RealId and Salvage Ethnography

This post is about how ephemeral virtual worlds are, and how they thus prompt some general thoughts about how fieldsites change over time. But to get there I need to explain what RealID is.

Blizzard is one of the largest gaming companies in the US (and perhaps globally), and it runs several different virtual worlds and online games — chief among them being World of Warcraft, a virtual world I’ve done over a year of fieldwork in. RealID is basically Blizz’s way of linking all these worlds together — if you friend someone’s RealID, you can chat and hang out with them no matter what game they are playing. RealId thus turns all of Blizz’s games, which sort of always acted as chat rooms for the people playing them, into one giant meta-chatroom. Now when my scarily erudite beloved is playing a Tauren druid on one realm while I’m playing a Dwarf hunter on another, we can still plan what to have for dinner over chat. People are pissed off, though, because RealID will also connect the web-based forums that Blizzard hosts. In-game RealID is optional — if you don’t want to friend anyone no one will know that your undead rogue ClownKillazzzz is actually you. But in the forums, you will have no choice but reveal your True Name.

There is a lot to say about these changes — about how Blizzard is, borg-like, trying to mimic and absorb popular social games like Mafia Wars; about how Blizzard might be willing to take the heat of universal disapproval if it means creating forums where people are more civil because their identities are known; about the way a small number of people running companies get to decide what counts and privacy and how much of it and what kind we want; and so forth.

The best commentary I’ve seen on these changes so far is Tim Burke’s commentary at Terra Nova:

Blizzard is increasingly looking like both like the dominant force in its field and like the last of its kind all at once, a huge success that did not inaugurate but instead capped a particular cultural form.

I think Tim is really right about this — five years ago people were predicting tons and tons of MMOGs would spring up and become new lotus worlds into which we would disappear. Since then we’ve seen tons of contenders to WoW rise up and, by and large, phail. In my opinion, Tim and others like him are right: virtual worlds are not the beginning of a trend of massive disembodiment and removal from our fleshy biographies, but just something cool that happened for fifteen years around the turn of the century.

I’ve argued in my recent article in Anthropological Quarterly that we cannot think of virtual worlds as islands of culture to be explored without reference to the real-world engagement of their denizens, and that researchers who study virtual worlds labor under culturally-induced conceptions of these worlds separateness from the ‘real world’ because of the intellectual baggage that comes from their expressivist cultural backgrounds (also, the visual nature of the worlds helps facilitate the illusion of separateness). That is why my study of WoW is a study of  American culture when it goes online.

Increasingly the goal is to understand the interaction of projects available in the game (cooperative farming in Farmville, raid progression in WoW) with projects derived from people’s meat-world biographies (feed the kids, graduate from college). In particular, the focus should be on ‘virtual world ideologies’: the explicit ideas that people have about the way that virtual worlds interact with actual ones. To a certain extent, my paper was a study of the virtual world ideology of previous researchers of virtual worlds. Tim points out that:

casual games… are something that many people don’t mind having associated with their public lives… because they’re seen as compatible with productive work and with mainstream sociality. World of Warcraft… is not and won’t ever be that kind of activity. Joining the office betting pool and going bowling for three hours are intrinsically different things in terms of time and process and compatibility with other activities.

I agree although with a caveat — it is the culturally mediated perception of the fit of these different projects that will effect how they are perceived. it is not too hard to imagine a world where Mafia Wars play is seen as a sign of moral depravity and obsession with violence, whereas raid attendance in WoW with your company-sponsored guild is mandatory as a way to build office unity and you’re not allowed to protest that it eats into your free time.

All fieldsites change, and it is one of the jobs of the anthropologist to produce work to help commemorate the lives of the people we live with — particularly since most of the time they are too busy living to remember to take pictures of convenience store or save copies of the church bulletin. But it is something else again to think that your entire fieldsite might become technologically obsolete and someday disappear, living behind only a swirling mass of traces in

People often ask me why I try to document Warcraft instead of ‘some remote tribe’ when the remote tribe’s culture is — so they presume — undocumented and in the process of disappearing while virtual worlds are populated by educated white people and thus will be — presumably — remembered forever.

But the truth is that not only is life ephemeral, but digital life doubly so. It is much easier to capture as data because it is always already made out of data: recording your screen is much easier than recording your visual field. But I think (and I could be wrong) that at some level it is a lot harder to demolish a cathedral or a firestation than it is to switch off the electricity to a colocation facility hosting whole worlds inside its racks of cooled, humming servers.

Many involved with World of Warcraft are already aware that Cataclysm, the new expansion to the game, will change the face of the in-game world forever in a way that will make The Old Days the stuff of memory. But it may be that the game itself needs to be documented, and the memories of it need to be ordered and spun out into a story now, while the game is here.

Of course all that is a long way away, but with every update of the game the world changes a little, and with the rollout of RealID it will change a lot. As a result, strangely, virtual worlds may have more to teach us about salvage ethnography than the indigenous peoples who have so stubbornly and successfully resisted predictions about the inevitability of their disappearance.


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

11 thoughts on “RealId and Salvage Ethnography

  1. Thanks Rex, a great post.

    But aren’t virtual worlds *places* of a kind, as demonstrated by Tom Boellstorff (2008) in Coming of Age in Second Life, where he shows how Second Life ‘residents’ mobilise around issues affecting their virtual neighbourhoods?

  2. @John: I think this is an infelicitous use of the word place because it stretches the concept too far. Traditionally location/a point in Cartesian space is a necessary attribute of a place. The shed with the servers might be a place, but I don’t think the virtual world can be.

  3. Is WoW (specifically, rather than SL or other MMORPGs) really just a middleclass, white, American game? I certainly can’t speak to the facts and figures, but from reports on the part of friends with family both in South Korea/HK/China/Japan and the States, as well as a bit of media coverage (though the NYT’s “trend” articles seem more often than not to be reporting on the behavior of a few folks the author knows), it seems that WoW and other online games are being played by a large East Asian audience, too.

    That was a horrific sentence, and I unfortunately don’t have time to edit it. Rex, do you know what the demographics and usage of East Asian/non-US players for WoW are like? I’d imagine there’s a great deal of interesting commentary to be made on the economic history of online game participation – who has access to not only cash for computers, but free time, physical bandwidth access, etc….. Gender, too – who can go to game parlors, school-refusers in Japan being predominantly male, the way in which American game developers structure and populate games to attract players….

    Fascinating post, Rex. Apologies that my quick thoughts are so discombobulated. ^_^

  4. Always like reading about your stuff, Rex.

    When I was looking for a fiction writing project to mitigate the tyranny of writing up my thesis, I had the idea (I’m not the first one) of trying to do “travel writing” in Azeroth. While in no way as intellectually serious as your work, it’s been interesting to try to interpret the absurdity and everydayness of the place, which is partly a factor of Blizzard’s design and partly a factor of how people behave when they go there.

    If you have some time to kill, the result is a blog at called “Travels with Ten-thunders: Kalimdor on Five Silver a Day”. 🙂

    I think the cultural contingency of perceptions about gaming “lifestyles” (casual = good, WoW = bad) is right on the mark, and to the extent that virtual worlds persist we might see changes over time. Video-game playing in general is, I think, becoming more mainstream and “game talk” may become more common as a social lubricant; I know one of my guild leaders in WoW has mentioned that he talks about his raid organizing and leading experience in job interviews. I’m not sure I agree that this is a good idea right now, but who knows? He seems to be doing alright…

  5. I find this post interesting for a lot of reasons, and most likely because I have been involved in online communities since the early 1990s, notably the old text-based Mindvox BBS out of NYC. Back in those days, there were people who were very concerned about people who chose not to reveal their real names. Overly concerned I would say. A name like mine used online is practically anonymous, not to mention people being able to adopt a real-sounding name that was actually a cover for their real identity. Hearing people scream about being revealed online is an interesting twist.

    Yes, even online fieldsites change. I know that somewhere, someone has a complete archives of every post that ever was on MindVox, but looking at them now would be a lot like looking at pottery or stone axes.

    I am always rolling my eyes at the uninitated who write pieces on virtual worlds and the disintegration of the “real” world. It reminds me of my childhood and all the horrific articles about Dungeons and Dragons. People have been occupying pretend places before computers sat on our desks. And isn’t playing an online first-person shooter like playing tennis or golf? Although I’m not a WoWer, I was obsessed for several years with Half-Life, and I can say that while I did not discuss my prowess with the grenade launcher during job interviews, I did play with co-workers, and it was definitely a part of professional life during that magical dot-com boom window that existed in the mid-90s. Gaming is already mainstream, and I’ve believed that ever since my mother wiped the floor with me playing Tetris on HER original Nintendo system.

