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The Warcraft Civilization: Social Science in a Virtual World

William Sims Bainbridge

(US: Mar 2010)

Applying the social sciences to the online gaming phenomenon of our day.

In a recent count from an online organization that does this sort of thing, The World of Warcraft (conveniently discussed in popular parlance as WoW) registers over five million active players of Level 10 or higher, indicating at least some form of commitment and investment in time, energy, and resources. With up to 10 million total subscribers, and an annualized subscription income guesstimated in the billions, Blizzard, the owners and operators of WoW, has created nothing short of a worldwide phenomenon. No one in pop culture can question its influence on gaming society and the wider entertainment industry, not least because WoW’s operating income is comparable to the gross domestic products of some smaller Pacific Island states.


Humans have always played games. A very common illustration in economics is the allusion to “gaming”, where individuals make rationalized choices as if our entire social existence is a sort of game with logical choices. WoW, sociologist William Sims Bainbridge argues, is no different – it has merely extrapolated our social condition onto a world of human ingenuity’s own creation. It’s an increasingly widely-held belief among thinkers – yes, even among serious academicians – that WoW presents an unprecedented opportunity to study social phenomenon.


Hence, this book. For all those out there who have worked on graduate theses on the boring and mundane, and found the slog particularly boring, this is the book to throw all that visceral rage against – within a game, Bainbridge has synthesized insights that delve into the heart of his academic pursuits.


Lucky bastard.


One has to envy his research method. It combines both the elegance of firsthand observation, scientific rigor and objectivity, and what many others (at least five million others) would consider leisure time. This is the sort of analytics a certain kind of academic would not fob off to some graduate student underling. As a bit of a social scientist myself, I gush with envy – how often does one get the opportunity to spend more than 2,300 hours in firsthand observation? One cannot help but stand in awe of such meticulous research – Bainbridge records the most pertinent details to construct a pretty convincing qualitative analysis, adopting dozens of online personas and developing gaming alliances with a whole host of WoW enthusiasts.


Like a pioneering sociologist, Bainbridge has found a completely undiscovered society and had been tracing its growth and development since 2007. Relying on his professional and academic training, he has seamlessly integrated himself into the wider WoW world, recording the minutiae of interactions and relationships that create the tactile and persistent Warcraft realms. Traces of its influence creep into his writing – one who spends that much time in a new culture can’t help but become enamored with it.


He takes the roleplaying seriously at times, tossing around gaming parlance like “newbies”, and refers to WoW’s servers as “shards”, sounding like a gamer/incidental-sociologist. At one point, in the ultimate act of High Nerdom, Bainbridge actually does a bit of side-by-side translation of in-game languages.


In that respect, it must be hard to distance yourself from Warcraft; it does, after all, present a compelling alternate narrative. Bainbridge manages to actually make WoW sound fun. Now, for those out there who are unfamiliar with the mechanics of WoW, gameplay can be horrendously boring at times, having been referred to as stylized button-mashing by some of the more unkind after-the-fact reviews.


So, the most insidious thing about Bainbridge’s study is that he can weave a compelling tale. Throughout each of his eight detailed chapters, Bainbridge adopts a different Warcraft personality. Illuminating each sociological insight with richly detailed episodes from the game itself, he draws you in. It feels strange to jump from tales of dungeon-raiding to references to the works of Karl Polanyi and Mark Granovetter but I began to look forward to seeing how Bainbridge’s adventures in Azeroth would eventually reflect back onto the classics of sociological theory. It’s compelling, instructive, and persuasive; these WoW shenanigans have more than meets the eye.


Bainbridge is not the first serious academic to have tackled the WoW phenomenon; the Center for Disease Control has previously looked into the virtual “Corrupted Blood” plague for insights into the transmission of infectious diseases. Perhaps one of the greatest criticism would be that The Warcraft Civilization comes a little too late; arguably, WoW has past its prime, soon to be superseded by an upcoming Blizzard title.


On the other hand, WoW is one of the very few multiplayer online games to have truly developed a fully-functioning society all of its own, with its myriad of conventions, customs, and relationships. This will come as no surprise to anyone with a handle on online societies – we’ve certainly seen this before ever since, arguably, Ultima Online and Everquest – but given the sheer size and scope of WoW, the claim to “civilization” is more compelling than ever.


Ultimately though, it’s hard to buy into Bainbridge’s grandest of claims: that WoW has attained the status of a true “civilization”. While at times one is keen to accept that, it never seems proper to give WoW the same sort of reverence we reserve for the multi-generational works of societies. Yes, Bainbridge is right to apply communications theories and social models to what is undoubtedly a complex work of millions of individuals – and his short excerpts on his personal interactions do illuminate the most salient points – but ultimately, a reader is left unsatisfied by the claim: where are the great cultural works, the Gilgameshes, the Beowulfs, the Ramayanas?


As a social phenomenon, WoW is worthy of our study and curiosity, but one has to wonder just how much we can reveal about the workings of a society given the very tight constraints placed upon the Warcraft World. As a template for future games studies, Bainbridge provides a compelling case to observe any future online world as an alternative reality, and as a biographical work (akin to an after-action-report), it does at least tempt the unconverted to give WoW a try but to make such grandiose claims… That is beyond even his sagely reach.

Rating:

Aaron Wee is Rhode Island-based and relatively happy. The two are not necessarily related. His wandering eye had previously led him to opine on a sex column, political commentary, and lifestyle reviews. This is a story very much in progress; he invites you to help him write it.


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