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

Networked Play and Virtual Communities

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Networked Play and Virtual Communities

From the very inception of networks, people have tried to play on them. The hacker ethos epitomized by early games such as Tennis for Two, Spacewar! (and the MIT Model Railroad Club that spawned it), and the Odyssey (which began as a speculative experiment in the R&D lab of a military contractor) has been a prevailing primordial soup for games from the very beginning. As networks began to make appearances on college campuses, curious and adventurous researchers and students experimented with their applications to play.
Today’s massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) descend from this college-hacker tradition. Text-based MUDs (multi-user dungeons or domains) and MOOs (multi-user object-oriented environments) emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s on nascent computer networks in the U.S. and Europe, most of which were housed on university campuses. One of the earliest of these was MUD (multi-user-dungeons), a roleplaying adventure game designed by Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw at the University of Essex in 1978. (Bartle and Trubshaw 1978) MUD was highly influenced by the tabletop roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) (Gygax and Arneson 1974), the J.R.R. Tolkien worlds, and other popular fantasy literature of the day. The tabletop adventure game, with its masculine themes of heroism and combat, its exaggerated gender roles, and its male fantasies of the female body, tended to situate it primarily (though not exclusively) as a male play practice. This, combined with limited computer access, meant that the majority of these early games were designed by and largely for male college students. Over time, these games integrated graphics, and eventually made the shift from a niche amusement technology geeks to mainstream entertainment. Not surprisingly, the games that descend from these genres still tend to attract a demographic of young males in the 18-28 age range.
The MMOG Boom

Over the past decade, MMOGs have emerged as the fastest growing sector of the video game industry. Yet despite an explosion in the quantity of offerings, the range of those offerings remains surprisingly narrow and continues to be deeply tied to their MUD origins. Games like Ultima Online, EverQuest, Dark Ages of Camelot, the Korean mega-hits Lineage, Ragnarok and Maple Story, the American blockbuster World of Warcraft, and more recently, The Lord of the Rings Online, embody this role-playing, D&D-derived, Tolkienesque fantasy genre. All of these revolve around a well-established set of conventions, each representing an incremental evolution within a given set of narrative and gameplay frameworks. More recently, also following in the heels of tabletop roleplaying, have been science fiction-themed games such as Star Wars Galaxies, Planetside (Burke 2005; Duchenaut, Moore, and Nickell 2004; Steinkuehler 2004a; Steinkuehler and Squire 2006) and Eve Online. City of Heroes and its counterpart, City of Villains, stand out as being unique, as roleplay takes place around superhero characters, although many of the conventions of the game mechanic are borrowed from these other genres. Recently, we have also seen the addition of pirate and gothic themes to the MMOG repertoire.

There are a number of popular misconceptions that continue to plague the discourse on MMOGs in industry, academia. These misconceptions often stem from a combination of historical amnesia and U.S.-centric perceptions of the marketplace. For instance, few even in the game industry are aware that the first graphical MMOG to be published was Merdian 59. (REF) Developed by Archetype Interactive and published by the now-defunct 3DO Studios 1996, Meridian 59 was released a year before Ultimate Online, which is more often lauded as the first. (REF) Meridian 59, like its antecedents, was highly influenced by text-based MUDs. Although it closed shortly after its launch, a small but ardent fan base inspired designer Brian Green to re-launch the game in 2002, and as of this writing, it operated as a small, independently owned MMOG. (REF: Indie Game conference keynote)
Ultimately far more successful than Meridian, Ultima Online derived from the popular Ultima single-player adventure series, designed by Richard Garriott (Lord British). The Ultima series introduced a number of terms into the MMOG lexicon, including popularizing the term “avatar,” and introducing the concept of a “shard,” an instantiation of the game world, a method for partitioning server space to prevent overloading. (FactCheck) While it was the first big MMOG hit, Ultima’s subscription base peaked at 250,000, (FactCheck), a relatively small audience by today’s video game standards.
EverQuest, (REF) published in 1999, eventually felled Ultima Online with a whopping 750,000 players at its peak (FactCheck). Meanwhile, unbeknownst to most Americans, in both industry and academia, EverQuest (or “Ever Crack” as it was colloquially termed) was being completely outstripped by the Korean offering, Lineage, (REF) released the year before in Korea, which peaked at about 3 million subscribers, four times the number of EverQuest. (FactCheck) World of Warcraft, which launched in 2003 and reached ten million subscriptions (FactCheck) in 2008, has been generally (mistakenly) believed the largest MMOG in the world. In fact, in 2008, the largest MMOG was another Korean game, fantasy-themed side-scroller Maple Story, developed by Wizet. According to its publisher, Nexon, Maple Story has over 72 million subscribers worldwide (although some of these may represent multiple accounts) as of this writing, mostly tweens, and boasts the second best-selling content card in Target stores, after iTunes. (FactCheck) Another popular misconception is that game-based MMOGs are more popular and marketable than MMOWs. Maple Story’s somewhat astonishing numbers are eclipsed by those of a social MMOW targeted to a similar demographic, Habbo Hotel, which had 89 million subscribers as of this writing. (FactCheck) It should be noted that virtually all MMOG and MMOW publishers count demographics by the number of “citizens,” avatars, or subscriber accounts, which does not necessarily correlate to the actual number of players. Especially in games with free subscriptions, many players who have subscriptions seldom if ever log on, while the most regular players will often have multiple accounts.
Nonetheless, these figures suggest a genre that is literally exploding, but even with this explosion, the domain is still relatively homogenous.

