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The Academics Speak: Is There Life After World Of Warcraft?

Are MMO populations 'tribal', and if so, what's the next tribal shift after World of Warcraft? In this exclusive Gamasutra feature, academics including MIT's Henry Jenkins and Ludium's Edward Castronova discuss the fascinating future of online worlds.

Neils Clark, Blogger

September 12, 2007

29 Min Read

The BBC’s article “Beating Warcraft at its own game” featured a handful of games intent on snatching up a share of the alluring MMO market. But is that really how it works? What’s really behind a player’s decision to move from one world to another, be it single player, online, or MMO? Can two successful MMO worlds each take a “share” of the market, or would it be more true to say that this an all-or-nothing game? Ever since watching some of the controversy regarding Star Wars Galaxies, I’ve been fascinated by what you might call “gamer migrations.”

And so I started each interview out with a simple premise: that gamers were moving in tribes. World of Warcraft, in my mind, wasn’t the ‘king of the mountain’ because it was the best world out there, whatever our criteria might be. It was prominent because the right people played it, giving it a kind of social gravitational mass. The social bonds, whether forged in or outside of a game, influenced when gamers would move, and for how long they would stay. Some of these interviews dug deeply into this idea, while others carved out their own intriguing territory.

Each of the five academics interviewed added a unique flavor to these questions of how players move, where single player fits into the picture, and the kinds of games that we’ll be migrating to in the future. While ‘gamer tribes’ weren’t the only thing seen as dragging along gamers, many of these scholars agreed on the importance of people.

Even if gamers in these worlds are all, as the PARC Research Center suggests, “alone together,” it’s nice to think that we might occasionally grind with our wife’s level 70 Night Elf, or level 90 Jedi, or whatever. Or is sociality truly, in the grand scheme of things, unimportant? Following are interviews with Dr. Ed Castronova, Dr. Aaron Delwiche, Dr. Henry Jenkins, and PhD. Candidates Jeff McNeill and Florence Chee.

Edward Castronova

Edward Castronova heads the Synthetic Worlds Initiative, a research organization currently working on Arden, an online world based on the works of William Shakespeare. Edward is one of the foremost gaming academics in the world, and is well known for his work on the economies of MMO games, for organizing the Ludium conferences, and also for founding the popular Terra Nova blog. He has authored numerous publications, including the book Synthetic Worlds.

ecastronova1.jpgWhat are the major reasons that gamers go from one game to another?

Ed Castronova: There’s a bunch of stuff going on, and a big part of it is this social network element. You want to be on the network your friend is on, whether it’s a guild, group, or whatever. But this kind of a network is going to cap out at one or two hundred people. The network effect will peter out at a certain size.

But there are a few other reasons that we move around.

We’re going to see bigger worlds become more successful because of the production values. It’s kind of like a blockbuster movie, the ones that make the most are the ones that spend the most. So really expensive, high-quality virtual worlds are going to have an advantage here.

There’s a third thing that actually argues against size. I think there’s a broad distribution of taste about how you’re going to be heroic. Right now we’ve got space, and Tolkien, and not a whole lot else. There are a few different worlds, and its more than there were 4 or 5 years ago. But coming soon we’ll really see an explosion in the different types of Synthetic worlds out there: Star Trek, more Comic Book heroes, worlds that are tailored to the different fantasies that we have.

So you think that we’re going to see people move based on the fantasies that they’re looking for?

EC: Yeah, I do. I think most people have a tendency to get caught up in different fantasies in different points of their lives. Take a regular guy. He wants to buy a boat, so he buys a boat. Then he gets over it. Maybe. He could keep playing with the boat, or maybe go on to something else.

What other ideas do you have on how people move from one world to another?

EC: Sometimes we’ll see a big group of people that met in meatspace, and now they’re in cyberspace. I just joined this guild that goes back to Dark Age of Camelot. A guy in my D&D (Stormreach) group was in the guild, and that brought me in.

