Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of an Expert Player Group in World of Warcraft

Mark Chen | @mcdanger | markdangerchen.net


Leet Noobs documents, for over 10 months, a group of players in the online game World of Warcraft engaged in a 40-person joint activity known as raiding. Initially, the group was informal, a family that wanted to hang out and have fun. Before joining, each player had been recognized as expert in the game; within the group they had to adapt their expertise for the new joint task and align themselves to new group goals. Through their shared activity, members successfully established communication and material practices that changed as they had to renegotiate roles and responsibilities with new situations and as the larger gaming community evolved. Players learned to reconfigure their play spaces, enrolling third-party game mods and other resources into their activity. Thus, once-expert players became novices or noobs to relearn expert or leet gameplay. They became leet noobs who needed to reconfigure their expertise for new norms of material practice. Ultimately, these norms also changed what it meant to play World of Warcraft; some group members no longer wanted to just hang out and have fun, and eventually the group died in an online fiery meltdown.

One main argument counters prevalent thought in education that domain content knowledge and conceptual change is what's most important; instead, the practices of the group of players and how their arrangement of social and material objects changed over time for successful raiding is what counts as learning. It's also a story about surveillance and exclusion as the increasing emphasis on understanding and maximizing efficiency during fights with monsters edged out players who joined the game for other reasons such as hanging out with friends. Inspired by Bissell's Extra Lives, Leet Noobs is written with an eye towards bringing personal narrative to academic research, providing background on Mark's gaming life and insights.

What Others Are Saying:

"Leet Noobs addresses key issues in new literacy studies from a unique position. As both a gamer and a sophisticated thinker about technology, games, and learning, Mark Chen is able to trace the ongoing successes and failures of a high-end raiding guild in World of Warcraft from multiple perspectives, and draws the reader in to the fraught and uncertain process of raiding. Chen shows us the critical importance of the possibility of failure in players' ongoing process of gaining social and cultural capital, along with how access to that expertise is always embedded in the social and the technological. Leet Noobs will be an important resource for thinking about learning and games for years to come."
—Thomas M. Malaby, Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

"Through fantastic attention to detail, Mark Chen shows the complexity of gaming practice and provides critical insight into the formation of expertise. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the rich forms of action, and interaction, in multiplayer spaces."
—T. L. Taylor, Associate Professor in the Center for Computer Games Research, IT University of Copenhagen

"Mark Chen's new book, Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of An Expert Player Group in World of Warcraft has set a new bar for ethnographies of online communities. Mark is not just a keen observer in the "rich description" ethnographic tradition, nor only a skilled and sophisticated user of theory, but a graceful and highly readable writer (and he did his own cover art!). Few others have combined all three talents at such a consistent and high level. If you only read one 21st Century work in this genre, make it Leet Noobs.
"His core chapter, "Assembling to Kill Ragnaros," applies actor-network theory (ANT) to the enrollment of the add-on KLH Threat Meter in his raiding group. ANT is challenging to use: it's all too easy to veer into triviality on one side or silliness on the other (I'm looking at you, St. Brieuc scallops!). Here Mark closely observes the changes to the social dynamics of his group wrought by the use of a simple statistical tool, then steps back to explain ANT in a passage I wish I'd been able to read as a first-year grad student struggling with the source material, applying it to generate a number of crucial insights into the interplay between code and culture."
—John Carter McKnight

"Mark's unpacking of dichotomies (e.g., leet/noobs, life/death, intrinsic/extrinsic), is driven by writing that deftly, organically, weaves between scholarship and personal. Interludes between chapters breathe context into theory. Analyzing the tensions between Mark's concomitant roles (educator, researcher, gamer, and participant) feel all the more substantial when he (or his in-game character, Thoguht) are not held above the proverbial fray. Also, Mark has a great sense of humor. He's really funny. I laughed. Several times. In this case, a great sense of humor correlates with a "great sense of human". Leet Noobs is ethnography at its best: an honest attempt to critically understand the human condition; what can only be described as empathy."
—Dennis Rudnick


A lot of information floods my senses once the fight starts. Both visual and audio indicators come at me. Furthermore, these are both diagetic (such as the animation of all of us swinging our weapons or the grunt of my character as he attacks) and non-diagetic (such as various panels and buttons on my screen representing the game’s UI or the various alert sounds coming from our installed add-ons).

