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

Posted by: Leesa | April 10, 2006 at 01:28 PM

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Posted by: Leesa | April 10, 2006 at 01:28 PM

Communities and Cultures of Play (Book II, Sec. 8)

The Power of Play

There is an implicit assumption in Western culture, as well as an explicit assertion in Game Studies, that play is a waste of time. As mentioned previously, early game scholars (Caillois 1961; Huizinga 1950) whose work set the limits of the field in ‘canonical’ terms, while stressing the importance of play, have also asserted this point about the lack of productivity of play time. These same kinds of assumptions have been carried forth by more contemporary writers examining more immediate forms of game play (Juul 2004; Salen and Zimmerman 2004). This thesis argues, to the contrary, that the time spent on game play is not only ‘not wasted’ but is in fact highly functional in terms of its applications ‘through the screen’ in the social constructions common to contemporary life. It can also be argued that play is, in fact, an act of cultural production, as players engage in the dynamic creation of entertainment experiences, as well as the practical addition of artifacts into the play environment.
Conversely, anthropologists such as Victor Turner have argued for some time that play is crucial to human culture and development and manifests in more “serious” forms such as ritual (Turner 1982). Play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith has also suggested that play should be viewed as important in its own right, and not simply a mechanism for accomplishing more ‘serious’ ends such as education (Sutton-Smith, 1997). In terms of society at-large, particularly in the United States (although this is less the case in other countries, such as Japanxi), adult play is considered somehow trivial and in some cases even immoral. While video games have been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent years, games in general are part of a larger tradition of the suppression of entertainment throughout history, ranging from theatre in Shakespeare’s day to film during the McCarthy Era. Even a game as seemingly innocuous as chess was repeatedly banned throughout history because it was presumed to promote decadence, gambling, violence, and immoral sexual behavior (Yalom 2004).
Even among TGUers, the common remark that “it’s not just a game” reveals the depth of this cultural bias that somehow a “game” is an inferior form of human social experience. Although one could argue that is more of a “metaverse” than a “game,” players also made the same comment of Uru. In both cases, players saw that these play spaces had profound implications in their lives. The TGU experience suggests a repositioning of adult play space from its presently marginalized status to acknowledging its central role in developing unique and enduring friendships. The TGU data presents a compelling argument that games can be not only a context for personal transformation, but also a catalyst for strong and powerful social bonds. For many TGU players, playing within the social context of their group is a sublime and even a spiritual experience, a revelation that surprised most members. As suggested earlier, at least a part of this spiritual aspect of game-playing is derived from the content of the Myst series itself, but this was amplified and in some ways transformed by the additional social dimension of play in Uru.
The power of this social dimension was perhaps the biggest surprise for players. Very few TGU players entered Uru with the intention of forming social bonds. Most informants were somewhat dismayed at their intense emotional reaction to the closure of the game, as well as their ongoing commitment to the group. Furthermore, many were surprised by the transformative power that play had had on them as individuals. All agreed that their experience with Uru TGU had changed them in one way or another.

As a Biological Anthropologist/Primatologist, I am not surprised at the power of play. It is an extremely important learning and socializing tool in the animal kingdom. Animals kept from play (usually due to human interference in the name of science and research) almost always demonstrate some degree of developmental, psychological and/or social problems.

Posted by: Leesa | April 10, 2006 at 01:35 PM

A Community of Loners

As discussed earlier, Uru marked the transition of the Myst world from a solitary experience to a context for social interaction. Like Leesa, TGU’s founder, the vast majority of players interviewed for this study self-identified as ‘loners’ or ‘shy’. Some suffer from fairly extreme cases of shyness, such as a variation of agoraphobia, some are hindered in social and public activities by physical disabilities, and some live in remote regions.
For many players, the experience of Myst had meant a decade of solitary exploring and puzzle solving. Given this, it is not surprising that only a quarter of eligible players ever actually signed up for Uru Live. Some who eventually did join Uru Live reported being hesitant. And even once inside the multiplayer world, many engaged with other players with trepidation.
One experience conveyed by some players was the feeling of finding other people in this formerly lonely world they knew and loved. With Uru Live, it was as if a portal opened up in which people who had been playing alone in the same beloved imaginary world for many years could share this experience with others.
This transition from lone player to community player is expressed a few days after the server closure in this poem by Teddy:
(I was working in my garden yesterday when this came to me....)
An Avatar’s Lament

I am but a figment, the imagination of my creator.

I was created for one purpose: to explore.

I was sent on a journey, to learn things my creator already knew.
I discovered great monuments and beautiful gardens and a cavern beyond belief.

