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

Play Ecosystems: Fixed Synthetic vs. Co-Created Worlds

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Play Ecosystems: Fixed Synthetic vs. Co-Created Worlds

Because this study described in this book spanned several virtual worlds of different varieties, including MMOGs and MMOWs, it became evident that, while helpful as a starting point, the binary distinction of game/not-game was extremely limited in providing us with deeper insight into emergent behavior within online games and virtual worlds. Since I was primarily concerned with the ways in which emergent behavior grew from software affordances, it became necessary to come up with language that was both more specific and more nuanced.
Borrowing from terminology in complexity theory, we might characterize virtual worlds as “play ecosystems” that fall along a spectrum. At one end of this spectrum are “fixed synthetic” worlds. These worlds, while extensible and modifiable, are defined primarily by the world’s designers, who have absolute control over their narratives, game mechanics, geographical and architectural design. They tend to have strong themes, an over-arching storyline which comprises smaller sub-narratives instantiated as quests or missions and backstory, and more or less fixed goals. At the extreme, these worlds cannot be modified by players in any sanctioned way, although some do allow for limited “mods” that tend to impact the player’s individual play experience, e.g., interface, rather than affecting the world as a whole. In the most extreme cases, avatar representation tends to be limited by the decision you make at the start in terms of appearance and gender, and by the instrumental function of clothing, e.g.,, it’s value as armor, etc. (REF: Ludica costume play). Examples of fixed synthetic worlds include such popular games as EverQuest (McQuaid, Clover, and Trost 1999) and World of Warcraft (Kern, Petras, and Metzen 2003), and, to a lesser degree, Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, the primary subject of this study, since the latter has some limited affordances for players to physically change the world.
At the opposite end of this spectrum is what I will call the “co-created” world, which includes built-in affordances for players to actually introduce new artifacts and behaviors into the world. At its extreme, virtually all in-world items and activities are created by players, and one could argue that all aspects of such worlds are emergent. These worlds typically do not have a set theme or storyline, although they often have an aesthetic direction and a unifying metaphor, such as Habbo Hotel’s use of a hotel as an over-arching framework. In co-created worlds, players can typically add items, and also have some ability to alter or vary their avatar to varying extents based on aesthetic decisions. At a more moderate level, players may be able to introduce new artifacts in a limited way into the environment but not to change features or add behaviors. They may be able to introduce buildings and furnishings, for instance, but not to alter the terrain. In other co-created worlds, players can alter terrain, build objects, modify and extend their avatars in elaborate ways, create animations, and modify the code world itself through controlled and limited authoring capabilities. LambdaMOO is the primordial instantiation of this type of world and Second Life is perhaps its ultimate instantiation of a graphical world of this sort to-date. Both of these worlds have broad allowances for varied avatar representation, and Second Life even allows players to change gender, form, and present as non-humanoid avatars.
The fact that these “co-created” worlds have an open architecture, amenable to player contribution, should not mislead one into thinking that they lack rules. In fact, these rules operate in much more subtle ways than the more obvious rules of fixed synthetic worlds. As mentioned previously, simple “natural” laws, such as simulated physics, the mortality of avatars and constraints on transportation modes, are just as prevalent in co-created as in fixed synthetic worlds. Co-created worlds can also have very strict rules as to what players can and cannot contribute to the world, and more importantly, how they are to do so. In some cases, as with Second Life, there is very little restriction on what players can create; however, the creation mechanism itself places significant constraints on the types of objects and scripts that can be created. Second Life’s authoring environment takes place primarily in-world, so it can be highly collaborative. Yet it falls into the classic game parameter of “easy to learn, challenging to master.” This results in a lot of “stuff” in the world, much of which is of dubious quality, while on the other, promoting a system of economic status around content creation skills. Conversely, in a more controlled co-created world, such as, player creation of artifacts takes place primarily out-of-world and no new player-created content can be introduced without an official approval from the company’s management. Thus, there is less stuff, but it is more congruent with the world’s overall look and feel, maintaining a higher standard of overall quality.
These constraints place subtle limits on what players can and cannot do as dictated by the world’s designers, the ultimate “gods” in either type of world. Thus, the claim that a world like Second Life is only limited by the player’s imagination is spurious. In fact, Second Life is as limited by the imaginations of its designers as it is of its players, although players often do things wildly outside of what designers ever imagined, even within a set of narrow affordances and constraints.
Conversely, we should not regard as “less creative” forms of emergence that take place within fixed synthetic worlds. Indeed, emergence in these worlds is in some respects far more creative because it is more constrained. The ways in which players appropriate and subvert the environment to their own ends can be extremely creative and inventive, and players’ inventiveness in subverting game affordances can be a source of pride, respect and social status. Part of the skill of subversion lies in a thorough understanding of the deep structure of the game, it’s rules and affordances as well as its defects. Flaws in games are as much a material for emergence as anything else, as we shall see as we delve deeper into our case study.
One observation we might make from these examples is that worlds that fall into the category of “fixed synthetic” worlds tend toward what we typically categorize as “games” with a ludic formal structure, while more paidaic, “co-created” worlds tend to fall into the category of MMOW or metaverse.
What is key to our concerns here is that: a) emergence happens, regardless of where the world falls along the “fixed synthetic”/”co-created” spectrum, and that b) emergence can and does migrate between both types of worlds, as well as taking place outside the virtual world (in other words, beyond the magic circle) into other forms of online communication, and even into the ‘real world’. Each of these worlds can be viewed as its own ecosystem of play with its own unique characteristics. As networks of players move between these ecosystems of play, they both adapt and mutate to accommodate the ecosystem, but more importantly, in the case of co-created worlds, the ecosystem also adapts and mutates to accommodate the play community. The larger sphere of virtual worlds and supporting technologies (forms, chat, voice over IP, etc.) between which players migrate can also be viewed as a kind of meta-ecosystem, a web of complex relationships between these more finite networked spaces. I characterize this network of play ecosystems and supporting technologies as the “ludisphere.”
The distinction between fixed synthetic worlds (MMOGs) and co-created worlds (MMOWs) is made at the outset for two reasons. One is that the apparent ambiguity and overlap between virtual worlds and online games can create confusion and mire arguments in the question of whether something is or is not a game. Second, the relationship between MMOGs and MMOWs is in the process of shifting due in part to inter-world immigration patterns that cross the game/non-game threshold, such as those explored in this study.ii
One important point that should be noted here, however, is that in general, players in this study did not make a cultural distinction between a “virtual world” and a “game,” even though they clearly understood the difference between an environment to which they could actively contribute and one whose affordances for emergence were more a matter of subversion than outright creation. In practice, all of the environments explored in this study were referred to among the study subjects as “games” regardless if whether they met the qualifications described above. Thus the “existential” question of whether something is or is not a game that pervades among games scholars appears to have been more or less irrelevant to the players included in this study.

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