11th Oct2012

Book Review: My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft

by alyssaneuner

World of Warcraft is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) created by Blizzard in 2004. The game itself was based off of their original Warcraft series. The game itself has 4 expansions and is home to over 10million active subscribers. This game has been studied in various ways, ranging from addiction to community interaction. Bonnie A. Nardi is an anthropologist by trade and has studied virtual games and digital technologies throughout her career. She uses her background in anthropology and ethnography to develop an argument about WoW that examines play as an active aesthetic experience; to understanding play in its contemporary digital manifestation; and to use ethnographic reporting in order to make the unusual usual for those new to WoW (Nardi, 6). Each argument constitutes a new section of My Life as a Night Elf Priest/

Nardi uses her experiences as a new player to captivate the audience; players an non-players alike can experience the game through someone else’s eyes, sans bias because we are all put on the same playing field, either we have experienced it or are experiencing it for the first time – both exhibit a level of understanding. She uses her ethnographic skills to explain in great detail her trials and tribulations, while at the same time, explaining her successes. Nardi’s experience in anthropology allows her to effectively tell a story. As someone who has played World of Warcraft, and someone who has studied it, I find storytelling, especially the way in which she tells her story, to be an integral part of understanding what the significance of World of Warcraft is. Storytelling not just in the ways that she incorporates her own personal experiences but the aesthetics of World of Warcraft as a way of storytelling as well.

As she moves away from briefly explaining what World of Warcraft and ethnography are, she moves towards explaining what compels people to play games, especially World of Warcraft. The obvious argument to be made here would be to assume addiction (read: players have addictive personalities). However, Nardi moves away from this overly generalized, simplistic, and problematic way of thinking and asserts that what makes the game compelling is actually a combination of things, some of these things include goal meeting and reward structures. She dives into reward structures quite nicely saying that the unpredictability of what players are going to loot from any given goal that players meet is a perfectly acceptable answer. Nardi also suggests that the social aspect of World of Warcraft plays a specific role in continuous play (although the stereotype is that gaming is a completely isolating event). Another important point to mention is that Nardi suggests that continued play is all of the aforementioned and then some – suggesting that aesthetic experience and activity theory are playing a huge part in this continuous play. She combines the two theories in a really approachable and understanding way – one does not need to have read complete works on either to understand where Nardi is taking and shaping these theories.

Probably the more captivating part of My Life as a Night Elf is Nardi’s writings on Chinese and American players. Nardi and her research assistants traveled to China to study and understand World of Warcraft’s largest group of active subscribers. What Nardi and her assistants came to find out is that the only difference between American and Chinese players is the venue of play and interaction. American players have the ability to experience World of Warcraft as a primarily digital experience while Chinese players experience the world through the use of Internet Cafés. This type of venue means that not only are players completely immersed in a digital space, but they are also made fully aware of their place in the physical world.

This point of parallel is interesting in games studies, especially studies on World of Warcraft because it steps out of the typical parameters of research. Interviewing in game only works to a certain extent, this is a completely different experience. Not only does this study the ways in which people play but actually where and how people are playing these games, especially people are part of an imagined community, where they share a common digital but not physical location – this isn’t a LAN party folks.

My life as a Night Elf succeeds in every way at what it’s trying to do, to reiterate her goals they are, to develop an argument about WoW that examines play as an active aesthetic experience; to understand play in its contemporary digital manifestation; and to use ethnographic reporting in order to make the unusual usual for those new to WoW (Nardi, 6). This book is probably one of the best books on World of Warcraft in that it is accessible to the general non-playing public as well as giving a more in-depth look at a game that so many people play and complicating their basic understandings of the ways in which they game. If someone approached me and asked for me to suggest to them a book to help them understand World of Warcraft (beyond typical gaming guides) and the people who play, I would without a doubt suggest this book as an interesting take on the anthropology of virtual games.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *