Walter Ong’s World of Warcraft

Orality-Literacy Theory and Player Experience


Carol Poster has combined a career as an academic scholar in history of rhetoric with numerous essays in journals and edited collections and a freelance writer with three nonfiction books and over a thousand articles in print and web venues.


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.

Learning Lore: From Homeric Heroes to Warlords of Draenor

Narratives can be linear or nonlinear. Our experience of modern fiction or cinema tends to be radically linear, in a fashion that is encapsulated in the advice the King gave the White Rabbit during the trial at the end of Alice in Wonderland:

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Both MMORPGs such as WoW and oral traditional epics, however, offer up radically nonlinear and multimodal story lines and ways of experiencing narrative. Rather than having a single plot line, their narratives are vast and sprawling histories of real, imaginary, or hybrid worlds. Even when one particular game element or epic has a dominant narrative arc, such as the story of Odysseus’ return from Troy (as told in Homer’s Odyssey) or the rise and fall of the Lich King (as recounted in WoW’s Wrath of the Lich King expansion pack), that arc is rarely self-contained, but instead filled with allusions to other related game or mythic elements. Just as our understanding of the Odyssey depends on our knowledge of the Trojan war, the Judgment of Paris, and the rivalries among the Greek gods, so the story of the Lich King depends on the fall of Lordaeron and the racial histories of blood elves, humans, and undead. These intertextualities are not a simple matter of prequels and sequels, but rather of an association of interdependent elements via the mechanisms of formulae, epithets, and iconography as well as explicit reference, namely repeated phrases or imagery used across varying contexts. Not only are the narratives situated at a nexus of interconnected scenes, histories, and backstories, but they are experienced in ways ranging from static tableaus to dynamically evolving performative instantiations by an audience that actively participates in and shapes the traditions in which they are embedded.

Oral Tradition as Multimodal Narrative Experience

The experience of both oral traditional culture and the WoW universe is one of temporal discontinuity and displacement, in the sense that the sequence in which you experience the elements of the lore or mythology has no direct relationship to the chronological sequence of the events themselves. Often the elements of the lore cycle backwards and forwards in time with episodes often being changed, reshaped, and retold from multiple perspectives.This contrasts with the way we now encounter Homer, which is alien to the original mode of epic performance in more than just language and medium. Our modern experience of Homer is of a sequential artifact with a beginning, a middle, and an end, that we interact with in a solitary manner. In reading Homer, we resemble St. Ambrose who read quietly to himself rather than aloud in a group as was more common in antiquity:

[W]hen he was reading, his eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were at rest. Ofttimes when we had come…we saw him thus reading to himself, and never otherwise … (Augustine, Confessions VI.3).

The twenty-first century Homer, like Ambrose’s Bible, is bound between covers with a fixed shape and sequence, and read silently and privately as part of a literary experience Plato describes as rigidly unresponsive:

Writing, … is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. … [With] written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them … they always say only one and the same thing. (Phaedrus 275d)

Homer as experienced in antiquity, on the other hand, like MMORPGs, was social rather than solitary and interactive rather than monological. No two performances of Homeric epic were identical. Just as when gamers replay episodes or entire games, the course of events and length of time required depends on the ways the players interact with the game universe, so audience reactions and performance situations cause oral performers to vary their performances of what they consider the “same” story.

The oral traditions underpinning the stories about the Trojan War existed long before they were fixed into the oral-derived texts we know as the Iliad and Odyssey. They were part of an inherited body of tradition that was constantly encountered in different forms. One might hear a bard reciting the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops at a banquet. The next day, one might present a sacrifice at a temple of Poseidon, father of Polyphemus, to ensure a successful sea voyage. A few weeks later, one might be part of a village chorus performing an ode to Athena and later walk by a statue dedicated to Zeus. Six months later, one might travel to a festival where another rhapsode performed a book of the Iliad mentioning Odysseus. An initiate into a mystery religion might encounter hymns or rituals culminating in the showing of a sacred object, revealing hidden Orphic allegorical interpretations of Odysseus’ journey to the underworld. Rather than expressing a static authorial vision, oral traditional knowledge was synthesized by its participants as they interacted with a wide range of rituals, performances, and artefacts.

