“An Anthropologist Digs Into WoW”

“WoW Insider”:http://www.wowinsider.com/ recently ran “a longish interview with me”:http://www.wowinsider.com/2009/01/06/15-minutes-of-fame-anthropologist-digs-into-wow/ about my research in the massively multiplayer game World of Warcraft (hence ‘WoW’), and the story has sense gotten picked up by “other fine news sources”:http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/88496-Anthropologist-Studying-Culture-of-WoW-Raiders. It’s been interesting to see the reaction that I’ve had from other people who play the game.

First off — this is the first time I’ve ever shown up in an RSS news feed that I subscribe to! But at a deeper level its interesting to see what people think about my research. The actual guild that I do research has been super supportive, with comments like “im not a big fan of reading things but that was very interesting. Great job!” and “That is a pretty awesome interview. It really does give a lot more insight into what aspects of wow you are focusing on.” One of the big differences between this project and my PNG work is that I am writing while ‘in’ the field, and my ‘informants’ read everything I write (if they can be bothered), and its really nice to know that they support the research — even when they read what you write about them!

As for the larger group of people who read the work, one typical response is that Warcraft is ‘just a game’ so therefore it is an inappropriate object of study. A lot of people who work on MMOGs get this all the time. In my case it drives me particularly nuts, since I am also often told that kinship in Papua New Guinea is also trivial, unimportant, or politically incorrect. So apparently neither ‘traditional’ or ‘cutting edge’ work is appropriate. Ah well, I’ve learned to live with these sorts of views.

More interesting has been the comments that I cannot be doing ‘real’ research because I am enjoying myself while I do it. There is a whiff of ‘its just a game’ in this criticism, but more interestingly there is also the sense that what I am doing can’t be ‘science’ because I am ‘enjoying myself’ while I do it. Is this a way of saying that you can’t be ‘objective’ if you enjoy doing your research? This is funny, since a lot of contemporary science writing (Richard Dawkins, e.g.) is about the joy of doing science and the way it allows you access to the sublime.

A lot of discussion in the comments following the interview focused on whether or not WoW players were a legitimate object of study because they did (or did not) constitute a culture or, in some cases, a ‘subculture’. It is interesting to see whether or not a coherent structure of meaning has sort of been woven around WoW (I think the answer is an obvious yes) but what is even more interesting to me is how quickly my claim to study Americans and American culture seemed to go right by most commentors. I don’t study “World of Warcraft” I study my guild — a group of Americans (and Canadians). I study people. I study what they do online. I do not see them face to face, very often — although I do have dreams of doing a grand tour and having a beer with them all all over the US. But just how much of a deal killer, epistemologically, is the fact that a researcher’s experience of their ‘research subjects’ is mediated? Because if you think all professors must absolutely meet the people they study face to face, you must have a very poor opinion of your local history department.

Overall, however, I’m very grateful and encouraged that the vast majority of the comments have been positive. The overall feeling I get is that there are tons of people in the world playing WoW who understand the tremendous, even life-altering stakes that get read into the game by people who care about it deeply, and it is nice to know that I am not the only person who thinks this about the game.


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

5 thoughts on ““An Anthropologist Digs Into WoW”

  1. Interesting article and research. I’m also in academia, though in administration, not faculty, and also play a resto shammy in WoW, but primarily PvP and in a much smaller guild than you have. Interesting to note the differences in perspective, though. I think a PvP guild has a similar sense of community without as much of the intense high stakes feeling you seem to describe. I’m not sure if that’s a function of my particular guild, or of the difference between a raid culture and a PvP culture, though.

  2. It’s quite pervasive, this notion that you can’t get as much credit for doing research that you enjoy as you can for research that … I don’t know, you loathe?!

    I remember when I was an undergrad, I served a couple of years in a row as the undergraduate representative on the anthropology dept hiring committee and I got to listen to people’s arguments about why different people who were shortlisted should get the job. There was one candidate who had done her research in a place that is extremely hot and humid, where women have to wear a lot of clothing to cover up, and apparently she repeatedly contracted malaria during her fieldwork. One of the committee members kept mentioning this and seemed to be arguing that she deserved the position because she’d stuck it out and persisted through hellish fieldwork conditions. Everyone around the table would nod sagely, even those who clearly didn’t want her to get the job, because this was an apparently unassailable argument.

    And yet we are expected to be passionate about what we do! It seems the ideal is to be passionate about the research but not have much fun doing it. Hence, Rex, you might score some points if you wrote the preface of your book complaining about how much you hate online games but you forced yourself to enter this world because it was the only way you could answer x important research question. So you buckled down, said goodbye to your family and your personal goal to hike every summit in Hawaii, and turned on the computer. Despite the arduous and painful fieldwork conditions, you learned to value your relationships with your informants as you were warmly welcomed as first a child-like figure in their society and then, eventually, as a peer. You emerged the stronger for it, and in the end, you were able to answer that key research question that drove you to suffer for the sake of science.

  3. The old, “research, huh?” *wink & nudge* is tedious.

    The “too fun” test also seems to crop up in funding. I would love to know if you write your WoW subscription into your grant proposals (or even if anyone would fund it). Or would Blizzard ever offer someone free access because they were there for research purposes? My guess is no.

    While studying the damage caused by cruise ships to local people, environments, and economies, non-anthro colleagues assumed I either spent grant money going on cruises or got free tickets from cruise lines. “Research, hmmm???” Far from thinking either of these would be unethical, they didn’t see how I could observe the effects without doing participant-observation to get the “other side”, you know the “fun” side of this particular story.

  4. i have been doing autoethnographic research in virtual worlds, and i think the emotional, embodied and highly subjective dimension are very important in shedding light on how we make sense of everything – interaction in virtual worlds included. while it is true that people still raise eyebrows when it comes to autoethnographic research, it has grown into an accepted method. recuperating the self and its dynamics – and critically going back to think of them in relation to the socio-political context we inhabit may help bridge the micro/macro gap in social sciences.

  5. Its funny. Anthropologists have a well-established “the spiders were THIS big where _I_ lived” tradition of boasting about how much they _didn’t_ enjoy their field experience (one w/deep colonial roots). On the other hand, there is a strong expectation that you were supposed to ‘enjoy’ fieldwork in the sense of loving the people you lived with and the community you stayed in. Not just collegiality, but straight up “they named their children after me, I named my children after them” kinds of stuff.

    So I think anthropologists are supposed to enjoy fieldwork, but are only licensed to do so in certain ways. Not going to the ‘field’ is bad enough, but researching ‘leisure’ activities is worse. So I have a double whammy.

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