This is going to be a very rough topic, both in subject and presentation, as there is a lot to say and it does not always flow well from one point to another. "Elitism" is a rather touchy subject, and perceptions of what makes someone an elitist vary from person to person and situation to situation. So, in truth, what makes someone "elitist"?
My step-father often talks about the "tee-ball mentality.” Everyone gets a turn at bat, everyone gets a hit, and everyone gets to be told they're special, no matter how well they do. I experienced this first hand growing up. I have absolutely terrible hand-eye coordination. I never could hit the ball off the tee. Yet it took about ten minutes of me swinging and missing or swinging and hitting the tee instead of the ball for them to take me off the field, making the whole team wait for their turn.
How does this translate to the discussion of elitism? It's the idea that there is no "wrong" or "bad," which makes being an elitist (or even being perceived as elitist) equivalent to being scum. I was very, very bad at tee ball, but no one would say anything because I was five or six years old and it would have made me cry. Instead, they just let me embarrass myself every game until I was allowed to stop playing.
When I join a group, I expect that the people I am grouped with are spec'd and geared appropriately for their class and have an idea of what they're doing. If they're new to the encounter, that's fine. Boss strats and trash pulls can be explained during the course of the instance. However, you cannot "fix" someone's gear/gem/talent choices in the middle of a raid. And how often must you die to the same thing, receive the same warnings, and be coached through a process before it is determined that there is something wrong?
Some people may say expecting a certain talent setup is elitist. It goes with asking for "cookie cutter" specs and setups. However, cookie cutters tend to be cookie cutters for a reason; they are the most optimal build (with some leeway depending on gear and focus). Messing with a cookie cutter can be innovative, possibly, and if you can prove there is value behind it in both words and performance, then you are set and fine. And there is some truth to the knowledge that it isn’t all a DPS or healing race, but it can be a marker of how well you’re contributing. As well, cookie cutters tend to make more allowances for mistakes, as generally a mistake in an optimal build will not be as much of a detriment in a build already lacking optimization.
For certain classes, there are one or two trees optimized for PvE and one that, while doing well, is not the best choice. For example, the Hunter class. While Beast Mastery used to output the highest DPS, now higher-end guilds expect their hunters to be either MM or Survival, with possibly a dual spec so they can have both. Beast Mastery has been relegated to a sort of gimmick fight, like Yogg-Saron without keepers, where your pet is doing more steady DPS than your hunter (who must constantly be turning away), and burst DPS shines. So, when accepting an applicant for a serious raiding guild, the BM hunter would be turned down in favor of a Survival or Marksman. This could seem "elitist," but guilds pushing hardmodes, server firsts and progression races want their groups to be min-maxed to the extreme.
But if it's a PUG raid or instance, or a less rigidly defined guild? The BM hunter can happily take a ranged DPS spot and do well. But, if they have not optimized their build, it almost counts as two strikes against them. PUGs are not the smoothest of runs, historically, and having along a non-hit capped MM hunter wearing Spellpower mail is much more likely to get the boot than a BM hunter whose pet didn't aggro the next trash wave because it was on passive. Is this elitist? No. If you're not contributing, you're dragging everyone down with you.
Now we should probably talk about “what right do other people have to critique my gear/spec/gemming?” And it kind of depends, really. Are you standing around in Dalaran minding your own business, when someone randomly whispers you to tell you that your gem choices are wrong and it would be most optimal to go this way? Well, it would depend on your mood and whether they’re right or not. That one is your affair. But in an instance or guild? I feel every member has every right to discuss another’s spec or gear or spell choices (in a non-aggressive, non-insulting manner), or their boss strategy. Why? Because if you are “doing it wrong,” then you are not just hurting your own performance. You’re hurting the performance of others. PUGs would run a whole lot smoother, bosses would die a lot faster, and people would get a lot more loot if everyone was a bit better at doing what they signed up to do. And, yes, when you accept an invite into a group or raid as a certain spec, you are signing up for a role, and it is expected you should perform.
I could possibly be considered "elitist," in some ways. I try to take things in stride, but I cringe when I see weird or incorrect specs. Like the 0/71/0 Frost DK who tried to tank Sartharion and couldn’t hold a lick of threat, my tolerance has a limit, and there becomes a point where it is possible for you to just be bad. Inexperience, I can handle. I have gently coached both friends and strangers through encounters they had never seen before, helped people with rotations and spec choices, made them glyphs and directed them to websites for more information. But willful ignorance or stupid choices that are repeated consistently, with perhaps a glaring lack of insight of class mechanics at 80? Ouch.