Part of this narrowness of appeal may arise not only from the themes and representations in these genres, but the game mechanic. Virtually all MMOGs, with a small handful of exceptions, are combat-based and work within a similar leveling structure to the earlier medieval-fantasy games derived from D&D, regardless of their themes. Players select from a variety of classes (professions, such as hunter, mage or warlock, or hero archetypes in City of Heroes) and races (typically fantasy races such as elf or human, or, in the case of City of Heroes, origins, such as science, mutation or technology) to determine the capabilities of their characters. Players earn experience points by killing “enemies,” typically non-player characters, but also other players with whom they can do combat in player-versus-player, or “PvP,” areas of the game. Players accumulate virtual currency and gear, known as “loot,” from their kills, which can be utilized (armor or healing potions, for example), sold for game currency to purchase appropriate gear and even exchanged on the “black market” for real-world currency.

As players gain experience points, they “level” in the game. Leveling represents an increase in both status and strength, the ability to fight higher-level enemies and the ability to use new skills and special gear. Unlike first-person shooter games, which entail actually aiming at targets, killing in MMOGs is generally based on a statistical virtual dice throw, mimicking the polygonal dice used in Dungeons & Dragons. The outcome of each battle is calculated based on the dice throw in relation to the current level of both the player and the target. Players can incur damage from the target in the process, which may result in a temporary death. Even games that depart from Tolkienesque fantasy themes tend to borrow heavily from this stats-based style of game mechanic.
For the most part, these types of online roleplaying games require a fairly high time commitment. Quests and missions can take as many as three to four hours or more, depending on their difficulty level. And because of the relentless leveling system, players who wish to maintain an ongoing play community must put in a certain number of hours per week simply to keep up with their playmates. Most research shows that the average figure is around 20 hours per week, (Seay, Jerome, Sang Lee, and Kraut 2004) (Yee 2001-2008) a figure that is actually lower than the roughly 30 hours per week the average American spends watching television. (Holmes 2006) Hardcore players spend significantly more time in-game.
These games have been incredibly successful in terms of promoting play communities in various ways. There are generally two grouping mechanisms in the more popular MMOG genres, a large, long-term group, typically called a Guild, and a smaller, provisional group for pursuing specific quests and instances, typically called a Party or Group. The former serves as a means for play communities to form and be sustained over the long term. The latter is comparable to a pick-up game in basketball, where players group for a finite period of time to complete a specific quest or mission. Larger variations, the Raid Group, are typically formed for particularly challenging, high-level tasks. Guilds and long-term groups can form around a variety of factors: they might include real-life friends and family members, individuals or groups who have met in other games, members of a larger online play community, or players who come together in a specific game around a specific play philosophy. Groups dedicated to a high level of achievement in the game, often measured by the high statistical status of their members, are termed “uber-guilds,” both other groups may commit to low-pressure enjoyment of the game, just for fun. Groups can also form around various real-world identities, such as Christian and Gay Guilds, which are quite common. Members of the online game community “The Older Gamers,” comprising predominately adult gamers, have guilds in multiple games devoted to a promoting a more mature style of gameplay, free from some of the classic social problems associated with playing with younger players, such as grief play, sexism and sexual harassment, and contentious social interactions. Many play communities support their activities with out-of-game web sites and social forums to help in defining community goals, forging relationships, and planning events and activities. These are sometimes used to plan real-world social gatherings, whether associated with fan conventions or organized by individual groups.

