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

Feminist, Alternative and Experimental Ethnography

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Feminist, Alternative and Experimental Ethnography

Working with perspectives from contemporary, post-colonial, feminist ethnography, thus study may be construed by different disciplines as “experimental ethnography,” although the methods used are relatively conventional within the rubric of contemporary anthropology. Traditional anthropologists may view its subject matter, the field in which the ethnography takes place, as experimental, although anthropologists have already begun to embark on these shores equipped with far more ethnographic research under their belts than I. From a game studies perspective, particularly in MMOG studies, the subject matter is fairly conventional; but what may be construed as experimental in this context is its framing as a performative act. Just as players themselves are in a sense creating through consuming, the ethnographic process here is ultimately also framed as an art practice, one which is reflexive, and which tries to unravel some of the classic dichotomies of both ethnography and games: what is real, and what is virtual, what is fiction and what is fact, how does the subjectivity of the ethnographer impact the study subjects, and even more interestingly, how do the study subjects impact the ethnographer. Just as the magic circle is porous, this reflexive, performative approach also reveals the porousness of the research process itself: in human matters, boundaries are never as clear as we idealize them to be.
At its core, this research is essentially a study of the everyday practice of popular “fan” culture. As such it may be seen to overlap to some degree with the concerns of ethnographers such as Paul Willis, whose interest in cultures of subversion this research parallels. Willis’ studies of working class youth in a UK secondary school, and of “bike boys” in a UK motorbike gang alluded to earlier, both focus on the ways in which alternative and subversive sub-cultures serve to both deconstruct and reinforce the status quo, and on the role that consumer practices play in this process (Willis 1978; Willis 1981). Willis argues for an approach to ethnography that frames the process of meaning-making in everyday life as an art practice. Similarly, this study explores the relationship between play and creativity, and celebrates the artistic instinct that underlies all play practice. Because the ethnographer must also engage in the creative act of consumption, i.e., playing the game, she is also intimately implicated in these cultural practices.
Willis also points out the strong connection between subjective and intersubjective processes, the social construction not only of meaning, but also of identity:
Cultural practices of meaning-making are intrinsically self-motivated as aspects of identity-making and self-construction: in making our cultural worlds we make ourselves.

(Willis 2000)

In other words, according to Willis, individual identity and the construction of culture are in constant discourse, and each feeds the other. Far from the Cartesian model of “I think therefore I am,” Willis suggests that individual identity cannot be so neatly separated from culture. “Of the relationship between social constructs and individual behavior, Willis asks: “Do we speak language, or does it speak us?” We could easily reframe the question: “Do we play games, or do they play us?”

It is interesting the ways in which these new forms of intersubjectivity connect “modern” civilization to traditional indigenous cultures. This supports an argument for drawing from post-colonial approaches to anthropology in studying virtual worlds. Michael Jackson argues for intersubjectivity as a key framework for understanding cultures, which, he suggests, may be particularly appropriate conceptually when working with non-western cultures. As Jackson points out, different cultures construct different conceptions of the relationship between “the one and the many.” He highlights Joas’ notion of the “intersubjective turn” (Joas 1993) in which “subjectivity has not so much been dissolved as relocated” (Jackson 1998). The advent of digital social networks support this intersubjective turn, materializing the abstract notion that theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin characterized as the “noosphere,” a kind of shared knowledge space that Marshall McLuhan observed as being realized through electric media (McLuhan 1964; Teilhard de Chardin 1959 (1955)).
Interestingly, though not a game scholar, Jackson begins to touch on issues directly relevant to play culture in his notion of “playing with reality”:
If life is conceived as a game, then it slips and slides between slavish adherence to the rules and a desire to play fast and loose with them. Play enables us to renegotiate the given, experiment with alternatives, imagine how things might be otherwise, and so resolve obliquely and artificially that which cannot be resolved in the ‘real’ world.

