MMORPG Anthropology: Video Games and Morphing Our Discipline

By Daniel Lende

World of Warcraft is a MMORPG.  And what is that, you ask?  A  massively multiplayer online role-playing game, in this case the most successful one in existence.  It is run by Blizzard Entertainment, based on fantasy role-playing (i.e., swords and sorcery), and has more than 9 million subscribers worldwide.  These subscribers pay a monthly fee (currently $14.99 if you pay month-to-month) and for that, Blizzard says, “thousands of players adventure together in an enormous, persistent game world, forming friendships, slaying monsters, and engaging in epic quests that can span days or weeks” in the realm of Azeroth. 

Blizzard has built a game that appeals to both causal and persistent players, though most of its monthly income is derived from people who put in lots of hours (Ducheneaut et al. 2006;  It relies in part on an underground economy, including Chinese “gold farmers” ( to help create some of the in-game wealth that rich players can then utilize in achieving higher and higher levels and better and better items and spells.  Besides the joys of “leveling up” and coordinating massive attacks on either mythical monsters that no one hero can slay alone or on other “guilds” of human players in Azeroth, research has shown that “in keeping with current Internet research findings, players were found to use the game to extend real-life relationships, meet new people, form relationships of varying strength, and also use others merely as a backdrop (Williams et al. 2006; ).” 

They also piss each other off.  One of the main draws of Wow is PvP, person versus person play.  Just as with first person shooters, there is plenty of fun in the single-player game, the mastering of a particular level or killing a “boss” (a hard monster or enemy), but a lot of the persistent fun is in making those rag dolls fly—in winning “the game” when playing against others.  A new art form has developing in filming these encounters: “the proliferation of players, clans, Web sites, and community forums for creating, consuming, and commenting on WoW movies is remarkable” (Lowood 2006; ).  The one I will talk about today has been seen over two million times on YouTube. 

“Serenity Now bombs a World of Warcraft funeral” is its title, where the Serenity guild goes and attacks an in-game funeral ceremony being held in a public PvP space.  The funeral was held for a player who had died in real life, and members of her guild lined up to pay their respects to the character.  The clip is at 

In commentary on the clip at, the reactions can be divided into two basic types: “i loved it . laughed hard. i got the high quality video burned to dvd” versus “If you haven’t got enough common decency to leave some people alone to be sad about their friends death then your pretty pathetic.”  Given that I am more the ironic type and don’t know the girl in question, I must admit that I found the video clip more on the amusing side.  Maybe not lol, but I smiled. 

So, how are we to make sense of a game where millions of people play all around the globe, brought together in virtual interactions dictated by a company where much of the action is at the level of the people who have little say in the overall classes and goals set up by others?  It sounds like a perfect example for cultural anthropology to reveal its accumulated strengths. 

There is just one problem, as one recurring stream of comments on the raid point out: it’s a video game, not real life.  How can we reconcile our concepts of “culture” and “power” to an entirely artificial realm where people do not even interact face-to-face?  Where “culture” is literally not all around the person, and where “power” can literally be killed by the flip of a switch? 

The video clip concretizes these questions: Why do a group of people decide to create a funeral on-line?  And why is there both humor and condemnation in the raid that is technically within the rules set by Blizzard, a generally encouraged part of gameplay in Azeroth, yet against “common decency”? 

In my previous post on Video Games and Cultural Perception, I spoke on how designers work to get a cultural “buy-in.”  That buy-in builds on the interactions between the game, the virtual world, and the players—“culture,” in this sense, is not something separate from these components.  One way to figure out what the different elements of the “buy-in” is to look at more and less successful versions of specific cultural traditions, whether they are MMORGPs or bowling leagues or the new mega-churches.  (The one in our town has daycare for kids, arrived at through slides down into the rooms, as well as a self-help feel that downplays sacramental elements—and it is booming!) 

Detailed studies of the particular processes involved will be necessary—what Greg and I do in some of our respective research.  But a quick-and-dirty way might be to see what works and what doesn’t.  And gaming, as I analyzed in my first blog in this series, represents one great way to understand that.  So go for it! 

