With the increasing interest in online games and virtual worlds, there is a growing need for knowledge-sharing on research methods. Many of us at the front end of this work have started with traditional methods, and built on the work others described in chapter (x). Each has adapted her own unique method and approach, although the use of ethnography as a central methodological paradigm is fairly universal. It is certainly not the only way, but as we’ve seen, it has some characteristics that make it particularly well-suited for certain types of game inquiries, particularly those that concern culture and social dynamics. Other methods can also be used, and mixed-methods, combining for instance qualitative and quantitative research, can also be a good way to mitigate the various trade-offs in selecting a method that might miss some key data. Combining methods is perfectly permissible and in some cases, the only way to get at the core questions of the research. They key is to be rigorous about the research methods you choose to be sure you are not missing some vital dimension, such as gender.
In this chapter I will describe the specific method, tools and techniques that were used to conduct this research. Note that I am taking the approach of using performance as a guiding principle for the practice of ethnography. This may not be an approach that others choose to take, but most of the primary ingredients of online ethnography described here can certainly be adopted without the performative stance.
In subsequent chapters, I will also talk about the ways the method changes, as well as some examples of the “learning while stumbling” described above. This provides a kind of “behind the scenes” look at the ethnographic process which is not typically included in this type of report but which I think is an essential and non-trivial aspect of the ethnographic method. Ethnography is highly improvisational and, while it is important to strike out on a certain path, one should not be surprised if that path should shift direction throughout the process.
My Avatar/My Self
As mentioned earlier, game ethnography is one of the rare circumstances in which an ethnographer is required to actively participate in the culture she is studying, not simply observe it. The reason for this is more technical than philosophical: you cannot “observe” a virtual world without being inside it, and in order to be inside it, you have to be “embodied.” In other words, you have to create an avatar. Later, I will explore this issue of what I call “participant engagement,” which is kind of a game-centric variation of participant observation. But just as the avatar is the beginning of a life in an online game, it is also the beginning of the research of one.
In order to conduct this game/performance/ethnography, I created Artemesia, a research avatar with a trans-ludic identity that enabled me to follow players across borders into the different virtual worlds they inhabited. As it is common for players to abbreviate a variety of terms, including one another’s avatar names, the name Artemesia was almost always colloquially reduced to either “Arte” (pronounced like arty) or “Art.” This was initially accidental, but because I was doing the research in the context of an art project, I liked the double-entendre this suggested.
Later, I will discuss the process whereby I discovered the subjects, but my initial intent was to study some form of inter-game immigration. The creation of trans-ludic identities was a custom adopted by a number of players in virtual worlds I visited to indicate that they were immigrants or refugees from another game. This transplanting of identity between worlds involved not only using the same name in each virtual world, but also frequently attempting to create as close a resemblance as possible between avatars across games, often based loosely on the person’s real-world appearance. Below are images of Artemesia in There, Second Life, and Until Uru, as well as a photograph of the author. (Figure x) In each case, the general appearance includes variants of red/titian/copper hair, a fair complexion, and one of a number of hairdos that attempted to approximate either past or current hairstyles I’ve had in real life. It should be noted that each of these games has different affordances for modifications in player representation, which are reflected in the images below. Uru has the most limited palette of avatar options, followed by There.com, where players can create, buy and sell their own clothing, and Second Life, which provides affordances not only for highly customized player-created costumes but hairstyles and even avatar skins.
Figure x: The many faces of Artemesia: At home in There.com (upper left), on her pirate galleon in Second Life (upper right) and in Uru (lower left); “real life” avatar (lower right).
The intersection between myself and Artemesia is what James Gee calls “the third being,” a new creation that exists between myself and a fictional character (Gee 2003). Gee’s definition pertains more to characters in single-player games, characters that are already somewhat defined by the game’s narrative. Massively multiplayer game characters tend to place character agency more squarely in the hands of the player, given a constrained “kit of parts” made available by the designers. Thus the player constructs her avatar character over time through the improvisational performance of play. The dynamics of this interplay will be described in more detail later, but just as there is a dynamic feedback loop between players in a play community, there also exists a similar feedback loop between the player and his or her avatar. As players in the study often pointed out, the avatar is an extension of the player’s real-life persona, even if it instantiates in ways that digress significantly from her real-world personality or life roles. Schechner describes this as a play and performance paradox in which a third character is formed that is “not me, and not not me,” but somewhere in between. (Schechner 1988b) I initially played Artemesia like a game character, following certain parameters suitable to the “role-play” of an ethnographer. In addition, the ethnographic process was itself a game, filled with mysteries to be revealed and puzzles to be solved. Thus I was engaging in a meta-game (the ethnographic project) within a meta-game (the Uru Diaspora), both of which can be characterized as forms of emergent behavior. Through this role-play/research methodology, my inention was to defined a new praxis, ethnography-as-performance-as-game.
Ironically, one of the outcomes of this research was that in playing this role, I eventually became a “real” ethnographer, and acquired a doctorate along the way. In the process, I also became a legitimate participant of the group, which eventually adopted me as ethnographer-in-residence. In this role, somewhat paradoxically, I became a kind of “inside-outsider,” which provided me with the inroads to develop a much more accurate and intimate picture of the group while at the same time attempting to maintain my “objective” perspective. As is generally the case in ethnographic research, the development of trust and rapport was vital to the success of the research. The contradiction here is that in order to do this, one often needs to suspend ones role of authority and objectivity. Yet, interestingly, because my “role” in the group was that of “the ethnographer,” I was expected to create a portrayal of the group that players could come to a consensus on as being accurate. This consensus was made possible, and in fact did take place, through my inviting the group into a process of annotation on the findings. This enabled me to assure that I had got it right, while at the same time maintaining a distinct authorial voice. In developing both this character and this method, I have also integrated Artemesia into the presentation and writing process for this research. Many presentations, most notably the thesis defense, as well as public talks, have been given partially or entirely in-situ, in-game and in-character, further reinforcing the performative angle of approach. In addition, a number publications are credited as co-authored by Celia Pearce and Artemesia, prompting one publisher to request that Artemesia sign an author permission form, even though she was well aware that Artemesia was a fictional character.
The field study took place over a period of eighteen months, from March 2004 to September 2005, culminating with my attending the Real Life Gathering of There.com at the corporate offices of Makena Technologies (which owns and operate There.com) in Northern California. Initially it had been my intention to avoid meeting study participants in real life, but as with many other plans and intentions, these had to be adjusted in light of the customs and practices of the players themselves.
During this eighteen-month period, I conducted in-world fieldwork that entailed logging into There.com, Until Uru, and other games and virtual worlds that the players inhabited and/or visited. I also paid a number of visits to the Uru community in Second Life and interviewed a number of the members responsible for building the Uru-inspired island there.
My method was consistent with traditional anthropological research techniques; the process of research included considerable investigation into standard anthropological methods and discussion with anthropologists and sociologists who had studied both real world and mediated cultures.