In addition to traditional MMOG genres, and often overlooked, are small handful of independently produced virtual gaming environments that depart rather dramatically from this mold. One striking example is New Medeon’s Whyville, a science learning environment for kids that had about two and a half million subscribers at the time of this writing, mostly tweens, 60% of whom are female. (FactCheck)(REF) Puzzle Pirates, a game in which players collectively pilot a ship by playing casual-style puzzle games, is another example of an alternative theme and game genre that has done exceptionally well. (REF) Other pirate-themed games by large publishers have emerged over the past year, including Pirates of the Burning Sea, and Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean MMOG. (REFS) Other genres are on the horizon, such as the upcoming horror game World of Darkness, based on the popular “gothic punk” tabletop series by White Wolf). Because online games are based on an ongoing revenue and development model, rather than a single-product sale like traditional PC or console games, smaller companies have been able to sustain and grow these alternative virtual worlds and games, and even exploit the “long tail” effect over time. (REF: Long Tail)

One of the games that falls into the alternative MMOG genre category is Uru, the subject of this study. Based on and set in the world of the popular single-player Myst series, Uru took the spatial storytelling and puzzle-solving mechanics of the earlier games in the series and added a multiplayer, cooperative component. As described in later chapters, Uru has no fighting, neither points nor levels, and no killing. As such, and as we will find, it gave rise to a distinctively different play community than games of the more traditional genres described above.

Understanding the conventions, genres and mechanics of MMOGs is important to us in our study of emergence because it helps us to unpack why certain games attract certain types of players with a proclivity towards certain game mechanics and play styles.

MMOWs through the Ages

In parallel with the development of MMOGs has been the concurrent trajectory of MMOWs, or massively multiplayer virtual worlds. Initially, the open-ended text-based MOOs and chat environments that also prevailed at this time were, like multiplayer roleplaying games, rendered entirely with words. Unlike their game counterparts, these worlds were open-ended and focused primarily on social interaction and creativity.

