Wikipedia As A Role-Playing Game, Or Why Some Academics Do Not Like Wikipedia

Jemielniak suggests that the best way to understand the sometimes uneasy relationship between Wikipedia and academics is to conceive of it as a game.
Wikipedia As A Role-Playing Game, Or Why Some Academics Do Not Like Wikipedia
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May 28, 2019

Image credit: Clément Bucco-Lechat [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Wikipedia As A Role-Playing Game, Or Why Some Academics Do Not Like Wikipedia

Dariusz Jemielniak


There are many ways to start editing Wikipedia, and not all of them involve making a fool of oneself, but that’s the path I took. I was running a popular free online dictionary, used by about 200,000 Polish users monthly. Wikipedia had an article on the dictionary – which I may have contributed to, a little bit. When I noticed that the article was nominated for deletion, I was puzzled: Wikipedia was a community-driven encyclopedia that anyone could edit, and its storage space was not running out any time soon, right? Right?

I checked the page with a discussion about deleting the article, and eagerly joined in, certain that I could persuade the disputants of the article’s value. I soon found out that even though I was allowed to discuss, I could not vote due to my non-existent edit count. So I decided to start editing so as to defend the page I created, and, after a lot of effort, I reached the insanely high, as it seemed then, edit count of 100 edits, allowing me to participate in deletion discussions.

I was not hiding the fact that I created the website that I was defending, and I was a confused that the Wikipedians were politely insisting that I had a conflict of interest (COI), while at the same time claiming that all arguments must fall or stand on their own merit. Their inconsistency was striking, too: their motion to remove an article about a free dictionary website was moot, as there were other similar projects with their own articles on Wikipedia, which I immediately and triumphantly pointed out. This only had the perverse effect of those projects then being included as candidates for deletion, though. Plead as I might, I was not able to save the article from being deleted. A well-written encyclopedic entry about my precious website went into oblivion!

Even after this disappointment, I felt there was a certain logic to my opponents’ arguments. Since other online dictionaries lost their coverage, too, at least it was fair. More importantly, I noticed that what I had thought was an entirely spontaneous and disorganized conversation was, in fact, a community of, many, rules and norms.

It took me a while to realize that I must have initially appeared as a shameless self-promoter. Still, I continued editing out of curiosity and the fun of it. Within a year I got elected as an administrator. One more year – a bureaucrat. A little later, a steward, a checkuser, an ombudsman, a Funds Dissemination Committee member, and eventually – a Trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation. Somewhere along the way, I realized that I was spending way too much time on Wikipedia, and that it was affecting my academic work. Instead of cutting down on my activity, I decided I should make it a primary topic of my research.

Wikipedia and Academia

When I was beginning my project, there were no solid academic books about Wikipedia that I could find. Later, quite a few were published that I am fully confident that are excellent and to the point (e.g.: Lih, 2009; Reagle, 2010b; Tkacz, 2015), but at the time Wikipedia was still gaining initial interest of the social researchers interested in qualitative studies of organizations.

As I just submitted my associate professorship application and was undergoing a tenure review equivalent, I had to strategize on what topic I should take next, so that I could build a solid case for my future full professorship. Many faculty members, whom I consulted, believed that focusing on Wikipedia is a dead end. They pointed out that even though the topic is not fully covered, it is also due to the fact that senior professors perceive online communities as a not entirely serious topic, possibly being a temporary fad. More importantly, as I was more and more open and vocal about my support for Wikipedia, I also faced harsh criticism and hostility. On an number of occasions I was sneered at or ridiculed at conference presentations, and regularly repeatedly requested to admit that Wikipedia should not be treated seriously.

One of the lessons learned for me was that, apparently, Wikipedia was perceived as something very, very bad in Academia. Even though the perception of Wikipedia among scholars has been changing over time since (Aibar, Lladós-Masllorens, Meseguer-Artola, Minguillón, & Lerga, 2015; Soules, 2015), and Wikipedia is more and more welcome in classrooms (Konieczny, 2016), the wide divide between these two worlds is still very apparent and may be worth reflecting upon a little bit (Jemielniak & Aibar, 2016).

