Nardi, Bonnie A. My Life as a Night Elf Priest : An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press : University of Michigan Library, 2010. Print.

Part I: Introduction to World of Warcraft


  • According to N. the goal of this book is to develop an argument that examines play as an “active aesthetic experience” in World of Warcraft.  To achieve this end N. relies on the activity theoretic framework first developed by Leontiev as well as the work of pragmatic philosopher John Dewey (6).
  • Additionally, N. wants to explore the idea that play in video games constitutes a “new visual-performative medium” that is molded by the capacities of digitality . . . capacities that demonstrate an amazing variety of human activity, creativity, autonomy, and sociality.
  • On method:  N. adopts activity theory to make sense of the ethnographic reporting work she does in the book.  She conducted her research in Southern CA, China, and the virtual lifeworld of WoW itself.

Chapter 1:  What is World of Warcraft and Who Plays It?

  • Active virtuality:  A blend of the virtual experience (reading a book, or watching a film) and active experience (for example, playing a sport).  This hybrid activity characterizes many video games and extends across many cultures.
  • N. draws some interesting comparisons between the ends of WoW and Victorian leisure time:  “character development” as the end goal of the activity is both the goal of WoW and of late 19th century reading (13).
  • N. differentiates the MMORPG from other games by noting that participation in this game is contingent upon the “culture” of the virtual world being cocreated through human interaction with each other and with objects that mediate their activity . . . this is why they feel more “authentic” or more like a culture than something like a chat room (18).
  • N. highlights that WoW is a place where various social classes and – to a lesser extent – genders rub elbows and work collaboratively on shared tasks (like raiding).  She deduced the difference in class by considering dialectical differences and home furnishings of guild members. . . she also consider occupational backgrounds and smoking habits (19).  The game is also a virtual world where families find time to work together and socialize.
  • N. notes that WoW not only creates another forum for the continuation of existing social connections it also provides the opportunity for virtual connections to lead to real world interactions (21-3).

Chapter 2:  An Ethnographic Investigation of World of Warcraft

  • This chapter is dedicated to discussing method.  N. notes that she approached WoW not with a hypothesis of a specific, clearly delineated scientific procedure in mind; rather, she came to her study as a wanderer, seeking the experience of strangeness and the fascination of encounter with natives of a different context.
  • N. collected “1000s of pages of chatlogs” and other information as a standing reserve that she could consult when questions began to simmer (28).  She notes that she practiced “participant-observer” research because without participating in the community it would be very difficult for her to really find out what was going on in the WoW.  B. notes that she played roughly 20 hours a week, surfed the forums/guild website regularly, and played the game from the comfort of her own home.
  • N. notes that she used standard anthropological methods:  interviews, observations, participant-observation, informal conversations, and document analysis (30).
  • In describing her site N. used two strategies.  First, she considered WoW through the lens of theory (activity theory and “closely related ideas” of John Dewey).  The second method was to supplement that theoretical explanation with the “everyday texture of experience” that comes from rich description of activity and interviewees words themselves.
  • N. notes that doing a good ethnographic investigation often requires finding a way to enter a culture.  As such, she details the process in detail in order to adequately describe her research site[1. You should do something similar when describing the bittorrent networks you’re researching.  Applications, IRC chat invite sessions, etc.].  N. spends a good deal of time talking about a lot of different details about her site and research subjects:  maturity level, social class (as revealed through language, pics, etc.), familial structure, occupational backgrounds, etc. [2. In your own work you should also describe where on the participant-observer scale your own research will fall.  Obviously, since you came to private bittorrent networks before you came to grad school you’ll discuss the participant first, then move on to highlight observer.  I would be sure to explore this movement in detail as it will/has certainly shaped your own approaches to the research.]
  • N. notes that while it might be methodologically conventional to “set up shop as an anthropologist” in many digital environments, she didn’t do so because of the overwhelming need to “play.” [3. In your own work consider the pressures and economics of participation when describing how involved/imbricated you are in the research.]

Part Two:  Active Aesthetic Experience

Chapter 3:  Play as Aesthetic Experience

  • N. begins this chapter by asking the question:  “Why is this game so addicting/motivating/interesting?”  First she responds to this question by highlighting how the work of WoW occurs through goal orientation . . . humans are motivated to meet and achieve goals in order to progress (using levels, rewards, etc.) (39).  This leveling is supplemented through unpredictable awards like treasure.  She calls this “intermittent reinforcement” and claims that it might be a better motivator than leveling due to its unpredictability.
  • N. claims that in addition to the attraction of linear progression players also kept coming back to play because of the inherent interwoven sociality of the game, the visual aesthetics of the game world, and a sense of “performative mastery” (40).  It is these aspects of the game that she considers in conjunct with AT and the aesthetics of Dewey.  Specifically, N. considers issues of game design and theories of play in relation to these theoretical frames vis-a-vis WoW.
  • Dewey’s articulation of “aesthetic experience”:  the aesthetic experience shouldn’t be relegated to museums and fine art; rather, this experience is participatory (in contradistinction to “appreciation”) in that it involves an interaction between individual and object.
  • N.’s hierarchical structure of activity:

