The Warcraft Civilization

Of the three Warcraft ethnographies I wanted to review on SM, William Sims Bainbridge’s The Warcraft Civilization: Social Science in a Virtual World is the most difficult to evaluate. Partially this is because Bainbridge is the only one of the three authors that I don’t know personally. But it is also because his book is so different from the others and, frankly, because I didn’t care for it very much. Writing book reviews is like doing peer review: it requires you to be very fair to your reviewees, but also fair to your audience: the author deserves consideration, and your readers deserve the skinny on the value of a book. When you just don’t like a book, you must try twice as hard to read it with prudent and disinterested eyes to make sure you’re negative opinion is grounded and not just annoyance. So here I go.

Where to start? Nardi and Chen both did fieldwork in World of Warcraft, but their research was about a guild, and they followed that guild both in-game and out of game, for instance by reading guild forums, or talking with people about their actual world lives out of game. Chen and Nardi followed established genres of ethnography — indeed, a more empirical and self-confident, less swishy kind than loosy-goosey work anthropologists often do.

Bainbridge, on the other hand, did not do research in World of Warcraft, he did it research about World of Warcraft. The mythos. The fanverse. The Franchise. The world as a whole, as a civilization or complex and organic assemblage of a wide variety of things. Unfortunately, Bainbridge never elaborates the concept of civilization in any sustained way but it is intriguing to think about the way it could be used to make sense of the entire bast network of games, people, novels, and lead figurines that make up the ‘civilization’ of a game or franchise.

As a result, Bainbridge is the only one of the three to really focus on the ‘lore’ or backstory of World of Warcraft, and we get a much richer presentation of the world. In particular, Bainbridge draws on WoW novels to present an enriched picture of the world. It is an intriguing and legitimate choice which leaves us with a richer understanding of the world which floats above (or behind) the game itself. As a long-time WoW player I learned a lot from Baindbridge’s book about the world I’d spent so much time in.

Bainbridge created toons of every race and class on every kind of server in order to experience as much of WoW as possible, which is admirable. However, it is also where things get weird. Each chapter of the book has a certain thematic focus (‘Religion’, ‘Identity’, and so forth) and each one begins and ends with a section written by one of the characters describing their life. Thus the chapter on religion begins “I am Lunette of the night elves, priestess to the Moon goddess, Elune”. In between these short pieces is the meat of an actual chapter, which is written in Bainbridge’s voice where he refers to his toons in the third person and describes what happens to them. So in a chapter beginning with a speech by Lunette, Bainbridge might also describe the time Maxrhone made some potions or Alberich hunted some boar. It take a little time to get the hang of it, but after a while you begin to understand what he is doing, and even to get to know the personalities of his toons.

The same is true of his ethnographic detail. Each chapter contains a wealth of information about the game world and the quests and characters that one can find in it. As a player I found this boring, since I had already done all of the quests he described (over and over again) and didn’t feel like reliving them. Also, I must admit, I’ve never been very interested in the lore of the game world. Nonplayers, however, will undoubtedly find this book the best description of WoW’s universe that has ever been published (outside of primary sources). The deep, rich description of questing in game, Thrall’s biography, the religious systems of the world — all are presented and allowed to breath and become real. No one who reads this book will come away with the impression that WoW is ‘just a game’ or ‘just slaying monsters’ or ‘just about leveling’. So although I personally found the in-character monologues precious and the details of the game world tiresome, others will doubtless think differently.

You have to admire Bainbridge: he has written exactly the book he wanted to write, and it is unlike any other book on WoW (or perhaps on anything) that I have read. This is most obvious in his analysis of his ethnography, which is either a brilliant and idiosyncratic synthesis of the wide-ranging interests of a senior scholar… or a hopeless shambles that has gone tragically off the rails. I would say that there is no third option, except putting the book down in boredom, which some readers might be tempted to do. I really do think the book is polarizing.

