Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Review: Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks

Over the past couple of years, a rising trend: ethnographic explorations of gaming and RPG's. The anthropological ones have been interesting: Tom Boellstorff's Coming of Age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the Virtually Human and the forthcoming ethnography, My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An anthropologists account of World of Warcraft, by Bonnie Nardi. But it's the para-anthropologies that concern me here--Mark Barrowcliffe's blistering (and ultimately depressing) The Elfish Gene and, most recently, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: an Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms

All of them (anthropological and para-anthropological) share certain characteristics: they all approach role-playing games from the perspective of the middle-aged outsider, socially distant from the world of the gamer. This is at least methodologically familiar in the academic anthropology. Stereotypically, the anthropologist is always supposed to straddle ironic configurations of engagement and detachment. But for the nonce anthropologists, it is an invitation to indulge in psychologisms about "those" people. What makes those gamers tick? Why are they spending so much time in WoW, anyway?

This is at least partly attributable to the writers themselves. Ethan Gilsdorf begins with the psychodrama of his mother's aneurysm, the trauma of which intensifies his adolescent fascinations with role-playing. In fact, it's Various Issues originating in this that send him into metonymic encounters with other forms role-playing far removed from his childhood D&D campaigns: Live-Action Role--Playing (LARPs), the Society for Creative Anachronism, World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings tourism in New Zealand. Amidst interviews with men and women who game, his own adulthood is never far behind: What does he really believe? Can he let the past go? And can he commit to his girlfriend (or, perhaps, find a new one)?

Of course, it's all about him in the end. At the end of his journey, Gilsdorf finds himself clutching some Lord of the Rings action figures in the shadow of Mount Victoria (site of the "Outer Shire" where Frodo and co. first encounter the Nazgul). Here, he finds both deep embarrassment and, of course, self-revelation:
Goofing around with the figurines had been fun, until it began to feel pathetic. What was I doing, a forty-two-year-old, single, and childless man, traveling on his own, sleeping in youth hostels, and playing with toys?
[ . . .]
I gathered my strength. It was time to leave Mount Victoria and Middle-earth behind. I packed up and headed down the path. Then, I heard a voice.

This is what you're going to do, Ethan. You're going to leave them here.

[ . . .]

You are digging a hole in a hillside in New Zealand, the voice continued. It was hard to turn it off. You are doing something symbolic. This is what it feels like to have an epiphany. (266-67)
But do gamers indulge in the same introspection? I suspect that the vast majority are no more troubled than, say, the modal American (and perhaps considerably less so). But this really isn't a critique of Gilsdorf's otherwise engaging essays. Gilsdorf's relentless pop-psychology and narcissistic navel-gazing seems to be an inextricable part of this genre. In fact, I consider this a kind of popular ethnography, full of interesting interviews and observations--all to the good, I think.

But I wonder if Gilsdorf's book, in the final analysis, is constrained by the same assumptions that enable it in the first place. That is, what animates the book project is the sense that gamers have broken with everyday mores, that they, in other words, are different, odd, noteworthy, iconoclastic: that they require investigation and explanation. Once we've understood their gaming lives, of course, they no longer seem quite so strange after all, do they? What Gilsdorf's book does is to fall into the old anthropological gambit: a) describing the strangeness of gamers; and b) rationalizing that strangeness.

But what if gaming isn't a particularly strange activity? What if, in fact, "gaming" describes a very commonplace experience? Gilsdorf begins to develop this idea towards the end of his book (181):

I noticed gamers playing everywhere, even in my corner cafe. Being online with WoW and other MMOs has become an acceptable use of public space. However, penetrating the MMO subculture proved more difficult than showing up for a weekend event in a purple shirt. Online gaming runs silent. Online gaming runs deep. And it takes place both everywhere and nowhere, and the spaces in between. As I learned more about online gaming, and spoke to players and game developers, nothing seemed black and white. I kept reading stories that linked gaming to either escapism or hedonism, antisocial behavior or community. Both warm fuzzies and red flags kept popping up.