Everybody in Academia uses Wikipedia. And when I mean “everybody”, I mean – well, everyone who has a computer, the Internet access, and occasionally has questions that may have answers to in the body of human knowledge, while are outside of his or her expertise. Numerous studies have shown that the accuracy of Wikipedia is on par with the “professional” encyclopedias (Chesney, 2006; Giles, 2005; James, 2016; Reavley et al., 2012), with minor biases going one way or another (Greenstein & Zhu, 2018). It is also much better referenced by design (Rivington, 2007), as one of the ground rules is only adding information with valid sources that a reader may verify for themselves.

I asked myself a question then, and it has puzzled me ever since: why are not all academics actively contributing to Wikipedia and using it for their regular classwork? After all, writing Wikipedia articles is a perfect student homework. A standard essay is typically going to land in a shredder immediately after grading and virtually no-one is going to read it ever again. A Wikipedia article, on the other hand, even if initially quite poorly developed, is likely to be useful for many readers, who may also gradually improve it and help it grow. It gives a solid chance to give back to the society, as well as support the underprivileged, for whom Wikipedia is the main source of knowledge.

Also, writing an encyclopedic article is, arguably, a paragon of an academic effort. It requires collecting valid, reliable scholarly references, the ability to synthesize them and refer accurately, as well as writing in a neutral language. The outcome serves the general public, and the students know that their output will be widely read, which for many raises the bar and increases their motivation significantly.

There are other benefits, too: Wikipedia submissions are frequently verified for plagiarism by volunteers. Wikipedia editors restlessly point out missing references, correct poorly written phrases, and the wiki engine allows detailed tracking of contributions. As a result, a student assignment can be not only writing an article from the scratch, but also improving and expanding an existing one.

Given all that, I have wondered, why on Earth are professors all around the planet so reluctant to include Wikipedia assignments into university coursework? After over a decade of spending time among Wikipedians and among my academic peers, I think I have some clues.

First of all, editing Wikipedia seems difficult. There is a large number of rules and formatting one has to follow, and any professor who would include Wikipedia writing into their curriculum, would also have to master these as well, even if to be able to answer simple questions or, at the very least, not answer them, but with sufficient confidence.

Second, Wikipedia is perceived as inaccurate. It does not matter that its reliability on average is high according to most studies published, that it has been good enough for different courts for over a decade (Peoples, 2009), that it is perceived as a normal, neutral source of information by the regular media (Messner & South, 2011), or that the majority of medical students find it useful and use it for learning for exams with good results (Azzam et al., 2017; Selwyn & Gorard, 2016). The perception is shaped much more by spectacular blunders and hoaxes (Ciampaglia, 2018), which are, admittedly, much more likely to appear on Wikipedia than in a published book encyclopedia. The fact that the latter is getting obsolete day by day, or that hoaxes are regularly weeded out by Wikipedia community and do not stay long in popular articles, does not affect this perception much here.

Third, there is a wider change in the society, linked to a major crisis of trust in science, leading to defensive and dismissing reactions of Academia. Different sides of this phenomenon manifest through e.g. alterscience communities, such as climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, homeopaths, or even more exotic flat-Earthers, and a generalized anti-intellectualism (Peters, 2019; Reich, 2016). There are surely many complex reasons for this change happening, including spreading fake news and network propaganda (Benkler, Faris, & Roberts, 2018), but one of the clear side effects is a rapidly declining authority of science in the general public. Doctor Google becomes a practitioner of choice and the first source of information for a majority of patients (Astrup, 2018; Bouwman, Teunissen, Wijburg, & Linthorst, 2010). Non-experts have less and less respect for formal academic authority, and there is a strong rise of citizen science (Bonney, Phillips, Ballard, & Enck, 2016), a global movement of amateurs, gathering and interpreting data, as well as making actual and valid scientific discoveries (Jones, Corin, Andre, Childers, & Stevens, 2017). Wikipedia fits perfectly into this trend (Hendler & Hall, 2016), since it aims at democratizing academic knowledge. The fact that Wikipedia reveres science and strictly follows the rules of scholarly reporting of findings does not change the fact that Wikipedians are perceived as circumventing the traditional knowledge distribution channels. Thus, many scholars may recognize the growing distrust in science and its disastrous consequences as somewhat related to anti-credentialism, that is so typical on Wikipedia.