  • N. recaps the simplified model of activity using action, object, and activity (42) in order to make transparent her method for the rest of the book.  She then links activity to Dewey’s explanation of aesthetic experience in order to demonstrate how both theories demonstrate that “human beings as biological organisms with biological needs [are] satisfied through interaction with their environment” (42).  This leads N. to conclude that “aesthetic experience is, then, a subjective disposition toward activity” or, said differently, interaction between subject and object is an essential quality of the activity of participatory aesthetic experience . . . this experience directs individual actions toward the realization of a goal-oriented activity (an activity, in WoW’s case, that is inherently collective/social).
  • N. notes that D. described aesthetic experience as being composed of means-ends relations, phases, and collective expression (43).
    • The means-end relation describes the idea that not only must the ends be pleasurable in an aesthetic experience, the process of “getting there” (means) must also be satisfying (44).  In WoW the “temporal flow of actions” that include questioning, raiding, etc., all add pleasure to the final act of “consummation” or the end (leveling up, killing a boss, etc.).
    • Phases describe the internal structure of an aesthetic experience.  This structure is typically divided into differentiated phases (in the case of WoW, quests) that are unique and add to the pleasurability of the overall experience.
    • Collective Expression refers to the ways that an aesthetic activity connects a person (a subject with a history, context, identity, etc.) to forms sociality and community in the constitution of a “common life” (48).  Said differently, aesthetic experience is “a complexly phased action in which both the journey and the destination are rewards and within which we can be ‘fully present'” (49).
  • Dewey used this articulation of aesthetic experience in everyday life as an alternative to Fordist capitalist work organization. . . organization that isolated the wage-earning worker in such a way that their daily experiences were rendered repetitive and soul-crushing (50).  He offered this consideration of everyday aesthetic experience as an alternative to the rich, aristocratic elite’s emphasis on artistic “appreciation” and, in so doing, hoped to recover the vitality and vibrancy of everyday life[6. There are some really lovely resonances here with de Certeau’s work in The Practice of Everyday Life.]

Chapter 4:  A New Medium

  • In this chapter N. argues that games like WoW actually constitute a new “digital medium” that balances an “immersive visual experience with intense, skilled performative activity” (52).  By doing so, MMORPGs like WoW actually create varied and complex digital lifeworlds through which players perform their identities while also mastering particular skills . . . all this leads to a digital medium that solicits constant active participation.
  • According to N., the “genius of WoW” is its ability to combine skilled player performance with artistically designed, rich new media on a ubiquitous interface (the PC).  She also notes that while community engagement and collaboration is important, the development of a “skilled performance” in players highlights the social capital and prestige accorded with game mastery (in addition to collaboration) (55).
  • N. notes that players are actually performances (56).
  • In the section “The Software Artifact” N. considers the implications of “the visual-performative medium as a digital entity encoded in rules” (61).  This has interesting implications for activity theory as the rules are “community-directed”; however, that community isn’t necessarily the players as much as the software designers.  To complete the activity system, Blizzard used community-based forums wherein they could gather information on how to revise the rules via feedback mechanisms.  In this way the rules were a reflection of the community; however, they were instantiated in code by the designers (63).  [7. Nardi details how the release of The Burning Crusade changed the dynamics of the guild in such a way that the performative play created incommensurable differences in the success of the guild.  In this way, the goal directed outcomes of WoW ended up being at odds with the social nature of the community.  Consider this tension in your own sites of research as you move forward: What goals are people working for in your site of research?  What aspect of play is important (or, what constitutes play in BTC)?  What tensions are created through the requirements of the technological encoding vs. the desires of the community?  Are these tensions negotiated by the coders through the forums? Revisit 63-75ish for more information from My Life.]
  • The changes brought on by The Burning Crusade created what N. calls (following Engestrom) a contradiction or a systemic inconsistency that makes it difficult for the system to continue functioning much as it has (65).  In the case of her own research, the contradiction was located in the bounds of raid progression.  N. recounts all of this to demonstrate that a software artifact can shape human activity in profound ways (even if that design supposedly reflects the desires/will of some of the community who constitute that activity (67).
  • N. defines “rules” in the activity system of WoW as the “structures in a software program” (68).  In some senses this emphasis on rules as encoded structures draws attention to something more in the network of relations between humans and their contexts; or, said differently, rules as encoded structures in digital lifeworlds makes the materiality a present, active agent in the construction of the shared experience (70).  N. comes to this appreciation of rules in software code through Kallinikos’ work.  As Kallinikos notes, “The agent that acts upon, interprets, or reshapes technology has, to a significant degree, been made an agent by, among other things, technology [rules] itself” (70).  N. et al. call the role of rules the “tyranny of emergence” wherein social collaboration on the net is often framed as organically emergent, coordinated activity that ignores the prominent role software encoding (rules) play in that collaboration.
  • N. notes that “interactive stabilization” often occurs in systems where the rules seem unjust.  This means that in the game Lineage the rules let experienced, high-level players kill noobs for kicks.  As a response, guilds would periodically collectively work against high-level players who harvested noobs.  Interaction stabilized a rules-based system that didn’t protect the individual player but rewarded collective action (71).
  • Pickering’s ‘mangle’:  the “heterogeneous practices, economic conditions, and technologies that shape experience” (70-3).
  • N.’s position on rules:  “I suggest that we examine outcomes of rules as situated in particular artifacts rather than as a monolithic category, conceiving rules of well-designed software artifacts as neither inflexibly totalizing nor calling out for user remedy but as nurturing, protective, caring” (76).
  • N. calls Second Life an experiment in “tools-without-rules” (79).  As such, N. is a fan of the rules and doesn’t necessarily see the need for more “player control” or “community participation.”  N. also notes that “participatory design” isn’t all it is cracked up to be in a multinational, multicultural environment like WoW.  As she notes, “While I am sympathetic to the aims of participatory design, its techniques were developed in the context of a specific local culture (Scandinavian trade unionism), and the techniques it devised are accountable to particularities of that culture” (83).
  • Rassens’s notion of participation occurs at the level of “action” in the AT hierarchy.  It is composed of interpretation (figuring out how the game works), reconfiguration (build the player’s game world by interacting with objects and actions in the bounds of the game), and construction (player use of modifications to customize the play experience) (85).  To Rassens’s explanation of participation N. adds the passion of participatory activity . . . or the “object” of the activity theoretic system (sometimes performative mastery, sometimes the social nature of the game, etc.).  “Participation in virtual worlds is not simulation but performance . . . . Postmodern theory asserted the delusional quality of mass-produced images, but even as those images were proliferating, new means of authentic expressive performance, embedded in vivid visual spaces, were emerging as forms of mass culture” (93).