(Jackson 1998)
Drawing from Willis and Jackson, life might be construed as both a game and an art practice comprising both the exploration of and the bending of rules. Wills envisions ethnography as a puzzle to be solved, a position that this project explicitly embraces as integral to its methodology (Willis 2000). Thus ethnography itself also becomes both a game and an art practice.
Many of these tensions are also at the heart of feminist ethnography, which, Kamala Visweswaran notes, has long challenged boundaries between subjectivity and objectivity, individual and society, researcher and subject, fact and fiction, self and other, art and science, and is frequently dismissed as “subjective” and hence “unscientific.” (Visweswaran 1994) She points out that, as Ruth Behar argues, taking the role of the “vulnerable observer” and accepting emotional engagement as a legitimate part of the ethnographic process, may ultimately lead to a deeper truth (Behar 1996).
Feminist anthropology has a significant role to play in games research. Early anthropologists concerned themselves almost exclusively with male aspects of culture, in a way not dissimilar from the extreme yet unstated male bias that pervades both the game industry and, as a consequence, contemporary game studies. Game studies might take a lead from feminist ethnographers such as Mead and Hurston, who tried to amend this by including or even highlighting female subjects. Visweswaran points out the ways in which female anthropologists draw an entirely different reading from a culture by gaining access to women’s cultural practices and perspectives, harvesting different insights than their male counterparts. The work of Margaret Mead, Marjorie Shostak and Hortense Powdermaker, for instance, gives us insight into female attitudes, practices and rituals to which male ethnographers would not have been privy. (Mead 1928; Mead 1963; Powdermaker 1966; Shostak 1981) At the same time, women ethnographers, viewed as “outsiders” by the cultures they study, can also gain access to aspects of male culture that females native to that culture cannot. Men may also find the female ethnographer less threatening, and thus reveal different information than they would to her male counterpart. Thus, women ethnographers may have an entirely different angle of access to the culture overall as a result of her renegotiated gender status.
Visweswaran also describes shifts in structures of power and authority in which subjects take the roles of collaborators, or even drive the research. Ruth Behar was chosen by her research subject “Esperanza,” a Mexican street peddler who adopted the ethnographer as her “comadre” because she wanted Behar to tell her story (Behar 1993). Hortense Powdermaker describes being drawn into a dance ritual by her Lesu subjects and “losing herself” in the experience (Powdermaker 1966). Feminist ethnographers Elenore Smith Bowen (nom de plume Laura Bohannan) and Zora Neale Hurston blurred the boundary between fact and fiction (Bowen 1964; Hurston 1935). Hurston’s work may be categorized as an early example of “auto-ethnography,” as one of her study subjects was the town where she was born. Auto-ethnography is a common methodological approach among MMOG researchers, particularly women, who frequently select their own play communities as a subject of study. Again, different facets of these communities can be seen when viewed from their interiors. “In Hurston’s ethnography,” states Visweswaran, “community is seen not merely as an object to be externally described, but as a realm intimately inhabited.” Likewise, the play community may be best studied when “intimately inhabited.” And indeed, as this study shows, such intimate inhabitation may, in fact, be the inevitable outcome of the form of participant observation that is required in oder to study games. Not unlike Hurston’s folklore, this research serves as an oral history alongside the players’ own oral histories of their diasporic experience.
Even if the particular subjective position of the female ethnographer were not privileged in this study, it would still stand as a feminist ethnography strictly on the basis of demographics alone. The group of Uru refugees this study concerns represent a disproportionately high percentage of women relative, exactly 50%, as compared to other MMOG communities, and this seems to be paralleled in Uru’s demographics overall. However, this study is very consciously philosophically aligned with the concerns of feminist ethnography as defined by Visweswaran as it explores a different and perhaps opposing border between fiction and reality. (This leads more to

Reading and Writing Cultures: Ethnography of Fictional Worlds

If we agree that one of the traditional ways to think about fiction is that it builds a believable world, but one that the reader rejects as factual, then we can easily say of ethnography that it, too, sets out to build a believable world but one that the reader will accept as factual. Yet even this distinction breaks down if we consider that ethnography, like fiction, constructs existing or possible worlds, all the while retaining the idea of an alternative ‘made’ world.