Following fairly standard protocols, the research entailed making initial contact with key group leaders and informing them of my interest in doing a study of their group(s). Early contacts with the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of The Gathering of Uru in There.com were met with great support, and provided an entrée into the community at-large. When interacting with players, I was diligent in informing them of my research activities and utilized the chatlog record as confirmation of their permission to conduct interviews. Over time, I found that all of the players were quite willing to participate, and some actually sought me out requesting that I interview them for the study.
“Informed consent,” the term used by university review boards to describe permission given by human subjects to be researched, poses some challenges in this regard. Most players in online games appear in avatar form and this can actually be leveraged to protect subjects’ privacy, which is one of the parameters of human research ethics. However, human research review boards frequently require a signed consent form of subjects. This creates two significant challenges: One, it means breaking the anonymity of subjects; two, it requires a significant bureaucratic procedure which can be unwieldly to the point of making research with large groups impossible. Review boards that have experience with Internet research will typically accept some type of verification of permission other than a signed form, such as a chat-log, audio or video recording of a player giving permission to be studied. There are also questions that out of special allowances for research done in public places. How do we define “public,” and do online games or the spaces within them qualify as “public?”
As with traditional ethnography, the primary data collection method was fieldwork. Field visits typically took place between two and four times a week, and varied in length from two to as many as five or six hours, depending on events and activities underway. Field visits primarily involved observing and participating with players in formal and informal, structured and unstructured play situations. Timing was based on knowledge of community traffic, and often entailed making visits at night and on weekends. One challenge had to do with the international nature of the environment: players in the group came from all over the world, and interviewing players who were, for example, in Europe, required making appointments in advance or arranging to be online when known events were planned. The TGU group had a long-standing tradition, dating back from the original Uru closure, of meeting in one of their online worlds on Sundays at noon Pacific, thus facilitating a weekly gathering that included European as well as U.S.-based members.
During site visits, I generally worked with a second computer that enabled me to keep detailed field notes and transcribe voice conversations. This was in part aided by the effect that things take longer in virtual space, so there were often adequate pauses in conversation or activity for me to do this effectively. This become more challenging as I became more actively involved in play activities that required a high level of participation and interaction, some examples of which are described in the findings. Where possible, I transcribed speech interactions in real time within my field notes. The ability to capture field notes and verbal communication with real-time note-taking is a boon for ethnographers, who traditionally capture observation with hand-written notes (often on index cards) that are compiled after-the-fact. I also captured chatlogs for all text chats. In addition to formal and informal interviews, I also conducted in-world discussion groups towards the end of the study with themes based on conversations and observations from the study. Textual data captured in this fashion was entered into a database, alsong with each set of notes and transcripts coded by date. I also used methods of visual anthropology, taking numerous screenshots of players and player-created artifacts. Images were coded by date taken in order to do cross-comparisons of text and visual data.
The vast majority of time in-world was spent “talking,” in both text and voice chat, in various locales and concurrent with other activities. Exploring, which players self-identified as the predominating play pattern of the community, was manifested in a variety of different forms. In There.com, exploration was generally done in air or land vehicles. Vehicle exploration posed a particularly good opportunity to conduct participant observation and informal interviews as explorations tended to take place in multi-person vehicles, or in separate vehicles with a shared instant message window. I often took the role of passenger so that my hands were free to type and take screenshots and I could attend carefully to the conversations, which took place in a combination of voice and text chat.
To complement participant observation of play activities, I also conducted both formal and informal, group and individual interviews. Group interviews were useful not only because they provided data but also because they allowed me to observe the players’ relationships to one another and the ways in which they collectively constructed the reality of their game experience. This is a crucial because the underlying basis of the social construction is precisely that it is social, thus a social method of data collection can provide additional dimensions of understanding. The “consensual hallucination” described by Gibson when he first coined the term “cyberspace” (ref)(Gibson 1984) is constructed collectively by the group, and the way in which they relate to each other through their fictive identities within the game world, including their group discursive style, is key to understanding the ways in which these cybercultures emerge. Players were engaging in a collective social construction of both a fictive ethnicity and an imaginary homeland, and so their collective discourse on these topics was highly informative. Since dialogue is a vital part of the social construction process, group interviews can often yield productive results because they provide a collective understanding and viewpoint. Individual interviews, on the other hand, are often less censored and personal details that might not come out in a group context might also be revealed. A combination of individual and group interviews provided a means to corroborate perspectives and distinguish between different subjective interpretations and meaning-making strategies. Anthropologists in particular recommend a mixture of interviews and participant observation in order to form a complete picture of cultures. While interviews provide insight, there may be factors of which participants are not conscious or are unable to articulate, and which can only be analyzed and understood through direct observation. (Boellstorff 2006) A crystallization method, which will be discussed later in this chapter, combining these two techniques hence provided a more well-rounded portrait of cultural nuance. Visual anthropology turned out to be an effective method to capture some of this lived practice of gameplay. Over the eighteen-month period of the field study, I took approximately 4,000 screenshots of players and player-created artifacts, as well as a small sampling of short video clips. (While video data is useful in some context, because of the sheer number of hours involved, and the massive storage required for video capture, it was not feasible to record all field visits with video.) I studied and documented There.com’s in-world auction site to survey player-created items, especially those that were based on or influenced by Uru. In addition to in-game observation, I made regular reviews of the group’s forum, which served as an historical archive (including documentation of the Uru closure), as well a current discussion topics and issues of concern to players, announcements of upcoming events in the various worlds the group inhabited, as well as notices of real-world encounters between players. The group’s forum also included profiles of members, which enabled me to sketch out a fairly accurate demographic profile of the group without having to collect that data directly from players through surveys or interviews. As suggested by Mills and others, I also kept a journal, where I noted my personal impressions and experiences. Some of the outcomes of that process will be discussed later in this section.
In anthropological fieldwork, it is common to secure native assistance, often in the form of a paid translator or research assistant, but also via key informants who may serve as “insiders” to help decode the culture. One of my informants with a strong interest in the group’s history and progress volunteered to assist me with data collection. She was more familiar than I with the history of the group, and so was able to point me to specific pages on the group’s forum where significant historical events were recorded. She also assisted in some additional demographic research, especially vis-à-vis tracking fluctuation in group size. This informant also assisted me in editing chatlogs from group discussions and took me on a tour of all of the different locales the group had tried to settle in before they finally settled on Yeesha Island. She and other players also provided some of archival images included throughout this text. Most of these are credited using their avatar pseudonyms.
In addition to The Gathering of Uru, I also conducted supplemental research in Second Life interviewing former Uru players and documenting the Uru- and Myst-based areas in the world. I attended some meetings and events, but this research was primarily concerned with player-made environments within Second Life, and less with the group’s ongoing culture and play patterns. Although I had wanted to spend more time with this group, conducting immersive fieldwork in two games simultaneously is not feasible for one researcher, although it might be possible to do so with a team.