It’s hard to describe the theoretical outlook of Warcraft Civilization. It’s sort of like Godel, Escher, Bach if Godel, Escher, Bach was about World of Warcraft — and much less well executed. To get a taste of what I mean, consider the chapter ‘Heritage': It begins with the human priest Maxrohn telling us of his journey running from Stormwind City to Booty Bay and picking up quests in Stranglethorn. Then there is a discussion of the ‘three different pasts’ that inform World of Warcraft: the backstory of the world itself, literary and cultural precursors for characters in the story (in-game references to actual world characters and generic precursors to in-game themes and plots, such as the Barsoom novels) and the actual world. He ends by noting the prevalence of ecological destruction in WoW and how environmentalist concerns have entered into the game. But then the discussion veers off into a history of theories of the fall of civilization (not environmentalism), starting with a misreading (imho) of Abraham Lincoln’s quoting of the Buddha, then Oswald Spengler, Pitram Sorokin, and finally Samuel Huntington on the clash of civilizations and Lévi-Strauss’s theory of social evolution (which demonstrates a lack of familiarity with Lévi-Strauss’s actual theory of history imho).

From there we move on to a description of the events that took place in the stand-along video games World of Warcraft I, II, and III and a description of quests in-game where players seek knowledge of the past (paleontology, tomb robbing, and Gnomer runs). Then there is a section called “The Mystery of Time” which invokes Heraclitus, Korzybski, A.E. Van Vogt, Alfred Schutz, Daniel Dennet, Marvin Minsky, and Paul Bloom (all in two pages). He then continues with a detailed description of a childhood memory of discovering a small plastic car in the dirt behind his home. He then decides that quests in WoW are paradigms of goal directed action, and demonstrates this fact by describing the plot of Citizen Kane. The section then moves on to a discussion of linear and multidimensional models of space, factor analysis (such as that performed by Bainbridge when he analyzed questionnaire data on readers’ preferences in science fiction), and the in-game events surrounding the Wrath of the Lich King launch. Next comes a section of time travel in WoW that describes both quests which involve time travel (although he doesn’t mention the Hyjal raid instance), and time travel in WoW fiction and the retcon and canon issues it creates. All of this happens in 20 pages.

Are we supposed to be amazed at the breadth of the author’s erudition? Because I was exasperated by the shallow, breathless nature of the discussion. And there is no clear explanation of why we are being told all this — there doesn’t appear to be any over aching theoretical theme or point. The book reads like one of those precocious, rambling intellectual blogs that flourished in 2004 — which is fine for a blog, but not for a book. I’m not knocking it because it is interdisciplinary. I’m not dissing it because I am into rigid orthodoxy and the book is playfully wide-ranging. I’m saying that it is simply is not well done, and when you are writing a book that is a sort of work of art, the work of art oughtn’t be poorly done.

As a result the book feels very unbalanced to me. A chapter on identity and symbolic interactionism starts with Cooley and ends with Goffman, but doesn’t discuss Goffman’s actual writings on game play, or Gary Alan Fine’s (much better executed) analysis of framing in role playing games. In fact, the book seems to be largely about Bainbridge himself and other people playing the game rarely intrude on his reverie — even in the chapter on cooperation, which details his characters’ membership in guilds. True, people appear and are quoted in the book, but never in a sustained way such that you learn their name or get a sense of their point of view. Perhaps this is just in the nature of a more cultural studies approach (you can find it in the Warcraft Reader as well, for instance), but it’s not something that I cotton to.

Overall, then, I find it hard to recommend this book to others. Bainbridge makes many valid choices in his study of World of Warcraft, and even the unorthodox ones ultimately make sense. On the surface, The Warcraft Civilization is a book that is audacious because of its approach to WoW, in fact it fails to convince for the mundane reason that it lacks focus, depth, and balance. But the execution of the project is just so poorly done that I can’t really see teaching this book in a class, or even for pleasure if I hadn’t agreed to review it. I don’t want to beat up Bainbridge as a person because I am sure he is a nice guy, and obviously well-read, but my recommendation is: if you want to read one book about World of Warcraft, don’t make it this one.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

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