Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Online Games and Virtual Worlds

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Defining MMOGs vs. MMOWs

One of the fundamental questions only now beginning to be addressed is the distinction between “games” and “virtual worlds.” This discourse comes out of a long-standing debate among both game developers and games scholars about what is and is not a game. Due to early dueling taxonomies in game studies, varying definitions have yet to be resolved in any official, scholarly sense. Among game designers and critics in the game industry, there tends to be a notable bias against defining as games play experiences that lack a goal or a win state. Hence, hugely popular single-player games such as The Sims and Animal Crossing are frequently critiqued as “not being games.” This may also be an encoded means of marginalizing game patterns that are favored by females.

For those unfamiliar with this territory, and also due to the ambiguity of terms and definitions, it might be useful to discuss specifically what is meant by MMOG and MMOW, describe some of the outstanding characteristics of each, and provide some specific examples. A more detailed description of the games and virtual worlds covered in the Uru study will be provided within the monograph. However, here we shall attempt to provide some more general definitions and also ground them in some of our current understandings about the structured and unstructured play.
MMOGs and MMOWs have in common that they take place in what are called “persistent virtual worlds,” a term I will use generically (along with “virtual worlds”) to encompass both categories. Thus categorized, virtual worlds can be defined as entirely digital, networked environments that simulate three-dimensional space and have their own sets of intrinsic rules, “natural” and “man-made” laws, narratives and aesthetic style (also known by practitioners as “look and feel.”) The term “persistent” means that players create an identity that remains the same and is cumulative each time they log into the world, and which therefore develops over time. This distinguishes them from first-person shooter games, for instance, which are typically smaller in size and do not possess this quality of persistence. This is also the distinguishing characteristic of virtual worlds that predisposes them to emergence: emergence, by definition, requires persistence, since one of its underlying characteristics is change over time.
Spatial Media and Spatial Literacy

The most fundamental characteristic shared by MMOGs and MMOWs is their spatiality. Janet Murray introduced “spatial” as one of the four unique properties of computational media in Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997), along with “participatory,” “encyclopedic,” and “procedural.” Indeed MMOGs and virtual worlds could be characterized as possessing all of these qualities. The application of participatory (interactive) and procedural (rule-based) characteristics to MMOGs and MMOWs is obvious, but most of these worlds are also undergirded by massively elaborate databases, as well as augmented by a wide-array of extra-virtual web-based resources, such as forums and knowledge bases, that support players in-world activities.

“Spatial media” is a term I’ve adopted to describe digital environments whose primary characteristic is their spatiality. In The Interactive Book, I elaborated on the notion of spatial media by describing architecture as a storytelling medium and discussing the craft of creating “narrative environments,” (Pearce 1997) what Norman Klein has characterized as “scripted spaces.” (Klein 2003) I have also argued that due to the predominately spatial nature of contemporary video games (whether real-time 3D, top-down, or isometric), they are more closely aligned to architectural forms of entertainment and communication (e.g., cave paintings, cathedrals, and theme parks) then they are to the other media to which they are more commonly compared. (Pearce 2002b) (Pearce 2007)
Other scholars have also written about the spatial characteristics of games, most notably: Henry Jenkins’ famous essay on “Games as gendered play space” in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games (Jenkins 1998), a topic covered in a more recent writing with my collaborators in Ludica (Fullerton, Morie, and Pearce 2007); Espen Aarseth’s critical theory analysis of the relationship of play to space (Aarseth 2000) and his typology of virtual space, along with Smedstad and Sunnanå (Aarseth, Smedstad, and Sunnanå 2003); and Marie-Laure Ryan’s discussion of Narrative as Virtual Reality, in which she explores the ways in which all narratives possess some core properties of spatiality. Nitsche has also argued that in video games, time and space are integrally related. (Nitsche 2007)
Perhaps the most extensive study of spatiality in virtual worlds is Lisbeth Klastrup’s writings on “the poetics of virtual worlds.” In these, Klastrup attempts to point the way, after Aristotle, to a deeper understanding of the properties and conventions of these spatial environments as a form of cultural expression and production, including defining the characteristics of “worldness.” (Klastrup 2003a; Klastrup 2003b) In Game Zone, Iacovoni explores the relationship between game space and urban space. (REF 2004) More recently, von Borries et al have edited a volume of scholarly articles on the topic of games architecture, and urban space that explores a number of issues related to game-space in depth. (von Borries, Walz, and Böttger 2007)
The illusion of three-dimensional space creates affordances for a mode of nonlinearity with which most people will be naturally familiar, as spatial navigation exploits the intuitive metaphor of navigation through the physical world. Nonetheless, this translation from three-dimensional reality to the illusion of navigable three-dimensional space requires us to establish a set of conventions as a means of understanding or “reading” techniques of three-dimensional visual representation and interaction. Just as audiences had to learn how to see films as two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional time-based events, players of online virtual worlds must learn how to both interpret and interact with a medium whose primary aim is to immerse them in the illusion of a three-dimensional space. Films are unreadable by those not acculturated to the conventions for interpreting events in time-based media, such as time compression, montage, flashbacks, establishing shots, close-ups, reverse-POV, etc. Similarly, players of three-dimensional games and virtual worlds must become acculturated to conventions of spatial media. In short, they must develop a sense of “spatial literacy.”
Conventions of spatial media concern themselves with both representation and navigation and are by-and-large challenged by the fact that the computer screen is in fact a two-dimensional, albeit dynamic, surface. Traditional “immersive” VR attempts to address this problem with elaborate body gear, sensing devices, and binaural visual input. In PC games, the classic convention is the almost universal paradigm of using computer arrow keys to navigate through a virtual world, or the “point and click” method of pointing to the location to which you want to go. In console games, manipulation of a joystick is most common method of navigation. The use of forced perspective, although quite common in contemporary virtual worlds, is by no means a foregone conclusion and was preceded by a variety of tricks to compensate for earlier computers’ poor graphics processing capabilities. Methods such as a fixed, isometric view, the perspective used in the original versions of Sim City, The Sims, and Civilization, and virtual sets on which animations or sprites are overlaid onto a static background, as used in games like Blade Runner and Grim Fandango, are just a few of the conventions that were developed to help enhance the players’ sense of dimensionality. [Figure]
A key set of conventions concern the player’s relationship to the space: am I a God (or Goddess) overlooking a simulated environment, as with games like Civilization and Sim City? Am I immersed in a first-person viewpoint, as in a first-person shooter like Half-Life or Unreal? Or is my presence in the world represented by an avatar, which I and everyone else can see, such as is the case in most MMOGs and MMOWs? These and other properties of virtual worlds require players to possess some measure of “spatial literacy,” which enables them to engage in these worlds in a seemingly intuitive way. This so-called “intuitive” interaction is typically learned and adopted, as anyone who has fumbled around with a clumsy and opaque interface first trying a first person shooter or virtual world will immediately appreciate.
In the case of MMOGs, and in particular, as we shall soon see, within Uru, understanding the conventions of space and of spatial storytelling are particularly integral to gameplay. Typical MMOG quests often take players across continents of a virtual world, and many times quests are merely a McGuffin to lure players into another part of the world. A significant percentage of the effort in such games is applied to learning the layout and cultural nuances of the world. Understanding the properties of different areas can be a matter of life and death when entering an area populated by hostile enemies or outside of ones own level capabilities. Uru, as with all Myst game, uses an elaborately complex set of storytelling and navigation conventions that require players to adopt a particular brand of “spatial literacy” in order to understand, navigation, agency and narrative within the world.
Common Characteristics of Persistent Virtual Worlds

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