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Anthropologist ventures into the culture of online gaming

By Sawa Kurotani / Special to The Japan NewsSummer break is the blessing of academic life, when we educators get to focus on our own scholarly or creative pursuits, which we put on the back burner during the semester. We also get to squeeze in a fun project or two, and this year I’m dipping my toe into the vast world of MMO, or massively multiplayer online games.

I’ve been curious about MMOs for a while. More and more anthropologists are doing their fieldwork in and of these virtual worlds, which engage millions of players simultaneously and persist (meaning they continue to exist and evolve on a server somewhere) while you are away from your computer or smartphone.

Many of my students are avid gamers who share their firsthand accounts of the “culture” of MMOs in their class projects. But knowing is one thing and participating is another. Finding my way around in this unfamiliar environment turned out to be quite an adventure.

My path into online gaming was rocky from the start. There are just too many games to choose from, and acronyms like “RPG,” “FPS” and “RTS” didn’t mean anything to me. (They are “role-playing game,” “first-person shooter” and “real-time strategy,” respectively.) After some poking around I figured that strategizing toward a goal (rather than racing a car or sniping at someone) suited me, and I found a game in the RTS genre called “Vikings: The War of Clans.”

The Viking imagery is taken rather seriously in this world: One’s task as a jarl (warlord) is to develop a strong town and army, attack and plunder other towns, and accumulate as much merit as possible to increase one’s “influence.” In order to succeed, we are told, we must be ruthless and warlike. I felt queasy about the highly gendered language of aggression. But I also realized that it was a fairly common feature in this kind of game. I decided to sign on.

Over the next few days I learned the basic mechanics of the game, which meant — lacking anything that could be called a “manual” — staring at the screen and clicking on every button and tab I could find, until, finally, I figured out how to train warriors, where to find resources that I needed to upgrade my town, and so on. The next important step in my development was to join a clan. To my surprise this caused me a level of social anxiety that I don’t remember ever experiencing in my real life. How do I know which one is the right clan? Is it OK to just message the chief and ask to join? What if I don’t meet their expectations, or they just simply don’t like me? Telling myself that this is not “real” made no difference.

In the end, I took a passive route and joined a relatively new clan that sent me an invitation, whose chief seemed well organized and level-headed. I was just getting the hang of how to manage resources, and joining a clan definitely gave me a boost. I could just mind my own business, I thought, and live peacefully ever after. But then, some clan members began bragging about their bloody battles on the clan chat board, as though to showcase the “proper” Viking behavior. I was put off by what appeared to me an overt display of machismo, and was about to leave the clan, or quit the game altogether.

What stopped me was anthropology, or the habit that it instilled in me to look to “culture” as a context in which human beings interpret and make sense of our experience. When I applied this lens to my own reaction, I realized that being a virtual Viking was the antithesis of my real-life experience. I spent much of my adulthood in academia, steeped in its professional culture that is tradition-bound, rigid and hierarchical. Things move slowly in that world, and relationships are long-lasting. Patience and politeness are important virtues, and while sexism is alive and well in academia, the intellectuals tend to frown upon blatant machismo.

In the virtual Viking world, many of these assumptions and expectations are turned upside down, where one must think and act fast, where bravado is openly displayed and aggression quickly rewarded, where alliances are made and enemies destroyed with a click on the keyboard.

In other words, my negative reaction was a case of “culture shock,” a knee-jerk reaction to an unfamiliar system of values that often occurs in the early stages of cross-cultural adjustment.

I have also become intrigued by the power dynamics, or more precisely, how the classic struggle between structural power and individual agency plays out in the virtual Viking world. MMO players are subjected to the corporate power of game developers/distributors, who dictate the basic premises of the game (competition among Viking clans, for example) and promote a particular vision of success (winning a war) that serve their own economic interest. Many players buy into the corporatized version of the ideal self (a fierce warrior) and end up spending their real money to get ahead in the game.

Smart players, by contrast, know to resist this trap, and excel in the game by developing alternative strategies and circumventing the built-in features that — subtly and not so subtly — steer players toward more aggressive behavior. Following their exploits seems like a lot of fun, and I’m hopeful that I may yet make a decent Viking if I follow their examples. Who knows, somewhere along the way, I might even pick up a valuable real-life lesson or two.

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.Speech

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