Warcraft and the Craftsman: Grinding, Crafting, and Craft.

In addition to Coming of Age In Second Life, I also recently finished reading Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, which I would highly recommend to all and sundry. In The Craftsman Sennett explores how “the craft of making physical things provides insight into the techniques of experience that can shape our dealings with others”. By charting out a sort of phenomenology of working with the hands he attempts to understand how we can best work with each other. Its a vindication of craft over art, of workmannship over ‘inspiration’ in a truly American idiom — written with a homespun clarity which is also truly elegant. The chapter comparing three different recipes for stuffed boneless chicken took my breath away.

I mention Sennett’s book not only to give it a well deserved plug, but to contrast it with Coming of Age In Second Life, which we still have not talked about enough on this blog. One of the things that is central to Second Life is content creation — building new objects. I would argue that there is a strong sense in Second Life (and particularly in the work of Cory Ondrejka) that ideas of creativity are paramount — the human condition is conflated with the situation of the romantic artist, driven to exteriorize his subjectivity in works of art.

I think there are several things wrong with this point of view — not least of which is the way that it treats the world as full of inert objects that are infinitely plastic and submit to human manipulation. I’ve argued (in an article submitted to a journal) this view of the world is similar to that sketched by T. Jackson Lears in his book Fables of Abundance — that it relies on human experience of a highly commodified world in which people do not interact with a world that resists them (as farmers who keep animals or fight the weather might).

Sennett might add that it misses out on what most designers in Second Life probably realize implicitly: that we are fascinated by the resistances our materials present. It is working with the ‘living edge’ of a problem, with all of the difficulties it affords, which is such a satisfying way of making something. For Cory Ondrejka, creation in Second Life is unique and important because it is easy. For Sennett, doing a job well for its own sake is enabled by and connected to the fact that the job is difficult.

Moreover, Sennett emphasizes that the satisfaction of crafting comes from repetition, from the act of making similar objects over and over again and one explores and improves one’s technique. Making things, in other words, becomes a career with a trajectory which is a source of satisfaction for the craftsman in pursues it. This is markedly different than the idea of a single, inspired, original, artistic creation such as that accomplished by a painter…. or a Second Lifer who creates A Single Pair Of Cute Socks which can, grace of the game engine, be infinitely replicated.

I think a lot of the problems that we have understanding virtual worlds stem from the fact that the tools we use to analyze them are flawed, relying as they do on romantic notions of creation and conceptions of unfettered play which are ultimately not very helpful. I think if you were to analyze Second Life using Sennett’s lens it would be very easy to discover people doing craftsmanlike things, even if the people who created the platform and many of the residents themselves were working with a different ‘creation ideology’. But one place where I think Sennett’s notions are immediately and obviously applicable is World of Warcraft (WoW).

Some people involved in Second Life insist that it is a not a ‘game’ like WoW because it does not feature grinding XP to achieve fixed goals like levelling your character. Instead, it is a ‘world’ because people can engage in open-ended content creation. They are not alone — many people have criticized grinding for being repetitive, mindless, and addictive for the way it ensnared people in some trap carefully designed to release endorphins in their brains.

I think that Sennett’s book gives us a way to analyze the situation in a different way. As one WoW designed “points out”:http://www.eurogamer.net/article.php?article_id=140861&page=3, when you are not having fun it is called grinding, when you are it is ‘progress’.

I would say that playing WoW, even the most repetitive grinding aspect of it, features a strong element of craft work in the sense that Sennett describes it — engaging in a routine practice while constantly fine-tuning it, aware of the way each monster is the same but also different, and of the way that chance events make every pull different. As you gain more experience and your character gains different abilities you continue to explore the different ways in which you can do your things. I admit that this revelation came to me shortly after finishing a chapter of Sennett’s book when my level 20 Paladin put his eleventh talent point in the ret tree to get Seal of Command and was experimenting with the best seal/judgment rotation.

Of course, grinding can be monotonous but WoW is meant to appeal to gamers of all ages and, as Sennett points out, the amount of variation of repetition you can handle is tied to how experienced you are — anyone who has played peekabo with a child will know how they thrive on a repetition that adults would find tedious if it wasn’t so gosh-darn adorable.

But raiding in WoW can also be seen as a form of elaborated craftsmanship. The experience of getting 25 people together in order to kill a difficult monster requires practice and repetition over and over again, and when people finally do learn how to kill a boss and have him or her on ‘farm status’ they take a pride in their ability which is very much that of the craftsman. Others have spoken of the ‘mythic structure’ of raiding — the attempt to recapitulate the same scenario over and over again (the one in which the boss drops). But this is not some sort of Levi-Straussian ‘cold’ culture of raiding, it is one which wants to do the work well… but will take the kill even if it is messy.

Thomas Malaby once wrote that WoW is compelling to people because it creates situations in which people work together to overcome risk and that this, obviously, is a great way of building esprit de corps. I think that Sennett would agree (although his discussion of the nature of guilds might also explain a lot of in-game drama). If this is the case, then it may be that WoW is more like the actual world than SL, and that the hallmark of worldliness is not openendedness, but goal-directed craftsmanship undertaken with others.


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

14 thoughts on “Warcraft and the Craftsman: Grinding, Crafting, and Craft.

  1. Excellent post. But while you contrast this book with Coming of Age in Second Life, I notice you don’t directly mention the passages in CASL where Boellstorff makes claims about the creative economy of Second Life – what he calls “Creationist Capitalism.” Do you think that Boellstorff is doing something different from Cory Ondrejka?

  2. Great post, Rex, but you might include footnotes to explain things like “grinding XP.” You ARE into WoW, aren’t you?

    Sennett sounds well worth reading. As you’ve described it, it explicates my experiences of gardening and cooking very well. I have a vision, but the physical materials have their own rules. I think of gardening, especially, as art with/vs. science.

  3. Sorry Kate — I suppose the post is a little ‘experience near’ 🙂

    Kerim — I wish that Tom had more directly engaged Cory’s work, since Cory is himself a theorist of SL, but since Tom was doing ‘Island ethnography’ I guess it wasn’t in his purview to take a look at who made the island, beyond the citations to Cory’s work that Tom does (in all fairness) make. Its another example of CASL running afould of the sort of theorization of ‘the field’ that Gupta, Ferguson, Marcus etc. have been tring to rethink.

    I think that the term ‘creationist capitalism’ does capture much of the ‘creation ideology’ of SL, although I must say that of all of the parts of CASL this section was the most tantalizing and, in many ways, the least worked out in its reference to “Christian metaphysics” and Marxism. I think overall I’d say that I would be much more willing to take issue with Second Lifers’ self-understanding, whereas Tom does not want to make ethical or ontological judgments about his informants beliefs and actions (except *ahem* some of the time…)

  4. An interesting post; once again I’m flattered. You say with regard to the idea “that ideas of creativity are paramount” that “this point of view… treats the world as full of inert objects that are infinitely plastic and submit to human manipulation,” but you don’t substantiate that assertion. In particular, while you string together “infinitely plastic” and “submit to human manipulation,” from what I’ve seen in Second Life and elsewhere an emic (or etic, for that matter) notion of manipulability has no inevitable corollary of seeing a virtual or actual world as infinitely plastic. Sometimes that’s presumed, sometimes not.

    When you speak about something that “most designers in Second Life probably realize implicitly,” what you assume is an emic category of “designer” that’s associated with craft and that misses broader cultural logics of craft in Second Life and beyond. Those who engage in craft need not see themselves as designers nor be seen as such by others. This is something that Cory Ondrejka and others note. In my book, where of course I do identify craft as something important, I find Cory quite useful in this regard (he was one of the first folks to really identify this notion of craft as important, and of course his role as a designer adds another level of significance). So I would see my own work as building upon and extending Cory’s important work.

    In my book, I suggest there are two directions in which discussions of craft might go in order to better understand the cultures of virtual worlds. One is production: that is, to think about the relationship between craft and labor (since in some economic writings they are separated through a limitation of craft to something like “handicraft,” that is, something outside circuits of production). The section is religion and the relation between craft and creation. I’m particularly interested in the book in linking this up to the Christian tradition, given the dominance of the West in the history of virtual worlds. Craft is crucial to this tradition in a range of ways (after all, Jesus was a carpenter!) that are fascinating to explore.

    It makes sense to me from what I’ve seen of other virtual worlds and online games that craft is broadly relevant in these online contexts. I would thus very much agree with your saying that “playing WoW, even the most repetitive grinding aspect of it, features a strong element of craft work.” After all, as you note in the title of the post (but not in the post itself), it is called World of War “craft!”

    If you find Sennett useful, you may also want to take a look at Malcolm McCullough’s fascinating book Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand (MIT, 1996).

  5. As an ex wow fiend heres my immediate reaction –

    When you carve something, and get better, the final product also gets better. But when you grind in WOW, level, put a boss on farm status etc, it doesn’t get better – it stays the same. You just get better at making the same product, where the craftsman ends up making a better product.

    Craftsmanship vs Practice… something like that…

    Also the grinding = not fun, progress = fun, statement is a bit too simple. I had fun running around doing world pvp – which at the time didn’t lead to “progress” in the game. Now with the pvp system running around killing has its perks/progress too…

    Just to say not everyone sees progress the same way on there. Many roll alts constantly and never progress past level 20 [yet they play just as much as raid freaks]… I was a bit progress intensive, and got stuck raiding so much I got in trouble if I went pee too often.