A world was created for me and it was my duty to learn its ways.
One day, I met others like me. Explorers, figments, dreams.

Though we didn’t share creators, we shared a common goal.

With them, I changed. I was no longer just an explorer. I was more.

I was now a friend, confidant, buddy and playmate.
I grew beyond my purpose, I became more real.

And with my friends, we began to touch our creators, and they grew, too.

Our play was their play.

We became.
That day came that our world was shattered.

Our Lives were coming to an end.

A new twist to my being, I had emotions and I didn’t want to lose my friends.

But we consoled each other, we played as much as we could.

We climbed the walls, and hid and danced,

And together, we passed beyond.
I am but a shade now, roaming a shadow realm.

A place where once was life, is quiet as a tomb.

D’ni sleeps and a cherub guards its gates.

Our creators dream.
We were not made in our creators’ likenesses,

but in some way, there is more of them in us than they expected.

Our connection is lost, but we still touch our creators' hearts.

And I hope that someday they will touch their creator, as I have mine.
This poem captures the transition from ‘just an explorer’ to ‘a friend, confidant, buddy and playmate’. Like many Uru players, Teddy had never played an online game and mainly joined Uru Live because the marketing implied a much more expansive Myst-based world with new Ages being added on a regular basis. He ‘really wasn’t expecting to have so much fun just talking to strangers who I only saw as pixels on a monitor’.
Nonetheless, like many other lone explorers of the Myst worlds, Teddy soon found himself developing emotional attachments to the other players. Over time, the experience became more about the people than the game.
Furthermore, Teddy’s poem points out an experience shared by every other player interviewed for this study: being the avatar changes the real person. As one player pointed out, ‘We create our avatars, and our avatars create us’, echoing Canadian media historian Marshall McLuhan’s classic insight into media and culture: ‘We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us’ (McLuhan 1964). Players, like Lynn, who were previously depressed, or like Leesa, who was shy, were palpably altered by the experience of being an avatar in a supportive play community.

Seeing people who share in the love of Myst was more like the intersection of parallel universes. Uru became a place where all these players living in solitary universes were brought together all at once. The feeling was more like "Wow, there are others like me....."

Posted by: Raena | February 05, 2006 at 05:26 PM

8.3 Communities of Play

A key emergent phenomenon observed with TGU was a shift from playing for the game to playing for the people. Initially, players logged on to Uru to experience more of the game, but over a period of time, and often much to their surprise, the focus began to shift to the social; this shift began to occur even before the migration into the non-game social world of Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest this may be a pattern in online games and virtual worlds in general, regardless of the game/world distinction, suggesting a further study across several games and play communities to verify if this might be a general sable pattern of emergence. It also seems to be the case that once this social motivation emerges, these bonds form relatively quickly, perhaps more so than they might in a ‘real-life’ setting. A comparable ‘real world’ environment where such bonds might form relatively quickly is summer camp, another discrete play space in which participants inhabit a similar sort of magic circle to the one that bounds games from the real worldxii (Himmel 1998). This suggests that play itself may have the property of accelerating the process of social bonding.
In the case of the Uru players, it would also seem that the imminent server shutdown also served as a catalyst to further accelerate and cement the social bonds that were already rapidly forming, although there is no way to empirically prove this. One key indication that a social bonding process is underway is the disclosure of personal information. When I asked players what they did in Uru in the final weeks, most said they spent the majority of time simply talking, often for hours, including telling each other stories, sometimes in a campfire-tale type setting, or discussing personal issues. They also explored, played in each other’s Ages and invented new games to play in the Uru world, such as hide-and-seek. Even though they inhabited an imaginary world, the friendships that formed there were very real.
This study supports the legitimization of the study of ‘communities of play’, focusing on the organizational and sociological aspects of group play and the ways in which communities use digital and networked media to support play activities. While computer-mediated communications have nominally embraced this topic, it has never been defined as a distinctly separate form of social interaction and mediation. The majority of studies have focused on text-based chats, and little attention has been paid to the design of the mediated space and its impact on social interaction. Nonetheless, as this study shows, communities of play have characteristics distinct from other types of communities and ought to be studied in their own right. Furthermore, mediated spaces designed for play are distinct from those designed for other purposes and thus can also be viewed from the perspective of human-computer interface design as their own unique class of research and design problem.
The concept of ‘community of play’ I am proposing builds on the work of Bernie DeKoven, who describes a ‘play community’ as a group that ‘embraces the players more than it directs us toward any particular game’. While the game is often the starting point, over time the group may tire of that particular game but still wish to play together. Members of such a community are ready and willing to adapt game rules and to change or even invent new games to create a supportive environment with their playmates. DeKoven also identifies the point of transition observed earlier at which the play community shifts from a game focus to a social one. Such a community will not only respect the rights of individuals to stop playing for any reason, but will also actively seek out new games for the mutual enjoyment and challenge of all members (DeKoven 1978). While DeKoven’s work predates the advent of digital games, his principles can be readily applied to networked play communities.
The Gathering of Uru is just such a play community, both created and facilitated in the context of the network. TGU was born of network media and has leveraged network media to sustain its own unique and distinct play community. While it was the gameplay of Uru that initially drew the community together, it was the ultimate destruction of Uru Live that cemented its bonds. Their migration into other games, and the dialogue that ensued around this, suggests that they had reached that moment, described by DeKoven, where playing together became the main priority, with the game itself being a secondary concern. Furthermore, TGU exhibits a high tolerance for individual play preferences, even within this framework of group cohesion.
In keeping with DeKoven’s model of the play community, TGU has gone to great lengths to stay together, moving across different game worlds, and constantly adapting, modifying and even creating new games, artifacts and environments, as well as forming sub-groups of shared interest within the larger community. Over time TGU has absorbed other non-Uru players, brought them into its ‘way of play’ and embraced the contribution of both long-standing and new members. Throughout TGU’s life there has been an intense and concerted effort to keep the community vibrant and active, the responsibility for which has shifted but has primarily fallen to a small leadership community-within-the-community. This leadership group has managed to maintain TGU well beyond the duration of the game in which it originated, to the point where it has taken on a life of its own. In the process, it has also, along with other members of the Uru Diaspora, ‘taken over’, or perhaps ‘taken back’ the lost world of Uru.

