Actor-network theory and World of Warcraft

Recently, someone asked a question of the Association of Internet Researchers mailing list regarding the use of actor-network theory (ANT) with the analysis of why (WoW) gamers have a negative stereotype.

A flurry of activity occurred commenting about the use of ANT. It’s not a method but a framework, for example.

I was excited because I am thinking of using ANT to look at WoW raiding practice, and since I wanted to get feedback, too, I posted the following:

Hey all!

Fascinating discussion.

I’ve recently starting reading about ANT and have been toying with the idea of analyzing how a raid in WoW works through an ANT lens, though I am unsure what it’ll get me more than using distributed cognition (Hutchins) or just simply describing the learning arrangement between various humans and nonhumans to get the job done.

I guess my problem with ANT is that it seems boundless in terms of macro vs. micro analysis. As has been mentioned, an actor network can be made up of actor networks. Where does one start?

So, for example, I have a 40 person raid group that learns to kill a boss over several weeks. It seems like each person should be considered an actor that had to be translated into the network. We’ve also collectively used certain addons and tools within the game to help us manage cognitive load and to make transparent some of the underworkings of the game. Does each of these addons get counted? Does each iteration of an addon get counted (40 people running the same addon in slightly different ways, positioned on the screen differently, paying attention to different parts of the addon, etc.)? Do specific functions of the addon get separated as individual actors? Do different elements of the UI get separated? To back up, do specific people get broken down to mind-body-fingers?

Latour (writing as Johnson) briefly mentions that a door closer, an actor that’s been delegated the task of making a hole back into a wall, can be further broken down into the mechanisms in the whole object (egs. a spring, a metal cylinder). Is it completely arbitrary where a researcher draws the line?

In Reassembling the Social, Latour emphasizes tracing associations, which is possibly an answer to my above questions. I could concentrate on describing practice in the raid activity as I see it (which is pretty much what I’ve been doing for a while now), but pay particular attention to describing the functions of specific things as they relate to other things. Do this as they come up. In turn, these associations lead to other things that come up. Is that no longer considered ANT but after-ANT?

Is it more useful to describe cognition and memory and material resources within an entity a la dcog than use ANT? (Though my prob with dcog is more that it seems like a snapshot-in-time where I am trying to document the change in practice. ANT seems like it inherently considers instability and change through the act of translation.) Is ANT reserved for bigger arguments about societal relationships? About translation being the leveraging or convincing of other actors to share tasks? Or maybe a dcog analysis is the way to use an ANT lens using my ethnographic mehod…

Lots of questions. Maybe better suited to a blog post, as I’m just throwing ideas out there without much experience with ANT and such… But I thought I’d throw them out since it seems to that me the fastest way to learn something is to make transparent what you don’t know. And my digital ears perked up when I saw Tamara’s first message in this thread. ANT and MMOGs!


NO ONE replied except Bonnie Nardi off list! ๐Ÿ™

And even then, she gave me some good pointers to articles I should read without any editorial comments of her own. Gah, more reading! :p

Was it not clear enough? I don’t explain distributed cognition at all. I don’t explain ANT at all because I assume the people who were talking about it know more about it than I do. I don’t explain WoW raiding, either, but I thought they’d all know what I was talking about. Also, I didn’t want to make the email even longer than it was…

Ah well… I guess I’ll keep reading.

7 thoughts on “Actor-network theory and World of Warcraft”

  1. The AoIR list had inspired me too, yet, I still have no explanation as to how the waves of replies and conversations exactly are being generated and what stimulates debate – some interesting questions seem to get pretty little attention. Nevertheless, I am glad to see you as well took the chance to debate and share on your blog. And thanks for the follow on twitter. Looking forward to IR10 in Milwaukee maybe.

  2. Mark, interesting question. If the time frame is missing from these approaches, is it not time to come up with an alternative that does? ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Hi mark

    I saw your post but I myself hadn’t responded to any of the convos inspired by my initial post. Partly because they weren’t germane to the initial question and partly because, like you, I assumed people knew more than me and so I didn’t have a lot to add.

    As to your point about tracing raid associations, my reading of Latour’s sociology of associations is that you’d have to trace the practices of the non-humans within the raid, not just the humans. For Latour, a raid would be a universe of its own, settled within and around a bunch of universes. Detailing that universe would include tracing the actions of boss and trash mobs, of course, but also the actions of the environment, which includes the avatar action (both visual and action oriented such as cooldowns, sequencing…plague dance in Naxx comes to mind here…and the actions of the various pets), and of the code itself (bugs, glitches, software design), connectivity issues (lag being a big one), communication components (Vent, text chat, emotes). This list itself is incomplete, as it doesn’t include the players’ computers, the servers, the ISPs used by players to connect, time zone operation, addons…..long list.

    For myself, I think what I will do is use ANT more as ethos when it comes to describing why I won’t be looking at causal relationships or trying to find the origin story of the “gaming as suspect leisure” discourses.

    So the question becomes how to employ ANT and be reasonably faithful to it, while being conscious that in one’s tracing of associations, the researcher is being political. That is to say, the researcher is conscious of the mediators they are including versus silencing in their retelling of association accounts. I think that your point about the arbitrariness of the associations is absolutely valid; indeed, I’d argue it is key. I agree with you that this is partly what Latour is getting at with ANT: Some consciousness of that arbitrary selection and a way of humbling the researcher back down into following their informants, rather than leading them via a pre-defined understanding of their actions and associations. In doing so, you can go back to a scientific method in which dead-ends and research failures are still valid. This, for me, is the ultimate take-away from his book Reassembling the Social. Thinking on qualitative work I’ve read in sociology and comparing what I know of it to the bits I know from physics (a layman side interest of mine), what strikes me is the number of times in physics they start out saying “I’m going to look into X because I’m curious about Y) and then at the end of the road they say “we never reached Y and X no longer seems a valid starting point based on these difficulties) and they trace out the associations that led to this. But when do you ever actually see this in sociology? Could you get a thesis approved that said about raids that studying their resulting action by tracing each association was impossible due to a list of factors that you then elaborate? And without resorting to the hoary reified notion of society explaining the social, or vice versa?

    Probably not. And for Latour, that’s the problem with sociology’s method.

  4. That is some really interesting things to think about Tamara. Thanks for responding! I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to meet at AoIRs… Will you be there this year?

  5. I really want to be at AoIR this year, even if I’m not presenting. The theory focus/theme of this year’s conference greatly intrigues me and I’d like to see how it plays out.

    Thanks to a presentation I attended this evening, I’m starting to think about individualism and collectivism in WoW pvp raids, and the kinds of values promoted therein via various associations and actants. Perhaps too late to develop this sufficiently to submit to the conference, but I might still try.

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