Walter Ong’s World of Warcraft

Orality-Literacy Theory and Player Experience

Unfortunately, Walter Ong, S.J., an important rhetorical scholar, died on 12 August 2003, slightly more than one year before the 23 November 2004 initial release of Blizzard Entertainment’s MMORPG World of Warcraft (WoW). Thus, we will never know whether Father Ong would have rolled a holy paladin or a discipline priest. Despite this, orality-literacy theory, of which he was one of the primary architects, can illuminate the player experience of WoW just as much as it shed light on the Homeric and other oral-traditional epics to which it was originally applied. The connection is through similarities in how audiences encounter what scholars refer to as “tradition” and players as “lore”. In this essay, I will show that the mechanisms by which players encounter lore in games follows a narrative and experiential pattern similar to how audiences encountered traditional mythology in oral societies, a subject on which Walter Ong did pioneering work. For the purposes of this essay, references to World of Warcraft are to Patch 6.2.3 of the Warlords of Draenor expansion. Much of this analysis would apply to similar game universes, but given the sheer size of its subscriber base and traction in popular culture, WoW is a useful example. Continue Reading