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15 Minutes of Fame: Anthropologist Bonnie Nardi on WoW culture and art

From Hollywood celebrities to the guy next door, millions of people have made World of Warcraft a part of their lives. How do you play WoW? We're giving each approach its own 15 Minutes of Fame.

We've written before at WoW.com and even here in 15 Minutes of Fame about attempts to study World of Warcraft culture from a sociological, psychological or anthropological point of view. In all of these cases, the researchers in question have logged time playing WoW as part of their research, albeit some with greater degrees of immersive success than others.

So I was very pleasantly surprised to learn that Bonnie Nardi, a University of California-Irvine expert in the social implications of digital technologies and author of the rather blithely titled My Life as a Night Elf Priest, not only rolled the token raiding character in order to observe the curious behavior of the raiding animal -- she actually enjoys WoW in its own right. Rather than cautiously sniffing WoW culture only to generate another wide-eyed, ZOMG-look-at-this-funny-lingo report from the digital field, Nardi dove deep enough to play in four different guilds: a casual raiding guild; a raiding guild composed of fellow academics; a small, casual guild; and her own friends-and-family guild. Our two-part interview with Nardi, packed with opinion and cultural analysis, reveals a witty approach to WoW culture that successfully combines academic insight with the familiarity of a seasoned player.

15 Minutes of Fame: Let's talk about the things you did and didn't examine in detail in your book. I'm curious that you chose to explore the player culture in China but not to pursue the specific in-game cultures of hardcore raiders, roleplayers, arena gladiators or world PvP enthusiasts. What drove these particular choices? Do you have any plans to revisit the areas you didn't research for this book?

Bonnie Nardi: Being an anthropologist, I am naturally drawn to cross-cultural research. And who wouldn't want to visit China?! Conceptually, China is important to our understanding of World of Warcraft because about half of all players are Chinese. One of my students (a native speaker of Chinese) and I have done some work that I think is pretty interesting (it can be found on my webpage) and has, I hope, made a small contribution toward helping us think about WoW as a global artifact.

There are studies of hardcore raiders, but we don't know much about arena players or PvP, and we should. Over time, I think those gaps will be filled. I would personally love to do it all myself if there were more hours in the day. I may take a look at the rated battlegrounds when they come out. My kids love battlegrounds and have several twinks, so some family premades would be a nice way to begin to get a feel for the rating system and how it affects play. (I, of course, don't do research in my family guild but can study game mechanics from there as well as anywhere else.)

Moving beyond my own research, I have a graduate student studying raiding with an emphasis on the audio experience, including game audio and talk in Vent. Another is looking at corporate-player relations, a fascinating topic with legal, ethical, social and technical ramifications. I sponsor individual undergraduate research, and in the fall, I plan to work with a student interested in how virtual worlds provide affordances not available in the real world. He's pretty cool -- he has written a guide on the mage Torment the Weak/fire spec for TankSpot.

What online resources outside of the game itself -- websites, guild forums, Blizzard's site -- were most helpful to you professionally during your research?

I always read my guild forum -- it's invaluable for learning who players are in real life and about their activities outside of WoW. As a healer (I have been disc-specced in Wrath) and as someone interested in theorycrafting as a research topic, I read the Elitist Jerks forums, PlusHeal and BobTurkey's WoW Blog pretty religiously. I used to read the Dwarfpriest and miss her. I also have a resto shammy that I enjoy very much and try to keep up with shamanistic knowledge.

I was excited and surprised when I started this research at the richness of WoW-related sites and how incredibly well done many of them are. We can only hope that the people writing and maintaining them will bring their expertise and creativity to work and school. I teach a writing course for computer science students and it always cheers me to know that some of the sites, such as Elitist Jerks, enforce rules of good grammar and spelling. 15 Minutes of Fame is a great example of a well-designed column with first-rate content.

What about personally -- were there websites you turned to regularly for help playing and enjoying the game?

That would include the sites mentioned above, as well as watching TankSpot videos and reading the guides. I always seem to find interesting things in Breakfast Topics. For gear, I like Wowhead and Allakhazam. MMO-Champion has tons of useful information. The armory is an endlessly fascinating resource. Sometimes when I am obsessing over which gems to use or how much of a particular stat to have, I look at the armory of a player I admire. I don't always copy what they do, but I can get the basic idea of what they are going for, and that's helpful.

Did you discover any aspects of WoW's player culture that were completely unanticipated?

I had never played a video game before this research. It was all unanticipated! I mean, I had to be told to click on the monster. My son Christopher helped with that.

I was surprised to see in your writing that you had noticed the closed culture of Blizzard itself. Do you think this corporate attitude has affected its decisions on design and choices that impact the player community?

Although Blizzard has been closed to academic researchers, I don't think the culture of Blizzard is exactly closed. Not many companies have the equivalent of blue posts coming from influential employees. There is a significant dialog between players and the corporate entity that is not filtered through marketing. That's unusual. I'm sure Blizzard also has sophisticated marketing and data mining happening, and the game masters, bless their hearts, know a lot about the players. Patches seem to include changes players have been vocal about. There are small but very nice upgrades in Cataclysm (such as showing new abilities that you will get) that indicate that Blizz is paying attention.

Sometimes, though, I think Blizzard pays too much attention to players, such as the dumbing down of the game, which is probably related to market share. I still haven't gotten over certain mobs like the old elite Gammerita disappearing! (She's there but not an elite.) I'm in favor of Blizzard maintaining a unified artistic and gaming vision, which is how it got where it is, producer of the world's most profitable video game. It's a delicate balance playing off a vision versus the preferences of a sampled segment of the player community. I would certainly like to know more about how Blizzard samples and assesses those preferences, but it's probably intellectual capital they would prefer not to divulge.