    In the end I was part of a guild that slaughtered the end game [pre expansion] – I feel I practiced a lot, honed my skills, and it took a lot of teamwork, but somehow it lacked the ingenuity that I’d hope for if I was “crafting”.

    Confessions of an ex wow addict volume III.

  6. Oops Rex – our posts posted at almost the same time, so just saw this from you:

    “It’s another example of Coming of Age in Second Life running afoul of the sort of theorization of ‘the field’ that Gupta, Ferguson, Marcus etc. have been trying to rethink.”

    How could I resist? Since Akhil Gupta was one of my dissertation advisors, and Jim Ferguson and George Marcus are former and current colleagues at Irvine, respectively, the obvious point to make here with regard to how I rethink “the field” is:

    You do realize that the book is a conceit, right? Or is it? Ha ha!

    If you’re interested in how I theorize the field, one piece you might find interesting is “Ethnolocality” (The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 3(1):24–48, see my website). I sum up this argument in my first book (The Gay Archipelago: Sexuality and Nation in Indonesia), but the article goes into more depth. It’s about Indonesia, not Second Life of course, but I find fascinating theoretical linkages.

  7. 1. Owen: I think your comment speaks to the way we might want to think of WoW as a performing art. Every time you drop a boss you get better at dropping future bosses. Every time you grow as a musician future performances will be better although the score of the piece you play stays the same.

    Points for Tom:

    2. Do SLers “treat the world as full of inert objects that are infinitely plastic and submit to human manipulation”? They may or may not, but given the number of quotes I have read and seen which focus on SLers being “limited only by their imagination” “creating a world from scratch” “the entire world is created by users” “having control over things in a way they never could in real life” I’m voting for ‘may’. Of course we’d need more research so… keep going!

    3. Regarding ‘craft and the Xian tradition’ — I think you might enjoy reading the first half of Sennett’s book, which traces the shifting relationships between craftsmen and machinery in Western Europe. And thanks for the cite to the McCullough — I will look it up.

    4. By ‘designers’ I simply mean ‘people who work with prims a lot’ and probably have a lot of the experiences that Sennett describes of people working with wood. Regardless, I don’t think you could call Cory’s work very focused on ‘craft’ in Sennett’s sense. When he says things like “content creation has traditionally been the domain of elite artists” ‘art’ is refigured as ‘content’ and the player as a romantic genius. This is not what Sennett is after.

    4. Re: fieldsites, treating SL as a closed world and not venturing out of it for research doesn’t seem to rethink the fieldwork imaginary very much. As for whether you take your own work seriously or consider it ‘a conceit’ — I’ll wait for you to come down one way or the other before I do so as well 😉

  8. Should I be surprised that in these discussions there is no invocation of William Morris (or John Ruskin)? It’s always seemed to me that this whole art/craft distinction people think is so meaningful has its origins there. Is it in Sennett? Is it useful to think through Morris’ mix of romaniticism and socialism to understand what SLers are doing?

  9. Haven’t read The Craftsman, but Morris + Ruskin have cameos in Sennett’s 2003 book, Respect in a World of Inequality.

    95% of what I think I know about the British craft movement comes from Lears’s No Place of Grace:

    bq.In part a reaction against therapeutic self-absorption, the revival of handicraft ultimately became another form of therapy for an overcivilized bourgeoisie . . . ‘Do-it-yourself’ projects have provided innumerable Americans with a sense of autonomy and a chance to confront the substantial reality of material things. For people whose working lives seem beyond their control and permeated by the barrenness of a bureaucratic civilization, this is no small achievement. Yet it perpetuates the fragmentation decried by Ruskin and Morris: the split between work and pay and work for joy.

    Never having a single minute at Second Life or WoW, I’ve got nothing to say about how that analysis might map onto the MMPORG world.

  10. This post attempted to be a vindication of play in WoW, but I think it has led on to an interesting research question which people really want to pursue in SL, not in WoW at all: given the long and interpenetrating histories of notions of art, leisure, labor, and craft in the United States, and given the way they relate to deep-seated concerns with authenticity, selfhood, and morality in the Protestant tradition, which of this pre-existing vocabulary to people in SL draw on? How and why do they do so? Tom’s notion of ‘creationist capitalism’ gets us some of the way there, but his volume is a general ethnography, and it sounds like the question we are looking at requires much more specific investigation — one of those books that he says every chapter could be turned into.

    I think its a fascinating question and I hope he (or someone else) would answer it! I’d give it a crack myself but… I’ve got to farm some tin to level my alts blacksmithing…

  11. Regarding progress, as soon as my WoW main reached 70, I got bored. I hadn’t even uncovered the entire outland map, but leveling alts felt like been-there, done-that. I just stopped seeing those little XP bubbles. Guildies told me that the game only just begins when you finally level up, but I could no longer see the progress and so I quit.

