Review by Angela Harrison: | "Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft® Reader" Edited by Corneliussen, Hilde G. and Jill Walker Rettberg
MIT Press, 2008 ISBN: 978-0262033701 304 pp. $31.95 | Web-Article Design by Jeff Hewitt

"Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader" - Corneliussen, Hilde G. and Jill Walker Rettberg (Editors)

Reviewed by Angela Harrison

Introduction | Culture | World | Play | Identity
Conclusion / Final Assessment | References


The next-to-last section of this book deals with the way the player interacts with the game. I find this section to be particularly provocative, because it steps outside of studying games as cultural artifacts and into their ludological aspects. Games are complex constructions, and this setion shows that there is much more to be taken from a game than just a cultural assessment. The first essay in the section, entitled "Does World of Warcraft Change Everything?" by T.L. Taylor, is a narrative account of player-produced culture in the form of "mods," or player made changes in the user interface. Modding an interface, Taylor argues,s is a factor in the hierarchy and social domination in the game (p. 188). While players generate these mods and the Blizzard Corporation welcomes them, Taylor believes that there is more under the surface. While mods can be a positive element in the game, they can also become a source of contention. Players, if they are not modded in the bigger dungeons or instances, are chastised for not having the equipment to make runs easier. However, if players do have mods, such as the DPS (damage per second) meters, players can be constantly monitored and evaluated. Such actions can prove to be harmful to players. Taylor ends with a call to do more case studies before drawing any major conclusions about the game.

The second article in the section, "Humans Playing World of Warcraft: or Deviant Strategies?" by Torill Elvira Mortensen, asks what the game can teach us sociologically. In particular, Mortensen looks at "social roles and deviance" (p. 203). She makes it clear to the reader that deviance is a complex term and defines deviance as "practices that do not adhere to the rules of the game" (p. 204). One instance of deviant play that the author cites is role-playing. Role-playing, she argues, is deviant because the game is not designed for role-play and it slows the game process, thus moving outside the game norm (p. 210). Another deviant activity the author cites is guild leading. Like role-playing, guild leading does not have any rewards outside of status and power. A lot of time and energy is devoted to leading a guild, but usually the leaders have no extra perks or rewards, thus making it outside the norm of the game also (p. 213). Other actions include not partaking of end game raiding, buying virtual gold with real money to get magical items faster, and the use of "bots," or computer generated robots used to farm resources with minimal to no effort. The author concludes that deviance is not objective; therefore, what can and cannot be considered deviant behavior is individually defined (p. 200). Ultimately, games become training grounds for learning rules — and how to break them.

The final article in this section, "Role Play vs. Game Play: The Difficulties of Playing a Role in World of Warcraft," by Esther MacCallum Stewart and Justin Parsler, probes the strategy of role-playing in the game. The authors define role-playing as a player "seeking to create a character who transcends the mechanic of the game and takes on a plausible, defined reality of its own" (p. 226). However, as suggested in the previous chapter, World of Warcraft is not designed for such actions. The authors of this article ask why players choose to role-play, how they go about doing it, and how the game is changed by it. Reasons the authors cite include the desire for social relationships, building of personal stories, and, to a degree, immersion (pp. 227-28). The authors discuss the importance of naming and appearance and comment that sometimes appearance takes precedence over the objectives of the game. The chapter also discusses communication in the game and how the game is not conducive to communicating in a role-playing environment. The authors also bring up agency, or lack thereof. They acknowledge that the game allows people of like minds to group and play together, but also remark that the changes these players make to the world are not permanent and players cannot break away from the necessity and repetitive nature of questing (pp. 235-36). Even with all the shortfalls, however, role-playing does offer some advantages, and the authors are hopeful that role players can attain a larger measure of agency in the future.

Play Assessment

This section of chapters is much more cohesive than the last, though the topics of this section seem to be offshoots of one another. It could be argued that role playing and modding are considered deviant behavior, thus reducing this section to one topic: deviant play. Because of this distinction, there are no essays that contain information about the interaction of the player with the regular interface, thus suggesting that deviant play is the only way that this game is played. This game, while complex, could also be approached on more basic levels, especially since the authors of the text have written it for people new to the game.

Another point of contention for this section is its narrowness. The editors of this text mention that it is hard to cover all aspects of this game because of its complexity. However, in a section entitled "Play," more aspects of play should be covered. Yes, the section does address some of the ways people play the game, and they are interesting essays, but not broad enough to give a clear picture to the audience of how different people play the game. For instance, there is a marked distinction between Player vs. Player (PvP) and Player vs. Environment (PvE) play. Even within PvP, there is a difference between those who play battlegrounds and those who play arenas. However, a major strength in this section is the balance between narrative experience and theoretical application, thus highlighting how the game can be approached on multiple levels. Because narrative applications are used, the idea that narrative experience has academic value is emphasized. This idea is important, not just to those reading the text but those who are Game Studies scholars, because ethnographic and narrative experience are two important methodologies in Game Studies, and to see them acknowledged alongside theoretical applications is exciting, to say the least. Also, all of these articles do cover some aspect of player interaction and the effects on the players, which is definitely a move away from the cultural assessment and into another, deeper aspect of gameplay, once again acknowledging that there are many ways that a game can be approached and assessed.

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