Before I start talking about the substance of Mark Chen’s Leet Noobs I want to spend a second talking about the business model. The sticker price of the book is US$34.95, which gets you 200 pages, which is really around 175 pages of actual book once the front and back matter and so forth are factored in. The book is a revision of Chen’s dissertation, which you can get for free if you are attached to a university which subscribes to ProQuest. Alternately, you can read at least two chapters of the book for free in open access journals where they’ve been published. Another is available for rent for a day in Games and Culture, for which Sage will charge you US$25. And then there are the short paper presentations on Chen’s incredibly rich website — which includes his comps answers iirc — where you can read shorter pieces which convey the main points that Chen is trying to make in each of his chapters.
What are to make of a mode of scholarship where a book costs ten dollars more than the price to rent one of its chapters, and thirty-five dollars more than free versions of all the chapters? And where are we as an intellectual community where the impetus to publish pushes people to recycle the same material over and over in the name ‘productivity’? What sort of value are publishers adding to Chen’s work that justifies their charging that much money?
I’m not saying there aren’t good answers to these questions. Presenting the same material over and over is a good way to help think it through, and I’m sure that Chen’s finished book benefitted from having the opportunity to have peer reviewers, editors, and conference participants look it over. But still — we live in strange times.
Ok let’s move on to the book itself: Leet Noobs is Chen’s ethnography of a guild in World of Warcraft (WoW). It has a lot in common with Nardi’s book: it studies one or two guilds that the ethnographer lived with, rather than covering ‘the culture’ of ‘a world’. It’s a problem-based ethnography which focuses on particular issues instead of providing a general overview of the lives of WoW players. Both Chen and Nardi lament the way the magic of the virtual world is replaced by a goal-focused stats-and-bars approach. Both volumes are short and clearly written, and at times they have a strong personal voice.
But there are a ton of differences as well. Nardi is a senior scholar with decades of work on technology. Chen is a new Ph.D. Chen is a lifelong gamer who describes himself as hopelessly addicted to video games. Nardi started playing WoW to write the book, while Chen decided to write on WoW because he was playing it. And — check this out — his fieldwork is focused on his guild’s first Ragnaros kill. On an RP server. One chapter is on what happened the first time someone invented threat meters. This old-school approach gives Chen a lot of cred in my book.
Chen also comes out of a different genealogy than Nardi: education. The education people have always been super-early adopters of technology and computers. They have also been on the scene in the virtual world space as well, with authors such as Constance Steinkuehler writing about how people learn online. Chen is part of this movement, and in particular he’s interested in the social and material dimensions of learning — how skilled performance (i.e. downing raid bosses) requires social capital and (as they say in cooking) a mise, an artifactual environment that lets you focus your attention at the task at hand because everything else is set up right. Chen draws on ANT, but also on the psychologists who study distributed cognition and communities of practice.
It’s a great way to approach raiding — the main thing I study in my WoW research — and I found myself nodding in agreement again and again as Chen described in technical terms what every good raider knows: you have to do research, evaluate sources, work with a good team, and get your keybinding and addons set properly. In terms of theoretical contribution, I feel like the work falls more on the side of “adds more evidence to one side of an established debate.” Chen is part of a now-vast movement that demonstrates the importance of video games and learning that is making its opposition look more and more obsolete. It’s a perfectly appropriate level of innovation for a Ph.D., but people looking for an argument that is going to change the world won’t find it in this book. Its further proof of a viewpoint that seems more and more in the ascendance — but you know, it was probably a little more fashion-forward when Chen began his dissertation.
What you will find in the book is a series of extremely detailed case studies that are superbly well done. Many people writing their dissertation get told by their dissertation advisors: “can you prove this theoretical point using the ethnography you have?” It’s actually one of the hardest things to do, especially because no one seems to be able to tell you how to do it, just that it has to be done. But Chen really does it in these chapters: he shows us when, where, and how, threat meters changed the dynamics of his guild (when they discovered aggro radius if you can believe that there was once a time when someone had to figure out what that is), how raids actually go about the work of raiding and even, in one of the chapters than will ring true to WoW players, how guilds explode. These case studies are really clinics in how to do things with ethnography, and they are well worth reading for graduate students.
The case studies are wrapped up in a curious little book. Between chapters are vignettes, often just dressed-up transcripts of chat, which are supposed to provide some flavor of the game world to make you feel like you have ‘been there’. I’m not sure how well these work for nonplayers — I found them boring (but ethnographically accurate). Also, Chen has a strong authorial voice — a very vulnerable observer willing to admit to his own subjective feelings about the game and his successes and failures. I know Mark a little, from years and years ago, so I may be projecting a little bit, but he comes across as a sort of lovable looser: ashamed to admit to enjoying video games so much, wanting to use an informal voice but constantly aware of the genre standards he is violating, and apologetic for forcing the reader to learn so much about actor network theory and its associated jargon. It never gets cloying, but I do think the book would have been more successful if he had just Gone There and unapologetically embraced his inner geek and assumed his reader would be teen along in his passion for his topic.
Chen doesn’t beat around the bush in making his points — in case you missed his clear explanation of them in the opening chapter, there is a bulleted list of them in the conclusion. This, combined with the extremely short discussion of theory in the first and last chapter, makes me feel like that book might have been better left as a series of articles, or else rewritten as a long essay. As someone who read the articles on which the book is based, I felt like I burned through the intro, conclusion, and little interludes pretty quickly.
I suppose it’s to Chen’s credit that he writes so clearly and with such ethnographic focus that he seems to have economized himself out of a monograph — a longer literature review or theoretical elaboration could have been provided a richer book, and of course the whole reason we write books is to have the room to add this sort of work. But I think that wasn’t the game that Chen wanted to play, and his book stands as an admirably detailed collection of case studies of World of Warcraft which is the first major description of how raiders play the game.