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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Anthropologist digs into WoW

While we've written before about academics who are researching WoW from within, we're not sure that we've seen anyone whose primary fieldwork is the PvE raiding experience. Meet Alex Golub, Ph.D., an anthropology professor at the University of Hawaii. Golub plays a Resto Shaman in a Wrath-era raiding guild who's researching what he calls the culture of raiding -- "why people do something as crazy as run 25-mans four days a week."

"There is a lot of research on WoW, actually, but most of is based either on crunching Armory data to produce statistical analysis of game play, or it is more 'cultural studies' where people play the game a little and then write something beautiful about it," he explains to 15 Minutes of Fame. "My unique angle is that I am doing anthropological fieldwork in WoW, living and playing with a raiding guild and putting in 20+ hours a week keeping them healed and decursed."

The main themes of Golub's research (ahem): "American cultures of self-control, efficiency, masculinity and success amongst players of WoW." We asked him to boil that down for us. "I study how guys behave badly in Vent, and how/why people become emo and/or talk about why other people are emo," he explains. "I'm interested in how you get a group of 25 people to keep calm and collected as they try to do something really emotionally important to them, which requires relying on other people when its difficult to see them face to face."

Main character Resto Shaman
WoW player since September 2006
Prior video game experience Mostly RPGs: Baldur's Gate, Grim Fandango -- Zork, even (I'm old-school that way)
Other games currently playing Who has time for other games?!?

15 Minutes of Fame: How did you come to end up doing field research within the World of Warcraft?
Alex Golub: I'm a professor of anthropology, and my specialty is actually Papua New Guinea. I lived there for two years, learned the language, stayed with a local family and tried to immerse myself in the culture, which is what anthropologists do. When I was there, everyone kept on talking about white people: "You white people are like this, you white people are like that." Some of the things they said struck me as right, and some struck me as wrong -- but they made me realize I didn't actually know anything about my own culture. So when I got back, I decided to start a second project on American culture to make sense of it all, and I chose WoW.

Raiding as fieldwork – hrrm, sounds like a cushy ride on the science train. What's the actual process here?
I'm basically doing in WoW what I did in Papua New Guinea. I'm in a raiding guild, and I'm immersing myself in their culture. I raid four days a week, four hours a day. I grind rep, run heroics ... everything! As soon as I get done with this interview, I'm going to go grind Sons of Hodir rep.

Of course, I do more than just play the game. I have a private channel on our Vent server where I interview people, and I keep a database of who everyone is in the guild so I can keep track of the billion-and-a-half alts we have.

I played with the guild for some time before I started doing official fieldwork with them, and I'm going to keep on recording 'til the summer. Then I'll take a break and go to Papua New Guinea again for some more research there. When I come back, I'll start writing. I want to write a book about WoW that anyone can read -- sort of Malcolm Gladwell meets Arthas. I want to produce something that my guildies can read and say "Yeah, that's totally what its like to raid," but I also want it to be a book that you could give to your folks and say "See, I'm not just sitting in this chair for five hours a day. My best friends and I save the world every night." ... Something that helps explain to people how important WoW is to people and how it brings them together. So look for it on shelves in like, I don't know, Summer 2010.

Does your role as a researcher cut into your ability to be one of the guys while you're playing? Conversely, is it imperative at times that you set aside your researcher hat and participate in a genuine manner?
You know, I am an intellectual with a Ph.D., and a lot of the guys in my guild are plumbers or work in factories or are college students who complain about school. So the problem was not being "objective" and not being able to be a guy -- it was learning how to be a guy in the first place! I keep on talking about "suboptimal positioning" and they're like "WTF, can't Alex speak English?", and then they'd talk about the game on TV and I'd be like "WTF is football?" So ... yeah ...

I have to "participate in a genuine manner" all the time because I'm one of the raid's main healers. Last night, we did our first 25-man Sartharion (one-shot, BTW), and I wasn't observing anyone in an objective way -- I was spamming Chain Heals everywhere and trying to keep the add tank Earth Shielded. So yeah, most of the time I am hanging out with my guild and helping us move through new content. You can't do anthropology if you treat people as objects. You have to share your life with them first, before you can expect them to share theirs with you.

Being an anthropologist is great, though, because eventually you are going to want to interview everyone, which means you can't make enemies in the guild. We have a Boomkin in our guild who is notorious for pulling aggro, but in raid I can't be like "IF YOU PULL THE MOBS OFF THE TANK ONE MORE TIME I AM NOT GOING TO HEAL YOU ANY MORE YOU PIECE OF S@#$" and then afterwards be all "Oh hey, can I interview for my research afterwards?" They'll just mute you. So research is great, because it teaches you to be patient with people and to try to live a life where you make no enemies, and that's a great way to learn how to live. Just the other day, this guy and I ran four heroics in row, and I got to see another side of him and now we're friends. So that patience really paid off.

Anthropologist digs into WoW Part 2

So why do guys behave badly in Vent? And is it just males -- or are females just as guilty?
I think there are two kinds of behaving badly. The first is when people loose their temper or get punitive. I think this happens because people are trying to play together and the stakes are really high because they really care about getting the boss down. But the tools they give us -- Vent, addons, etc. -- are a super-lousy way to communicate when you compare them to how rich and detailed face-to-face interaction is. Add to that that this is a volunteer activity, and you don't have a boss standing over you threatening to fire you unless you smile the next time you ask people if they want fries with that. So people get frustrated and blow up.

