Enclosure, Area Studies, and Virtual Worlds

The past couple of days have seen a knot of publications in virtual worlds and digital anthropology which deserve some comment. We have, first, Tom Malaby and Tim Burke’s introduction to a new edition of the journal Games and Culture, which discusses The Short and Happy Life of Interdisciplinarity in Games Studies. Secondly, we have Biella Coleman, who is writing a piece on digital anthropology for Annual Review of Anthropology (it’s not done yet, but in the offing and will doubtless be influential when its done). Finally, over at Material World Daniel Miller has wondered aloud whether or not this is the year digital anthropology comes of age. What is the state of digital anthropology, or an anthropology of virtual worlds, such that people might be thinking that it has finally come of age?

Malaby and Burke, in an extremely intelligent and thoughtful piece (which is available currently if you sign up for Sage’s free trial period) argue that there is an emergent ‘pragmatic’ trend in the studies of games, a trend exemplified in the articles that they include in their special issue. Beyond this main thrust, however, they also provide a wider historical reading of game studies. Specifically, they claim that the early game studies was highly interdisciplinary, that this interdisciplinarity was fruitful, and that over time there are reasons to believe it could go away A more disciplinary, less fruitful future, they argue, is the result of increasing forces of professionalization, competition for funding, and other factors. A field called ‘game studies’ did not emerge out of this moment, and is not likely to — rather, the work of understanding virtual worlds is being domesticated in different disciplines.

I agree with their argument, and I tend to think of it as the development of an ‘area studies’ approach to virtual worlds. Like Latin America or Southeast Asia (but without the icky cold war funding structures), it seems to me that virtuals worlds are now areas in which several disciplines work, each in their own way. Its a familiar structure that results in the standard ‘two conference’ professional structure many of us are part of: I go to the anthropology conference, and I go to the Pacific conference; or I go to the sociology meetings, and that Latin America meetings; or I go to American Studies and Political Science.

Coleman’s forthcoming article and Miller’s posting seem to demonstrate that Malaby and Burke are right: in both cases anthropologists are writing pieces which suggest a canonization of a study of digital anthropology (or virtual worlds) is under way — or ought to be. The difference is one of tone — Malaby and Burke seem to lament the wild frontier days of game studies while Miller seems to be glad that such studies are becoming Normal Science in anthropology.

I must admit that I am much more sympathetic to Malaby and Burke’s position than Miller’s. I am glad that there are more anthropologists working on virtual worlds now, because this means a larger community of people to talk to. But at the same time there is the danger of academic enclosure (in the ‘of the commons’ sense): an unwillingness to reach out to disciplines, and a chauvinistic sense that only anthropology’s way is the only appropriate way to study the digital.

Obviously, Miller’s brief piece is light years from this sort of exclusionism. But I do think its reading of the present moment is awfully presentist. Miller points to four books — Malaby’s Making Virtual Worlds, Dibbell’s Play Money, Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life, and Kelty’s Two Bits — as marking a particular year for digital anthropology. But Dibbell is not an anthropologist, and if you think his work demonstrates that ethnographic writing of virtual worlds is coming of age, then you must think that coming of age happened a decade ago, when his first (and more ethnographic) book My Tiny Life appeared. Kelty is something wonderful but not exactly what you would call Orthodox Anthropology — he doesn’t have a degree in Just Anthropology, and doesn’t currently teach in an anthropology department. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll claim him as one of my own any day of the week, but Chris’s career is an example of the power of interdisciplinarity in the hands of someone scarily smart, not the disciplinization of digital anthropology. I think what Miller’s post really indicates is that two scholars who were early adopters of virtual worlds caught the Second Life wave before it hit, and then the books appeared shortly after the bubble for enthusiasm for Second Life burst — because that is how long it takes to write books.

I’m worried about origin stories for an anthropology of the digital the searches for a founding moment since such a ‘disciplinary history’ serves to create a ‘workable past’ to allow work to occur in the present (I am trying to reference here the introduction to Don Levine’s Visions of the Sociological Tradition). I have no problem with this as long as we remember such disciplinary histories are presentist and partial, and foreclose alternate imaginings of the past. In a world with such a rich interdisciplinary body of study of digital worlds I’d hate for anthropologists to begin telling each other stories that made us forgetful of great early collections like Wired Women or books such as My Tiny Life, especially when the two Toms (Malaby and Boellstorff) spend so much time in their work reminding us of this earlier tradition.

Of course Miller is a thoughtful scholar and hardly interested in foreclosing possibilities for thinking the past of digital anthropology. But my personal preference would be to look for good work — no matter whether it comes from anthropologists, cultural studies types, or smart fanboys with blogs — as broadly as possible, and to try to imagine as long a history as possible for digital anthropology. My current reading list on virtual worlds includes Tuan Yifu’s Escapism (bizarre and yet compelling), Ritual and Its Consequences by Seligman et. al (which I really like), and I’m making the students in my virtual worlds class this semester read sermons like “Self Reliance” (Emerson), “Transformed Noncomformist” (MLK) and “A Discourse on the Present Vileness of the Body, And Its Future Glorious Change By Christ” (Mather Byles, 1732 — turns out that guy thinks his avatar is going to look more like him than his body does, too).