To sum up so far what I’ve done in this series, I see at least four factors in understanding video gaming through neuroanthropology:

-interface: how people have shared engagements

-cultural biology of the brain: what people bring to the table

-competition/buy-ins—how local practices/traditions promote or turn off engagement

-structuring processes (which can be both local and macro with respect to a particular cultural environment or context) 

But I am also intrigued in how people create a “virtual culture” on-line.  Here some other comments on the raid are interesting.  Interpretations of context, people’s interactions and how the setting shapes those interactions, the consequences and judgments of peoples’ behavior—all of these are prevalent in the descriptions.  These are how people are understanding their own ability to create a virtual culture, and like good anthropologists, I do think we should take our informants seriously.  So I’ve posted a selection of their statements below.  I look forward to some comments on this one! 

-i love the irony. one group takes role playing to the next level by holding a funeral in-game, not realising that another group would remain true to the war / fantasy setting takes advantage of their enemy’s weakness with an ambush. this is what makes wow so popular, the human interaction is often surprising, and can’t be predicted as in single player games. unexpected outcomes like this… are keeping it real. 

– True, it is a video game. And true, the game itself is not real life. BUT, the real world is very present. There are living, breathing human beings controlling all those characters in the “game”, and your actions *do* affect those people in a real way. The moment you interact in any way with another person, real life is present. Even if “its only a game” 

– I guess I’m just trying to get people to think about what the appropriate actions in a social game should be…. what is the balance between game mechanics (i.e. “allowed” actions) vs. the social interaction (i.e. how should you treat the real person behind the avatar). 

– On the topic of whether this is just a game… It is and it isn’t. All online games are like that, if you make friends, decent friends, then it becomes more than a game. Its a place to talk to your mates, chill out and not worry about RL [real life]. You can’t do that in any single player game ergo it IS more than just a game. 

– Just because it is an allowed game mechanic does not mean that Blizzard blessed it.  That type of thinking is at the heart of the dispute. Just because something can be done does not mean it should be done.  This whole issue comes down to what are the ethics of social interaction in a game. Since it is not a single player game, you must consider the consequences of your actions. If you do not, then you are incredibly selfish. 

14 thoughts on “MMORPG Anthropology: Video Games and Morphing Our Discipline

  1. One of the other points to be made from this virtual ‘incident’ is that the designers of video games do not wholly determine the way that the game worlds unfold. Those who condemn the attack on the memorial service and those who celebrate it are battling over standards of conduct in WOW, much like people in the material world disagree over standards of acceptable behaviour. Over time, it very much is up for grabs who will win out.

    The design of the virtual world does not dominate. As I understand it, for example, WOW actually has several dozen incarnations depending on which server you are playing on, and the parallel worlds do not all run by the same unwritten standards of conduct. There are apparently ‘killer’ worlds (again, it’s hard for me to say as a non-player) where cooperation in large groups is supposedly impossible; the standards of conduct are such that no sustained social organizations can emerge. One can think of these as a kind of virtual ‘failed state’ where no civil sphere or standards of conduct have successfully achieved ‘buy in.’

    But the point is that the designers are not the only one offering material to ‘but into.’ This is a point that I tried to make in the introduction that Melissa Fisher and I wrote to the volume, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy. I specifically looked at MMORPGs (I was an old-fashioned paper and pencil D&D geek in junior high), and found them to be excellent examples of multi-causality and technological indeterminacy. That is, the technological form itself did not wholly determine the way that the media would be used for communication and interaction, in spite of what the engineers thought.

    I agree though that successful and unsuccessful cases make for great comparison to think, in a quick-and-dirty fashion, about some of the variables that might be leading to a particular example emerging and achieving some kind of support and consensus. A comparative approach requires a kind of ‘ethnological,’ rather than a single-case, in-depth ethnographic perspective, something I think that many anthropologists shy away from, but a way of doing scholarship that has a long and proud tradition in our field (in spite of falling on hard times of late). I suspect that neuroanthropology will definitely demand serious comparative work, something I know that Paul Mason, who recently posted some stuff, is attempting at two carefully matched contrasting field sites.

