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

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Social network theory, which is used extensively in Internet Studies and computer-mediated communications, as well as branches of sociology and organizational theory, provides us with excellent methods for understanding the movement of information, such as the spreading of a rumor, (REF: Rosvall) or the types of connections that occur between people, such as strong versus weak ties, or the number of people within a group required to maintain cohesion. These are very useful for understanding the structures of communities, but they lack two important data points that will be required to describe the phenomena we are concerned with here. First, while social network analysis solves the problem of looking at the relationships within the network in an emergent complex system, it does not provide a mechanism for studying the relationship of the network to the ecosystem. As we’ve learned from Bar-Yam, this is a vital component in the mix. Thus, we need a method that will enable us to observe how the network of the play community interacts with and within the play ecosystem. Second, social network analysis does not provide us with the tools we need to interpret the process of the formation of cultures. Thus, in order to pursue this line of inquiry, we need to identify a method that is particularly strong at analyzing and interpreting the dynamics and formation of culture.


Situating Culture

What do we mean by “culture?” Some, especially lawmakers and mass media, would assert that “game culture” is an oxymoron. Indeed, games are viewed as so low a form of culture, at least in the United States, that some Judges have ruled that they do not warrant the same speech protection rights as other media because they do not qualify as a form of expression. (REF: Au, 2002) Most media scholars would disagree. Though video games studies was marginalized (mostly in its host institutions) it its formative years, games are now embraced within a range of disciplines, including comparative media studies, whose foremost scholar, MIT’s Henry Jenkins, has lauded games as “The Medium of the 21st Century.” (REF) The fact of video games as part of the mass media landscape can no longer be sufficiently argued against the data. According to several reports, the number of digital game players in the U.S. has been steadily growing, reaching about 2/3 of Americans by 2007, roughly a quarter of whom are over 50 (about the same percentage of Baby Boomers in the overall population). (ESA 2008; NDP 2007) In 2007, Nielson media research reported that nearly half of American households had a game console by the fourth quarter of 2006. (Nielson 2007) And judging by the fact that there are now sufficient peer-review quality academic papers to justify the publication of a journal entitled Games and Culture, it is safe to say we have arrived at a point where the previous debates about whether these two terms can exist in the same phrase can be put to rest.

In the context of media, culture is usually thought of in terms of “cultural production,” i.e., arts and entertainment, literature, etc. But to anthropologists and sociologists, “culture” has the much broader connotation of the repertoire of collective symbols and forms of meaning-making, including language, arts, ritual and mythology, and everyday practices that are shared by a given group or society. Such practices are said to be “intersubjective,” meaning that they are constructed through interactions between people, rather than by the strict agency of individuals. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes culture as “webs of significance [man] himself has spun,” the analysis of which is “not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning.” (pp4-5) (Geertz 1973a) Geerts sees these webs of significance as public systems of meaning that are necessarily the collective property of a group. Culture is both constructed and learned, is iterative, and is constantly in flux; most importantly, culture is shared.
The concept of intersubjectivity provides a useful framework to think about the ways culture is constructed, learned and propagated. The culture of a networked game can be viewed a social construction of shared meanings transacted by designers and between players. These shared meanings are transacted with what Luckmann called the individual’s “life-world” through everyday social or cultural practices. (Luckmann 1983) Michael Jackson notes Joas’ notion of the “intersubjective turn” as a particularly useful framework for studying nonwestern cultures that allows us to move beyond the Cartesian model of the supremacy of the individual and towards a model of collective meaning and identity. (Jackson 1998) Sociolgist Herbert Blumer, building on Herbert Mead’s previous work, coined the term “symbolic interactionism” to describe this shared meaning-making dynamic. In essence, individuals interpret objects through a lens of meaning that arises out of a process of social interaction and has the capacity to change over time. (REF: Blumer 1969)
When we begin to look at fan culture, what we find is an intersubjective process of appropriating and transforming meanings through use, or in this case, through play. Thus, cultural artifacts (and by this we mean virtually any cultural entity, whether it be a piece of architecture, literature or fashion) are produced by their creators, but then adopted and in a sense re-produced, by their users. De Certeau referred to this as the “practice of everyday culture,” and suggests that “consumers” in industrial societies actually produce culture through the use of artifacts. De Certeau thus theorizes that “consumption” is as act of production, perhaps even an art form. (REF: De Certeau 1984) Willis has built on this notion in describing the culture practices of “bike boys” in the UK, motorcycle gangs who modify and customize their motorbikes as a form of personal and creative expression. It is through these acts of creative consumption, which I’ve described in some of my earlier work, that “game culture” is born. (REF: Willis 1987, 2000; Pearce 2002)
Returning to Jackson, the concept of intersubjectivity provides us with a useful lens through which to observe the construction of culture. First, it “resonates with the manner in which many non-Western peoples tend to emphasize identity as ‘mutually arising’—as relational and variable—rather than assign ontological primacy to the individual persons or objects that are implicit in any intersubjective nexus. (…) Second, the notion of intersubjectivity helps us elucidate a critical characteristic of preliterate thought, namely, the way it tends to construe extrapsychic processes that we construe as intrapsychic. The unconscious (…) is in a preliterate society more likely to be called the unknown. (…) Finally, the notion of intersubjectivity helps us unpack the relationship between two different but vitally connected senses of the word subject — the first referring to the empirical person, endowed with consciousness and will, the second, to abstract generalities such as society, class, gender, nation, structure, history, culture, and tradition that are subjects of our thinking but not themselves possessed of life.” (REF: Jackson 1998 , p. 7)

