My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft
reviewed by Giacomo Poderi - July 05, 2011
Title: My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft
Author(s): Bonnie Nardi
Publisher: University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor
ISBN: 0472050982, Pages: 248, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com
During the last decade, the video games panorama became full of rich and powerful artifacts dragging a large number of curious and passionate people into active and playful experiences. Recently, video games revenues surpassed those of films, marking a clear change within the entertainment industry and market: the passive experience of watching a movie or reading a book is no longer more attractive than the active experience offered by contemporary video games.
The massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft (WoW) together with its 11.4 million subscribers, certainly is a paradigmatic case of this situation. In her ethnographic work, My Life as a Night Elf Priest, Bonnie Nardi offers a detailed account of this MMORPG, explaining why it is so attractive for so many gamers around the world and, more generally, she provides us with a look into contemporary digital games culture. If you ever wondered why so many people would participate in eBay auctions for WoW accounts, then Nardi's work offers sound insights on how this and many other aspects related to in-game and real-life practices can happen.
The explicit goals of the book (pp. 6-7) are: (i) to develop an argument about World of Warcraft that examines play as active aesthetic experience, by drawing on activity theory and the work of philosopher John Dewey; (ii) to understand play in its contemporary digital manifestation; and (iii) to interpret experiences of playing WoW for those who will never play but wish to understand something of the role of video games in our culture. The book is divided in three parts: Introduction to World of Warcraft; Active Aesthetic Experience; and Cultural Logics of World of Warcraft, which are made of two, three, and four chapters, respectively. Throughout the book the narrative style is simple, yet engaging, moreover the interchange amongst ethnographic vignettes, personal reflections, and theories is always well balanced.
The first part of the book allows the reader to familiarize him or herself with MMORPG in general and WoW in particular. Moreover, it clarifies the fundamentals of ethnographic research and explains the design of the research that Nardi undertook from December 2005 until October 2008. The introductory vignettes are clear, properly contextualized, and easily understandable even for those readers who have never heard about WoW or read an ethnography. These vignettes also have the merit of introducing specific vocabulary to the reader.
In the second part of the book, Nardi outlines the theoretical framework that serves for the remainder of the book to illustrate the dynamics taking place in/on/through WoW. By building upon the tradition of activity theory and on the philosophy of John Dewey, Nardi defines play as aesthetic experience: an experience implying a subjective disposition toward activity (p. 43). For playing to take place the active and subjective involvement of the person is required. It is not enough to simply stare at the monitor and to hit keys on the keyboard. This part also includes dedicated chapters explaining WoW as a new medium a visual performative one and addresses the blurred meanings of work and play and their entanglement with the magic circle. The idea that, according to many digital games theorists, play is a domain separate from work (and anything else), that inhabits its own space or sphere (p. 102):
From outside the magic circle, we see a person staring at a computer screen, perhaps clicking furiously. The enticements of the game are invisible. Within the magic circle, it's a different story. A player is developing a character, interacting with guildmates, descending into difficult dungeons, exploring new landscapes, watching the (virtual) starry night sky. (p. 116)
The four chapters included in the third part of the book address topics that often recur in digital games studies, namely: game addiction, theorycrafting and modding, gender relationships, and gaming cultures. Particularly interesting are the chapters on addiction, which Nardi refers to as problematic use (p. 128), and the one on gender. In the first, Nardi discusses how misleading it could be to use a term as strong as addiction in a gaming context: even if the players' problematic use of the game affects social relationships and activities out-of-the-game, mostly these players sense the problem and look out for help and find it both in-game and out of it. In the chapter on gender, Nardi addresses the interesting issue of gendered practices in a male-dominated (virtual) world. Here, she identifies two planes in which gendered practices occur (pp. 158-165): a dominant plane which dampens heterosexuality, where males do not have to worry about heterosexual activity, and a secondary plane where heterosexual flirtation and romance could happen, although in a more erratic and episodic way.
Nardi's work is an excellent example of how ethnographic research, when well done and narrated, can be equally valuable for experts, laypeople, insiders, and outsiders. In no way is My Life as a Night Elf Priest a niche work for gamers or geeks; Nardi manages to bring an original contribution to the field of game studies while keeping the narrative understandable to any interested person.
If one out of the many positive aspects of this anthropological account of World of Warcraft has to be mentioned here, then I would highlight Nardis striking ability to tie together in-game dynamics with real-life ones. Throughout the book Nardi provides vignettes, quotes, and theoretical reflections that go well beyond a video game analysis, as traditionally understood.
The young woman, who was married, had met, in-game, a player with whom she had fallen in love. She came to the brink of divorce, planning a trip to meet her WoW lover in the foreign country in which he resided. The mother intervened, urging her daughter to stop playing World of Warcraft and mend her marriage. (p. 162)