(Visweswaran 1994)

(REF: pp.#)
What, then, of an ethnography of a fictional world? This study is not a fiction. Rather, it sets out to create a non-fictional account of a fictional world, and explores the emergent culture of a “fictive ethnicity,” an identity adopted around an imaginary homeland. Proponents of Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacra might find such a notion alarming. Indeed, an appropriate subtitle for this endeavor might be “Baudrillard’s Nightmare.” In his disdain for the synthetic, Baudrillard failed to recognize the immediacy and reality of imagination, and the human need for alternative modes of being (Baudrillard 1994), a fact that is well-documented by Victor Turner and others (Schechner 1988a; Turner 1982; van Gennep 1960 [1908]). Similar to the way in which play has been marginalized in Western thought, Baudrillard marginalizes the synthetic, as seen in theme parks and virtual reality, as “fake” and “false,” rather than acknowledging the authenticity of shared imagination. Players within virtual worlds, conversely, might argue that in some respects, their synthetic homes are more “real” than “reality” because they allow for the exploration of alternative realities and identities.
Although denizens of fictional worlds, the Uru Diaspora shares characteristics in common with real-world diasporas, commonly characterized by “experiences of displacement, of constructing homes away from home…” and relating to such notions as “border, creolization, transculturation, hybridity.” (Clifford 1994) In conceiving a contemporary definition of diaspora, Clifford cites Rouse who describes diaspora as a single community that maintains “transnational migrant circuits” through “the continuous circulation of people, money, goods and information.” (Rouse 1991) However, as Safran points out, some real-world diasporas may ultimately be just as mythological as the fictive identity of the Uru Diaspora, whose communal identity is of choice, rather than geopolitics or genetics. This fictive identity presents us with a unique conflation of global corporate culture and fan-based media subversion. While on the one hand, the Uru identity is built upon an artifact of corporate media, namely the Uru game, on the other, it provides its denizens with the freedom to build and extend their own vision and values around a fictional identity that provides an additive alternative to their various real-life roles. Furthermore, Uruvians frequently make a point of highlighting their nonviolent ludic values, as juxtaposed against those of most other MMOGs and their players.
While this notion of a fictive ethnic identity may seem like a conundrum, anthropology is a discipline that has long blurred the boundary between science and art; anthropologists have written along a spectrum from a more formal style of the ethnographic monograph to anthropologically informed works which are baldly framed as fiction. The question of whether anthropological texts can or should be viewed as “literature” has vexed anthropologists going back to ethnography pioneer Malinowski, who wondered whether or not ethnographic writings should adopt a literary style. (Malinowski 1967) At its heart, this struggle is about the role of narrative: should anthropologists be storytellers, or merely interpret data? To what extent is an anthropologist a folklorist, and to what extent a scientist? Margaret Mead’s research on female adolescence in Samoa was famous critiqued as fiction, an assertion which itself is likely to have been fiction as well. (REF) Thus anthropological perspectives, even at their origins, provide a theoretical context for reflexively exploring the contested territory between “real” and “fictional” cultures, and the role of the ethnographer in their construction.
In large part due to its historical relationship with colonialism, contemporary anthropology also provides us with a means to reflect on and interrogate the relationship between the researcher and her subjects, both in the field, and in matters of representation. Visweswaran points out that:
Since Malinowski’s time, the ‘method’ of participant-observation has enacted a delicate balance of subjectivity and objectivity. The ethnographer’s personal experiences, especially those of participation and empathy, are recognized as central to the research process, but they are firmly restrained by the impersonal standards of observation and “objective” distance. In classical ethnographies the voice of the author was always manifest, but the conventions of textual presentation and reading forbade too close a connection between authorial style and the reality presented.

(Visweswaran 1994)

(REF: pp. #)

