World of Warcraft (WoW) has the population and GDP of a small country, and yet for all that, it's just another niche community. Some two billion people all around the globe have access to the internet, and while they may have a few indutible portals in common - google, facebook, wikipedia - there are countless virtual spaces that are known to most only by name or reputation, if at all. My Life as a Night Elf is a glimpse into one of these tiny sectors; "tiny" because no matter how big WoW is compared to its competitors, it remains unsought and unseen by most.

 

The book My Life as a Night Elf was written by anthropologist Bonnie Nardi after hearing a lot about WoW from her students. Nardi started playing WoW, became enraptured by elements of the game and its associated communities, and in 2010 published this book, subtitled An Anthropological Account of the World of Warcraft.

 

What I learned about WoW:

Groups and quests

My preconceptions of WoW were based largely on that South Park episode. Consequentially I took the game to consist of a fantasy character walking around a magical realm killing monsters (and other players) and collecting treasures. That's true but misleading. WoW balances a fascinating balance of solitary-play with community play.

Fundamental to the game are guilds, which in addition to being forums for chatting, provide the means by which groups of players undertake adventures together(called raids). Although sometimes these communities are based on some external requirement - e.g. gay or christian guilds - most are based just on the shared interest in gameplay. 

On the flip-side of guild participation, there is the (ostensibly) solitary activity of preparing for raids. In preperation a player might go fishing, or build some armour, or hunt down some monsters needed to make a potion, and so forth. Once the player has everything they need, they get together with a number of other guild members and go off to complete the quest.

The quests themselves are incredibly elaborate, and depend on teamwork from the entire group (which may be up to 40 people!). A quest might involve searching through a series of caverns, defeating monster minions, and monster bosses, learning timed events (like fireballs or architecture collapsing) and how to respond to them all. Quests are hardly ever won first time round, instead, the group gets wiped, learns from its mistakes, tries to find a winning strategy and tries again. (Just to get a feel for it, browse through the insane amount of detail that goes into walkthroughs).

While together, the players' avatars can talk to each other by text, or by voice chat; individuals from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, careers, ages, and nationalities, talking and playing together to complete fantastical quests. 

Chatting, gender, norms of politeness

For various reasons, virtuality can bring the worst out of people; passively perhaps, but nonetheless disturbing. A friend tells me that when playing shooting games online, unless you're a racist homophobe, you either turn off the volume on other players' chat or you only play with friends. I don't understand who these people are. Do they think they're being ironic, appropriating offensive terminology to deprive it of meaning? I doubt it.

WoW is similarly misbalanced. Racism, at least in text, is generally not accepted, but homophobic and misogynistic terms are practically the norm. Obviously talk doesn't just consist of offensive gibberish, but there is far more than you'd expect to hear in the real world.

Maybe those of us who haven't engaged in these types of dialogues on the internet are misinterpreting them. Even if predicated on a problematic culture, maybe netspeak language has diverged sufficiently in these communities so that the meaning has changed? I remember being suprised reading the 1944 novel Dangling Man wherein sarcasm was considered seriously offensive. I remain skeptical that this culture is defensible, but nonetheless, perhaps I need to wait another 50 years for a proper perspective. 

A related issue is treatment of gender in WoW. Obviously there's the issue of player gender imbalance, but more interesting, I think, is the issue of avatar gender. Girl players tend to choose girl characters. By contrast, boys choose both. Why? To quote WoW's wiki, "Female night elves are lithe and curvaceous", and guys prefer to look at chicks. This is what Nardi was told when interviewing players, and additionally found it to be a universal assumption for motivation.

It's very important to note that in guilds people know each other's gender from the voice chat, and it's not uncommon (Nardi says, at least in her experiences) for some member to post pictures of themselves somewhere in the guild forums. There was no mention in the book of people using their avatar to try and impersonate a gender for themselves.

