Mining World of Warcraft for Publications

A while ago Kerim wrote a post on the difference between ‘mining’ and ‘harvesting’ strategies of publication. It touched off a lot of interesting discussion, but lacked a concrete example of what Kerim was talking about. So I wanted to offer one here: how I am mining my World of Warcraft research for publications.

My ultimate goal for my WoW (as World of Warcraft is known) research is a book — now in its third draft. Along the way, however, I am ‘mining’ my research by producing several other publications. The two I want to discuss here are Being in the World (of Warcraft): Raiding, Realism, and Knowledge Production in a Massively Multiplayer Online Game (full text is OA — the publisher forget to get me to sign a CTA so I can release the work as I like. They are OK with this). The second is a draft paper I recently gave at a theater studies conference entitled Feeling Powerful and Being Powerful: Virtuosity and Expressive Individualism in World of Warcraft.

If you read these papers, you can see that there are a lot of similarities between them. Both chronicle my work with my guild. Because WoW is way more exotic to Americans then Papua New Guinea (“Black people in a forest? Got it. People killing monsters online? What now?”) I spend a lot of time describing what goes on online. But there are important differences in them as well.

Each paper was written for a different occasion. “Being in WoW” was written for a special issue of Anthropological Quarterly dedicated to ‘knowledge production’. As a result, I felt like I had to shoehorn my piece into that category. “Feeling Powerful” was written for a panel on “Economies of Showing” and so it had to be fit into that category.  Ironically, the panel organizers just wanted to do something on ‘showing’ but the conference theme was ‘economics’ so they changed to title to make sure they’d be included.

I think this is a good example of a general phenomena in the life of the mind: you are always thinking, thinking thoughts that are very abstract and in flux. Then particular occasions arise and they act like molds that you pour your molten thoughts into.

The papers address their occasion, but they don’t pander to it. They both reach through their occasions to address wider points in the literature I’m addressing.

“Being in WoW” made two and half points: first, it argued against the idea that virtual worlds were compelling because they looked ‘real’. Rather, I argued that they were compelling because they were places where people could socialize. Second, I took issue with the idea that we ought study virtual worlds ‘on their own terms’ and do ‘the culture’ of ‘a world’. Rather, I argued that virtual ethnography should study communities of people and how those communities used multiple spaces, some real and some virtual, to create themselves. My half point was that Coming of Age in Second Life legitimated ‘the culture’ of ‘a world’ ethnography by comparing it to ethnography of the Pacific, and as a Pacifcist I pointed out that this was a lousy description of how Pacific Islanders and Pacificists actually thought of themselves and their cultures.

“Feeling Powerful” made a series of related, but different points: that success in WoW affirm’s player’s ego ideals, that a virtual space affects actual personalities, and that this is what we should expect given that American WoW players have a western culture of ‘expressive individualism’. One reason WoW is so popular is because it is a place where this dynamic is powerfully performed. Once we realize this, we can see it is more compelling a virtual world than Second Life: Second Life was built around Western presumptions that all human beings want to be creative artists, which I argue is not true — romantic creation is just one species of expressivity. For this reason we should expect to see SL fascinate Americans because it speaks to their culturally-laden perceptions about what people want out of life, but more Americans to actually play WoW, which actually gives it to them. And this is in fact exactly what we see.

Basically, both of these papers make the same broad claims, but they differ in the specific points they make, the audiences they address, and the concrete data they use. In the final book version a lot of this material will be incorporated. The ethnographic exposition will be all the better for having been written and revised mutliple times, and I’ll be better able to make my points better because I’ve already made them in ‘rough draft’ form in the published articles. Best of all, the length of the book will allow me to connect them together and to add a broader overview since details on these arguments can just be cited in the book, rather than made there.

There are some people who feel you should ‘never present the same paper twice’ and I think that this is true. There is also reason to be cynical of the culture of ‘minimally significant differences’ used by people who make minor tweaks to present the same basic paper at different conferences over and over again. However, taking the same project and turning it over and over again to fit the situation and as part of creating a larger and more integral work is good academic practice — as well as good for the CV — if you can take different bits of data from your fieldwork and slot it in to whatever intellectual preoccupation you have that fits the occasion.


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

9 thoughts on “Mining World of Warcraft for Publications

  1. Thinking about the culture of an online world, have you considered the importance of place in online worlds? Not just as in specific servers but also in specific places in the maps that people identify with?

  2. @ josh – i’m not certain what you mean, but places in wow tend to be tied to specific tasks depending on faction, level, professions, quests etc. All affect the way a zone is experienced.

  3. I understand what Josh is saying — in Second Life people associate with, and congregate on, specific sims that have different aesthetic qualities and composition of communities, as well as activities. I am not sure how much time you have spent in SL to think that most people there create. I am one of the few members of my friendship circle there who does any building whatsoever and what I make is pretty basic.