  2. Being a retired MMORPG player, I find the raid on the virtual funeral interesting and actually quite surprising. It leads me to wonder if all of the players involved in the raid were aware of the nature of the event. I also question the location chosen for the funeral, which was a “contested zone.” It seemed more like a mistake, on the part of those holding the virtual funeral, and on the part of at least MOST of those involved in the raid.

    However, the theme of lawlessness has held true in player vs. player enabled persistent worlds. For instance, in Asheron’s Call, Microsoft/Turbine’s MMORPG of several years ago, the PvP server quickly developed a good versus evil dispute, where people who played in the outlaw style would band together against the group who believed in a more orderly virtual society. In the game Eve Online, a space-based MMORPG with an expansive persistent “universe,” players group under corporations, which mine minerals to make money (called “isk”) or to fuel industrial production of various commodities. Some of these corporations are labeled as pirate corporations, because of their lawless nature, and are constantly at war with the corporations that oppose this sort of play.

    With MMORPGs upping the ante when it comes to immersion, player dedication, and social interaction in the video game world, the line between what is a video game and “real life” is truly becoming blurred. When players are investing so much time and effort into their online characters, including building their level, social, and economic status, the simultaneous emotional investment becomes very real. Saying that it’s “just a game” displays a high level of ignorance about these investments.

    The virtual funeral can be seen as highly symbolic of virtual action transcending the game developers’ control over what humans will do within a pre-programmed world, largely unique to the online multiplayer genre. A player dies in real life, and her circle of friends join in the celebration of her virtual and real life; in the mourning of her virtual and real death. It is proven that there is a real person controlling the virtual avatar, and real emotional connections are made when these real people interact in the virtual world. Furthermore, the funeral has not been programmed by Blizzard, yet the players will undergo the creative process to bring what is known as a strictly “real life” event into a virtual world.

  3. Indeed, I found that both the event and the responses had blurred the division between reality and “reality.” It reminds me of the Taoist story of Chuang Zi who dreamed he was a butterfly, but when he woke up, he didn’t know whether he was Chuang Zi dreaming he was the butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Zi who had dreamed he was a butterfly. Though this could go into the metaphysical, I would point out that the virtual economies are not the preserve of online gaming. Huge sections of our own economy exist in some hyperspace. Think about the concept of value, perception of value and of money, credit, and capital. After all, it is the relationship between the individuals that confers the value on the money, commodity, and the validity of the credit. So if it is the relationship that creates the idea of reality, then it shouldn’t matter where the relationship exists, online or off.

    I would also point out since the video game is not a structured system but as it “transcends the game-developers control” and any “pre-programming,” is really an open-ended forum where agents’ desires, decisions, and responses will affect the outcome at every iteration. It is thus no different from what we see as culture. And why should it be? The players might also live in “that world” but they are still using what they have learned in “this one” including ideas of morality, law, customs, “that complex whole.” The interesting point will come if the multitudes of people playing the game, in a world which seems to be (for lack of a better term) tribal, would apply those “learned” behaviors in our own societies? But then again, it could be that the reason tribal-like organizations such as “guilds” emerge in that world is because we still organize ourselves in such groups in this one, within the embrace of the nation-state.

    As MikeT has recounted, some social groups on MMORPG have postulate rules legislating against “lawless” behavior, and even called for some legal authority to enforce these rules, and others have oppose such centralization. What we are seeing here mirrors the complexities of such struggles in our own world, probably through time, as those who would consolidate under some authority fight those would rather stay autonomous.

    I would suggest that if the level of investment in the MMORPG economy intensifies, we will see increased calls for some standardization, social and legal protection, and for some recourse from those who would “break” the rules, either as bands or “guilds” or as corporations. If the economy organizes itself so that shocks it through the actions of the lawbreakers would damage holdings, I can easily such a process transpiring. This could happen even in a world where the human player can “die” and be “reborn” a million times as a completely different entity or have a thousand different entities alive at the same time in many different MMORPGs, but with the same core, the human player.

