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15 Minutes of Fame: Nardi on WoW culture and art, part 2


15 Minutes of Fame: On the one hand, WoW fulfills a natural drive for and enjoyment of developing excellence, performance and mastery. On the other hand, the proliferation of performance-rating mods and "correct," min-maxing strategies minimizes exposure to a wider variety of experiences, alternate ways of solving game-related problems and even personal preferences. The clash between these two poles seems to be the source of much friction in today's player community. Your thoughts?

Bonnie Nardi: And people think video gaming is just pushing buttons! As this question shows -- and it's a great question -- complex issues of problem solving, practice, ethics and values arise in the context of a game like World of Warcraft. From my point of view, it's awesome that: (1) there is such a thing as a player community having complex, nuanced discussions, and (2) there are clashes, because they open opportunities for argumentation, writing, rhetorical practice and good old-fashioned thinking. So, I'm looking at these discussions about min-maxing, mods and so on, as an educator, as someone pleased to encounter intelligent discourse and analysis wherever it is to be found.

It's very positive that video games offer the possibility of mods. Modding extends and reshapes active aesthetic experience based on participants' assessments of their own experiences. However, the move toward too much player-generated regulation and regimentation, and a narrowing of the game to play-conceived-as-numbers, impairs gaming experience, in my opinion. We need a balance between an "organic" play experience (to use a word I heard a WoW designer at BlizzCon 2008 invoke) and the rationalization of play, which player-created mods encourage.

Errors of interpretation often result from an overemphasis on meters and stats. It's not always obvious, for example, when someone makes a sacrifice such as decursing during a raid that results in lower numbers on the meters, or speccing into a build that gives a helpful buff or other advantage to a raid but decreases the player's output. It's not impossible to discern these things, but they tend to get swept away under the impact of raw healing or DPS numbers. The poring over of data from mods like World of Logs can lead to an elitism in which players establish a pecking order they start taking a little too seriously. Min-maxing is prey to what Dewey called becoming "overwhelmed" with something that is basically good.

There will always be a tension between wanting to excel and compete, and taking that desire so far that other critical values such as teamwork and fairness are compromised. We see it all the time in professional and amateur sports. So again, the discussion taking place in the player community is very healthy. Discussion keeps a range of related values on the table and keeps players reflecting on their experiences with input from multiple points of view, including that of the designers at the corporate entity.

Activity theory (which I discuss in my book) theorizes a notion of contradiction; it means a discrepancy or inconsistency at the level of a system. The inconsistency between rationalized mastery on the one hand and creative approaches to gaming on the other is a contradiction. Contradictions resolve in two ways: the breakdown of the system or a synthesis of the poles. The lively discussion of these issues in the player community indicates that a synthesis is in play.

Let's talk about gender. You've noted that perhaps one reason that fewer females are attracted to WoW is based on a gender-related, culturally linked disinterest in competitiveness. Since raiding could actually be seen as the ultimate cooperative effort, what aspects of the game do you think are most unappealing to uncompetitive women?

Raiding certainly is one of the most cooperative efforts I could ever imagine. During those five or 10 minutes in a difficult boss encounter, you are in intense communion with nine to 24 other people with a very high level of awareness of what the others are doing and how you fit into their activity. I believe many women would like to experience such communitas, as anthropologist Victor Turner called it, but getting to and sustaining endgame raiding entails a commitment that many women are not prepared to make.

Although more research is needed, I hear women say they should be doing something more "productive" than playing video games. Women face tremendous pressures to look good, to be there for friends and family, to excel at school and work, to always be thinking of others. These realities conspire to move women toward spending time in activities that they believe will make them acceptable to others. Men are more relaxed. If they feel like playing a video game for six hours, they will!

Some women and girls transcend the pressures. In whatever way, these players become involved in competitive gaming, and often it's through a spouse or boyfriend. Once there, they enjoy the competitive and cooperative aspects and are often top players. But it's a bridge to be crossed for many females.

Tell us about your family guild, <The Hoodoos>. What family members have joined your little band?

We started during Christmas vacation 2008, in an insane WoWFest in which we leveled to 38 in just a little over a week, all five of us together in one room, getting all the dungeon achievements at our level. My new daughter-in-law recently joined us, too. We have various friends and a neighbor who play with us, so it's a classic, small friends-and-family guild.

We completed Classic Dungeonmaster and are working on Outland Dungeonmaster. After the first big push, play has been catch-as-catch-can because my sons are very busy with their professional lives. We have a blast playing together, though, and are just resuming play, as my one of my sons has been away in Alaska doing field research on climate change near the Arctic Circle. (If you are geeky that way, here's his science blog.)

Our in-game personalities seem to recapitulate our out-of-game personalities. My eldest son is the healer, a priest. In real life, he's known for his calm objectivity and ability to deal with all kinds of difficult situations. My second son likes to plan and be in charge, and is our tank, a warrior. He decides where we will go and makes us move fast. My daughter, who is just heading off to college, is a mage. She is quick on the CC and has saved us from many a perilous situation. My husband and I are rather bumbling DPS, but it's all in the family!

Are you planning any followup projects or research to My Life as a Night Elf Priest?

I want to study parents who play WoW with their children with Asperger. I had started thinking about this and even obtained human subjects approval from my university, and then saw the great story here at 15 Minutes on the 8-year-old boy with Asperger who plays WoW with his mom. That encouraged me, and I hope to move forward with the project.

Are you currently playing WoW? If so, is that play for work, leisure or a blend of both?

Right now, I am playing just to keep up with things and for fun. Of course, I always keep my anthropological eye on things.

Do you plan to play in the expansion?

Yes! I'm looking forward to it. I have played a little in Cataclysm and have some blog posts on the experience.

What's next in your gaming-related research? Is anything involving WoW on the plate?

An aspect of World of Warcraft that fascinates me is the accumulation of a history. The game has changed, individual players have changed, the player community has changed. How do we study the history of a virtual world? I'm thinking about how to approach that question.
"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with these players, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Aron "Nog" Eisenberg to an Olympic medalist and a quadriplegic raider. Know someone else we should feature? Email

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