Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: T. L. Taylor interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 22, 2009

T. L. Taylor is associate professor in the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen. In this interview she discusses her book Play Between Worlds, the current research she is conducting for a forthcoming book about professional computer gaming, and gets into her own gaming background and why she is particularly drawn to MMOs.

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Author’s website:

Please explain what your profession happens to be.

I’m a sociologist by training and have spent most of my research life focusing on virtual environments and computer games. I’m associate professor at the IT University in Copenhagen where I am fortunate enough to be a part of a research group solely dedicated to the study of computer games.

play between worldsHow would you describe your book Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture to someone who has never heard of it?

The book is the product of quite a few years of ethnographic research in the massively multiplayer online game EverQuest (one of the earliest games of that genre). It covers a number of topics like socialization in these games, gender, the intense play of powergamers, and issues around the creative production of game culture by not only designers but players themselves. My hope with the book was both that it explained some things about the specific game of EQ (and the genre), but as importantly connected those up to larger conversations we have about things like gender, cultural production, the relationship between work & play, the blurred boundary between offline and online life, and the active role of users (players). For me games are not only interesting as artifacts in and of themselves, but the way they circulate and participate in our broader culture and conversations.

How did you come to write this particular book?

I was actually nearing the end my dissertation in 1999 and had heard some people in a virtual world I was in mention this new game, EverQuest. I got kind of curious so wanted to check it out, mostly as a distraction from work. But once I got there I realized there were some very familiar themes. It was a virtual environment, there were avatars running around, and there was real-time interaction with other people. These were all things I had studied quite a bit up to that point, both in MUDs and early graphical virtual worlds. But then in addition there was this game-layer to it and I found that really engaging and it provided some new angles to what was happening there. Something about running around as this crazy little gnome necromancer just hooked me and I ended up undertaking a multi-year study of the space.

Would you mind talking about the kinds of research that went into writing it?

I generally do ethnography in my work – that is, a kind of approach whereby you really come to live alongside members of a community as a way of understanding that world and their practices – and so I basically approached EQ that way as well. What that meant practically speaking is playing hours and hours of the game over years (and across several characters eventually), interviewing people both in the game and offline, attending a fan faire, being involved a lot with related websites (reading forums, comics, guild boards, etc). Basically doing all the things many players themselves do, but with an added layer of documenting, formalizing, reflecting and analyzing.

Are you pleased with the way the book turned out?

For the most part yeah but, of course, you always see glaring gaps in your own work. I would say the piece that is most missing from the book that I wish I had been able to dive into was more around structured raiding. EQ, and specifically EQ players, really innovated this aspect of play and in retrospect I wish I had had more data on that angle. Things like guild structures, loot systems, and practices around raiding have really taken hold in MMOGs in a way I don’t think I fully anticipated back when I was doing that research. So if I could go back and revise any part of the book, it would be adding more to that angle. I think the historical aspect of the growth of the genre is particularly fascinating.

Would you mind giving us a brief overview of your gaming background?

Unlike many folks I know, our family did not have a home computer or any kind of digital gaming system when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. Games for me were always board games, which my family played a lot growing up. When arcades hit I was a pre-teen so I did definitely made my rounds there, where my favorite game was Tempest (I still can’t resist playing if I stumble across an old machine). I didn’t game much in my teenage and early adult years aside an occasional board game. In 1990 though I started getting into the BBS scene courtesy of a PC with a modem at work – talk about lucky! – and discovered a number of games. When I got to grad school I spent a lot of time that first year (1991) in the computer lab doing email and reading Usenet. Somehow I stumbled into a group where someone was recounting a trip they took to meet all their MUD friends offline. I distinctly remember asking friends, “Do you know what a MUD is?” and being met with quizzical looks. I finally figured it out (courtesy of Usenet again) and was so intrigued I started avidly exploring those early text-based worlds. When I finally got my own computer things took off for me even more with them but I also started to play all kinds of puzzle and random CD rom games (though I distinctly remember finishing Loom on my first Mac back then).

At your peak how much gaming did you do? How about now?

When I was doing EQ I could spend six hours or more a day without much thought. I can still sock that much time away on whatever MMOG I am playing, especially on the weekends. These days though I divide my time across a few platforms. Being on a PC with an MMOG is still usually top of my list, but now I also spend a fair amount of time on my iPhone gaming while I commute and on my XBox playing a variety of oddball games.

