More on Coming of Age in Second Life

If you only read one book about virtual worlds, read Julian Dibbell’s My Tiny Life. If you are only going to read two, read Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life.

Overall, Coming of Age in Second Life (CASL) represents cutting edge anthropology at its best — hip, smart, theoretically sophisticated, and with its head screwed on straight. As far as I am concerned it establishes a new standard for students of virtual worlds in all disciplines, and clears a path for anyone wanting to understand how anthropologists can study virtual worlds. Of course, the book has its shortcomings — mostly, I feel, because cutting edge anthropology has its shortcomings — but there is no doubt that CASL (as I’ll call it) is a seminal work that deserves to be widely read.

Those of us working on virtual worlds have been anticipating Tom Boellstorff’s (TB) book for some time. Second Life (SL) has attracted tons of press in recent years as the virtual world that challenges our notions of what virtual worlds are and how they operate and TB, a mid-career anthropologist with an established (and growing) track record, was exactly the person to study it. Additionally, TB did not publish a lot of his work on SL before the book came out, so I really did not have a sense of what it was like. All of this added up to a spectacular opportunity to fail, but TB rose to the challenge and wrote a book that is worthy of the conjuncture of events in which it was written.

One of the things that is so appealing about CASL is the way that it gets so many things right about virtual worlds. It insists, correctly, that human experience is always mediated by culture and therefore our experience is always ‘virtual’. It insists that interaction in virtual worlds is interaction with other people, not life in some addictive solipsistic fantasy world as some would argue. And above all the book emphasizes the way that plain old participant observation can get us very far in terms of what happens in such a world.

The title of the book is, obviously, a renvoi to Mead’s classic work, and the very sexy dust jacket features an image which harkens back to the picture of the Samoan girl that graced the old AMNH edition of Mead’s book. All of this is more than a clever pun, however – the idea is to draw a parallel between early classics of Pacific ethnography and TB’s book. Just as Mead discovered Samoa for generations of Americans, so TB hopes to discover (and validate) SL, and just as Malinowksi demonstrated the importance of participant observation, so too does TB want to (re)validate its relevance in studying virtual worlds.

It’s smart, although as a Pacificist I have to nitpick a little. Although TB pays homage to this sort of work he doesn’t come across as someone who is super-knowledgeable about the Pacific as an area. He mistakenly claims the River Valley Dani live in Papua New Guinea when in fact they live in Indonesia (his own area of expertise) (p. 70), and I also feel he is too kind to Mead in his (brief) assessment of her work on page 61. I think most Pacific scholars would now argue that Mead was importantly wrong in her description of Samoa, although we would also hasten to add that she was not as wrong about Samoa as Freeman was wrong about her. It is possible to disagree with Mead’s findings without endorsing Freeman’s literal psychosis about her.

But these are quibbles which do not offset the value of the book. Of key interest to me was the second chapter, the ‘literature review’. This kind of thing is not popular with publishers, but I am glad that TB features the extensive and exhaustive literature review that he does. There has been so much written about virtual worlds, games, computer mediated interaction, that it is difficult to find one’s bearing. These problems are augmented by the fact that much of the work done on virtual worlds has been bad and/or based on assumptions very different from those made by anthropologists. For this reason TB’s thorough working through of the literature, often term by term, is absolutely fantastic. It lets him locate himself in scholarly space, it provides a genealogy of research for other scholars to build on, and it allows him to specify his terms of art and what they mean. This chapter alone is incredibly impressive and is almost worth the price of admission.

TB’s chapter on method is more problematic. TB’s research was conducted entirely in SL without tracking down anyone in real life. Personally, I have no problem with such an approach – in my experience people learning to trust self-accounts in virtual worlds is no more or less tricky than learning to trust them in rela life. However, his justification for staying strictly in-game strikes me as fishy. His attempt to demonstrate the validity of such an approach relies on the claim hat SL is a valid and unique world which is not derivative of or secondary to the real world. This seems wrong to me. First, I would argue that virtual worlds are both discrete realms of social action and predicated on the real world (this is why we stop playing SL when we die, but not vice versa).

Secondly, anthropologists have always argued that cultures are not bounded objecs — they are not ‘billiard balls’ and do not have ‘skins’. Understanding ‘the village’ (even the virtual village) requires us understanding the broader context in which it is situated. TB seems to recognize this point implicitly since the real world seeps constantly into his description of SL. When people describe meeting SL friends in real life; when they describe leaving sealed envelopes for their real life spouse with instructions on what to tell their SL spouse is something happened to them; when they describe the way handicapped people can experience liberation in virtual spaces; when they talk about play SL drunk. when they talk about playing as a woman when they are a man in SL — when they do all of these things, they are talking about the membrane between SL and real life and the way they move across it. Understanding these things means understanding how SL is just one of the many, connected worlds in which people create meaning. All of which is not to say that you must track down people in real life to make sure the stories they tell you in SL are true (although it wouldn’t hurt), but merely to say that TB’s ethnographic practice gainsays the theoretical grounding of his method.

