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Moratorium on WoW Studies – SoP 2009

Posted by Bart

sopIn the interests of public service to TAG and my own need for a mini-brain dump I’ll take some time to jot a few thoughts on the recent State of Play conference held June 16-19 at the New York Law School.  I am not a live-blogger nor am I particularly cogent after the fact so for those keenly interested in the reportage check the index on Raph Koster’s website or the SoP site.  If you need some pre-filtering help then I recommend Tim Burke’s live posts, or  Greg Lastowka ‘s notes at Terra Nova. There are plenty of other little snippets out there as well.  Oh yeah and this is a good example of the general mood of the thing…

Let’s see…  this will be a 3 part blogisode.  I’ve got thoughts on the grad symposium and the state of WoW Studies,  Raph Koster’s keynote, my own panel on security and surveillance in virtual worlds.

The conference opened with a well constructed grad student symposium with a terrific array of folks doing very interesting work – here’s a list and summary from Mark Chen’s blog.  I was there as one of what Dan Hunter liked to call “the greybeards” and for sure we talked to much but it slowly dawned on me that we greybeards simply aren’t grey enough yet and maybe we need a grad student symposium of our own.  The point here being that most of us continue to have a somewhat early career relationship to the study of virtual worlds and one book (or even less in my case) does not a greybeard make.  That said, having us all together with a focus less on our own work and more on the work of graduate students soon about to be entering the academic market helped to galvanize a sense of unarticulated collective responsibility for institution and network building and making knowledge is as much about this as data collection, analysis and writing.  These are lessons we folks from Science Studies have known ever since Science in Action and even earlier.

I think only towards the end did I feel like taking on some sort of crotchety greybeard role and I wondered if there might be an interesting discussion generated by suggesting that all game studies/virtual worlds journals declare a moratorium on publishing articles on the World of Warcraft or Second Life for 5 years.  I was actually echoing a similar move made by Bruno Latour in the early 1990’s who advocated for a 10 year moratorium on cognitive explanations of scientific knowledge since these tended to crowd the bandwidth in our efforts to build a strong sociology of scientific knowledge. Well all the “greybeards” were ready to weigh in and you can see one thread here.

The idea was to get the students to vigorously and rigorously defend their WoW and SL based thesis projects (those who had ’em) and so move us all beyond the argument that WoW/SL is the most popular or the most successful virtual world and therefore we should study it or what is in fact the more honest and pragmatic justification which is that folks like to study what they like to play.  The other part of the provocation has to do with field-building and the problem of research bandwidth that Latour was referring to in the ban on cognitive explanation… its not that cognitive explanations of science or WoW studies are bad scholarship its that in the effort to establish the social and institutional conditions for making knowledge about virtual worlds WoW studies simply take up too much space. Perhaps it would be even more provocative to suggest an affirmative action program for articles about other MMOs and indeed other games which are in fact techically more popular.

Of course I say all this but the following day I turned around and suggested a lunch time birds-of- feather session on WoW Studies where I simply wanted to suggest the very opposite of a moratorium.  Indeed, the argument there was that WoW studies should take over because of all virtual world scholarhsip the level of collective insight has arguably reached critical mass and now there is a chance to really accomplish something as an interdisciplinary community of scholars focused on a single complex object.  WoW scholars are to the study of the brain as Virtual World/Game Studies scholars are to the human body. From this point of view its all about “trickle out” or “trickle down” depending on your point of view.  But a critical aspect of this vision is a need for both greater collaboration amongst WoW scholars as well as harder hitting criticism.  The days of soppy warm fuzzy concluding panels for conferences are coming to an end — there are important epistemological issues to fight about and as long as we remember that we study games we should be able to “fight” and then replay the next time without the traditional patterns of academic resentment and feuding.