Monday, April 30, 2012

Leet Noobs: The life and death of an expert player group in World of Warcraft.

I recently read a book by Mark Chen: “Leet Noobs: The life and death of an expert player group in World of Warcraft”. A light reading, very pleasant narrative that gives a description of the gaming practices within a group. With digital media practices being a priority for many researchers, educators and designers, looking at practices and norms within social, online gaming spaces can be particularly fortuitous for understanding human learning and behavior.

This book provides an ethnographic description of how practice looks like in World of Warcraft (WoW), in a guild of 60 players who take up identities, learn the context and their teammates through game play. Chen spent over 10 months collecting data, ending up with about 600 hours of chat and about 80 hours of video data. In my opinion, this is a particularly interesting research task, as it deals with a context that is constantly in flux, there is no control, and there is great uncertainty regarding what a researcher can find.

One of the strongest features of this book is that it provides a holistic, and at the same time detailed, elaborated manner that a group came together and worked, followed particular norms and practices. “Well played”, “well researched”, and “well described” to the audience. The narrative is particularly powerful in that it provides an inside view of the practices and interactions: from designing the guild tabart, to leveraging differences between the various expertise levels, to raiding and frustrating moments.

Reading this book helped me understand what types of interactions I wanted to reinforce through my own research game designs. Interpersonal relations provide feedback and make ideas powerful. It was exciting for me to see how experts in the game came to become novices (in a sense) again and relearn norms and practices in the game. Players realized that effective continuation within the game would depend on mutual work, and therefore, teaming up with people that worked on the same quests seemed to be the most effective way of advancing. The various vignettes that Chen provides document the ways activity is organized among participants how things emerge throughout the game play.

Chen shows that expertise in a space depends on the social practices that players go through and the relationships developed through the limitations they have to deal with. Being part of a group is heavily dependent on “access to the micro-cultures” (p.168) of activity. In the particular study, negotiations within the group defined the level of trust, as well as the nature of the role members had for effective participation.

Structurally, this book does not follow traditional paths… After an introduction of the main terms Chen describes the process of leveling up his character. In the first chapter, he describes how everyday practice looks like in WoW, in relation to social and cultural elements. Then, he elaborates on how players communicated and coordinated while raiding and explains what is needed for a group to succeed (trust and conflicts among players). Later on, the reader receives a description of how combats can take place in WoW, as well as a picture of the relationships and practices within the activity system of the game. The last chapter is a documentation of how the group of participants faded.

I highly recommend this book to whoever wants to understand online gaming practices and have an ethnographic understanding of how one can organize research around decomposing such complex systems and activities. To whoever likes learning about games and social practice, and to whoever likes the adventures of diving into the world of games and research! 

Follow Mark Chen on Twitter: mcdanger

Reference: Chen, M. (2012). Leet Noobs: The life and death of an expert player group in World of Warcraft. New York: Pete Lang Publishing, Inc. 2012. Pages: 200.

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