She adds: “States of serious confusion, violent feelings or acts, censorship, important failures, changes of course, and excessive pleasures are excluded from the published account.” (REF: pp.#) Ironically, these types of events are often the most important and can also have significant implications on the research. Ethnography is a messy business, and while the common practice is to present a “cleaned up” version of events, there is also value in exposing the ethnographer’s process of what Edward Shils calls “learning as he stumbles.” (REF: Shils)
I grappled with this extensively, and finally decided to address these issues in Part III, which attempts to address some of these stumbles while avoiding “interrupting the flow of the main ethnographic narrative” (Behar 1996) or allowing my own narrative to eclipse that of my subjects. (Wolcott 1990) In fact, some of the more challenging moments of rupture also yielded significant epiphanies, precipitated a stronger relationship with the subjects, and ultimately caused me to modify my research methods. Therefore, although these narratives may be perceived as personal, they were germane to the research and thus warrant inclusion in the account of the results. Indeed, far from being trivial, they illuminate facets which a traditional “objective” account cannot revel. If this is a polyphonic text, then in a sense, Part III is devoted to my inner voice, reflecting upon the process. This includes both a detailed account of the methods, tools and techniques that were used to conduct the research, as well as the emergent quality of the ethnographic process.
In the same way that it is important to remember that the design of online games and virtual worlds are social construction, it is equally important to remember that any ethnography of their cultures is also socially constructed. However, the assumption is often that the ethnographer, as “authority,” may have a larger role in constructing the cultures she studies than the other way around may be not only naïve but arrogant in the extreme. Clifford and Marcus have pointed out that “Hermeneutic philosophy in its varying styles…reminds us that the simplest cultural accounts are intentional creations, that interpreters constantly construct themselves through the others they study.” Thus the researcher must take a reflective stance towards her relationship to her subjects, and acknowledge the ways in which each constructs the other. “It has become clear that every version of the ‘other,’ wherever found, is also a construction of the ‘self’…” (Clifford and George E. Marcus 1986) Furthermore, they add that culture is “…contested, temporal, and emergent. Representation and explanation—both by insiders and outsiders—is implicated in this emergence.” Thus the representation itself also becomes part of the cultural process. Not only is it true that “’cultures’” do not hold still for their portraits,” but they may shift in direct relation to their portraitists. This is particularly the case in network play culture, where cultures are constantly shifting in a highly compressed frame of both time and space. (Clifford and George E. Marcus 1986)
This privileging of authority, which is often coupled with an anxiety about the biases the researcher brings to the table, overlooks the possibility that the subjects have an active role to play not only in constructing their own accounts of their culture, but in constructing in the ethnographer herself. Time and time again, especially in the feminist ethnographies described above, we see that the researcher is as much constructed by the subjects as the other way around. Far from being passive subjects, a mutual construction may take place that transforms the researcher as much if not more than it does the subject. As with anything else, the construction of ethnographic texts and their authors (and in this I include the subjects) is an intersubjective enterprise.
While the heart of this story, both structurally and conceptually, is the story of the Uru diaspora and specifically The Gathering of Uru, the meta-story is a larger narrative of the relationship between researcher and subjects. As with Behar’s study of Ezmerelda and Bohanan’s experience of “losing herself” to a dance ritual that her subjects drew her into, the narrative of this study is as much about the “social construction of the ethnographer” as the other way around, perhaps moreso. While I acknowledge that my engagement with the group had an impact on the subjects, it is clear to me that their impact on me was far greater than mine on them.


Virtual Worlds Covered in This Study (NEED TO ADD IMAGES)

This research was conducted primarily in three virtual worlds (MMOWs), one of which is a game and two of which are not. These worlds were traversed via the Artemesia avatar described above, using the conventions of trans-virtual persistent identity utilized by the study participants. These three worlds have a number of common traits, the most obvious of which is that they all entail the use of an avatar. Although players have ‘persistent identities’, that is, personae that they maintain for long periods of time, they do not have prescribed roles in the manner typical of many online games, such as EverQuest or Star Wars Galaxies. In all three worlds, players may create their own unique avatar names, which cannot be changed, although their physical appearance can to varying degrees in each world. These avatar names, which appear to all players in-world, become the marker of persistent identity and also serve as a mechanism for transporting identities across worlds.

Uru: Ages Beyond Myst/Until Uru (Cyan Worlds/Ubisoft, 2004)