"In the process, it has also, along with other members of the Uru Diaspora, ‘taken over’, or perhaps ‘taken back’ the lost world of Uru"

Perhaps with the closing of the game, the diaspora had BECOME Uru.

Posted by: Raena | February 05, 2006 at 05:29 PM

Intersubjective Flow

Building on the concept of flow (Csikszentmihaly 1990) DeKoven has also proposed the notion of “CoLiberation” (DeKoven). As defined by DeKoven, this phenomenon suggests a psychosocial dimension to Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘optimal experience’ that can be observed in a number of group contexts, such as sports, group improvisation and networked play environments. Playtesting consultant Nicole Lazzaro has observed that ‘people are addictive’ (Lazzaro 2004-2005), an insight that may be key to understanding the relationship of flow to mediated social interaction.
Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as a psychological state in which the individual loses track of time and becomes completely absorbed in the activity at hand. The dynamics of flow have to do with maintaining a state where the level of challenge is maintained in balance with the level of skills applied to it. As illustrated by the simplified diagram below, when the challenge is too high, anxiety ensues; when the skill level exceeds the challenge, boredom is the result; apathy is the outcome of both low challenge and low skill. (Figure 8.1)

Figure 8.1: Simplified diagram of Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’ (Graphics by Steve Childs; used with permission)
For obvious reasons, flow has been a ‘hot topic’ in Game Studies for some time, and gamers and researchers alike have long been aware that there is something particular about computer games that produces this effect. Because of the dynamic nature of the medium, digital games have always included responsive features that raise the challenges in real time to meet the player’s skill level. This has been characterized as ‘hard fun’, a term coined by user interface pioneer Alan Kay, which describes experiences that are both challenging and enjoyable, such as mastering the violin and playing games.
While Csikszentmihalyi’s conception is primarily psychological, DeKoven extends a psycho-sociological interpretation to flow by observing the way in which group interaction can influence the sense of flow in play and other group activities, such as musical improvisation. This is achieved when individuals in the group provide each other with the appropriate balance of challenge and skills to enable flow.
DeKoven’s modified CoLiberation diagram, below, illustrates this social dimension to flow. (Figure 8.2) Part of what creates this sense of social flow in the context of a play community is the balance between the individual identity and group connectedness. If the player is too aware of herself, she becomes self-conscious, isolated and alienated. If she is too immersed in the group, she runs the risk of conformity. Furthermore, using the principles above, players spontaneously adjust their behavior to challenge one another, creating the optimal state of flow for each individual participant. Thus, players are always pushing each other to a higher state of balance between challenge and skill level, and therefore, flow. In such a state, players feel at once a positive sense of their own individuality, while still feeling connected to the group.