The most famous of these is LambdaMOO, created by Pavel Curtis at XeroxPARC in 1993, and perhaps the most-written about of the text-based MMOWs. LambdaMOO was significant in that it allowed players a high level of creative freedom to actually add onto and build the world, a tradition that was later picked up by its graphical descendants.
Somewhat surprisingly, the transition of MMOWs from text-based to graphicical worlds preceded their MMOG counterparts by a decade. The first online graphical world of this ilk was Habitat, a 2D social environment designed by Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer for LucasFilm Games (later LucasArts) and Fujitsu in 1985. Habitat launched on the Commodore 64 in 1986, and eventually evolved into Worlds Away as part of the CompuServe online service in 1995. Habitat was the first graphical user world to adopt the term “avatar” to describe a player character in a virtual world. (FactCheck) The mid-1990s saw a now-forgotten blossoming and eventual decline of wide variety of graphical worlds. The Palace, another 2D graphical chat environment, and Active Worlds, a primitive 3D environment, both launched in 1995, followed in 1996 OnLive.
These two foundational worlds have some significant parallels with and fore shadow some of the design considerations of their 21st Century descendents. Active Worlds, the oldest continuously running graphical virtual world, was the first 3D world to promote the idea of user-created content. It is without a doubt the precursor of Second Life, many of whose key features see their seeds in its design. Active Worlds uses an ingeniously simple basic interface that allows players to copy any item they see in the world, carry it to another area world, and plop it down. (Fig-ActiveWorlds) Land ownership is based on a model of squatting; as soon as you started building on land, it became yours. The initial world, AlphaWorld followed a highly emergent pattern of development from a dense core area to a sprawling suburb like perimeter. The aerial view looks strangely like areas of Southern California. (Figure) More sophisticated players could also create models in other 3D programs and add them into the world. Active Worlds also allowed players to create their own original worlds from scratch for a fee. Many different worlds were created, and Active Worlds has been used for everything from art projects, to distance learning, to virtual conferences and trade shows.
OnLive, now DigitalSpace Traveler, had similar characteristics and could be viewed as the predecessor to Like, OnLive chose a path that was more concerned with socializing than on building, with a more abstracted avatar representation. While ActiveWorlds, like Second Life, was more focused on expression-through-creation, OnLive was more focused on the expressiveness and social interactions of the avatar. Players were represented as a 3D head (as opposed to ActiveWorlds very low polygon full body avatar), which allowed for two innovations: facial expressions, and speech. OnLive was the first 3D virtual world to use voice-over-IP combined with avatar lip-synching, and a variety of expressive e-motes that triggered avatar animations and facial expressions, both staples of In addition, OnLive also allowed for player-created spaces. The metaphor designers used in developing this world was a virtual cocktail party. (DiPaola ref.)
During this boom of the mid-1990s, there were also a number of other worlds that came into being, including Cybertown and Black Sun, later Blaxxun (due to a trademark dispute with Sun Mircosystems), named for the company that built the metaverse in Neal Stephenson’s cyberspace classic, Snow Crash. (REF) There were many more worlds, as well as virtual world-building tools and technologies such as VRML (virtual reality markup language), a low-bandwidth solution to sending 3D graphics over the Internet. Service companies such as Construct, which designed virtual architecture and characters for 3D worlds, and Protozoa, a company specializing in motion capture animation, provided content for these new worlds. Most of the companies that came and went during this period were located within a few miles of the San Francisco headquarters of Linden Lab, creators of Second Life.
These histories are significant for two reasons. First, in the grand tradition of digital media entrepreneurialism, historical amnesia seems to be the prevalent stance of today’s virtual world-builders. Second, these primeval virtual worlds struggled with many of the same design, technical and sociological issues as their descendents a decade later. MMOWs continue to wrestle with seemingly simple problems: bandwidth and server processing on the network side; interface, tools and graphics rendering on the client (user computer) side; and social and cultural aspects of design on the player side. They have evolved well-past their antecedents in terms of cultures and economics, but today’s MMOW designers and researchers alike would do well to investigate their historical roots, and might be surprised to find that very similar patterns emerged in the virtual worlds of the 20th Century.
Communities of Research: Traditions in Game Studies

The study of online play spaces has lagged behind other related disciplines in the fields of Internet Studies and Computer-Mediated Communication. As early as 1995, the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, an online academic journal, had a special issue on “Play and Performance,” but the coverage of networked play environments has been sparse, with the notable exception of LambdaMOO. Of all the early text-based worlds, LambdaMOO is perhaps the most written about, and uniquely, from three different perspectives: Jennifer Mnookin’s foundational scholarly analysis of the emergence of law in the virtual world, Curtis’ perspective of the practitioner/creator, and Julian Dibbell’s famous excursions as perhaps the first “embedded” journalist in a virtual world. (REFS) As the Internet became more public and is uses multiplied throughout the 1990s, scholarly research on a vast array of social uses of networks grew. While communities of interest, communities of practice and computer-supported cooperative work have all been recognized among these scholars as legitimate research domains since the mid 1980s, games remained largely unattended to within in Internet Studies. A few pioneering scholars who covered this territory before it became its own discipline continue to play a leadership role in the emerging study of MMOGs and virtual worlds. (REFS: Klastrup, Taylor)

“Game Studies,” the academic study of computer games, is a relatively new discipline, or set of disciplines, devoted to a wide range of research questions.i Game studies embraces a wide array of research angles and scholarly disciplines encompassing the expressive qualities of computational media (Murray 1997), the critical analysis of “ergodic,” or participatory, texts (Aarseth 1997), the formal structure of games (Juul 2005) (Salen and Zimmerman 2004) (other taxonomies), the relationship between games and narrative (Ryan 2001(Pearce 2004)), and the behavioral and psychological aspects of gameplay. (Mäyrä and Ermi 2005)

