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My Life as a Night Elf Priest

An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft

Bonnie A. Nardi

Publication Year: 2010

Ever since the creators of the animated television show South Park turned their lovingly sardonic gaze on the massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft for an entire episode, WoW's status as an icon of digital culture has been secure. My Life as a Night Elf Priest digs deep beneath the surface of that icon to explore the rich particulars of the World of Warcraft player's experience. —Julian Dibbell, Wired World of Warcraft rapidly became the most popular online world game on the planet, amassing 11.5 million subscribers—officially making it an online community of gamers that had more inhabitants than the state of Ohio and was almost twice as populous as Scotland. It's a massively multiplayer online game, or MMO in gamer jargon, where each person controls a single character inside a virtual world, interacting with other people's characters and computer-controlled monsters, quest-givers, and merchants. In My Life as a Night Elf Priest, Bonnie Nardi, a well-known ethnographer who has published extensively on how theories of what we do intersect with how we adopt and use technology, compiles more than three years of participatory research in Warcraft play and culture in the United States and China into this field study of player behavior and activity. She introduces us to her research strategy and the history, structure, and culture of Warcraft; argues for applying activity theory and theories of aesthetic experience to the study of gaming and play; and educates us on issues of gender, culture, and addiction as part of the play experience. Nardi paints a compelling portrait of what drives online gamers both in this country and in China, where she spent a month studying players in Internet cafes. Bonnie Nardi has given us a fresh look not only at World of Warcraft but at the field of game studies as a whole. One of the first in-depth studies of a game that has become an icon of digital culture, My Life as a Night Elf Priest will capture the interest of both the gamer and the ethnographer. Bonnie A. Nardi is an anthropologist by training and a professor in the Department of Informatics in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. Her research focus is the social implications of digital technologies. She is the author of A Small Matter of Programming: Perspectives on End User Computing and the coauthor of Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart and Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design. Cover art by Jessica Damsky

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Technologies of the Imagination

I. Introduction to World of Warcraft

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pp. 3-7

In the spring of 2005, I taught an undergraduate course on social aspects of digital technologies. The students worked in teams on research projects. One team reported on massively multiplayer online role-playing games. I knew nothing of these games. But the students’ presentation impressed ...

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1. What Is World of Warcraft and Who Plays It?

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pp. 8-26

Once I got over my initial disorientation in the game, I developed a strong sensation that I had woken up inside an animated fairy tale. I was not just watching and listening though; I played a starring role. WoW is a virtual experience like reading a book or watching a movie, but also an active experience like playing a sport. The digital universe couples the richness of ...

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2. An Ethnographic Investigation of World of Warcraft

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pp. 27-36

When I began my study, I had no hypotheses or precise research questions. Unlike research in most academic disciplines, where investigation proceeds according to a scientific procedure involving hypothesis generation and testing, ethnography moves in a “go with the flow” pattern that attempts to follow the interesting and the unexpected as they are encountered in the ...

II. Active Aesthetic Experience

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3. Play as Aesthetic Experience

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pp. 39-51

An obvious question about World of Warcraft is: Why do people like it so much? What is the nature of this human activity that captivates so many people? Why is WoW “addictive,” compelling, absorbing, pleasurable? It is tempting, and for good reason, to see WoW ’s hold on players as the outcome of an elaborately designed Skinner box (Ducheneaut et al. 2006; ...

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4. A New Medium

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pp. 52-93

In an Internet cafe in Beijing, Huatong, a young female player, showed us her World of Warcraft character. She played a druid—a class that “shape-shifts,” or takes on different forms, including several beautifully rendered animals. She found these shifting forms stimulating, and presented to us, one by one, the druid’s shapes and abilities. Without being asked, she men-...

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5. Work, Play, and the Magic Circle

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pp. 94-120

Gaming is of course a kind of play. This chapter connects World of Warcraft to long-standing debates about the nature of play, in particular, examining issues of play and its putative opposite, work, that have preoccupied play theory for decades. Entangled in these debates is the idea of play as a magic circle—a protected space defended against the encroachments of everyday ...

III. Cultural Logics of World of Warcraft

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6. Addiction

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pp. 123-136

Having examined theoretical arguments about magic circles, performativity, and so on, this chapter, and the next two, take up broad themes of gaming that are part of academic discourse but also reach into wider arenas of conversation in the mass media and blogs and forums. I begin with the topic of addiction—a perennial favorite of the media and one which seems ...

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7. Theorycraft and Mods

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pp. 137-151

This chapter examines WoW ’s capacity to stimulate participatory activity outside the game, using the materials of the game in novel, innovative ways. Arenas of such engagement include machinima production (Lowood 2008), fan art, fan fiction, and the development of knowledge bases such as Thottbot that compile game statistics and player commentary. These activities are not ...

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8. Gender

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pp. 152-175

From the moment one creates a character and must choose its gender, gender is always present, in varying ways, in World of Warcraft. This chapter examines how gendered experience in World of Warcraft was constructed in two distinctive ways: through patterns of discourse and through the design of the game. I argue that discourse practices created a “boys’ tree house” ...

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9. Culture: WoW in China . . . and North America

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pp. 176-196

In an Internet cafe in Shanghai, a nurse, age 22, has just completed a boss kill. Other characters are nearby, some dancing, some running around. The nurse, who plays a warlock, auctions off the boss’s loot to the raid members, counting down 4 3 2 1, before the final price is set and typed into the chat window. Those who won an auction pay her, and take receipt of their new ...

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pp. 197-204

“Are you still studying World of Warcraft?” one of my colleagues at a conference questioned me rather sharply. He was not an anthropologist (who would not ask such a question, at least not in that tone), and his query reminded me of anthropology’s commitment to the long haul, and of my allegiance to activity theory and Dewey’s work grounded, as they are, in ...


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pp. 205-212


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pp. 213-226


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pp. 227-236

E-ISBN-13: 9780472026715
E-ISBN-10: 0472026712
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472050987
Print-ISBN-10: 0472050982

Page Count: 244
Illustrations: 23 illustrations
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Technologies of the Imagination

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Virtual reality -- Social aspects.
  • World of Warcraft.
  • Computer games -- Social aspects.
  • Korea (South) -- Social aspects.
  • Visual anthropology.
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