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

I’m assuming you perhaps mean, at least in part, something like when gaming moves from pleasure to work? This is a tricky question, perhaps because I think that often when we are playing for leisure it can be hard work too (I’m thinking now about when you had to do a lot of prep for raiding, or going over and over a puzzle trying to solve it even when it is frustrating). But beyond that tension I think all gamers confront in their everyday play, yeah, it is always a methodological issue to move between being very present in the gaming moment but also operating with that reflective or critical researcher cap on. Ethnographers have always had to mediate that to some degree and I think in the case of us doing that kind of work in games, we have all kinds of tricks of the trade we use to help negotiate our experience (screenshots, fieldnotes, audio memos to ourselves, etc.). It of course becomes even trickier when you can’t simply be a fly on the wall observing, but actually are integral to play (as in a raid or party for example). I think what often happens just as much to me is that I start playing something and then realize in the midst that there is actually a pretty interesting research angle to follow. So from a research perspective you are always having to be on your toes and make adjustments as you go, trying to be attuned to issues beyond any specific play moment.

Are you a particular fan of MMOs? What has your experience with them been like?

I am. I’ve always been drawn to multiplayer spaces, mostly starting with MUDs. The combination of embodiment, worldness, other people, and achievement is very compelling to me. I try to check out as many as I can, though perhaps unsurprisingly find it hard to give more than one my full attention. At this point being in one feels pretty second nature to me.

What MMOs are you currently playing?

I’m actually picking up Aion tonight since I’ve been hearing about it and of the last batch of releases have tried out Champions Online and Warhammer Online . Mostly WoW occupies my time when I am in an MMOG these days however. I know there are a ton of researchers who continue to do work in the game (it has become a bit of a joke I think, aka “WoW studies” instead of “game studies”) but I’m still puzzling out the role and implications of player-produced mods (and their relationship with the formal game) so despite perhaps being a bit of a cliche, it still holds some interest for me.

It appears you are writing another book on professional computer gaming. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Yeah, sure thing. Because of my work on powergamers in MMOGs I was thinking a fair amount of people who play in ways that can look to outsiders like work. When I stumbled upon the pro-gaming scene back in 2003 it perhaps unsurprisingly caught my eye. I went to my first match back then (the Danish national World Cyber Game finals) and was pretty amazed. I had anticipated meeting and interviewing players but what became apparent really quickly was that there were a ton of other people involved to make the pro/e-sports scene happen including managers, referees, admins, and coaches. Eventually I met broadcasters and league owners and I began to feel that there was a lot more to the scene that what usually gets written up in popular news articles where we generally only hear a kind of “Wow! Here is a young guy playing computer games for money!” type of story. So while the gamers themselves still form a core part of the story I want to tell, I’m actually really interested in showing the larger scope – from a more sociological angle – of what is happening in attempts to professionalize computer gaming. It’s a very different type of research project than my past work (in that I am not doing in-game ethnography) but I’m exciting about the themes the domain let’s me address including the boundary line between work and play, considering the notion of sport in light of computer gaming, the role of gender in games, spectatorship and commercialization, tracking emerging professionalization (including refs and broadcasters), and a formalization of the activity of play.

How would you say computer games have influenced you as a teacher? How about as a writer?

This is a really interesting question. I’d have to think more about the writing, though I can say that big writing projects (and indeed research) are often very puzzle-like in that you are piecing things together, watching for patterns, trying to advance to some kind of end point/goal via the argument and narrative. I’m actually drafting an article now about ethnography as play so I’ve been thinking about the ways that research practice often mirrors what I’ve experienced in online games. As for teaching, since coming to the ITU the bulk of my teaching is actually on computer games so that is a pretty big shift just in the domain of courses I handle. In the past I would often include a week or two in a media or internet studies class and often work on convincing the students there was some value to looking at these spaces. Now my challenge is often getting gamers to think more broadly, and critically, about play and its role in culture. And at a concrete level, well, I have to admit I was introduced to WoW way back when it launched by my students where we played together for awhile on a PvP server 😉

Would you have any words of advice for aspiring writers wanting to publish articles or books on computer games?

Personally I really enjoy reading work that tries to tackle some niche not yet explored and also one that makes it clear why it matters and what is at stake for us as readers understanding what is being described & analyzed. Within academia there is a real growing legitimacy for game studies so I think folks working within that area have some good publication venues out there now, including place like The MIT Press and journals like Games & Culture or Game Studies.

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

I’d just say that for me, game culture is what is created not just by the boxed product itself but also by all the conversations and debates and in-depth analysis fans and critics do outside the game. In that regard your project is a great contribution to not only understanding games but producing game culture itself. So thanks a bunch for the invitation to chat with you and your readers. Folks are also very welcome to visit my website to read some of my work on games and virtual worlds if they are interested.

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