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What can WoW and other MMOs teach us about literature and storytelling?


While the world of academia has not infrequently pried back the edges of World of Warcraft to peer through its lens into fields including psychology, sociology and anthropology, and economics, we don't often hear reports from the intersection of WoW and literature. With a lore and canon of their own making, WoW and the Warcraft world don't fit alongside such developments as Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative, a course from Vanderbilt University available via free online educational provider Coursera that leans heavily on the riches of narrative theory, intermediality, and game theory in Lord of the Rings Online.

But there's no denying the omnipresence of WoW's influence -- and yes, that includes within the ivory-tooled tower of literature, as well. "I'm a literature professor," states Dr. Jay Clayton, one of the Coursera class's instructors. "I'm fascinated by what games can teach us about the operations of storytelling." Dr. Clayton says he's hoping to attract WoW players and their own WoW-tinged perspectives to his class this summer in order to help build a more complete picture of what WoW is itself as media, not only as a lens through which we can view other disciplines.

To be sure, World of Warcraft is not the star of Dr. Clayton's Coursera class. In a promotional video for the course, he repeatedly refers to WoW as "Worlds of Warcraft" and admits during our interview with him that his time playing WoW was not his cup of tea: "WoW has just a massively larger demographic than any other game, and this included, on the server I was on, a younger, less mature [player base], a lot more taunting ... than I was used to."

What can WoW and other MMOs teach us about literature and storytelling
A story that moves across media

Still, WoW wasn't chosen as the centerpiece of this class because of Dr. Clayton's personal playstyle preferences but because it's based on an original story and lore. In contrast, Lord of the Rings Online draws on its trove of novels, films, and lore that allow students to observe how a familiar story becomes transformed as it moves across different media.

As the course prospectus notes:
Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin ... argue that new visual media achieve their cultural significance precisely by paying homage to, rivaling, and refashioning such earlier media as perspective painting, photography, film, and television. They call this process of refashioning "remediation," and they note that earlier media have also refashioned one another: photography remediated painting, film remediated stage production and photography, and television remediated film, vaudeville, and radio.

"Anyone interested in today's culture needs to be conversant with the ways this new medium is altering our understanding of stories," Dr. Clayton exhorts prospective students. "Join me as we set out on an intellectual adventure, the quest to discover the cultural heritage of online games."

What can WoW and other MMOs teach us about literature and storytellingDr. Clayton is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, where he also directs the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy. His books examine how stories from one area of life affect other kinds of narratives: how poetry changed the novel in Romantic Vision and the Novel; how fiction shaped postmodern culture and theory in The Pleasures of Babel; and how Victorian literature, science, and engineering helped build the networked world we live in today in Charles Dickens in Cyberspace. His current work focuses on two areas, gaming culture and genomics in literature, film, and popular culture.

Intersections of text and circumstance

LotRO's choice not to send players along the famous trilogy's main storyline, leaving them behind to guard the rear and handle other threats, gives Dr. Clayton an opportunity to demonstrate still more literary concepts. "What it did was give you a story of your own, without a predetermined outcome, to immerse yourself in that is that is tangential to and intersects with the story of the main three volumes of the novel," he explains in an interview with WoW Insider. "This allows us to teach concepts, certainly advanced concepts, about intertextuality, about how all text, all literature depends on a whole slew of texts outside of the bounded work."

That's a strength of World of Warcraft, as well, Dr. Clayton notes, with its many allusions to pop culture. "It's a richly allusive game," Dr. Clayton says. "It has a textual surround, just like Lord of the Rings does, except it's the text of our own culture and popular culture -- which is a kind of magical feat when you think that it's completely set in a fantasy world at the same time."

"So you do get this doubleness," he continues, "not the ordinary double awareness of 'I'm in my study or my living room or wherever I'm playing it and I'm in the virtual world.' That doubleness is there with any computer game. But it's a doubleness of 'I'm in this fantasy world and I'm also kind of conscious of the clever allusiveness to all kinds of pop culture phenomena in 2012.'"

An unprecedented constellation of creativity

Other aspects of WoW that Dr. Clayton spends class time discussing are the game's famously striking graphics and art direction, what he calls an enormous interdisciplinary creativity being channeled into games in an unprecedented manner. "You have computer programmers, number theorists, writers and narrative artists, cinematographers, graphics, music..." he says. "These are all the skill sets of contemporary digital existence being fueled to make a really unprecedented new media form. It's not that any single game is unprecedented but that the entire constellation of games is unprecedented."

"Frankly, I think that colleges and academics need to be paying attention and need to be thinking about what this all means now and what it'll mean to the future of our culture," he continues. "When you have this many millions of dollars being pumped into it and many of the finest minds being drawn to this creative sphere, you're going to have unforeseeable cultural ramifications."

"Online Games: Literature, New Media, and Narrative" is an online course available via Coursera, a company that partners with top universities all across the world to offer courses online that anyone to take for free. The course runs for seven weeks beginning in July. Visit Coursera for more details.

"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with Game of Thrones' Hodor (Kristian Nairn) ... a blind ex-serviceman and the guildmates who keep him raiding as a regular ... and a 70-year-old grandma who tops her raid's DPS charts as its legendary-wielding GM. Send your nominations to

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