Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: J. Patrick Williams interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on January 15, 2010

J. Patrick Williams is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and coeditor of the books Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games and The Players’ Realm: Studies on the Culture of Video Games and Gaming.  Here he talks about his experience working on Gaming as Culture, the challenges an ethnographer faces when doing video game research, his personal views on video games as well as his own background in gaming.

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Would you mind explaining what you do for a living?

I am Assistant Professor of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, where I do research and teach in the areas of social psychology, culture, and new media.

You are coeditor for the book Gaming as Culture. How would you describe the book? Why was it put together and who was it written for?

Gaming as Culture was intended to provide a serious, in-depth look at the culture of contemporary gaming. I’m a sociologist and social psychologist and so I had a clear interest in a certain way of studying games, but I was quite open-minded about what the book might end up looking like. I actually have a diverse intellectual background—I earned an undergraduate degree in anthropology, two graduate degrees in sociology, and also completed doctoral coursework in cultural studies in education. So when I decided to edit a book on gaming, I knew that there would be many different ways to approach games academically: anthropology, business, cultural studies, education, geography, media studies, psychology, sociology, and so on…each of these disciplines has scholars who have scholarly interests in games. At the same time, what constitutes “games” is equally as broad, and I had that in mind from the beginning as well.

The book’s existence is a tribute to the camaraderie that exists within the breadth of the games community. In 2003 I had just started as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Georgia and my wife had just started the doctoral program in linguistics there. One weekend I accompanied her to a linguistics graduate student party. As the night progressed I found myself standing around a campfire talking to my future friends and co-editors, Sean Hendricks and Keith Winkler. Sean had a PhD in linguistics and ran a media lab in the education college; Keith had an MBA and had just begun working on an MA in linguistics. We quickly discovered our shared love for games and began discussing all sorts of games we’d played previously: including D&D, Magic, and arcade and console games. I also remember lamenting how I never read any research on games and how it seemed like an untapped area of social-science research. What I was thinking was that gaming is oftentimes a very important part of people’s lives…so why weren’t scholars publishing much research on it? A week later I had spent a lot of time in the office scouring databases for games research and found that, except for a few monographs, there was little/nothing out there to serve as a resource for scholars interested in doing games research. I guess this gets at the second part of your question—why it was written and who it was written for. I wanted to give something to gamers who were interested in seeing their leisure pursuits from an academic perspective. I also wanted to legitimize games as a object of study for scholars and simultaneously to give something to students who might become tomorrow’s games scholars.

Are you pleased with the way it turned out?

It was my first experience as a book editor and certainly nearly six years after having started the project, I would do things a bit differently, but overall I am happy with the result (as are my co-editors). With Sean’s interest in education and linguistics, Keith having a background in business, and my own studies in sociology, anthropology and cultural studies, we wanted to spread the word widely to see what kind of breadth we could capture. We made sure to clarify from the beginning that we were interested in what we called “fantasy games” scholarship so that we wouldn’t receive submissions on “mainstream” games like poker or Monopoly. We specified role-playing, collectible, and video games….games through which individuals entered a fantasy world of play. Even in something like Magic the Gathering, there is an underlying assumption that players enact the roles of battling wizards. We found that to be the most important criterion for inclusion.

When the closing date for proposals arrived, I was a bit surprised at how many scholars were actively doing videogame studies specifically versus other types of games. We had more than fifty submissions and in this regard were forced to be very picky; there just wasn’t room to include so many papers. It was also apparent that all the papers not related to video games, as well as many of the videogame papers, were qualitative and micro-oriented. That’s why the subtitle of the book ended up being “reality, identity and experience in fantasy games.” That highlights the type of studies presented in the book.

If you had a chance to work on a newly revised edition, what additional topics would you like to see covered?

All of the studies in Gaming as Culture were North American, though it was not my intent to produce something only about North American gaming. What I found when reviewing all of the submissions was that the European scholars seemed to be focusing on video games. That’s not an accurate representation of fantasy games research, but it’s what I had to work with at the time. I remember one of the first reviews of book criticized it for not including Nordic studies of role-playing games. But no Nordic studies were submitted for consideration…. If I were to work on a revised edition, I would spend more time seeking out contributors from around the world in order to better represent the field.

