By day, Bonnie Nardi works as informatics professor in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences. By night, she morphs into a cape-wearing, tiger-riding priestess with supernatural healing powers. Nardiâs a player in the popular âWorld of Warcraftâ computer game. Sheâs using her real-life intellectual powers to study âthe complex social world on the Internet,â and while sheâs a serious scholar of the game, she also spends hours before bed playing just for fun â a development she admits is out of character.
âI usually donât connect much with pop culture,â Nardi says. âThe last game I played was Monopoly.â
She got hooked last year after some of her students mentioned they wanted to study Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games â MMORPGs. Intrigued, she gave âWorld of Warcraftâ a try.
âI didnât expect to like it, but itâs a beautiful world. It draws you in.â
Suddenly she was tussling with monsters, bartering for goods at the cyber auction house and distributing magic potions. âI was probably the worst player to hit the game,â she says. Before long, however, sheâd advanced to the highest level and had a circle of online friends.
âPeople might be horrified to know theyâre playing with a middle-aged woman,â she jokes.
As a researcher interested in computer-mediated communications and society and technology, Nardi became fascinated by how players would âengage in sustained activityâ with strangers.
âThey would never do that in real life,â she says. âThe closest thing we have to it is basketball pick-up games.â
She and co-author Justin Harris, a former graduate student in informatics, recently published a study called âStrangers and Friends: Collaborative Play in World of Warcraftâ challenging the notion that the Internet leads to isolation. Through face-to-face interviews with players, they found the Internet breaks down barriers between strangers and encourages collaboration with those outside oneâs usual economic and social realm.
They also explored reasons people get attached to the game.
âIt gives a tremendous sense of autonomy,â Nardi says. âYou can do whatever you want. You can try to get rich, you can duel, or you can heal others. Thatâs different from school and work, where there are things you have to do.â
Indeed, in a land far from academia, Nardi likes riding her trusted mount through mystical forests, over mountaintops and across vast deserts in a computer-generated place she finds âenchanting.â
âThereâs a huge world to explore,â she says.