The research itself is great — it is readable, it is descriptive, it gives you a sense of what it is like to be in SL, and deals even handedly with exotic topics like SL’s widespread experience with eroticism (you can read chapter 6 for the juicy bits). The book really succeeds as ethnography in the classic sense — it gives you a sense of what people in SL are like, what they are doing there, and the mechanics of the world, including things like working with prims. This, I think, is really an achievement at a time when so many ethnographers float above the facts or somehow assume that the details of people’s lives are not worth reporting on. For anyone who wants to get a sense of what life in SL is like, the book will actually tell you. For people who have spent time in world, I think it will really ring true, which is a real sign of success — when the ‘natives’ find your work boring or your findings obvious, you know you’ve done a good job!

One thing that I appreciated about CASL is the way that it attempts to connect in-game concerns with individuality and creativity to wider cultural trends (although, apparently, it is not believe they are ‘derived’ from them). Pointing out the cultural background of these beliefs, rather than assuming that technology enables some biologically hard-wired drive for all human beings to be Romantic Artists is important. That said, I wished that TB had discussed this in more detail rather than simply referring to SL as an inheritor of ‘Western’ culture. Any approach which sees Torah, the Nichomachean Ethics, Descartes’s Discourse on Method, and the Whole Earth Catalog as all ‘Western’ simply is not nuanced for me. The notion of ‘the West’ here is better deconstructed than criticized (although I do appreciate TB’s criticisms of many ‘Western’ notions). I would have liked to have seen more of a focus on the cultural history of American responses to consumerism and notions of authenticity, since this would have given a more precise understanding of the specific milieu TB is working on… if, that is, we knew for certain that his research subjects were American.
Theoretically, TB develops a distinction between the ‘virtual’ and the ‘actual’ to describe the difference between virtual worlds and what I have been calling the ‘real world’ — its a distinction that works well because it allows one to understand how both the virtual and the actual are both ‘real’. He also develops the Aristotelian notion of ‘techne’ to describe the human capacity to build meaningful worlds. Again, its a serviceable idea, although his road to Aristotle appears to be through Foucault, which obviously is ok but strikes me as a bit eccentric given how many authors have taken up Aristotle in one way or another (Arendt, for instance, would be interesting here). And what of gnosis and phronesis? But at any rate the book is not about Aristotle it is about SL and the virtual/actual distinction and the notion of ‘techne’ are both useful and important contributions to our understanding of virtual worlds.

Throughout the book — particularly in discussion of the term ‘homo cyber’ and ‘virtually human’ — TB generalizes from his ethnography to make more general statements about the human condition and what SL can tell us about it. I can’t take issue with this strategy, since it is how anthropologists ‘do’ theory, but as someone who studies World of Warcraft, the virtual world that is the exact opposite of SL, I felt that many of TB’s conclusions raised the cultural particularities of SL to the status of the general structure of all human activity online. In fact I think that his focus on SL as a valid, self-enclosed world can also be traced back to the fact that the native point of view has seeped into his analysis. Since my natives have a different point of view, I would take issue with this particular seepage (!) but ultimately I think that TB’s generalizations are productive. Present a positive model that can be revised as more data comes in, and frankly it is a sign of his success as a fieldworker that he has been changed by the field in this way.

I said earlier that TB’s book is cutting edge anthropology, and I think this is true. This also means, for me, that it shares the drawbacks of much cutting edge anthropology. It apologizes constantly for its ambition to know and describe the world. Every chapter begins ‘I could have written an entire book about (insert chapter topic), but am only writing a chapter here’. It constantly points out that it does not do enough to describe power and gender relations. One thing that I found particularly disturbing was TB’s inability to acknowledge the power of the book as genre. In his conclusion he writes that

Within the static pages of a book there is no way I can do justice to my adventures within Second Life, or the experiences of the residents who so generously shared their activities and thoughts with me. A book cannot capture the beauty and joy of a virtual world, nor its anger and heartbreak

What can I say, except that I pity TB that he has lived a life devoid of the pleasures that reading can bring? For not only can books capture the joy and heartbreak of virtual worlds (read My Tiny Life to discover this), they have even managed to capture the beauty and anger of the actual world. Ultimately, one of the great tragedies of CASL is that the book wants so hard to emphasize the human power to use technology to create worlds that mater, while simultaneously underestimating the power demonstrated again and again by one of the most tried and true narrative forms of all — the one the author himself uses.

The final section of CASL is entitled “Towards an Anthropology of Virtual Worlds” and that is exactly what this volume is — and important, confident, clear headed volume which may end up founding an entire sub-discipline. The work is not perfect, but even in its imperfections it will spark conversations that will prove fruitful. If you are interested in virtual worlds, the book is a must-have and (if you haven’t read My Tiny Life yet) an immediate must-read. If you are an anthropologist who is interested in important recent work, or simply someone interested in keeping up with what anthropologists are thinking about lately, then I would strongly recommend the volume for summer reading. Tom Boellstorff has produced an important new book on an important new topic.


