Academic types will find a way to analyze just about every aspect of life – life in Azeroth included. Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, published in May by The MIT Press, explores what it calls "the cultural and social implications of the proliferation of ever more complex digital game worlds." Whew.
Props to the authors of this anthology for not only playing the game they're pontificating about – they actually created their own guild, where they play with other Digital Culture contributors. 15 Minutes of Fame talked with Jessica Langer, author of a chapter on the ways in which narratives of colonialism and otherness functioned in different ways throughout the game, about what she plays, what she writes, and how it all comes together in the World of Warcraft.
15 Minutes of Fame: So which came first, the chicken or the egg -- did you play WoW before you got the idea for this research, or was it the other way around?
Tamora: Oh, it definitely started with WoW. I started playing about two and a half years ago, and I played solidly for about a year (since then, I've dabbled for research's sake and to play alongside my husband, but I played a lot at that point). This particular research project came about because my wider research focus is on postcolonialism and science fiction/speculative fiction, and I began to see a lot of parallels in-game to what I was reading in Benedict Anderson, Homi Bhabha, Edward Said et al. I put together a working paper and presented it at a conference, which was where I met Tanya Krzywinska, another contributor to the book. She invited me into the Truants, and the book really got going soon after that.
Have you played or do you play other games before WoW?
I used to play Starcraft online, many years ago, but I was a terrible, terrible Starcraft player. Really awful! I'd get zerged constantly. I also played Diablo II with a friend a while back, but not online. Other than that, I've mostly stuck to consoles until now.
I've always been into console RPGs, mostly Squaresoft ones from before they were Square Enix. I started playing the Final Fantasy games when I was six or seven and have remained a fan until now, although I couldn't get into 12 – I think it was the lack of Nobuo Uematsu's music. I also skipped 11, the MMO one, oddly enough. I like Sims games, the Maxis ones as well as things like Animal Crossing and Viva Pinata. And I've tried to play survival-horror games because I think they're fascinating, but I always end up hiding behind the couch.
A guild full of academics sounds more than a little intriguing! How did The Truants come about?
The Truants are really Torill Mortensen's brainchild: she's our esteemed guild mistress and does a fantastic job of it. She organizes most things both in-game and in-person – we've had a couple of in-person academic events now, a brainstorming session in Norway for the book and a big symposium in Sweden. The guild is definitely active in-game, with weekly meetings (though less frequent in the summer, when academics are normally off doing other things) and occasional raids, either on the smaller instances on our own or teaming up with bigger guilds to raid the bigger ones. I'd say that there are two interlocking foci: one is to have fun, and that's done through raids and cool RP events like storytelling contests. The other is to study the game-world around us, and we all support each other in that: reporting research findings, helping each other with data analysis, etc.
What's the point of Digital Culture, Play and Identity, in a nutshell?
We wanted to write a book that analyzes the game through many different lenses: it's a multifaceted game, so we've given it a multifaceted reading. Some chapters, like Espen Aarseth's, are oriented more towards video game theory specifically, and others, like mine and Hilde Corneliussen's, take other types of social theory like feminism and postcolonialism and apply them to WoW. There's really something for everyone in here. The other thing I think is important is that a lot of WoW players are students, in university or high school, and we hope that the book will help them to connect their hobby of playing WoW with some of the things they might be studying in their classes.
Can you summarize the thesis of the chapter you contributed to the book?
Essentially: the Alliance and Horde don't represent good versus evil; they represent familiarity/normativity in a white Western context versus a conglomerate of Others, whose Otherness is connected to real-world groups that have historically been subjugated (and are still being subjugated). The rest of the chapter addresses the issues that come along with that, with a focus on the Horde, and with close readings of how each Horde race fits into my model. I argue that Trolls correspond with a kind of Afro-Caribbean Blackness; Tauren with Native Americans/Canadian First Nations peoples; Orcs as a kind of "sink category" into which all sorts of negative stereotypes about Blackness in particular and colonization in general seep; Blood Elves with white drug addicts; and the Undead with an ultimate, Kristevan abjection. All of these categories represent groups who are considered lesser, and are in some way subjugated, by white Western society (with the potential exception of the Undead, although they represent the ultimate Other in a more symbolic sense).
The fly in the ointment, though, is that these aren't direct representations, but are rather essentialised, stereotyped, often racist representations, which in turn may have an impact on the real-world perception of these groups.
During the course of researching and writing your own chapter, did you uncover anything that caught you off guard -- anything surprising or unexpected?
Hmm. That's a good question. I'm not sure anything did, but I think that's because I went into the whole thing without any specific expectations. Although one thing that has surprised me about the reception of this research, when I've presented it to different groups of people, is just how resistant some people are to seeing some of the stereotypes and some of the cultural appropriation I've written about. Of course, I don't expect everyone to agree with my conclusions! But I've encountered some people who react very badly, even angrily, to the idea that even though WoW is a world of its own, the cultures of the different races are often drawn from real-world subjugated cultures, and some of the things drawn from them are stereotyped in quite a negative way.
