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

The Return of Play-Centric Digital Game Studies

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The Return of Play-Centric Digital Game Studies

These pre-digital research trajectories were principally concerned with the act of play as a psycho- or socio-cultural phenomenon, rather than with its artifacts. It is not until we enter the realm of the digital that the game “object” becomes the prevalent focus of scholarly attention. Ermi and Mäyrä have pointed out that this tendency towards what might be considered an “object-orientation” within game studies is inherited from its the disciplinary origins in art, literary theory, film and media studies, disciplines primarily occupied with the critical analysis of cultural artifacts. (Mäyrä and Ermi 2005) This has been aided and abetted by the prevalence of single-player digital games, further drawing the focus toward the game and way from the player.
In this object-centric games research, the primary focus of study has been the game as a cultural artifact or artwork in the tradition of critical theory and comparative media studies, where the “text” and “conventions” of the media content are analyzed and discussed in detail. (Aarseth 1997; Murray 1997) (REFS) Game scholars are in general agreement that it is necessary to play games in order to perform such analyses (Aarseth 2003; Konzack 2002); however, the focus has tended to be on the game, rather than the player or play process. As a result, this type of research tends to carry with it the implication of a generic player whose desires and pleasures are uniform and consistent with that of the researcher. Because this generic player is also consistent with the prevalent construction of the “market” for computer games (generally young and male), with a few notable exceptions, the mainstream of games research has engaged in little critique of the “normative” player position. Issues of games and gender, which were taken up in the early years of games studies, (Cassell and Jenkins 1998) are being taken up again, highlighting the continuing lack of equitable labor representation and the prevalence alienating stereotypes, in terms of both gender and race. (Kafai, Heeter, Denner, and Sun 2008) Artist and author Mary Flanagan has gone so far as proposing a feminist game studies, an approach which as been reflected by my work with the Ludica women’s game collective. (Fron, Fullerton, and Morie 2007) (Fullerton, Morie, and Pearce 2007) (Fron, Fullerton, Morie, and Pearce 2008)
As much as game designers themselves often speak of “gameplay” as the elusive quality that makes a game “fun,” they, too, often fail to distinguish between different types of players, again, taking as normative a player who typically has the same characteristics and play preferences as the designers themselves. (Crawford 1984) With some exceptions, game designers tend to use the word “fun” in an equally generic sense, as if the experience of “fun” were the same for all people (Falstein 2004). (REF: Koster?) Others argue that “fun” is overused, misleading, an oversimplification or difficult to quantify. (REF) Nonetheless, many of these writers continue to work with the unstated assumption that a “one size fits all” approach can be used in evaluating the success of gameplay (Crawford 2003; LeBlanc 1999; LeBlanc 2000). (REF) The one place where some designers do begin to articulate distinct player styles and play preferences is in the discussion of MMOGs, which we shall tackle momentarily. (REFs: Bartle, Koster???) Thus in both game studies and game design, the game itself (and by association its designers) have taken a privileged position over the player, and there has been a notable absence of critique from either camp of this one-sided approach.
With the growth of the study of multiplayer computer games, we have begun to see a return to the player-centric approach more typical of pre-digital games research, a tradition that concerns itself with the individual and social act of playing, the practice of play itself. (REF: Flanagan, Steinkeueler, Taylor) Play practice can be studied from a variety of scales and perspectives, ranging from the individual’s phenomenological, psychological or cognitive experience of play to behavioral aspects of play to larger patterns of social interaction and fan culture, including productive, subversive, grief play. (REFS: Pearce, Salen?, Consalvo, Bainbridge)
Player-centric research inevitably converges with game-centric research, as Game Studies continues to encounter the ways in which game artifacts are activated and transformed through play practice. And play-centric researchers may sometimes err on the side of underemphasizing the importance of software design itself when analyzing play patterns and styles. Understanding this convergence involves unpacking the ways in which designer values, aesthetics and agendas dictate affordances, representation, gameplay which ultimately influence play patterns and behavior. (Taylor 2003a)

