premise actually came from a technical constraint. The main creator of the game, Rob Jagnow, comes from a background in computer graphics, and wanted a way to create and deliver extremely high-quality, photorealistic graphics in a casual videogame.

The problem was, each frame would take at least fifteen seconds to render in the cloud. You can’t get sixty frames per second with that kind of quality. And so the premise was actually a solution: rover travel time and communications lag would mean we wouldn’t have to render more than one frame per player per couple of hours.

This, of course, made for a very unusual game to design, because now we had the challenge of making interesting gameplay, and an interesting story, that happens a couple moves a day over (on average) a month of play. This wasn’t going to be immersive in the same way as World of Warcraft or Candy Crush, games which are very mentally absorbing because of the moment-to-moment repetitive tasks you are carrying out.

The compulsion to keep playing over the course of weeks had to come from what the player discovers as they explore what is an alien world with alien lifeforms (plantlike ‘photobionts’ mostly). “What’s over that next ridge?” needed to be a question our players were eager to answer, and would wait expectantly for several hours before they could. And that meant needing really compelling content. Part of that came from the breathtaking landscape photography and intriguing alien designs. Part of it was to come from me—from the story.

2: Story delivery with unrelated mechanics

Among my challenges for creating and telling a story in Extrasolar was the game mechanic itself. The main thing that a player can do in the game—really the only thing—is move their rover, take a picture, and then tag things in that picture. There was no other way to interact with the environment—no ‘Examine’ or ‘Interact’ mechanic, no dialogue trees with in-game characters, certainly no guns (despite the number of people who asked, during early development, “So can you shoot other rovers?”). It was purely exploratory. How do I tell a story with those mechanics?

The story is delivered in two main ways. First are messages from the characters that the player works with (the lead scientist on the Extrasolar project, and a hacker, primarily). As they explore and find things in the environment, characters send them messages in response. “I notice you found a new type of photobiont…” “What could that object be?” And they give the player new missions. “See if you can find more.” “Our satellites have picked up something similar in the north; go check it out.” That way, the story is told directly in response to the player’s actions—it only unfolds as they find interesting things and complete missions—but without needing any additional actions from them. “Now that we have three examples of that thing, we can determine that…” “I talked to my boss, and I think there’s something strange going on.”

Secondly, some of the story—which ends up involving conspiracies, of course—unfolds through old documents that characters dig up. “I found this letter buried in the company archive.” While the player isn’t the one digging up the clues they need, they’re delivered to them based on how the story is unfolding, and they get insight into the backstory of the company, the program, and the characters. These are different from direct communications: the player accesses the narrative second-hand, piecing history together from primary sources.

The story needed to unfold without a lot of the player’s direct interference—so we needed characters on all sides of the conflict, acting with their own agency. At the same time, the player’s actions on the alien world had to matter—the player needed to bring new information to light, and trigger actions taken by other characters, based entirely on what they found in their explorations.

How do you create a sense of agency from the mere act of observing things in photographs? Click To Tweet

3: Character interaction without character interaction

Part of that challenge was creating the illusion of a player’s interaction with in-game characters. After all, all of that story content was being delivered one-way: characters sending the player messages. We had no way for players to send messages back without breaking the fiction.

We were trying to create a game in which it felt like the players themselves were the character, the protagonist—rather than playing an avatar, a fictional character. The interface we gave them  to play the game was the interface that the fictional company they worked for, XRI, was giving to the real life public to control rovers on another planet. Messages are sent to the player as emails within that interface, or video tutorials and messages from actors.

In real life, people communicate back and forth in actual text or voice calls (not, for instance, dialogue trees). But we couldn’t very well allow players to send messages in-game that they compose themselves, not without incredibly sophisticated AI or forcing us to respond live to every email we receive from players—an impossible ask. Anything less than that, like some kind of dialogue tree, would make the system we’d created feel less real, less relatable to the ordinary email systems that players use in their everyday lives.

The fictional characters could only respond to the in-game actions of the player, the things they discovered on the alien planet. This could be direct reactions (“What’s that thing?”) or merely a reaction to an amount of time passed since a previous event, based on how much the player has done. With very specific goals laid out in the game (“Find 5 of those things”) we could carefully control the rate at which the story played out.

Aside from a couple of additional minor mechanics that allowed the player to take some action in the story (typing in passwords to access secret documents) the only other way we had for the player to “respond” to characters was whether or not they did what the characters asked them to—or how quickly. In one case, we planned to have two characters give the player somewhat opposing instructions, and the one that the player chose to do first would affect how those characters reacted to the player.

Beyond that, though, our only other solution was to greatly restrict how branching the story could become.

4: Branching can be hard

As a writer of interactive narrative, branching choices are my core plaything, my game mechanic, the main tool in my toolbox. Of course the narrative has to branch. We have to give the player choice, and we have to acknowledge that choice.

Working on Extrasolar taught me that branching in videogames can be hard. I mean, I already knew that you had to be careful about scope: giving the player too many options to completely change the story results in a choice tree with an impossible number of results to write, program, and manage. But even a few small options, especially in what is essentially an open-world sandbox game (there’s not a lot to stop you from exploring wherever you want on the island) can complicate things greatly.

Even if you put a mission objective directly in the path of the rover, there’s theoretically no guarantee that the player will photograph and tag it before moving on. So for a lot of the story delivery, we couldn’t assume that players had seen everything, or even completed previous missions. What if they decided they wanted to explore the entire island before doing any of the story content? Wasn’t that a perfectly legitimate play decision?

When I first wrote a lot of the scripts of our 150-page story, I tried to include a lot of if/then statements as a way to work around this. If they haven’t seen this thing yet, tell them this instead. But we discovered that that gets complicated quickly. What if they’ve seen a, b, and d, but not c? Hold on, are we sure they definitely have to have received that message before they might get this one? Plus every if/then statement was a lot of extra programming on the part of the developers.

Even with the most basic branching options, even cognizant of the potential scope creep of choice trees, branching narratives can get out of hand very, very quickly—and when you’re trying to keep your budget to a minimum, it’s the first thing to go.

5: Linearity can work

As we explored solutions to the branching narrative problem, we decided that a much more linear storyline could actually work, and work quite well. We weren’t making a sprawling RPG like Mass Effect; the important thing was not to let the player feel like they were ‘on rails,’ but that didn’t mean we had to give them the ability to do anything. After all, we were already creating a story in which they couldn’t exactly respond to other characters at all.

Step 1: Write messages that don’t depend on prior knowledge. If we couldn’t be sure when the message would be sent, write it in a way that would make sense regardless of what previous messages had been received. Eliminate almost all if/then statements.

Step 2: A couple invisible walls. Yes, we cheated a little bit, after seeing some player behaviours in testing, by forcing players to explore one part of the island before they could explore the rest. The rough path we forced was one that was already encouraged by the story and existing missions—if the player was trying to complete them efficiently, they would never know there was an invisible wall forcing them to—but it helped solve problems from outliers.

Step 3: Give the illusion of agency. We weren’t giving players the option of actually changing the course of the story by their actions; they couldn’t respond to in-game characters, and ultimately would explore the whole island, so the story could actually be extremely linear. However, by having a lot of it unfold in response to the player’s actions—messages sent when they tag specific objects, for instance—it still feels like they’re an important part of the story. Furthermore, invisible walls aside, it’s still a fairly open-world game; players can move wherever they want and take pictures of whatever they want, even ignoring the story for extended periods of time. That means that even though the story is the same for everyone, everyone’s experience of it will be unique.

And that’s something I don’t think gets enough credit in games (and something we played with in Silverstring’s original game, Glitchhikers): it doesn’t matter whether players get completely different endings to a game based on their choices; a player’s experience of the game can still be emergent and unique based only on how they move through the game and what context they bring to it, and that’s arguably the more interesting thing. The challenge is to make a game that embraces the possibility for multiple perspectives on the same events.

