Alex Golub, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii who specializes in the study of the local peoples of Papua New Guinea. These days, however, Golub is immersing himself in the strange, foreign culture of another group of people - hardcore raiders in World of Warcraft.
Golub, who plays a level 80 Restoration-spec Shaman in a raiding guild, tells WoW Insider that he's researching the culture that drives gamers to "do something as crazy as run [25-man raid dungeons] four days a week." Now, actual academic research on WoW isn't exactly anything new, but instead of writing about it from the view of the proverbial ivory tower, Golub is following his anthropological instincts and immersing himself in the culture: "My unique angle is that I am doing anthropological fieldwork in WoW, living and playing with a raiding guild and putting in 20+ hours a week keeping them healed and decursed."
Golub says the inspiration for this project came during a 2-year stay in Papua New Guinea, where the locals' stereotyping of "you white people" made him realize that for all he spent studying other cultures, he didn't know much about his own. He resolved to start a new project on American culture, and for his vehicle, he chose World of Warcraft.
He hasn't given up on his original Papua New Guinea project; he plans to return sometime this summer for additional research there, but once he returns, Golub says that his goal is to write a book about WoW "(T)hat anyone can read -- sort of Malcolm Gladwell meets Arthas. I want to produce something that my guildies can read and say 'Yeah, that's totally what it's like to raid,' but I also want it to be a book that you could give to your folks and say 'See, I'm not just sitting in this chair for five hours a day. My best friends and I save the world every night.'" The book, explains Golub, would try to take people standing baffled and scratching their heads outside the WoW phenomenon and explain to them exactly what it was about the game that people found important and brought them together.
And that's just the first third of the interview - the rest delves into the more nitty-gritty specifics of the project, like asking Golub if it's more difficult to interact with his WoW guildmates as people and fellow raiders when they know he's researching them for a project. One of Golub's most interesting responses comes as an answer to a question about things he's noticed in online behavior vs. "real-life" behavior - how studying WoW and other virtual worlds have made social scientists like him realize that "real" interactions and "in-the-room" interactions are two very different things:
"There is a guy in my guild who works in a cheese factory, turning over 90-pound blocks of cheese all day. I bet I know him better than he knows the guys in the control room measuring cheese temperatures or whatever, even if he sees them every day."
As someone who raids in WoW myself (Resto Druid here - solidarity with my brother-in-healing!) perhaps I'm a bit biased, but I think this is an absolutely fascinating read, and I look forward to the book itself when it comes out.
Or perhaps it's just an excuse to get a research grant to play a videogame all day instead of live in the heat of Papua New Guinea. In which case, good plan, man. Good plan.