While it seems that different games researchers favor different data collection methods, I would argue that a mixed methods approach capturing multiple and diverse data generates more dimensions to data and a better opportunity for crystallization. *(REF?) The ease of data collection, however, creates the added challenge of generating even more data than is generated by “real world” ethnography. As Huberman and Miles point out, “the ‘quality’ of qualitative research aside, the quantity can be daunting, if not overwhelming.” (Huberman and Miles 1994) This is even more the case with online research. As you can already see, the data collection can become quite unwieldy. The upside is that having one’s notes typed, having numerous images that are pre-labeled with context and date, and having all this material in digital form, makes it much easier to organize, manage and maintain quality data than more traditional methods involving hand-written notes, note cards, or analogue photographs. Sometimes data loss can occur due to technical problems or lack of aptitude with the technologies being used. Initially, for instance, I had some challenges in taking and labeling screenshots, but eventually found software application, Fraps, that reliably automated this process, minimizing data loss.
Analysis and Interpretation: The Search for Patterns
I did not use any formal coding software. Instead, at the recommendation of one of my advisors, the textual data was entered into a Filemaker Pro database, integrating each set of field notes, chatlogs, and transcripts into a single record by locale and date. I had initially hoped to integrate the screenshots I had collected into this database, but the software was not well suited for cataloguing of images, and the process was too labor-intensive given the quantity of images collected (roughly 4,000 in all). In the future, I would like to find a better means for integrating textual data and visual records; this would probably have to entail writing a piece of software that can automate the image cataloguing process. However, since all of the images were labeled by game, date and time, it was not difficult to review images in sync with a review of textual data in the database.
Various search methods were used to analyze data for patterns of emergence. As each textual entry included the names of participants in that event, it was possible to sort by informant and thus study interviews and interactions with individuals. The database also allowed for word searches, so I could sort for particular references, narratives or themes. I also added a database field that specified the type of event, e.g., game, party, interview, informal conversation, etc. It should be noted that as voice came into use in the worlds I was studying, both through in-game voice technology and through supplemental use of voice-over-IP programs, the combination of transcripts and text chats become more involved and often challenging to analyze. I ultimately found I had to print out much of the field notes and chatlog data because this made it easier to compare conversations and observations over the long-term.
Sociologists Huberman and Miles suggest a highly formal sequence to data collection and analysis, including such steps as noting patterns and themes; seeing plausibility—making initial, intuitive sense; clustering by conceptual grouping; making metaphors; counting; making contrasts and comparisons; differentiation; shutting back and forth between particulars and the general; factoring; noting relations between variables; making conceptual or theoretical coherence (Huberman and Miles 1994). Clifford Geertz, perhaps in a tradition more typical of anthropologists, writes of the distinction between the three operations of observing, recording and analyzing, that “distinguishing these three phases of knowledge-seeking may not, as a matter of fact, normally be possible; and, indeed, as autonomous ‘operations’ they may not in fact exist.” (Geertz 1973b) (REF: pp.#) I would concur with Geertz that an orderly sequence of data collection followed by analysis is not plausible in practice. Analysis was well underway during the data collection process, as many patterns of emergent behavior became evident almost immediately. Furthermore, as the subjects themselves began to conduct data collection and analysis during the data collection process, the data collection and analysis emerged as an iterative process rather than a linear sequence of events. As patterns emerge, one might want to collect additional data to check on or corroborate findings.
One critical technique or doing this was the visiting and revisiting of various data points. The same questions were asked and re-asked over the duration of the study. While some players found this annoying, it was an important tool to verify long-term patterns, and also to look at changes over time, a key quality of emergence. Furthermore, because part of what I was looking at was large-scale group behavior, it was important to ask similar questions of many different players. For instance, questions such as “what keeps the group together?” were commonly asked to numerous study subjects. Somewhat surprisingly, the answers were so consistent that a recognizable pattern could clearly be identified very early on during in the fieldwork. These data were revisited and interrogated after the basic fieldwork was complete to again reaffirm that these patterns did, indeed, exist and continued to persist.
The process of representing the outcomes of the study was critically important, and a great deal of consideration was given to the format of the written thesis. As Clifford and Marcus point out, the writing process is much a construction of the author as of the subjects, and I was engaged in a reflexive process throughout that constantly bore this in mind. (REF) Writing was viewed as a “method of inquiry” (REF: Janesick) (Richardson 1994) and many of the core conclusions of the study emerged through the writing process itself.
Following Willis and as recommended by both Wolcott and Clifford and Marcus (Willis 1981) (Clifford and George E. Marcus 1986; Wolcott 1990), the narrative of events is kept separate from the analysis. Thus, the first part of Part II describes the events that took place in a narrative format, after the fashion of an anthropological monograph. The subsequent chapters provide description and analysis of various patterns observed in the course of the study, including attempts to draw a correlation between specific game design features and various types of emergent behavior. Most of the conclusions enumerated in this chapter were arrived at through and during the writing process. The method of writing as an active means of thinking through ideas is one I have found consistently effective and was further developed in the course of this research.
The narrative approach taken in Part II is very consciously intended to de-mystify game culture by putting a human face on the avatar, so to speak. The writing approach combines principles of “thick description,” (Geertz 1973b) empathy, working with Behar’s notion of “anthropology that breaks your heart” (Behar 1996) combined with “polyphonic texts,” (Fisher 1990; Helmreich 1998) also promoted by Huberman and Miles. (1994) In particular, by utilizing direct quotes from conversations and players’ own writings and poetry, I tried to bring out the essence of their subjective experience through the painful process of becoming refugees, finding a new homeland. I then sought to describe and the hybrid “transculturation” that occurred as a result of this. (REF) The process of ethnographic writing is often very much a matter of putting the reader in another’s shoes, again, employing the “sociological” or as Willis puts it, the “ethnographic imagination.” (REFS: Mills, Willis) These techniques were employed with the aim of evoking as much immediacy for the reader as possible.
The use of both direct quotes and annotations by subjects helped to emphasize that I considered this very much a collaborative effort, consciously addressing the question of “my work” versus “our work” cited by Visweswaran. (Visweswaran 1994)
Clifford and Marcus point out:
Once ‘informants’ begin to be considered as co-authors, and the ethnographer as a scribe and archivist as well as interpreting observer, we can ask new, critical questions about all ethnographies.
(Clifford and George E. Marcus 1986)
This approach to the sensitive area of authority put emphasis on experiential distinctions. In other words, I chose to consider the subjects of this story as the ultimate authorities on their own experiences. Thus my roles as “scribe” and “archivist” and folklorist as well as “interpreting observer” were clear and distinct, and labeled appropriately. I chose to position myself as a steward of their story rather than an authority. This might reflect approaches to some of the women cited by Visweswaran, perhaps a blend of Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston in cyberspace.
There are of course risks with repositioning authority. Cushman and Marcus argue that experiments with dispersed authority risk “giving up the game,” (Cushman and Marcus 1982) but Visweswaran argues further that acknowledging native authority is giving up the game (Visweswaran 1994). Indeed this entire project is about giving up the game in myriad ways.
