My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft

Overview

"Ever since the creators of the animated television show South Park turned their lovingly sardonic gaze on the massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft for an entire episode, WoW's status as an icon of digital culture has been secure. My Life as a Night Elf Priest digs deep beneath the surface of that icon to explore the rich particulars of the World of Warcraft player's experience."
—Julian Dibbell, Wired

"World of Warcraft is the ...

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Overview

"Ever since the creators of the animated television show South Park turned their lovingly sardonic gaze on the massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft for an entire episode, WoW's status as an icon of digital culture has been secure. My Life as a Night Elf Priest digs deep beneath the surface of that icon to explore the rich particulars of the World of Warcraft player's experience."
—Julian Dibbell, Wired

"World of Warcraft is the best representative of a significant new technology, art form, and sector of society: the theme-oriented virtual world. Bonnie Nardi's pioneering transnational ethnography explores this game both sensitively and systematically using the methods of cultural anthropology and aesthetics with intensive personal experience as a guild member, media teacher, and magical quest Elf."

—William Sims Bainbridge, author of The Warcraft Civilization and editor of Online Worlds
 
“Nardi skillfully covers all of the hot button issues that come to mind when people think of video games like World of Warcraft such as game addiction, sexism, and violence. What gives this book its value are its unexpected gems of rare and beautifully detailed research on less sensationalized topics of interest such as the World of Warcraft player community in China, game modding, the increasingly blurred line between play and work, and the rich and fascinating lives of players and player cultures.  Nardi brings World of Warcraft down to earth for non-players and ties it to social and cultural theory for scholars.  . . . the best ethnography of a single virtual world produced so far.”
—Lisa Nakamura, University of Illinois

World of Warcraft rapidly became one of the most popular online world games on the planet, amassing 11.5 million subscribers—officially making it an online community of gamers that had more inhabitants than the state of Ohio and was almost twice as populous as Scotland. It's a massively multiplayer online game, or MMO in gamer jargon, where each person controls a single character inside a virtual world, interacting with other people's characters and computer-controlled monsters, quest-givers, and merchants.

In My Life as a Night Elf Priest, Bonnie Nardi, a well-known ethnographer who has published extensively on how theories of what we do intersect with how we adopt and use technology, compiles more than three years of participatory research in Warcraft play and culture in the United States and China into this field study of player behavior and activity. She introduces us to her research strategy and the history, structure, and culture of Warcraft; argues for applying activity theory and theories of aesthetic experience to the study of gaming and play; and educates us on issues of gender, culture, and addiction as part of the play experience. Nardi paints a compelling portrait of what drives online gamers both in this country and in China, where she spent a month studying players in Internet cafes.

Bonnie Nardi has given us a fresh look not only at World of Warcraft but at the field of game studies as a whole. One of the first in-depth studies of a game that has become an icon of digital culture, My Life as a Night Elf Priest will capture the interest of both the gamer and the ethnographer.

Bonnie A. Nardi is an anthropologist by training and a professor in the Department of Informatics in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. Her research focus is the social implications of digital technologies. She is the author of A Small Matter of Programming: Perspectives on End User Computing and the coauthor of Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart and Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design.

Cover art by Jessica Damsky

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MY LIFE AS A NIGHT ELF PRIEST

An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft
By Bonnie A. Nardi

THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS

Copyright © 2010 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-07098-5


Chapter One

What is World of Warcraft and Who plays it?

Once I got over my initial disorientation in the game, I developed a strong sensation that I had woken up inside an animated fairy tale. I was not just watching and listening though; I played a starring role. WoW is a virtual experience like reading a book or watching a movie, but also an active experience like playing a sport. The digital universe couples the richness of the experience of viewing the action in a film or play with the participatory experience of athletics. Many video games are structured around this powerful combination, so perhaps it is not surprising that they have surpassed film in revenue (Bainbridge 2007). Video games have global appeal; some of the most popular titles are from Asia. World of Warcraft, produced in California, has more Chinese players than any other national group. WoW is played in North America, Europe, Latin America, Asia, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. It is available in English, two versions of Chinese, Korean, German, French, two versions of Spanish, and Russian.

As someone entirely new to video games when I began the research, I am aware of how foreign they seem to many, even how pointless, simplistic, fatuous. I will attempt to build a picture of the captivation and fascination it is possible to experience in World of Warcraft, mindful that the visual allure, and sense of discovery and serendipity that imbue WoW play, cannot be captured in descriptive prose. Like Borges's cartographers, one desires to create a map that coincides "point for point" with the richness of the real geography. But that is neither possible nor wise, so I will fall back on a selective portrayal that communicates some, at least, of what it was that got the undergraduates so excited.

