Elves and Aesthetic Experience

I. Play As Aesthetic Experience 

Bonnie A. Nardi begins her third chapter—“Play as Aesthetic Experience”—by asking what she calls an “obvious” question: what is it about World of Warcraft that people enjoy so much (39)? Inherent in this question is the reality that numerous people willingly devote a great deal of their time and mental energy to engaging in play within a virtual world. Nardi contends that WoW’s appeal is a gaming experience that is “woven of sociality, the visual beauty of the game world, and a sense of performative mastery” (40). Players are afforded the opportunity to engage in a social playing field that is both graphically beautiful and capable of being mastered with developed skills. To flesh out these ideas, Nardi turns to activity theory as understood through the philosophical work of John Dewey.

According to Dewey, aesthetic experience is “participatory” and part of “ordinary life;” it is not, for example, merely the “passive appreciation” of visual art that occurs within the separate space of an art gallery (41). Activity theorists ultimately conceive of human activity as a dynamic hierarchy, demonstrated by the following illustration:

The hierarchical structure of human activity. 

Activity—the highest level of the hierarchy—is driven by an object (41). A motivating object “gives shape and materiality to a subject’s needs or desires,” and these needs and desires are “transformed to specific motivating objects which are a concrete instantiation of the need or desire” (41). Actions are completed to fulfill an object, and operations are “unconscious, habitual movements underlying actions” (41). Because activity is dynamic, activity may begin at the top or bottom of the hierarchy. What is most important here is that experience—particularly aesthetic experience—can be conceived of as an activity.

Experience is subjective in that it “requires an active self or subject” and no experience is “inherently aesthetic” (43). Thus aesthetic experience, according to Dewey, can be described as

a subjective disposition toward activity. Aesthetic experience incorporates the contribution of the subject as essential—aesthetic activity can never be realized purely through the structural or formal qualities of an artifact (such as a game). To understand aesthetic experience we cannot stop at analyzing an artifact as a text, or narrative or set of functions or composition of elements, but must also undertake to examine the actual activity in which the artifact is present. (43)

Aesthetic experience thus requires a subject who has the experience and acts in relation to it. This action can be conceived of in terms of means-ends relations; that is, the activity of aesthetic experience is geared towards the process of achieving some end. However, for Dewey, aesthetic activity is “a consummation and not a cessation,” for the means to the end must “satisfy in themselves” (44). In relation to World of Warcraft, the experience of playing the game—whether through questing, running dungeons, exploring, or joining a guild—is enjoyable in itself. Players are engaged in the game through the “flow of actions” that are inherent in these activities, not merely for the accumulation of points and game experience (45). Players experience consummation when game tasks are completed not since they are merely relieved that a task is completed, but rather because they are satisfied both with the way a game experience has turned out as well as the variety of steps they took to get there.

Much of the appeal of World of Warcraft is the “structure of differentiated phases” on which the game relies (45). That is, gamers engage in a variety of in-game activities requiring the use of specific skills (i.e. quests) that lead to new and different levels. The demonstration of these skills is enjoyable for players because the action is not rote and allows for the experience of pleasure and satisfaction with one’s in-game character. This satisfaction also occurs in relation to “everyday collective activity” (47). Players of the game are able to communicate with one another through guild forums and chat functions. Ultimately, this cultivates a sense of digital community and friendship around and within the game itself (with the potential for friendships to move offline) (48). This sense of community emphasizes Dewey’s point about aesthetic experience occurring in the realm of daily life, for World of Warcraft players are able to engage with the virtual reality of the game program from within the comfort of their own homes at whatever time(s) they wish to log on.

II. A New Medium

Nardi next argues that World of Warcraft constitutes a “new digital medium” insofar as the “fusion of immersive visual experience with intense, skilled performative activity, represents a significant evolution in the history of digital culture” (52). Nardi wants to emphasize that the combination of visual game appeal and performance results in an “intoxicating” game experience, for players are required to perform—or, complete activities that demand “conscious attentiveness and skill”—in a visually appealing virtual reality (53-4). The game can be likened to real-life activities that are visual performative (i.e. dance clubs, costumed stage plays), but WoW stands out because it allows users to “attain skilled performance in artistically designed spaces entered through an ordinary computer” (54). For WoW players, achieving a high level of performance is considered to be integral to the experience of game play.

