Monday, July 12, 2010

Reading :: My Life as a Night Elf Priest

My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft
By Bonnie A. Nardi

Bonnie Nardi is well known for her hard-core explication and development of activity theory. For instance, her 1996 edited collection Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction remains an important landmark in introducing, discussing, and theorizing AT for HCI. Her more recent Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design (with Victor Kaptelinin) further pushes the boundaries of the theory, developing it for understanding knowledge work. But Bonnie is also known for her accessible writing, her excellent storytelling, and her compassionate portrayals of those she discusses in her ethnographies.

Her latest book, My Life as a Night Elf Priest, is light on the former and heavy on the latter. Bonnie uses activity theory as a framework here, but her focus isn't on developing the theory or testing its bounds so much as it is on developing, as the subtitle suggests, "an anthropological account of World of Warcraft." This massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) has millions of users, but it's widely misunderstood. As Bonnie confesses, she also began with a negative impression of WoW and gaming in general, but students kept bringing MMORPGs up, so she decided to try it. Trying out the game led to playing, which led to an honest-to-goodness ethnography that spanned three years, two continents, and various groupings.

In this ethnography, Bonnie recounts starting off as a n00b and learning the terms and mores of WoW. She dispels some of the pernicious stereotypes about WoW players here, describing players' backgrounds in her guilds, then discussing issues such as aesthetics, media, the work/play distinction, addiction, modding, gender, and intercultural play. Throughout, she writes engagingly, pulling us into the story as well: I haven't played a MMORPG myself, but by the end of the book, I could understand why people do, how they interact, how they develop norms, and how they enforce behavior. I could also see how changes in the WoW environment, such as new modules that favor smaller groupings, can have macrosocial effects on the entire population of players.

I particularly appreciated Bonnie's discussion of US vs. Chinese takes on WoW. Bonnie and her research team gathered Chinese data by visiting Chinese cybercafes, observing users, and interviewing them. The differences were sometimes startling, and had partly to do with the Chinese government's heavy-handed editing of game representations: skeletons, for instance, were replaced by graves. (Bonnie attempts to draw an equivalence with conservative Christian monitoring of WoW in North America, although she doesn't provide examples of how or whether WoW has been modified for Christian sensibilities.) Other differences had to do with where WoW was played (Chinese cybercafes, with co-players close by, vs. American offices and bedrooms) and with ideas about cooperation.

The book is a fast read, a page turner. For someone like me, with some console RPG experience but no MMORPG experience, it explained WoW well, especially the cultural dimension and constructs that come from closely sharing and cooperating in the game with other players. But - and this is my only criticism - the specialized terms were hard to track. Bonnie defined each one immediately, but for a n00b like me, it was hard to keep track of terms such as "debuff," "ninja-ing," and "facerolling," and I began to wish for a glossary rather than tracking down the definitions in the index.

Still, overall, a great book. It's entertaining, it's a nice example of an online ethnography, and it advances the ball in terms of applying activity theory to online gaming. If you have the remotest interest in any of these, pick it up.

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