It seems true that you’ll sometimes see this anchoring effect. If one person plays this game over here, at some point it’s like a flock of birds. They all sort of fly off. This idea of tribalism seems fairly accurate.

It’s not that one world is going to capture people, there will be a lot of change. It’ll be more chunky change, it won’t be smooth.

D&D Online: Stormreach

What do you mean by chunky change?

EC: Rapid chaotic change, it’ll be going smooth for awhile, with periods of stability, and then suddenly you’ll see periods of bulky but large changes. For instance, you can say that in 2006 nothing really happened in the MMO space. At some point, well, we’re going to see some of these changes.

What’s in store for single player games?

EC: I think that pure single player is always going to be in the market, but I don’t think that it’s going to dominate the market. What we’re likely to see in the single player space are small towns where people meet and compare notes. You’ll play the game, and you’ll rarely encounter people, but there will be other players in the worlds that you’ll come across very occasionally.

Single player games are going to be quasi-public spaces, with the purity of a single player game, but the emotional significance that comes from multiplayer.

Finally, if you were trapped on a desert island with only one game to last you through the long years, what would it be?

EC: I would take the first Neverwinter Nights, because I could endlessly make adventures to play for myself. It’s not just a gameplay tool, but it’s an authoring tool.

One of my favorite things to do was to create two unique level one characters, make 40 copies of each, and then watch the epic battle. That NWN editor can be endlessly entertaining.

Aaron Delwiche

Aaron Delwiche is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, where he teaches courses on cyberculture, game design and criticism, film studies, and propaganda. He is also a co-founder of Metaversatility, a virtual world branding and development firm that has worked with clients as diverse as AMD and ICANN. Aaron is co-chairing this year’s State of Play conference, writes a biweekly column on digital culture for the San Antonio Current and is a regular contributor to the Terra Nova games blog.

What do you see as the major factors which prompt gamers to move from one game to another?

Aaron Delwiche: I think that the whole concept of player types [Richard] Bartle came up with is crucial to finding out who is likely to migrate and how. Socializers are definitely likely to go. Achievers might be inclined to move with their group, if they’re in a guild that’s good and highly organized. They stand a better chance of achieving if they stay with that kind of a guild. I would imagine explorers would be more likely to go off and explore different worlds on their own. And I guess the killers just go wherever the killing is.

So you think that this kind of a collapse cycle is possible?

adelwiche1.jpg AD: I think that I’ve seen where that can happen a lot in guilds, definitely, where there’s disagreement about the world or the server. For instance, I was in a gaming guild of virtual worlds scholars… On a PvP server. If you’re not into PvP, it’s really depressing. You log on, get ganked, and its not much fun. But people stuck around because they wanted to be connected to that community.

Lately, I’ve been looking at this from a different mindset. In Metaversatility, we’re very interested in virtual worlds like Second Life, but we take it as a given that there are going to be other gateways to the metaverse in addition to Second Life. SL is revolutionary and has amazing critical mass, but there are a million things on the horizon - platforms like There and Raph Koster’s browser-based social virtual world.

What drives the player movements in worlds like Second Life?

AD: It would have to be the people, really. The appeal of SL isn’t the graphics. If you’re into eye candy you’d look for the most recent multiplayer game, get the most high end graphics card, and play with that. In SL, what’s maintaining that critical mass are people, networks and extensive user creation tools that make it possible for people to have such an investment in what happens.

What kinds of contributions did Warcraft make? Enough to warrant the level of attention that we’re giving it?

AD: I think that WoW demonstrated to many people the financial viability of the subscription model virtual worlds, and it also demonstrated that you can have games that appeal across cultures with very little content localization. I think it highlighted above all else the need for usability: having a real clean, user friendly game mechanic for new users. I know that a lot of EQ players freaked out, but in terms of the overall health of the industry it was exactly what we needed.

But today, I’m not a high-end player. I don’t do raids, and generally I don’t know what else there is to be said about World Of Warcraft which hasn’t already been said. I’m really curious to see what’s next. That isn’t to imply that there isn’t anything we can say, but there is this huge emphasis – in blogs, articles and journals, and in some quarters it may be a little excessive.

