Well, it’s not too complicated: My Life As A Night Elf Priest by Bonnie Nardi is the best ethnography of World of Warcraft out there. And that’s not likely to change soon.
I have the impression that My Life As A Night Elf Priest didn’t make quite the splash that University of Michigan Press hoped that it would when it was first published. Virtual worlds like World of Warcraft (hereafter, WoW) are exciting and new right, and Nardi was a Night Elf Priest. It’s so fashion forward it should whip cutting-edge types into a thick, rich froth of excitement. But — as far as I can tell — that didn’t happen. But, to Nardi’s credit, that didn’t happen.
You can (and might even want to) divide ethnographers of virtual worlds into two camps: those who study them because they are radically new and inherently interesting, and those who see them as interesting for reasons other than their novelty. Like Nardi, I am firmly in the former group. A glitzy gee-whiz ethnography of an amazing virtual world might have attracted more attention among anthropologists — mostly because they missed the period seven years ago when the rest of the academic community had this particular spasm — but to her credit Nardi has written a careful, intelligent book that avoids hype and moves our understanding of virtual worlds forward.
Nardi has a long background in studying how people interact with technology. If I understand this correctly, people originally studied usability: how people interacted with computers and how you could change computers to make them more usable. Then they realized that what people wanted to use technology for was affected by the form that technology itself took. Nardi was one of the people who took this insight and developed ‘activity theory’, a generalized approach which made action rather than the actors the center of its approach. It’s a bit like actor network theory in that it considers humans and nonhuman equally, and like ANT it articulates slightly with American Pragmatism. But Nardi’s lodestar is Vygotsky, and activity theory has no truck with the bizarre epistemological and ontological exuberances of ANT. It is scientific in its study of action, but it not in a sterile way. Frankly, its a very impressive way to think about the world.
This is the viewpoint that Nardi brings to WoW. And I mean ‘brings it’ in the sense of bring it, babeeee. Nardi’s main claim in her book is that activity theory, expanded by a reading of Dewey’s aesthetic theory, can make sense of what it means to play WoW. In his book Art and Experience Dewey provides an account of art which is tied to Western aesthetic theory but which is not tied to decrepit Victorian theories of the sublime, beautiful, otherworldly, etc. Specifically, he argues that aesthetic experience is the result of a kind of engaged activity in the world that occurs when people’s capacities are challenged but not overwhelmed. Nardi takes this up and argues that playing WoW can be an aesthetic experience — absorbing, pleasurable, and fun. It’s sort of an account of flow tied to a description of human flourishing. Nardi’s exposition of the concept in the second section of the book is detailed but not pedantic. She really uses theory to get to where she needs to go, which is the best way to do it.
In the next section of the book she goes on to show how this framework can be used to move ahead on various debates in virtual worlds. For instance: is WoW addictive? Nardi’s answer is that the ‘addiction’ that we see in video game players is predicted in Dewey, who argues that focusing too much on activity deforms it (in The Craftsman Sennett makes a similar point, btw). Is WoW ‘work’ or ‘play’? This question has dogged the literature on video games for a decade and has always tweaked my anthropological sensibilities since it is so ethnocentric. So its gratifying to see Nardi demonstrate that these culture-bound notions can be replaced by a more general theory. Is WoW a ‘world’? Is there a ‘magic circle’ separating virtual worlds from the actual world? Nardi answers all these questions, often settling or transcending the terms of debate simply through the use of good sense and refusing to let the categories of the debate deform the understanding of the ethnographic data.
Often at SM we worry about whether anthropology is ‘progressing’. People looking for an example of how to progress should read Nardi’s book. She carefully addresses major debates in the literature, explicitly states where they are, and then describes where they should go based on her findings. Its refreshing and profoundly respectful of her fellow WoW-ologists, whom she always manages to find wanting, but in whose work she always finds something of value.
As someone who has played tons of Warcraft, I find Nardi’s account extremely readable and even — in the case of the Hogger strats she quotes — laugh-out-loud funny. She is often personal, describing her wonder at the beauty of the in-game world. She clearly loves the game. But at the same time the book (somehow) manages a very formal and objective tone. Knowing Bonnie as I do I recognize this as rooted in her personality, but some readers might find it dry. It’s certainly not the breathless omgvirtualworld that we see in the work of some authors. So I am not sure how well the ethnography will hold the average reader.
This is a problem-driven monograph, thematically organized. Although there is no doubt that she provides a wealth of information about the game, the thematic organization and objective tone may leave some readers feeling they are not ‘being there’ as they read the ethnography. I wonder in particular how well people who have never played WoW will be able able to follow some of the exposition. I don’t know. YMMV.
There is a lot more to say about Nardi’s book: her feminist vision of WoW as an egalitarian place deformed by the presence of dorky, misogynist geeks, the way Dewey’s democratic theory articulates with her work on community, her choice of research methods, the brief comparative chapter on Chinese WoW players — the list goes on and on. Like all great ethnographies the book continues to provoke thought when you are done reading it. Its quite an accomplishment for what is, after all, a very slender monograph.
In conclusion, I can see how aspects of Nardi’s book might have made it less splash-ful than it ought to have been. But for my money it is one of the best ethnographies of a virtual world out there and, even more importantly, a model of how ethnographic fact and theory should be used to help move a discipline forward. Also did I mention that it is short and cheap and clearly written? I’d recommend you give it a try.