By day, Kevin Werbach is an academic. By night: Total nerd.
One meet-and-greet with Kevin Werbach and you sense success: Professional and energetic, it comes no shock that Werbach graduated from Harvard Law School and ended up a Wharton professor, Obama adviser and the founder of a technology firm.
Underneath the polished exterior, though, is a first-class nerd.
Werbach, you see, is a world-class player of the "massively multiplayer" online game World of Warcraft, a potion-making Tauren named Supernovan Jenkins. Class: Shaman. Level: 80. And he's bringing his expertise in the virtual world to bear on real-life issues of technology and economic development.
“So much of what I do in my life is very hardcore, intellectual, focused — it was nice to have something that’s just ‘Let’s play a game,’” he says. “But of course, for me, it has become something that’s an extremely intellectual experience as well.”
Werbach's geek credentials were cause for gamer celebration in November, when then-President-elect Obama named him to head up the FCC transition team. Some bloggers even tried to make sense of Werbach's political philosophy based on his actions within the game's universe.
Supernovan Jenkins "enjoys helping people, and being depended on," wrote the blogger, "waltermonkey." "Again, this is exactly what I'd expect from someone aligned with Obama."
In fact, Werbach has long been tech-oriented.
After graduating Harvard in 1994, Werbach served as counsel for New Technology Policy at the FCC, helping craft laws and policy for the then-emerging Internet. The Los Angeles native moved to Philadelphia in 2002 and set up Supernova, a consulting firm that advises companies on communication and technology issues -- and also organizes the Supernova conference, a major executive technology meeting. From there, he landed the job at Wharton, as an assistant professor of legal studies and business ethics. Currently, he is advising the National Telecommunications and Information Administration on implementing a grant program to fund broadband in underserved areas.
“I work at the intersection of law, business and technology and helping to explain those things to people on the other side who don’t understand the intersections,” explains Werbach. “In some ways I feel like I’ve been doing the same thing my whole career.”
He started playing WoW three years ago when a friend’s friend started a guild and wanted people to join. On a typical week, he meets up with his guild one night for several hours and then logs in on the other days to check the auction house. The game has become Werbach’s substitute for TV, though it provides him with more than entertainment.
“I think it’s significant in terms of being a microcosm for lots of things,” said Werbach. “It is a huge simulation engine so you have real people running around doing things that you can watch in this environment, and even when things happen by accident you can learn from it.”
In one incident, Werbach says, the game’s developers incorrectly coded a disease -- which started spreading much faster than its creators anticipated. An epidemiologist looked at the game’s data on the disease's spreading and how players reacted. The results matched scientists expectations of what would happen if a similar disease were to spread in the human population.
“That was not even intentional, but Warcraft and things like it, I think, can be a great laboratory for studying phenomena that involve people,” Werbach says.
The game also has economic implications, he says. Within the WoW universe, characters advance by amassing gold. That's led to "gold farming" -- where companies (particularly in China) pay employees to play Warcraft and then sell the characters’ gold and assets to people here in the West, who do not want to trudge their way up the levels. Hundreds of thousands to one million people gold-farm, and potentially up to $10 billion a year is transacted in real money.
Werbach recently presented “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in World of Warcraft” on July 13 at Philly’s second Pecha Kucha Night, a grown up show-and-tell in which speakers are allowed 20 PowerPoint slides with only 20 seconds to speak about each. He said “it was a blast” because it is “provocative” to see people’s reactions to a Wharton professor talking about online gaming.
David Zaring, a colleague at Wharton, says playing Warcraft is an “atypical hobby” in the UPenn community. Then again Werbach is Wharton’s “cyber-guru” and thus, “it makes sense that he would be in a massively multiplayer game and an expert at it.”
And it's clear Werbach enjoys challenging people's expectations of what a gamer looks like. What's more, he says, there's a lot more people out there like him.
“This is not just a few 15 year old pimply kids playing Dungeons & Dragons,” says Werbach. “This is 11 million people paying to play this game.”