Uru, which falls on the fixed synthetic end of the spectrum described above, is a puzzle-based MMOG based on the best-selling Myst series. In Uru, players solve puzzles, most of which are integrated into the designed environment and pertain in some way to the game’s overarching story. As will be described later in more detail, Uru was originally played in two phases: a single-player phase, Uru Prime, and a multiplayer phase, Uru Live, also known as Prologue. In Uru Live, players could solve puzzles together, visit each other’s Ages (individual instantiations of each game ‘level’) or Reltos (each players individual ‘home base’) and join ‘neighbourhoods’, or ‘hoods’ (the Uru equivalent of guilds), which also connected them to a central gathering place also called a ‘neighbourhood’ or ‘hood’. Though players were able to join multiple ‘hoods’ in the original Uru, most players tended to have a ‘home’ favourite. Uru avatars are strictly humanoid, and although not explicitly stated, it is implied that players are playing themselves as explorers of the lost underground city of the D’ni people. Players can make minimal changes to their avatars, including selecting from a limited, pre-set wardrobe; they could not change their avatars gender. Uru has no economy, no currency and no ability to collect inventory per se, although players collect ‘Linking Books’ in their Reltos that allow them to teleport to various Ages. Like other Myst games, Uru has no point system; rewards consist of Linking Books and features added to the Relto. Players can sometimes move objects around, but other than opening up Ages in prescribed ways, they cannot alter the world in any persistent way. Uru also has no age limit. (Makena Technologies 2003) (also known simply as ‘There’) is an example of a moderate ‘co-created world’ in the spectrum described earlier. Though not a game, includes both games and sporting activities. It has a cartoon aesthetic, resembling Walt Disney films set in the present day. Players can create humanoid adult avatars within the constraints of this aesthetic; once determined, they cannot change gender, but can make various modifications, such as changes in skin and hair style, and changes of clothing. Players can create new objects which they can sell for game currency on an in-game auction site with the approval of the world’s operators, Makena, Inc. Players must pay a developer fee to have their items approved; this is primarily to avoid potential copyright infringement, but also to censor adult content; the latter is especially important since, like Uru, has no age limit.
Player creation of new items takes place entirely out-of-world, using a 3D modelling tool, or modifying texture templates with Adobe Photoshop. Players create their own spaces by configuring individual items in a PortaZone, or PAZ, which can be popped up anywhere in-world on a squatting basis. Until recently, players could not actually own land in, and PAZes are all owned by individuals and cannot be worked on collaboratively. Players could, however, group PAZes together to create larger communities. Newer features allow players to purchase ‘neighbourhoods’, large tracts of land with collective ownership and building rights. The overall ethos of is that of a resort environment, a kind of virtual ‘Club Med’ with a number of Islands where players can visit and settle. has its own currency, Therebucks, with which players can acquire items; Therebucks can be bought for real-world currency, but not sold. Player-created items include vehicles, such as Dune Buggies or Hoverboats (air bound vehicles that hold 4-8 avatars), readymade or player-created homes, clothing, furniture, art, and accessories. The world allows for the creation of groups, and avatars may both start and join as many of these as they wish. Players can gain various levels of expertise, such as ‘avid’, ‘expert’, ‘legendary’, in roles such as ‘explorer’, ‘fashionista’, or ‘events host’, sports such as ‘hoverboarding’, and games such as a digital version of the card game ‘Spades’.
Second Life (Linden Lab, 2003)

Falling on the most extreme end of the ‘co-created’ world is Second Life, an open-ended ‘metaverse’ in which virtually all objects, structures, animations and avatar designs are created by players. Avatar creation is highly flexible, with literally dozens of variables available. While avatars are biped, they can take a variety of forms and sizes, gender can be changed at will, and a single player identity (name) can have an unlimited number of avatar instantiations. Avatars are free to walk or fly around the world or explore via ground or air vehicles. Like, Second Life also contains a number of games and activities, most of which are player-created. A sophisticated set of in-world building tools using geometric primitives (known by players as ‘prims’) and textures allows for diverse variations of objects. Players can own and share land and grant permissions to modify land or objects, allowing for extensive in-world collaboration. Players can create, give away or sell their own buildings, furniture, landscaping elements, vehicles, avatar designs, clothing, accessories (including sex toys) and even fully functional scripts, avatar animations and games. Second Life’s creator/operators, Linden Lab, do not practice any type of censoring or filtering of player-created objects but enforce a rigorous ‘over 18 only’ membership policy. Players can also own real estate and create their own public venues, such as malls and shops, discos, casinos, and sex clubs (which abound). More ambitious players can purchase entire Islands on which to create their own environments or games. Players buy and sell objects using Lindens, the in-world currency, which they can also exchange for real-world cash on both authorised and unauthorised Linden Exchange sites. Unlike’s auction-based commerce system, any player-created object can be set to a mode that allows other players to purchase or take a free copy of the object in-world; players can also buy and sell land in a similar fashion.