The study of massively multiplayer games is the fastest-growing branch of Game Studies in part because the MMOG is the fastest growing genre of commercial computer game. Even within this relatively narrow scope, we see a diverse array of research topics and methods ranging from studies of player psychology (Yee 2001), to demographics and player segmentation, (Yee 2001-2008) (Seay, Jerome, Sang Lee, and Kraut 2004) to the economies of fictional worlds (Castronova 2001), the relationship between learning, cognition and MMOGs (Steinkuehler 2004b; Steinkuehler and Squire 2006)Ref: Gee , to critiques of power structures and representation (Taylor 2002; Taylor 2003a), to social and cultural aspects of online gaming (Lin, Sun, and Hong-Hong 2003; Taylor and Jakobsson 2003; Whang and Chang 2004; Whang and Kim 2005) (Taylor 2006) (Steinkuehler and Squire 2006) (Duchenaut and Moore 2004; Duchenaut, Moore, and Nickell 2004), to gender play preferences (Kerr 2003; Taylor 2003b) to governance and law in online games (Lastowka and Hunter 2003; Reynolds 2002) (Castronova 2005) (Taylor 2002), to their educational qualities and discursive practices (Steinkuehler 2004a; Steinkuehler 2004b) (REFS), as well as poetics and typologies of virtual worlds. Klastrup 2003a; Klastrup 2003b)(Aarseth, Smedstad, and Sunnanå 2003; Klastrup 2003a; Klastrup 2003b) (Konzack 2006) (FIX REFS) Game designers have also contributed to the canon of knowledge in this area, and it is one of the few subsets of games studies where practitioners and scholars have engaged in an ongoing dialog. (REFS: Koster, Mulligan, Bartle, etc.) Traditional anthropologists have applied the tools of their trade to the study of virtual worlds, most notably Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life. (REF) At the cutting edge have also been journalists, particularly Julian Dibbell, whose “A Rape in Cyberspace” is now considered an MMOG studies classic, as well as Wagner James Au, who has spent several years as an embedded journalist in Second Life, among others. (REFS)

Historically, through no fault of the research community, the study of MMOGs has inevitably been delimited by what the game industry has offered up. Consequentially, much of MMOG research to-date has been highly genre- and gender-specific. The vast majority of foundational research focused on medieval fantasy-themed roleplaying games, with the majority of early research focusing on a single game, EverQuest, and more recent research has been heavily weighted towards World of Warcraft. In the latter case, the lack of availability of other genres made such a focus unavoidable; in addition, as with World of Warcraft, there is a natural tendency to gravitate towards games that are perceived to have the largest player population.
These games, as we’ve seen, follow a very consistent trajectory of conventions and themes, which limit not only their formal elements, but also their audiences. While the total audience for MMOGs in general and medieval fantasy-themed games in particular continues to grow, the demographic for the traditional statistics-based roleplaying game remains relatively consistent. Even though claims continue to be made that MMOGs are attracting more and more women, virtually all of the quantitative research corroborates the finding that, in a typical MMOG, between 10% and 20% of the audience are female players who tend to be slightly older than their male counterparts. Thus, while it is correct to say there are more women playing these games, there are also more males playing them, and women still represent a relatively small percentage of the overall audience. Although the median age seems to broadening in both directions (MapleStory is targeted to a younger audience, for instance), most studies show a bell-curve that peaks somewhere between 18 and 28 and tapers off at the mid-thirties. (Castronova 2001; Seay, Jerome, Sang Lee, and Kraut 2004; Yee 2001) The implication of these combined data is that males of college age (coincidentally, the founders of this genre), as well as recent male grads, remain the primary audience for traditional MMOGs.
Because the MMOG landscape has been dominated by a narrow range of both genres and demographics, researchers have somewhat unwittingly arrived at generalizations about MMOGs that say more about particular game genres and their players than they do about MMOGs in general. Probably the best example of this is the ongoing effort to create a refined taxonomy of MMOG players. Richard Bartle, designer of the original MUD game, has laid out a detailed player taxonomy that has been cited extensively by researchers and designers in describing play styles. Bartle’s types of Achiever, Killer, Socializer, and Explorer hold up in many instances, however, some have argued that they are overly simplistic and have attempted to test his assumptions against empirical research, developing more multi-dimensional approaches to player types. (REF) However, many of these studies continue to focus on the same game genres. There is a tacit assumption that play style is somehow independent of the game and its affordances. Rather, I would argue that Bartle’s taxonomies are a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” with play styles and preferences that emerge largely from the properties of the game itself. Indeed, Bartle never claimed that this typology should be applied to all MMOGs, merely to games after the fashion of the MUD he designed.
Bartle’s taxonomy exposes several weaknesses of the games themselves, even when applied within its intended genre. Although the four types are clearly identified, combat-based MMOGs almost without exception favor the Killer and Achiever types over the Explorer and Socializer. Players receive a fraction of the points for discovering new lands as they do for killing monsters, and socializing is generally rewarded indirectly through teamwork, and in some cases is penalized. (Some games, such as Lineage, gave players increased rejuvenation points for resting in pubs, thereby providing a nominal reward for socializing.) In addition, Bartle’s definition of Achievement is primarily level-based, and does not take into account players within the standard roleplaying genres who seek economic achievement, a growing motivator in MMOGs and virtual worlds with dynamic economies. In games where puzzle-solving is the primary feature of gameplay, such as Puzzle Pirates (James 2001-2006) or Uru: Ages Beyond Myst (Miller 2003), the subject of this book, Bartle’s types fall apart completely. His Killer type, for example, has no relevance in games that have no killing, such as Uru. More recently, Bartle introduced a more generalized classification of game world types, which he describes as “Alice,” the unstructured exploratory style of play, and “Dorothy,” the more linear, goal-oriented style of play. These classifications, which are much broader than his earlier taxonomy, provide perhaps generalizable applications across a wide variety of MMOG genres. (REF)

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