Although the study of digital games research is a relatively recent phenomenon, the broader topic of games research as an academic discipline is not at all new. Most video game scholars are aware of the work of Huizinga, Caillois and Sutton-Smith, but they may not be as familiar with the extensive body of sociological and anthropological research that predates “game studies” as we know it today. Indeed, most scholars of analog play and games came from cultural disciplines, predominately anthropology and sociology, as well as behavioral and developmental psychology. Many were interested in the implications of play and games as a defining characteristic of human culture. Johan Huizinga, whose “seminal” monograph on games Homo Ludens (Huizinga 1950) is now a canonical text for computer game designers and researchers alike, was a Dutch cultural historian. Sub-titled, “the play element in culture, his treatise is an exhaustive study of the many facets of play in human society throughout history. Its follow-up, Man, Play and Games by a scholar who counted both literary theory and sociology among his areas of expertise (Caillois 1961), builds on Huizinga to develop a more cohesive theory of play and play genres.

Both of these volumes have become deservedly influential in the field of digital games studies, although there has been a reluctance to critique these them, producing the unfortunate side effect that game studies has inherited some of their flaws as well as their strengths. Both books suffer from a predictable (perhaps historically inevitable) disregard for female play styles and culture, a point that is made transparent by their titles: Man, the Player and Man, Play and Games. Huizinga explores every conceivable aspect of male human culture through a “ludic” (play-oriented) lens, specifically focusing on agonistic play and citing concepts such as virility and, “frenzied megolamania,” and speaks of the way men compete for superiority. He makes only passing reference to girls’ play activities, such as dress-up and doll play, and even goes so far as to suggest that baroque fashion originated with men and was co-opted by women. (Huizinga 1950) Caillois repeatedly asserts, somewhat dismissively, that girls’ play is, of course, entirely devoted to rehearsal for motherhood. (Caillois 1961) For a feminist theory of game design, see Mary Flanagan’s Playculture. (REF) Brian Sutton-Smith, also highly regarded among digital game scholars, and writing on games since the 1970s, has provided us with perhaps a more rigorous, more nuanced picture of the various aspects of play from an anthropological, sociological and behavioral perspective. (Sutton-Smith 1997)
But these texts are not isolated phenomena. The 1970s and 1980s saw a significant growth in the discussion of games and play as socio-cultural phenomena. Sutton-Smith’s influence here can be seen beyond his own work, as the founder of the academic journal Play & Culture. Among its contributors was Gregory Bateson (husband of Margaret Mead) who famously put forth his “Theory of Play and Fantasy,” describing the astonishing ability of both animals and humans to distinguish between real and play fighting. (Bateson 1972). Also included are anthropologists Robert Schechner and Victor Turner, both of whom embraced games and play within the rubric of theatre, performance and ritual, and introduced useful concepts that have significance to digital game studies. Schechner himself notes the marginalized position of play, pointing out that: “In the West, play is a rotten category tainted by unreality, inauthenticity, duplicity, make-believe, looseness, fooling around, and inconsequentiality.” (Schechner 1988b) Victor Turner introduced the concepts of the liminal space of ritual and liminal space, more commonly associated with entertainment. (Turner 1982) Developmental psychologists such as Winnicott and Piaget, explored the importance of play and make-believe in early childhood development and learning. (Winnicott 1971(Piaget 1962)) Both Schechner and Winnicot also explored the notion of make-believe characters and play identity, observing that both children at-play and actors in performance contexts inhabited a charcter that was “not me” and “not not me.” (Schechner 1988b) As far back as the 1960s, sociologists Iona and Peter Opie conducted a comprehensive ethnographic investigation of street and playground games, mapping popular street games and their variants throughout different regions of Britain. (Opie and Opie 1969) There are also a small handful of independent game writers who might be characterized as “game philosophers,” such as Bernard Suits, Bernie DeKoven (DeKoven 1978; Suits 1978), and the founders of the “New Games” movement in the 1970s. (Brand 1972; Fluegelman 1976)

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