Figure 8.2: Diagram illustrating DeKoven’s CoLiberation concept. (Graphics by Bernie DeKoven; used with permission)

The concept I am proposing, ‘intersubjective flow’, takes this a step further and situates the flow state between people rather than within the individual. In this case, flow moves from the realm of the psychological to the realm of the social. ‘Intersubjective flow’ serves to accelerate a form of intimacy that is unique to play. In this context, a group of complete strangers can form a sense of group cohesion in a relatively short period of time. This is played out in simple street game contexts, such as a pick-up game of basketball. Over time and prolonged exposure, this intimacy can strengthen, as may be the case with a professional basketball team or an amateur baseball league. This is also exemplified by the concept of ‘swing’, the experience that oarsman describe when they are in sync, as if a single person is rowing (Halberstam 1996).
TGU clearly exemplifies this concept. As we’ve seen, the relationship between the group identity and the individual identity formed a balance between the individual and the group. Far from being subsumed in the group identity (conformity), individuals flourished as unique while still being ‘a part of’ the group. This in turn creates form of intimacy, a sense of acceptance and belonging, particular to the play community.xiii
Feedback is an essential component to the propagation of intersubjective flow. DeKoven describes a Ping-Pong game in which a skilled player comes up with a series of techniques to meet the skill level of a less skilled player. The first of these include asking the new player to hold his racket still while the skilled player tries to hit it. In the process, the new player begins reflexively to move the racket in an attempt to meet the incoming ball. The skilled player then switches hands, giving himself a handicap in the game. By using this method of adjusting skill level to optimize flow, the skilled player helps push the unskilled player at an appropriate skill level while still maintaining the requisite level of challenge to assure his own sense of flow (DeKoven 1978).
These types improvised interactions are at the heart of play-based emergence. Players are inventing new games and new play activities out of an underlying instinct to optimize for intersubjective flow. While they are not necessarily setting out to create new games or game mechanics, the unconscious meta-goal of achieving intersubjective flow becomes the driver for emergent, spontaneous, and unanticipated behavior.

Group Cohesion: The Role of Values in the Play Community

One of the key findings of the study is the important role of values in group cohesion. When asked what held the group together, the vast majority of TGU members said “shared values.” As mentioned earlier, players often expressed these values in terms of group identity, as defined by both play styles and social styles, and were remarkably consistent in enumerating these values. In terms of play styles, TGUers explained ‘We are puzzle-solvers; we are explorers; we value intellectual challenges; we are non-violent’. Social values included mutual respect and tolerance, avoiding factions and drama, and a desire to help others, especially new players, or newbies.
This latter quality arises in part out of a sense of responsibility towards the community; in both Uru and, TGU members felt responsible for protecting their members, especially new members, from harassment, or ‘griefers’ they encountered in the early days of their settlement in This behavior monitoring was probably inherited at least in part from the Welcomers’ League in Uru, a hood to which TGU founder Leesa also belonged. Leesa also founded ‘The Free Welcomers’ League’ in The name derived from the fact that newbie greeters in were originally paid, and she wanted to distinguish her group as greeting newbies on a volunteer basis. TGU members in are also known for their friendliness and generosity to newcomers, even outside of their own group; this urge to protect newcomers may also be related to the harassment they encountered when first arriving in (Figure 8.3)

Figure 8.3: Visitors to Yeesha Island in are greeted by the player-designed banners of The Gathering of Uru (left) and the Free Welcomers' League (right).

While some of these shared values are implicit, many players cited their source as founder Leesa’s ‘three simple rules’, also known as ‘the rules’. These were created for the original TGU hood in Uru and maintained throughout the process of identifying and settling in a new virtual world. They are not so much game rules as meta-rules for social conduct. Such meta-rules are common to guilds in online games and represent a form of emergent behavior.
On the TGU Koalanet forum, the ‘rules’ are explicitly described as follows:
I created The Gathering of Uru neighborhoods for everyone and anyone to enjoy themselves in an atmosphere where they feel free, relaxed, safe and happy. The hood’s ideals are based on compassion, tolerance, non-violence and peace and its ‘rules’ are:

  1. Free discussion is welcome on any subject so long as it does not cause anyone offence, harm or embarrassment.

  1. TGU is neutral and does not support or represent any person or faction but this does not mean that individual members cannot have an opinion or back a person or faction. However, recruitment, rallies, canvassing, etc. is not allowed in the hood.

  1. Members are not allowed to alter, in any way, the name or description of the hood or change it from public to private (or vice versa). Furthermore, any changes need to be discussed and voted on by the members before they can be done.