Also surprising to Nardi was the amount of emote flirting that goes on. In WoW special commands results in special actions occuring in chat - similar to what happens in E2's catbox, although some also result in the avatar performing an action. The emote flirting occurs between any characters, regardless of the player's or avatar's gender.

A few thoughts on this issue: First of all, why don't girls choose any of the hot male characters? I'd guess that it's something to do with the culture that's developed around the idea that girls in WoW are a minority (even if a much larger minority than shoot-em-up games). Why is it cool for guys in WoW to appear as girls and emote flirtatiously? I'd guess that it's something to do with a combination of (A) transexuality being funny (cf. taboo in places like China), and (B) this being a counterintuitively safe method for asserting heterosexuality.

WoW in China

In the media China is infamous for its gold farmers - businesses based on players who repeat simple tasks to accumulate game currency which is then sold on the interweb for real money. This is a real phenomenon, albeit a relatively minor one. 

Before going on to the more interesting points where Chinese players differ from their American counterparts, it's worthwhile reiterating Nardi's musing about how incredible the similarities are.

The popularity of a game designed in Southern California in a country like China, with its radically different history and culture, foregrounds the question of the power of a software artifact to organize human activity. (Ch.9)

The socializing that goes around play is quite different in China. In America most players play at home, often by themselves, but also quite commonly with family members and/or housemates. For practical reasons, most Chinese players go to internet cafes to play WoW - the computers and the internet speed are generally much better that what a player might have at home.

This has the curious effect of Chinese WoW players playing together, as in, geographically together. Not only can players see each other when cooperating in play, they can walk around (the room) to see what others are doing, and later, perhaps after finishing a raid together, all go out to dinner.

Another difference is the conception of gender in WoW in China. Chinese players are almost exclusively - far more that in the USA - male, and hardly ever choose female characters. When they do choose a girl avatar it's for the same reason as in America: to look at something pretty! But, when they do this, it's very important that they tell other players encountered in the WoW world that they're male ASAP: it's a stigma to be called a ladygirl (that is, a boy pretending to be a girl, possibly for the purpose of commiting trickery).

The very last thing I'll say, briefly, about WoW in China is it's relation to censorship. Those of us not living under oppressive regimes can be annoyed by what we interpret as anti-art neo-conservative censorship, whether that be in books, films, or video games. China offers a good point of comparison to our liberty woes: video game consoles are illegal in China - except for the state produced iQue player - and all PC games in China undergo serious review, and often revision, before legally entering the market. This can range from removing the appearance of skeletal remains to, at another extreme, taking two years longer than the rest of the world to implement a game expansion.

 

What I thought of the book:

I enjoyed reading this book. But:

It's academic sections  are weak. I've got not doubt that John Dewey's philosophy of aesthetics may provide useful tools for discussing and deconstructing elements of play, but if you don't show me then it's not much use mentioning it. This is a problem in many books that bridge pop culture and high philosophy: if you don't show what difference your philosophy makes to considerations of the culture then you've not convinced anyone that your job is worth its wage.

On the other side of the ball, the book doesn't quite live up to its potential to be a documentary about WoW for outsiders.

  • I want to know more about the jargon and neologisms that have arisen in WoW and how they've come about: a few terms come up, like raids, or mobs (from the term "mobile junks" meaning mobile monsters that drop items of low worth), but not enough. 
  • I want to know about the history of the culture of WoW: the changes that occured with one of the WoW expansions are described in terms of shaking up guild hierarchies and organizations, but I want to know more. WoW was first released in 2004 and has had three major updates since then. That's 7 years of change(!), both inside the game and in the "real" world - how does cultural change manifest itself in an environment like WoW? 
  • It's all very good that Nardi took it upon herself to play WoW, but the book needs more points of view: what's does it mean, practically and in terms of desires, to play WoW for different people
  • And finally, how do various real world phenomenon translate into WoW: religious and political debates, pop-culture dialogue; depression?

 

There are countless secret places around the internet, all with their own alien mythologies, value systems, jokes and jargons.

To see a world in a grain of sand...

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