Wednesday, August 3, 2011

REVIEW: Digital Culture, Play and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader

"Digital Culture, Play and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader" published by MIT Press and edited by Hilde G. Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg, is a collection of works by various authors regarding the World of Warcraft phenomenon and how it informs contemporary notions of culture, play and identity.

I stumbled onto this book at Half Price Books in the role playing game section, of all places. After reading it, I'm not entirely convinced that was the best place for it to be shelved. The majority of the contributors to the essays contained in the book are Norwegian and all of the contributors are based out of universities in Europe, where they serve as social science and cultural theory academics. They all play(ed) World of Warcraft on the European servers, all served as part of the same guild, and used their experiences while logged in as the basis for their research, even going to the extent of holding guild meetings in the game world to review and share findings.

Its been quite a while since I last had to wade through dense academic treatises on topics such as culture and identity, and my consumption of the book began as a bit of a slow grueling grind when I first cracked it open. Much like a starting level character in WoW, the grind got easier as time progressed, and perhaps much like some of the player experienced phenomena discussed in the book, "leveling" up through the chapters and acquiring facility with the concepts, language and conclusions drawn did not leave me with an altogether entirely satisfying experience at the book's end.

The book is broken up into four sections - Culture, World, Play and Identity. The most interesting essays for me were to be found in the sections on Culture and Play, respectively entitled "The Familiar and the Foreign: Playing (Post)Colonialism in World of Warcraft" and "Role-Play vs Gameplay: The Difficulties of Playing a Role in World of Warcraft". The other two sections that comprised the book's categories contained interesting analyses on various elements of the game and its players, but I didn't find any of them nearly as salient as those found in Culture and Play.

"The Familiar and the Foreign: Playing (Post)Colonialism in World of Warcraft" posited an analysis of how WoW has taken various real world ethnic/racial traits, stereotypes and socio-historical narratives and transposed them onto the fantasy world character races. The players of the game then reinforce and/or subvert these identity tropes through interpretive play in the virtual gameworld. The melange of both racist and anti-racist narrative flow (both of which often occur in even the same moment!) in the gameworld serves as a mirror to the player population's real world understandings of the notions of race and culture and how such notions can be played with to both ill and beneficial effect.

"Role-Play vs Gameplay: The Difficulties of Playing a Role in World of Warcraft" piqued my interest due to the manner in which it demonstrated the limits of role play in this particular virtual fantasy game, and the ways in which such limits are overcome by the players. I'd never really given much thought to all the elements that go into successful role play - namely possessing various types of literacy, functional social skills, and a desire and willingness to be a part of a shared narrative - and how those elements are inhibited or otherwise obstructed by and through a virtual medium like WoW, with its rather rigid, rote and inflexible aims and goals of the game itself. This isn't to say that role play doesn't happen in WoW, but as those of us who have played the game can attest, it is most definitely not an easy endeavor to undertake, and is quite often deleterious to the advancement of your character on the game, at least at the initial part of the character's time on game. The desire for role play by a segment of the game population leads to the creation of a game within the game, a secondary narrative constructed outside the official game. This deviation from the dominant narrative at once touches back on and adds to the original official history of the gameworld while also standing outside and apart from it.

Overall, the book was an interesting and stimulating read that left me with many more questions regarding the WoW phenomenon, and a desire to see more original research on the topic. I wonder how much more different the analyses and conclusions drawn would have been coming out of a cluster of American, Asian or even Latin American academia rather than European, and how consistent such findings would be across game servers populated by a majority of one real world region over another, for example While the book started out as a bit of a dense and dry read, some of the essays were considerably less so than others, and overall the collection was quite casually readable. Well, for anyone with an interest in the social science and cultural theory behind WoW, anyway, yours truly included.

RATING : 3 out of 5

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