Finally, Wikipedia governance is so bizarre, and messy, and a-hierarchical (Jemielniak, 2016b; Konieczny, 2017). For professors, arguably one of the most traditionally structured professions, it must appear as a nightmare.

However, there clearly is also a very real, not just misconceived power struggle there. Wikipedia indeed occupies the niche previously reserved only for those high in academic hierarchy. Still, if Wikipedia is so widely popular and effective in knowledge dissemination, should not scholars eagerly develop it? When I was trying to understand the apparent paradox, I realized that perceiving Wikimedia as a game is, in fact, a useful metaphor explaining it.

Wikipedia As A Role-Playing Game

Wikipedia is a role-playing game. It is a widely popular LARP. It is a massive, collaborative action research experiment in creating a knowledge-building social movement (Jemielniak, 2015; Konieczny, 2009), torn between the good-faith collaboration and pro-social behaviors (Reagle, 2010a) and the inevitable political struggles, tensions, and reflections of social biases (Jemielniak, 2016a; Rijshouwer, 2019; Tkacz, 2015). Wikipedia RPG participants play the roles of encyclopedia writers. Irrespective of their age or occupation, they are deadly serious about staying in character. They created a plethora of rules about putting their ego on the side, behaving in a civil manner, and so on. The number of behavioral policies and guidelines on Wikipedia is much higher than in most “professional” organizations – 45,000 words just about proper conduct the last time I checked, and there are over 1000 other regulatory documents about other aspects of Wikipedia editing, with a word count reaching millions in total. It is not a coincidence that geek folklore is definitely well rooted in Wikipedic culture.

Seeing Wikipedia as a role-playing game solves several puzzles at once: for instance, it helps explain why real-life credentials are frowned upon there. After all, it is not particularly fair to try to get an advantage for your D&D character by insisting that you actually know how sword combat works. It also explains why many Wikipedians are well educated or enrolled in doctoral programs, but not so many actually employed in Academia: playing a scientist is so much more fun when you are not one for a living.

The perception of Wikipedia as a role-playing game explains also the reluctance of the ivory tower inhabitants to participate. When you are a soldier, you do not necessarily spend your free time playing paintball with friends. As a result, editing Wikipedia is perceived as a play for those, who are academic would-bes. Granted, Wikipedia is read much more widely than any academic textbook, and has a much bigger audience than any professor may dream of, but participating might indicate that one is not an actual academic.

Since Academia in all its forms worldwide is also a highly ritualized theater with its own scripts, the fact that Wikipedia has concrete real results in knowledge dissemination is irrelevant. Allowing Wikipedia articles as important contributions counting in tenure reviews would be like introducing Star Wars X-Wings into a Dungeons and Dragons battle – highly effective, but somewhat incompatible.

Even though Wikipedia can be seen as a role-playing game, its outcomes are very real. As a result, we can also observe quite palpable shifts in knowledge-power distribution, threatening the privileged caste of academics (Jemielniak & Greenwood, 2015), which, unsurprisingly, definitely adds to the sentiment against Wikipedia. A serious game (Charsky, 2010), which results in creating the most popular reliable knowledge source in the world, disrupting existing knowledge hierarchies and authority, all in the times of massive anti-academic attacks – what is there not to hate?