Were there aspects of the game you expected to analyze in a certain way that ended up playing out differently once you'd completed your research and survey?
As I mentioned, I went into this with few to no expectations, because I wasn't terribly familiar with MMOs in general or with the Warcraft franchise in particular. I think, though, that as I got deeper into my analysis, things became more and more complex. My thesis is that Alliance and Horde are divided by the game design and lore into "familiar" and "foreign" to Western eyes and ears, and I do maintain that; however, the "identity tourism" aspect plays out a little differently in the particular environment of WoW than it does in environments where one is completely anonymous and without any visual avatar. Player behavior always throws a chaotic wrench into things, and it's been interesting to see how players have picked up the toys that Blizzard has given them and done all sorts of interesting things with them. For instance, one of the Truants has taken the negative stereotypes assigned by Blizzard to Troll females and made a character called Berthamason, named after Mr. Rochester's first wife in Jane Eyre, a Creole woman who is portrayed as mad in a way that also draws on negative stereotypes of black women. It's quite subversive.
Tell us more about "identity tourism." What's that, and how does it touch most players?
The term "identity tourism" is one I borrowed from Lisa Nakamura, who coined it in 2000 and uses it extensively in her book Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet (New York: Routledge, 2002). It refers to the ways in which the anonymity of the Internet and other online spaces allows the user to "take on" the markers of identity belonging to a different group. For instance, a man might identify himself as a woman or transgendered, or a white person might identify him or herself as black or Asian or Native American.
That's where the "tourism" comes in, though: at the end of the day, you walk away from your computer and you're still white, or still a man. So even though you've gotten some small indication of what it might be like to be the person you're not, you still don't really know, because you haven't really taken on that identity. As Nakamura writes, "identity tourists need never encounter situations in which exotic otherness could be a liability" (56); if someone, say, starts racially abusing them or catcalling their female avatar, they can just turn off the computer.
In different online spaces, there are both limitations and guidelines to this kind of identity tourism: in WoW, specifically, you're in a visual environment, and there's a limited number of choices you can make as to how you look. You can't, for instance, be a genderless person, even as a Tauren – you're an upright cow with two breasts. What's significant about WoW, in my argument, is that because the races in WoW are so closely correlated with broad stereotypes of real-world racial identities, some of which are actually quite offensive and destructive, WoW players end up as sort of "tourists" in other real-world racial identities almost by default.
Anyone on the internet who has ever used an alias is an identity tourist, in a sense. But in WoW, identity tourism functions in a very specific way, one that is driven by the ways in which each racial identity functions.
Are you familiar with the Daedalus Project? Have you or the other contributors worked with its creator or data in any of your own areas?
I'm familiar with it, but haven't really used it, as it's not really geared towards the sort of research that I do. I've asked some of the other contributors, though, who know it better than I do. Esther MacCallum-Stewart has this to say about it:
"The site is incredibly useful as a resource for scholars looking at the social sides of gaming, particularly as it is frequently updated with new surveys, and because Yee's reputation as both an interesting writer and a scholar means that he gets a high response to his questions from gamers and researchers alike. The Daedalus Project is also a strong indication of the growing maturity of gamers, as well as reflecting their growing interest in themselves as communities and individuals. Nick Yee's work has often been the starting point for my own ideas or research, and he's an excellent reference point for MMORPG studies."
And Torill Mortensen, our guild mistress, says:
"I know the project pretty well, but it's a big quantitative project, and I don't think any of us really lean towards quantitative methods. It's also mostly self-reported, so the findings will be skewed for statistics. It's still useful, as it proves some things such as 'not all gamers are unemployed, several have work and a decent income.' I know of Nick Yee, and have looked at the Daedalus Project, and also used some of his findings, such as what I mentioned above, combined with a gender breakdown - more of the women who are heavy gamers are unemployed than of the men, for instance. But not in this book."
Do you have any new MMO-related projects or writing in the works?
Anything in the works now is really just an inkling; I finished my dissertation literally a week ago, so most of my time in the past few years has been spent on that. (My chapter in Digital Culture, Play and Identity is also a chapter in my dissertation.) But I am planning to do some more work on WoW, involving game lore and historical narrative, and I'm also planning to write on the Final Fantasy series as an intersection of fantasy and science fiction, potentially involving FFXI. We'll see where those go.
What about the real life stuff -- do you live in the U.S. or in Europe now?
I'm still in England at the moment, but I'm moving back to Canada, my home country, sometime in the next few months. I'm really excited about it, actually. Mostly because the people who sold us our new house have also sold us their 50-inch Panasonic flat-screen TV.
What are your plans after you complete your Ph.D.?
Ah, there's the rub! I've just submitted my dissertation and will be defending in a couple of months. Things are up in the air at the moment. Academia is a notoriously difficult field to enter as a full-time professor, as you may know, especially if you have geographical constraints like I do. I'm considering a whole bunch of different options right now, all of which are really appealing. You can be sure of one thing, though: no matter what I do for a living, I'm still going to play video games. And I'm still going to write about them.