I have a slight confession to make; make sure you’re sitting down for this one folks. I am … a WoW elitist. I make no bones about it—I believe in optimal stats, optimal specs, optimal rotations, and optimal performance. I do believe that an optimal condition exists, and although I concede that it is unattainable, for all intents and purposes, it’s nonetheless my goal to get as close to it as possible. But I’m not telling you this so I can predicate a tirade about Smite DPS priests or melee hunters or players who advocate “doing your own thing”. No, I’m telling you this because my goal is a risky one—I want to make you an “elitist” too.
(Don’t tar and feather me just yet … I swear I have the best of intentions.)
In starting to write this post I realized that there are really two essential elements to my arguments about elitism—the first centers around the definition and evolution of elitism in WoW, and the second centers on the premise that being a (decent) elitist actually benefits the gaming community. To make it easier on us both, (and give you twice as many opportunities to skewer me) I’ve decided to divide the discussion into two parts, the second of which will follow in a couple days’ time. So without further ado, let me draw that target on my back and get the ball rolling …
The beginnings of Elitism
You’ve seen the term bandied about trade chat, thrown into an argument in a PuG and tossed into posts ranging from gemming strategies to Gearscore. It is a key word for almost any debate, and generally an indication that things might get ugly. But when talking about elitism and the elitist mentality, the one thing that most discussions lack is definition. Am I an elitist if I rely on calculations? Am I an elitist if I think my opinions are right? Am I an elitist if I think my gear is better than yours? And what separates being a good elitist from being a bad one?
Although I suggested that my definition of elitism centers around the belief of an ideal situation, the dictionary definition is a lot more simplistic:
[ih-lee-tiz-uh m, ey-lee-]
1. practice of or belief in rule by an elite.
2. consciousness of or pride in belonging to a select or favored group.
While in the real world, being a social elitist means you belong to a very select upper level of society, or being a religious elite means you belong to the highest level of your religious structure, in WoW being an “elite” originally referred to those players who operated at the top of their class (in PVE or PVP).
Once upon a time, being a member of an elite group in WoW was a badge of pride. Elite gamers were part Mensa member, part Macguyver; players who according to urban legend could rattle off proc statistics while beating down an army of Murlocs with only The Stoppable Force and an Ogre Loincloth. Starting in Vanilla, the WoW elite were decorated with titles (“Sacarb Lord” or “High Warlord”) or had unique armor (like Thunderfury or Hand of Rag) to distinguish them from the average player, and they were largely regarded as the authorities on their respective classes. Over the years, many have been memorialized within WoW for their efforts. In fact, with the release of Ulduar and Icecrown, the blogging realm saw a number of the WoW writing/researching elite memorialized in the names of loot. These were players who knew their class, who knew enough to give advice, and who used their above-average knowledge to help others, and they definitely took pride in doing so.
But, somewhere between the days of Molten Core and Icecrown, being “elite” morphed into something else. It became a derogatory phrase, an insult thrown out all too frequently when players start talking about optimal rotations, spell selection, gemming, etc. Guaranteed, if I throw out unsolicited Shaman advice to a PuG healer, pointing out that he may want to rethink his crit-based gemming strat based on Shaman HEP values for his gear level, I will likely be rebuffed with an “elitist” stamp. If I start throwing out numbers and mathematical theory, I’ll only be digging myself deeper into a hole.
The Information Surge
So how did it come to pass that a compliment was transformed into a caustic insult? I think the answer lies in WoW’s growing popularity and success. In fact, I’d argue that the degradation of “elite” was actually made possible by the mass dissemination of information; with formulae, boss strats, class discussions, boss mods, websites, and detailed information available to most players at the click of a mouse, no longer is information something that’s discoverable based on your /played time. That I can know a max dps rotation before I even reach level 10 on my warrior stands as a testament to the fact that even the noobiest of players can gain substantial insight into a class simply through the shared experiences of others.
