Leet Noobs: An ethnographic view of WoW raiding from researcher Mark Chen

Leet Noobs An ethnographic view of WoW raiding from gamerturnedacademic Mark Chen

It's always a bit bewildering to see World of Warcraft mentioned outside of our tight-knit gaming community. Even reading Lisa's interview with Bonnie Nardi, author of My Life as a Night Elf Priest, gave me a sense of awe and a realization of just how big the game truly was, not only to those of us who play it but to those who don't even know what an orc is.

As such, when Mark Chen, a self-professed gaming researcher with a Ph.D. in educational technology and learning sciences, contacted me about his new dissertation-turned-book Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of an Expert Player Group in World of Warcraft, I couldn't turn down an opportunity to dive into it.

As the title of the book suggests, Chen chronicles his experience raiding Molten Core with his inter-guild group back in vanilla WoW, examining relationships between the group's members and the different guilds themselves and noting the different ways the raid group operated as a thinking, breathing entity that overcame difficulties, both game-related and socially-induced. Chen relates one of the larger concepts discussed in the book, actor-network theory, to a functioning raid group, detailing how each participant, or actor, assumes a role within the larger group, forming a network of responsibility and interdependence. He even goes so far as incorporating non-human actors such as KTM, the first successful threat meter in WoW, into this network.

A scientific viewpoint

Something that struck me about the book in general was its intended audience. You get the sense within the first chapter that Chen, a WoW player himself, is giving outsiders a peek inside the game, using ethnographic and psychological terminology that my meager college psychology coursework did not prepare me for. Of course, he does a wonderful job of explaining these topics and tying them into his experiences with the game, something than an academic in the humanities would probably appreciate and enjoy; it's just a bit of a heavy read for the casual WoW player.

On the whole, I feel like Chen really did a great job communicating the trials and tribulations of raiding life at level 60, though naturally his account is colored by his experiences. For example, I found myself disagreeing with his notions of the dichotomy of casual and hardcore players, exemplified by this passage from page 81:

The raid group I was in was able to foster a different kind of trust in its members by ensuring that they were in it for the sake of the group and having fun rather than for individual, self-serving loot collection.... Our social norms and communication practices allowed us to exist without other game-induced incentives such as guild affiliation or technical surveillance tools.

Leet Noobs An ethnographic view of WoW raiding from gamerturnedacademic Mark Chen

There is certainly some truth to his statements, but in my opinion, there isn't such a harsh line among the player base between individualistic players only seeking loot and casual players just looking to have fun. Personally, my enjoyment of raiding and WoW in general is derived from a number of factors: group camaraderie, experiencing content, and friendly competition related to optimizing my own play (whether that optimization is from loot, usage of addons, or acquired skill).

Certainly, some of the disparity in experiences could be due to the change in not only the game itself but in the community that has entrenched itself around it. Perhaps we as players have "evolved" to such a point where we can manage our individualistic concerns and still possess altruistic tendencies. Then again, maybe these seemingly selfless tendencies are born of selfish desires; in other words, players could be cooperating simply because it is the most effective route to the loot or achievements they so desperately want. Situations like this are great examples for why I decided to forgo a career in psychology -- the amount of money spent on Tylenol would have been staggering.

From one who's been there

One of the most valuable aspects of this book is the introspection that Chen provides as he recalls his time spent in the game. In chapter three, when discussing the thrill and excitement of learning encounters and getting into the groove of progression, Chen throws out the word "addiction" and then attempts to dissuade the connotations that he knows accompanies games like WoW:

I would hesitate to call it "addiction" from the media effects standpoint: It is not a sinister, time-sinking, life-destroying activity. Instead, the knowledge is so much a part of me now... I long for it; it sustains me. It has become a part of who I am. My identity depends on this cultural knowing of what it feels like to be raiding in Molten Core. But rather than taking away from my life, it enriches my life.... Through gaming, I know nostalgia and melancholy, joy and triumph, success and failure, sadness and anger.... Gravitating towards these activities is only addiction in the sense that people are compelled to engage in the activities that define who they are...

It's moments like this that let us know that Chen is the real deal. He isn't some drab academic, looking at the game through a microscope and dissecting social constructs; he can relate to us because he is one of us.

Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of an Expert Player Group in World of Warcraft is available for purchase through Amazon.