Visweswaran’s notion of “our subjects writing back” was a strong strategy identified and adopted for use in the participant blog, giving the subjects the opportunity to corroborate or refute my findings. In typical anthropological writings, direct feedback on ethnographic texts are not typically included or recommended. This can be due to linguistic or literacy barriers, the fact that in some cultures, self-reflection is not part of the repertoire, or the risk that authors might censor their findings to please their subjects. If utilized, methods for collecting feedback ought to be carefully considered and conducted in a form that is consistent with the primary modes of discourse of the group being studied, although some experimentation may be desirable. Willis, for instance, in studying working class schoolboys in the UK, used verbal communication and poetry to solicit feedback from his subjects. (REF: Wills) In the case of the Uru Diaspora, a group that was at home, so to speak, with forums and other forms of online communication, this method was indigenous to their regular modes of discourse and therefore appropriate for collecting their feedback on the findings. This approach brings with it the risk of self-censorship, but I was careful to separate the participants’ comments form my own, and made no substantive change to the core text as a result of their feedback, other than error correction. Their comments are also uncensored, except where they concern errata.
The Ethnographic Memoir
This is a very deliberate positioning that draws on precedents in anthropology, particularly feminist anthropology, which “pull back the veil” so to speak and expose some of the more challenging and messy aspects of ethnographic research.
There is a long-standing tradition of ethnographic memoirs dating back to Malinowski. These make transparent the ruptures discussed earlier, and the struggles of ethnographers with subjectivity and cultural biases. Since these revelations are often viewed as subjective and therefore “unscientific,” they tend to be set aside in separate documents and not integrated within the main body of the ethnographic text. Malinowski’s autobiographical A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term reflects on his experiences and also engages in a debate about the literary qualities of ethnographic texts. (REF: 1967) In Stranger and Friend: The Way of the Anthropologist, Hortense Powdermaker gives a “behind-the-scenes” account of her work in the field. (1966) What is fascinating about these accounts is that they reveal the “messy” side of ethnography. In one account, Powdermaker confesses that, for the first time in her career, she actively disliked the subjects of a particularly study. In another, she talks about the delicate negotiations around racism required to conduct a study in the segregated South of the 1950s. As white women, being seen alone in a car with a black male study subject was taboo, and even dangerous, particularly for the subject. She addressed her African American subjects as Mr., Mrs. and Miss, a practice that caused raised eyebrows among the whites in the town, who were accustomed to calling black adults by their first names. Yet she made a point of doing this in front of the white townsfolk in order to reassure the African Americans that her respect for them was authentic. While these measures were important to building trust and rapport with the African American community, they also had the effect of alienating the whites, who were also part of her study. Thus she was torn between the objectivity required of her as a research, and her personal feelings about racism in the Southern United States at that time.
Forming attachment to study subjects is also a common theme of these anthropological confessions, and a common conflict that arises in traditional cultures is whether or not to intervene in crises. Powdermaker describes a particularly emotional dilemma of wanting to help a woman she had befriended who had taken ill by getting her access to Western medicine. These are some of the classic challenges faced by real-world ethnographers in negotiating powerful emotional and ethical dilemmas that may pull the researcher in conflicting directions.
Margery Wolf’s Thrice Told Tale (Wolf 1992), is particularly intriguing in this regard because it provides three different accounts of the same events: the original academic paper, the raw field notes, many of which were taken by her native assistant, and a short semi-fictional account of the experience. One of the fascinating aspects of this tripartite structure is that it exposes Wolf’s own biases during the fieldwork: the narrative revolves around a woman who may either channeling a spirit, or insane, and the cultural practices and measures of authority which are used to ascertain which is the case. The distinction is important because a channeler is viewed with respect while a person who has lost her sanity, especially a woman, is not. The assistant, who is implicated in the data collection, is torn between her native culture and the scientific research process to which she is contributing. Wolf’s multi-faceted approach draws to our attention that all ethnographers are, in some sense, polyphonic: they capture the voices and practices of many people, with many different points of view.
The other work that influenced me to provide a more introspective angle on the research is Julian Dibbell’s studies of LambdaMOO. While not an academic monograph per se, Dibbell’s work was groundbreaking in its immersiveness and in its daring, confessional tone. Dibbell speaks of the bonds and emotional attachments he forms with other players, his own creative pursuits, his attempt to foment a new economic system, and even his dalliance in cross-gender play. He also reveals some of the challenges that emerge from the uncertain status of the virtual world versus the real world, which as whether or not online sex counts as sex. Dibbell’s accounts of LambdaMOO have become part of the canon of MMOG research and provide valuable insights into the depth of the experience of partaking in and contributing to the emergence of online cultures. (REF: Dibbell)
Part IV thus serves as an unapologetically personal account of my own subjective experience, including description of troubling and painful moments, missteps and stumbles, and the ways in which personal lives, both mine and those of the subjects, came to bear on the research.
The crux of Part IV is my experience of what I call “the social construction of the ethnographer,” a process whereby my own identity was in many ways shaped and transformed by my interactions with the group. It is significant that the culmination of this transformative process took place as part of the conferring of PhD itself, a rite of passage that ultimately has had a profound impact on my real-world identity as well.
Part IV also chronicles the ways in which the players themselves sculpted both the methodology, and thus my identity as ethnographer, as the process progressed. Precipitated by a crisis about midway through the field study, I was forced to shift my methodology to a more participatory, less passive approach. The events that triggered this crisis as well as its outcome are described in more detail in Part IV, but one of the key critiques that players had of my approach was that it was to passive. From this point I began to take an approach that I dubbed “participant engagement,” which enabled me to become more engaged with the group while at the same time attempting to maintain a measure of analytical objectivity. At the same time, through circumstances beyond my control, it became apparent at a certain point that I myself was also engaged in and subject to the very emergent processes I had set out to study.
Intellectually, I knew that this should occur, but I think I was surprised to a certain extent by how it played out. Being engaged at this level required a measure of reflexivity, and to a certain extent, the ability to observe myself in the same way I was observing my subjects: both as an individual element of emergence, and within the context of a larger complex system.
Leonardo da Vinci is purported to have said that “Art is never finished, only abandoned,” and the same is true of ethnography. Wolf also points out that ethnography always remains unfinished. The ethnographer leaves the field site, but the research never ends. This is particularly true in the case of cyberethnography. In traditional ethnographic field research, leaving the field can often be a traumatic experience for all parties concerned. Powdermaker describes an emotional scene at her departure from the Malaysian village of Lesu in which her subjects wept, begged her to stay, and even went so far as to suggest a marriage arrangement for her. Because cyberethnography fieldsites are not geographical, this creates a particular dilemma. One can actually stay “physically” at the field site for as long as it exists. When the study ended, there was a mutual assumption that I would leave There.com and Uru, but it soon became apparent that this would not be necessary. I subsequently set up a “field station” within the Uru community as a headquarters for ongoing research.
Even as this book was being written the Uru drama continued with the closure of the second iteration of Uru Live. Thus, it has been incredibly challenging for me to finish a book about a narrative that is ongoing. This, too, will have to abandoned in order to arrive at some form of completion, yet with an open ending.