Chapter Five:  Work, Play, and the Magic Circle

  • This chapter takes up different debates about play and it’s supposed opposite: work.  It also considers play as a “magic circle” or a protected space that is defended against the pressures of everyday life: work, school, and domestic duties (94).  To do this she relies on Dewey’s theory of active aesthetic experience.
  • N. notes that work enters play in two ways: 1) play creates seriousness and dedication that players often refer to as work; and 2) play demands some fairly monotonous activities (like farming/grinding) that are much more worklike in order to participate in the activity of play via raids (102).
  • N. notes that game play is characterized by:

  • N. notes that “arcane knowledge” or epistemic privilege operates inside the magic circle of play and tends to define play by separating those who know from those who don’t (117).  The rules establish the magic circle (see last chapter on rules) and preserve the collective social order.
  • N. ends the chapter by recognizing that WoW certainly did interpenetrate real life, blurring the boundaries between work and play; however, the “magic circle” of play remains real in particular spaces of engineered “limited perfection” (120).

Part Three:  Cultural Logics of World of Warcraft

Chapter Six: Addiction

  • N. notes that occasionally active aesthetic activity [9. “pleasurable means, successive phases of activity ending in satisfying completion, and collective expression” (123)] becomes “overwhelming” or results in “problematic use” (123).  When the active aesthetic activity becomes out of balance and proportion the passion that motivates it can consume and individual.  The result is addiction . . . itself a “moral panic” engineer by popular news media.

Chapter Seven: Theorycraft and Mods

  • In this chapter N. sketches out how WoW actually stimulates other forms of participatory activity outside the game.  In this process, the materials of the game are often used in novel, innovative, and interesting ways (137).
  • N. considers “theorycraft” as a form of participatory activity dedicated to sketching out the unarticulated rules and mechanics of the game itself (you know, an expanded version of fansites that explore particular user classes, armor, etc.).  [10. You might connect this kind of participatory activity to user generated scripts/plugins for bittorrent sites.]  N. repeats much the same analytic in considering mods.  Both of these activities that occurred outside the game were often motivated by “fame.”

Chapter Eight: Gender

  • In this chapter N. considers how gender is constructed through 1) patterns of discourse practices; and 2) the design of the game.  N.’s argument is that the discourse tends toward a “boys’ tree house” model of gender division; however, the design of the game itself embodies many traditionally feminine, domestic nuances (152).

Chapter Nine:  Culture:  WoW in China. . . and North America

  • N. notes that Chinese players played for much the same reason as American and European players: sociability, competitive challenge, graphics, color, mods, and as a way to connect to friends and family.  What was different in China was the location of play – the wang ha or internet cafe was the primary site of player participation (179).  This often results in RL-WoW realms converging, resulting in a hybrid of virtual-physical worlds.
  • N. notes that the proliferation of the internet cafe mitigated some of the problems of the digital divide as they offered quality computer hardware in accessible public spaces.
  • N. highlights the censorial role the Chinese government plays in the design of WoW for deployment on Chinese servers (186).  She compares this action to the efforts of born-again Christian organizations that monitor and rate video game violence in the US.
  • WoW in China was almost exclusively PvP . . N. attributes this to the masculinized nature of traditional Chinese gender roles (190-4).

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