The recent release of the alpha client for Warlords of Draenor means that there’s a lot of talk about data mining that’s going around the community. But if you aren’t up on your tech jargon, this might not mean much to you — and Googling the term will send you to a Wikipedia page that tells you data mining aims “to extract information from a data set and transform it into an understandable structure for further use.” Even if you are up on your tech jargon, you might not grasp what that means, especially in the context of World of Warcraft.
So let’s start with a straightforward definition: data mining is the process of digging through WoW’s data files and looking for information like maps, graphics, models, or sounds. It’s not hacking or exploiting the game, just looking at the game files — often, but not always, files that are publicly available — to see what’s there. These files can be from the current game client or come from a PTR or beta build, any of which could have new content that players can’t access in the game world. Similar to looking up filming photos from a favorite TV show or movie, data mining gives you a sneak peek at game content that hasn’t been publicly released, which can range from hints at the next patch to hints to the next expansion. Hungry for information, plenty of players turn to data mining for answers — but because Blizzard can change, remove, or expand on unreleased content without any warning, anything data mined needs to be taken with a pretty big grain of salt.