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.