In addition to these three virtual worlds, two other tools are mentioned in this document. The first of these is an online MUD (multi-user domain or dungeon). MUDs are virtual worlds created entirely from text, in which players navigate through written descriptions of environments, and objects they encounter along the way. While still popular, MUDs were more prevalent in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, having been supplanted by more graphical virtual worlds, many of which still utilise some of their conventions. The second is Adobe Atmosphere, which is used, along with 3D modelling tools, to build small, customisable virtual worlds, and includes a server back-end for small groups.

PART II: The Uru Diaspora

Editorial Notes:

  • This section has not been deanglicized.

  • I would like avoid major revisions section as intact as possible due to the participant comments; I cannot change the text substantially or it will impact the annotations by the players; however I welcome stylistic edits or edits for clarity.


A Polyphonic Cultural History

What follows are the findings of an 18-month ethnographic study of The Gathering of Uru, a “neighborhood” of the online game Uru, and the group’s immigration into and other virtual worlds. It also draws some comparisons between immigration by other Uru groups into multiplayer virtual worlds, most notably Second Life, and explores the role of the player-run Until Uru servers in community cohesion.
The study can be characterized as a design research approach to “applied ethnography,” employing a method for sociological/anthropological research that serves to inform game design. Building on my background as a game designer, my primary focus was to study the ways in which the design of games and online virtual worlds influence or constrain the emergent social behavior that takes place within them. I was also interested in the broader question of how play communities are formed and sustained, and how they change and evolve across virtual play spaces.
The spirit of this project was one of collaboration. From the start, members of The Gathering of Uru (TGU) embraced me as part of their community, and were highly supportive of this research. As the ‘semi-official’ ethnographer/folklorist of the TGU group, I spent many hours talking, visiting and playing with many of them, both individually and in groups in different contexts, and studied and documented their activities and creative output in detail. Some members of TGU active participated in the research by gathering data, editing interviews, and providing pointers to key threads on the forums, for which I am extremely grateful. They helped shape the development of the methodology in a very active and productive way. Once these findings were complete they were posted to a ‘participant blog,’ an online web site which group members were invited to annotate.
Additional Notes

Anonymity: in the standard ethical practice of maintaining study subjects’ and informants’ anonymity, pseudonyms for individuals, groups and locations are used throughout this document.

Spelling and Grammar: While this document is written in British English to conform with the styles of the university, citations and player quotations typically appear in the English variation in which they were originally written; this may include Canadian or American spelling and variations in grammar as appropriate to those cultural contexts, as well as some spelling errors made by participants and repeated in this text for the sake of authenticity (these are marked ‘sic’ as per standard usage), or stylistic mannerisms, such as the common use of lower-case text in online conversations and email citations.

History & Context: Myst, Uru and Beyond (Book II, Sec. 5)

Laying the Groundwork: Myst Players Come Together

Uru: Ages Beyond Myst was a massively-multiplayer online game (MMOG) based on the Myst game series by Cyan Worlds. Myst, first published for the Macintosh in 1993, held the ranking of top PC game of all time for eight years in a row until it was surpassed by The Sims in 2001(Wright 2000). Myst was heralded as the first CD-ROM game to garner a significant audience of adult women. One of the first computer games to be considered a work of art, Myst was often referenced as an indication that computer games had ‘come of age’. (Carroll 1994; Tiscali 2005; Unknown Unknown). Some early computer business analysts posited that the bundling of Myst with PCs sold in the mid-1990s was instrumental in establishing a market for PCs in the home.v
Myst is described in the following article in the online game zine Game Revolution:
There are only a few truly monumental moments in video game history, a small number of games that have fundamentally changed the cultural landscape. However, it is clearly the case that Myst was one of those games, and its heyday was one of those moments. When Myst became the best-selling PC game of all time (a title it held for eight years), video games were no longer just for kids. Gaming had suddenly risen to a new level, a respectable and artistic level, and it was no longer possible to simply dismiss it as childish entertainment.
In the original Myst, players slowly wandered around beautiful, fantastical environments composed of pre-rendered, two-dimensional stills. To progress, you had to solve mind-bending puzzles designed to challenge Mensa veterans in an effort to slowly unravel the story of two deranged brothers, Sirrus and Achenar, and the strange book-worlds their father created, which eventually became their prisons

(Duke 2005).