Everyone has their limit. When the Resto Druid who is running Nexus with you stands in front of the dragon in multiple attempts (after being informed that this is a Bad Idea), and does not shift out of chains so they don't stack their debuff, and pulls trash multiple times during the instance because instead of staying in already cleared hallways, they find it more prudent to run into the uncleared room to heal from a distance, there comes a point where you just break and you mentally categorize these people as "bad." Whether it's bad at situational awareness, bad at gear choice, bad at optimization or bad at understanding "this is your role, please play it," there are, in actuality, people bad at the game. Whether or not they can improve is not the issue, it is that they are, at that point, bad. And if you point it out...
This seems to instantly make you the bad guy, if you bring this up. It’s a game, bro. Chillax. We’re all here to have fun. I, personally, cannot have fun with more than a few wipes on content that should not be being wiped on. I can understand a learning curve. But at what point am I allowed to tell someone “What you are doing is wrong. What you have been doing is wrong. Stop. Being. Wrong.” without being a nerd-raging jerk who takes the game way too seriously? My gaming enjoyment is being affected by your terrible choices, yet me imposing a more correct, studied, optimal way is often seen as much more diabolical. This is the “tee-ball mentality.” Everyone gets their chance to hold up the team by swinging the bat awkwardly and wildly, and how dare you make any insinuations that perhaps they are not doing it right.
Do not misunderstand me, there is true elitism. When you exclude people because of inexperience, or because their gear makes the requirements but does not exceed them (so you’ll have to slow this Naxx down just a bit), or when you laugh at their lack of achievements, then that’s elitism. When someone isn't given the chance to show you why they chose a certain spec or why that they can succeed despite their detriments is elitism. Expecting someone to come to a raid in a spec appropriate for what they will be doing, in gear properly itemized and gemmed and a decent understanding of their class mechanics is not being elitist.
As well, "casual" has nothing to do with being "bad." There are plenty of serious raiders who do things badly. A person can be a casual and still optimize themselves during their time of play. Saying "hey man, I only play this game two hours a day" is no excuse to hop into a pug and pull 900 DPS at level 80, just the same as "my main's in the top guild on the server" is no excuse, either. If you cannot contribute properly, you are hurting other people's game time and enjoyment, and you are probably being carried. Though I tend not to speak like this generally as it sounds conceited, I have carried groups through instances and helped carry in raids. It is Not Fun. Not at all. It is frustrating and stressful.
Sometimes there are circumstances that actually necessitate elitism. Le gasp! But it's true. If you're working on One Light in the Darkness, it's probable you won't include anyone, no matter how epic they are, that has not at the very least killed Yogg before. It's perfectly acceptable to turn away someone who is, perhaps, geared enough for the encounter because they lack experience. That person may have contributed well, they may have been able to pick it up, but it's not worth it for those who have taken the time to learn the mechanics to bring them in and hope they can catch up.
Recently, on Vigilant's application forums, there was a rogue applicant. He was given a set of questions about certain choices for gear he had made. He itemized in an odd way, and suggestions were made that could increase his DPS by increments of 20 to 70 DPS. He adamantly refused to go with what he saw as "minimal" upgrades so he could play his way, while stating that this was the way he did max DPS on the boss. Our guild rogues run multiple spreadsheets constantly to check gear and DPS outputs, experiment with specs and gem choices. They are open to suggestion, but when someone is saying something wrong (did you know, you can be wrong in playing the game!), and there is intense melee competition in a guild, they will get turned down. And so he was, both for his insistence on gimping his own DPS as well as his attitude. No, we'd never seen him play, but he showed to us he wasn't worth the investing the time to do so.
Is my guild elitist? Definitely. Do we have to be at times? Definitely. Do we exclude people without experience or gear? Definitely not. If we did, I never would have gotten in. But we require the min-maxing and research necessary for downing hardmodes, and it is clearly stated that this is necessary for invitation. If we were a casual guild, the guy probably would have gotten in. He had epic gems and was fully enchanted, had good DPS (by his admission, anyway) and was available at raid times. But the top end raiding guilds have to be elitist to continue pushing server firsts and hardmodes. It is what their guild is designed to do, it's what the members want to do, and so the elitism is warranted.
WoW is, all things considered, a highly social game. You have to realize that when you interact with a group, your gaming enjoyment is not an isolated entity. By interacting with others, you become connected to their enjoyment. Low or slow DPS, inefficient healing, lack of awareness, or a chaotic spec can quickly irritate or stress the people around you because they have to pick up the slack. WoW is not tee-ball, and I don't expect people to wait around while I swing futilely at a ball I can't hit for hours on end. Is it fair that I should have to wait for others?
Elitism has its place, even if you may not necessarily like it. It isn't always good, and can be wielded inappropriately. But many things would be impossible without it. Without it, would there be any incentive to stop walloping the tee instead of the ball?