Monday, August 22, 2011

Documentary Review: The Raid

When I heard that a feature-length documentary on World of Warcraft was being produced. I was very intrigued. Last summer, I watched a documentary called “The Dungeon Masters” which chronicled the lives of several Dungeons and Dragons players in a year following Gen Con, one of the largest gaming conventions in the world. In the documentary, we met the players and learned about their lives inside and out including how they started gaming and why, what obstacles they have overcome in their lives related to gaming, and so on. I was very impressed. So, when I set out to watch The Raid, I was expecting something comparable. I feel that while there many positive things about The Raid, there were several points which detracted from the film.

The documentary premiered on in conjunction with Typefrag and Curse Gaming. Over 19,000 viewers experienced the premiere along with Gary Gannon, Mike B aka Fony and the creator of the film Kevin Michael Johnson. The opening sequence features several people who are leaving their day-to-day lives to come home and get on their computers. From that, the documentary jumps right in to explanation of what World of Warcraft is and why many people participate in it. The viewer is introduced to three figures: Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games, Edward Castronova, Professor of Telecommunications, Indiana University, and Bonnie Nardi, Anthropologist and author of "My Life as a Night Elf Priest". Their comments provide context and enhance the discussion.

At the beginning of the documentary, we also meet members of the guild Months Behind. Their guild leader is Josh Allen, a.k.a Lore, who is a personality on and Tankspot. Besides Lore, we also meet several other members of the Double Dragon raid team from Months Behind. Their commentary drives the story and discussion of the documentary. However, we do not know who these people are in their daily lives. We see their faces, we see their in-game personae, but we learn nothing of who they really are and what they do in their off-gaming time. I feel knowing a bit more about them would allow viewers who do not play WoW to connect with them beyond knowing that they are “hardcore raiders.”

Anthropologist Bonnie Nardi
The story of the documentary is the progression of the guild through Icecrown Citadel, the last tier of content in World of Warcraft Wrath of the Lich King. Double Dragon emphasizes the difficulty of the raid dungeon and how much of a bad ass The Lich King is. Viewers get to see in-game footage of the guild downing the bosses which is strategically placed between commentary by the guild members, Castronova, Nardi and Schell. You also get to hear the amazing voice work which is a part of World of Warcraft. The audio is very clear and the in-game footage is interesting. The soundtrack of the documentary, which is all original music, fits the movie very well. I was very impressed by the cinematography.

Following an in-depth explanation of the game, the commentary touches on main aspects of the gaming experience. In the discussion of stereotypes and stigma against gamers, Josh (Lore) talks about how most say that females are bad at video games. “There are two scales. Either really really nice or total bitches. Either really good or really really bad.” In the after-movie discussion, Josh scolded Kevin Johnson, the film's creator, for including that in the movie. As demeaning as it is, the statement is a testament to the candid nature of the comments by the guild members in their personal interviews. The members of Months Behind make it clear that they all are not the stereotypical gamers. Julie (Fearwards) says that they have people of all walks of life in their guild. The problem with this, however, is that there is no in-depth discussion of the types of people in the guild, aside from Julie saying that an officer for the DEA is in the guild and that he'd been shot recently. Diversity does not one person make. It would have been neat to see the progression of a guild that was newly formed or didn't have very much experience together. This was filmed at the very end of the tier when the Lich King was on farm status by many guilds.

Something that really hit home to me was the topic of addiction. Video game addiction takes precedence in the discussion and guild member Curv explains that he let many things in his life suffer as a result of playing World of Warcraft so frequently. Curv says that his school suffered and over several years he gained thirty pounds. He also stopped participating in his favorite past-times because of WoW. Castronova calls this problematic media usage. During Icecrown Citadel raiding, Double Dragon spent 22-24 hours per week raiding. Josh says that it isn't so much about the amount of time as it is the “specificity of the time.” Still, this is a lot of time when you have a life other than the game. Julie added that on many occasions, she put raiding before her “real” life, saying that upon being invited to parties, she would say that she had other plans so she would not miss the raids.

One topic that I found incredibly interesting was the group dynamic of the game. For her senior thesis, Leila wrote about the group dynamic in MMOs. I was very proud of her hard work and it was great to see many of the topics echoed in the discussion. Anthropologist Bonnie Nardi discussed Johan Huizinga and his play theory. He thought that “play was valuable and important and defines what it means to be human.” This was echoed by Castronova when he talked about the community aspect of the game, that MMOs are breaking down boundaries in communication. Jesse Schell put it very simply that a game like this is a bunch of people working toward one common goal. The idea of the village was discussed and that a guild can function like a village for people providing support. These were very thought-provoking topics because most people will only focus on the negative aspects of the game. Another positive idea is the skill-set that is required to play games like WoW. Specifically, raiding can utilize many leadership skills as well as planning and management which are coveted skills highly looked upon by prospective employers. However, due to stigma placed upon the game, one could not put a “hobby” like this on their resume.

Aside from a lack of connection with the members of Months Behind and the length of the film (it was only around 45 minutes long) I thought it was really well done. The cinematography and music were complimentary and the interspersing of in-game footage among the commentary was appropriate. I have a huge appreciation for the talent of Kevin Johnson and hope that he continues to work on films like this. However, knowing that some of their original footage is now in the DVD extras, makes me wonder why it didn't go in the film in the first place. I won't dwell on the negatives, however. I am eager to watch the extras in the context of the film. Johnson said that he would like to possibly work on a documentary with one of the top raiding guilds in the world who work toward world-first achievements in WoW, but said that it would be a huge undertaking. I encourage everyone to watch The Raid because it does provide insight into the world of raiders. It would especially be beneficial for those who have never played WoW or an MMO and have questions.

The Raid, produced by Kevin Michael Johnson, will soon be available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes.  

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