The World of Warcraft (WOW) has claimed many souls. Seriously addicted players rack up countless hours in front of the glowing screen, fighting battles with fellow guildies and ascending the ranks of this intricate and still wildly popular virtual word game that is considerd by many to be the finest example of MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game) artistry. Alex Golub is among the lucky WOW fanatics. He plays WOW as his day job. No, really. Are you reading yet? Heh.
Golub is a tenure-track anthropology professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa. For most of his academic career, Golub studied societal relationships in Papua New Guinea. He lived with families, learned the language, and gained intimate insights into the culture. But while he was doing his research there, Golub was struck by an odd thought. "When Papua New Guineans referred to white people, they really meant Australians because those were the people who were the colonizers. While my skin was white, I didn't feel I was the same kind of white because I was not an Australian," recalls Golub.
From this thought emerged a desire to study contemporary American culture. "WoW is a way of getting at contemporary American culture. I wanted to do something about the Internet and I wanted to explore how people's personalities were shaped online," says Golub. He also wanted to test conventional wisdom in an area that has become an increasingly popular hangout for geeky anthropologists, namely, the realm of virtual worlds. For the most part, anthropologists who have studied behavior in virtual worlds have opined that participants use the games as an escape mechanism, a way to stimulate their visual cortex and fight-or-flight reactions.
But Golub wanted to be sure he got the real goods. So he truly immersed himself in the game to gain trust and witness both the carnage and the conversations. "I played for a year before I started interviewing guild mates and doing serious research," says Golub, who wanted to ascend to an appropriate skill level and rank in order to be consider a mate rather than an academic voyeur. What Golub found in hours of conversation with his close guild mates was enlightening
bases his assertions on thousands of hours of online interviews with his "guild mates" in the "World of Warcraft" (WOW), one of the most popular multi-player virtual world games that exist on the Internet today. Golub has spent several years playing 20 hours per week, immersing himself as a participant while also making detailed observations about behavior, motivation, and actions. "I see WoW as a way of getting at contemporary American culture. I wanted to do something about the Internet and I wanted to explore how people's personalities were shaped online," explains Golub.
What he found seemed to contradict current academic consensus. In numerous interviews with his guild mates, Golub heard time and again that the shared sense of purpose and goals was what made WOW so interesting and immersive, rather than the visual and aural fireworks. Further, Golub observed that interactions inside of WOW tended to mimic real world interactions. Guild members interacted in ways that put a high value on long-term relationships and getting along with each other. "Golub's guild, which comprised students, plumbers, and techies alike, was largely male and reflected how males interact when they "hang out."
The actions of individual parties conformed largely to societal norms because those norms also helped hold the guild together.
"The key feature of the actual world which virtual worlds must share with it in order to become compelling is not its visual and sonic “realism,” but the fact that it is a forum in which we give our lives meaning by entangling them in projects we undertake with others. Worlds become real when we care about them, not when they look similar to our own," writes Golub in a paper to be published in the journal Anthropological Quarterly.
Golub has written a book manuscript about his virtual world experience and he hopes to publish it in the next six months. And he believes that both the societal and academic view of virtual worlds will change to reflect the reality that these are not at all a world apart. Says Golub, "If we want to study virtual worlds, we have to study their relationship with other parts of our lives. They are deeply a part of our whole life."