Figure 5.1: Myst's compelling environments and complex puzzles made it the top-selling PC game for eight years running.

Key to Myst’s incredible success was its groundbreaking use of high quality graphics, audio production and storyline. (Figure 5.1) Many computer games up until this point had devoted the limited processing power of PCs to pixilated animation, poorly compressed video and the classic electronic, low resolution audio associated with early arcade games. The conventional wisdom was that action was essential, and high quality visuals and audio were of secondary concern. Myst inverted this equation and sacrificed speed and action for the highest possible visual and audio quality. With a very small team and a ‘garage band’ ethos, the Miller brothers’ technique involved using 3D software tools to create vividly rendered still images of a complex imaginary world. Technically, the game was deceptively simple—it was merely a branching matrix of still images, augmented by a moody, ambient musical score. The interface was elegant and minimal. Players navigated the eerily abandoned game world in a first-person perspective. There were no controls on the screen. Instead, as you dragged your cursor around, it would change shape to indicate that a choice was available; most of these choices were directional in nature, but could also involve opening drawers or books to obtain clues and information. There were very few occasions when one saw any characters in the game, and these generally appeared in the form of rough video clips seen in the pages of books. Simple puzzles integrated into the world caused unusual large-scale transformations to the environment. The images were so breathtaking, so elaborately thought-out and intricately rendered, that players almost relished in the slow pace of the gameplay. Like other popular imaginary worlds, Myst had an entire culture, history and language, symbols and technologies, and a sustainable mythology that spawned a perennially popular multi-game

Understanding Uru Players

The decade-long history of Myst fandom is key to understanding the Uru phenomenon in general and the TGU community in particular. In-game interviews and surveys of the online forums revealed the following:

  • Most TGU members had been Myst fans prior to joining Uru, many since the game’s inception.

  • Because of the diverse and perennial appeal of the Myst franchise, TGU members range in age from mid-teens to mid-seventies, with the majority being in their forties and fifties. This remains a surprisingly diverse figure relative to other MMOGs, and represents an unusually high age range.

  • The gender mix, which is consistent with the Myst demographic overall, is exactly equal, a statistical anomaly where PC games, and especially MMOGs, are concerned.

  • Many players did not like or play any other games; most had never played an online game prior to playing Uru.

  • Players’ longtime immersion in the Myst world made them both facile at its unique style of puzzle-solving and experts in the game’s narrative, history and culture.

  • Players had been inhabiting the Myst world for a decade by themselves, although a small handful communicated through a rich fan culture infrastructure; Myst Uru was the first opportunity they had to actually play with other Myst aficionados within this well-loved world.

  • Because the game is intellectual in nature, players tended to value intelligence and problem-solving; most players expressed an aversion to games with killing and violence.

These qualities are important because they serve to reinforce an observation that was echoed in player interviews. At the core of a play community’s character is the sort of people the game attracts. This blend of people with these characteristics were drawn to this particular game for a particular reason. They arrived on the scene with a certain set of values and a predisposition toward certain emergent social behaviors. They brought with them a long-term devotion to and deep knowledge of a ‘classic’ game, combined with an aversion to many of the play mechanics that are presumed ‘fun’ in the contemporary commercial game landscape. These are all prerequisites to understanding the ways in which The Gathering of Uru formed and developed over time.

It would appear that, to a certain extent, the game’s own values and ideologies predispose it to attract a certain type of player, even before the game is actually played. Once those players come together, their community forms and develops around these shared values, which also intersect with the values embedded in the game itself. In many game communities, players may not even be aware of the values and ideologies that attract them to a game in the first place, let alone the ways in which they influence play and social interaction. This remarkably self-reflective group, however, was well aware that part of their uniqueness originated from their connection with the Myst series, its narratives, play patterns, individual and group identities, and values.

"At the core of a play community’s character is the sort of people the game attracts."

Does this observation illuminate the root of Uru's failure? Has the gamer world changed? Much has been written about first person shooter and "EverQuest" type games and certainly they are very popular, particularly with the most recent generation (or two) of gamers. Is World of Warcraft the "Myst" of the current gamer generation?

This raises a question in my mind. What sorts of people are attracted to the Uru game? Is the Uru community you have studied an anachronism?