Like the ancient experience of the body of tradition, so lore in WoW is experienced in a multimodal fashion as the player interacts in different ways with the WoW world:

  • Watching Cut-scenes or Cinematics: Short embedded videos are triggered by specific events in the game universe.
  • Reading Text on the Screen: Lore text may be displayed on objects within the world, located in clickable “books”, displayed as conversations with non-player characters (NPCs), or displayed on screen in response to a triggering event.
  • Role Playing: Players’ characters enact many of the key events in the game’s lore, either as individuals or in groups.
  • Exploring/Visual Interaction: As characters explore the game world they encounter important lore elements.
  • Related Games: Other games such as the original Warcraft series and the more recent Hearthstone share WoW lore elements.
  • Forums (websites for the WoW community) and In-Game Chat
  • Out-of-Game: Films, novels, websites, merchandise, videos, and live-streaming.

These modes of engaging with lore share with the experience of oral tradition elements of modal variety and nonlinearity. In other words, one can learn elements of lore by seeing or hearing them or by engaging in several different forms of interaction with the game environment or with a variety of affiliated out-of-game experiences, just as someone in antiquity might attend a rhapsode’s performance, look at the Parthennon frieze, sacrifice an animal to Zeus, or be part of a choral performance. There is no fixed chronological sequence to lore experiences. A Greek might hear the story of the Returns from Troy, sacrifice an ox to Zeus, and then look at a vase portraying the shield of Achilles. A gamer might kill Arthas in a large group encounter, a few minutes later listen to the story of the birth of Arthas, and then move back in time with a small group to help Arthas save Stratholme. This sense of temporal dislocation is intensified by the addition of “timewalking” dungeons, the Caverns of Time, and other mechanics allowing players to move at will across all the time periods of the WoW universe.

This sort of temporal dislocation also characterizes what are known as “epic formulae” or short phrases repeated in fixed positions in epic lines, such as “the grey-eyed Athena”, “the clever Odysseus”, or “the wine-dark sea”. These epithets can, at times, be wildly inappropriate to their context, as when Aphrodite, having been wounded, is crying to Dione, but is nonetheless described as “the laughter-loving Aphrodite” (Iliad V.375). The point of epithets is not to express what is happening at a particular instant in a narrative but to characterize an individual’s essential nature; the epithet “laughter-loving” when used in the context of Aphrodite’s tears reminds us that she is a love goddess, and that, as Zeus will remind her, she has no business on the battlefield. Similarly, in WoW, short pieces of voiced dialogues exhibit racial or character qualities. When a player character peacefully buys flour from a blood elf shopkeeper, the blood elf may cry out “Remember the Sunwell!”, reminding players of the single most important event in the history of the blood elves, even though the comment has little relevance to grocery shopping.

Both games and Homeric epic also display formulaic composition on the level of battle scenes, with typically formulaic progress in which a hero or group of heroes prepare for battle (known in WoW as “buffing”), fight large groups of weaker opponents (what in WoW are called “trash mobs”) and then progress to a climactic battle against an extremely powerful opponent (a “boss fight”). In a blog post entitled “The line-end formula smoking gun of play mechanics in oral epic,” Roger Travis discusses some of the similarities between player experiences of progression in Super Mario Bros and battle scenes in the Iliad; the boss battles in WoW are similar in this respect. These scene types are frequently repeated in Homer’s Iliad and other epics, with many of the same phrases and structures used for standard scene elements such as donning armor, boasting in advance, sweeping through weaker opponents who fall with “their armor clattering around them”, and a final encounter. Similarly, in WoW, many game mechanics or elements are repeated across smaller encounters (five-player “dungeons’) and larger encounters (10- to 40-player “raids”), such as a fight pattern in which player characters run towards the enemy, fight, are given a warning that the enemy is about to use some sort of ability, run away, and then run back towards the enemy. The commonly used WoW third-party user interface modification Deadly Boss Mods reuses the same audio file, a male voice saying “Run away, little girl, run away” (originally part of the Big Bad Wolf encounter in a raid known as Karazhan in WoW’s Burning Crusade expansion), for all encounters of this type, giving players a heightened sense of the formulaic nature of the game play.The Deadly Boss Mods UI modification software, although not packaged with the game, is downloaded and used by a vast number of active players, and thus part of a normal player experience.