Some of this info: The “Bong” sound from our CT Raid add-on that happens in sync with the words “AE Knockback” appearing in the center of my screen. The raid leader’s “Melee attack!” command issued in several text channels, also facilitated by CT Raid. SCT (another add-on) sending a constant stream of text up as I gain energy, take damage, activate abilities, etc. My custom timer bars popping up (from yet another add-on) letting me know how long dots and other effects last. KTM, the threat meter add-on, keeping track of all our threat levels. Custom UI enhancements (yep; add-on) showing me the Health and Mana of the whole raid, showing me my Health and energy gain and CP build-up, Ragnaros’s Health and all of our buffs / debuffs. Specific windows showing MTs (CT Raid) and their targets. The screen flashes with lava bursts and waves every once in a while. The “snick snick whoosh” of Sinister Strike and a miss. The sound effects of other abilities including those of the raiders around me. When I mistimed something, my character, Thoguht, saying “not enough energy.” The sharper “ding” sound of incoming Knockback and the melee DPS backing up as a group to our corner of the spiral peninsula. After the next “Bong,” rushing back in with the group.

A semi-regular sequence of indicators and my reactions to them emerges from the chaos bracketed by the Bongs of Knockback. The first time we fought Ragnaros, this pattern was noisy, but this night it is getting refined and less noisy. A month from this night, the pattern starts to stabilize, and I start to feel a rhythm to the fight. SS, SnD, SS, SS, SS, Feint, SS, SnD, ad infinitum. Sometimes an Eviscerate thrown in there if SnD hasn’t expired. This goes on until the “ding.” Move back. “Bong.” Move forward. SS, SnD, SS, SS, SS, Feint... Rinse and repeat. In forums, other players have used another way of visualizing the actions rogues take, referencing the keyboard buttons needed for the actions: 2422262242262223 repeated.

But in this particular iteration of the fight, we don’t yet know the pattern, haven’t yet found our groove or gotten into the flow.

There’s an addictive quality to this embodied  knowledge once the groove is found and enacted / experienced time and time again, though I would hesitate to call it “addiction ” from the media effects standpoint: It is not a sinister, time-sinking, life-destroying activity. Instead, the knowledge is so much a part of me now that I can slip into reenacting the activity very easily, using what Norman  (1993) calls experiential cognition —a form of automated or routine thinking and acting made possible through expert knowledge—something that may be more important with self-taught expertise . The physicality of my thinking-acting gives support to the idea that cognition is situated and cannot be separated from the body (Wilson , 2002). Moreover, I long for it; it sustains me. It has become part of who I am. My identity depends on this cultural knowing of what it feels like to be raiding in Molten Core . But rather than taking away from my life, it enriches my life. My identity is built up in layers that are semi-transparent such that underlying layers are still visible and a part of the whole—what Holland  and Leander  (2004) call laminated—by all my gaming experiences through a lifetime of being. Through gaming, I know nostalgia and melancholy, joy and triumph, success and failure, sadness and anger, and the physical, inexplicable-through-words, embodied, muscular-impulse knowledge of specific game-playing activities. Gravitating towards these activities is only addiction in the sense that people are compelled to engage in the activities that define who they are—activities that build up cultural capital  by taking place in contingent  spaces and that are born out of bone-deep understandings of being in the world.

Gamers bring our cultural-practice-informed identities, both laminated through other gaming experiences and non-gaming experiences, to new play spaces, as Andrew at Little Bo Beep (2010) says

When we play a game, no matter how ornate or simple, we are automatically imbricating it with layers of personal meaning and inherited signification. The game occurs therefore in a non-linear sequence of events that extends back to the beginning of our lives, and even beyond that to the earliest inception of consciousness.
We are who we are in the becoming of ourselves. By engaging with the world and its manifold variations we are simultaneously defining who we are. Games contribute to this definition in more ways than I can describe.

This is true of everyone. Everyone engages in activities in everyday life that is locally meaningful. People care about their pursuits that are consequential to their cultural identities and positions in the world. People’s identities—people’s activities—can be beautifully, sometimes exquisitely, complex, such that to call any of it addiction without deeply examining the meaning behind the actual practices, actions, and relationships in people’s lives shortchanges them as humans. Obviously some people spend a lot of time with games and gaming, but that does not necessarily pose a danger to their offscreen / nongaming lives nor are their gaming activities meaningless. For my participants, these activities gave them the feeling of achievement, strong camaraderie and friendships, success in a contingent space, and deep bliss in finding the groove of raiding.

Get Leet Noobs on Amazon!

Or read about the papers and presentations that led up to this book on Mark's blog!

Mark Chen | @mcdanger | markdangerchen.net