15 Minutes of Fame: Anthropologist digs into WoW

15 Minutes of Fame is our look at World of Warcraft players of all shapes and sizes – from the renowned to the relatively anonymous, the remarkable to the player next door. Tip us off to players you'd like to hear more about.

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.