MMORPGs and epics both exist as instantiations, momentary interactions between script and audience, unlike books which have unique authoritative versions (cf. McGann 1992). Oral theorists tend to contrast this with the more fixed, “writerly” mode of experience audiences have of novels and even movies. In both epic and games, no single performance or play-through is more authoritative than another. A rhapsode performing the Iliad narrative might expand the role of Nestor while performing in Pylos and emphasize Odysseus in Ithaca. A festival performance might differ from one at a banquet. In WoW, similarly, the ways players defeat Garrosh Hellscream in the Siege of Orgrimmar vary with character role, level, raid size, raid difficulty, and strategy. Just as in antiquity, people of different classes, ethnicities, regions, or genders experienced tradition differently, so WoW lore and in-game experience vary with character type. Both traditional epics and game software are scaffolding around which experiences are created.

New Wine in Old Bottles

Most studies of popular culture in light of classical tradition use what might be termed an “old wine in new bottles” approach, analyzing how earlier stories or characters are reshaped for new media. Oral traditional analysis, on the other hand, uses a “new wine in old bottles” approach, looking at structural parallels in how the experiences of both MMORPGs and oral traditions rely on participants synthesizing a body of lore from chronologically displaced encounters in multiple modes, linked together by epithets, formulae, and intertextualities, assimilating new materials to older experiential structures. It avoids the pitfall of many narrative approaches found within game studies (discussed in Wesp 2014) by not trying to analyze gaming in terms of the structures of print narratives, but rather seeing games as a form of secondary orality, looking at gaming procedures such as move combinations, cut scenes, and quest progressions as formulaic elements serving as building blocks  of player experience for game traditions, just as in ancient culture ritual, epic, and art flowed together seamlessly and fluidly as ways in which culture was handed down across generations. Thus orality literacy theory forms a way to synthesize procedural and narrative approaches to game theory without assimilating games into the print culture framework of traditional literary studies.

Perhaps if Father Ong had lived to play WoW, his knowledge of oral tradition would have enabled him, whichever class he rolled, to understand the structure of the game and start “pwning noobs” in both game studies and the actual game in short order.

Author’s notes:

For a full history of the origins of orality-literacy theory see Foley (1985; 1988). The origins of modern-orality literacy theory can be found in Parry (1971) and Lord (1960). Ong’s most important work on the topic was Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (Ong, 1982). More recent scholarship can be found in the journal Oral Tradition, founded by John Miles Foley.

Works Cited

Augustine. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Trans. E. B. Pusey. Project Gutenberg. Web. 17 May 2016.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Project Gutenberg. Web. 17 May 2016.

Foley, John Miles. Oral-Formulaic Theory and Research: An Introduction and Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1985.

—. The Theory of Oral Composition: History and Methodology. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Homer. The Iliad. Trans. A. T. Murray. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Lord, Albert Bates. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Martin, Richard. The Language of Heroes. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1989.

McGann, Jerome J. A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism. Charlottesville VA: University Press of Virginia, 1992.

Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1982.

Parry, Milman. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry. Ed. Adam Parry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

Plato. Plato I: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus. Trans. H. N. Fowler. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Travis, Roger. “The line-end formula smoking gun of play mechanics in oral epic.” Play the Past. Accessed: 15 September 2016.

Wesp, Edward. “A Too-Coherent World: Game Studies and the Myth of ‘Narrative’ Media”. Game Studies 14.2 (December 2014). Accessed 15 September 2016.