I’m biased, but maybe social virtual worlds have fallen by the wayside.

shaun3.jpgWhat’s in store for single player games?

AD: Continuing with casual games, I think that they’re going to bring in many people who haven’t been gamers in the past. We’ll see more genre-mixing, just like with movies and the cinema. You’ll get something like Shaun of the Dead.

I’m also curious about the thing that’s happening with Spore, supposedly. This whole idea of distributed user-generated content, that actions in one single player game affect someone else’s single player game, it’s fascinating. I’m really curious to see how that will turn out.

And, if you were trapped on a desert island with only one game to last you through the long years, what would it be?

AD: Vanguard, because it had such an incredible grind. They’re fantastic games, but who has the time? Honestly though, I’d still really need to be connected to SL, or whatever future game takes its place down the road.

If I didn’t have internet, then it’d have to be Oblivion, hands down.

Jeff McNeill

Jeff McNeill is a PhD Candidate in Communication and Information Sciences at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he has been teaching for the past five years, on topics such as organizational communication, marketing and brand communication, and social media. He is one of a handful of innovative instructors who has actually taken students into online worlds; and his experience with gaming and instruction has lead him to an interesting conclusion: education and game design are on a collision course.

Primarily I want to know if you have any ideas on how these gamers are going to move – whether long-term or short-term.

Jeff McNeill: While in the short-term it’s hard to tell, I do definitely see some probabilities for the long-term.

Read Vernor Vinge’s book Rainbow's End. Snow Crash had today’s technologies in it, Google Earth, Justin.TV, they were all envisioned in 1990. Now we have a new vision, I think. As we gain more and more ubiquitous computing, as you really start to see devices everywhere, you’ll see new ways to deploy a game across a real terrain and interact that way. Hypothetically, you could have MMOs that are decoupled from the chair and embedded in the real world.

jmcneill1.jpg A key aspect to this is augmented reality. The amusement park becomes a place where you turn on features that you have in your clothes, and you get to see things that aren’t really there. There are visual displays, audio that’s a combination of real and virtual, and some people who exist in mixed reality. The amusement park you go to now, there are animatronics puppets.

When you put on the headset, you’ll see dragons breathing fire on you and picking you up and eating you. You’ll get a much more visceral experience, and it’s a little safer than a puppet going crazy in Disneyland and throttling you. If people like Disney don’t enter augmented reality soon, then someone will.

Gaming for entertainment will remain its own beast, but gaming as a concept will invade all areas of social life. And so will some of the games. The key here, I think, is that elements of game design are going to permeate the places that normal people go to have fun. You might not need a computer, or a mouse, or an MMO game that’s stored on a server somewhere.

If Warcraft collapsed today, then where would the players go? Other MMO games, single player games, the gym?

JM: I believe mainly MMOs, but who knows? If Warcraft were to go down, for some technical or gameplay reason, then there would be a hundred more games hitting the market trying to gather the gamers into their arms.

Do you anticipate the arrival of more game genres that might directly compete with MMO, single player, multiplayer online, etc?

JM: Like I was saying, augmented reality is going to change the face of gaming. Games will be sprouting everywhere. Things will be transfiguring into game-like elements, more or less, everywhere. The Wall Street Journal just had a great article which said “Work is going to be a game.” Game-like features help us to manage this level of complexity that we can’t keep up with anymore. Students, right now, have more decisions, choices and control than ever before. And yet school hasn’t changed.

Pretty soon, we’re going to be saying goodbye to classrooms where students put their hand up and get a single question in an hour… It’s just not enough interactivity. And once the value of game design is discovered, well, you’re going to see changes in the way that we think about, play, and buy games – whether they’re single player, MMO, or whatever else is just around the corner.

It’s a lot of work, making curricula game-like but it’s also quite fascinating. This is how educators can become re-invigorated in their discipline. Some are seeing it. Some are doing it. Harvard’s Chris Dede is doing it, and has been extremely successful.