Any member or visitor who does not follow the rules or causes problems for other members will be asked to leave the hood. If they continue their behavior and/or refuse to leave a formal complaint will be filed with CCR which may result in them being barred from Uru.
As the Mayor, I will have the final say or the tie-breaking vote in all matters. I will be appointing a Deputy Mayor and Councilors who will help look after the hood and act for me in my absence. I will announce the Council once all of the nominees have accepted their positions. Please remember, this is all very laid back – the Mayor and Council are just there to make sure everyone is happy and everything runs smoothly.
If there's anyone you'd like to nominate, just let me know.
*REMEMBER: Our prime directive is to have fun!*
This last point is important because implicit in this statement is a particular notion of ‘fun’. TGU members have a very specific idea of what is fun, which is quite distinct from players of many other MMOGs, derived in part from a ten-year legacy of playing Myst games, including Uru, as well as from their own unique group character.
Another interesting point that requires some interpretation concerns Rule Number 2. While at first glance, this rule may seem to refer to the general intent of avoiding conflict, its meaning is actually much more specific to Uru. As mentioned earlier, Cyan had created different factions in the game, and hired actors to foment conflict and try to recruit players to join these factions. Rule Number 2 is an explicit policy respecting this aspect of the game, and implicitly, it also represents a departure from the game designers’ intentions for the game. Interestingly, it may also be one reason for the popularity of TGU. As indicated in the game wide forums, many Uru players were uncomfortable with the artificial drama and the factions it created. Leesa’s taking a stand on this issue was another key influence on the sorts of people who joined TGU.

Return of Uru: Research into Action (NEW)

Patterns Of Emergence

3.7 Porous Magic Circles and the ‘Ludisphere’

As mentioned in Book I, the magic circle has become an important principle in digital Game Studies, especially as the introduction of the computer creates an additional boundary around the game experience that is generally held to be sacrosanct (Salen and Zimmerman 2004). Castronova has even argued for a more hermetic enforcement of the magic circle, suggesting that ‘real world’ concerns, such as politics and popular culture, should not be allowed to leak into virtual worlds to destroy the suspension of disbelief or tamper with the world’s integrity (Castronova 2004-2005). This position has some unintentional clashes with contemporary anthropology, a discipline currently confronting a transition from the traditional paradigm of studying ‘primitive’ cultures cut off from outside influence to the study of cultures within a mediated, global context (Marcus 1986). Thus it is unclear if Castronova’s call for ‘purity’ in any world, whether real or virtual, is even attainable.
The findings of this study suggest that, just as contemporary world cultures must be looked at in a global context, online virtual worlds must be looked at in the context of the ‘ludisphere’, the larger framework of all networked play spaces on the Internet, as well as within the larger context of the ‘real world’. In this context, as with real-world culture, it may be more useful see the landscape in terms of a series of overlapping and nested magic circles, the outermost being the ‘real world’, with transactions taking place through membranes more porous than has previously been suggested.

Communities of Play (Book II, Sec. 3.3)

While other sorts of distributed communities have been studied extensively, the study of ‘communities of play’ is a relatively new field. Despite the fact that play has a major role in popular culture and community formation, in the academic study of networked play seems to take a back seat to more ‘serious’ pursuits such as communities of practice or communities of interest. Even unstructured social interaction, such as text chat, seems to take precedence over distributed play spaces as worthy of serious study (see Literature review in Book I).
Communities of play, or play communities (DeKoven 1978), are groups that choose to play together in various configurations. Most MMOGs have built-in mechanisms to support and formalize a play community. Terms like ‘guild’, ‘clan’, and in the case of Uru, ‘neighborhood’, define a particular (and often a singular) group to which a player belongs. Individuals are generally drawn to these groups by common friendships, shared play styles and play values, and often create their own web sites or other mechanism for intra-group communication. A play community will often design its own logo or crest, create a mission statement that defines the ethos of the group, and employ a set of meta-rules that relate to their style of play, social conduct, or desired standing in the community. They will frequently plan large-scale raids and other events together, and display a high level of loyalty to their fellows. Guild members may also protect each other from outside harassment, but guilds can also be a site of intense drama and dispute. It is not at all uncommon to see power struggles occur, members quit in protest, or even factions split off into new guilds. All of these behaviors suggest a level of emotional investment that may be as high or even greater than investments in communities of either practice or interest.
Within non-game MMOWs, it is more common for the social mechanism to support player membership in multiple groups, rather than the singular guild model typical of most MMOGs. While this offers a level of flexibility, it shifts the dynamic significantly. Membership in a guild or its equivalent creates an exclusive emotional bond not unlike that of a real-world clan, tribe or a gang. Taylor and Jakobsson have aptly compared MMOG guilds to membership in a mafia ‘family’ (Taylor and Jakobsson 2003). One of the principle reasons for this may be that a guild brings with it not only group allegiance but also a sense of collective identity. Players within a guild-like structure associate their identities with a particular group in a way that members of a ‘club’ in a non-game world typically do not. The individual identity can in a sense ‘morph’ across different clubs, which is significantly different than having your identity tied in a persistent way to a single group. It also permits the formation of sub-communities, secondary group affiliations and identities that are related to or subordinate to a primary affiliation.
By investigating one such play community in-depth over a long period of time, the study seeks to identify the sorts of attributes that make such groups unique, to understand the dynamics between individual and group identity, and to understand how these influence emergent group behavior. By following a single play community across several virtual world ‘ecosystems’, one can begin to understand the relationship between the essential character of the group’s collective behavior and the specific attributes of the virtual worlds or ecosystems they inhabit.