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

4 thoughts on “More on Coming of Age in Second Life

  1. Rumor has it that not tracking them down in RL was due to a fight with the IRB, which at Irvine is filled with totally unreasonable luddites.

  2. Dear Rex,

    Thanks so much for your careful review. I’m very grateful for all the interest. I’m also in dire need of catching up on American Anthropologist reviewing work, so I’ll just reflect on some statements, correct some misunderstandings, and hopefully contribute further to the discussion.

    #1 First, to correct the mistaken impression of “anon.” I did not do my research solely in Second Life because of the University of California, Irvine’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). They were actually very easy and supportive. Where do these rumors originate? (If anyone is planning on doing research on a virtual world kind of space, feel free to email me and I can share with you my IRB form. Several people have done so in the past couple years and have found it helpful.) I’ve had much more issue with my work on HIV/AIDS and gay, lesbian, and transgendered Indonesians than I ever had with my Second Life research.

    #2 While we’re on the topic of methods and the idea of studying a virtual world “in its own terms” (I unpack that phrase further in the book). To be clear (and I say this in the book): I’m not saying that all online research needs to do this, or even that my future research online will do this. I could imagine a project in Second Life or Facebook or elsewhere where it might not make sense, depending on the research questions at hand. But I do want to disagree with any claim (and there are people who make this claim) that *every* online research project *must* include meeting or interviewing one’s interlocutors in the physical world, even if those persons never meet in the physical world. That’s one valid way of doing research, but not the only way. It represents an unhelpful straightjacket if imposed dogmatically as the only valid method. I’m reminded of the methodological experiments I made in my first two books on gay Indonesians, where I explain that I’m studying gay “Indonesians,” not gay “Javanese” or “Balinese.” In those books I’m quite clear that I’m not saying studying people as “Balinese” or “Javanese” is wrong, just that for the research questions motivating my work at that time, it was important to foreground the nation-state as a spatial scale of culture. So in the case of Coming of Age in Second Life, the claim is not that what I’ve done is the only appropriate way to conduct the ethnography of virtual worlds, only that it is one of many legitimate methods.

    #3 Rex, when you say this:

    “his justification for staying strictly in-game strikes me as fishy. His attempt to demonstrate the validity of such an approach relies on the claim [t]hat SL is a valid and unique world which is not derivative of or secondary to the real world. This seems wrong to me. First, I would argue that virtual worlds are both discrete realms of social action and predicated on the real world (this is why we stop playing SL when we die, but not vice versa).”

    I think we’re in agreement here. I won’t cite myself, but take a look at pages 62-65 or so.

    #4 Your claim that I have an “inability to acknowledge the power of the book as genre” seems wrong to me (obviously) and is based on taking a quotation out of context. At issue is not apologizing for one’s analytical ambitions, but situating them. Those of you out there who’ve written books know the interesting choices one confronts when crafting a book. Coming of Age in Second Life is the first I’ve written where not a single chapter was previously published: it was written all in one amazing period, right after completing the formal fieldwork. Unlike The Gay Archipelago and A Coincidence of Desires, I also didn’t have specific set of topics to narrow the focus (sexuality and nation, among other things, in the case of those two books). Since I didn’t want the book to get too big, that meant that I couldn’t write a whole book-length section on religion, or gender, or economics, etc., and instead took a broad perspective. And then played around with the “classic” ethnographic mode as a result. The Mead link is obvious from the title, but if you look around in the book I have fun with Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard, among others. Historical sensibilities can be productive in these technologically mediated times. Savage Minds indeed!

    On that note – I thank you (and Kerim and everyone) for engaging with my work and apologize that I don’t have time to respond in more depth. I owe both of you a drink at the AAAs! Coming of Age in Second Life was a joy to research and a joy to write. I’m so happy with the result and while I know I sound like a broken record, I am *truly* thankful for the interest in the book.

  3. Thanks Tom. Some quick notes:
    re #2: I agree. As I said in the piece “Personally, I have no problem with such an approach.”

    re #3: I don’t think we agree! But I’ll take a closer look and try to elaborate on that.

    re #4: Well now. You claim in CASL that the “static pages of a book” cannot make people experience, vicariously, the joy and heartbreak of others. I simply disagree and would argue that books have been doing this for (conservatively) hundreds of years.

    What I find interesting is the implication that there are other “non static” semiotic technologies which can somehow more adequately capture the human experience… maybe SL perhaps?

  4. Rex, excellent review, and I can’t say much because I haven’t gotten my copy in the mail yet . . . but, we’re (yes, my precious little SL community) disabled, not handicapped! That’s as anthropologically offensive as calling Native Americans Reds.

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