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Joseph Reagle: we are using Chicago full note style
Denny Vrandečić: thank you for this really refreshing article and comparison! It can also explain what drew me to Wikipedia maybe, as I have been RPGing for years :)
Denny Vrandečić: great comparison!
Denny Vrandečić: I buy the RPG part, but not the *LA*rp part - rather MMORPG than LARP.
Denny Vrandečić: reminded me of that Eco quote:
Denny Vrandečić: remove “the”
Denny Vrandečić: See also
Denny Vrandečić: it seems it really depends on the discipline: in Computer Science, Wikipedia became a hot topic of research already in the mid-2000s, and was very respected to do research on.
Denny Vrandečić: remove “a”
Thomas Townsend: “we can also observe quite palpable shifts in knowledge-power distribution, threatening the privileged caste of academics” Yes, let’s just accuse academics of being only interested in preserving their own power and privileges — why not? Let’s unpick this a little. A “caste” is a hereditary group within a religious structure of social differentiation. Is being an academic — say, a university employee — a position you’re born into? No, obviously not. Is it religiously defined? No, again. Does it convey social power or privilege? No, again. So let’s replace “caste" by “group”. Not, what privileges does a university professor have? They get to be called “Professor”, which is quite nice, but isn’t going to get you off a speeding ticket, or let you jump the queue at the bank. What academics do is to produce, preserve and propagate knowledge. That’s their job, and their privilege, if they have one, is to be paid for doing something they think is important, worth doing, and beneficial for the world at large. The reason why academics do not like Wikipedia is not that it undercuts access to knowledge, but that it replaces knowledge by fake knowledge. Unreliable, inaccurate, untrustworthy. Their reaction to Wikipedia is the same as the reaction of doctors to anti-vaxxers or scientists to charlatans. Next, let’s turn this on its head. What’s source for the goose is sauce for the gander. If it’s OK in this article to take an unsupported and indeed untrue sideswipe at academics, accusing them of merely venal motives surely we can do the same to the Trustees and employees of the Wikimedia Foundation. The Foundation claims that it “provides the essential infrastructure for free knowledge” and raises an annual income of about $100million which as one of those trustees Professor — oops, sorry, Mister, no privileged caste of academics here — Jemielniak gets to help spend on projects he likes the look of. Now that’s a privilege worth climbing a greasy pole for.
Denny Vrandečić: Regarding “Unreliable, inaccurate, untrustworthy.” - Citation needed. Dariusz provides links to several documents that say that Wikipedia is similarly trustworthy as many other encyclopedic sources. This comment strikes me as unfriendly and an ad-hominem attack on the author. If this was meant as constructive criticism, I would suggest to rework it.
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Thomas Townsend: Prof. Jemielniak reiterates the notion that Wikipedia is reliable: as he says, “writing an encyclopedic article is, arguably, a paragon of an academic effort. It requires collecting valid, reliable scholarly references […]”, going on to claim that Wikipedia is “the most popular reliable knowledge source in the world”. Unfortunately, Wikipedia is not reliable. As recent research by the Wikimedia Foundation has shown, something like 20% of articles on Wikipedia — that is, *millions* of articles — do not have any or adequate references (which is, as he says, a requirement); of these some thousands are biographies of living people which by Wikipedia’s own rules must be supplied with references or be immediately deleted. But there they still are. Indeed, Wikipedia’s own reliability criteria forbid the use of open wiki sources as inherently unreliable — and Wikipedia is of course such a source. So by the criteria of both conventional scholarship and also by Wikipedia’s own criteria, it cannot be considered reliable. The author also states that Wikipedia “is also much better referenced by design”. This is not correct either. It is better referenced by *aspiration*, but not by design — there is no design for a process that will ensure that articles will contain only “information with valid sources that a reader may verify for themselves”. There is a hope that crowd-sourcing will somehow ensure that happens, but as we know the evidence is that this has not happened, the situation is getting worse not better, an there is no reason to believe that it will improve soon, or indeed, ever.