10021422.JPGWe don’t just create an “educational game” and put some content in there. He knew the skills he wanted to teach, and had some fairly sophisticated learning theories to design with. His project is incredibly engaging for the students.

The best part is that lower performing and higher performing students actually perform equally as high through his system, and he’s teaching essential science skills of inquiry, something sorely needed in this country. His results are equivalent across socio-economic status, rural and urban schools. It’s unbelievable to see this kind of effectiveness.

We are an incredibly adaptive species. And that means that games, and game design, may make one of the most important societal contributions seen thus far. We can and we should do this for higher education. It’s incumbent upon us.

Finally, if you were trapped on a desert island with only one game to last you through the long years, what would it be?

JM: Chess, unless Spore lives up to my expectations. But chess is inexhaustible.

Also, if I ever get rescued, I could play competitively. Chess will be around for a long time to come.


Florence Chee

Florence Chee is a PhD Candidate in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, where she works at the Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology (CPROST) and the Applied Communication and Technology (ACT) Lab. She has published numerous journal articles, and her research interests focus on the ethnographic investigation of how users socially define themselves amidst their technologies and lived realities. Her fieldwork in Korea examined the ways in which gaming can differ with regard to cultural, social structure, infrastructure, and policy factors.

Primarily, I want to know if you have any other ideas on how these gamers are going to move, whether in the long-term or short-term.

fchee1.jpg Florence Chee: We can think of MMOGs as just one instance of a broader trend in "retribalization," which media theorist Marshall McLuhan discussed in his work as early as the 1960s. He argued that new media was in essence causing a trend towards 'retribalization' of the once individual, literary man. That is, he saw the affordances of new media favoring a type of collectivism, as opposed to individualism. McLuhan believed that new media had the ability to change people's ideas--and had the inherent ability to persuade. We see manifestations of this phenomenon in everyday branding and marketing, to be sure.

In terms of what we see happening with online games is a type of retribalization. Social networks facilitated by new media (Facebook, MySpace, and various online games) enable the state of being 'with it,' when people rely on mass media or groups to guide them in their beliefs and actions. I mention other online applications along with games because they are no longer distinct, but related. Just think of how many applications an individual uses to organize a group online to do anything on a daily basis (like raids, just say).

Having said that, I believe that the large-scale movement of players from game to game that we are seeing (the ones that are in the millions) is indicative of a global process in which people are attempting to make sense of their online/offline interactions. They are figuring out what 'game' best fits their needs for retribalizing and the games that have more of those needs fulfilled are, as we've seen, the most successful.

I don't believe we are at the point yet where we're going to have 'one game to rule them all,' because we're only beginning to understand the realities of local contexts that may or may not work with the mechanics of certain games culturally, or otherwise. In other words, the game itself cannot do it alone. It must be strongly integrated with a person's 'lifeworld' as a whole.

So you think that in looking for a way to balance 'normal' life with encroaching technology, we've headed into games? And if gaming tech offers the “right stuff,” it could be a rallying point for future networking/social media technologies?

FC: yeah, that's the essence of what I'm sayin. I think McLuhan's take is a bit too tech-deterministic, but there's not enough room to go into the nuance of it, and the basic principle of retribalization is useful for thinking of games and sociality.

How much of our attention does Warcraft really deserve in relation to some of its contemporaries? Do you think WoW, whether knowingly or unknowingly, capitalized on any major long-term or short-term reasons for play?

FC: Interestingly phrased. "Deserve" is such a loaded term :) What I can say is that a virtual online game environment like WoW cannot thrive without players. Because the revenue model is subscription based, it is really the players choosing to throw their support behind the continual development of that online world. How they make that choice is a different matter.

Inertia, tipping point, buzz, whatever you want to call it, WoW had an edge because they strategically crafted that buzz while leveraging a pre-existing narrative from the successful WarCraft RTS trilogy. So, they attracted players like me who were familiar with the RTS and excited about a MMORPG version, along with a distinct n00b clientele who could play the game like golf. I believe those are some reasons behind the success of WoW. Still, it's not always a 'black hole,' and one's choice in game has very much to do with whether or not one is established in another game. Some die-hard City of Heroes players I knew refused to 'make the switch' because they had 'too many friends' on CoH and didn't want to leave.