Posted by: Raena | February 05, 2006 at 05:04 PM

Myst Uru: Story, World, Game

The narrative and rules of the Myst world are rich and complex. They have evolved and expanded for over a decade, while remaining internally consistent. The original Myst designers, minister’s sons Rand and Robyn Miller, embedded implicit Christian spiritual themes in the game and its narrative, although this was executed in a subtle way that has often escaped the awareness of even long-term players. This may be comparable to the way Christian themes appear allegorically in the fiction C.S. Lewis. The game was intended for a secular audience and, although the designers spoke openly in interviews of its Christian subtext, there were no direct references to Christianity, nor was there any evidence that the game had an evangelical agenda.
The overarching mythology of the Myst series revolves around the epic tale of the D’ni people, a human-like race that had the power to call into being entire worlds (game levels), called Ages, through writing. Special ‘Linking Books’ serve as transport mechanisms between these Ages, prompting some game scholars to interpret this as a metaphor for computer programming. The basic premise of world-creation through writing serves as a mechanism for extensibility, allowing for the easy addition of new Ages. The proliferation of books is key to the Myst mythology, and books are a recurring motif shared in different instantiations of Myst/Uru culture across all the virtual worlds it occupies. The notion of who can and should create Ages became a topic of deep philosophical debate as Uru players began to move into other worlds and create their own instantiations of Uru culture. In spite of the popularity of and scholarly interest in Myst, I found no other scholars writing about Uru itself. In fact, most game scholars I spoke with were not even aware of the game’s existence.

The Uru Experience

The first thing players are asked to do when launching the game is to design their avatar. Avatar features are limited and aesthetic rather than skills- or statistics-based. The avatar choices offered are male or female human, with a limited choice of hairstyles and outfits, and an unlimited color palette, as well as the ability to make the avatar look older, add wrinkles and graying hair, or even present male pattern baldness.
With their immersive first-person perspectives all the prior Myst games placed the player in the game narrative with an ambiguous identity. You never knew exactly who you were, although in the first Myst game it was implied that you were Catherine, wife of Atrus and mother of their two sons, the focus of the game. Giving the player a unique, customizable identity was a first for the Myst franchise.
Once they enter the Uru world, players find themselves called to a mysterious cleft in the middle of an unnamed desert, presumably New Mexico, or possibly somewhere in the Middle East (given the mythology of the world, potentially both). Descending into this underground cave, they eventually discover the ruin of an abandoned city. Dispersed throughout the city are numerous clues, as well as Linking Books to various Ages, each one of which has a Myst-style puzzle integrated into its environs. Along the way, players also locate ‘journey cloths’, left behind by Yeesha (the main character in the story, and daughter to Atrus and Catherine). At the core of Uru is the controversial restoration of the lost world of the D’ni people, a culture which one player described as created by ‘taking a tribe of New Mexico Indians and adding water’. This player went on to point out the resemblance between the artwork and iconography in the Myst games Riven, Uru and Myst Exile, to caves built by Native Americans in New Mexico, where the Miller brothers once lived (Carroll 1994). According to players, the D’ni culture bears many resemblances to these Native cultures, down to the architecture built into rockwork, although some also hypothesize that it is the mysterious Bahro ‘beast people’ who most closely resemble these cultures. Unlike the settlements of New Mexico’s indigenous people, in D’ni Ae’gura, as in most Myst worlds, water is plentiful.
In D’ni Ae’gura, players take the roles of explorers to solve various puzzles that are integral to both the environment of each Age and the storyline. (Figure 5.2) Solving each puzzle results in the resumption of some feature or service of the world, the activation of a technology or mechanism, and/ or the opening of access to new zones. Most of these puzzles are spatial in nature, requiring a level of spatial literacy and cryptography. Puzzles are embedded seamlessly into the environment and their solution transforms the space itself. Turning on a power supply with the correct combination of moves, for instance, activates a rotating room or a lift system that allows access to another part of the Age. Closing the correct combination of steam vents allows the player to ride a puff of steam over a rock formation into a secret area containing additional clues and more ‘journey cloths’. Indeed, the narrative is so deeply embedded in the space that the two are indistinguishable from one another. In order to solve both the game and the narrative, players must become expert at reading the space. As with all Myst games there are no explicit instructions given as to the game mechanics or rules.