The other kind of behaving badly is joking -- people get really raunchy in my guild, particularly with all the fag jokes: "I can't hear you on Vent -- do you have a dick in your mouth again?" and all that kind of thing. Social science tells us that people all over the world often joke to diffuse tension, and there's a lot of tension in raid, so I think people develop a joking atmosphere so they can rag on each other and let people see they're not mad with them and it's no big deal. Also, in the United States, white men (most of the men in my guild are white) place a strong emphasis on homosociality but not homosexuality -- they want to spend time with other men but ... not in "that way." So I think a lot of joking about dating each other's sisters and all this is a way for guys to tell each other that they love one another and spend all this time together, but that they're not queer. Its kind of homophobic, really.

There are basically four women who play regularly in our guild, and they go along with it a little. But I think Vent is a male space -- even when women play along, they are doing the guy thing. One woman in the guild is a tomboy who says she likes Vent because its just like having the guys over, but she doesn't have to clean up the empty beer bottles afterwards!

Is the locker-room mentality so prevalent on many WoW Vent channels a healthy, desirable outlet for players, or do you see potential or real dangers?
People aren't venting on Vent -- they are building a community. There are lots of culturally specific ways to build community, and some of them involve cussing. To an outsider or a nonspecialist, it may seem like they're behaving badly (and sometimes they do), but don't assume the same words or actions have the same meaning. It all depends on the context and the culture. In my guild, at least, people do things that would not be appropriate at the office but are key to building a successful raiding community.

What systems or processes do you see as being most helpful in keeping a raid group focused, calm and poised for success during a raid?
Love and respect. Serious. And hunger. People have to want the kill and trust their guildies. I don't know -- I mean, some guilds get together for two months, blow through Black Temple and then explode because they all hate one another. Our guild is four years old and very proud of its sense of community. We put aside our own emotional needs -- to feel strong, or smart, or needed or loved -- to focus on the job at hand. And we put aside the job at hand if it means putting the guild in jeopardy. We've chosen community over endgame progression, and the great thing about that choice is that once you commit to the guild, then the progression comes.

So the biggest system is trust. When you really know someone and have raided with them tons, you can call them out and they'll take the criticism and step up their performance. The relationship can bear the weight of that criticism -- it enables that criticism and further success.

The other thing is a clear line of hierarchy. When you criticize people in raid or tell them what to do, it doesn't feel to them like you are offering instructions or advice. It feels like you are judging them and their worth as a person. So we need to have only a few people who talk in Vent or offer suggestions to people, so that people will say "Ok, this guy is SUPPOSED to be giving me orders." That makes it easier. What Shaman wants to hear some Priest tell him how he ought to be handling his Riptide rotation?

What else have you noted about the differences between online behavior and "RL"?
One thing about studying WoW and other virtual worlds is that it has made social scientists realize that "real" and "in the same room" are just not the same things. Everyone in my guild knows each other in "real life," because real doesn't mean "physical world" -- it means "things that people care about," or as an anthropologist, I'd say, "things that people in a culture care about." There is a guy in my guild who works in a cheese factory, turning over 90-pound blocks of cheese all day. I bet I know him better than he knows the guys in the control room measuring cheese temperatures or whatever, even if he sees them every day.

Do you foresee (or already observe) guild dynamics evolving as players get older over the passage of time? Will a greater number of older, experienced players change common guild dynamics?
One big misconception about video games is the idea that teenage boys play them. This is just not true. Everyone plays video games these days, including adult women. We've had grandparents in our guild, and many parents as well. Most people in my guild are in their early 20s.

So the big question is whether guilds -- particularly raiding guilds -- will continue to be made up of 20somethings because they're the people who are 1) done with school and 2) don't have a real career and family yet. My guess is that WoW will be the virtual equivalent of backpacking across Europe. People will do it when they are at that stage of their life to seek intensity and have few obligations.

What do you see as the single biggest challenge to communication and successful interpersonal dynamics between guild members?
Not seeing faces. You never realize how much communication happens with the body until all you have is a voice coming over a set of headphones. That, and people who get s@#$faced on booze before raid. That never helps.

In your article for Inside Higher Education, you refer to calling players out on the carpet for their mistakes as "the human price of success." Is frank, public discussion of individual errors an inevitable aspect of guild success? Is that ultimately necessary for guild cohesion and longevity?
Answered this already, I think.

Then why do you think your guildmates were unwilling to expose themselves to the level of individual scrutiny that would have ultimately set them up for success?
I think they just didn't care enough. They were playing the game to have fun. I think maybe I should have been playing it that way, too.

Actually, it's funny -- you know, I wrote that piece after a raid that really left me in despair. Then the day the piece was published, we went in there and killed Kael and I got my T5 chest, and suddenly I was like "THIS IS THE BEST GUILD EVAR."

Looking back to your conclusions from your guild's inability to kill Kael pre-nerf, what are your thoughts on Wrath's easier learning curve?
We cleared at T5 and T6 content before Wrath, and we were a little disappointed with how easy Heroic Naxx was -- at least until we got to Patchwerk and he carved the words "gear check" into the still-twitching torso of our main tank. (Update: Now, we are carving "gear check" into Patchwerk, not the other way around.)

But seriously, I think Blizz has done a great job with Wrath in so many ways: the lore, the phased areas, the streamlined game mechanics. In terms of difficulty, I think it is good that Blizz is making more content available to more players. It may upset the three top guilds in the world, but does Blizz really want to create a world where success means obsessed, extremely pale people who never leave their houses while we all read about their loot on wowhead?

That said, I do sort of miss the wall that Blizz introduced in TBC. I'd like there to always be instances I'll probably never see the inside of, just so I can dream and maybe even surprise myself. I also like that fact that Blizz continues to make raids the most prestigious part of the game. I'd hate to see them make the gear you buy with Warsong tokens on par with raid loot.

Do you think Blizzard's mission to make more content more accessible skews players' perceptions of their (real or imagined) playing skill?
LOL. I don't think most players' perceptions of their own playing skills have anything to do with reality, so ... it probably doesn't matter!


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