  6. Thanks for the comments all.
    John – you can read my piece (I’ll try to see if I can post it OA) for a critique of Tom’s work. The short answer is that virtual worlds are places, but so are diners and gyms — just part of a network of sites in which people make meaning. I think you need to follow the people and projects across places, not examine ‘the culture’ or ‘a place’ — something anthropologists have been arguing for some time now.

    Christine — WoW has diffused across the planet and all kinds of people play it. However, I am studying one guild of are 150 people, the vast majority of whom are white men between the ages of twenty and forty. Their class position varies. I study my guild, which is mostly Americans (there are some people from Canada as well).

    I think Cathy has a great point about forgotten histories of online spaces. I regularly teach Julian Dibbell’s My Tiny Life because my students simply have no idea that MUDs exist — and used to be The Shit. Somehow their ideology of technology is such that they think old people are clueless about technology, which in fact increasingly the middle-age authority figures of the world are weary veterans of video game worlds.

  7. The short answer is that virtual worlds are places, but so are diners and gyms — just part of a network of sites in which people make meaning.

    It probably doesn’t matter if your audience is a room full of anthropologists, but if you call a virtual world a place without operationalizing the term and there is a geographer in the room you run the risking of being heckled (viz. Gieryn’s Annual Review).

  8. Cory Doctorow just released a new novel, _For the Win_, which imagines gold-farmers in China, India, and SE Asia organizing unions. Cory actually did some travelling and research for this one, which shows. I know Mumbai and Dharavi only remotely, through films/news/books, but what he writes about the city rings true.

    Cory makes all his books available free, online, under a Creative Commons licence. Rex might want to take a look at this one.

  9. On the subject of place, to me one of the more intriguing aspects of Coming of Age in Second Life is the parallel between the sorts of things that matter to Second Life ‘residents’ and those that matter to actual residents of Subang Jaya, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur where I have done fieldwork. In both cases, property-owners were keen to improve their neighbourhoods and protect them from vandals, eye-sores, overcrowding, and so on.

    So for me the more interesting question is not whether or not Second Life is a real place, but rather the fact that many Second Life users (who many dismiss as mere ‘players’) reportedly see their avatars as residing in specific dwellings and neighbourhoods, and sometimes engage – via their avatars – in recognisable forms of residential activism, e.g. protesting against a billboard that spoils a nice view from a floating apartment.

  10. I think the thing that people fail to realize with WOW is that the game is funny with its comic relief and it has spent a lot of time putting in everything that most games fail to put into their initial design. Initial WOW sucked compared to the current product, just nobody recalls just how bad it was. The only reason I don’t go back is because of the play times I currently have. I have yet to see another game that makes you smile or laugh as much as WOW. EVE is not funny at all and is one long grief fest. Fallen Earth was great, but they really screwed up the faction and had a problem with traveling. They also put out a pvp game without BGs, which is just dumb. I’d like to try the new star wars, but with Australia’s insane internet policies, I’m afraid it will look a lot like WAR. A great pvp mmo that nobody played together because of BGs and they put up too many Oceania servers. Once you stepped out of BGs nobody was around. It was also extremely serious to the point that I wouldn’t even bother reading the quest logs. It also had a serious grind element that was more befitting Koreans, who are great lovers of the grind games.

    As far as the real ID, most people don’t know how to hook up a fake name to a fake email address and then to a credit card with that name. It’s pretty easy, but very specialized knowledge more akin to what a scammer would use/know. I’d also note that South Korea has the phenomenon of offline PC kill, where they literally go and kill you in real life. It has also happened in Taiwan. Under such circumstances, I’d be loath put my real name up as the person I beat may not take kindly to me in real life. With Facebook, it’s child’s play to track down most people.

    I’m very interested in what happens with the free-to-play games in the West. They are huge in Asia, yet also big money makers. D&D has had great success going free-to-play and I think LOTR will also have some success. I’m more interested in how they will develop new content. If you’re going to play an MMO without new content being added, you’re not going to be a faithful customer after you have everything.

    You’re starting to see game companies trying to figure out how to turn a profit off of multi-player. Iirc, a normal video is played for 30 hours, yet with multi-player some games are getting 10 hours a week of play. Activision is really thinking how to turn all that free play time into cash.

    As a player I want a sense of accomplishment and to be entertained. I want to PVP with fair odds in a BG with an organized team as most servers have are normally tilted heavily to one side. I want to actually follow a story and not some grindfest. I want to be able to craft the stuff I use. I want to be able to avoid annoying people and gold spammers easily. I don’t want my play time to seem like work like when I was in an intense raid guild.

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