Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ethnographic Research, Christian Faith, and World of Warcraft

The dissertation I'm working on is premised on the wager that the formative practices of massively multiplayer on-line role-playing games (MMORPGs) can, in conversation with the formative practices currently under re-consideration in the Christian church (such as the ancient catechumenate) lead to generative insights into how to do Christian formation in a trans-media culture. MMORPGs require a level of involvement even beyond the more widely popular social networks like Facebook, and Twitter, and they intrigue me for those reasons. Here is my official "thesis":

Thesis: In our new trans-media era, innovative cross-adaptation of the ancient catechumenate and the inculturation practices of MMORPG guilds, nested within the ambient intimacy inherent in converging participatory social media, can birth a theologically nuanced and fruitful model for Christian faith formation “after the book."

The main difference between traditional social networks and the more intensive MMORPGs is that the latter require you to enter a more layered world. You have to learn how to navigate an avatar in-game, experience a digital environment, and socialize in via new media. In this sense, they are slightly different from social networks that simply add ambient intimacy to other face-to-face social networks. They are themselves a "virtual" world. While in world, you can chat, send messages, update your profile, do voice chat, all the things available on Facebook or Google+, but you do them in the context of a richly detailed virtual world.


This line of research has taken me in some unexpected directions, however, especially in seeing how ethnography is theology and vice versa, and to explore the relationship between the two. This is a rather new line of thinking in the theological world, illustrated by some recent books published on the subject, including the recent Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics. Why does ethnography matter for theology?

It is necessary to observe people in everyday life and see how cultural meanings are brought by them to bear on their actual, practical concerns.

And this is where ethnographic research gets a little tricky. I could just read books about how on-line games contribute to learning, but this would, in the end, result in a dissertation written by a poser. Who, for example, would give a lot of credit to an author like myself who wrote a book about Ghana without visiting Ghana? Similarly, if I am going to compare the catechumenate to participation in these worlds, I need to inhabit these worlds. I have already lived my whole life in an environment (the church) that makes use of the various mystagogical modes of forming people in faith (community, bible study, prayer, baptism, communion, worship, service, etc.) I need to inhabit a virtual world and experience it in order for my arguments to have any kind of validity or authenticity. I don't have to go whole hog and become a fan, or log the hours some game-masters do, but I ought to, as a theologian who cares about ethnography, live in the world, travel in it, learn some of the resistance you meet getting acclimated to the game, meet others who play the game and interview them, and engage in other methods that gather qualitative data.

I am fully aware that there are Christians and researchers who have spent way more time "in world" than I have. I have a pastor friend who has been playing such games since 1999. Another friend, a professor of New Testament, has written extensively on the topic and for a long time participated in a guild in World of Warcraft. The goal is not to become an expert, but to simply inhabit for a while, watching and listening intently. 

I actually have more first-hand experience of gaming than my more recent life and work would indicate. I was a very early gamer, and played many role-playing games in the early 80s when they were still single player games (like, for example, Bard's Tale). In college, I logged many hours on a MUD (multi-user dimension), and one of my best friends from high school met his (now) wife first in that environment. That MUD was all text, no graphics. 

The technologies have changed between now and then, and remarkably. It took me 36 hours to download World of Warcraft, but that was 10 GB of data sent over the Internet and wi-fi, and the fact that you can download such a game, for free, and play a detailed environment of that sort is simply mind-boggling to those of us who remember Apple IIes. On the other hand, game-play is pretty much the same as it was back in the day of text only MUDs. Develop a character, go on quests and slay creatures for experience points, meet other players to share tips, tools, spells, etc. In fact, in some ways the old MUDs were more challenging and more rich, because much was left to the imagination, you had to draw maps, explore without an on-board GPS, and intuit or research much more thoroughly.

That being said, the technologies overall increase playability, and have created a situation where millions of players are on-line all at the same time. The biggest innovation that comes of all of this is the opportunity for guilds of as large as 25 or more players to all go on raids together. The level of cooperative game-play in these contexts is incredible.


I have been using Facebook to elicit responses to my new participation in an MMORPG, and it is intriguing how people respond. Responses kind of fall into these camps:

a) "Awesome, let me know if you need help, I have been playing for a few years and would love to play with you."
b) "I'm already "doing" ministry there. Here's how."
c) "Watch out it is addictive, I've heard of grown men wearing Depends so they don't have to leave the game, it is dangerous."
d) Don't waste money on it, it is problematic for a variety of reasons.
e) What is that game? Why are you doing that? What is an MMORPG?
f) Also, each time I mention that I play, I am contacted by parishioners who I've never spent a lot of time talking to previously, but they have a passion for this. I love this.