‘Within non-game MMOWs, it is more common for the social mechanism to support player membership in multiple groups, rather than the singular guild model described above. ..... The individual identity can in a sense ‘morph’ across different clubs, which is significantly different than having your identity tied in a persistent way to a single group’.

Perhaps this area could be explored further. Does the "morphing" across different clubs provide the distributed community more resilience within a single MMOW? Perhaps ensuring greater longevity over singular guild allegiance? Has this in fact been happening to our group?"

Posted by: Raena | February 05, 2006 at 04:46 PM

The Social Construction of Avatar Identity (Book II, Sec. 3.4)

One of the most interesting findings of this study was the observation that the formation of individual and group identity was itself an emergent process. Many earlier readings of the development of avatar identities tended to focus on the individual (Dibbell 1998; Turkle 1995), but in the course of the study, it became very clear a) that group and individual identity were inextricably linked, and b) that individual identity evolved out of an emergent process of social feedback. Similar findings, however, can be seen in other studies that look at the relationship of the social to the individual within virtual worlds (Bruckman 1992; Taylor 1999).
The concept of the ‘social construction of identity’ builds on Berger and Luckman’s concept of the ‘social construction of reality’ by suggesting that the individual is as much a social construction as the ‘reality’ he or she perceives. This is not a particularly new idea, and is even addressed by Berger and Luckman in terms of the construction of identities such as ‘Jew’ in various cultures (Berger and Luckmann 1966). The individual is always, to a greater or lesser extent, at least in part a product of his or her social milieu. In addition, individual identity is generally woven out of the materials of group identity and vice versa.
In the context of the online virtual world and driven by play as its primary activator, identity appears to emerge through collective feedback rather than individual desire. The assumption that a virtual identity promotes anonymity and therefore, to a certain measure, freedom, may belie a profound misunderstanding of the concept of ‘anonymity’. While the person’s ‘real-life identity’ remains anonymous, her in-world identity, because it is persistent, cannot stay that way for long. Over time, others will recognize the traits and talents of the individual, often before she recognizes them herself. In this way, players take on a role in the group not by an act of individual will, but in response to feedback and in some cases even demands from the play community. Players often find themselves surprised by their online identities, exhibiting qualities and talents of which they themselves were not aware, including leadership abilities, drawn forth by play and enabled by the group. As one of T.L. Taylor’s research subjects put it ‘Avatars have a mind of their own, and they grow in unexpected ways (…) you are kidding yourself if you think you will be able to control or even predict what will happen to your avatar’ (Taylor 1999).

Intersubjective Flow (Book II, Sec. 3.5)

Intersubjectivity is a term borrowed from sociology and anthropology referring tothe common-sense, shared meanings constructed by people in their interactions with each other and used as an everyday resource to interpret the meaning of elements of social and cultural life’ (Seale 2004). Intersubjectivity is used largely as a means to look at the world through the lens of social transactions, rather than individual psychology and motivation (Blumer 1969). Many aspects of culture, such as language and ritual, are considered intersubjective because they both arise from and become materials for social transactions.
Intersubjectivity is a useful concept when looking at distributed networked environments, which are primarily social in nature. These digital environments, whether virtual worlds, games, forums or chat rooms, are intersubjective artifacts whose sole aim and outcome is the support and creation of shared contexts for social transactions.
‘Flow’ is what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi names the feeling of complete and energized focus in an activity, with a high level of enjoyment and fulfillment.
As Csikszentmihalyi sees it, the components of a flow-producing activity are:

  • We are up to the activity

  • We are able to concentrate on the activity

  • The activity has clear goals

  • The activity has direct feedback

  • We feel that we control over the activity

  • Our worries and concerns disappear

  • Our subjective experience of time is altered

Many players in this study both reported and exhibited qualities of flow in their play activities. This may explain why many denizens of online games and virtual worlds spend what to the outside observer may appear to be excessive hours in-world. One of the hallmarks of flow is a sense of temporal compression, a perception that ‘time flies when you’re having fun’. Play researcher Bernie DeKoven adds a social dimension to play, positing that the quality of challenge key to maintaining a sense of flow can be provided by other players (DeKoven). This type of enjoyable challenge is what graphical user-interface pioneer Alan Kay referred to as ‘hard fun’. In some instances, the presence of other people, particularly people with whom one has an affinity, can serve to augment or strengthen the sense of flow.

