BLOG POST: The notion of play in World of Warcraft – Wan Ying Tay

Early this week, Blizzard Entertainment released the third expansion pack “Cataclysm” for the massively multi-player online role-playing game (mmorpg), World of Warcraft (WoW). I have not had the chance to play it for a couple of reasons, the main one being my level 68 mage gnome avatar had been “killed off” and removed from my account as I have not logged in to WoW for more than a year. It is very sad indeed and I am not sure if I have fully gotten over the disappearance of my avatar. This post, however, is not about avatar or identity nor is it a review of WoW. Instead, given the launch of the game expansion, it seems timely to do a brief review of Bonnie A. Nardi’s book “My life as a night elf priest: An anthropological account of World of Warcraft”. There are many interesting aspects in this book but this review will focus mainly on the notion of play in a game like WoW.

In this book, Nardi reports on her three-year long ethnographic study carried out in WoW, Southern California and China. Nardi begins by talking about how she first found out about the game from her students. She “didn’t expect to like the game” (p. 4) but after playing it for the first time together with her son, she “was secretly smitten with the beautiful WoW graphics and charmed to be a character called a Night Elf” (p. 5). Yet, what she found most interesting was her being there together with other players, and that they were interacting with her. Nardi gives an engaging account of a typical day of her playing WoW. She recounts how she and her guild mates work together to bring down the bosses, Lurker Below and Hydross the Unstable. In the process, they communicate using voice chat to assess their performance and plan their next moves. Her fellow guild members take these group raids seriously as shown by the pre-preparation that they do, such as finding relevant information on game forums, blogs, wikis and from You-Tube videos. Through her interaction with her guild and interviews with her informants, Nardi observes that guilds are task-oriented and most of the chat that takes place in the guild channel is about the game itself. Occasionally guild members may reveal personal details about themselves, but such information sharing takes place more often in private chat.

Nardi describes WoW as “an exemplar of a new means of forming and sustaining human relationships and collaborations through digital technology” (p. 5). However, she stresses that WoW is not just about socialising and learning how to work with and collaborate with others through the online medium. Mastery of the game is also a crucial aspect. Citing Hunter and Lastowka (2004), she notes that for games like WoW, the main goal “is to develop a character, enabling it to perform more and more difficult challenges” (p. 13). These observations led her to suggest that “while WoW was a voluntary activity, players experienced certain aspects of play as worklike” (p. 98) and that “play is, at the highest level, a freely chosen activity while at the same time opening the potential for worklike results”.

Overall, Nardi has provided us with a fascinating, in-depth account of WoW and its players, in the US and in China. She has also presented readers with a well-developed argument of the notion of play in WoW. Nardi describes play to be a fascinating activity that us humans engage in, and which is uniquely distinctive across different cultural contexts. Digital technology, Nardi argues, has the ability to further shape the notion of play. How this notion of play can add to our understanding of how people learn within and outside of online game environments is a complex issue however, one which deserves a separate discussion.

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