Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: an interview with Bonnie Nardi

Posted by Randolph Carter on September 10, 2010

Bonnie Nardi is an anthropologist and a faculty member in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine.  In this interview we discuss several aspects of her book, My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft , ruminate on the upcoming Cataclysm expansion, and the difficulties involved in seperating gaming for pleasure and gaming for research.

Bonnie’s website

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Could you take a minute and explain what My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft is about—that one might not glean from the title, of course?

The book has two layers—anthropological description for those who don’t know why anyone would spend hours killing cartoon monsters, and a theoretical analysis of the power of software artifacts to define, channel, shape, and regulate human activity. In the context of a video game such as World of Warcraft, code is a resource for delivering and reproducing “active aesthetic experience.” I define active aesthetic experience as performative challenge/mastery + visually stimulating surroundings. (In the real world, think activities such as masquerade balls, Civil War reenactments, church choirs, hunting and fishing.) This focus on the positive agency of software contrasts with analyses that view code as constraining, limiting, regulatory, even fascistic—something to be hacked, cheated, worked around.

How do you think the book turned out in the end? Are you happy with the finished product?

Writers are never really “happy” with what they write. Once a piece is done, the writer becomes a reader of the work. Since writers are the most critical readers, we experience the inevitable flaws as glaring and embarrassing.

But on the plus side, I hoped the book would stimulate discussion. Here are two blogs that met that goal: John Carter McKnight’s blog and WoW.com.

The Internet changes the pace of academic writing by allowing some near-instant feedback.

Reviews in print publications take six months at least, and usually closer to a year. The new feedback cycle makes writing a more interesting and interactive experience. That’s a kind of happiness!

Will you continue to write about Azeroth or did you manage to say it all in your book?

There is much more to be said. The question is where to start. I’m working with students who are researching areas I will never get to on my own. I have a small pilot project studying parents who play WoW with their children with Aspergers. Learning about this group will be another way to analyze the agentic qualities of a software artifact. I am also inspired by the creative ways people meet their situations, how they use resources in unusual ways.

What I find particularly fascinating is that World of Warcraft was your first video game experience. Prior to this you viewed video gaming as a waste of time. Could you talk a little bit about this experience and how your views have since changed?

I started the research under the direction of my superego, and ended with my id! I sat down to play World of Warcraft only because I could tell from the way undergraduates were talking about WoW and other MMOGs that something was brewing. Since “social life on the Internet” is one of my areas of research, I had to find out what that something was. I never intended to become so immersed. Two things really hooked me: the visual beauty of World of Warcraft, and the platform it provided for challenging activity in a social setting. A pretty heady mix—visual impact, challenge, socializing.

My contrast set for popular culture is television which, in my opinion, lacks sophisticated visuals, challenge, and intense socializing of the kind that happens in raids. Television visuals used to be better but they’ve devolved to too many closeups of faces rather than more complex mises-en-scene. I love panning way out in WoW and having control over my camera. That’s a completely different experience than TV or film. I now see well-designed video games as superior entertainment. Which is not to say that I think all of them are prosocial, but many of them are. Probably the best ones are yet to be designed. With our longer life spans, we are going to need some cool stuff to do when we have all those postretirement years before us.

I would like to have been there when you first sat down to play. Talking about a steep learning curve. Were you playing alone or did you have any assistance?

The semantics of video games completely escaped me. I didn’t know that you kill monsters. Or that you click on spells to do so, or right click to use a weapon. I had to laboriously practice the a-w-d-s movement keys to get anywhere. I didn’t know how to talk to other players. I thought that what turned out to be buffs other players were giving me were cryptic error messages I had to decode. Learning to swim was a nightmare! Luckily my son was home from college when I first sat down and he helped me. After he left, I was on my own till about level 20. It was slow going. But by around level 10 I had really started to enjoy the game. I especially love the Darkshore area and spent a long time there, some of my best time in WoW.

As someone who has done extensive research on online game culture, do you find it difficult to separate gaming for pleasure and gaming for research?

