Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Technologies of Representation Final Essay Response on Communication Tech and World of Warcraft, Dec 8, 2004

This is the fourteenth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

This is my final post of material from Professor Kenneth J. Knoespel’s LCC 3314 Technologies of Representation class at Georgia Tech. LCC 3314 is taught in many different ways by the faculty of the Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication, but I consider myself fortunate to have experienced Professor Knoespel’s approach to the course during the last phase of my undergraduate tenure. The ideas that we discussed in his class continue to inform my professional and personal thinking. Also, I found Professor Knoespel a great ally, who helped me along my path to graduation with side projects and independent studies.

This is my final paper assignment (I think given in lieu of a final exam) in LCC3314. The more exciting portion is question 2, which concerns Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. I break down how you navigate its space and I describe elements of its operation. It bears noting that at the time that I wrote this, WoW had been out for less than a month. I was rabidly playing it on my PowerMac G5 at 2560×1600 resolution on a 30″ Apple Cinema Display. While it might not have been the best essay, it certainly was one that I enjoyed writing to no end! I wish that I had found a way to make time for WoW since my days in Liverpool. I have played WoW on only rare occasions since returning to the States, but I continue to write about it from my memory of Azeroth.

Also included below is my response to question 1, which seems to be focused on the telegraph, telephone, and cellular phone. In this question, I explore the material experience of using these different communication media and technological devices. I suppose WoW is another kind of communication technology wrapped up in a highly interactive gaming environment (cf. Hack/Slash).

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Kenneth J. Knoespel

LCC3314 – Technologies of Representation

December 8, 2004

Final Paper Assignment

1. On the telegraph, telephone, and cellular phone

The telegraph, telephone, and cell phone each have a particular interface that works with different human senses and thus provide different experiences for the body.  The differences between these communication technologies lie in the physicality of the artifact as well as the technology underlying the technology for encoding and decoding communication.

The telegraph is a wired point-to-point textual communication technology.  Telegraph operation involves trained operators who can encode and decode the Morse code messages transmitted over wires with telegraph machines.  The process of sending a telegram involves finding a business that offers telegraph service, going there in person, telling the telegraph operator the message to send, the telegraph operator encodes the message with the telegraph machine, it is received by the appropriate destination telegraph operator, that operator decodes the message, a delivery person is dispatched with the message, and the message is hand delivered to the recipient.  The experience of the telegram sender is standing at a counter and speaking with an operator.  The receiver interfaces with a delivery person who hands them a piece of paper containing the message.  The technology that makes the sending and receiving messages over great distances possible is removed from the experience of the sender and receiver.  The sender and receiver also have to rely on a network of operators and delivery persons.  These people are in a unique position to view the correspondence between the sender and receiver.  This fact is probably something that senders of telegrams were well aware of.

The telephone is a wired point-to-point oral communication technology.  Telephones encode auditory information into electrical signals which travel over copper wires in a phone network to the receiving telephone that decodes the electrical signals into auditory information (the spoken voice).  Telephones allow users to hear the person’s voice that they are speaking with.  One problem with telephones is that the technology uses a narrow band of audible sound that can cause “m” to sound like “n” or “b” to sound like “d.”  Initially, telephones were prohibitively expensive and were direct wired from location to location.  After telephone networks were made possible with human operator switching technology, voice phone calls could be routed from the call initiator to the call receiver.  Therefore, over time the phone network mediation shifted from human operators to electrical switching technology.  When you would make a call you would speak to an operator first, and then the person that you were calling.  Now, one can dial a number and the phone network’s automatic switching technology connects the caller with the receiver.  Someone who makes a phone call assumes privacy when the call is made from home or within an enclosed space such as a phone booth.  The physical interaction between the user and the telephone is that a headset is lifted off the base and held to the ear and mouth.  The user taps out a phone number on the base or dials a number with a rotary phone base.  The telephone user experiences an interaction with a disembodied voice.

The cell phone is an unwired point-to-point oral and textual communication technology.  Modern cell phones are a synthesis of the telegraph, telephone, digital photography, video technology, and radio technology.  Cell phones facilitate voice conversations between cell phone to cell phone or cell phone to wired telephone.  They also allow for text messaging, audio messaging, picture messaging, and video messaging.  Widespread cell phone use is shifting voice phone conversation into a more commonplace activity.  Additionally, the private sphere of telephone conversation is shifting to the public sphere of wherever the cell phone user answers or makes a phone call.  Cell phones also connect to the Internet and Internet-based text messaging networks such as AOL Instant Messenger.  The cell phone has become a place of contact for the individual in more ways than merely talking on the phone.  It builds connections between the individual and others as well as between the individual and information (e.g., online weather information, movie listings, online news websites, etc.).  With ear bud speaker/microphones that plug into cell phones or wireless Bluetooth headsets, one can interface with the auditory communication features of their cell phone without needing to hold the cell phone up to the ear and mouth as one would with a traditional telephone.  The cell phone users also interface with a disembodied voice, but the cell phone also has other means of interaction with people as well as information.