Thus, demonstrating the same “in-depth” class knowledge as someone with over 300 days played is possible for almost anyone with the ability to read and parrot. (I’ll note here that understanding is not requisite to reiteration of concepts and theory.) As many long time raiders will admit, the number of resources that players have access to is staggering when compared to those that existed when WoW was an “underground” movement. And as the game has grown, the resources have too, at an almost exponential rate. Because of this surge in information, I think it’s safe to say that the general gaming education of the WoW player has increased over the years, which has, in turn, forced Blizzard to increasingly raise the bar on complexity. (Yes, I am absolutely saying that the game is more complex than it was in MC. LK is a prime example—How many phases? How many mechanics? How many ways can things go wrong?) Thus, you have a situation where the degrees of knowledge between the new player, the average player and the veteran are increasing, with each struggling to define the game as it exists for them.
As this personal definition develops, we have a prime example of how the “WoW Paradigm” comes into play:
Anyone who plays less than you is a casual scrub getting free welfare epics. Anyone who plays more than you is an unemployed virgin who needs to get a life, a job, and/or go outside.
As Kyle at the Crispy Gamer points out, part of the reason for the growing divide can be laid at the feet of gaming culture, and its origins as a sort of “indie” movement. Gamers’ references to the “good old days” of Vanilla only underscore the value placed on the whole “I was doing it before it was cool” attitude that many in the gaming world (both inside and outside of WoW) have adopted. The fact that the game has evolved into a better product since then, in large part due to its increased appeal beyond the “dedicated indie gamer”, actually further pushes a distinction between “new” players and “old” ones (and accordingly, “noobs” and “veterans”.)
The polarization of players between the two experience extremes only lends further encouragement to a player’s distinction of himself as an “elite” gamer, one who has been there and done that, or the “laid back” gamer, who wants to discover things for himself. This distinction wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing except for the fact that players will oftentimes demonstrate knowledge by way of exception—things that I know and you don’t, you scrub. Combine this with patented internet anonymity, and you have on one hand, an informed player base running around trying to prove their skill through criticism and arguing that “casuals” have ruined the game, and on the other hand, a number of newer gaming converts trying to find their own way in a world where the legwork on just about anything has already been done. And as players find themselves actively trying to fit in with one group or the other, the swing of the pendulum gets more and more extreme.
In fact, the negative stigma surrounding the elitist has grown so much, that as a post on Mogamu recently put it, the Elitist Gamer has come to epitomize the very worst characteristics of the informed player:
They stand from their proud set of stats on a recreated character account as not to show there “learning phase” stats that EVERY player has. They are the masters of redirection by criticism. In order that no one focus on their own short comings they constantly point out the faults of newer or less skilled players.
While this is arguably the worst form that elitism can take, it is a perception is incredibly prevalent in groups and communities throughout WoW. So, for example, while Elitist Jerks is broadly acknowledged by players as the penultimate resource for WoW data and the players who populate their forums are recognized as significant contributors to the community, the information they offer is still oftentimes looked down upon as being pompous conjecture.
There is no One Definition
I think what we’re left with here is that there isn’t one definition for elitism, good or bad. Being someone who believes that level of reward should be tied to level of effort or being someone who believes that concepts like linear programming (which states that there is a mathematical method for determining a “best” set of outcomes given particular constraints and goals) are applicable to WoW, doesn’t make you an sanctimonious ass. (Being a sanctimonious ass makes you a sanctimonious ass.) It just makes you someone with different goals.
So, while the derogatory usage of elitst can imply arrogance, superiority, and a certain level of snarkniness, there is a positive definition as well, being a knowledgeable and accomplished member of WoW community. And this latter camp—the “elite” that set out to achieve greater rewards through increased effort, the ones who start blogs (teehee) or spend time roaming the MMO Champion forums, the MVPs who take time to teach others—these are the elite players that I’m arguing for. And these are the elite players I hope I can encourage you to be.
(With that, I’ll let you marinate on this idea for a couple of days and then hit you with Part II of the Argument for Elitism, which will center on the benefits of elitist thought and treading the line of helpfulness.)