If a physicist tried to do a research study playing "World of Warcraft" for 3 years his peers would say, "Don't try to church it up, Tommaso, you're just playing World of Warcraft" but when an ethnographer does it, they get funding from the National Science Foundation, Intel, and write a book about it.
Bonnie Nardi, professor in the Department of Informatics, School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, got the idea in late 2005 and eventually discovered what every teenager already knew - social gaming doesn't take people out of the world so much as it expands their social environment, even if it does so in ways previous generations may not understand.
Now, I have not played the game. I was one of about three people who liked Warcraft when it was just a strategy game with a plot, however tenuous, but Blizzard was certainly right in ignoring me as a customer - they have instead created a business model where people will buy a game and then pay to play it.
Basically, it is a license to print money. Absolutely brilliant. And it inspired studies of people playing it, best done by playing it. And that is a large part of the book excerpts; descriptions of playing the game from a personal perspective. It's not science but it got a book contract so I can't argue. I bet I can't get a book contract to write about my D&D character. Nardi is comforted by the lack of advertising, not seeming to realize that by paying to play it, users have simply supplanted advertising.
The thing that I would believe is anthropological interest - willingly and without notice breaking people into races, genders and guilds and having defined abilities based on those - hardly gets a mention, instead is awe that people play it together; "there are people with different backgrounds that come together", etc. but people getting married, or families playing together, do get mention. Yes, people of different backgrounds are getting together but they are still doing it to have comfortable stereotypes about other people in the game based on their race, occupation and gender. Just put a Confederate flag on your Guild and be done with it.
Obviously community is a good thing, I believe in the expansion power of the online world as well (look where you're reading this!), though I just talk to my kids about homework, sports and the real world rather than saying I play WoW to have something to talk to my kids about.
Nardi certainly believes in the social aspects of shared experiences and backs that up, so you can read the book for free online - though you have to pay $70 if you want a hardcover.
Reference: My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft: Excerpts by Bonnie A. Nardi First Monday, Volume 15, Number 7 - 5 July 2010