6: Interactive narratives allow different emotional beats

This is something taught to me by transmedia writer and designer Andrea Phillips (also outlined in her book, A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling). Movies and novels can make you happy, sad, excited, fearful, tense; games can too. But interactive narratives like games can create additional emotions in the player that novels cannot, because the audience is an active participant in the story. Therefore we could theoretically create emotions like envy, guilt, or a desire for vengeance.

Especially since Extrasolar followed a traditional ARG concept that the player wasn’t “acting as a character” but was in fact themselves participating in the story—you’re not a specific fictional character; you’re you—we wanted to play with this element of interactive storytelling as a way to really bring the player deeper into the story.

Even if they had limited choices, it can still feel like the player's fault when bad things happen. Click To Tweet

The immersion we created in Extrasolar is not about being mentally absorbed in a task, and it isn’t just about how the interface created a sense that this is all really happening. It was about giving the player a deeper emotional investment in the story. Because they feel responsible, they are an inextricable part of the narrative, and they have a stake in how it all turns out.

7: People really do like engaging story (no really)

As a writer for everything from Alternate Reality Games to videogames to other interactive media, my job is often convincing potential clients that Story Is Important. Among people who do what I do, we often see it touted as the thing that really grabs players and gets them invested in the game. But it feels like a losing battle when you look at so many casual games, so many AAA games, so many indie games, just so many games that have little to no story at all and are still wildly successful, and it becomes a harder sell. Plus a lot of creators think they can adequately execute a story on their own—they don’t need a dedicated writer, do they?

Extrasolar gives me the evidence I need, however. 80% of people who signed up for the game made it through the initial authentication process to start the story, and then 26% of those completed the story, coming back to the game regularly for a month to do so. 12% of players paid at some point for the upgrade from free to premium. Those are retention and conversion rates any free-to-play game would be envious of.

Certainly, different people play for different reasons; some may simply enjoy the exploratory and scientific aspects of the game, and we wanted to make sure such players could still enjoy the experience. However, exploration alone doesn’t account for 26% of authenticated players finishing the story. We also received many comments about the ways the story surprised them, from the very first hook that draws them in to how it all works out.

We really strove to create a fiction that would pull the player in and make them invested in the outcome, from the company they “work for” to the real science brought to them by our (actual, real-life) biologist, to creating stakes that were immediate and placed them in the middle. I truly don’t believe we would have had the kinds of numbers we did without a strong narrative. It can make all the difference.

Overall, the narrative design of Extrasolar became an intrinsic part of its game design, and was core to the creation of an immersive aesthetic that runs counter to the status quo in the games industry as a whole.

8: You don’t always get to do the sequel

When we designed the story for Extrasolar, we knew that we wanted to do more. It’s the curse of the writer, I think; we always have a sequel in mind. We wanted to take the characters farther, and we had so much more for players to discover on the alien world, things we foreshadowed in the existing game.

But sometimes you don't get to do the sequel. Click To Tweet

What we created was to be, to some extent, a proof of concept. That after the success it had, we’d be able to afford to do more, new areas to explore, great new stories to tell. But while we’ve had our share of critical success, Extrasolar was never the financial success it needed to be; while retention and ARPU numbers were exceptional, we couldn’t attract enough users to make it viable. Even our attempted Kickstarter to fund “season 2” failed to reach its goal.

And that means that, unless something pretty drastic happens, there may never be an Extrasolar Season 2, or Season 3. We may never get to finish the story arcs we planned, reveal the secrets we hinted at. We may never be able to return to the characters we created, to show how they change, or show that there’s more to them than we were able to show in Season 1. That’s perhaps my greatest regret, that the “villain” of the game we created comes across as fairly one-dimensional, when we had plans to show more of his depth, to create new villains, to make everyone more complex. We just didn’t have time.

And that’s a hard lesson to learn. I think it’s always good to plan for future content, to foreshadow and seed new stories; but you have to know that you may never get to tell them