TEXTUAL ANALYSIS: Identity in Guild Wars 2

 

Introduction

  Launched in August of 2012, Guild Wars 2 was heralded as a second coming amongst the MMORPG clique, brimming with innovation set to refresh the entire genre. [1] Whilst hyperbole was undoubtedly afoot, the game proved a reasonable success and a large part of this was owed to an understanding of the significance behind player identity within the realms of a highly social gaming structure.

  Identity is generally acknowledged as one of four archetypes in the Uses & Gratifications theory, which forms the foundations for myriad relating theories in the field of modern media. [2] In this particular area – interactive media, or digital games – it may be further postulated, considering gratifications are not mutually exclusive, that personal identity is constitutive of the other three. As such, I would propose to unify the rationale of MMO players as theorized by Yee with an overarching gratification of identity. [3] Yee’s model isolates three distinct player incentives by their relative investment in particular aspects: achievement (comprising advancement, mechanics, and competition as subcomponents), sociability (socializing, relationship, and teamwork as subcomponents) and immersion (discovery, role-play, customization, and escapism as subcomponents). [3]

  Whilst disparate in rationale, the three archetypes are collectively represented by and thus associated on a psychological level with the player’s character; Players driven by achievement focus more on the power and effectiveness of their avatar’s equipment, while players driven by socialization or immersion are more focused on their avatar’s appearances. [4] In the case of immersion some may construct characters, e.g. for the purpose of roleplay, that they perceive as being entirely separate entities. However, even then there is association and oftentimes external characters may exist by means of an ulterior motive, either expression or experimentation with a particular facet of one’s personality as game avatars facilitate self-expression in a modular fashion; e.g. stylistically, archetypically. [5]

  I intend in this analysis to portray the importance of identity within an MMO; how and why it is an especially powerful gratification of Guild Wars 2.

 

Narrative

 

  Upon launching for the first time, Guild Wars 2 immediately sinks its claws into the potential draw of personal identity. At the home screen, players are given the option to create their character. The difference here between this and other MMOs is not blatantly apparent, as the majority feature some level of character customization. Some creators allow for minute modifications to features, such as eyebrow positions and fringe length. Guild Wars 2 instead offers packaged archetypes, each distinct from one another and bearing certain connotations of character. At this point the player will have consciously registered whether or not the entity they are shaping is one independent of themselves. Past the physical moulding process, the player is given several choices relating to their character’s origin and personality. [6] This further embeds implications of identity for the character in question; e.g. were they born to poverty, are they aggressive, charming. Those seeking immersion, via Yee’s model, may be inclined to mould the character after themselves or an idealized version thereof. By providing additional structure beyond mere physicality, Guild Wars 2 allows the player avatar to develop almost relatable characteristics.

  This customization extends beyond the initial creator however. Questing, as it is known, is split into two distinct mechanical definitions. The first, containing the largest quantity of narrative structuring is referred to as the Personal Story. [7]

  These are instanced events taking place within the world wherein the story centres around aspects of the character’s chosen backstory. Uniquely, for an MMO, this isolates the character as being of narrative importance. Typically players are given a backseat position, dealing with consequences and generally behaving as a lackey, whilst NPC characters fulfill central narrative roles. As the personal story progresses, the player character’s identity develops, based upon select choices within the instances.

  Even in later stages of the personal story where the narrative branches out to include significant NPC characters who siphon the focus away from the player somewhat, they are still given considerable deference; acquiring an honorific title with which NPC’s refer to the player’s character and being the sole arbiter for concluding the concurrent story at the end. [7] The effect produced is both immersive and prestigious and wholly associated with the character.

   The second aspect of the questing system evolved the concept of open world levelling, as founded by the previous generation of MMOs. Instead of a single player narrative within a multiplayer structure, wholly antithetical to the mechanical ethos of a massive multiplayer online game, Guild Wars 2 favours an open invitation, multi-user system. Occurring at various intervals throughout every world zone, dynamic events are anchored to specific locations; accessible to a flexible amount of players and scaling in difficulty depending upon that number. [8] Player characters of all possible origin and creed must unite in these open world events to combat all manner of challenges, from boss battles to defending caravans. It is amongst the rest of the player base that one may verify a sense of identity. An avatar is an effective figurehead for the player in control, thus much may be discerned of their identity, idealized or otherwise.

  These dynamic events are non-static, meaning they adapt to their relative progression. For instance, enemy soldiers may be marching through the map. If you ignore them then they’ll setup camp, continue to ignore them and they’ll assault the friendly village and will eventually capture everyone requiring you to go liberate them. [8]

  The intended effect is to simulate a living environment, where player action – or in-action – has consequence. This breeds a manner of emergent narrative, weaving a tapestry of a character’s past that is relatable within the open world and even visible for a period of time.