So in sum, I think the growth of anthropological interest in digital phenomenon is a good thing, but it does have its own potential pathologies, and I also think it has a long prehistory and many interdisciplinary connections which I think it should embrace. Its good to develop a sense of who we are and where we’re going but… let’s make sure we don’t forget who we might be, and where we might have gone.


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 “Enclosure, Area Studies, and Virtual Worlds

  1. so if enclosure is happening, then I’m curious where? Sociology has a peculiar ability to incorporate such things inside the family as long as the methods are something they can debate about. Anthropology is ecumenical, often to a fault. Speaking for Information Science (which I shouldn’t do), I think there is a sense that people *should* be owning it, but can’t figure out what makes their discipline distinctive. But Economics? Engineering? Literature?

    And what about the handful of game studies programs that do exist? RPI, USC Annenberg, University of Georgia (Maybe Casey O’Donnell can chime in here, if he’s reading). Seems to me there are programs in existence, in process and in the works, though right now probably isn’t the best time.

    If Miller is right about Malaby’s approach from the tradition of studying games, then there should be a place–a discipline even!–for game studies. On the other hand, I am totally sympathetic to the overwhelming power of institutional inertia, professionalization and lack of funding… so maybe it isn’t coming of age?

  2. Interesting write-up. I share your worries when it comes to this disciplinary enclosing. At the same time, though, I really do like all the attention the study of virtual worlds is getting lately. Anyway, thanks also for pointing out some valuable resources.

  3. Yes, I think it may be too early to say that we won’t end up with Game Studies as an area studies-like discipline, but that picutre is institutionally muddled by the vast desire of a number of universities (including some you list, Chris) to make money through the creation of computer game design and development programs, to which the game studies work gets added as a nod to academia’s habit of social analysis.

    Rex, your Rx for anthropology on this challenge is exactly right, in my opinion — a long memory might be our best bulwark against parochialism. But I guess I’m struck by a contrast there with Chris’ comment. If we are “ecumenical to a fault” (and that’s something I’ve often found myself thinking as well), then how much danger is there in anthropology of shortening our memories. I’d love to hear either of your comments about that.

  4. not so sure i see the contrast there… I think that ecumenism is a good thing, because it allows the kinds of interdisciplinary discussions that game studies represented to happen within the discipline (ditto science studies, women’s studies, environmentalism, animal studies… you name it), and maybe it changes the discipline as it does so (e.g. the University of Chicago seems to have a growing number of people who do something like science studies). I think other disciplines (economics) have none of that, and they really engage in the enclosure–Castranova’s work will be interesting within economics when it can be totally domesticated. So does anthropology remember that it does this? Or does it strategically forget, in a quasi-colonial mode, that it has annexed various approaches and topics over the years? I don’t know… but whenever someone says “anthropology is uniquely positioned to….” I usually reach for my gun… 🙂

  5. Thanks for your comments all.

    I think we all agree that one very clear thing is happening: programs for game design are developing around what in science studies might be called a program of ‘intervention’ or what anthropologists call ‘applied work’: i.e. games studies is being institutionalized in programs whose job is to train people to make games.

    In these kinds of places there is often a ‘soft fringe’ of scholars who provide the ‘big picture’ or ‘philosophical’ thoughts on games that are meant to stimulate the guys who are learning to model things in 3D or do motion capture. That sort of ‘enrichment’ model of games studies clearly will continue as Design departments flourish.

    CK says that anthropologists are in general not too good at enclosing things (at least as compared to economists) and I think this is right. In retrospect I think it is crazy that I claimed it is a good thing that anthropologists don’t make progress developing a coherent understanding of virtual worlds! But in fact I think I, like many people educated at high-table institutions, operate on what one scholar once called an ‘atelier’ model of scholarly production: your books are works of art, and you learn the craft by spending time in a master’s studio. For ‘atelier’ approaches standardized approaches or — god forbid — ‘progress’ means a foreshortening of the horizons within which an artist might wander.

    The down side of this approach… well there are many, but the one Tom Malaby mentions is that without any sort of canon, we end up having no memory or sense of genealogy whatsoever. Surely an insistence on creating scholarly projects anew in every generation is as good a recipe for amnesia as enclosure?

    One way to steer a path between these two extremes might lie in the image of ‘schools’. Artists who paint together under a common teacher share a style and a broad set of conceptual references. I think we can already see certain tendencies emerging that allow people to tell a Daniel Miller person from the Kelty/Coleman person. Allowing these to grow informally through apprenticeship and recommendation sharing within communities of practice seems like a good idea to me, and is especially better than arbitrary exercises in boundary formation. Not that anyone is recommending that.

    The other thing that I think might be helpful would be to say that canon formation is fine, as long as it is not tied to disciplinary boundaries. I make all my students read Bow Nigger, for example, and that is a piece of (what used to be called) ‘New Games Journalism’. I think disciplinary identity is like ethnic identity in Papua New Guinea — it is not about having an intact cultural patrimony that gets handed down undisturbed from one generation to the next, it is about creating a mix of external influences which, through borrowing, are uniquely your own.

    So on reflection I think organic canon formation, which is interested in incorporating many genres of work, is the way to go. And above all, to want to read good work, regardless of what label it wears. Does that help?

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