    OMG, I just realized that MMORPG are akin to Hinduism. The body comes and goes, through countless lifetimes and multiverses but the core soul stays eternal and untouched. No wonder Hindus say that all we perceive is illusion and that this world is no more or less real than any other. 🙂

    A question about socio-economic relationships. I know that there is an exchange between “real” and “virtual” currency/money and that often, money from this world is invested in a scheme in that, and vice versa. Furthermore, such schemes are the results of maintained relations. So if one entity in a particular social group in a MMORPG is heavily invested in some “virtual” economic activity and s/he “dies” or “defaults,” is there any process by which her/his co-investors can recoup their losses? Can the social group to which the entity belonged be obliged to takeover the commitment or debt?

  4. Now the CIA wants to get in on the game, based on a headline today: “U.S. Spies Want to Find Terrorists in World of Warcraft.” “The Reynard project will begin by profiling online gaming behavior, then potentially move on to its ultimate goal of ‘automatically detecting suspicious behavior and actions in the virtual world’.”

    The place to start: “The cultural and behavioral norms of virtual worlds and gaming are generally unstudied. Therefore, Reynard will seek to identify the emerging social, behavioral and cultural norms in virtual worlds and gaming environments. The project would then apply the lessons learned to determine the feasibility of automatically detecting suspicious behavior and actions in the virtual world.”

    Strange and scary all at once…

    Here’s the link:

  5. I wrote my BA honors thesis about online communities, and I can say that people online often take their online interactions much more seriously than they realize. Drama on the internet is often mocked with the sarcastic phrase, “The internet: serious business!” But at the same time, people invest emotion in their online interactions like they would in their proximal interactions.

    Perhaps it’s easier on an MMO than with some other media because there’s a visual element there, too. You can “see” the people you’re interacting with. That makes it a good example of what’s going on, but you can see it in instant messenger conversations, too. People often do their best to simulate face-to-face interactions, and it’s spawned some new ways of narrating.

    When I message people over the MSN or AIM, I try to replicate some of the experience of conversing in person, inserting narration describing reactions such as laughter or textual symbols that mimic the appearance of facial expressions (such as 🙂 for a smile).

    User One: *waves* Morning! Did you get a chance to read my post?
    User Two: *shakes his head* Did you post it last night?
    User One: Yup. 🙂
    User Two: Oh, okay. I’ll try to get up a reply for you tonight.
    User One: *thumbs up* Thanks!

    This casualness of interaction is not a sign of sloppiness as much a sign that people are oralizing in their minds. People don’t even do that on the phone, saying things like, “I’m smiling right now.”

    That’s what I always get thinking of when I hear/read mention of how much like “real life” the internet and associated programs have become. Even looking beyond broader cultural phenomena like the introduction of funerary services (into an environment in which not everyone shared the expectation of solemnity at such an occasion), the way that people talk to each other is starting to look more and more like something you wouldn’t read but hear.

  6. More than likely, the attack on the funeral was an accident. I highly doubt that these guilds would keep tabs on who’s members are still actively playing other than seeing them online. It was definitely a mistake to hold the funeral in a PvP zone. While it may have had significance for the deceased, it was far too risky and much too difficult to communicate the event to other parties. Thus the ruthlessness of PvP zones came in to play easily. At least in LOTRO (Lord of the Rings Online) ambushes are quite common and some groups would try anything for kills. I’m sure this is similar in WoW and Serenity Now (like good pvpers) did not let their guard down while in the zone. Granted, what they did was extremely disrespectful to the funeral, they were probably clueless to what was really going on. It is thus more beneficial to look at the specific differences in PvP culture and PvE culture as they are drastically different.

    Similar things to this happen in LOTRO when players want to 1v1 in the PvP zone. The main mistake they make is not going somewhere remote enough and the 1v1 gets broken up by a raid that comes in and rolls the enemy to be safe. Later the players involved in the 1v1 hop on the forums to voice their opinions about the ethics (or lack thereof) of what transpired. Generally the argument forms two sides like the one above, the “Have you no honor?” side and the “Its a PvP zone. Its kill or be killed” mentality. However, a 1v1 does not hold as much emotional investment as a funeral in my opinion. Perhaps we should ask Renato Rosaldo how he would have felt if a group of people stormed into his wife’s funeral and made a mockery of it.