Blizzard's ever-popular World of Warcraft

What's in store for single player games?

FC: Single player games aren't going away, and it would be silly to assume that one genre is going to win out. They serve completely different purposes, and we're starting to target different demographics for different genres. Though I may not necessarily agree with the way some categorize players and genres, I do know that there is a trend towards creating 'single player, casual games' for middle-aged women because they are a largely ignored demographic in need of relaxation (for example). If you've only got 20 minutes to spare, you're not going to get much out of playing a MMORPG.

Platform is also a consideration. We've got to get more creative with the hardware as well. The Nintendo Wii is a good example of how to take problems and criticism (like sedentary, boy-biased games) and design solutions that engage and include previously ignored segments of the population. We've been riding old business models for way too long. The money is there to be made (and piracy is something that is not going away either), but the models can't rely on revenue from the sale of 'boxes' anymore.

If Warcraft collapsed today, then where would the players go? Other MMO games, single player games, the gym?

FC: You can guarantee that there will be lots of forum threads going "OMG! What happened??!!11"

Someone set us up the bomb!

FC: After that kafuffle, the taste leaders would probably find a similar environment and spread the word of the 'new' place to hang out. I think they would still stay within the same genre (i.e. not single player, or the gym) because the other activites would not fulfill the same social purposes as WoW.

64jumpman.gifDo you anticipate the arrival of more game genres that might directly compete with MMO, Single Player, Multiplayer online, etc?

FC: If I knew that, I would quit academia and proceed to build an alternative gaming empire. If it comes to fruition, I'll let you know.

Alright, last question. If you were stuck on a desert island, with only one game to sustain you over the long years, then what game would you pick?

FC: If I had to play single player, it would be Jumpman. I love ASCII games. They were thoroughly engrossing and yet relatively simple :)

This, assuming that I'm ignoring the fact that I would need electricity... and everything else to run the game. If I could choose an MMO I would log on and ask for help off this island!


Henry Jenkins

Henry Jenkins has taught at MIT for 18 years, where he is the Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program since 1998. He is the author and/or editor of nine books and dozens of articles on various aspects of media and popular culture, and is widely regarded as one of the most prolific minds on media.

How much of our attention does Warcraft really deserve in relation to some of its contemporaries?

Henry Jenkins: I spoke at a games studies conference earlier this summer. There was a steady track of WoW programming for the entire event -- one WoW paper after another -- many of them presented by members of a WoW guild that is composed almost entirely of game scholars. There's no question that the game deserves lots of attention -- I am not a WOW player so I went to only a few of the papers but each scholar had found something interesting to discuss within the game. I came away with a sense of the richness of the game's interface but more importantly the diversity and engagement of the fan cultures which had grown up around and through the game.

hjenkins1.jpgWoW deserves attention because it has so captured the imagination of gamers over the past few years. That said, I don't think it is healthy for the fieldof games studies, which is still emerging, to be so fixated on a single game franchise -- no matter what the franchise. A few years ago, it might have been The Sims or GTA, now it's WoW. But we need to spread out a bit more to encompass the full range of game genres and we need to be attentive to new, experimental, independent, and emerging work in the game space.

But what really made WoW into such a subscriber powerhouse? Were they lucky, in the right place at the right time, or does a lot of the credit belong to the designers in creating a more finished and seamless experience?

HJ: What interests game scholars about WOW isn't the game itself: it's the ways that players have organized socially to take advantage of the affordances of the game and it's the tools and systems they have constructed to support their complex collaborative game play activities.

In other words, the game may have succeed with fans because it was a well designed game which offered the right features to the right players at the right price at the right time but it's continuing interest has as much or more to do with what players have added to the game experience than anything that the designers put in the game. This is not a slam at the designers -- this is the nature of the multiplayer game space – it supports a rich and diverse culture or it dies. And as you note, the core gamers tend to be a diasporic community that moves in waves from one game to another.