A Day in the Life of a Night Elf Priest

To begin, I recount a day in the life of my character Innikka (a pseudonym). She belongs to a "guild" or club of players with whom she plays and socializes. The priest character type in World of Warcraft heals players being attacked by monsters or other players, restoring them so that they may defeat their opponents and avoid a trip to the graveyard, the penalty for death. Dead players must run back to the spot where they died to be resurrected.

It is 6:00 a.m. Before facing my emails, I login to WoW. I'm checking the stock of a computer character that sells herbs I need for potions produced in the alchemy profession. Dealer Sadaqat, who vends "Potent Potables," has rock-bottom prices. It's early, and no one else is around. Sadaqat has dreaming glory, felweed, and netherbloom, as well as some potions I can buy and resell for a profit at the Auction House. I spend about five seconds selecting and purchasing the herbs and logoff.

5:30 p.m. Time for a raid. It's early in the evening for me, but many people in the guild are on the East Coast, so we have to get moving before it's too late for them. The raid won't start until 6:00, but "invites" go out 30 minutes in advance. To make sure I get a spot in the raid, I login promptly.

Raiding is one of the most complex activities in World of Warcraft, involving 10 to 40 people who join together to defeat difficult monsters. Careful preparation and tight coordination are necessary. Raiders communicate through WoW's text chat and nearly always use voice chat as well.

I still have fifteen minutes before the raid. I fly into the Terrokar Forest and locate some good fishing spots. In a few minutes I have lots of the Golden Darters needed for the Golden Fish Sticks buff. I cook them up and feel prepared for the raid.

It's time to head to Serpentshrine Cavern, the site of the raid, for our first attempt at "SSC." Most of us have read up on the SSC fights in out-of-game forums, blogs, and wikis created and maintained by players. Some of us have watched player-created YouTube videos to get a sense of what lies ahead.

We are nervous and excited. There's lots of silly banter in the guild chat channel. Players invoke small commands called emotes to dance, flirt, kiss, hug, and execute other amusing actions. I exchange "whispers," or private chats, with several guildmates. We will encounter difficult raid "bosses," that is, high-level monsters with tricky, powerful abilities. The bosses will "drop" very good "loot"-or treasure-valuable pieces of equipment that empower characters to perform their roles more effectively.

SSC is situated behind an enormous waterfall that players can penetrate only when formally grouped in a raid. We run through the waterfall. Promptly someone is comically killed by the "elevator boss"-the player has dashed into an open elevator shaft and fallen to his death. I have read about the elevator in player descriptions of SSC and step carefully to wait for it to rise to our level.

Once on the elevator, we descend deep into the cavern. Finally we are facing the first "trash mobs," that is, guards who must be killed on the way to the bosses. (Mob is a generic name for monster, derived from mobile.) Players call them trash because, while powerful, they rarely yield good treasure. We buff the raid with several life-giving, damage-enhancing, mob-defeating spells and proceed.

We immediately "wipe" on the trash-that is, the whole raid is killed. Everyone runs back from the graveyard for another try. We pull ourselves together and successfully kill the guards.

Now we are at the first boss we will attempt, a creature called the Lurker Below. He lives in a pool and must be fished up. We stand on platforms surrounding his pool. We catch the Lurker on a fishing line and begin battle. The raid erupts into a chaos of loud, frenetic activity. WoW's sound effects layer the roars of the monsters, a mélange of auditory signals associated with player actions, the noises of special events such as explosions, and a musical sound track.

Things are going pretty well until the Lurker issues a "spout," during which we are supposed to dive off the platforms into the water. Some dive too late and are killed. We try to keep going with a diminished raid but lack the resources to bring down Lurker. We wipe and run back yet again.

After wiping, it takes time to reassemble, rebuff, and discuss what went wrong. In voice chat, the raid leaders tell us what to do and provide assessments of our mistakes. We ask questions and crack jokes. My guild, "Scarlet Raven," is a "casual raiding guild," so, while people are intent on performing well, there are no recriminations.

After one more wipe, we are getting the hang of the Lurker. We know when to jump into the water and how to coordinate so the minions he summons will not kill us.

This time the Lurker goes down. The raid is deliriously happy. Through teamwork and personal skill, we have survived the Lurker's deadly spouts, geysers, and water bolts-or at least most of us have. The fallen are raised by the healers. A group screenshot is taken of us surrounding the dead Lurker and will be posted later to the Scarlet Raven website.