PART IV: Being Artemesia: The Social Construction of the Ethnographer
“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”
‑“I am the Walrus,” The Beatles (Lennon/McCartney, 1967)
Some people think that inhabiting an online world is a way of escaping from yourself; others think it is a way of escaping from others. This is not the case; not in my case, and certainly not in the cases of those I study. Being an avatar means exploring the self as much as it means exploring others; more specifically, it means exploring the self through others. The other becomes the medium for exploration of the self. The context of networked play creates a very intense level of intimacy that is not greater or less than intimacy in the real world: just different. Play and imagination open up avenues for connections that we might not have access to otherwise. And these connections are often a surprise. You never know what will happen to you once you become an avatar.
There is a certain audacity in this process of embracing dual roles; an element of the grand experiment. Within the overall experiment, each individual’s experience is unique. A player once told me that at first he felt himself to occupy a different role than his avatar, but that over time, his avatar became more like him, and he became more like his avatar. To quote one of my Uru study participants, making a twist on a Marshall MacLuhan adage: “We create our avatars, and thereafter, our avatars create us.” (ref)
What does it mean to be mediated, to extend your self into another form, to create and express yourself by means of a social prosthesis? To be mediated is to be transformed. Yet avatar play is not only transformative, but it is also uniquely social.
When I, Artemesia, was born, on 12 March, ten days before the birth of The Gathering of Uru in There.com, I was the sole creation of my Creator, Celia Pearce. But now, over two years later, I have transformed into something else. As the group’s ethnographer, I have been socially constructed by The Gathering of Uru. As the avatar has been socially constructed, so has the person, Celia Pearce. So the question becomes, did she make me or did they make me? And to what extent have I made her? Being me has changed her in ways she never anticipated. She made me to study others like me, and now she has become one of them, one of us. At the same time, I have also served as an instrument for the social construction of Dr. Celia Pearce, PhD, for her transition into her new performative role.
One thing I have learned, we have learned, is that you can find out nothing about life on the screen unless you go into the screen. You have to be an avatar to study and understand them.
Objectivity is often reified in research and science, but can you really learn about anything from studying it objectively? Can we not learn more from studying multiple subjectivities including our own? There is no way “study” an avatar’s behavior without placing yourself into that online space: without being one. Once you become an avatar, you are on a level playing field and anything can happen. Emotions creep in. Friendships form. No-one is immune to the Avatar’s spell.
As Artemesia, I exist in several forms. In There.com (my home), I am a graduate research student with a copper bob. Like my brother and sister avatars in There.com, I have physical attributes inspired by the prevalence of Disney cartoons and the pervasive Barbie doll aesthetic, though with smaller than “average” (for Barbie) breasts. In Second Life, I present as a pirate with ruddy dreadlocks, who lives on a galleon nestled in a cove. In Lineage, EverQuest and World of Warcraft, I am a mage- with a fair complexion and titian hair. Here, my identity is constructed largely of statistical powers encoded into the software: I rely on spells and my wits to conquer monsters and protect myself from harm.
When I “log off” of these worlds, when I untransform, or retransform, from Artemesia to Celia, Artemesia pops off the screen. The screen image of the various “mes” dissolves like a bubble, but Artemesia still exists inside Celia: she is still part of the complex of “mes” that is both Celia and Artemesia. Each of the “shes” is a ghost that haunts the rest of the complex “me,” and each haunts the others domain. The real world Celias haunt the virtual Artemesias, and vice versa. Even when Artemesia rests, when all of her “selves” are at rest, asleep somewhere in the memory of a hard drive, the essence of Artemesia still lingers somewhere, nowhere, but present in memory and impression, dormant, asleep, in a dream state. Perhaps my life as Artemesia is contained within Celia’s dream, or vice versa. Even so I, as Artemesia, am also present to others when I am resting from the screen. I am in their memories, remembered, referred to, and imagined by, and therefore in some sense “real” for those who have seen and played with me online. It is like what my friend and colleague Katherine Milton calls “cognitive haunting” (Milton 2006), thoughts that percolate in the back of your mind and return at unexpected times. My cognitive haunting is the lingering sense of the alternative persona, which wafts in and out like a ghost. We who inhabit avatars all know each other in this way. We can hold multiple identities both within ourselves and in our conceptions of each other.
I am as far away as I ever was from knowing what this all means. But I can say that it is much richer and deeper than most people even suspect that a deep role play experience can be. These words are the voice of the avatar of my avatar, the extension of the extension. I can do my best to explain, but you can never really know until you do it yourself.
One of the first days I spent exploring the terrain of There.com, in March of 2004, I came upon a kind of Moroccan-style pavilion on a sandy beach. There was a fountain in the center, and off to the side were four people playing spades. By their nametags, I could see their names were Ember, Daisy, Teddy and Clousseau. This was in the days before the voice feature was added, so communication took place via text that ascended from our heads in pastel-colored cartoon bubbles. These people were very nice, friendly, funny, fun-loving and open. They were horsing around a lot, and at one point, Clousseau got up on the spades table and started dancing. They were among the first people in There.com who I put on my Buddy List.
Around that time, I was trying to identify the type of emergent behavior that I wanted to study for my PhD project. I knew I wanted to find something that showed large-scale emergence. My original intention was to study mafia sub-culture within The Sims Online (TSO). I had heard and read that TSO had a thriving culture modeled after mafia movies and TV programs like The Sopranos, and that players involved in this scene were engaged in a variety of mob-related activities in-world, such as extortion, protection money, as well as some of the game’s “legitimate” businesses, like casinos, night clubs and pizza parlors. In fact, a philosophy professor named Peter Ludlow, one of the first journalists to cover events in cyberspace, had been recently barred from The Sims Online for exposing mafia activities and prostitution rings via his online newspaper, The Alphaville Herald. (footnote) (REF)
When I logged Artemesia onto TSO to investigate, I saw evidence of the mafia culture everywhere. From the aerial view of Alphaville, I could see numerous houses, casinos and pizza joints with names from mafia lore, like Gambino and Soprano. However, on closer inspection, I found that most of the mafia-themed locales were empty. I finally entered one of the mob houses, which appeared to be some kind of telephone solicitation business. Players sat at a bank of virtual phones making calls. Whenever they made a sale, you could hear the ka-ching of a cash register. When they finished their workday, they stopped at a desk where a woman who was apparently in charge gave them their cut of the day’s take. I made an attempt to communicate with them, but got no response. After wandering around for some time, I realized that whatever had happened here was well past its heyday and most of the people involved in the TSO mafia were no longer in the game.
Where had everybody gone? And Why? I logged back into There.com, where I recalled seeing an avatar in a “TSO Refugee” T-Shirt. A search revealed several groups of self-titled “Sims Online refugees,” the largest of which had about 800 members. When I looked up its founder, Zach, I noticed that he used a picture of his TSO avatar in the real life section of his profile, and that in creating his There.com avatar, he had used the same name and tried to approximate the appearance of his character from TSO. This was my first glimpse of inter-game immigration and persistent trans-ludic identities.