  7. Kind of like 4 years late to this party, however:

    I’d argue confidently that this wasn’t an accident, It was announced on global WoW forums for that particular server, so there was definately public awareness of the event.

    The attack was organised, and carried out by a high end raiding guild, these are “persistent” (original authors terminology) or hardcore players. These are the players who (usually) spent upwards of 5 hours a day, at least 6 days a weak, in 40 man groups, conquering dungeons. Getting all of these players together for this would have required planning, so it would have either been announced on their own guild forums, or they would have ended their raid early or started late, in order to do this.

    40 people with that gear, which is indicative of hundreds of invested hours, don’t just find themselves serendipitously in Winterspring (One of the most remote places in World of Warcraft, at the time of the event).

    The Motives for the attack:

    There is firstly an emotional disconnect between these two parties (the people attacking as the first, the people getting attacked as the second), only the guild-mates of the deceased player would feel anything for her. After spending the aforementioned time (the mourning guild were also a raiding guild) working together and speaking over ventrilo (similar to Skype), it’s very easy to develop a deep emotional connection so someone you have never met in real life. I’m aware (was a girl from my guild, I know the guy in real life, and now the girl) of a woman who has flown from America to Australia, to live with/ have an intimate relationship with a man she met over WoW.

    There is secondly no risk(unaccountability). Each player on the attacking guild would unlikely go and crash a funeral in real life, but in their alter egos, because there is 40 of them, because there are no rules forbidding it, it became totally permissible in the virtual world. From the concluding remark in the video, it’s clear they knew what they were doing was at least, somewhat disrespectful “Yes we know we are assholes :D”. They were, to use internet terminology “trolling”, or gaming terminology “griefing”. They acknowledge their behaviour is indecent, but they do it in part to antagonise, in part because they are bored, and in part because they enjoy it.

    Thirdly, this behaviour yields reward (besides enjoyment). If you watch the video carefully or are already familiar with WoW, you will see golden emblems appear which mimic to some degree, symbols denoting U.S army ranks. Like “private” or “corporal”, these were Player versus Player rankings, and the higher the ranking, the more honour was yielded, and the more honour you accumulate, the higher your rank gets, there are particular milestones in rank that give you access to special gear, in game. And, to put it simply, they would have gotten a lot of honour for this.

    The seriousness of this attack was only felt by the grieving guild, as they were the ones who were deeply emotionally attached to the event. For the attacking guild it was a humorous anecdote to tell, a video to post on youtube, and a whole lot of honour.

    The choice for the contested zone was explained in the video description. Funerals have also happened in other places like the Stormwind church (not contested zones).

    “Though this could go into the metaphysical, I would point out that the virtual economies are not the preserve of online gaming. Huge sections of our own economy exist in some hyperspace. Think about the concept of value, perception of value and of money, credit, and capital. After all, it is the relationship between the individuals that confers the value on the money, commodity, and the validity of the credit. So if it is the relationship that creates the idea of reality, then it shouldn’t matter where the relationship exists, online or off.”

    To contribute to this line of though, as mentioned in the original article, there exists “gold farmers” (people who will farm virtual gold, and sell it for real money). So WoW (and other mmorpg) gold, have relative benchmarks in real life money; Which people might use to rationalize spending a lot of gold as an item, thinking of it as a micro-transaction. I.e. (this item costs 2000 gold, that’s esentially 10 US Dollars, am I willing to spend 10 US dollars on this item). WoW accounts can also be sold, depending on the amount of characters, their progress, their gear, and their achievements, they can fetch thousands of dollars. ALSO power-leveling (paying someone else to level your character) is another service you can pay for. (all of these things are illegal under blizzards terms and conditions though). So It’s not necessarily all arbitrarily conferred value. Most of these things apply universally for pay to play mmorpgs.

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