Author interview: Bonnie Nardi on My Life as a Night Elf Priest

by Korey Jackson on July 29, 2010

This is the first author interview we will feature on this blog.  Expect to hear from a variety of digitalculturebooks authors on their works in future entries.

Read more about My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft and find ordering information on our site and on the University of Michigan Press’ main site.

digitalculturebooks: How did you come up with the title?

Bonnie Nardi: My son advised me that “The Life and Times of a Night Elf Priest,” my first title, lacked a youthful vibe and might not even register with some of the younger generation. The book, and the research, were from the beginning, a journey into a culture produced by and for a younger generation, although they do not constitute its entire populace. One of my guildmates is grandpa to five, and I’m quite sure he could out-dps the grandkids any day! Dps is one of many new cultural terms I had to learn. It means “damage per second” and is a metric players use to demonstrate how effectively they slay monsters. My son approved “My Life As…” Then I only needed to clarify that the book is the outcome of my anthropological research. More than my other work, this undertaking was a personal journey, so the title felt right.

As an anthropologist, you played the game to conduct the research. When are you playing and when are you researching?

Being an anthropologist means never completely shutting down a part of your mind that is irresistibly attracted to, and fascinated by, the spectacle of human life. Ask any anthropologist–at the dentist, at a dinner party, during a day at Disneyland, we cannot help but notice, and be intrigued by, some small detail of humanity’s efforts to manage this precarious experiment we call culture. Even when I am playing World of Warcraft, thoroughly enjoying it, deeply immersed in quests or raids or crafting, human activity is always before me qua object of analysis. This attentional focus superadds another level of interest; I do not experience a conflict, rather I gain a further layer of experience.

Except for when I am learning a difficult new raid encounter! Then I allocate 100% of my brain cells to preventing my character’s death, or preventhing the deaths of guildmates’ characters since my role in the game is that of a healer. And that’s something I like about World of Warcraft–the opportunity to engage a high level of engrossing performative challenge.

What is your book about anyway?

The book is composed of three threads woven together as carefully as I could. First, it is an anthropological account, per the subtitle, and that means lots of description of the new culture I encountered. I hewed closely to the model of the old fashioned ethnography produced by going boldly where no Western person had gone before, for the purpose of finding out what the natives were up to, and why. World of Warcraft was my first video game, and I had the advantage of everything being shockingly new. The second thread examines, in a more theoretical way, human play–the reasons people go to such efforts to create and sustain it, and what play actually is. The third thread explores the power of software artifacts to regulate and shape human activity. I believe software is very shaping. Often that’s seen as a negative, but in the context of online worlds, entraining regulation into a well-designed experience yields many advantages. In particular, it protects and preserves aesthetic experience from meddling amateurs and ill-intentioned intruders.

In an increasingly digitalized culture, what’s the future of face to face interaction?

If there’s one thing that researching virtual worlds teaches you, it’s that face to face interaction is alive and well. In fact, it’s appreciated as it never has been before because now we have a contrast set. While online-only interactions are a legitimate, rewarding form of socializing, there is no strict boundary between online and offline that maintains their separateness. People who meet online are often eager to meet offline. They make that happen–romantic encounters, gatherings of guildmates who have known each other in-game and arrange real world events, postings on guild websites: “You’re going to be in Philly? Stop in and we’ll have a beer.” Many play with people they already know. Online experiences add to existing face to face relations to the point of a true blend. Even online, with the use of voice chat, something very real enters the virtual space. I have come to regard the human voice with a new awe; a powerful sense of others emerges through voices heard in the context of authentic activity, compared to the stilted world of the phone with its low bandwidth (socially speaking) rituals. Online people are very expressive. Some of the people in my guild are hilarious. Listening to them on voice chat is like listening to good comedy, only funnier and sweeter because it’s in-jokes, and you know the people. Sometimes I’m sitting there giggling uncontrollably in my headphones.

Are video games like World of Warcraft “useful” in any way outside the gaming experience?

This is a fraught question and I want to be careful not to be dismissive of good work on games and education (or, more broadly “serious games”) which is noble and valuable. But my gut level response to this question is: Must everything have a purpose beyond providing a restorative, interesting, challenging, entertaining, fun experience? It seems to me that Americans, and probably everyone else, work pretty hard, and our compulsion to attempt to turn play to good account (that was in quotes), is a bit preposterous. At least as long ago as the 17th century, some wise person observed that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Let’s not forget this bit of the cultural patrimony.

Having said that, I believe there are useful side effects of participating in games such as World of Warcraft. (See Langdon Winner on how technologies produce unintended side effects.) For one thing, one learns to juggle and respond to multiple texts. There’s text coming at you from all sides in-game, in particular during raiding, the most difficult game activity. I use the term text broadly to include text in multiple chat windows, in instructions from the game itself, in the software extensions players create which produce new texts layered onto those of the game. And we can add in voice chat too. Lots going on, and you have to pay attention. Paying close attention is a good skill. It’s related to what players call situational awareness, a term from the military. As more activity will take place in virtual worlds in the future, those who can accommodate multiple rich text streams will have an advantage.

Video games are useful in the practice in reading and writing they afford. There are thousands of excellent player-created guides, FAQs, forums, and blogs devoted to World of Warcraft alone. These out-of-game resources give people a chance to express themselves in writing. They encourage reading. Take a peek at the forum for some sharp argumentation, good writing, thoughtful commentary, and detailed analyses of arcane spreadsheets modeling game mechanics. Be aware that your post to the forum will not be approved if the spelling and punctuation are poor. I just love that!

Many companies could organize their own internal publications, user guides, and websites more effectively if they had a look at player-created guides such as El’s Extreme Anglin’: World of Warcraft Fishing Guide.

This outpouring of literary creativity is educational in its way, but we rarely find the same level of quality or enthusiasm in school. I believe that’s because people genuinely love games (since they are challenging, restorative, etc.). This takes me back to my first point, that we cannot easily highjack play for work. School content, for example, would have to be as compelling as a game. A game is way out in front though, with its freedom to be whatever it wants to be (e.g., not acquiescent to hegemonies of standardized tests). Games have the gift of time too; in school the constant shuffling from one activity to another in artificial periods regulated by ringing bells creates a kind of regimented gloom. When players play, they sit down for a long time. I’ll bet they spend a lot of time writing their blogs and guides too.

Bonnie A. Nardi is an anthropologist by training and a professor in the Department of Informatics in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. Her research focus is the social implications of digital technologies. She is also the author of A Small Matter of Programming: Perspectives on End User Computing and the co-author of Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart and Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design.

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