The Social Construction of Virtual Reality

Another key concept in describing how cultures are formed is the notion of social construction. Social constructionism counters a positivist view of the world and states that there are no absolute values or truths, rather, that our perception and understanding of the world, including what we regard as “facts,” and even the way we determine their facthood, arises from a process of social construction. (Berger & Luckmann, 1966) This is a key concept in science and technology studies because it allows us to critically analyze the authority structures that control and disseminate knowledge, and the tenets of social constructionism are particularly compelling at a time when science and religion are engaged in hand-to-hand combat as “absolute” world views. These broader social issues are not ours to tackle at this moment. However, in the case of virtual worlds, it would be difficult to make a compelling case against their status as social constructions.
Furthermore, the sorts of worlds we are concerned with are socially constructed in very specific, deliberate ways, and one way to view their cultures is as dynamic discourse between their designers and their players. Designers construct the worlds they envision; players then reconstruct those worlds through lived practices that engage, subvert and transform the space to make it their own. Thus they become a process of social construction and reconstruction, a constant building, and rebuilding, the result of which is a collaboration between virtual world designers and the players who “live” in their worlds. The aim of this investigation is to study that process in an attempt to understand the relationship between the designers’ social construction—the game and the tacit values and assumptions it embodies—and the players’ social construction of their own play culture through lived experience and play practice. This is a unique manifestation of de Certeau’s “practice of everyday life,” in consumption is flipped on its head to become a creative act. (REF: de Certeau) Here, players construct new cultures from a kit of parts handed to them by game developers, often bending and breaking the play ecosystem well beyond the designers’ original intentions.
The notion of the situated perspective is also germane to the study of virtual worlds. Virtual reality is, by definition, subjective, and only exists through a particular, situated viewpoint. There is literally no “objective” reality in a virtual world because each instantiation of it appears to a specific player. Between the players there is only code, silicon and wires. The world itself is entirely imaginary and completely subjective, yet at the same time, entirely intersubjective. It is possible to obtain “objective” information about virtual worlds through quantitative data-mining techniques, such as tracking log-ins or player circulation through game space, but these exist as a statistical record of past events rather than an observation of cultural practices-in-progress. Without the social context of meaning-making, they are merely data with no particular subjective significance.
The social construction of a virtual world is deliminted by the concept describe earlier of the “magic circle,” a boundary of time and space that players enter to engage in a game. Players entering a magic circle, whether sports, board games, or digital games, enter into a mutual agreement to abide by an alternative set of social conventions to those of the “real world” for a fixed period. In the case of online games and virtual worlds, this agreement is decidedly one-way as they invariably require players to sign a literal contract, known as a EULA, or End User Licensing Agreement, in which players agree to abide by the cultural restrictions placed on them by game designers. As we have already seen, these agreements tend to break down in practice, as in the case of the WoW Warriors protest. All players sign these contracts, but few abide by all the edicts put forth in them, and much of what we see in emergent cultural practices in virtual worlds is the outcome of this tension between the absolute control ultimately wielded by the world’s operators, even in worlds that are seemingly a free-for-all, such as Second Life.
