This should be proclaimed Virtual World Quarter (not to be confused with Real Earth Day) since it seems like there has been a high concentration of events on the between March, April and May. In March, Life 2.0 was held inside Second Life. Sadly, first life, especially the part of that involves classes, students and book deadlines, detained me from joining that. However, this last weekend, I was able to get myself to Irvine for the Cultures of Virtual Worlds Conference instigated by my dear friend (and one of my PhD advisers), Tom Boellstorff, along with Maria Bezaitis from Intel, who sponsored the event.
One thing that was great about this conference is that it wasn’t just “the usual suspects,” although TerraNova’s Greg Lastowka was there, as well as students and/or colleagues of Constance Steinkuehler, Ted Castronova and Jim Gee. The other speakers represented a very broad range of backgrounds, interests and perspectives. There were quite a few folks from traditional anthropology and sociology, as well researchers typically associated with digital and distributed work practices, and a few of us game research types, like Yasmin Kafai. One personal highlight for me was the presence of George Marcus, whose work had a major influence on my Uru research and who is now at UC Irvine. Also present were Paul Dourish and Bonnie Nardi, both of whom brought a very rigorous and useful perspective to the table. Nardi has recently been bringing her considerable expertise in distributed work to the gaming environment, and we have been working together on a number of initiatives concerning questions about where work and play converge and diverge.
The conference was far too dense (and multi-tracked) to report in detail, but I shall give a few snippets of highlights and also a few flashpoints, at least from my perspective.
One of the most exciting presentations was given by Williams Sims Bainbridge, who is one of the organizers of the upcoming conference on virtual worlds and games research taking place in World of Warcraft. Bainbridge comes from a traditional sociology background, and has also been serving as an NSF program director for human-centered computing. His main research interest has been radical religious movements, and his presentation on his recent WoW research was riveting and incredibly dense. At one point he gave a very fast comparative religion survey of the different cosmologies of the WoW universe. He began with the question: “Does belief different fundamentally from ‘willing suspension of disbelief’?” As an allegory, he pointed out, WoW both supports and critiques post-modern imperialism and secular New Age religion, and its religions are actually pretty realistic in their theology. For instance, the Blood Elf religion is a secularized ethical system oriented towards the holy light, which values respect, tenacity (also known as addiction, he said jokingly), and compassion. This is more the Buddhist than the Christian concept of compassion in which you don’t seek to alleviate others’ suffering but to help them learn from it. This is just a tiny nugget, and I’m very much looking forward to reading his upcoming WoW book and hope he will cover this material. This is such a rich area of inquiry. It really got my synapses going. On the same panel, Burcu Bakioglu gave a fascinating presentation on griefers in Second Life, comparing the Goons and the Channers, two rivaling griefing communities. Also featured on this panel was Ralph Schroeder, who is among those of us who, as I like to say “come from the 20th Century.” He gave a nice overview of virtual worlds, including some of the older words that are at risk of being forgotten, and looked at what sorts of research questions we might like to ask across multiple worlds.
I gave a talk on the Uru diaspora as “fictive ethnicity” and described the various mechanisms they used for constructing their collective identity as such. My presentation contrasted with the ones preceding it, which were mostly read papers, in that it was mostly pictures. I opened with a poem that will be in my upcoming book, Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Online Games and Virtual Worlds (MIT forthcoming 2009), in which an Uru player mourns the loss of her “homeland Uru.”
On Saturday I attended a panel where grad student Silvia Lindtner presented the work she did with Bonnie Nardi in China over the summer, which I’ve been anxious to hear about. They did participant observation in cyber cafes to learn about the culture of Chinese WoW players, and discovered a highly social environment where physical proximity and virtual presence intertwined synergistically. Chelsea Winter Nolen sent a nod out to my constant harranguing throughout the weekend that we need to start expanding our horizons beyond WoW and Second Life by presenting her discourse analysis of Final Fantasy XI. What was really interesting about her work was that the game had deliberately tried to take a multi-cultural approach, rather than segregating players by nationality and language, by developing an in-game translation system that used predictive text. She described the wide range of social dynamics around this, including a bias of Japanese players against playing with non-Japanese speakers, and also the ways players sort of hijacked, misused and appropriated this system to varying degrees.
