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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 video game genres broaden, and as the field of video game research expands, a need for different kinds of scholarship has emerged. While there is certainly still a place for general readers about video games, there is also a need for books that concentrate on specifics: specific methodologies, specific genres, specific themes, and (of course) specific games. The latter of these has been done the least, yet is perhaps one of the more important kinds of collections if this nascent field is to be taken seriously by academia at large. Often, too many very different digital objects are lumped into the giant stockpile labeled "video games," without consideration that different games might warrant distinct sets of methodologies and approaches. The editors and authors of the essays in Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader have obviously recognized this need. In kind, they have put together a collection that is a compelling and fun read for both video game scholars and WoW enthusiasts.

In recent years, World of Warcraft has gotten a good deal of attention from the mass media as well as academic scholars. As a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) that boasts one of the largest worldwide audiences, play styles in World of Warcraft are more varied than many other video games. Per Bartle's (2003) discussions of different player typologies, WoW offers opportunities to not just so-called "hardcore" PvP (player vs. player) gamers, but also to players who are more interested in crafting, exploration, socialization, and player vs. environment experiences. In kind, Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader, edited by Hilde G. Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg, is a collection which is expansive and inclusive to a variety of different points of view and styles of play. The book is the offspring of a guild of WoW researchers who collectively workshopped the chapters. The different perspectives divide the thirteen chapters into four different sections: Culture, World, Play, and Identity. This organization keeps the collection from rehashing the same material, chapter after chapter, yet gives it a cohesive feel. The editors explain that the expansiveness of the game warranted this structure, "requiring the application of multiple disciplines, analytical tools, concepts, and methods" (9).

The essays in the Culture section are, perhaps, the strongest in the entire collection. Taking on several cultural analysis perspectives, the authors of this section vary from comparisons between WoW and corporate culture (Scott Rettberg's "Corporate Ideology in World of Warcraft"), to Post Colonialism and identity tourism perspectives (Jessica Langer's "The Familiar and Foreign: Playing (Post)Colonialism in World of Warcraft"), to feminist perspectives (Hilde G. Corneliussen's "World of Warcraft as a Playground for Feminism"), and finally to the use of "war" in "warcraft" (Esther MacCullum-Stewart's "'Never Such Innocence Again': War and Histories in World of Warcraft"). Langer's discussion of Post Colonialist theory stands out as the strongest in this section, but the other essays are not far behind, seamlessly integrating compelling topics in cultural studies with video game analysis. At times I hoped that essays would go in a direction that they did not go -- for instance, Rettberg's discussion of corporate ideology and Protestant work ethic in WoW could have easily taken into account some aspects of Foucault's Discipline and Punish (1977). Similarly, Corneliussen's essay did an excellent job of using theories of the French Feminist Parité Movement to "explore how discourses of gender are woven into the game design" (65), though I felt myself hoping for slightly broader discussions of feminist theories. But these criticisms are slight, and reveal more about my own predilections than the actual intents of the authors.

The second section of the book dealt with WoW as a game world: the essays focused on geographical and mythological elements, as well as themes of death and narrative. The standout essay in this section is unquestionably Lisbeth Klastrup's "What Makes World of Warcraft a World? A Note on Death and Dying." In this essay, Klastrup uses phenomenological perspectives to explain how the player encounters and parses death and dying in the game. In discussing death, this essay deals with a topic that is a part of almost all video games, but rarely broached in academic contexts. Other essays in this section included Jill Walker Rettberg's analysis of the rhetorical structure of quests in terms of deferral and repetition ("Quests in World of Warcraft: Deferral and Repetion"), Espen Aarseth's ontological discussion of game geography and the world-ness of WoW ("A Hollow World: World of Warcraft as a Spatial Practice"), and Tanya Krzywinkska's demonstration of how textual and narrative elements help to engage players through mythology and intertextuality ("World Creation and Lore: World of Warcraft as Rich Text"). The essays of this section help to form a cohesive picture of how World of Warcraft both is and is not a "world."

The next section, "Play," looks more specifically at how players help to construct, parse, and play together in this world. This section includes an essay by T.L. Taylor, who is best known for her book Play Between Worlds (2007), an ethnographic study of Everquest (another MMOG). In this more recent essay, "Does World of Warcraft Change Everything? How a PvP Server, Multinational Playerbase, and Surveillance Mod Scene Caused Me Pause," Taylor primarily looks at game modifications as an emergent culture, and ultimately suggests that the most difficult reasons for studying WoW (its incompleteness, lack of closure, and shifting landscape) are qualities to embrace and study in-depth in order to better understand both the game and players. Torill Mortensen's chapter, "Humans Playing World of Warcraft: or Deviant Strategies," looks at how in-game deviant strategies "can teach us something about human behavior, innovations, and deviance" (203). Mortensen examines several so-called deviant strategies in the game (modding, gold farming, etc.) but ultimately concludes that in-game deviance can be more likened to ambivalence: "Deviance within a gameworld is to decide not to bother, and stand aside" (220). Finally, in the essay "Role-play vs. Gameplay: The Difficulties of Playing a Role in World of Warcraft" Esther MacCallum-Stewart and Justin Parsler ask the question, "Why do people role-play in World of Warcraft?" Ultimately they conclude that players role-play for a variety for reasons, but primarily to increase the quality of the game, to give new meanings to the game narrative. The one topic that I would have like to have seen broached in this section, but was not, is player-created Machinema.

The final section of the book, "Identity," was the least developed portion of the book. I was disappointed that there were only the two chapters dedicated to this topic. It seems as though Identity is an important issue that is glossed over in the book far more than it should have been. The first of the two essays in this section, Ragnhild Tronstad's "Character Identification in World of Warcraft: The relationship between Capacity and Appearance," examines how appearance and capacity ("the sum of capabilities for the character") are connected and provide a means of player identification. By evoking Csikszentmihalyi's definition of "flow," he illustrates how it engenders an "emotional engagement with the character" (251). The final essay, Charlotte Hagström's "Playing with Names: Gaming and Naming in World of Warcraft," examines how character naming practices can shed light on player identification with characters. Hagström concludes that, "in World of Warcraft it is the name more than the appearance that distinguishes avatars, and thus players, from each other" (281). Identity is such an important issue in MMOGs -- since Sherry Turkle's (1997) work on Identity formation in MUDs, this has been a pivotal new media topic. Considering its importance in understanding MMOG players, I feel that this topic could (and should) have been a more prominent part of this collection.

Overall, this is a strong collection and as a video game scholar I have few criticisms beyond what I have already mentioned. As video game studies becomes an emerging field of research, more books like this one are going to be necessary in order to properly understand the cultural affect of specific games, rather than generalized research on video games in general. More authors and editors should follow suite and take on the task of analyzing specific games from a variety of approaches and perspectives in order to get complex and fruitful analyses. Additionally, the readability of the book is notable, and has potential appeal to non-academic audiences (although probably only to those who are World of Warcraft enthusiasts). Its accessibility helps it to create a larger conversation about video game culture that exceeds the walls of academia.

Bartle, R. (2003). Designing Virtual Worlds. Indianapolis: New Riders.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (A. Sheridan, trans.). New York: Random House.

Taylor, T.L. (2006). Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Turkle, S. (1997). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Shira Chess:
Shira Chess is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Language, Literature, & Communication at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her dissertation research focuses on women, video games, and productivity. Her work can be found at http://www.shirachess.com.  <chesss@rpi.edu>

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