Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Review: My Life as a Night Elf Priest by Bonnie A. Nardi

We haven't done a book review in a while--not in fact, since the terrible Got Game, and that was back in June. I meant to provide the ol' thoughtful critical analysis to a number of books that were read between now and then: Bernard Wolfe's Limbo, Monfort and Bogost's Chasing the Beam, Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, and about a half dozen Charles Stross books that I'm not entirely sure why I keep reading. But they were all borrowed books, and were returned before I got into the full-discourse mode. "But at my back I always hear /Time's wing├Ęd chariot hurrying near," so let's seize the day and the review the book at hand.

That book being Bonnie A. Nardi's "My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft." Despite the subtitle suggesting otherwise, the main title of the book had me expecting a rather bombastic account, something more akin to the game-journalist stuff I've been reading (Rossignol's "Gaming Life," which I've mentioned before, and the superb "Replay" by Tristan Dovovan) than game scholarship proper. The book is actually a nice mix of the two: it's got the personal experience that I appreciate in game journalism, and the scholarly foundation of game studies--well, not game studies per se, as I'll get into, but certainly academic scholarship.

As the title suggests, the focus of the book is an anthropological, ethnographical study of World of Warcraft. The book is divided into three sections. Section one explains first what WoW is and second what ethnography entails, especially when applied to videogames. Those familiar with either subject can skip the respective chapter without fear of missing much. The second section is a mix between theory and WoW accounts: John Dewey's notion of aesthetic experience as it applies to play, WoW as a new medium combining rules, software, performance, and image; and a discussion of WoW and work, through the theory of the magic circle. And the final section shifts things away from theory towards the interviews and accounts, with a discussion of WoW and Addiction, Theorycraft and Mods, Gender, and play practices in China. I think I found the chapter on Gender most interesting, but the chapter on Theorycraft and Mods demonstrates the most potential.

I've probably mentioned this before, but I'm not a big fan of the typical social science way of doing things, vis-a-vis quantitative testing analysis, where the user tries the product, fills out a form, and is interviewed about their experience. It's a great process to observe for studying the rhetoric of form-filling and interviews, but not so much for other things. I have a couple of problems with it. First, as someone with at least a little background in statistics, I have an ingrained distrust for the results of such analysis, knowing how easy it is to nudge them one way or another. Second, I suppose there's some measure of pure disciplinary distance: I'm trained towards close readings, not data compilation, and thinking in that way doesn't come easily to me. Third and more concretely, I have a big problem with extrapolating the results of said comparison in any meaningful fashion. If you interview a gamer about his (or her) reflection of a play experience--or attempt to find some meaningful cognitive result from their physiology during that experience--what you get is an account of their reaction in one controlled setting at a particular moment in their lives. Even if you increase the sample size and change the session lengths into months or years, it's still just a small glimpse, and really can't be used for more than a glimpse.

That's why I appreciate ethnography as an alternative. I like how it emerges the investigator into the community (and with the anonymity of online games, that immersion can work a little more smoothly than face-to-face communities). I like how it focuses on personal observation and material gathered over a long period of time. It affords exactly what Nardi offers here: a nice mix of theoretical application and hands-on accounts. It's still somewhat a problematic approach with an online game, however, because online games change so thoroughly over the course of their history. What does it mean to do an ethnographic study of WoW? Do you play it for a week? A year? It's certainly changed considerably between its inception in 2004 and 2011. If it's no longer the same game, how do you account for that? Nardi recognizes that these questions exist, but doesn't go far in answering them. Suffice to say, in her opinion, it's exactly this open-ended nature of the online game that makes its study so compelling.

On a personal note, just as I have a bit of a problem with ethnography, I also have a problem with online games. The deepest I've ever gone was about six months in Farmville and Mafia Wars, and neither of those are, comparatively speaking, very intense in terms of their social interactions--they're both rather removed affairs. I think there are two things keeping me from such games: first--I don't really like the idea of playing with other people all the time. This is partly because of my personal history--I started gaming on single player games, and it's what I'm used to. Giving up a measure of freedom to cooperate with others in a game seems more like work than play to me. And it's partly because I'm actually not very skillful in my gameplay--I tend to adopt a more "play over and over until it works" kind of style. I'm also very competitive, so the prospect of constantly losing isn't very appealing either. Second, and more practically, from everything I've heard about online games, they're extremely time-intensive, if you want to keep up with your guild and opponents. I devote quite enough time to games--at least with the single player, you can turn them off and resume them without falling behind a curve.

But I still admire online games for what they are: an excellent example of game rules fusing with player behavior. I find the texts resulting from social play like this to be absolutely fascinating, from EVE Online accounts to Let's Play marathons to Guild vids. And Nardi, for the most part, does well in applying some play theory to these behaviors. Personally, I would have preferred a little more applications of game studies proper--there's some slight mention of Juul and Salen and Zimmerman, but in general, the closest she comes to applying any game-related theories in depth is her application of the predecessor's stuff on the subject of play--Callois, Huizinga, and so forth. And while the third section is the most compelling, it does suffer a bit from lacking a clear focus beyond "and here's where WoW comes in on this subject." At the same time, one of my favorite bits come from when she compares how the Chinese government censored the game by forcing Blizzard to replace death-animation skeletons with gravestones to Christian review boards who criticize WoW's tacit enabling of witchcraft. Nardi's point is that "the disapproving gaze transcended national boundaries," but the implicit equivalency between Christian groups and the oppressive aspects of the Chinese government amused me. (What can I say? I'm easily amused.)

Finally, while a deeper examination of this topic is outside Nardi's scope, I think her discussion of theorycraft shows there's some untapped depth there. How and why players research to determine the hidden numerical balances and rules of a game is a very interesting sociological topic. It's not quite cheating, as you're not bringing to the game anything that isn't there to begin with. But at the same time, it's basically the equivalent of teaching yourself to count cards--if it's not cheating, then it's definitely frowned upon, socially.

So: it's a reasonably engaging book, and it gave me something to investigate further. That makes it Good Stuff.

Later Days.

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