The other shortfall I would try to address is the range of substantive topics. For some genres, like LARPing, we didn’t receive any submissions. I would like to stretch out in order to include a wider variety of game genres.

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

My mother was active in taking my brother and me to the library regularly as kids, and he and I both became pretty avid fantasy readers. By the age of twelve I was tearing through all of Ursula LeGuin’s and Anne McCaffrey’s books, as well as struggling with Tolkien’s prose. Fantasy books led me to fantasy games, and I had a group of friends that tried to make sense of Dungeons and Dragons without any real contact with an adult gaming community. I also got into painting D&D miniatures in the early 1980s, but had some problems with religious elements in my family who saw D&D as irreverent if not just plain evil. I moved away from games in the mid-1980s, but came back to them in the late-1990s while working on my Master’s degree in sociology. My next-door neighbor came over to introduce himself right after I had moved to this rural Appalachian town. He saw my Wheel of Time books and asked me whether I played Magic. I had heard of it but not played before. Twenty minutes in to his tutorial I was hooked. He got me into community and competitive play and I ended up doing research on a local network of Magic players (which you can see in my research chapter in the book). The next year (1997) when it came time for me to choose my MA thesis topic, he had just bought Ultima Online and I was fascinated by the idea of an online gameworld. I proposed to do an ethnographic study of UO but the proposal was rejected…there just wasn’t faculty support for doing that kind of research at that time/place. Looking back I really think it’s a shame because that study would have been ahead of the wave, so to speak, in the sociological study of online games.

Since then I’ve played pretty actively. I burned out on Magic and moved to Mage Knight around 2003 and invested just in time to watch it crash and burn. The next game from there was the card game Anachronism, which also crashed. I miss both of those games a lot and still play them whenever I get a chance. Now I spend most game-related time playing World of Warcraft, though thanks to eBay I’ve collected several playsets of Anachronism and try to pull people into playing it.

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

It’s hard to talk about peaks, because they’re different for different games. The first really heavy involvement I had was playing Diablo II. I had a few top-level characters and even got into farming items to sell on eBay. For Mage Knight and Anachronism I got into tournament play, so I was playing a couple of times a week at Tyche’s in Athens, GA, plus a couple of additional evenings a week building armies and decks. After I moved to Arkansas in 2006 (Mage Knight was dead by then) I ran tournaments for two groups of Anachronism players…so yea I was playing a couple of days a week for several hours plus prep time. I guess right now is another kind of peak because I’m raiding end-game content in WoW on two characters, which keeps me busy. The first two years playing WoW I literally played one night a week and that was it. But once I got into end-game content I found guilds necessary and thus there was a step-up in commitment in order to get to see the content at all. I probably play 15 hours a week currently—some weeks less depending on work and family life.

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

I’ve played Diablo II, WoW, Guild Wars, D&D Online, and looked at a few others, here and there, including a little beta testing. I’ve really enjoyed WoW…it’s become the game for me. Actually I admit to struggling sometimes not to play. Even when I have other things to do, I tell myself “well, just do the fishing daily quest” or “just jump on and make a new epic gem.” Then I blink and I’ve been on for an hour when I really meant it to be on for ten minutes.

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

Yes! But then again, I don’t know that they need to be separated. As an ethnographer, I do my best work when spending a lot of time immersed in the everyday life of whatever culture/social group I am studying. That is how an ethnographer learns to develop an insider’s perspective on things. I think this question forces me to expand my answer to the previous question: my “gaming” self and my “social psychologist” self battle sometimes over definitions of MMOs and their role in (my)everyday life.

