This post is about how ephemeral virtual worlds are, and how they thus prompt some general thoughts about how fieldsites change over time. But to get there I need to explain what RealID is.
Blizzard is one of the largest gaming companies in the US (and perhaps globally), and it runs several different virtual worlds and online games — chief among them being World of Warcraft, a virtual world I’ve done over a year of fieldwork in. RealID is basically Blizz’s way of linking all these worlds together — if you friend someone’s RealID, you can chat and hang out with them no matter what game they are playing. RealId thus turns all of Blizz’s games, which sort of always acted as chat rooms for the people playing them, into one giant meta-chatroom. Now when my scarily erudite beloved is playing a Tauren druid on one realm while I’m playing a Dwarf hunter on another, we can still plan what to have for dinner over chat. People are pissed off, though, because RealID will also connect the web-based forums that Blizzard hosts. In-game RealID is optional — if you don’t want to friend anyone no one will know that your undead rogue ClownKillazzzz is actually you. But in the forums, you will have no choice but reveal your True Name.
There is a lot to say about these changes — about how Blizzard is, borg-like, trying to mimic and absorb popular social games like Mafia Wars; about how Blizzard might be willing to take the heat of universal disapproval if it means creating forums where people are more civil because their identities are known; about the way a small number of people running companies get to decide what counts and privacy and how much of it and what kind we want; and so forth.
The best commentary I’ve seen on these changes so far is Tim Burke’s commentary at Terra Nova:
Blizzard is increasingly looking like both like the dominant force in its field and like the last of its kind all at once, a huge success that did not inaugurate but instead capped a particular cultural form.
I think Tim is really right about this — five years ago people were predicting tons and tons of MMOGs would spring up and become new lotus worlds into which we would disappear. Since then we’ve seen tons of contenders to WoW rise up and, by and large, phail. In my opinion, Tim and others like him are right: virtual worlds are not the beginning of a trend of massive disembodiment and removal from our fleshy biographies, but just something cool that happened for fifteen years around the turn of the century.
I’ve argued in my recent article in Anthropological Quarterly that we cannot think of virtual worlds as islands of culture to be explored without reference to the real-world engagement of their denizens, and that researchers who study virtual worlds labor under culturally-induced conceptions of these worlds separateness from the ‘real world’ because of the intellectual baggage that comes from their expressivist cultural backgrounds (also, the visual nature of the worlds helps facilitate the illusion of separateness). That is why my study of WoW is a study of American culture when it goes online.
Increasingly the goal is to understand the interaction of projects available in the game (cooperative farming in Farmville, raid progression in WoW) with projects derived from people’s meat-world biographies (feed the kids, graduate from college). In particular, the focus should be on ‘virtual world ideologies': the explicit ideas that people have about the way that virtual worlds interact with actual ones. To a certain extent, my paper was a study of the virtual world ideology of previous researchers of virtual worlds. Tim points out that:
casual games… are something that many people don’t mind having associated with their public lives… because they’re seen as compatible with productive work and with mainstream sociality. World of Warcraft… is not and won’t ever be that kind of activity. Joining the office betting pool and going bowling for three hours are intrinsically different things in terms of time and process and compatibility with other activities.
I agree although with a caveat — it is the culturally mediated perception of the fit of these different projects that will effect how they are perceived. it is not too hard to imagine a world where Mafia Wars play is seen as a sign of moral depravity and obsession with violence, whereas raid attendance in WoW with your company-sponsored guild is mandatory as a way to build office unity and you’re not allowed to protest that it eats into your free time.
All fieldsites change, and it is one of the jobs of the anthropologist to produce work to help commemorate the lives of the people we live with — particularly since most of the time they are too busy living to remember to take pictures of convenience store or save copies of the church bulletin. But it is something else again to think that your entire fieldsite might become technologically obsolete and someday disappear, living behind only a swirling mass of traces in archive.org.
People often ask me why I try to document Warcraft instead of ‘some remote tribe’ when the remote tribe’s culture is — so they presume — undocumented and in the process of disappearing while virtual worlds are populated by educated white people and thus will be — presumably — remembered forever.
But the truth is that not only is life ephemeral, but digital life doubly so. It is much easier to capture as data because it is always already made out of data: recording your screen is much easier than recording your visual field. But I think (and I could be wrong) that at some level it is a lot harder to demolish a cathedral or a firestation than it is to switch off the electricity to a colocation facility hosting whole worlds inside its racks of cooled, humming servers.
Many involved with World of Warcraft are already aware that Cataclysm, the new expansion to the game, will change the face of the in-game world forever in a way that will make The Old Days the stuff of memory. But it may be that the game itself needs to be documented, and the memories of it need to be ordered and spun out into a story now, while the game is here.
Of course all that is a long way away, but with every update of the game the world changes a little, and with the rollout of RealID it will change a lot. As a result, strangely, virtual worlds may have more to teach us about salvage ethnography than the indigenous peoples who have so stubbornly and successfully resisted predictions about the inevitability of their disappearance.