World of Warcraft Ethnography
Prof. Caitrin Lynch
Online sociality is rapidly becoming a part of everyday life for people around the world. Whether email, message boards, social networking websites, or instant messaging, these tools enable complex and significant interaction. Online synthetic worlds are one such new tool. As a technology, synthetic worlds have been around since the mid 1970's, but for a variety of reasons the number of people who spend time in these worlds has exploded in the last ten years. A rich scholarship in the study of these worlds is also growing, assembling academics from many fields, most notably economists, sociologists, media theorists, and legal scholars. With this work, I wanted to add the methods and insights an anthropological background could provide. In particular, I studied World of Warcract, and I describe the ways in which relationships from outside the game are concentrated inside the game, and the profound effect that has on sociality within the world, particularly group formation and the resolution of conflict.
This is a significant finding because it is different from how older synthetic worlds (often called MUDs or MOOs) were perceived in the literature. They have been described, most notably by Turkle and Dibbell, as an emancipatory space in which people are free to experiment with new personas or express parts of their personality they might otherwise hide. Because of the way World of Warcraft is organized, both in terms of rules in the world, as well as advertising and promotion, I found that this description of synthetic worlds as spaces for identity play has become less accurate.