“WoW Insider”:http://www.wowinsider.com/ recently ran “a longish interview with me”:http://www.wowinsider.com/2009/01/06/15-minutes-of-fame-anthropologist-digs-into-wow/ about my research in the massively multiplayer game World of Warcraft (hence ‘WoW’), and the story has sense gotten picked up by “other fine news sources”:http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/88496-Anthropologist-Studying-Culture-of-WoW-Raiders. It’s been interesting to see the reaction that I’ve had from other people who play the game.
First off — this is the first time I’ve ever shown up in an RSS news feed that I subscribe to! But at a deeper level its interesting to see what people think about my research. The actual guild that I do research has been super supportive, with comments like “im not a big fan of reading things but that was very interesting. Great job!” and “That is a pretty awesome interview. It really does give a lot more insight into what aspects of wow you are focusing on.” One of the big differences between this project and my PNG work is that I am writing while ‘in’ the field, and my ‘informants’ read everything I write (if they can be bothered), and its really nice to know that they support the research — even when they read what you write about them!
As for the larger group of people who read the work, one typical response is that Warcraft is ‘just a game’ so therefore it is an inappropriate object of study. A lot of people who work on MMOGs get this all the time. In my case it drives me particularly nuts, since I am also often told that kinship in Papua New Guinea is also trivial, unimportant, or politically incorrect. So apparently neither ‘traditional’ or ‘cutting edge’ work is appropriate. Ah well, I’ve learned to live with these sorts of views.
More interesting has been the comments that I cannot be doing ‘real’ research because I am enjoying myself while I do it. There is a whiff of ‘its just a game’ in this criticism, but more interestingly there is also the sense that what I am doing can’t be ‘science’ because I am ‘enjoying myself’ while I do it. Is this a way of saying that you can’t be ‘objective’ if you enjoy doing your research? This is funny, since a lot of contemporary science writing (Richard Dawkins, e.g.) is about the joy of doing science and the way it allows you access to the sublime.
A lot of discussion in the comments following the interview focused on whether or not WoW players were a legitimate object of study because they did (or did not) constitute a culture or, in some cases, a ‘subculture’. It is interesting to see whether or not a coherent structure of meaning has sort of been woven around WoW (I think the answer is an obvious yes) but what is even more interesting to me is how quickly my claim to study Americans and American culture seemed to go right by most commentors. I don’t study “World of Warcraft” I study my guild — a group of Americans (and Canadians). I study people. I study what they do online. I do not see them face to face, very often — although I do have dreams of doing a grand tour and having a beer with them all all over the US. But just how much of a deal killer, epistemologically, is the fact that a researcher’s experience of their ‘research subjects’ is mediated? Because if you think all professors must absolutely meet the people they study face to face, you must have a very poor opinion of your local history department.
Overall, however, I’m very grateful and encouraged that the vast majority of the comments have been positive. The overall feeling I get is that there are tons of people in the world playing WoW who understand the tremendous, even life-altering stakes that get read into the game by people who care about it deeply, and it is nice to know that I am not the only person who thinks this about the game.