Digital Anthropology

Why Digital Anthropology?

Anthropologists have only recently dived into the world of the “digital”, and there is still resistance to the merit of the work. Miller and Horst (2012) define “digital” as “all that can be ultimately reduced to binary code but which produces a further proliferation of particularity and difference”. I believe Miller and Horst (2012) also provide a good explanation of why anthropologists can learn from the digital- “The digital should and can be a highly effective means for reflecting upon what it means to be human, the ultimate task of anthropology”.

Possible Research Topics in Anthropology:

The Computer Games and Virtual Worlds Workshop Report suggest many potential areas for future research:

•investigating how CGVW play affects group interactions and rewards when conducting in-game activities.

• examining how CGVW play reproduces existing hierarchies of power through visual representations as well as player behavior in “locking” out players perceived as undesirable.

• drawing upon player accounts of game play meaning to see how immersion affects emotional reactions to stress.

In regard to “Culture of Commitment” they recommend questions such as:

• How do users experience a transition from novice-ness to “serious leisure” (e.g., a play career trajectory)?

• How do social practice and organization within CGVWs develop and reflect cultures of commitment?

• How are CGVWs increasingly the sites for compensated labor?

• What new forms of peer-learning and knowledge-sharing practices are emerging from CGVW cultures?

• Under what conditions and situations does game-based play become work, and similarly when and how does work of using virtual worlds become play?

In regard to “Practices and Platform”:

• How do players engage CGVWs offline, or engage alternative reality games played across physically located venues as well as on the computer?

• Who is playing these games? Are there differences in the gaming communities and identities of players who chose to play these games? What do any potential differences indicate about the play and practices in these CGVWs?

• What impacts do these platforms for play have on networked culture, the home, and daily life for players?

• What are the differences in activity between game-based and socially-based online spaces?

• How do players from different cultures engage with the same game?

• How does game play emerge or be guided to become a professional endeavor and line of work for highly committed game players?

 So with all that, what am I doing?

Well, I pondered over this list again and again trying to decide what the best avenue of research would be. In my Undergrad project I looked at Avatar’s people created within the virtual worlds of Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Guild Wars 2. I had selected these worlds because they offered very unique features geared towards creating personalities for your avatars. These personalities were derived from settings or actions you did with your character, independent of merely” acting” it out as a role-player may do. I identified this as an emerging trend focused around getting users more attached with their avatars and allowing greater identification within virtual worlds. I chose both worlds due to circumstance, not because that was how the research plan was laid out. As a result, I also touched upon migration between virtual worlds. These virtual worlds are not only constantly being updated, but have to face out with more and more virtual worlds being released by different publishers offering more features, and some of them are actually even unique.

In the IVECG (Institute for Virtual Environments and Computer Games (formerly CGVW)), there was a seminar video titled “Ethnography in Computer Games and Virtual Worlds”. In the end a question is posed that I very much enjoyed because I too have seen it as an issue with virtual worlds. The question basically put forward the idea that these virtual worlds are very objective/quest driven and don’t leave as much room for original human interactions within these worlds. While this would be very easy to negate in regard to Second Life, I pose it is very applicable to virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft. The respondents shrug it off by explaining that what they are looking at are the interactions between players and their choices which are not defined by the game… I however disagree. Yes, players do have a bit of freedom, but they are still largely constrained by the parameters of these digital worlds.  Luckily a new wave of virtual worlds are approaching this that can aid me in exploring what I believe will give us better means to address many of these research questions in a more “natural human” setting, that is, one less constrained by the parameters of the virtual world and more open to human choice and action.

These new virtual worlds coming out are being referred to as “Sandbox”. While some have existed, the newer ones are coming out with a lot more advertising power behind them, and making available many more features to their users. This sets them apart from virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft that are now labeled as “Theme-park” virtual worlds. Whereas theme-park virtual worlds set up the parameters and guide players through a certain path through the game, setting up the activities and goals, sandbox virtual worlds are making it all dependant on the player. The Players are able to undertake such activities as building cities, homes, shops, crafting all their own gear, and creating a player driven economy. Players have the option to help one another or kill one another without only being allowed to kill people assigned to an opposing faction (like World of Warcraft, which even prevents you from communicating with the opposing faction). Keeping it brief, I believe what will result from these interactions is a much more “human” experience.


So that is what I want my research to focus on. While we are at the cusp of this transition of “theme-park” virtual worlds to “sandbox” virtual worlds, I want to identify Why players are interested in such virtual worlds (As they must be since many developers are in the midst of producing them), What these new virtual worlds can show us over the old ones, and then upon their release see if they actually do offer a more “human” experience.

In my more immediate work (Fall 2013), I intend to look at the “Commodification of Play” in virtual worlds, and explore how virtual economies shape users experiences both online, and offline through the selling of virtual goods for actual currency. I also intend to analyze how religion is portrayed in virtual worlds, introducing a massive audience to certain concepts and ideals that are actually quite different from their original meanings (such as the use of “Mana”), and possibly analyzing this as positive or harmful.

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