Great question. I never entirely separate play and ethnographic observation. Though most of my play now is to keep up with the game and have fun, the research part of my brain has a single setting (“on”). So I notice things. At times research and play collide. A struggle may ensue—to perform a relevant game activity competently, and, at the same time, discern and record data pertinent to research issues.

For example, I had missed several raids during which raid leaders in my guild made the AVR addon a requirement. At a subsequent raid, as the encounter was about to begin, I realized I needed AVR. I had to scramble to logout, download the addon, customize it to the raid, and try to understand how it worked. While I was doing all this, I heard people talking in Vent about the addon’s features, how the addon helped the raid, and that it was disliked by Blizzard and would soon be disabled. Since I have been tracking player-corporate relations in the context of addons for several years, the raid’s dispositions toward the addon and toward Blizzard pushed the “that’s relevant to the research” meters to red alert! Vent conversations needed to be noted, as well the humorous misuses of the technology raiders were joking around with as they waited for me to get the addon working. Play and research collapsed into one another, the demands of each necessitating mental flips from the nuts and bolts of dealing with the addon as fast as possible so as not to keep the raid waiting, to excited attention to the research issues.

Playing WoW gets me thinking about things like that. Things that might have research value.

Would you mind sharing an interesting and/or amusing story from your WoW past?

Here was a moment. I was questing in Darkshore, around level 10. Another player and I realized we were on the same quest. Suddenly, the player, in the form of a bear, dropped his disguise and turned into a handsome prince. Something buried deep inside me from childhood zapped out of its hiding place, and I felt I had come alive in a fairy tale. When we were girls, women of my generation believed that handsome princes would one day enter our lives. The “handsome prince”—actually a human male druid who was not in disguise, just bear form—embodied a powerful fairy tale allusion for me. My giddiness increased when the player gallantly asked if I would prefer that he tank or heal. I didn’t know what tanking was, but I knew I had some healing abilities, so, feeling very empowered, I said, “tank please.”

Being such a noob had its advantages in enabling me to see things that other players take for granted, and to have those poignant moments when the unconscious responds powerfully to an experience.

You spent a month researching WoW players in China for the book. What did you find particularly interesting about that experience?

One of the most interesting aspects of video game play in China is that much of it takes place in Internet cafes, or wang ba. In that context, we cannot speak in simple ways of “virtual” experience—people are sitting right next to each other, eating and drinking, laughing and talking as they play. The game is the shared object around which face to face activity is oriented. And yet the game extends beyond the wang ba; there are players who are not co-located and, of course, the virtual world of the game itself. So it’s a complex blended reality.

Another interesting aspect of Chinese play was the reluctance of male players to play female characters. A guy playing a girl is a cliché in North America, but in China it is considered distasteful. Guys who play girls are called “ladyboys”—a derisive term invoking transvestism. Some Chinese male players talked longingly about female Night Elves, but found the pushback from other players too much. There seemed to be fewer female players than in North America (maybe on the order of 10 percent vs 20 per cent here although I don’t have hard numbers). The girls played female characters, just like here, and they told me that they were sometimes accused of being ladyboys! They shrugged it off.

The cultural difference regarding character gender choice is a cautionary tale about overgeneralizing from our own experience or from a limited sample. Chinese players are about half the WoW base—what they do is central to characterizing WoW play.

You’ve also done specific research into why Americans go to much greater lengths to modify World of Warcraft whereas the Chinese rarely do. Can you explain this disparity?

Chinese modders are actually very active, but they focus on localization rather than the creation of original mods. There are several reasons why. First, and rather amazingly I think, there was no modding in China before WoW. There were illegal bots, but no player culture of legitimate modding with proper channels of access such as the Addons Folder. In the U.S., modding culture goes back to the development of Spacewar! in 1961 by MIT students on a DEC PDP-1. There’s a lot of history to take into account in examining these disparities.