The trick with these virtual worlds is that, unlike Facebook or Twitter, both of which strive to seem more value neutral than games, on-line gaming elicits all kinds of value judgments, especially among non-gamers. Perhaps this is because they "trick" users (by way of the interface and plain technology) into thinking they don't have an avatar, whereas games are transparent about the avatar-essential nature of on-line social nets. Everyone who has created a profile on a social network has an "avatar," by which I mean a representation of yourself in a virtual world. Games raise a variety of ethical concerns (is it okay to play a character that casts magic spells, kills creatures, etc.), and alerts us to the complex place of play in our culture (are we allowed to play, is it a waste of time to play games; I'm always intrigued by this one specifically because very few people ask the same question about watching television or movies, going to concerts or viewing art, all of which I would drop, finally, into the same category as "media engagement"--but that's another post). 

Finally, I alert readers and myself to some aspects of gaming and faith formation that I will come back to later as I move forward with the dissertation.

a) WoW costs money (to play you have to buy the game and pay $15 per month) so as a community it is like a gated community, unlike Second Life and some other venues which offer basic continuing services for free. 

b) Those who are skeptical of the value of gaming and virtual worlds really need to take some time with Jane McGonigal's It's not the definitive say on the matter, but it will open your mind to whole new ways of thinking about the new gaming generation and what it means for us.

c) Two other books I'm reading right now on gaming as learning environments are What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy and Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames For those not interested in doing direct ethnographic research, these are good options.

d) Here are sample responses from my World of Warcraft status updates. 

First post: I just logged one hour of game play in World of Warcraft. I've named my Dranei Paladin "Eschaton," and am now at level four. Most legit players of the game level up to level 85 before they consider themselves to be really playing the game. I've quested but have not yet done raids or joined a guild. I also haven't paid yet. Those are the stats. 

Reply #1: Be careful, I hear it's addicting. A coworker today took me for a "gamer type" & couldn't believe I'd never played. I heard tell of grown men using medical urinals or wearing adult diapers and such nonsense because they just can't stop. 

Reply #2: So far I have 5 level 85s between two worlds. Working on 4 more atm. Been playing for awhile (obviously). Five years now I think. LOL, sorry. I have been playing online interactive games on knghthood since 1999 (my first call). I started with The Realm and then moved on to Asheron's Call before settling on World of Warcraft five years ago. When you log into world of warcraft you are given different choices for "worlds" which are essentially different servers. You can have up to 9 (I think ) characters (= cartoons = toons) in each of about 4 or 5 worlds / servers. So many people play WoW but never have contact because they are in different servers. I am in 4 servers. But one I set up for a friend and she does not play anymore. So the servers I play in are: Terokkar, Silvermoon and Fenris. I set up several characters (toons) in Fenris for my church youth group to play on "game nights." at our home. (They don't have my access / password info but play only during game nights at my house.) So if you are not in any of those servers either you would have to create a character in one of them OR I could create a character in the one in which you are playing. The disadvantage of that is that my character would also be level 1 and not particularly good at watching your back. So better for you to create a level 1 in one of the worlds I play and I would come and find you. Make sense?

Second post: Night two of World of Warcraft, realizing that solo questing doesn't cut it, I need to find a guild to play with, but I think you can only do that stuff if you pony up and subscribe. Oh, the whoas of massively multiplayer online community. 

Reply #1: Eeek! Don't do it. Too many people get sucked into it at the expense of their families. Put the money in a little vacation or savings fund instead. :) 

Reply #2: Years ago- I played a lot of games online- now I can't imagine having the time. Are you doing this for experiment or for fun? 

Reply #3: If you want to try a guild I have friends who play and might be willing to help you!

e) Some great work out there is trenchantly concerned about these games and social networks. One of the best recent works is Sherry Turkle's Alone Together

f) If this blog has made you curious enough about World of Warcraft or Second Life to explore a bit further, but you'd rather read than play, then I've hyperlinked the two games' names to introductory articles about the games.

g) I'd like to learn from gamers, especially your experience of the formative practices that indoctrinated you into the game and the community that exists there. Send me a note if you'd like. For nerdy reasons alone, I'm especially interested from anyone playing Star Wars: The Old Republic.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a gamer, a pastor, and wife of a Guild Master. Also quite fascinated by this topic, especially as it relates to mentoring, reaching college aged youth, and community building. Would be happy to share thoughts and reflections. I can be reached at przentz at gmail dot com.