    There are about 3-4 primary ways to enjoy SL: as a tourist/explorer; for role-playing on a sliding scale from free-form to metered; as a builder and possible money-maker; and as a consumer. All of these roles also include a heaping helping of sociality (including sex).

    The primary reason people play WoW and not SL is that to truly feel at ease in SL requires a much steeper learning curve. It is attractive to people who already possess a fair amount of computer literacy, and also people who can manage their social life competently.

  4. @Nick, from a gaming perspective yes but from the perspective of the game acting as a host for an online community, either in WoW or SL, there may be locations where people feel most comfortable or places that they relate to certain past events (such as a raid in that area or whatever.) A virtual sense of communitas. This could exist in a specific place that a person prefers to buy/sell/trade or a commonly used meeting location. It would be interesting, to me, to see if these places have the same significance in the virtual world as they do in the real world.

  5. To add a little, speaking specifically in regards to this quote: “There will always be those first kills that I remember”, is the location of that first kill at all important to that player. Do they associate positively with that place and how do these associations correlate with immersion.

  6. Thanks for this, and to think I was making fun of my younger brother for spending half his life on WoW!

    I think the part on expressive individualism in WoW related to the larger theme of individualism and identity formation in American society neatly links the micro-macro. With our identities increasingly achieved rather than ascribed from the community, WoW seems a space to fluidly express or act out that identity with others, albeit in a more individually reflexive reaction to the WoW environment and its materials, compared to the more traditional inter-subjectivity of face to face dialogue and meaning making. It also speaks to the deeply individual concept of empowerment in American society, although the collaboration and group work (“raiding”) makes this seem like a hybrid. If WoW is indeed a “project” of working together in an open-ended environment and an enabling performance for the individual, how does this “virtual” practice move and get expressed outside the WoW environment? I’m curious about this WoW space – how the players work with the cultural materials (music, sounds, visuals, maps) and express their aesthetic agency in and through WoW and out of the game environment.

  7. @Anthrodiva – I have not played Second Life so I can’t really comment on the differences between it and WoW.

    @Nick – Although I don’t play anymore I am definitely a WoW “insider” so I’m unable to provide an objective perspective. But speaking from experience I think that, in a sense, both are true. For me particular instances (dungeons) will always be tied to experiences with certain groups, and to a lesser extent zones are tied to the instances they contain. Though some zones contain more than one instance.

    I’ll try to explain using an example from my own levelling experience. I rolled my first toon on an RP-PVP server. It was a Night Elf druid back in Vanilla (before the first expansion). In those days you had to physically run to an instance, and one of the best instances for learning the ropes – Scarlet Monastery (SM) – was in horde territory. In order to “safely” reach the instance, lower level guild members would often be escorted by level 60’s who would attempt to hold-off and distract the high-level horde players.

    So yes, in a sense, levelling through SM helped build communitas. It was a rite of passage that, back then, everyone had to go through and memories of that time will always colour future experiences of that instance.

    But the game experience is constantly changing with every new expansion. Guilds rise and fall on an almost daily basis and it’s not uncommon for people to have more than one toon, and/or to change faction or server. And, to a greater or lesser extent (I would hazard moreso for rpers), your in game identity is tied to the toon that you are playing.

    A squishy (a class that wears cloth armour) will have quite different experiences than will a rogue. Rogues are expendable, priests are not so much. But a person can be both a rogue and a priest at different times and may sometimes be called on to perform as both within the same raid instance depending on what classes are required for each fight.

    At its most basic my point is that experience of place is tied to identity, and within the WoW game world identity is fluid.

  8. Reading the second essay, “Feeling Powerful….” I was struck by the sentence,

    This mixture of goal-oriented play and diffuse, enduring solidarity is what made the guild so compelling but also, as Layla complained, so problematic.

    My experiences as members of a Japanese mens’ chorus and a group of older, mostly retired, men who contribute labor and organizing ability to community projects for the condominium in which we all live have stimulated an interest in what I have tentatively labeled, “purposeful, playful communities.” Like WoW as Rex describes it, these groups combine a sense of purpose with opportunities for socializing and feeling part of a community. I now have to think about how expressive individualism figures into this mix. It certainly does for some chorus members, who are able to show off their voices and/or musical talent. This is, however, only one motivation. There are also an element of high-society prestige and being able to socialize with celebrities and philanthropic purpose—the chorus performs on behalf of the Red Cross and other charities.

  9. @Nick

    That is exactly what I mean, as an outsider and someone interested in the importance of place, I wonder if associations similar to yours are the norm. Do they exist as something that can be studied, are they limited to a certain “type” of player, do they act as facsimiles for real world places that people find important (or alternately as a replacement for these places when they don’t exist to the person in the real world, such as in the case someone who moves constantly), does the casual player make the same, or similar, associations as someone who plays intensely, and so on. Basically, as the virtual world becomes a more important part of our understanding of daily life, how does virtual social ecology play a role in that?

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