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

Productive Play: Cultural Production, Meaning-Making and Agency (Book II, Secs. 3.6 and 10)

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Productive Play: Cultural Production, Meaning-Making and Agency (Book II, Secs. 3.6 and 10)

One of the hallmarks of the varying definitions of play is that play activities in general and games in particular are ‘unproductive’. However, as Sutton-Smith points out, ‘the constant modern tendency to think of play as simply a function of some other more important cultural process (psychological or social) tends to underestimate the autonomy of such play cultures’. What tends to be overlooked is the level of creative production that can go into play activities. The New Orleans Mardi Gras is perhaps the most noteworthy example of a high level of productivity generated around a play activity; others include the traditional Renaissance Faire and Star Trek, or ‘Trekkie’, fan culture. Productive play has been present within online virtual worlds since their earliest inceptions as text-based MUDs and MOOs (Curtis 1992) and an entire educational theory, constructionist learning, has used such productive play as the underpinning for educational software (Papert and Harel 1991).
Economist Edward Castronova has countered the argument that ‘play is unproductive’ by utilizing traditional econometrics to determine the ‘Gross National Product’ of virtual worlds (Castronova 2001; Castronova 2002). Since most virtual worlds have currencies, and many of these can now be converted into real-world currencies on the extra-virtual ‘black-market’, a direct economic benefit can be gained from engagement with some forms of ‘productive play’. Virtual world designer Cory Ondrejka has described the ways in which players within a co-created environment exhibit prodigious creativity, especially as they are granted more freedom and the potential for economic gain, be it real or virtual (Ondrejka 2004). Shannon Appelcline, lead designer at game company Skotos, has written extensively about emergent cultures within the games he designs (Appelcline 2000-2006).
Productive fan culture, from the Star Trek ‘Trekkie’ phenomenon (Jenkins 1992) to new forms of cultural production in games (Poremba 2003) is well studied. In the case of the Uru Diaspora, emergent behavior can be looked at as a convergence of fan culture and productive play. The Uru Diaspora at large manifests impulses similar to those of Trekkies, ranging from developing dictionaries of the language of the fictional D’ni people at the heart of the Myst/Uru series to making real-world quilts depicting Uru themes. However, the social context of online virtual worlds combined with the malleability of digital media create affordances for fan culture to be cultivated within the imaginary world itself, as well as in the extra-virtual forms mentioned above, more typical of traditional fandom. Thus, unlike Trekkie culture, which extends outside of the imaginary world it references, Uru and other game-based fan cultures can incubate within and ultimately transform the virtual worlds they inhabit, whether those worlds are of the ‘fixed synthetic’ or ‘co-created’ variety.
This study looks in particular at three forms of productive play in the context of inter-world immigration, fan culture and emergent behavior. The first involves inventing new game activities, social rituals and cultural practices within existing environments, generally by repurposing the game environment and existing artifacts, a kind of ‘readymade’ approach to play. The second form of productive play involves carrying culture across virtual worlds by creating new artifacts and objects derived from or inspired by other games. The third type of productive play entails the creation of entire game environments, whether derived from other games or original concepts influenced by them. The latter form can take place both within existing worlds, and also using game creation tools, by making entirely new environments.
Extended Text:

Productive Play

Productive play, as mentioned earlier, goes directly against the grain of much of Game Studies as well as prevailing cultural perspectives in Western culture. However, the evidence suggests, both here and elsewhere, that play can motivate a high level of productivity. Productive play is a major component of other cultural forms cited earlier, such the traditional Renaissance Faire, Star Trek fan culture, and Mardi Gras, to name a few examples. And as has been stated earlier, ‘emergence happens’. Even in ‘fixed synthetic’ worlds with minimal affordances for co-creation, players will find ways to be creative, whether by appropriating game spaces and objects for different uses than those for which they were intended or through extra-virtual contexts. If affordances for creativity are present, players are sufficiently motivated, and adequate feedback systems are in place, this will serve to boost and promote emergence still further.
Uru makes for a particularly interesting case study in this regard because it represents the migration from a fixed synthetic game world to an open, co-created, social world. Emergence had already begun to occur in Uru even before its closure but blossomed as the group traversed other magic circles into other virtual worlds. Uru players had already generated fan-created content in the form of fan art, dictionaries and the like. Once settled in ‘co-created’ worlds, Uru players began to prolifically create artifacts inspired by Uru’s content, fuelled by the play community and supported by the creation tools and economies of the new worlds into which they migrated. This should not strike us as odd, as certainly people have been creating their own play artifacts for centuries. The mediation of the network and the software itself, however, creates both a built-in audience and a distribution mechanism for these play artifacts that accelerate the feedback loops that promote emergence. Player creation can be described as a ‘virtuous cycle’ with social feedback as its underlying engine.

Restoring a Lost Culture

It is not insignificant that one of the themes of the original Uru game was the restoration of the lost culture of the D’ni. So it seems almost inevitable that when Uru closed, players who had been engaged in exploring, understanding and restoring the lost D’ni culture would extend this objective outside the game. Uru’s original goal set the stage for the emergent cultures that evolved after its closure; players were already pre-disposed by the game itself to restore the D’ni culture, and they were well-trained at exploring new lands and solving difficult problems. It was as if the game itself trained them to adapt to its own destruction.
This trend recurs across the Uru Diaspora in a variety of forms: TGU’s text-based MUD and Erik’s Atmosphere hood; the re-creation of Uru and original Myst-like game in Second Life; the Uru hacker group’s player-run server system and their initiative to create original Ages. Other Uru players are creating derivative and original environments using other game engines, such as Doom 3. There are also a number of extra-virtual manifestations of player productivity, such as fan drawings and paintings of Uru, and the real-world quilts mentioned earlier, the Guild of Linguists and other groups devoted to the spoken and written language of the fictional D’ni people, and a D’ni History Puzzle game. Examples of Uru-inspired creativity are too numerous to list here, and continue to be expanded on an ongoing basis.

The Longing for a Homeland

One of the key characteristics of a real-world diaspora is the longing for a lost homeland, although in some cases, the existence of the homeland and the identity associated with it may be, at least in part, imagined (Anderson 1991). In these cases, the historical and imaginary blend to create a collective nostalgia for a past that never was, what historian and media theorist Norman Klein calls the ‘social imaginary’ (Klein 1997).
For members of the Uru Diaspora, this longing transposes itself into a kind of nostalgia for an entirely fictitious, imaginary world in which the experiences were real, emotional and immediate. While melancholy in some respects, the outcome of this longing has been twofold. On one hand, this longing has contributed to a level of cohesiveness that has long outlived the original game experience; on the other, Uru has served as a kind of muse, inspiring prolific creativity.
The value of player-created artifacts, while they can be seen as a form of personal expression, seems to be primarily in the realm of social currency. Most artifacts are created for the benefit of group, as markers of shared identity, or as loci for social interaction, such as the Uru fountain. For the artisan, creativity also becomes part of his or her individual identity within the group. Uru artisans are highly respected within their communities for their valuable contribution to the life of the culture.
In ‘Art and Agency’, the anthropologist Alfred Gell has argued that man-made objects, be they art, tools, weapons or modes of transportation, are less a matter of the individual creative urge than mechanisms of social agency. Echoing Marshall McLuhan’s conception of tools as ‘extensions of man’ (a theory of which Gell appears to have been completely unaware), Gell proposes that artifacts extend the creator’s reach into the social, the intersubjective. While the findings of this research support Gell’s core concept of social agency, they contradict contention that meaning is irrelevant (Gell 1998). In the case of TGU, artifact creation is both a mechanism of social agency and a carrier of meaning.