I contacted Zach and he invited me to the regular Wednesday night meeting at the TSO clubhouse in There.com. At the meeting, I told the group of about five or six people that I was a researcher and was interested in learning more about their immigration from TSO; they were very forthcoming, and clearly one of the aims of this get-together was to discuss their different experiences in online worlds. When I asked them why they left TSO, one said, “because I was tired of greening”—the activities such as eating, resting, socializing, washing and using the bathroom that keep your health and happiness bars in the green rather than in the red. Others complained that it was too much work: in order to earn money, players had to do mundane jobs, such as the phone solicitation or food service. Another player said that he had found in There.com everything he had hoped for but not found in TSO, namely a social environment. Most of the players at this meeting had, like Zach, transported their TSO identities into There.com by using the same names and attempting to re-create their avatars. In the course of the discussion, one of the players said something which at the time seemed like an offhand comment, but which was to set the course of my research, and my life in multiple ways.
“If you think we’re interesting, you should talk to the Uru people.”
I had heard of Uru, had heard its designer Rand Miller give a presentation of it at a video game conference. I had even managed to get an invitation to the beta test, but had never ended up playing. Zach gave me the names of some of the Uru people. Among them were the four people I had met playing spades in the Moroccan pavilion.
Thus began my adventure with the Uru Diaspora.
Early Encounters with the Uru Diaspora in There.com (April-May 2004)
Journal Entry, April 2004
One of the first contacts I have made is with Lynn, the Deputy Mayor of The Gathering of Uru in There.com. She and others tell me about the history of the group, how they were formed in Uru, which then closed, how they decided they wanted to say together, and so the bulk immigrated into There.com. One of the group members is building a replica of Uru in Adobe Atmosphere, and the group is hoping that once that is done, they can leave There.com and make the ‘Atmosphere Hood’ their primary home.
In one conversation, Uruvians tell me they had to repeatedly move before settling at their current locale. They were concerned that each move would harm the group’s cohesion, but it seems like just the opposite is happening. Each move seems to make them progressively more determined both to stay together and to stay in There.com, at least until another more permanent option can be found.
Meanwhile, they have set up their own Island, run by Leesa, the group’s mayor and founder. Her house is located at one tip of the Island; at the other is The Gathering of Uru Community Center. I now realize that that early encounter I had with Uruvians took place at the community center when it was at a different location. Adjacent to the Community Center is the Library, run by Nature_Girl. Here I find links to a number of web pages and videos showing the last days of Uru. There is much documentation of the last night, including photos of avatars holding hands, the final screen saying ‘There seems to be a problem with your connection,” and an image of Leesa saying “I love you.” It’s quite amazing that there is so much documentation. I’ve heard a handful of versions of this story thus far, and I expect I shall hear many more. I get a chill each time I hear it. It is obvious from the documentation and my conversations that this was a very traumatic experience and the emotions are still quite raw.
On May 21, There.com announced that it was redirecting its focus and although public servers would stay open, the software would no longer be marketed or updated as an active product line. In the preceding months, a number of people had already left due to a growing perception that There.com was a “sinking ship.”
This announcement was a pivotal moment in the life of There.com. But, due to their prior experiences with the closure Uru, it had even more profound implications to the survival of the Uruvian refugees it hosted. On the one hand, There.com needed subscribers more than ever; on the other hand, this type of announcement tends to lead in a drop-off in subscriptions. It seems that there is a feedback loop in which the more people who are present in the game the more people will enter and stay; conversely, if the population begins to wane, people will tend to log on less and stay for shorter periods. As one player told me, “When I log on, if I don’t see any of my friends logged on, then I leave.” This illustrates the way feedback operates in groups; people tend to follow trends.
Following this announcement, responding to what was described in forums as the “sky is falling” perspective, a number of players left the game. Another faction, including TGU, took a more counter-intuitive tack, which was to stay. They recognized that staying, and even recruiting new players would actually help the situation, and that by leaving they would only be aiding and abetting in There.com’s demise, that “the end of the world” would become a self-fulfilling philosophy. Vaguely aware of the power of emergence to help or harm, these players recognized that they had a certain amount of power, that by staying en masse, they could potentially avert yet another disaster.
The Uru people of course had been through this already. Some left at this point, disgruntled and angry about once again being at the wrath of the bottom line of a heartless corporation. But a significant number were quite passionate about avoiding a repeat of the Ubi/Cyan scenario, and it was through their efforts and those of a number of other died-in-the-wool members (many of whom, incidentally, had been beta testers), that There.com ultimately survived the summer. It seems in all these worlds there is an ongoing tension between corporate governance and players’ insistence on self-determination. This very much parallels the situation in LambdaMOO in the late 1990s, and it seems to be a recurring pattern. The more reflexive or sophisticated players appear to have an understanding of their power as a group; they realize that they can talk with their feet (in other worlds, with their money) and that sometimes talking with your feet means staying rather than going.
I also find it interesting how at-odds corporate priorities are with the core objectives of an online community. Although companies claim that they are all about the community, in the end, if they cannot maintain the bottom line or add value for their investors, all these Utopian ideals go right out the window. In the end, There.com, and Uru for that matter, is really only a business, isn’t it?
There.com did indeed last the summer and the TGU group continued going strong. In subsequent months, and no doubt because of their role in supporting There.com, the TGU family also began to embrace members who were not former Uru players. These were players who liked the ethos of the group, and, I would imagine, respected their determination to try and counter the trend and keep There.com open. It also became apparent to these members that Uruvians meant business and cared very deeply about community, a quality that was appreciated by some (although not all) members of the larger There.com populace.
Leesa and Revelation’s Wedding
Journal Entry, Logged in from Haslemere, Surrey, UK
Today was a kind of special day for the TGU group: Leesa and her in-world boyfriend Revelation got married, staging an elaborate in-world wedding. I have been to many weddings of all kinds, and was amazed by how much it felt like being at a “real” wedding. It was also clear that a great deal of preparation had been done not only by the bride and groom but by their friends as well, so it really had the sense of a major event.
And no wonder: while not the first There.com wedding that involved group members it was certainly the most significant. The chapel where the ceremony took place was completely packed. For the TGU community, this was more than just an in-game wedding; it was a royal wedding. Leesa is, for all intents and purposes, the Queen of TGU. In fact, it was pretty much de rigueur for everyone in the community, including me, to attend.
I had asked Leesa in advance if I could take pictures for my research, and she asked if I wanted to be the official wedding photographer. This posed a couple of challenges. One was a technical issue with the server architecture of There.com: As more avatars entered the chapel, they began to degrade into “blockheads,” low-polygon models that replace avatars in high-traffic areas, so-called because of their cube-shaped heads. Naturally, this became a topic of discussion. As I often say, lag and related technical problems have become the “weather” of cyberspace. So it was if it was raining, I suppose, in avie terms. And just as would be the case had it rained during a real-life wedding, it impaired the experience somewhat, although I think the basic emotional content remained unchanged. If anything, this glitch just reinforced the constant frustration with There.com and its technical problems. The second issue really involved my own technical ineptitude and my lack of familiarity with Windows. I had trouble with the screen capture function, which required me to paste each individual image into a document, so in the end, I lost many of the images, but I was able to post some online for the attendees to see.