One thing I really appreciated about the conference was that it really brought to the front and center questions about methodology, an issue I’ve become increasingly concerned with. There were to great comments here: One was “Leveling a WoW character to 60 is not ethnography,” and another was, “Going into a world and interviewing a couple of people is not ethnography.” Having people with such a rigorous methodological background, such as Nardi, Dourish, Boellstorff, Marcus, Kafai and others, was a really great move. I fear we are at a moment where the risk of sloppy scholarship is particularly high, and I was really glad to hear people being explicit about their methods (a practice that is sadly lacking even among some of my favorite MMOG scholars), and also talking about dangers and pitfalls.
I got on a couple of my usual soapboxes and it was refreshing not to be entirely a voice in the wilderness on these. The first was a tendency I saw in a couple of the presentations to conflate, or at least not make a clear distinction between, cross-gender play and real-life trans-gender issues. In the two presentations on the topic, these were sort of lumped together in a way that I felt was misleading and inaccurate. I believe we need to do a lot more work in this area and I was concerned that these early attempts might lead to misconceptions about what is really going on with the various aspects of cross-gender play.
The second, just a pet peeve, was that some participants were describing autonomous agents as avatars, which just drives me nuts. A question that came up more than once was about “being able to tell avatars from humans,” and of course avatars are, by definition, humans, although they can be automated and macro’d (see Eddo Stern’s work for instance); however it concerns me because I’ve also seen this misconstrued on the level of human subjects board terminology and it just drives me batty. (Okay enough of that.)
The other issue that I brought up was expanding our virtual horizons beyond just WoW and Second Life and talked about the idea of collaborating on "latitudinal studies" that might address shared questions about multiple worlds.
And finally, the other discussion that was particularly fruitful was around a concern I shared with a number of others there: that we often miss interrogating the design, and even more specifically, the culture of game creation. I’ve made this criticism in the past of Internet research that there is often little ore no description of the context in which mediated interactions occur, as if the design and affordances of the software were not relevant, when in fact they are central. This is also a problem with games research where there is not a meta-critique or even any kind of discussion of the game itself, its designs and its affordances, as well as its perceived or anticipated audience. All of these environments, whether games or simply social worlds, have some kind of underlying ethical or values, e.g., Second Life is built upon a free-speech, libertarian, capitalist, land-owning ethos that pervades every aspect of the software and how the world is run. There is also the constant tension of corporate governance vs. the “mini-nation” status that many of these worlds take on. So while Linden Lab proffers a “hands-off” approach, it is still effectively a benign potentate that every once in a while exercises its deific power to make major, substantive changes to the world.
From an anthropological perspective, these are nontrivial issues. It would be as if you were to do an ethnography of the Palestinian people and fail to mention the Colonial history of the region. We can scarcely understand the status of cultures without at least giving a nod to their historical context.
In the closing discussion, Marcus asked, what are the politics of virtual worlds? To methis ongoing tension between the world-as-constructed by it’s designers and the world as lived practice by its “residents,” to use the Second Life term. This is a subject that really only a few people, notably T.L. Taylor, have taken on. Yet it is the very heart of what this research is about, and I don’t see how we can really look at either of those factors in isolation. It is unfortunate that game development companies are not more open to research. I know of two exceptions: One a grad student who did an ethnography of Linden, and the other is my student who just finished his master's thesis developing a piece of social network analysis software for Kaneva. Interestingly, there was not one representative form a virtual world or MMOG developer, and Blizzard was glaringly absent, considering the vast majority of discussion was about their game, and their office, less than a mile away, is actually rented from UC Irvine. Intel (the sponsor) and IBM, on the other hand, were well-represented. Imagine how much we could learn by conducting ethnographic studies of the game-making process, such as the work done by Liz Losh on the creation of games for military training. Hopefully this will be the next major research hurdle to overcome.