Building on Csikszentmihalyi and DeKoven, in the pages that follow, this study will introduce the concept of ‘intersubjective flow’, a sociological (rather than psychological) reading of flow that conceives of play less as an individual activity than as an intersubjective space for social transaction. Interestingly, intersubjective flow does not necessarily require the presence of people. Players can also become engaged at a high level of flow in solitary activities, such as artifact creation; but at the heart of the activity is the knowledge that the artifact being created will be meaningful to the play community. Such activity falls under the category of our next topic, ‘productive play’.

Two comments in one post.....

"One of the hallmarks of flow is a sense of temporal compression, a perception that ‘time flies when you’re having fun’"

I absolutely agree with this. And it happens in a variety of contexts, including WORK as well as play.

"Players can also become engaged at a high level of flow in solitary activities, such as artifact creation; but at the heart of the activity is the knowledge that the artifact being created will be meaningful to the play community."

I have experienced this first hand as a designer in There. I hear the same from other Therian [sic] developers, Uru or not. Developing objects for the online world can be a "game with the game" so to speak. (I hesitate to use the word "game" in the context of the community world environments being discussed in this text, but I trust the readers understand my point.) The community inspires the developers. Developers inspire each other. Seeing people enjoy your works is reward in itself, as any artist knows. Additionally the developers themselves are intrinsically part of an unofficial developer guild, whose membership is defined by the compliments developers give to each other concerning their work.

Posted by: Raena | February 05, 2006 at 04:55 PM

Raena, this is a really good articulation of the feedback process I describe in the Productive Play section. Part of what you are saying, which is integral to this thesis, is that Flow happens through a feedback process.

Posted by: Artemesia | February 05, 2006 at 10:56 PM

Play Styles as an Engine for Emergence (Book II, Sec. 9)

As we’ve begun to see, emergent play patterns develop from players enacting simple rules, and then, over time, and generally through feedback, modifying or expanding the game or world beyond the designers’ initial intentions. Where play styles come in is that they are the ‘engine’ for this emergence. If we return to our terminology of ‘network’ and ‘ecosystem’, we can look at the network of players in terms of a particular set of meta-rules that propel their play patterns as they come into contact with the ecosystem of the world’s features. An earlier example given of emergent systems was an ant colony. While a human network of players is of course much more sophisticated than an ant colony, they may have certain relatively simple behaviors or orientations that lead to more complex behaviors. This section describes these play styles and look at some concrete examples of how they influence emergent behavior.
Before citing specific examples, it may also be useful to reflect upon the origin of play styles. Many of the signature play styles which were linked to TGU identity were honed in Myst games, such as solving the so-called ‘Mensa’ level puzzles for which Myst games are famous. (Figures 9.1 & 9.2) The fact that most TGU players had spent ten years developing mastery in these play styles is key to understanding how they engaged with each other in Uru Live, and then transposed these play styles into other virtual worlds.
Much of this study was spent watching TGUers play and playing with them. The latter is key because I found throughout the study that simply observing was not sufficient. It became critical to actually play with them, and learn their play styles from a subjective perspective, even if only in a rudimentary way. It was clear from the opening of Until Uru that I would never be able to catch up with the decade of practice most of them had had at puzzle-solving. However, they were more than happy to take me through the puzzles, giving me hints along the way. This experience helped me piece together both what sorts of play activities TGU members valued, and also to observe the social behavior of the hint-giving process. In fact, this exercise provided much insight into the way TGUers viewed the world. Much of the TGU play style revolves around the experience of discovery in different forms—whether uncovering a clue, discovering a new place, finding a new meaning to a previously mysterious symbol, revealing plot points, etc. One of the interesting techniques that TGU players developed within Uru was the art of giving hints without revealing ‘spoilers’, allowing the player being coached to make the discovery for herself. Since many of the Uru puzzles are spatial in nature, they can really only be appreciated through direct experience.

Figures 9.1 & 9.2: Typical Uru puzzles: Top, close a certain number of steam vents to get the optimal pressure to ride a gust of steam into a secret area. Bottom, turn circular rings to match pattern seen in another room.