An example of the beautifully rendered playing field of World of Warcraft.

Nardi looks in detail at WoW raiding to demonstrate the importance of in-game performance. Players who participate in raids with their guilds must hone their skills for the good of the group, as one player who lacks in ability can ultimately endanger their other guild members. However, mastering in-game skills permits the player to feel a “doubled” sense of agency: “the player experiences a freedom of movement and sense of authority and mastery within the game, alongside a sense of empowerment through their skill in mastering the technology” (57). Not only does the user’s avatar manifest success through the accumulation of gear and leveling-up, but also the user behind the avatar can experience a sense of accomplishment through mastering the technological skills necessary to do so.

Next, Nardi considers World of Warcraft as a “digital entity encoded in rules” (61). As a “software artifact,” the game itself contains rules with which users necessarily need to contend (61). As the rules are encoded within the “black box” of the software itself, players cannot interact with human agents in relation to the rules (as one can, for example, in sports that utilize referees or umpires) (61-2). Therefore, the “design of the game itself” is of significant importance in relation to game play (62). Users could influence the software through in-game conversation that prompted software changes (i.e. expansion packs) as well as through mods. Through ‘The Burning Crusade’ expansion, for example,  players were encouraged to improve their skills to perform well and see new content—to “engage the visual-performative medium” (65). These software changes ultimately, however, changed guild dynamics significantly (suggesting the extent to which the software itself can influence the realm of the game). The “rules encoded in digital technology” ultimately have direct influence on the culture of game play (67).

In Nardi’s own words:

The design of a software artifact dominates experience while not completely determining it. This asymmetry of player and software shapings is desirable when good design is encapsulated in digital rules with their capacity to reliably reproduce experience. In the case of video games, invariant execution of rules constitutes a resource for preserving and propagating vision and artistic imagination. World of Warcraft, whose software encoded elegant artwork, clever game mechanics, and support for specific forms of social activity, gave rise to play experience that found appeal to millions of people from diverse national, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. I suggest that we examine outcomes of rules as situated in particular artifacts rather than as a monolithic category, conceiving rules of well-designed software artifacts as neither inflexibly totalizing nor calling out for user remedy but as nurturing, protective, caring. (76)

The intricately designed software that characterizes World of Warcraft is also compared to Second Life. In this gaming realm, according to Nardi, the “philosophy of emancipation” that permits users to create their own content has ultimately led to an emphasis on sex and shopping (77). While Nardi does not condemn these interests, she says that such an emphasis creates a limited realm of interest and experience within Second Life. Visually, the virtual world of Second Life is likened to a “junk heap” (78).

A landscape from Second Life. Nardi would characterize this visual field as “junk” because there does not seem to be an abiding level of coherence between the elements of design.

Such a comparison is made primarily because Second Life tends to present virtual areas that are not necessarily as well organized as those found in World of Warcraft. Nardi does not see much coherence in the ways that worlds are designed; that is, there is nothing to stop users from creating a world in which modern and medieval architecture exist–perhaps garishly–side by side.  Ultimately, then, Nardi makes the argument that gaming rules are ultimately good for the game, for digital rules “provide a special kind of resource with which good design can be preserved and protected through encapsulation in the black box” (79). Further, rules can “nurture by providing a safe haven for cultural objects of integrity and excellence” (79). Player designed modifications can thus take something away from the integrity of the game. User participation in relation to game design might, Nardi thinks, be worth steering away from.

