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

Editor: Hilde G Corneliussen, Jill Walker Rettberg
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008
Review Published: September 2009

 REVIEW 1: Shira Chess
 REVIEW 2: Jordan Patrick Lieser
 REVIEW 3: Christopher A. Paul
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Hilde G. Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg

As editors of Digital Culture, Play and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader we are very pleased to read the three thorough reviews of the book presented here in RCCS. Of course, this is an honor we share with the other authors of the book.

As some of the reviewers have pointed out, the book is one of the first focusing on a single game, instead of a collection of games or other artifacts of digital culture. To us that was a natural choice for several reasons. First, it's not just a game, it is a complex game or perhaps several games, as Torill Mortensen's contribution points out. Second, it is more than a game: it includes constructions of meaning and negotiations over social norms and values more often found outside game structures. In short, World of Warcraft is both a game (or several games) and a social structure (or a world). Thus, the concept of "game world" is perhaps more suitable to describe World of Warcraft than either "game" or "world" alone.

Just as we know that one single researcher could not possibly investigate all aspects of the real (often misleadingly read as the "offline") world, no single researcher (or player) could possibly investigate all aspects of this complex game world. Nor could thirteen researchers. One of the strengths in the process behind this book has been the collective engagement in the game, with the research guild as a collaborative social tool for discussions while working on the book. We are therefore happy to see that some of the reviewers find that this collective process has left traces in the cohesiveness of the anthology as a whole.

The main focus when we started the process of collecting contributions to this book was the game itself: the game world, the way the game was designed, and the in-game experience of being part of the game world. Some players are there to experience the game Blizzard designed, while others also enjoy making their own versions of the game. We are of course aware that there is a whole fan culture outside the game itself, and although some of the chapters draw material from the fan culture (like Lisbeth Klastrup's use of machinima), the main scope for all contributions has been to explore World of Warcraft with a starting point inside the game.

Some research may give the illusion of completeness. You can read every post to a single mailing list, watch the whole of a 90 minute film, or read every word of a 300 page novel. This may give us the false impression that research doesn't always depend on a selection. But any research can only examine a selection of reality -- and this is probably a good thing. In his short story "On Exactitude in Science," Borges described a "Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it" (325). But the impossibly exact map was found to be useless, and left to disintegrate in the deserts it described.

On the internet the impossibility of truly seeing the whole is even more obvious than in the study of non-networked cultures and artefacts. You can't experience the whole of World of Warcraft any more than you can analyse everything that happens on Facebook or Twitter. While Azeroth is in a sense nothing more than a map, and so might seem completely knowable, it would be completely impossible for any researcher or player to experience all places, all levels, all races, all professions, all quests, all raids and to participate in all guilds and all social interactions and events in World of Warcraft. It takes hundreds of hours to play a single character to the top level; to play all possible combinations of race and profession and so on would probably take more than a human lifetime. Even if this were possible, World of Warcraft is also a site where players as well as cultures meet and develop in ways that are neither part of the game design, nor foreseen by Blizzard.

Thus, leaving behind the idea of making a one-to-one sized map, there are certainly other aspects of the game and its culture that we would love to see examined as well. As Shira Chess mentions, identity is certainly an area that begs for more research. We'd also like to see more research on global uses of the game. World of Warcraft's Asian servers started up as we were working on the anthology, and more comparisons of Asian, European, US and other game cultures would be valuable, as would more interaction between game researchers on different continents and in different cultures.

We are pleased to find that the reviewers see this book as a useful addition to game studies literature, and in particular that it might be useful in classroom settings. Not only with the extensive player base, but also through unprecedented attention in the press, World of Warcraft has become a cultural phenomenon affecting far more people than the players themselves, and the book's readability and accessibility to readers outside academia was an important goal to both us and our co-authors.

Works Cited:

Borges, Jorge Luis. 1998. "On Exactitude in Science," in Collected Fictions. Trans. Andrew Hurely. New York: Viking Press.

Hilde G. Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg


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