10.4 Artifacts as Carriers of Meanings

While Uru artifacts may be aesthetically pleasing to the average observer, to members of the Uru Diaspora they have a deeper shared meaning. When Uruvians meet in other games, even for those who do not carry Uru as part of their avatar identity, the shared experience of ‘being Uru’ creates a sense of affiliation, regardless of ones current virtual world of choice. This affinity finds its most poignant expression in the shared meanings of Uru artifacts.
Uru players also enjoy sharing this meaning with others. Creators of Shorah Island in Second Life regularly give tours to non-Uru players, walking them through what has become in some ways an Uru museum, and describing the origin of each artifact. Hence, the spatial literacy described earlier translates not only into ‘reading space’ and ‘writing space’ but also into ‘translating space’.
Because of the way the Myst games are structured, and in part due to their spiritual overtones, there is definitely a sense of the sublime to the meanings embedded within Uru artifacts and their progeny. As with Star Trek, which became a kind of parable for the future, Uru presents a rich vocabulary of associations that players take very close to their hearts.
Certain artifacts persist as uniquely meaningful to Uruvians and can be found recurring across various player-made instantiations of Uru culture. As mentioned earlier, the single most important of these is the fountain, the centerpiece and focal point of the Uru hood, and as such, the hub of Uru social life. It was a feature of Uru that many refugees expressed missing: Erik identified it as the starting point for his Atmosphere project; initially, Ember tried to emulate it in TGU’s Community Center with the Moroccan fountain; eventually, the appropriated Moroccan fountain was replaced by Damanji’s authentic Uru-derived fountain; in Second Life’s Shorah Island, the fountain is the primary gathering place for group events and meetings. (Figure 10.1)

Figure 10.1: Variations of the Hood Fountain: In Uru (top left), (top right), Erik's Atmosphere Hood, and Second Life's Shorah Island.

Figure 10.2: The Uru Relto (top); re-created in Second Life (middle); There's Relto Island (bottom).

Figure 10.3: Modern Relto exterior in

Another key artifact is the Relto. Both and Second Life artisans attempted to create authentic ‘traditional’ Reltos modeled after the Relto in Uru. (Figure 10.2) In Second Life, the flexibility of the in-game building system allowed for the modeling of a relatively accurate simulation. In, with its more constrained and stylized building tools, the traditional Uru Relto could only be approximated, although the rendition is still easily recognizable as a Relto. Before too long players in both games began to modify the Relto design to create more ‘modern’ interpretations. A few examples are illustrated here, created from architectural elements found in the respective games, or original designs by players.

While these ‘modern’ Reltos vary stylistically quite a bit from the original Uru Relto, they share common signature elements. Reltos tend to be isolated, whether an island at sea, on the roof of a building, or floating in the air. Regardless of its aesthetic style, a Relto is typically a small, one room, free-standing building, containing a built-in bookcase for Linking Books, and sometimes, a wardrobe of carved wood. (Figure 10.4)

Figure 10.4: Traditional Relto interior in Uru (above); interior details of a modern Relto in (below).
The ‘Egg Room Egg’, mentioned earlier, is also a recurring icon. Although players were never able to ascertain is original meaning in Uru, in carrying it into other games they have imbued it with their own meaning. In Second Life, naturally there is an Egg Room in the hood on Shorah Island. Variations of the Egg Room Egg can also be seen throughout Uru areas in One hovers in the center of Nature_Girl’s Library, while another hangs in the air above the Relto Island. Variations of the Egg Room Egg have also been used for Easter Egg hunts, a typical example of the conflating real world and imaginary cultures. (Figure 10.5)

Figure 10.5: The Egg Room Egg in Uru (above); in on the Relto Island (below left) and in the Uru Library (below right).
Among the works of Uruvian artisans are numerous instances of classic D’ni technology being replicated in other worlds. The Imager, for instance, is a display device that appears repeatedly in Uru, and was re-created in as a way to display different types of graphics. (Figure 10.6)