  

Gameplay

  Guild Wars 2 is split into the primary two gameplay activities typical of an MMO (exclusive of player-generated content): PvE (player versus environment) and PvP (player versus player). [9] Whilst there can only exist finite examples for demonstrable motive from a gameplay perspective, Guild Wars 2 further nurtures individuality within its player base by facilitating several different applications for quantifiable progression; whether by incremental statistics, or collectible signs such as skill points. For example, a player may opt to partake in the world versus world repeatable PvP activity in order to level their character, instead of exploring the open world and completing events. Not only does such flexibility allow players to further define themselves – whether they preference one item over another – but the semiotic value of the denotable progression itself is conducive to establishing individualism – or at least, this is the implication.

   When ensconced within the realms of an interactive experience deliberating propulsing the idea of personal identity, yet on all sides tens of thousands of other players press in, each striving to carve their name on the wall it would seem an improbable goal to support. To aid in the endeavour, Guild Wars 2’s customization reaches into nigh on every tier and aspect of gameplay.

  There are an abundance of unique armours available per armour class to choose between, each individual piece being modular. Both armour and weaponry can be aesthetically overwritten with another, so that it retains its statistics but appears to be another of the same category and the microtransaction store offers individual and full sets of costumes that can also be written over the statistics of other items. [10] Armour slot items also give the option to make them invisible. Furthermore, all provide a variable number of sections for recolouring. The process of dying armour is facilitated by a system of dyes of differing rarities and methods of acquisition. [11] However, all are tradable with other players and resultingly some of the more uncommon varieties accrue a level of connoted prestige. The difficulty and rarity of certain items and dyes, in addition to innumerous interchangeable appearances allows the player considerable ability to craft an aesthetic unique to themselves. [12]

  The ethos of propagated individuality, in means at least, tends to wither in the meta game, as the bulk of the content focuses on the idea of collecting unique items, almost exclusively for the appearance or skin alone. This usually involves an activity ubiquitous in name to MMO veterans called grinding – the act of doing something repeatedly until a goal is achieved, typically a skin. However, the end does still justify the majority of the purpose, as these skins are unusual in the main. [13]

  Presented with such customization, a player’s rationale will influence their aesthetical decisions. Achievers will likely aspire to the most optimal equipment whilst maintaining an aesthetic to reflect their repute. Socializers may seek to adhere to the general style of their friends or guilds and possibly investing in costumes from the game store. Whilst immersives likely would not concern themselves with prestige or the appearance of others, instead aiming to craft an aesthetic they feel most appropriate. Regardless of the motive, individual identities are thus founded all the easier.

  Perhaps the most crucial step in establishing an identity as a player, is deciding upon a race. There are six races in total to choose from, each with their own peculiarities and denotations; e.g the Asura; a diminutive and slightly xenophobic race of intellectuals, the Charr; semi-bipedal anthropomorphic felines with war-like tendencies. [14] Certain demographics may feel more inclined towards one race or another, a subconscious facet yet further refracting potential identity.

  For the introductory phase of gameplay, this decision rules supreme in terms of gravitas for a player’s experience and likely has a lasting impact on the sort of identity they create. Each race is foremost immersed within the semantics of their own respective culture with each being distinctly reflected in the vast majority of components. Using the Charr as example, the characters first introduced are voiced in different dialects to other races, as evident in their intonation, lexicon and mannerisms; gravelly, rough, often blunt in their speech and rarely showing compunction for the emotional well-being of others. The aesthetics demonstrable in both clothing, arms and architecture is of a similar tone; desaturated colours, with emphasized presence of jagged metals and minimalistic yet monolithic design. The soundtrack is partially divided into tonal differences and present in specific zones associated most heavily with the various races. The Charr themes are comprised of a considerable mix of percussion and brass, such as drums and tubas, likely garnering inspiration from and thus bearing connotations of marching music. [15]

  The effect is to impart a passive influence upon a player’s character and how other players may perceive them, or indeed how the player may perceive others. A player with a Charr character may display less tendency towards caution or peaceful resolution because this is an implied aspect of their identity. Games ask the player to assume an identity, contextualize this identity within a game environment, which in turn often implies or encourages social norms and behaviors. [16] Yet the context only fields a starting block from which to construct a sense of present self.

  An identity is multi-faceted beast, comprised of any and all perceivable and knowable features. Compounded further by a duality of perspective; as one anticipates their tailored identity, others perceive not necessarily alike. The prosaic value of race alone is at least one facet that is largely interpreted equally. If one chooses to play as a Charr, that player is then subject to their racial connotations.

  As an individual the sum of one’s inherent identity is quantified solely on a personal, subjective basis. However within the structure of a typical MMO, conventions exist to unite players – e.g. guilds, parties. When a player becomes part of a guild, they make a conscious decision regarding their perceivable identity. Guilds are usually represented in a character’s profile in some manner such as a title or abbreviation beneath their character’s name. This modifies their character’s concurrent identity and provides further connotations for isolating features of their play-style or behavior. Guilds generally conform to an emphasized rationale, as denoted by their constituents. A player within a guild known primarily for engaging meta game content will accrue interpretations different to a player within a roleplaying guild.

