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.