The Warcraft Civilization: Social Science in a Virtual World
reviewed by Hilde G. Corneliussen - September 09, 2010
Title: The Warcraft Civilization: Social Science in a Virtual World
Author(s): William Sims Bainbridge
Publisher: MIT Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0262013703, Pages: 256, Year: 2010
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The title of William Sims Bainbridges book points to his project of doing social science, not seen from the outside, but within a virtual world, giving expectations about a researcher who has immersed himself in a virtual world. Bainbridge has amazingly invested 2300 hours within World of Warcraft, the popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) by Blizzard Entertainment, doing ethnographic participant observation. Bainbridge has played all the playable races and classes of World of Warcraft, he has explored all the different professions a character can have, through 22 characters, which he calls his research assistants or native informants (p. 16). Through these characters he has explored the varied landscapes and different geographical zones of the game world, and he has played on the various available server types: normal, player-vs-player and role-playing servers, all in North American realms. Thus, Bainbridge has certainly explored World of Warcraft to an extent beyond what a casual gamer can hope to achieve.
The characters played by Bainbridge become our travel companions and guides through the cultural exploration of this game world. With their own stories and experiences they open and close each of the eight chapters of the book, titled Entrance, Heritage, Religion, Learning, Cooperation, Economy, Identity, and Transcendence. The structure of the book hints at a study of a foreign culture, which World of Warcraft indeed is to anyone not familiar with the game. At the same time, the characters or research assistants sent into this world are used as willing informants, to learn not only about the game world, but also about our own civilization (p. 15).
Bainbridge argues that World of Warcraft is far more than an online role-playing game by Blizzard Entertainment: it is a virtual world, an online community, and it includes thousands of games, rather than simply being a game itself (p. 6). To fully experience the game, the player must take on the perspective of the character he or she is playing, with some degree of competence, improvisation, and genuineness (p. 6), and that is indeed what Bainbridge does, giving the different races, classes, and cultures of World of Warcraft voices through the characters he presents. The stories of the characters weave us into the World of Warcraft universe with its own history, races, rules, religion, economy, and geography. The stories of Incognita, Maxrohn and the other characters illustrate the strange mixture of knowledge activated in MMORPGs or virtual worlds, some of it originating in the game world, some in our world, giving an impression of how a game like World of Warcraft is played and experienced not simply based on the game alone, but as interwoven with the players own background knowledge. The first character we meet, Incognita, an Undead priestess of the Horde, asks herself why she cannot understand the language of Humans, pondering on whether their language had similarities with Latin, German, or perhaps Norwegian (p. 1), which is knowledge not present in the game itself, but brought in by the player. Thus, Bainbridge does not serve us the game as a distant and objective researcher observing from the outside, but attempts to make the game come alive, by providing examples of an immersed way of experiencing the game universe, where borders between the game universe, the experience of playing the game, and players own out-of-game experiences, are blurred.
Many of the detailed descriptions of the game seem to be written mostly for people not familiar with World of Warcraft. However, it is fully possible to play the game without paying attention to the background story, or reading quest logs (all you need to know is what to kill, gather, or find), or other information building the narratives that set the stage of the game universe. The effort made by Bainbridge to gather and reconnect all the different bits and pieces of information about the game universe surely surpasses what most gamers engage in. As already noted, Bainbridges intention is, however, not only to study the game, but to use the new knowledge to learn more about our own world:
I have examined it through the eyes of a social scientist, and I have reflected that vision back toward the surrounding world, seeing much about the modern human condition in the fires of Ironforge and the wreckage of the Exodar. World of Warcraft is no more a game than the surrounding world is; both have qualities of game, and of drama, and of many other metaphors. Precisely because it provides a different environment, it can teach us things about people we might not notice in their home environment, and it poses possible alternatives for the future of the world at large. (p. 226)
Bainbridge uses World of Warcraft as a looking glass or a mirror to extract knowledge about our own world, which indicates that the book is written just as much for social scientists interested in our own world as for people interested in computer games and virtual worlds.
Throughout the book we meet this game/virtual world real world encounter, not as a dichotomy where the one side is excluded by the other, but as interweaved in each other. However, the ways players experience the characters they play vary on a wide scale, Bainbridge argues. His observations in the game world suggest the widest possible range of connections between the biological person and the electronic person, only occasionally fulfilling the definition of second self (p. 187). Although Bainbridge does touch on the discussion of the relationship between player and character, the book would have benefitted from a more thorough discussion of the relationship between the researcher and the player, and for the researcher to be more visible in a discussion of methodological challenges when choosing an immersive way of doing game research, as it is not always clear whether the object of study is the game universe or the game play experience.
The last chapter of the book starts and ends with a drama between two of the characters played by Bainbridge, Catullus and Maxrohn a drama that keeps you alert all the way to the end as in a thrilling novel. And when I reached the last page I had been on a journey in a virtual world together with a group of native informants, and had learned about their history, living conditions, and the challenges they meet in this virtual world. Although the books detailed descriptions of places, quests, and in-game storylines are familiar to experienced players, they might also enjoy this book, as it is readable as a tourist guide book books we read even though we already are familiar with a place, to give us detailed knowledge about what to see and where to visit. The book made me want to log onto World of Warcraft again, to visit new places and meet new characters, and to see the game universe with new eyes.