Even if players do not directly contribute to game design, they participate in the designed game as they would in a theater production: “Players not only interpreted visual elements; their actions altered the visual world—unlike other visual media such as television or film” (90). Gamers’ relationship to WoW is always significantly more active than that with forms of media that require one to simply passively watch and absorb visual entertainment. The visual realm of WoW both allows players to “gaze appreciatively at their surroundings” and “invite[s] players to participatory activity” (92). That is, World of Warcraft players are not only entertained by beautiful graphics, they get to virtually move and act within this well-designed world.

III. Work, Play, and the Magic Circle

Nardi ends this section of her book by analyzing World of Warcraft as a form of play that can occasionally come to be considered possessing some of the qualities of work. Generally, WoW players engage in the virtual world as a break from their workplace or school; however, gameplay also took on work-like qualities under certain circumstances. Elements of work enter in two ways: either play may “manifest seriousness and dedication” that is regarded as work or play may “demand obligatory actions” necessary for larger aspects of game play (102). That is, players can feel that playing for their guild is a responsibility akin to work or the rote actions (i.e. ‘farming’) in gameplay can become more of a work-like task.

Regardless, it is still possible to conceive of play within WoW as occurring within a “magic circle,” or a “protected space defended against encroachments of everyday life such as work, school, and domestic duties” (94). Ultimately, gaming has the possibility to become a type community-based space in which people can take a break from their responsibilities and engage in the very different realm of the game. This can be both relaxing and extremely enjoyable for game players. Because this space is so enjoyable, Nardi notes that players tend to accept as necessary the aspects of the game that can sometimes resemble work more than anything else.

Overall, the experience of gameplay is so rewarding precisely because it offers players opportunities that they generally aren’t offered in work and school (both in terms of engagement with mythical worlds and the ability to exercise freedom in determining which raids to participate in and on what schedule) (100).

According to Nardi, play can be characterized in the following ways, with the last four points being most specific to virtual game play such as WoW (103):

  1. A Subjective experience of freedom

  2. An absence of social obligation and physical necessity

  3. A subjective experience that is absorbing, compelling, or pleasurable

  4. Occurrence in a separate realm sometimes referred to as the magic circle

  5. Activation through cognitive and/or physical skill

  6. Contingency

  7. Rules

  8. Opportunities for limited perfection

Players are able to engage beyond real life and pursue active aesthetic experience through their immersion in game play.

Every player, however, has had the experience of people who do not understand their fascination with the game:

From outside the magic circle, we see a person staring at a computer screen, perhaps clicking furiously. The enticements of the game are invisible. Within the magic circle, it’s a different story. A player is developing a character, interacting with guidelines, descending into difficult dungeons, exploring new landscapes, watching the (virtual) starry night sky. (116)

What this misunderstanding does in create a sense of “being ‘apart together'” within the realm of the game (116). Players who enjoy the game do not need to explain their reasons for liking it with others who also play; thus it is very easy for a sense of online community to form. Levels of in-game social coherence form such that players can grow to be aware of the culture of the game and understand how and why certain things occur. Within the magic circle, a social order can be created in the following ways: “through knowledge about structures and activities that occur inside its enclosure; in specialized discourse; and in designated spaces of play that mark and confine it” (117). Through shared knowledge of the game, players can effectively create a shared community within a virtual world.

Discussion Questions

  1. If we are to consider WoW an active aesthetic experience, what other types of games can apply to this category? Can we, for example, consider something like Second Life as offering the same level of aesthetic experience? Are the graphics as awful as Nardi suggests?
  2. Is World of Warcraft a game that can be adopted for educational purposes, and if so, how? (I ask this very general question in part because Nardi makes an offhand comment at one point that children should not be allowed to play the game.)
  3. What makes World of Warcraft a particularly appealing medium in terms of participation? Would the game be as appealing if there were less opportunities for joining guilds?
  4. At what point does WoW (or other similar platforms) become work? Can we say the same thing about about digital media platforms (i.e. blogging, Facebook, etc.)?
  5. How can we conceive of relations between the inside/outside of the magic circle? How easy is it for new players to join and feel accepted by an online community such as WoW?



Bonnie A. Nardi. My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft