Games have graduated from neon arcades to Ivy League podiums. As the apex of our current media ecosystem games have caught the fancy of many a scholars’ attention. And why shouldn’t they? Games fashion fun from rich cultural and procedural rhetorics. The mechanical facets running the game as a system are dependent on the humanistic motives that lubricate interaction and engagement. And with experiences like serious games, Indie games, and MMORPGs- these “games” are resembling real world narratives in uncanny and critically curious ways. But if games really are terraforming the frontier of interactive experience, why are so many scholars giving them the same “critical” treatment as static mediums of experience?
This week I was exposed to two “critical” articles concerning work in World of WarCraft. While Jane McGonigal’s article focused on a “virtuous circle of productivity” while Lisa Nakamura’s work targeted fan-based racialization of in-game work, both of their issues deal with the ways reality creeps into the magic circle of play. But judging from their writing, none of these scholars really immersed themselves in gameplay. Instead, they study players of WoW as if they were indigenous Aborigines. As a lifelong gamer, and as a cultural anthropologist, this methodology is as prehistoric and flawed as the armchair anthropology of the late 19th century.
Not only does their writing style reveal their removal from the subject, but their narrow conclusions reveal how myopic methodologies damage their understanding of the game as a complex internal system. For example, McGonigal claims that WoW leveling is as rewarding as the endgame of raids because players want to “pay for higher in-game productivity” by grinding levels. But in my experience, and in the experience of my raiding comrades, leveling itself easily feels tedious; not because the game itself is ill-balanced- in fact it’s addictive in a deliciously guilty way. Leveling in WoW is incredibly fine-tuned. You start off with incredibly basic abilities, including racial endowments that give you an elementary feel for your character. After you grind a few levels, you master the ability and you’re ready for the next class or talent ability the game has ready for you. Leveling is just as more a part of forging your avatar’s identity than it is about completing quests. Those five hundred hours get tedious, trust me. But they allow the player an extended breathing room to complement or compensate for their unique play style with their expansive talent tree. Had that tree been given to you initially, your brain would likely ‘splode and you’d permanently afk and there goes the productive bliss altogether.
Similarly, Nakamura’s argument focuses on the external vectors of MMORPGs, completely neglecting the internal system balancing of WoW. She claims that WoW players have developed a racialized discourse of labor targeting Chinese gold-farmers. She explores Machinima instances and alludes to in-game discrimination and widespread “resentment”. But to fully comprehend the nuances of this virtual racism, she needs to consider the ways the game has already corrected for these capitalist machines. While gold can buy you some top tier gear, deck out a Twink alt, and lubricate level-grinding, gold can never buy you the best gear in the game. To acquire the best gear, the game forces the player to raid, to play through dungeons, learn boss-fights, form long-term virtual cliques, and practically marry yourself to arena partners. These sources of gear make gold almost negligible in the long term, especially since the gear you earn from these half-day expeditions bind to you. They can’t be sold. If Nakamura had played WoW, she would understand that this fan-based racism is much more complex because gold holds a complex position within the system of the game.
For the first time in ethnographic history, our subject of study offers us full integrative privileges into their culture. Instead of studying games like a static system that may or may not reflect the real world, we can get a full participant-observation stance, a visceral experience of the day-to-day culture. So why don’t we get off our fire-place armchairs and into our X Rocker Pros?