The ceremony itself took no more than a half an hour. As Deputy Mayor of TGU, Lynn was the obvious person to officiate. The vows were not unlike typical contemporary self-authored wedding vows; however, based on the fact that There.com was mentioned numerous times, coupled with the knowledge that the bride and groom had not met in real life, it seemed very clear that the commitment they were making was, at least for now, contained within the game. I’ve noticed with a limited sampling thus far that in-game commitments do not always translate into rl relationships. Zaire, a TSO refugee in There.com, told me she divorced three in-game husbands because they wanted to meet her in real life. It will be interesting to see what happens with Leesa and Revelation.
The significance of the wedding for the community could be clearly seen by how people were dressed. The men were wearing tuxedos, and the women wore glamorous outfits and formal attire. Some used the opportunity to change outfits frequently, presumably to gain “fashionista” points. I was surprised not to see anyone wearing a Yeesha costume. In fact, I rarely see anyone wearing a Yeesha in day-to-day interactions. Most Uruvians where civilian street clothes while out and about in There.com.
The ritual was modeled after a typical Western wedding. The only Uru tradition observed was the placement of the Uru fountain at the center of the area where the reception was held. As soon as the ceremony was over, everyone went over to the reception and jumped into the fountain, a tradition carried over from Uru.
(*Leesa and Revelation did eventually meet and became real-life partners.)
Journal Entry: Uru Revisited
I learned last week that on August 9, a group of Uru hackers who had reverse-engineered the Uru servers made an arrangement with Cyan to set up a system of player-run Uru servers. Experienced players seemed unenthused about this because they also want new content, and this will just be the old version of Uru running on fan-owned servers. This has precipitated a debate among TGUers as to how this will impact the Uru community in There.com. There are also some shifts going on with the group; it appears that Uru refugees are spending more time hanging out with Thereians and less time in Uru areas. Correspondence this week on the forums indicated that Leesa was thinking of shutting down Yeesha Island. This was averted by Wingman who stepped in to contribute to the rent. A concerted effort is now underway to come up with new ideas for encouraging Uru refugees to spend more time there.
Fear of Uru
I received my copy of Uru so I can play Until Uru on the player-run servers. I haven’t touched it though. I am finding myself resistant to trying it. On the one hand, it scares me because I worry that it will draw all the Uru immigrants out of There.com and back into Uru. I guess this is what they really want, but at the same time, I think their new “hybrid” community in There.com is so much more interesting. It also concerns me because of the ramifications it may have for my research.
But there is another, more subtle anxiety at play: I think I have really enjoyed the fact that my only experience of Uru is vicarious, through players’ stories, documentation and fan culture. I’ve seen simulations of Uru and its artifacts, but I’ve never actually seen the original. To me Uru is sort of like the Land of Canaan, what Klein calls a “social imaginary.” (Klein 1997) I guess I am clinging to the picture of Uru that exists in my mind from the retelling. There is a part of me that feels it would be so muh more poetic if I never actually experienced the realUru. It’s very irrational, but I know I have to get past it. It’s absolutely critical to the research that I observe the study participants in their “native” context. I have to follow their lead.
I am finally sitting down to play Until Uru. I’ve turned off all the lights in the room and surrounded my desk with lit candles. This is kind of a big deal. I’m actually a little embarrassed about all the ritual I’m going through. If my housemate walked in, she would think I was insane. I’m meeting a group in-world who is going to walk me through the first Age, which I gather is somewhat complicated.
Naturally, the first thing I have to do is create my avatar. Choices are somewhat limited, but I go for a look that approximates my look in There.com, I guess the inverse of what the Uruvians did when they immigrated to There.com. I look for a similar hair style, and go for a similar color palette, mostly teal tones.
The game actually starts in a desert, which I had seen in some of the web images from the Uru Library in There.com. I explore this area for a little while to get “journey clothes,” which apparently Yeesha has left for us.
I descend via a ladder into the infamous “cleft,” a crevice in the desert that is vaguely vaginal in form. I explore the cleft by crossing bridges, descending more ladders; the bridges sometimes break, dumping me unharmed into puddles at the bottom of the shallow cleft. All of this is, of course, planned, and I can use the broken bridges as ladders to climb up to different ledges. I have to solve some puzzles in order to get bits of narrative of the game, mostly conveyed (albeit obtusely) by a kind of hologram of Yeesha, who I recognize immediately by her costume, after which the “Yeesha” costume in There.com is modeled!
After taking a series of steps in the puzzle, such as turning a windmill, activating power, opening and closing doors to get access to other rooms and find hidden journey clothes, jumping and climbing up ledges, I find my way into a tree trunk, within which I see a book on a pedestal. When I go to take it, I am teleported to a tiny island floating in a cloud bank. I recognize it from its elements as the Relto! The book I picked up must have been the Relto Linking Book, which I am now wearing on my belt.
Making my way to the TGU hood in Uru involves a complex procedure of transport using linking books and the Nexus, a giant machine that dispenses linking books. I'm in the Hood! The first thing I see is the fountain similar to those in There.com and the Atmosphere Hood. Going upstairs. I can see the infamous Egg Room, with the floating “egg room egg.” There is something surreal about seeing the originals after having spent months immersing myself in their facsimiles. It’s as if I am remembering things I never actually experienced.
I feel like Alice in Wonderland. The whole Uru story is a narrative of simulations within simulations within simulations. Seeing the “real” simulation of Uru itself was amazing and disorienting, especially after seeing the “homage” versions in There.com and Atmosphere. I now recognize all the icons. I now understand the origins of much of the visual culture of the Uruvians. There is a shared meaning to these things; in the beginning I did not know what they meant—the eggs, the fountain, the books on pedestals. Now I am beginning to understand.
D’ni Land, Shorah Island, Second Life
Another trip down the rabbit hole as I enter into the Second Life instantiation of Uru. As I slowly come to understand what this culture is about, I am realizing how rich the Uru world and its progeny are with layers of meaning. Now, inside Second Life, my God! They have totally re-created the game! I think it would have been less amazing had I not seen the “real” Uru hood already, although it’s pretty stunning even if you don’t know what it is. But to see how close a replica this is, how true they stayed to the original. You can see that they went to great effort. They must have had to do drawings, maps, and floor plans. I mean it is EXACTLY the same, right down to the details. They have added the crates and traffic cones and other Uru ephemera. It's remarkable. They even made the Heek table.
I am taking a lot of pictures, but oddly, have not run into anyone. This is strange because I always find some Uruvians in There.com, whereas here, it is eerily empty. I feel like I am in the deserted ruin of D’ni Ae’gura…
Uru Builders in Second Life
One terrific feature of Second Life is the ability to find out the creator of objects, an affordance that oddly does not exist in There.com. By checking who owned the land on D’ni Island, I was able to track down its creators and arranged an interview.
