As society shifts towards spending more time online for business and leisure, examining human behavior in virtual environments is crucial. To better understand the role that games play in our society, I analyze social experience in World of Warcraft (WoW), one of the longest running massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMO). Since its release in 2004, Blizzard Entertainment, the maker of the game, has periodically changed WoW. To streamline aspects of gameplay, such as the time required to play and level of difficulty in play, some expansions removed or changed many social affordances that previously encouraged and rewarded sociality between players. While these changes were appealing to some players, they greatly reduced the social experience of the game, to the dismay of others. What do these changes mean for players who enjoyed the social experience World of Warcraft once provided?
I argue that the social experiences produced in online games are a product of two factors: the social affordances provided by the game and the ideology of the larger culture in its full sociopolitical context. I employ neoliberalism, a set of ideological values that are embedded in North American daily life, as an analytical lens to make sense of social phenomena that I observed in player communities on World of Warcraft. Neoliberalism has permeated our society, regardless of whether or not individuals actively espouse or even agree with the associated ideological values.
Through my dissertation work, I document the ways that these two factors affect social experiences in online games. My study contributes to a wider discussion of how massively multiplayer online games can facilitate players’ social experiences, establish a sense of player community, enable the development of social identities, and afford spaces to provide social support to one another. What happens when designers change aspects of a game that the player community previously utilized for social interactions? How do these changes communicate cultural values to players? In what ways do players internalize and police those values through their own gameplay? These are some of the main questions that I answer through my work.