Second, Chinese modders have many fewer resources than American modders. Americans are in regular contact with Blizzard through an official modding forum. A Blizzard employee, Slouken, has been instrumental in establishing cordial relations between Blizzard and modders. There is no Chinese Slouken and no official Chinese modding forum. WoW in China is distributed by a Chinese company, not by Blizzard, as per an arrangement with the Chinese government. At the time of the research the company was called The9. (It’s now NetEase.) The student with whom I conducted the research is a native speaker of Chinese, and we sent The9 an email asking about mods. The9 replied: “Mods are not provided by our officials. On the official website is merely a url [linking to mod compilation sites BigFoot and WoWShell] which is there to prevent players from downloading mods with trojans.” End of story! Check out the lively discussions on the Blizzard modding forums to see the huge difference in access to Blizzard and the information and help they provide American modders (and the English-speaking European modders who also read the forum).

Third, there are yet more resources for American modders, including forums beyond Blizzard’s and an actual textbook. A comprehensive book on modding was published by a mainstream press: World of Warcraft Programming: A Guide and Reference for Creating WoW Addons (Wiley, 2008, 1056 pages!, 3.2 pounds!). And there’s BlizzCon where modders meet face to face annually. They talk, compare notes, get to know each other, have a good time. Chinese modders have none of these advantages.

Chinese modding communities have done three things very well. They created thriving online communities—something new to most Chinese modders who were not conversant with what we think of as standard netiquette. They made available a good selection of mods to Chinese players through localization, enhancing play experience in the most efficient way possible—by taking existing code and making it work for Chinese gamers. And, they established a learning culture. Slowly Chinese modders are gaining better technical skills and a sense of how to work as a community. The learning environment in Chinese IM chatrooms and forums is expressed by showing respect for experienced modders who are addressed with the honorific Da, meaning “big,” “big brother,” or “boss.” One of our interviewees, a skilled modder said, “Yes, in CWDG [a Chinese modding site], I have many students.”

I think it is impressive that the Chinese modding community has produced and made available more than a thousand mods for Chinese players of World of Warcraft. Despite the lack of interaction with Blizzard, and the other resources and history American modders enjoy, Chinese modders have been pioneers in reshaping digital culture in China.

Aside from WoW, have you ventured into any other online games or do you have any plans to?

I am planning to look at some indie games. I’d like to see a different side of gaming, something that must be dramatically different than the world’s most profitable game.

Have you managed to persuade any of your peers, family or friends to play WoW?

Yes! My family has a small guild and we play WoW together and have a lot of fun.

Are you looking forward to Cataclysm and all of the changes it will bring forth?

I have played a little of the Cataclysm beta, and wrote a few blogs posts that are linked on the University of Michigan Press site for my book.

I loved the Goblin starting area—it’s brilliant—but I was sad about what has been done to Darkshore, and that there will be no versions of WoW with the old Darkshore. The rated battlegrounds may be the sleeper. I am not really a pvp player, but find battlegrounds to be a lot of fun. I might even collect some pvp gear if the level of play improves, and I expect it will add a new dimension to guild life as people organize teams.

Granted, I still hold to a rather nostalgic view of WoW, but with every expansion I’ve felt Blizzard has distanced itself from what made Azeroth so beautiful and immersive and have given more of an amusement park spin to the world. Not only that but I feel there is an increasing level of goofiness to the game that’s becoming harder and harder to ignore. My friends tell me to lighten up and enjoy the ride. Something tells me Cataclysm won’t allay these fears. Would you have anything to say to this other than “Lighten up, RC.”?

Bonnie Nardi

I can guarantee that you won’t like the Goblin starting area; it’s unabashedly an amusement park. It’s just done so well I was smitten. But I agree that the goofiness quotient has increased dramatically in WoW, although encounters like the Lich King are pretty epic. It’s a hard fight, and one that demands from players the kind of study, focus, and coordination that have always impressed me about WoW and what players bring to it.

WoW is a game, and if it doesn’t light you up, then it’s not play! Time to move on to whatever else is out there that affords the beauty and immersivness that were part of the original WoW for you.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

I’ve probably written more than you bargained for, so thanks very much for this opportunity to connect with your readers!

Thank you, Bonnie.

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