  Interestingly, demographics indicate a tendency toward familiarity; spurning the more unusual in favour of races more apparently human. Yee identified similar behaviour in the player base of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. [17] In a poll taken shortly after Guild Wars 2 celebrated its first anniversary, which quantified factors of race, gender and class, humans totalled 35% – more than double that of the Asura and Charr populations individually. A race of caricatured giant homo sapiens, the Norn, took second place with 20%. [18]

  A writer for Guild Wars 2, Peter Fries, commented upon the demographic imbalance stating; “GW2 race popularity makes me sad. People avoiding charr & asura are missing the strongest story stuff in our game, IMO.” [19] This could be symptomatic of multiple conjectures. Possibly a majority find it appeasing to create avatars easier to conform to a conventional idea of beauty or contrived personal idealization. Or perhaps it is just easier to relate with character manifestations displaying features familiar to our sensibilities.

  With a majority preferencing a particular race, identity may prove harder to establish for those within. A typical rationale of engagement stems from the conventional human race. Achievers will likely not venture beyond this point, seeing little incentive to broaden their focus. However, immersives and socializers invested in the medium will experiment with the unfamiliar in an effort for increased gratification via increased social means and new identity frontiers. It is worth reiterating that the three archetypes are not mutually exclusive. [3]

 

Bibliography

 

[0] Guild Wars 2. Arenanet. PC. [2012].

[1] Arenanet. Guild wars 2 Wiki (GW2W (2012) Available at: https://wiki.guildwars2.com/wiki/Guild_Wars_2 (Accessed: 17 March 2016).

[2] Fourie, P.J. (2001) Media studies: Institutions, theories, and issues. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=XsTSXIhG2sgC&pg=PA297&dq=uses+and+gratification+theory&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjI8tbtvrvLAhVIuRQKHXLYBq8Q6AEIJjAC#v=onepage&q&f=false (Accessed: 17 March 2016).

[3] Yee, N. (2006) ‘Motivations for play in online games’, Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 9(6), pp. 2–3.

[4] Yee, N. (2004) Avatar and identity in MMORPGs. Available at: http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/gateway_identity.html (Accessed: 17 March 2016).

[5] Smith, H. (2010) The Imago Effect. Available at: chrome-extension://gbkeegbaiigmenfmjfclcdgdpimamgkj/views/app.html (Accessed: 17 March 2016).

[6] Olivetti, J. (2012) Breaking down guild wars 2’s character creator. Available at: http://www.engadget.com/2012/03/26/breaking-down-guild-wars-2s-character-creator/ (Accessed: 17 March 2016).

[7] ArenaNet, 2016 – (2010) Personal story – GuildWars2.com. Available at: https://www.guildwars2.com/en/the-game/personal-story/ (Accessed: 17 March 2016).

[8] Piner, D. (2010) Dynamic Events in Guild Wars 2. Available at: http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/84465 (Accessed: 17 March 2016).

[9] ArenaNet, 2016 – (2010) The game – GuildWars2.com. Available at: https://www.guildwars2.com/en-gb/the-game/ (Accessed: 17 March 2016).

[10] Farokhmanesh, M. (2014) Guild wars 2’s wardrobe feature to expand customization options. Available at: http://www.polygon.com/2014/3/25/5546040/guild-wars-2s-wardrobe-feature-to-expand-customization-options (Accessed: 17 March 2016).

[11] Dulfy (2013) GW2 dye gallery. Available at: http://dulfy.net/2013/12/24/gw2-dye-gallery/ (Accessed: 17 March 2016).

[12] Legendary weapon guides (2012) Available at: http://www.guildwars2-crafting.com/mystic-forge/legendary-weapon-guides/ (Accessed: 17 March 2016).

[13] Winter, J. (2014) How to get a legendary without driving yourself (too) crazy. Available at: http://www.mmorpg.com/gamelist.cfm/game/473/feature/8520/How-to-Get-a-Legendary-Without-Driving-Yourself-Too-Crazy.html (Accessed: 17 March 2016).

[14] ArenaNet (2010) Charr – GuildWars2.com. Available at: https://www.guildwars2.com/en-gb/the-game/races/charr/ (Accessed: 17 March 2016).

[15] Youtube (2013) Guild wars 2 soundtrack (full). Available at: https://youtu.be/JCHVIUEjzO0?t=2h57m14s (Accessed: 17 March 2016).

(March of the Legions)

[16] 2015, G.E. (2015) What happened here? Environmental storytelling. Available at: http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1012647/What-Happened-Here-Environmental (Accessed: 17 March 2016).

(Slide 11)

[17] Statista (2016) Distribution of world of Warcraft characters in U.S. And EU realms as of December 2015, by race. Available at: http://www.statista.com/statistics/276315/distribution-of-world-of-warcraft-characters-by-race/ (Accessed: 17 March 2016).

[18] Hazzard, E. (2012) Guildwars 2 data visualization. Available at: http://guildwars2viz.com/ (Accessed: 17 March 2016).

[19] Cox, K. (2012) Guild wars 2 players remain fixated on humans. Available at: http://kotaku.com/5951929/in-a-world-full-of-fantastic-fictions-to-try-guild-wars-2-players-remain-fixated-on-humans (Accessed: 17 March 2016).

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