What's in store for single player games?

HJ: I don't see them going away anytime soon. For one thing, a high percentage of casual games are single player and that's one of the most dynamic growth areas for the games industry right now. I certainly see the platform games becoming more social -- as we watch everything from the new Wii titles to Guitar Hero being designed to be played by a group of friends gathered together in someone's rumpus room.

Yet, I think there will always be creative designers generating titles which capture the imagination of individuals. I like to attend parties; I like to read; sometimes I have to chose between the two but for the most part, they hold different niches in my life. I suspect multiplayer and single player games will operate in the same ways: the same gamers may be drawn to both depending on their mood or the particular title and then there will be some people who only want to engage with one or another mode of game play.

If Warcraft collapsed today, then where would the players go? Other MMO games, single player games, the gym?

HJ: I know less about what happens when multiplayer games start to implode than I know about the migrations of television fans, which is a phenomenon that I've had a chance to observe over more than 20 years. In both cases, the holding power has to do with at least two variables: the degree to which individual members value what the franchise is giving them (including both content and corporate/community relations) and the degree to which the members feel attached to the social network which grows up around the franchise.

Typically, a bad decision or decisions by the company compromises, at some point, in the cycle the interests of the community, creating growing dis-satisfaction within the community. Certain key thought leaders in the community move elsewhere, often issuing some final message to the group, which feeds the discontent. Initially, the group may move outward in several different directions, testing new franchises to see if they offer either new pleasures or more of what attracted them to the earlier franchise.

In a networked culture, the word gets out where they went and what they thought and then there's a larger migration which can, under the right conditions, turn into a stampede. I suspect when this happens to WoW that people will be searching in several directions: some following the genre, looking for other worlds with similar elements; others will follow the game play mechanics, looking for games which either offer features they like about WOW or which fix the things that bugged them about the game; and others will follow the community, wanting to move to where-ever their friends relocate.

This whole process unfolds over several months or longer as the pieces sort themselves out. The key point here is that it is never social to the degree that other elements of the experience don't matter at all but the choice between equally satisfying experiences will frequently rest on the decisions made by the social network as a whole.


Do you anticipate the arrival of more game genres that might directly compete with MMO, Single Player, Multiplayer online, etc?

HJ: Always. I can't tell you what the new genres are going to be. If I could, I'd be on the payroll of a major company. But everything in the history of games so far suggests that whenever things start to feel too predictible, a new paradigm emerges and shakes up the box again.

If you were stranded on a desert island with only one game to last you through the long years, what would it be?

HJ: That's an easy one. Tetris. I have been playing Tetris off and on regularly for more than a decade. Its simplicity of design allows for almost infinite replay value. I keep telling myself one more game, constantly thinking I can do better. I can get into the flow of the game easily and can remain relaxed and captivated for a long time. So, if I could have only one game, I'd go for a classic that never seems to grow old. It isn't necessarily my all-time favorite game but then, my favorites tend to come and go, and this remains loyally at second or third place on my list.


So what’s really in store for our intrepid diaspora of gamers?

Are they locked in an ongoing migration from populous to desolate game worlds, or will the fertile valleys of one monstrous game become too utterly irresistible? How will social worlds, such as Second Life, relate to worlds like World of Warcraft, where the grind is planned and the players expect entertainment? How “Blockbuster” or sensually realistic will new MMO games have to be? Will we barrel toward huge and highly realistic games? Or at some point on our path to largest and most realistic, will these digital realities start to look like a world that we’ve had all along? Perhaps McNeill is right, and it’s real life that will start to look more like a game.

But the point of this article was not explicitly to make deep or philosophical points. It was to have conversations with the academics immersed in the research. The point of this article was not to answer questions so much as to raise them.


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About the Author(s)

Neils Clark


Neils Clark is co-author of Game Addiction: The Experience and the Effects. He is a professor at the DigiPen Institute of Technology, in Redmond.

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