The telegraph is not an interactive means of communicating in the way that the telephone and the cell phone are.  With the telephone or the cell phone, one can have a real-time conversation with someone else whereas with the telegraph, there is a delay between sending a message, delivery, and if need be, a return message.  The amount of information capable through transmissions has increased over time.  The telegraph had a finite amount of information that could be conveyed because of the time and cost of sending messages with Morse code.  The telephone increased the amount of conveyed information because it was a disembodied voice that could carry nuances of speech and emotive information (e.g., happiness, sadness, anger, etc.).  The cell phone has brought these communication systems full circle with the creation of a synthesis of voice and text.  Along with oral communications, there is so much textual and graphic information that can be conveyed through a cell phone.  Barbara Stafford writes, “we have been moving, from the Enlightenment forward, towards a visual and, now, an electronically generated, culture” (“Presuming images and consuming words” 472).  The cell phone represents the bringing together of communication, both between people and between people and sources of information.  Walter J. Ong writes in Orality and Literacy, “By contrast with vision, the dissecting sense, sound is thus a unifying sense.  A typical visual ideal is clarity and distinctness, a taking apart…The auditory ideal, by contrast, is harmony, a putting together” (71).  The modern cell phone brings together the visual and the oral in a way that previous communication technologies had not.  This unification ties two of the powerful human senses (sight and sound) to the cell phone that distinguishes it from the telegraph and telephone.

An interesting development in these technologies is that the perception is that better communication technologies lead to better communication between individuals (i.e., a bringing together of individuals).  George Myerson writes in Heidegger, Habermas, and the Mobile Phone, “There’s no real gathering at all.  Instead, there are only isolated individuals, each locked in his or her own world, making contact sporadically and for purely functional purposes” (38).  Thus, the cell phone has disconnected the individual from the wall phone where one might be “waiting on an important call.”  Casualness and importance are intertwined in the use of the cell phone.

I used Paul Carmen’s paper on the telegraph, Amanda Richard’s paper on the telephone, and Kevin Oberther’s paper on the cell phone as starting points for this essay.

2. On World of Warcraft

Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft video game was released on November 23, 2004 for both Windows and Mac OS X.  It is a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) that immerses the player in a 3D fantasy world where the player is able to create a character based on several layers of identity (e.g., allegiance:  alliance or horde, races:  humans, dwarves, night elves, gnomes, orcs, tauren, trolls, or undead, and classes:  warrior, mages, druids, hunters, rogues, etc.).  After building one’s character (including designing a unique appearance), you choose a realm in which to play.  These realms correspond to computer servers that are in a particular time zone.  Other players around the world pick one of these realms to play in that best corresponds to when they will be playing, or when their friends will be playing.  The player is able to meet up with friends within a realm to go on adventures together, and if the player doesn’t know anyone, he or she can communicate with other players to form groups (large and small) to go on adventures with.  The objective of the game is to gain levels, complete quests, and to battle the forces opposite of your allegiance.  Working with others is the key to success in World of Warcraft.

When the player first enters the game, a movie clip is played that gives some introductory backstory information so that the player has a general idea about what is going on.  This movie is actually a fly-through of the area in which the player is going to begin playing.  This gives the player a chance to get his or her bearings before they are “on the ground.”

The screen space has pertinent information regarding the character as well as the character’s location within the game.  The upper right corner of the screen has a round map that has the cardinal directions with the character centered on this small map.  The character is represented as an arrow so that the player can see which direction they are pointing without having to move around to get one’s bearings.  This player-centered map is similar to the Blaeu Atlas because it is centered around the idea of the person needing to do the orientating is “inside the map.”  The Blaeu Atlas has lines emanating from points on open water toward landmarks.  These lines assist the person on the ocean to determine their approximate position from the landmarks that they see on particular lines of sight.  The system within the game takes this a step further by providing instant feedback of the direction the player is pointed in as well as the location of the player in relation to roads and landmarks.  Another feature that assists the player with recognizing one’s location is that as the character enters a new area or approaches a landmark, the name of that place will fade into the center of the screen for a few moments and then disappear.

