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; http://gac.sagepub.com/cgi/content/short/1/4/281).  It relies in part on an underground economy, including Chinese “gold farmers” (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/17/magazine/17lootfarmers-t.html) 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; http://gac.sagepub.com/cgi/content/short/1/4/338 ).” 

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; http://gac.sagepub.com/cgi/content/short/1/4/362 ).  The one I will talk about today has been seen over two million times on YouTube. 
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Video Games and Cultural Perception

First, a shout out to all the faithful readers in cyberspace on the Eve of Christmas.  (Yes, yes, I know, my first post went up a week ago.)  Have a great Holiday! 

Now let me get on with gaming and culture.  Today I want to talk about how gaming illustrates the need to rethink what we mean by the concept “culture.”  The traditional concept of culture is generally seen as something all around us, shaping our every move—Geertz’s system of symbols, where humans are caught up in webs of cultural meaning.  Even in the wake of 1980s and 1990s post-modern critique, we are still left with rather homogeneous and causal views—for example, Bourdieu’s habitus, derived from class and used an explanation for the differing tastes and behaviors of different groups of people; or the emphasis on discourses or ideologies that people cannot escape, so that discourses on gender and race seemingly define who we are and, in making that definition, provide others with power over us. 

Greg has already started the critique.  Here’s what he writes in his post Mirror Effects in Neurons Learned?: 

“The evidence from the brain sciences does not support the assumption that all implicit learning has ideational foundations or backing, but most models of culture really do not allow for motor learning to exist on its own as a relevant category of culture. I know, some will try to call me out on this and argue that late Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus is really a motor learning theory, but the fact that he has to assume that there is either a sociological structure (class) or cultural structure (a kind of crypto-structuralist cognitive set of categories) behind all action suggests that it is, ultimately, either a sociological- or cognitive-determinist model, not one that allows motor realms any autonomy.”


So, how about some gaming autonomy?  Let me turn once again to my trusty Game Informer in its January 2008 edition.  In yesterday’s post, I talked about how games offer us an immersive and interactive experience.  I want to expand on that post by focusing specifically on how designers utilize something close to the concept of “culture” as one part of how to make games immersive and involving.  In the feature article on the first person shooter Tiberium, which builds off the real-time strategy franchise Command & Conquer, the article goes: 
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Introduction and Depression

Hi all. Just a short introduction–I’m a graduate student in human-computer interaction and applied anthropology. I started off traditionally, learning about Don Norman and his work on human factors then did some international fieldwork on online communities, mobile phones and cybercafes. Recently I started taking more of an interest in the ethics and politics of mental health diagnosis and treatment as well as how mental illnesses are represented in American culture. Most of what I have been reading suggests that conditions such as depression are seen as a chemical imbalance to be treated with medication, so it was surprising to read in a “US News & World Report” article Get Healthier and Happier that anti-depressants actually only alleviate symptoms in 35-40% of depression cases compared with 15% on a placebo. Of more relevance to anthropologists are the stated impact of lifestyle on the diagnosis of depression.

As with diabetes, experts have begun to look for culprits in the 21st-century lifestyle. Might the isolating, sedentary, indoor computer culture explain, for example, why the disorder appears to be surging in young adults? Today’s 20-somethings have a 1-in-4 lifetime risk of experiencing depression’s hallmark black mood, joylessness, fatigue, and suicidal thoughts compared with the 1-in-10 risk of their grandparents’ generation. Americans are 10 times as likely to have depression today as they were 60 years ago, a development that is not merely a result of increased awareness and diagnosis.”

Unfortunately there are no citations for the above numbers and I’m inclined to be skeptical about making such comparisons–how would one even be able to judge the degree to which increased awareness and diagnosis would make a difference? We’re talking about a time before the DSM (the Diagnostic Statistical Manual which psychiatrists use) and before drugs such as Prozac had become a household name.

Even more intriguing for anthropologists:

Realizing that primitive societies like the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea experience virtually no depression, Stephen Ilardi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, is now testing a cave-man-esque approach to treatment with promising results. His 14-week Therapeutic Lifestyle Change program entails large doses of simulated hunter-gatherer living in people suffering from prolonged, unremitting depression. Participants sign up for 35 minutes of aerobic exercise (running, walking briskly, biking) three days a week, at least 30 minutes of daily sunlight or exposure from a light box that emits 10,000 lux, eight hours of sleep per night, and a daily fish oil supplement containing 1,000 mg of the fatty acid EPA and 500 mg of the fatty acid DHA.

They also get plenty of time surrounded by the “clan,” in the form of frequent social gatherings with family members, Starbucks dates with friends, and volunteer work. “Hunter-gatherers almost never had time alone,” says Ilardi; even a generation or two ago, people grew up supported by extended family and much more engaged with their community. Too much time in isolation, he says, means “opportunities to ruminate,” the modern scourge.

Granted, the fish supplements and biking and light boxes go above and beyond what a hunter-gathering society might have access to without the harshness. Comparing a Starbucks date to life as a cave-man seems absurd. But it certainly sounds like a healthier and more holistic treatment than what goes on in traditional psychiatric institutions. I’m not very familiar with the literature on mental illnesses in other cultures, especially so-called “primitive” cultures so would love to get citations and opinions.