    In Rex’s ethnography (?) or theorization of WoW, I really, really hope that you address the issues of, say, locks and hunters, who are chosen by people because they can solo. When I tried dependent classes, I could not commit the hours needed, and the need to schedule my real life around the game. That meant after I leveled, I spent a while helping out newbies, lowbies, guildies, etc. then logged off.

    I also hope you will address issues of gender and sexuality in WoW, as well as Blizzard’s conflicts with its sexual minoritarian players. There were interesting gay bashings as well (PvP hunting for members of gay guilds, disrupting parades and weddings, etc.)

  12. I’ve played WoW for some time (always w/the intention of studying it one day) but won’t actually start ‘research’ until the fall when… hopefully… I receive permission from a guild to record their activities (I just received the OK from my institutional review board). So while I have logged a lot of time in the game I don’t want to talk too much about the specifics of my experiences w/my folks till they sign off — which is why most of my published work on WoW at this point is very ‘theoretical’ and not ‘ethnographic’. Suffice to say that the level of misogyny and gay bashing is pretty low in the group I’m looking at, which features several families which play together and has a ‘no cursing’ policy.

    But frankly I think all classes can solo quickly and efficiently as long as you don’t gimp their spec (trying to level a warrior as prot instead of fury, e.g.), not just pet classes. And of course puging 5 mans doesn’t require tons of scheduling but… I imagine we both have better things to do than have me convince you to play more WoW!

  13. Another fascinating post. A different thread has caught my attention: how might a discussion of craft/crafting be turned back on the anthropological enterprise? There may be some work out there that already makes this analogy, but it might be interesting to consider the degree to which anthropological work/research/writing mirrors artistic vs. craft production. Of course we often talk about the intellectual work as a kind of parallel to artistic creation (e.g. Rex’s comment that ‘I admit that this revelation came to me shortly after finishing a chapter of Sennett’s book when my level 20 Paladin …’), but it has often been said that writing (perhaps especially book writing) might be better understood as crafting. Benjamin’s work might be useful here, especially ‘The Storyteller’ (an essay-reflection on narration and the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov). Benjamin says a lot of interesting things, including that story-telling is about the recomposition of experience (‘The storyteller takes what he tells from experience–his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those
    who are listening to his tale.’), that the best story-tellers combine geographic and temporal distance, and that the hand (in combination with the soul and the eye) is the vehicle of praxis (hand = tactility/touching)–sound familiar? (We also get in Benjamin, although maybe not in ‘The Storyteller’ specifically, the text-as-textile metaphor transmuted in the anthropological realm into culture-as-fabric.) In any case, there are some interesting parallels here with ethnographic writing, although I am more interested in how we might characterize the ethnographic (field/work) experience itself as a kind of craft. I haven’t read Sennett’s book, but in a recent “Guardian article”:http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,2250725,00.html (an excerpt from the book?) he writes that, ‘Three abilities are the foundation of craftsmanship: to localise, to question and to open up. The first involves making a matter concrete; the second, reflecting on its qualities; the third, expanding its sense.’ We might dispute the particularities of such a definition for ethnographic practice, but Sennett’s delineation of craft seems to me to be a nice entry-point to the discussion.

  14. You can’t die in Second Life. You can’t cut your finger off in a virtual table saw.
    As far as SL as a form of art, the model is more Jacqueline Susanne: it’s a fantasy. Gaming is fantasy.
    Jascha Heifetz was a materialist. So was Proust.

    You’re thinking of craft as other. But lawyers are craftsmen. They’re actors and seducers. Good teachers are craftsman. Craft should not be presented as some sort of helpful element to life. It’s how we communicate. Politicians are craftsmen. Con-men are craftsmen. The manipulation of subtexts and implications.
    “Its a vindication of craft over art, of workmannship over ‘inspiration’”
    You’ve just made me not want to get this book.

    Try writing a dialogue where the implications of each speaker’s words undermine the stated intent. That is: try writing a dialogue that’s also a quartet. If you can pull it off it’s because you’re a craftsman. Describe geekdom compellingly to a non-geek and you’ll be a craftsman. More so than any geek could ever be.

    Divided government and legal adversarialism are both based on the inevitability of craft and the need for mastery.
    “Ladies… and gentleman, of the jury. Ladies and gentleman… of the jury. [stare directly at them but don’t intimidate them] Cast your eyes on my poo-oor client [hey kid…stop smiling] Is this the face of a lad who could commit… such a heinous act as throwing a baseball through a plate… glass… window?”

    Academics forgot the craft of language. All they have left is ideas, and most of them are lies. Can you imaging that there are subtexts in the language of this blog? That you’re “crafting” a little linguistic home for yourselves to reinforce your own prejudices?
    That is simply a fact. So how do you respond to that understanding?

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