No noobs plz! Barriers to entry in World of Warcraft

In this article, guest author Jessica Vitak writes about being a noob in World of Warcraft and her research on norms in the game based on analysis of posts in Trade Chat: 

A few years ago, I finally caved and did something I said I would never do—I set up a WoW account. An avid gamer since my parents bought me a NES for Christmas when I was 7, I quickly fell in love with RPGs. For each birthday from 11 to 14, I received a new Dragon Warrior (the U.S. version of Dragon Quest), and to this day Dragon Warrior 4 is still one of my all-time favorite games. I could easily get lost in the worlds of Final Fantasy III/VI or Chrono Trigger, barely emerging from my room for days. In fact, when the boy I was dating freshman year of college bought a copy of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (one of the best games ever made) while I was home for Christmas break, I went to his house each day and pretty much ignored him while I feverishly tried to finish the game in the three days I had before I had to leave (and, oh yes, I did finish the game in that time, even if I didn’t get to spend much time with the boyfriend).

" WoW is an inherently social game, yet I wanted to be anti-social because of fear of the consequences of making a mistake. But because of the way the game is structured, I had to be social in order to advance beyond a certain point, so I gave up."

Because of this tendency to become obsessed with RPGs, I purposefully avoided MMOs as I got older, mainly because I didn’t want (or have the free time) to have a game take up that much of my life. Play for just an hour here or there? Not gonna happen, I could guarantee that one. But then I moved in 2008 to a new state where I didn’t know anyone. And I was bored and lonely, so I thought, what the hell, I’ll give it a try. And, as expected, Azeroth quickly became a part of my daily life (and sometimes the vast majority of my day). But there was a big difference between this new game and my previous experiences with RPGS—the “MM” part of it. I had always played RPGs as a solo player. I never had to ask other “real” people for help or be unable to complete a quest without working with another player.

What I quickly learned—as I detailed that fall on my blog—was that I had no idea what I was getting into when I entered that world, filled with thousands of other players, many of whom had been playing WoW for years. While Blizzard makes the explicit norms (i.e., rules) quite clear, the implicit norms of gameplay must be learned through interaction with other players, reading message boards, and, well, just playing and making mistakes. And I made many of them. I quickly learned what a “ninja” was after being accused of being one and often found group formation and dissolution to be an extremely fickle process. I became increasingly nervous about people “finding me out” and realizing I was just another dumb noob who was more trouble than she was worth. So I pretty much avoided quests that would require me to team up with other players as much as possible, and I began playing less and less until I eventually stopped completely. WoW is an inherently social game, yet I wanted to be anti-social because of fear of the consequences of making a mistake. But because of the way the game is structured,  I had  to be social in order to advance beyond a certain point, so I gave up.

I was not happy with this decision. I am not the type of person who quits things easily, especially games. But I felt that, for players like myself, who were largely playing the game without the assistance of a friend who could guide them through the early stages and help acclimate them to the unique culture that is WoW, the environment was very unwelcoming. I disliked the idea that one wrong misstep in an instance, or one poorly worded question in Trade Chat, could lead to you being verbally assaulted until you finally logged off the server. Even worse, I had become a stereotypical female gamer—not very good and often needing assistance—perfect prey for the many cocky, vulgar, and (fill-in-the-blank) boys who could always hide their behaviors behind the shroud of anonymity their characters provided.

This experience got me to thinking about WoW more broadly. In order for Blizzard to grow revenues (an obvious organizational goal for any company), they needed to recruit new users. And, because users are constantly discontinuing play for a variety of reasons (new job, new partner, lack of funds, etc.), the number of new players needs to exceed the number of players lost. But what happens if the game environment is so hostile and unwelcoming to new players that they join, stay a short time, and then leave for good? Maybe this isn’t a major concern because the vast majority of new players join the game because of a connection to another player. But then again, it did happen to me. I really liked playing WoW, but didn’t like what came along with playing in a world with thousands of other players when many of them played upon my ignorance.