We roll virtual dice on the Lurker's loot to see who will win it. Miraculously, I win the Earring of Soulful Meditation, a very fine trinket. We congratulate those who won loot and exult in our first kill in Serpentshrine Cavern.

Now it's time to try Hydross the Unstable, so named because he has lost his mind under the duress of a lengthy imprisonment in SSC. The crazed Hydross has several powerful allies at his behest, which must be quickly dispatched. We get ready for a very different kind of fight. The same cycle of wipes and retries ensues. Finally we defeat Hydross.

It has been an amazing evening. It's 10:00 p.m. for me but 1:00 a.m. for East Coast guildmates. We must end the raid even though there are more bosses to kill in Serpentshrine Cavern. Guildmates say good night.

After all the excitement, I fly back to my quiet post in Stormspire to resume the vigil of the Potent Potables vendor.

A Short WoW Primer

Based on a long line of fantasy themes derived from a variety of sources, including Lord of the Rings and its predecessors, World of Warcraft is staged in a medieval setting. Players create animated fantasy characters that adventure in a landscape of castles, dungeons, ogres, dragons, and beasts (Fawcett 2006; Tschang 2007). Players battle monsters, amass treasure, conduct business at an auction house, practice crafts such as alchemy and blacksmithing, and seek to improve their characters through the acquisition of ever better weapons and armor. Players start at level 1 and can advance to level 80, in a process known as "leveling," by slaying monsters and completing quests (minigames) that award "experience points." The character is seen in the third person, usually from behind.

WoW is a game of movement. The game geography is huge. Characters travel on foot or by beast, boat, or air through fields, farms, forests, jungles, deserts, mountains, seas, and other distinctive scenery for which Blizzard artists have won many awards. Players quest to find and slay hundreds of different types of creatures from the game's "bestiary"-creatures dwelling throughout the varied landscapes of the world.

The construction of the world has strong appeal to the modern consciousness-everything is human scale. No building is more than a few stories high. (Some areas are reached by elevator but are only one or two levels once one arrives.) The objects players wear, wield, win, buy, and sell, including weapons, vials of magical potions, fishing poles, armor, crafting implements such as mining picks, and resources like herbs, cloth, and precious stones, are easily handled by the (virtual) human hand.

WoW provides respite from the incessant advertising which is the backdrop of so much contemporary activity. Most of the Internet can no longer be experienced without a barrage of ads; WoW has none. It is restful, even old-fashioned. The only claim on the player's consciousness is the game itself, allowing the kind of immersion one imagines Victorians attained with their hefty novels into which they could sink for hours of commerce-free entertainment. This focused experience provides a refuge-an "escape," as players say-from modernity. It is one of the ways in which the game creates its own reality apart from contemporary life, moving the player away from the ordinary into the alternative reality of a fantasy space.

WoW is a virtual world-a set of linked activities chosen by the player and carried out within a three-dimensional virtual space. The goal of most WoW activities is to develop a character, enabling it to perform more and more difficult challenges. The orientation toward character development oddly echoes another Victorian meme; Victorians also worked at "character development," which for them meant striving to improve moral sensibilities. The notion that one's "character" can be shaped and refined through deliberate activity is a powerful motivational field in which cultures, or subcultures, may organize themselves. Many video games take up this theme; Hunter and Lastowka (2004) observed that in games such as EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, and Ultima Online "the clear goal is to become a more powerful [player]."

WoW researchers are often asked, "But isn't WoW just killing monsters"? Media discourse around video games often centers on questions of violence, so it is a natural question. While my work is not about violence, I want to clarify for those not familiar with World of Warcraft that it is not a violent game in the tradition of first-person shooters or certain strategy games in which realistic violence is central to the games' visceral appeal. Killing monsters is an important activity in WoW, but it is in some sense an abstraction, a way to keep score. Play theorists observe that play often involves a contest. The Anglo-Saxon plega meant game, sport, fight, or battle (Turner 1982). A game requires something to battle against. WoW monsters are cartoonish, often silly, and in no way terrifying or realistic. They waddle, many are corpulent and ungainly, they emit gurgling noises when they die-and of course they will soon be back for the next encounter. WoW has none of the graphic visceral realism found in other video games such as blood spatters or frightening weaponry.

Taylor's comment (2003a) about violence in EverQuest could also describe World of Warcraft:

While combat in the game is on the one hand quite extreme (you kill monsters and potentially other players) and on the other also muted (there is graphically no blood or gore), my sense is that the enjoyment of violence takes place at an abstract level. It is closely tied to the skills involved to take down a mob, the precise timings and movements required, the skill of playing your class well in a battle situation, the adrenaline rush involved with a fight and the general ability to even engage in this type of activity ... In this way the actual fight is as much an opportunity to demonstrate the valued qualities of game mastery as anything.