But I knew that alternative electronic identities were a part of life. I'd already participated in online dating, MySpace, Facebook, and e-mail: In my profiles and flirtatious texts, I'd put forth my best, most seductive versions of myself. Safe behind the barrier of a computer screen, I was tempted to rewrite my personal history, or claim to be passionate about something--say, ending world hunger--just to snare a date. Wasn't I already role-playing, even if not in a heroic fantasy realm? But at what expense to me, not to mention the millions of MMO players whose interest in gaming seems to fill a psychic hole in our culture?


I didn't find my Lady Geek. My Rings fanboy was only partly sated. To end with the Dark Lord of the Sith felt like poetic justice. But, as Ethnor-An3 might say, observing the scene in a partial state of inebriation, I was as welcome here as anyone. The great bat wings of Dragon*Con embraced all types. This was the lesson of the con. Even if I personally did not end up embracing anyone.

I trudged back to my hotel, passing through the real Planet Earth, that brash zone of Hooters and Hard Rock Cafes and warring football fans who had descended on Atlanta, or Atlantis, or wherever I was. Folks lingered at tailgator parties in parking lots, each side dressed in matching uniforms--one fandom (Clemson) in orange T-shirts, polos, and baseball caps, the other (Alabama fans) in scarlet. They stumbled about, smashing bottles, trying to find their hotels, clinging to their gods and heroes, no more or less freakish than the rest of us. (239)
I think Gilsdorf is right--gamers are similar to people who spend their time posting on Facebook, or sports fans who tail-gate. They're all investing--lavishing--time and money on their hobby/ avocation. They're all working at their play.

It has become commonplace to look at consumption in the age of Web 2.0 as (after the work of Michel de Certeau) a form of "secondary production," where meanings, social relations and affect shift in the act of appropriation by the consumer. But little, here, on the "relations of secondary production".

As Marx wrote in Contributions to the Critique of Political Economy,

In the social production of their life men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure, the real basis on which rises and legal and political superstructure . . .

Couldn't this also be the case with secondary production? Much of the work on consumer studies implies a separation of the work of producers from that of consumers. Somehow, "leisure" and "consumption" haven't implied the level of alienation and reification that we associate with "real" work. In fact, the opposite has generally been true, with critics in cultural studies characterizing work practices utilizing language and theory cribbed from leisure. That is, work practices get coded as social and cultural expression, rather than the opposite.

But if we consider leisure a form of work, or, rather, if the two have become so interpenetrated in an age of networked capitalism that it is no longer particularly helpful to analytically separate them, then we can see games as work.  As Vandenberghe (2008: 884) notes, “With the privitization of the commons, the boundaries between production and communication, production and consumption, labour and leisure, paid and unpaid work disappear. [ . . .] When free time becomes productive, everything becomes work"

This is particularly the case in the more socially networked games that Gilsdorf explores. Without the "free labor" of 11 million WoW adherents, there would be no record-breaking profits for Blizzard Entertainment. Moreover, despite the absence of wages, it seems obvious to me that this is a form of work, similar to other forms of non-remunerated labor.

So what was most interesting to me in Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks were the tales from the trenches, the narratives of labor: how many hours people lavish on costumes, the tales surrounding the acquisition of various artifacts, the hours they drove to LARPing, the time they'd put into DragonCon. A "relations of secondary production" would focus our attention on the conditions of (secondary) work: the relations of (re) production, the alienation of the (re) worker: the proletarianization of the world in the frisson of Deleuzian capitalism.


Vandenberghe, Frederic (2008). "Deleuzian Capitalism." Philosophy & Social Criticism 34(8): 877-903.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Notes from the Ethnographic Archive

Web 2.0 has stimulated ethnographic desire--the archiving of vast records of everyday life in the form of videos and podcasts. The Gamer's Haven is one, hours and hours of role-playing game sessions . . .