The “magic circle” also has some precedents in non-game cultural practices. Anthropologist Victor Turner has made a similar distinction between the “liminal” space of ritual, a kind of transitional gateway from one dimension or stage of life to another (such as between seasons or phases of life, or between the world of the living and the dead), and the liminoid space of respite between daily activities, especially production, characterized by leisure practices in industrialized, Western cultures. (Turner 1982) Each of these modes provides participants with an alternative set of social conventions by which to abide while participating in the liminal or liminoid context. In Turner’s terms, games are probably best characterized as liminoid space since they are secular and not connected directly to real-life transitions; however, an argument can be made that online games may sit somewhere between these two states. On the one hand, they represent a “space between,” but they can also become a site of transformation, as corroborated here and by numerous other studies of the psychology and sociology of games. It is not an accident that the word avatar originates from the Sanskrit term of a god’s embodiment on Earth (Farmer and Morningstar 1991); the spiritual overtones that this implies are borne out in many transformative avatar experiences recorded here and elsewhere. (Damer 1997; Dibbell 1998; DiPaola 1998-2005). (REF: Turkle, Bartle, Taylor, etc.)
Virtual worlds create a particularly explicit boundary around the magic circle through the ritual of “logging in;” however, as we shall see, the borders of the magic circles that surround virtual worlds may be more porous than such a formal framework might imply. In some of his early writings, Ted Castronova made a case for maintaining the integrity of virtual worlds as “a world apart” from real world laws, customs and culture (Castronova 2004-2005); but he has since rescinded this, finding that such a utopian goal is impractical and ultimately unenforceable. (REF: Castronova, Synthetic worlds 2005) This study illuminates in a very detailed way a number of fissures in the magic circle that undermine the illusion of “purity” created by such worlds. In practice, because online games take place by and large on computers (as opposed to game consoles), they vie for attention with other PC functions such as e-mail, forums, instant messaging and voice-over-IP, productivity software (such as Photoshop and 3D modeling tools), as well as other games. Thus, their borders are not impermeable; and, just as in the real world, cultures cross borders with increasing ease, intermingling and hybridizing to create new cultural forms. Cultural miscegenation of this sort is an inevitable outcome of emergent behavior.
IS THIS REDUNDANT. ALSO MAYBE THE ABOVE IS THE BEST TRANSITION TO THE NEXT SECTION?? While games may fall under the rubric of Turner’s liminoid space, they may have also have a greater connection to his liminal space in that they require a higher level of participation than the other entertainment forms which exemplify his “liminoid” concept. Although, like other entertainment forms, they are initially created in the context of an institutionalized corporate structure, once players don their avatar personas they begin to engage in the co-construction process described earlier, especially through the enactment of narratives within it, but also by adding their own content to the world itself. (Pearce 2002a; Poremba 2003). The extent to which players become co-creators and co-constructors of the ongoing participatory drama that virtual worlds inevitably become is bounded and influenced by the design of the world. Both Damer and DiPaola have looked at the ways in which player creativity emerges in virtual worlds, especially the range of expressiveness afforded by particular design features and social mechanics (Damer, Gold, Marcelo, and Revi 1999; DiPaola 1998-2005). Mnookin and Dibbell have explored the ways in which social order and democratic structures emerge (Dibbell 1998; Mnookin 1996) while Taylor has explored in depth the role of designer ideology and corporate governance versus players’ sense of or need for forms of self-determination (Taylor 2002; Taylor 2003a).
The aim of this study is to examine this intersection, considering the virtual world as designed by its creator(s) and the cybercultures that emerge among its resident avatars. The study seeks to explore large- scale emergent group behavior patterns and to understand the ways in which the game’s design, narrative, structure or social mechanics influence the emergent patterns to which they give rise.

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