Players can create multiple characters. Ducheneaut et al. (2009) found an average of eight characters per WoW account. Usually one is the "main" character and the rest "alts" or alternative characters. Eight characters may sound like a lot, but many players focus on their main and play other characters only briefly to try them out or occasionally for a change.

Players may join guilds-named groups with officers and a chat channel-so they will have others with whom to play. In the opening vignette in the Prologue, Innikka's guild is having a meeting. Guilds range in size from a small handful to several hundred players (Ducheneaut et al. 2006). A character can belong to only one guild. Many players are guildless at the lower levels (and some beyond). Guilds become more important as players gain interest in certain of the more challenging activities in the game or in leveling quickly by grouping with others. Officers control guild membership. They can induct new members as well as remove players. In the vignette, Loro and Slams are guild officers trying to move the guild toward more organized activities to engage new game experiences.

Much sociable chat takes place in the guild channel. Most is game related although players may remark on their local weather, mention that they have a test to study for, or supply other small details revealing something of their personal lives. World of Warcraft is not a chat room, however, and personal information in the guild channel is limited. Some guilds have websites with forums and player profiles, some with photos and personal information, so players may get to know quite a bit about each other. Many players know each other in real life; however, they speak infrequently about their real lives in public chat channels. Players get to know more about one another through whispers. A feeling of intimacy may develop, but it remains private; the guild as a social unit is devoted to the game itself along with a lot of jokey banter.

Players may maintain a "friends list" that includes players inside and outside the guild. When a friend logs on or off, the system notifies the player with a small sound and a text message.

Parties and raids are temporary groups formed to accomplish a goal such as a quest or raid. They are composed of players with different, interdependent skills. Players choose a "class"-priest, paladin, mage, warlock, rogue, hunter, shaman, druid, warrior, or death knight-each of which has its own distinctive skills. Skills are divided into damage classes, whose powerful weapons and spells kill the monsters; heavily armored tank classes which use their abilities to gain the attention of the monsters to keep them from attacking others; and healing classes which restore players as they are attacked. Healers must ensure the survival of tanks, without whom the group will almost certainly perish (see Taylor 2006).

WoW vernacular names the various groupings with a masculine adjective: 5-man parties and 10-, 20-, 25-, and 40-man raids. Raids are conducted in "dungeons"-elaborate fantasy structures such as a school for necromancy, a decrepit mansion, the underground control room of a vast reservoir.

Parties and raids have their own chat channels. WoW has several chat channels, including general chat which broadcasts to a fairly large geographic area in the game, "yelling" which reaches a smaller local area, and "say" for a small local area.

Characters are divided into races. Medievally accented, WoW races are rooted in earlier games such as the paper and pencil Dungeons and Dragons and Blizzard's Warcraft series. Race is largely cosmetic (although each race has a few abilities players may deem useful). Players are divided into two "factions," each with its own races. The Alliance races-Night Elf, Gnome, Human, Dwarf, and Draenei-are generally considered more genial. The Horde faction is a bit scruffier; the Orc, Tauren, Troll, Undead, and Blood Elf races are (except for Blood Elves), rougher, bigger, or more depraved (e.g., Undead cannibalize). Selecting a race is an important decision; players will be looking at their characters a lot. Players consider some races ugly and some beautiful. Ducheneaut et al. (2009) reported that players were very aware of the looks of their characters, noting that "hair matters" and that players carefully chose among interesting features such as horns or facial tattoos (see also Noël et al. 2009). Gender is also an important cosmetic attribute with implications discussed in chapter 8.

The core battle experience in World of Warcraft is killing computer-generated monsters. But another kind of contest is popular among a segment of the population-player vs player. In PvP, players can attack and kill the characters of other players.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from MY LIFE AS A NIGHT ELF PRIEST by Bonnie A. Nardi Copyright © 2010 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Prologue....................3
CHAPTER ONE. What Is World of Warcraft and Who Plays It?....................8
CHAPTER TWO. An Ethnographic Investigation of World of Warcraft....................27
CHAPTER THREE. Play as Aesthetic Experience....................39
CHAPTER FOUR. A New Medium....................52
CHAPTER FIVE. Work, Play, and the Magic Circle....................94
CHAPTER SIX. Addiction....................123
CHAPTER SEVEN. Theorycraft and Mods....................137
CHAPTER EIGHT. Gender....................152
CHAPTER NINE. Culture: WoW in China ... and North America....................176
Coda....................197
Notes....................205
References....................213
Index....................227
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