Occasionally Blizzard totally misses the mark and appears to be out of touch, like the ill-fated Real ID on the forums policy. I suspect Facebook envy entered in, and maybe even darker, crypto-marketing stuff. But at least they backed down quickly. Smart move, good recovery, I thought. The worst thing I have seen Blizzard do was censoring Cogwheel and other modders who voiced opinions about modding policy with which Blizzard did not agree, in April 2009. That act of censorship was sad and unnecessary. Taking down Cogwheel's macro guide was small-minded.

Coming from the perspective of play and gaming as an aesthetic experience, what are your thoughts on Roger Ebert's declaration that games can never be art?

I have immense respect for Roger Ebert -- he's been around since forever, maintaining a position as a prominent movie critic, which is no easy feat in the rushing waters of popular media. You may not remember when he was part of Siskel and Ebert. Siskel died in 1999, and Ebert had to reinvent himself after a very long partnership, which he did admirably. Props to Ebert for the witty "Okay, kids play on my lawn" title of one of the blog posts about art and video games.

But let's deal with the argument that video games can never be art. If you read the blog posts (Video games can never be art and Okay, kids, play on my lawn), you will see that Ebert does not define art. He makes clear that he isn't going to try. Logic tells us that his argument about video games is untenable, because art is a null category; let's call it <>. Ebert's argument is:

We don't know what <> is.
Video games are not <>.

You don't have to know whether men are mortal to see the flimsiness in this gambit. Ebert does not define art because his gig is to tell other people what's good. That's more easily done without clear standards emanating from a definition. He says:

Some ... paintings are masterpieces, most are very bad indeed. How do we tell the difference? We know. It is a matter, yes, of taste.

[W]hen I say McCarthy is "better" than Sparks and that his novels are artworks, that is a subjective judgment, made on the basis of my taste (which I would argue is better than the taste of anyone who prefers Sparks).
Ebert asserts that he has better taste than certain other people. He can, therefore, know what art is. This move is a regress, pushing the terms of the argument back to what taste means, which remains unanswered. The argument reduces simply to "my taste is better than yours because I say so."

Ebert belongs to the cultural moment of producers and consumers. He deals in a medium in which the audience is passive and does not learn an active practice. Video games, by contrast, are what I call a "visual-performative" medium. They are not merely about watching, but about doing. The art lies in the action. Visual elements invite action; you pick a flower, or mine a node, or attack a player or a monster. Who hasn't scoped out a battleground, looking for the class that is most vulnerable to your class and going after them? The player's relation to the visual is active. The visual elements in a video game change in response to player actions. Other media, like photography, film and television, don't do that.

The art of the video game lies in composing an environment in which interesting, compelling, challenging actions are embedded in a visually alive universe. It's not about looking at a screenshot from a game and saying, "I like it, I don't like it." It's about experiencing the action in the context of a vivid, visual world.

My argument about an active relationship to media draws from the work of the great American philosopher John Dewey. Dewey, writing in the earlier part of the last century, produced the wonderful book Art as Experience.

Dewey was seriously annoyed at the way Euro-American culture highjacked the word "art" to mean the things that critics tell us are good. He thought that art should be unified with everyday experience. Dewey explains, in his genteel but ultimately very radical way, that stuff in museums is very often there to show off the spoils of imperial hegemonies and that most cultures incorporated art into the everyday:

[In times past,] [d]omestic utensils, furnishings of tent and house, rugs, mats, jars, pots, bows, spears, were wrought with such delighted care that today we hunt them out and give them places of honor in our art museums. Yet in their own time and place... they [were a] manifestation of group and clan membership, worship of gods, feasting and fasting, fighting, hunting, and all the rhythmic crises that punctuate the stream of living....The arts of the drama, music, painting, and architecture thus exemplified had no peculiar connection with theaters, galleries, museums. They were part of the significant life of an organized community. (2005, first published 1934)

This world of experience, in which production and consumption are unified, yields a broader, more democratic notion of art. Dewey decided to use the term "aesthetic experience" to describe this notion, because he knew it would be a losing battle to redefine art.
We learn from Dewey that the experience of art does not have to be the product of an auteur; it can spring from the hands and minds of all of us. We may feel aesthetic satisfaction when we witness the "delighted care" evident in, say, a holiday table set before us, made welcoming with beautiful flowers and seasonal decorations, the good china perfectly arranged, the table composing an artful setting for exquisitely prepared and presented food. The experience enters our own "stream of living." I agree with Ebert that judgments about art are subjective, but I'm happy for everyone to make their own judgments without saying mine are better. I'm happy when life is art.

That still leaves Shakespeare and the few uber geniuses that critics always trot out to tell us we must respect True Art. Certainly I appreciate Shakespeare (I had great high school English teachers), but let's face it, a Rolling Stones concert fills a lot more seats than the Oregon Shakespeare Festival does.

But that, in my opinion, is just swell. The Stones speak to us in our own time in our own way -- which is what art should do. Shakespeare's plays did the same in their time; the audiences were a mix of all levels of income and education, and they had a rollicking good time, not like the hushed, decorous, high-culture audiences of Shakespeare's plays today. Life and art move on. They create and inhabit new modes of expression and experience.

Video games are something new, which is maybe why Ebert can't fit them to old categories. Video games are an active, performative medium in which the actors are the players. The visuals comprise interactive elements keyed to player actions, instead of being there merely gaze at. Affording performance in elaborate, imaginative fantasy worlds made available to millions of people is the fruit of digital technology. Video games have become part of the "life of an organized community," in Dewey's phrase, and that's a beautiful thing.

In Part 2 of our interview, Nardi discusses gender, WoW culture and the balance between challenging content and ease of access; click the button below.



Filed under: Interviews, 15 Minutes of Fame

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