Analysis of Trade Chat logs

So I decided to undertake a small study to see how the public (i.e., Trade) chat channel functions in the game, with a specific interest in whether the channel is more beneficial or harmful to new players who may be looking for information or advice about playing the game. To address this, I collected 32 hours of Trade Chat logs from five servers in April 2009, containing approximately 13,000 individual comments. I then went through these logs and created a typology of Trade Chat functions, coming up with five categories, which I’ve detailed below in order of decreasing frequency:




Looking for More Players who are looking for others to quest with or run instances with; also players looking for professional work or requiring work from a specific profession.
  • LFM Naxx25 OT/Heals/
  • DPS; Cooking Enchanting maxxed tailoring LFW
  • LF1M DK 10m malygos, GTG must know how to do sparks pst me
Trade Players who want to buy, sell, or trade game-related items, including transportation (via ports) to other areas within the game world.
  • wts Relic of Ulduarx100=210gWTT
  • Any nobles card for eight of nobles; Tleporting you anywhere from anywhere PST
Questions Players who need assistance or more information about a game-related topic.
  • whats  Grime-Encrusted Object good for? 
  • what come from warlord deck?
Announcements Players who have general announcements that may be applicable to all players. This includes invitations to guilds and vendors offering game-related products from a source outside of the game.
  • Paying 10g a person to sign guild “Friend With Benefits” charter, pst
  • OwnYo.CQM, has it’s five years’ celebration, give you competitive price $109.99/10000 Gold. Chance is not always here, don’t miss it.
Socializing Players who want to talk about non-game related subjects. Also includes commentary on game-related topics that may be derogatory in nature.
  • games’ on. who’s for UNC?
  • its funny, my dollars to keep this game alive never glitch….they work every time, SO SHOULD THIS FKN GAME!
  • everyone get drunk

Following this, I narrowed in on extrapolating the norms of interaction in this channel, especially as they related to question asking (which could be performed by a player of any status, but would be especially pertinent to new players who were trying to advance in the game).

What I found can be summarized in three points. First, simple-game related questions—those that could easily be answered by visiting Thotbott or doing a Google search—were typically ignored or met with derision by other players, who often openly mocked the question-asker, sometimes for an extended period of time. To some degree, this is understandable. In a former job, it drove me crazy when people asked me a question that they could have answered themselves with a few clicks on the computer. But there are many reasons why players may have asked this question rather than turn to the Internet. It could be that the player was simply looking for an excuse for interaction. It could be that they were unsure of if they were asking the right question and were looking for immediate feedback and the ability to respond to that feedback. It could be that they were unaware of the hundreds of sites devoted to WoW strategy and gameplay. But being met with open hostility is certainly not the best method to get new players to stay.

Second, a lack of skill and/or knowledge about the game led to players being labeled as noobs. The funny thing here is that WoW is an incredibly large world with so many characters, professions, skills, weapons and armor, quests, etc., that individuals may have been playing the game for years and they still don’t know a lot of the smaller details. Yet in the Trade Channel, a thick line was drawn in the sand, and you were either a vet or a noob, in the ingroup or an outsider. WoW has many cliquish qualities to it and, much like in other environments—whether it’s a sports team or a regular poker group—new members are often treated differently until they can earn the trust and respect of the other group members. This is why you’ll often need an “in” to get into one of the better guilds; they can’t risk letting in just anybody, so they need an insider to vet you (and take responsibility if you don’t live up to whatever standards are set). But how do you gain respect in WoW? How can you build up a rapport with other players if you need those other players to reach the milestones that make you part of the ingroup?

Third, norm violations—and here I am referring to the implicit norms of interaction and gameplay—also signal to other players that the violator is part of the outgroup. Many of the conversations I saw reminded me of boys’ club-type situations—a bunch of dudes trying to one-up each other, often in terms of the vulgarity and general ability to flame each other (and any one who happened to “get in their way”).  As a female player, this was especially intimidating. I certainly didn’t want to be “found out” as a girl on top of being a noob because of fear of the (unwanted) attention I would draw.

This research was very exploratory, and unfortunately I have yet to follow-up on it since, but it did give me some valuable insights into how new players are acclimated—or forced out—of MMOs like WoW. I’m not saying that these virtual world environments should be happy-go-lucky places where everyone is offering a helping hand and rainbows shoot out of every building. What I am saying is that players who join these worlds without any previous experience or a guide should come armed with as much knowledge as they can and be prepared for a rough ride early on. And maybe it will work out. I met several extremely helpful players during the four months I regularly played the game who were more than willing to help out a noob like me. But new players—and probably especially female players—should be aware of the environment they’re stepping into and take the necessary steps to avoid being cast into the outgroup.

This research was presented as a poster during Meaningful Play 2010 and can be viewed here.


2 responses to “No noobs plz! Barriers to entry in World of Warcraft

  1. Pingback: Guest Post Over at Play as Life « social:vitak·

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