Figure 10.6: Uru Imager (left) reinterpreted by Nina_Uru in (right).
Two of the most prolific Uru artisans in are Damanji and Maesi. Building on the fashion focus of, among the earliest Uru objects created by Damanji was the Yeesha costume (Figure 10.7), another marker of the ‘fictive ethnic identity’ that TGUers have adopted; he also created a TMP T-shirt (Figure 10.8). A Yeesha avatar in appears in this costume at public events from time to time. Maesi has also created a number of Uruvian garments, including ethnically styled costumes, as well as a variety of Uru and TGU themed t-shirts. Both Damanji and Maesi have also created a variety of vehicles. Damanji has created several fantastical Uru-style vehicles, including a hover sail boat, a spherical bicycle-like air vehicle, and a dune buggy adorned with D’ni script.

Figure 10.7: Leesa and Lynn model Damanji's Yeesha costume in

Figure 10.8: The author sporting original TGU fashions by Damanji (left) Maesi (center and right).

Figure 10.9: A classic example of hybrid Uru-There artifacts is the Yeesha buggy by Damanji.

Damanji became particularly involved in building. His earlier structures, including the Relto Island, the Uru fountain, Uru-style street lamps, and the Egg Room Egg were largely derivative of the original Uru. He also began to develop elaborate architectural structures, the next section details the ways in which his aesthetic evolved over time to integrate Uru and styles of architecture.
Books and written texts play an important role not only Uru but in all the Myst games. Besides being the source of Ages and the primary transport mechanism, players are accustomed to reading stories, poems, journal entries and correspondence that obtusely reveal puzzle clues and aspects of the story. The library is one of the most important buildings in the D’ni City, and there is also a smaller library in the Hood where Linking Books can be found. The ability within both and Second Life for players to create books which can be clicked on to reveal textual or visual content provides a perfect opportunity for players to produce content around this game element. (Figure 10.10)

Figure 10.10: Linking Books in Uru (top left), (top right), and Second Life (bottom).

The Uru Library in, created initially by Raena and later maintained by Nature_Girl, was the second most important structure (after the Community Center) on Yeesha Island. At the heart of this multi-story, columned, circular building was the ubiquitous Egg Room Egg. The structures could also become identity markers as well as cultural artifacts, and the Library reflected Nature_Girl’s role not only as the group’s historian, but also the resident expert in all things D’ni. She knew the entire Myst/Uru mythology in detail, and was the primary resource for any questions regarding Uru lore and theology. Over time, I came refer to her as the group’s Rabbi. The first and second floor of the library displayed books with various information about the history of the group, the closure of Uru, and instructions for getting into Until Uru, as well as links to other key group resources. The top floor, which was accessible only by hover vehicle, housed Nature_Girl’s Relto, a customized variation possessing all the signature characteristics described above. (Figure 10.11) Nature_Girl also runs a handful of art zones that exhibit the works of Thereian artists.

Figure 10.11: Nature_Girl's Relto atop the Uru Library in

Erik’s Atmosphere Hood is an interesting example of the relationship between solitary workmanship and social agency. Though Erik worked entirely alone on this project, it was clear from interviews that his motivations were primarily social. He had made a promise to Leesa, and wished to do something for the group. It should be noted that like Erik, all of the artisans described here were required to teach themselves new tools, as all of the worlds they produced for utilized their own propriety creation tools.
The Uru group in Second Life took a much more comprehensive approach, and, according to interviews, were deliberately seeking out a world in which they could re-create Uru. Once in Second Life, a small core group acquired Shorah Island and set about re-creating key sections of Uru, including the hood and Eder Kemo. Some additional ‘modern’ features were also added, reflecting the qualities of their new home in Second Life, including modern-style Reltos. The group of six to nine core members built the entire area once, then tore it down and started again from scratch. One distinction in creation modalities is that in Second Life, as opposed to and Atmosphere, creation is done in-world. In addition, unlike, environments can be set up to allow for group modification. This leads to a much more collaborative mode of creation and makes it easier to create large environments.’s creation mechanism, on the other hand, favors individual creation and ownership of space. (Figure 10.12)