As an ethnographer/social psychologist, I’ve focused my research on the significance of games in everyday life while working past what I consider narrowly-defined concepts like “addiction.” The videogame-addiction literature is extensive these days, but most of it relies on experimental designs or surveys, neither of which do much to improve our understanding of what MMOs mean to the people playing them. The “Internet Addiction Questionnaire,” used by researchers to decide whether someone is addicted to the internet, is a great example of what I dislike about psychological science today. It has been used to measure gaming addiction as well. Now if you take a look at the original questionnaire, it had eight questions to answer. If you answered “yes” to five or more, you were an addict. Some scholars will say “it’s been tested; you can see statistical significance between respondents’ answers and their reported behaviors….” But I suggest taking the survey and replacing the word “internet” or “game” with “wife,” “boyfriend,” or “child.” Suddenly you’re answering 7-out-of-8 or 8-out-of-8 with “yes.” But it’s silly to think that I’m addicted to my daughter or wife just because I think about them or want to spend more time with them.

Now back to your question: I see problematic behaviors associated with videogame play, just as with many other parts of life. As a social psychologist I recognize that I play too much sometimes or that I get too involved in the day-to-day life of the gameworld. My “gaming” self gets pleasure out of playing for hours at a time—I’ve got friends online to catch up with, or to help with quests, achievements….whatever. My “social psychologist” self recognizes that my playtime negatively impacts other parts of my life to some extent. So right now I’m working on making sense of my and people’s motivations for playing MMOs vis-à-vis the immersive aspects of game design. Bringing my “gaming” self and “ethnographer/social psychologist” self back together for mutual benefit, I’m doing a two-year project to study the concepts of motivation and immersion in MMOs.

On your website you mention MMOs “have the potential for new forms of learning among young people and adults alike.” Would you mind expanding on this idea a bit?

I don’t see games as separate from everyday life. A lot of people do…they see games as an escape, a way to take a break, or whatever. But even leisure is important—what we do for fun impacts the rest of our lives and vice versa. The same goes for learning: learning is something we do all the time, not just in school. Our schooling effects other parts of our lives, just as what we do outside school effects what we do in school. So I want to constant keep that idea out in the open….games, internet (or whatever) are integral parts of our selves. Sherry Turkle’s book Second Self gave a lot of examples of how people learned to develop aspects of themselves through their internet use. Today, I think James Gee does the best job describing this in a way that almost anyone can understand. He shows how playing videogames is a form of learning. Playing on the playground teaches kids basic social norms about reciprocity, friendship, status, inequality, and so on. They learn informally through doing. MMOs are social spaces where people do all these as well. So the point in what I wrote has to do with recognizing games as an important part of people’s everyday lives that has consequences not only for how we learn about the world, but what we learn as well.

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

I have tried various ways of importing games into my sociology courses, oftentimes in small ways to help illuminate certain points. I use “serious” flash games as think pieces sometimes, but would love to spend an entire semester having students study a specific MMO and deploying their sociological knowledge to make sense of what they see going on. Games have also helped me as a professor outside the classroom, mainly in terms of service. I’ve served as the faculty advisor for student gaming associations at two universities, and actually started such a group at another university as a way of helping people who love games get to know each other. Going to university is a big moment for teenagers, and I have found that helping them get in touch with other students who share similar interests helps them settle into university life, sparks some of their creativity, gives them a social venue in which to de-stress, and provides a peer group for support. I’ve always seen games as a wonderful resource for bringing people together. As for writing, I can’t think of any effects video games have had to be honest. /shrug

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

I think my first piece of advice would be: be serious about your research; learn about methods and theory and how to use both to your advantage. As a reviewer for several sociology journals, I get sent manuscripts on games to review and I end up rejecting most of them because the author’s “gaming” self overshadowed their “academic” self. In other words, they wrote about games because they love them, but not necessarily because they had something important to say about the empirical world or theory or method in their discipline (which is what academic journals publish).

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

Having a baby that’s just a couple of weeks old makes it hard to be coherent in an interview about games right now. I hope I made enough sense that you and the readers will find something I’ve said useful. And thank you for taking the time to put this resource together. I’ve already gotten some good insight by reading your interviews with other people!

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