Walking around is accomplished by using the keyboard with the mouse.  The W, A, S, and D keys (corresponding to forward, left, backward, and right) are used for walking around.  The mouse orients the “camera” around the player’s character on-screen.  Moving the camera around allows the player to better see up, down, or to the sides without having to walk in that direction (i.e., if the character’s neck were in a brace).

The ground, buildings, hills, mountains, and caves are textured so that they appear like one would think these things would like.  There are clouds and sky above, and the ponds and lakes have shimmering water.  There are small and large animals in the forests that the player can interact with.  Other players’ characters are walking around in the same area that you may be in.  There are also characters that are controlled by the game and the central game servers called non-player characters (NPCs).  These are characters that you can buy equipment from and some will invite you to undertake quests in return for rewards.  Because the world that the game is set in involves fantasy, magic, and mythical beings, the buildings and inhabitants can be fanciful.

The organization of the map, equipment, and battle function icons around the peripheral of the play area of the screen (the world and the character centered on the screen) works very well.  They do not take up that much area so that the player feels immersed in the game, but they are large enough to be meaningful and they all have unique icons (i.e., adheres to HCI principles).  The player interaction with other players and the NPCs is good, but it does require referring to the help system or the user manual.  When playing World of Warcraft on Mac OS X, they choose to do something differently than one would expect.  Within the Mac OS X Finder, you hold down the Control key while clicking with the mouse to emulate a right mouse button (because most Macs do not have a mouse with two buttons).  Inside the game however, you have to hold down the Command key (also known as the Apple key) while clicking with the mouse in order to perform a right click (which is used for picking up loot and for communicating with players and NPCs.  If the Blizzard developers had kept this consistent with what the player was expecting from using the operating system, interaction in the game space would have been more transparent.

The world in which the player navigates through is immersive.  The player’s character is modeled in three dimensions and the world that the character walks through is also modeled in three dimensions.  Physical principles such as gravity and optics are built into the game’s underlying technology.  Features in the distance are faded from view while those things up close have a tremendous amount of detail.  Because believability and level of detail can reach a point of diminishing returns, the look of the game is not photorealistic.  The Blizzard developers strike a balance between the look and feel of the world within the game and the amount of realism necessary for an immersive 3D environment.  Some physical laws are suspended however because of the mythic and fantasy elements of the world.  These elements have to be accepted on faith by the player in order for the game to have any meaning for the player.

The narrative is carried by the exploration and fulfillment of quests by the player/character.  Because the environment is so expansive (like the real world), the narrative created by the exploration of the player is successful.  The terrain that the character walks through is based on models that do not change.  There are certain assumptions about perspective that are upheld within the game.  If a cliff appears to rise about three hundred yards ahead, that distance will not shift.  This is a technical consideration regarding the way that the “camera” focuses and presents perspective of the 3D world.  The game models a space of fantasy but it must present it in a familiar way to the experiences of its intended audience.

There is a learning curve inherent in playing a game like World of Warcraft.  As Barbara Stafford writes in “Presuming images and consuming words,” “It is not accidental that this overwhelming volume of information—likened to drinking from the proverbial firehose—coincides with a mountain concern for bolstering and maintaining language ‘literacy’” (462).  Stafford is writing about the literacy of visual images.  There are subtle cues embedded in the game that the player has to recognize in order to play the game successfully (e.g., exclamation points over NPCs that have quests to offer and question marks over NPCs who are connected to quests in progress).  Iconic information provides the best way for quick access to game controls and functions.  The player has to develop a level of literacy of these icons in order to be a proficient game player.

Additionally, the 3D environments presented in the game are similar to the descriptions of Renaissance gardens in Kenneth J. Knoespel’s “Gazing on Technology.”  The 3D environment of the game is promoting the underlying technology that makes 3D computer graphics possible in the same way that Renaissance technology was employed in building those gardens.  Knoespel writes, “Gardens, whether set out in Renaissance poetry or on the estates of the nobility, offer a controlled means for assimilating the new technology.  In each case, the audience views the machinery at a privileged distance as it would an entertainer…In fact, the garden conceals technology in its mythological narrative” (117-118).  The player does not have to understand how his or her 3D graphics accelerator works in order to enjoy the immersive experience of playing World of Warcraft.  This game is the “controlled means for assimilating the new technology” of 3D computer graphics.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.