Ethnologist Peder Stenberg spent 250 days – the equivalent of three years full time work – participating in WoW in order to explore the development of social structures, common values and the worlds created within the game.
The result is a thesis in ethnology, ‘The serious game. On World of Warcraft and the leakage’ (Den allvarsamma leken. Om World of Warcraft och läckaget) at Umeå University.
“The core of online role-playing games lies in the players’ mundane, often repetitive, work-like everyday life. I slayed dragons, traded goods and attended parties; I made friends, joined guilds and collected herbs and minerals. I took part in rituals and learned written as well as unwritten social norms,” he wrote in the introduction.
World of Warcraft has been called ‘the cocaine of the computer games world’ by the organization Youth Care Foundation (Stiftelsen Ungdomsvård), which has been helping young people in Sweden recognize and manage computer gaming addiction for over two decades.
But Stenberg’s study casts the game in a new light.
During his research, Stenberg found that the social relations and the persona players develop within the game often has an impact on real life.
“I don’t think it is despite the resemblance to work but because it has a resemblance to work that people play it. It gives players a feeling of usefulness that generally follows what we see as work, “ Stenberg told Sveriges Radio (SR).
According to Stenberg, it is the players that determine what is important within the world, and it is also their reactions and responses that make the goals set up by the individual players important.
Spending a whole day gathering materials to manufacture a special pair of shoes or a sword is only worth it if they are useful in combat with another player or in a team effort to slay a dragon, or similar situations.
“The central issue is that it is a collective society and that challenges the rather pesistent view of the computer game enthusiast as a lone figure with only a flickering screen for company;” Stenberg told SR.
Stenberg’s thesis describes a ‘leakage’ between the game world and the real world.
Early research into the gaming world often described the borders between the real world and cyberspace as rigid, that players left their real selves behind and could become whoever they wanted.
“But I wanted to show that these borders really are quite hollow, and there is seepage between the worlds,” Stenberg told SR.
In his thesis he shows several examples of where the real world and the game world mix, and the problems this can create. One example is a virtual funeral for a woman who had died in real life, where enemies from another faction attacked the attending guests.
“There was a lot of discussions around that, with some saying that it was inappropriate and others maintaining it was only a part of the game,” Stenberg said.
Two regular WoW players that SR spoke to also mentioned that the skills players could pick up during the game come in handy in real life.
“Those that lead groups within the game have learned skills mentioned on their resumes later; leadership skills, handling conflicts and so on. These are skills learned within the game,” one former WoW player said.
After finishing his research into the virtual gaming world, Stenberg left it abruptly last spring without a farewell to the people with whom he has shared so many experiences.
In his thesis he called it a “silent goodbye” which is common among World of Warcraft players.
“Most dedicated players I have met both want to quit and don’t want to quit at the same time, and when someone actually does stop playing the defection is given the silent treatment,” he said in the introduction.
There is no room for sentimentality among those that remain. Either you are in or you are out, according to Stenberg.
The online game World of Warcraft is today played by over 12 million users.
In a world called Azeroth players belong to either ‘The Horde’ or ‘The Alliance’, and players can choose freely what race, gender and skills they want.
In Sweden the game is believed to be played by 200,000 players.