The ethnography of games; a literature review (part one)

MMO’s are complex systems worthy of the attention of digital anthropologists and this article by Mark Chen, which comes from the latest edition of the Games and Culture journal, is worthy of our attention for its documenting of the author’s role in a team of 40+ players in World of Warcraft (WoW) as they engage in specific ‘end-game’ content called ‘raids’. Prior to the birth of my two-year-old daughter, I was an avid WoW regular so this article interested me at several levels. To start with a general note of criticism, however, I think Chen sidesteps several bigger discussions in favour of addressing those not familiar with the MMORPG experiences with his main argument and as a result the brief attention that Chen gives to the concepts of interaction and narrative are too simplistic. Also Chen’s perspective on the social world of WoW, and by extension other MMORPGs, is self described as that of a “gamer” (p. 48). Unfortunately Chen does not define what he considers a gamer to be, but this is a common failure not unique to this author. His insights into the motivation of the individual gamer stay within the personal account in which he describes his fondness for games as an obsession (pg. 52). I wonder, because of this approach, if the article will be particularly of use to students without background knowledge of WoW, and MMORPGs in general, or would it obscure already muddy waters? I found the article personally relevant as Chen makes a similar argument to one I made in Moore (2005) that games are a good place to observe innovative approaches to complex social problems. Chen starts with a look at Game Theory, as distinct from Game Studies, a theoretical perspective which uses game rules to construct models of how people will potentially behave under given circumstances. The most infamous example of game theory is the Prisoner Dilemma, a set of logical pre-conditions designed to illustrate the different sociological outcomes between make a selfless choice and making a selfish choice. The prisoner’s dilemma, is as Chen describes, an example of a set of situations that economists and gamer theorists refer to as Social Dilemmas. Another famous Social Dilemma is the issue of overpopulation, and in his essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, biologist Garret Hardin, is concerned with the finite limits of environments, and the inability for individuals to temper their activities in favour of the greater good. Game theory attempts to better understand the behavior of individuals, as lone actors and as part of a larger groups, but this focus, like Hardin’s account, only explores the logic of the system, and ignores the “emergent situations” of the complex social behaviors that occur when individuals take on different responsibilities within the given system. Games like WoW, provide opportunities to understand player motivations for acting in selfless ways and it is by taking the ethnographic approach, which seeks an understanding of the players actual experiences that we can begin, as Chen argues, to discover the social norms and contexts in which that play provides incentive and consequences for players beyond the purely technical operations of the game.

One of the questions that occurs me to include in the interview list for my own ethnographic study of gamers is based on the argument Chen makes on (on page 70) that the social norms and communication practices involved in playing the game allowed the group to exist without other incentives beyond the emphasising fun. I’ve made general observations of this sort previously and I agree when he says rather than “free riding” (or engaging in behaviour that benefits the individual at cost to the group) players will participate and act selflessly in a game group on when they consider their efforts to be fun and not work. Chen posits that obligation might be lessened if players see their efforts as play or participation in socially constructive and enjoyable experiences, such as ‘hanging out’. I will be asking gamers in my study what they think of this because I am genuinely intrigued by the relationship between the actions involved in playing games and the notions of productivity, labour and work, and how these have become entwined. Chen effectively refutes the blurring between work and play in the MMORPG, but I find this blurring most evident in the reliance in MMORPGS on the game mechanics, known as the ‘grind’ in which tasks assigned by the game system lead to extensive acts of repetition. The grind is certainly present in WAR but it can be a pleasurable experience like Solitaire or Tetris, which also involve repetitious acts. To get back to the point, game theory is a model for the economy of choosing between individual gain and the overall social benefit of making a selfless act. Harden’s Tragedy of the Commons, argues that humans will always seek individual profit over collective action would provide the most effective use of resources in the ‘commons’. WoW, like WAR, put this to the test via games mechanics – operations of the game software enforcing specific game rules. MMORPGS feature many game mechanics that, like the prisoners dilemma, have positive outcomes if all participants in the system work together. The winning of ‘loot’ or treasure by a group, is an example of limited resources at stake in the commons-like formations that occur through the social dilemma’s in these types of multiplayer games. High-end rewards benefit individual players, but they also benefit the group as a whole by going to the player than can make most effective use of the reward. Chen notes this in his observation:

Other factors come into play, such as a player’s relationship withothers in the group, the attachment and commitment to play the character, the attachment and commitment a player has with his or her character, how long the player plans on continuing to play the character, the fiction and role or identity he or she see the character taking on, and personal values about what is an important goal and what constitutes fun. (p.65)

If one team of players in an MMORPG is attempting to accomplish their socially determined objectives within the specific set of games rules and competing subjective discourses, from Chen’s conclusions we can summise that a successful method is determined on the ability of the participants to a) communicate and coordinate, b) perform individual tasks to the best of their abilities, and c) reflect critically on successes and failures. These conclusions are arrived at through Chen’s analysis of player dialogue, and reflection on his own experiences. My only real issue with the conclusions Chen makes is with the way he equates the concept of ‘success’ in the game with the defeat of “monsters in a high-end dungeon know as Molten Core (MC)” through one particular play style known as raiding. The ‘raid’ is game within a game, a specific location in the game that high-end players can tackle together. I do agree with his central argument that the ability of the group of 40+ people to “perform highly specialized roles” and “maximize their group efficiency” in the raid is the result of good communication and trust between the players involved. I also think this is a highly interesting, relevant and useful conclusion as to the types of socially productive outcomes of gaming. Yet I have played WoW extensively but never participated in MC and I thought his approach could acknowledge that the object and social processes at the centre of his investigation is only one of several ways that players enjoy the game. Still it’s good point that he makes: that it is the two factors of trust (between members) and the social experience, rather than the material benefit (of the digital, but nonetheless valuable) rewards that the game provides in the virtual world) that is one of the most important drives or motivations behind participation in the challenges provided by the game.

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