It is important to point out that my initial experience of observing TGUers play was within When I first encountered the group, the player-run Until Uru servers had not yet opened and the Atmosphere Hood was not yet complete. Both in talking with them and observing their play behaviors in, it was clear that the group had a particular style of play, but I did not fully understand its origins until visiting them in Until Uru. Exploring the environs, being guided through puzzles and taken to secret locales and playing improvised games made the significance of behaviors I had encountered in much more evident. Other non-Uru players who joined TGU and later played Until Uru have also observed that it added a dimension of understanding to the group’s unique character.

The Gathering of Uru Signature Play Styles

EXPAND: Cultures of play, etc. The following section is a brief summary TGU play styles, each of which had an emergent patterns across virtual worlds. These play styles were distilled from both interviews with players, participant observation and participant engagement:
Spatial Literacy

The ability to ‘read’ and interpret embedded meanings in space, find hidden clues and locations, ‘unlock’ secret places. (Figure 9.3) The satisfaction of spatial literacy is the sense of discovery that often results from finding and understanding the meaning of something. Spatial storytelling is one of the hallmarks of the Myst series, so these longtime Myst players were considerably skilled in this area.

Figure 9.3: Myst and Uru players must learn how to 'read' space to solve clues.


TGUers often identified themselves as explorers, a play style related to spatial literacy. TGUers are naturally inquisitive and love to explore, usually in groups, and particularly appreciate of scenic beauty and vistas. (Figure 9.4) Exploration is a way to relate to the virtual space, as well as another means of making new discoveries. This fits nicely with Bartle’s explorer type, who is interested primarily in interacting with and being surprised by the world (Bartle 1996). One of the best examples of the relationship between exploration and emergence is in the description given earlier of the post-closure scouting process. Because they were already skilled explorers, TGUers had both the instinct and the facility to disperse into the ludisphere in search of new play space.

Figure 9.4: Group exploring is one of the hallmark play styles of Uru.


TGUers repeatedly identified themselves in interviews as ‘puzzle-solvers’. This is clearly a hallmark of Uru and Myst games and also lead to some of the Uru-wide game hacking described earlier. In some way, their dislocation from Uru became a puzzle to be solved, just as reverse-engineering the Uru servers became a puzzle for the Uru hacker group that launched Until Uru. Puzzle-solving hones a certain level of skill, patience and determination at solving challenging problems that extends beyond intentional components of the game.

Cleverness and Creativity

Cleverness and creativity, in a broad sense, are highly valued qualities and manifest through everything from inventing a new event or game to finding a clever hiding place in hide-and-seek and new ways to play with found objects. The social feedback that results is particularly critical to emergence. The social reward for cleverness and creativity serves to propagate more of the same. Cleverness does not necessary manifest in intellectual form – it can also emerge spontaneously through improvised play activity. (Figure 9.5)

Figure 9.5: A clever hiding place in Hide-and-Seek in the Eder Kemo Garden Age of Until Uru.


Mastery of specific skills is highly valued, and examples abound of new activities being invented with mastery in mind. Perhaps the best example is the D’ni Olympics, founded by Maesi. (Figure 9.6) This Uru-wide event, inspired by the active play of a disabled member of the group, involved developing mastery at a variety of events, such as balancing on an upended pylon (traffic cone) or tightrope-walking up a tent rope, that subverted objects and environments in unusual ways. Another example of mastery is the Hairier Legion Flight Team, founded by Shaylah, with Wingman and Maesi. (Figure 9.7) Combining mastery and exploration, the Hairier Legion performs elaborate synchronized air acrobatics using’s numerous company- and player-made air vehicles. In both examples, mastery also takes the form of performance as players exhibit their skills to each other. Both of these events are major spectator draws, and the Hairier Legion in particular made Yeesha Island a focal point of activity for the broader community.

Figure 9.6: Uru players exhibit mastery at the D'ni Olympics tent-climbing event in Until Uru.

Figure 9.7: The Hairier Legion Flight Team in prepares to take off from one of Damanji's temples.


A notion inherited at least in part form Uru is the notion of the game-within-a-game. In Uru, the game was Heek, a five-player ‘rock, paper scissors’ style in which players seated around a table throw up symbols in a holographic display (Figure 9.8), also replicated by players in Second Life (Figure 9.9). In, Spades, based on the popular card game, has taken the place of Heek, (Figure 9.10) but Uruvians also enjoy inventing their own games and sports, such as Buggy Polo, a football-type game invented by Wingman and played with Dune Buggies and a large translucent orb driven by an avatar. An example of the impact of game design on this type of emergent behavior is that TGUers were not able to play hide-and-seek in either or Second Life due to the fact that players cannot turn off their own name tags, which float over avatars’ heads. In Uru, names only appear when the cursor is rolled over the avatar, and only when it is unobstructed by another object. Thus, hide-and-seek is an invented game that players can only enjoy in Uru.