A Notes and Queries of MMOGs?

Back in the day young anthropologistswent off to the field packing a copy of the Notes and Queries in Anthropology — a checklist of topics About Their People that they had to be sure to cover. The idea was that there were people back in the metropole were creating generalizing theories of society and needed comparative data to do it. You might be studying ritual and myth amongst the Pukapukaese, but someone out there was trying to plot the distribution of outrigger canoes, and they wanted to make sure you added your two bits. Thus the notes and queries included standard questions to ask, and diagrams of bows and so forth with the English names for bits of the bow so that you could describe in English what people were telling you Pukapukian. I can testify that having the Notes and Queries in the field is useful — in a fit of retropique I took one with me to the field, and it did in fact help me keep my eyes open in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise: how people carried babies, how often crops came up and so forth — the kind of thing I might otherwise have not thought about.

Today the Notes and Queries is out of print, but would like to keep it’s tradition alive in another modality — I want to create a Notes and Queries for virtual worlds, and I want to ask you what you think ought to be in it?

Like the Oxford dons who gathered their ethnographic data through correspondence with railroad clerks and bank tellers living in outstations in rural Australia, anthropology professors today who are interested in massively multiplayer video games have a pool of indigenous experts to draw on: their students. Profs all over the place have encountered students whose reflective awareness of the game’s they’ve mastered means that they have in some sense become avocational anthropologists themselves. In my “anthropology of virtual worlds class”:http://alex.golub.name/res/HPUAnthro3830Fall2005.pdf this semester my students will be producing a series of ethnographic papers about the virtual worlds that they have been studying, and several of them are interested in publishing them on the web. What, then, are the categories and comparisons that you think they should highlight in their paper?

Some might object that when ‘the field’ is only a click away, profs are not completely out of the loop. While I don’t have 7 level 60s on three different WOW servers, I play often enough that I understand the differences in the economy and sociology of, say, Guild Wars and Diablo II that is wrought by their differing use of instancing. And in fact my familiarity is part of the problem — so many of the researchers who study virtual worlds sort of ‘already know’ about how these worlds are structured that we often end up assuming that ‘merely’ descriptive pieces are uninteresting. We assume that we already know all about these games because we play them all the time. But what about people who — like the typical anthropological audience — want to know all about these places, but aren’t ever going to end up going there themselves? And surely sometimes we as natives of these spaces need someone to write down what is going on in them — that is why we have historians and journalists and so forth in real life.

So: We need to begin developing a corpus of richly ehtnographic writing about virtual worlds, and we need to structure it in such a way that we can compare the cases with each other. What are the categories we are interest in? What form should they take? What sorts of notes and queries should be made? What is on your radar? The way the architecture of the game mandates cooperation? The way the virtual worlds are becoming ‘third places’ for students? Let me know what you would want out of a comparative study.


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

4 thoughts on “A Notes and Queries of MMOGs?

  1. I tried logging in to Second Life, but my iBook couldn’t handle the graphics and I just bumped into walls for a while. I finally gave up.

    I’m self-concious enough about requiring students to purchase expensive books for a course, I’d be even more worried about an ethnographic project that required a hardware upgrade. And don’t many of these require a paid subscription as well?

  2. But what if I wanted from an ethnography of MMOGs what I want from any other ethnography (outside my areal interest): which is not to know “all about” MMOGs but to tell me why I would want to know anything about them at all–why are they interesting, what do they tell me about their context, what does a description of them tell me about our world or what it means to be human in it? In descriptive terms, what I need to know is what I need to know to follow the answers to these sorts of questions, which is why we don’t approach our field carrying copies of Notes and Queries any more.

  3. I’ve been thinking about the same issue in describing virtual Chinese worlds. Or, virtual worlds inhabited by Chinese players. Mainland Chinese players. You see where it starts to disintegrate rather quickly? We need papers that help us think about all the ways that “culture” and virtuality constitute one another. It seems to me that much of what we use in exploring cultural construction in real life can be used as ethnographers online; but there are significant differences as well, which will contribute to the literature on culture and economy, gender, space, and identity in the next decade. And then of course, how to theorize the blended nature of physical and virtual worlds is another avenue to explore through richly detailed ethnographies. Looking forward to reading your students’ papers!

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