Her Life as a Night Elf Priest

When experts on film write books about genres of movies, they first – ideally – will watch as many examples of the genre as possible. In the books pages of Moving Image Archive News, we have a catalog of new and forthcoming books about moving images – film, tv, and much else – accompanied in many cases by comments from the authors about how they went about doing that kind of research.

In the case of Bonnie Nardi, research meant poring over not films, but the world of World of WarCraft, which is certainly among the most popular of the so-called massively multiplayer online games. That genre of moving and static images and text poses archiving challenges that are being tackled, as Nardi relates below, by researchers like the University of Texas’s Megan Winget. Capturing the rapidly evolving world of video games is, as Nardi explains here, no simple challenge. To gain her deep sense of what goes on in the game’s none-too-playful shadows, she spent many months dwelling online with participants and their monster alter egos.

My Life as a Night Elf Priest : An Anthropological Account of World of WarCraft by Bonnie A. Nardi (University of Michigan Press). An anthropologist in the department of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, analyzes the massively popular  massively-multiplayer-online (MMO) game, World of Warcraft, with its 11.5 million subscribers. Based on three years of participatory research in WarCraft play and culture in the United States and China, she suggests what engages and drives users, and proposes ideas about games, in general. In the series digitalculturebooks.

Bonnie Nardi reflects on video games and archiving:

Two sets of archiving issues confront researchers studying video games. The first is one’s own archive of screenshots and chatlogs. While it is easy to collect such texts and pictures, the problem lies in assembling enough contextualizing data to fruitfully use them as interpretive materials. A screenshot from a World of WarCraft raid, for example, yields rich but incomplete data. Who was speaking on voice chat at that moment? Who was offscreen? What was that warrior doing – he is obscured by the monster? There are no good solutions to this problem of data, and meta-data, assemblage; each researcher cobbles together a private system of notes and tags, and hopes for the best.

The second issue is the game itself. It is always changing through updates and expansions. There are illegal private servers with varying versions of the game, some similar to earlier versions, but authenticity cannot be guaranteed as private servers never provide exact copies. Megan Winget, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin, is addressing the issue of archiving video games. Special problems of computer hardware, software, and expertise make this a challenging arena of research. Books and film have their own technical difficulties of course, but the issues seem even more daunting for computer-based artifacts. I am beginning to study the history of World of WarCraft, so am keenly interested in how archiving tasks will be accomplished. The game has changed considerably since its release in 2004. A very big change is imminent; the new version of the game is called Cataclysm, and as the name implies, the world will be completely altered. I eagerly await the work of scholars such as Winget whose attention to archiving will make historical analysis of game worlds possible.

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