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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

There are many reasons why Digital Culture, Play and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader is a solid addition to game studies literature, but two factors frame the best contributions of the book. First, in choosing to focus on World of Warcraft (WoW), the book gives a depth of understanding of the dynamics of the game that is rarely found in games studies literature. WoW, with over 11.5 million subscribers worldwide (Blizzard, 2008) and a rich game world refined over years of development time, offers a text that sustains a variety of analytical approaches and research questions used by the authors of the essays within the book. The breadth of focus in the chapters leads to a deeper discussion of a common game, which makes the collection an outstanding example of one way in which games can be studied.

Second, the book has a communal life that is rarely represented in edited collections. Presented as a project that started with a group of scholars forming a guild called "The Truants" in-game, the time that these scholars spent playing together and exchanging ideas comes through in the book, as the anthology reads like a project with clear links from essay to essay, rather than as a group of disparate parts. Occasionally, links among essays are made explicit, but throughout the book it is clear that working together in a guild influenced the development and writing of the work in the collection.

The essays are divided into four thematic sections: culture, world, play and identity. Research method and research question vary widely from essay to essay, but that generally works to the benefit and breadth of the collection. Some pieces, like T.L. Taylor's argument about user interface modifications and player behavior and Torill Elvira Mortensen's analysis of how WoW functions as a normative space that players can rearticulate through their "deviant" play, are driven by an interest in how the actions of players reshape and rearticulate how WoW is played in practice and what the play of WoW indicates of players and society more generally. Other essays, like Jessica Langer's critical reading of the cultural depiction of the various races in WoW and Tanya Krzywinska's discussion of the game world's design and seasonal festivals, focus primarily on how the design of WoW has a meaningful impact on the way the game is played and on the messages conveyed to players of the game by the game designers at Blizzard.

A handful of essays also seek to bridge the gap between the two poles, presenting arguments about both game design and game play. Scott Rettberg's essay argues that the success of WoW is tied to the fact that "it offers a convincing and detailed simulacrum of the process of becoming successful in capitalist societies" (20). Pulling from elements of game design and game play, Rettberg makes a persuasive case for how the game "trains players how to function within the market economy" (34).

As a result of the disparate approaches, the best work in the collection displays the excitement and interest of the author in both the game and the process of thinking about critical components of it. The number of topics addressed in the collection is both substantial and varied. Jill Walker Rettberg argues that the system of quests and game design in WoW are key to the success of the game as they create a world in which the game is "an endless deferral of an end" (176) and also where the repetition of content means that the equipment "worn by a character tell other players something about the character's history, experience and status" (182). Esther MacCallum-Stewart and Justin Parsler contend that "role-playing is almost impossible" in WoW as game design works actively against efforts to create the randomness that is fundamental to role-playing (243). Lisbeth Klastrup combines a recount of the game design elements of death within WoW with an analysis of player's death stories, as player death "is a pivotal design element and something that every player experiences several, if not many times during her time in a gameworld" (143).

Engaging in analysis of elements of character design and a count of non-player characters in prominent locations within the game, Hilde G. Corneliussen demonstrates "diversity, multitude, and plurality as some of the most important keywords for describing gender construction" in WoW (80). In addition to the analyses that look heavily at aspects of game design, Charlotte Hagström investigates the role of player names in WoW, contending that beyond the rules of the game designer, "there is a normative system in place; just as in real life, names can be, and are, questioned, banned, ridiculed, prized, mocked, and admired by fellow players" (266). In choosing a name Hagström finds that it is often important that the name feel "culturally appropriate" (275) and that "creativity [in naming] is high valued" and a character's name "becomes a means both to individualize the character and express certain desirable features or qualities" (276).

My primary quibble with the collection is that a handful of the essays would have benefited from having the author spend a bit more time in the game to gather a broader background from which to write. I would have loved to see what Rettberg's analysis of WoW as an analogue for corporate life would have looked like with more experience playing the in-game markets with greater capital reserves. These were the kind of concerns where I found myself thinking about ways the essays could have been expanded, rather than about how the analysis was problematic. In the end, even this issue creates a situation in which the essays were raising important questions and drawing me into the text while encouraging me to reflect on my gaming experiences.

As a whole, the collection offers a broad look at the most played massively multiplayer online game to date. The questions raised by the essays certainly provide a solid base from which to think about WoW, but they also offer value to those interested in game studies more broadly. With the variety of approaches in the essays, the collection gives game studies scholarship of the various ways in which the same text can be analyzed and a resource that should maintain its relevance even if one is not necessarily interested in the specific study of WoW.

Blizzard Entertainment. "World of Warcraft Subscriber Base Reaches 11.5 Million Worldwide." 23 Dec. 2008.

Christopher A. Paul:
Christopher A. Paul is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Seattle University where he teaches courses in digital media analysis and rhetorical studies, including "Video Games, Communication, and Culture." In WoW he plays a human mage and enjoys making vast sums of gold buying and selling goods on the auction house and raiding with friends and family.  <paulc@seattleu.edu>

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