While there seem to be about 200 Uru Refugees in Second Life, the builders themselves are a much smaller subset who have worked diligently to re-create Uru here. Apparently they built the entire thing once, then tore it all down, and started over. It’s incredibly impressive. I’ve visited and interviewed them a couple of times. I was also able to tag along on a tour they gave to some SLers who stumbled into it inadvertently. They seem to really enjoy taking people around, explaining what everything is, and talking about Uru. As with the TGUers, they’ve been extremely responsive to me and my research and eager to share their stories. I wish I could spend more time with them, but it’s not feasible to follow both groups concurrently.
Although I will be meeting Lynn and company tomorrow, I decided to go into Until Uru tonight on my own to feel my way around and also take some pictures. Having seen Uru in Second Life and the Uru artifacts in There.com, I want to get my head around the various artifacts players have been recreating and making in other worlds.
Part of the mystery for me is finding the connections between what is here and what is in its other instantiations of Uru. For instance, I see a firefly, some mushrooms, elements I have also seen in the Uru areas in There.com. Now I begin to understand at least where they come from and what they mean. Everything in Uru seems to have a meaning. Some of those meanings are encoded in the game, others are a result of cultural practices, created by the players themselves. I'm not sure if the fountain had a particular meaning until people began to play in it.
I don't understand why semioticians aren't studying this.
I decide to jump into the fountain, just to see what it's like.
After a couple of tries, I manage to get onto the very top.
This is very interesting from a spatial storytelling perspective, because these spaces tease, they suggest certain things, but it is difficult to interpret. One feels like an archaeologist, which is of course is intentional. Without understanding the D’ni culture, it is hard to say what all these spaces are actually for; I know what some of them are because the Uruvians have told me. But still, it is often detective work. I think it is for them to. Everything has a meaning, but nothing is obvious.
Me and My Shadow: First Presentation (October 2005)
I gave my first public presentation in situ at a conference in New York. The decision to start giving presentations in-world was initially an accident: I thought I wasn’t going to be able to make one of the London seminars, so I suggested it as a way to be able to participate. Both my supervisor and I agreed that this was a really great idea and should be integrated into the project somehow.
Since Artemesia’s primary mode of communication is text, I decided to give the entire presentation in character via text. I toured Yeesha Island in There.com and discussed the migration from Uru. I showed a few examples of player-made Uru artifacts. Because it was hard for some people at the back of the room to read my text bubbles, I had Mary Flanagan, a member of the SMARTlab Ph.D. cohort who happened to be there, stand out in the audience and read the text, basically serving as my “voice.” I, Celia, said nothing. In fact I kept entirely silent throughout the presentation. At the end, I took some questions as myself, but during the Q&A, people started spontaneously directing their questions to Artemesia. When this happened, I felt I had, to some extent, succeeded.
In reality, I think the presentation had mixed success. One thing I realized immediately was how slow the pace of text communication is relative to speech. This is not as noticeable in-world, because of course you lose track of time and everyone else is communicating at the same pace; but when presenting in a real-world context, I was all too painfully aware that the whole enterprise seemed to be dragging on. It represented an abrupt change in pacing when juxtaposed against the conference itself, which may have been refreshing for some, but really annoying for others, although a number of people came up to me afterward and seemed to enjoy the experiment. I think one of the challenges of trying to do something this avant-garde in a conference context is that people are accustomed to certain conventions. I can probably get away with this in a situation where there are more “artists,” and where I am better known, such as my Ph.D. program or the Banff Centre, but here, most of the participants were lawyers and academics and a few game designers.
One thing I noticed right away was how nervous I was. Even though the avatar served as a kind of buffer, at the same time I was very self-conscious. I’m sure part of this was that I was doing a risky experiment in a context where I knew less people. But afteward, I also realized “performing” an avatar is a strangely private experience. We seldom do this with anyone else proximal to our physical body, and even then, the other person is usually in-world as well. Doing it as a performance on a stage made me feel very exposed. I also think that introducing my avatar persona into a professional context may have also made me feel vulnerable, even though she is a “professional” avatar so to speak. This is also one of these situations that you really can’t rehearse; practicing the presentation on my own (which I did) prepared me in no way for getting up in front of several hundred people and laying my avatar bare for all to see.
In October of 2004, about a third of the way into my Uru study, a journalist from a local newspaper called me and wanted to know if she could interview me about my online research. What she wanted to do was sit with me while I did my ethnography and watch how I worked. She came over to my house one evening and watched me while I conducted a field visit, interviewing me as we went. A few weeks later, the article was published on the front page of the paper. Because this was the first public unveiling of the work, I decided it would be a good idea to send a link to Leesa, just so she would be aware that the article was published. The following events chronicle what happened next.
I come into There.com one night and IM both Leesa and Lynn as I often do upon arrival. Neither responds. As soon as I appear in a group, people started acting strange or in some cases leaving. I am not sure if this has directly to do with me, or if they are on their way to some other event. Social nuances can be very hard to read in an online world, but there was definitely what in California we would call a “vibe.”
Then I receive an IM from Wingman, another member who I’ve gotten to be good friends with, saying “Jeeze, what did you WRITE about us?” I mention to him that I had been trying to get hold of Leesa and Lynn but had not had any success. He tells me that he is “avoiding a meeting,” implying that’s where they all are. Later, he invites me on a hoverboat ride with some other Uru-Thereians. When I arrive, one of them, Ember, jumps off the boat. The others on the boat are baffled and ask where she went. I IM her and she respond with an expletive, extremely out of character for her and indeed for anyone in TGU.
Then I receive an email from Raena via the Koalanet forum. I don’t know her well, but had some discussions and interviews with her when I first started working with the Uru refugees in There.com. The email reads: “Are you all right? Do you need anything?” I have no idea what she is talking about. A day or two later, I get an IM from her in Until Uru saying “tristan is really a nice guy…he’s not as bad as he sounds.”
I finally connect with Raena in Until Uru. At first what she is saying makes no sense to me, but then in the course of the conversation, it comes out that she is referring to a conversation going on in the Koalanet forum.
I immediately log onto the forum on my other machine to have a look, still logged into Until Uru. A new thread has been created called “Artemesia, the Researcher.” I have been checking in with the forums periodically but had not logged on since this thread was started. The first post is the interview from the newspaper. Based on what people are saying, it seems the article was both been posted on the forum and read aloud in-world, probably on the day I was getting strange reactions from people.
Following the article is a firestorm of postings. The posts are flaming. They accuse me of “dumbing down” my research into sound bites for the journalist and distorting facts to support my own bias. Another says if she were my PhD professor, she’d send me back to the drawing board. One critique is that my “arms-length” approach has given me little insight TGU, let alone on-line gaming, and that “my” article showed my ignorance of my subject. The refer to the article as my “report.”
Suddenly all the pieces are fitting together. Most likely when I logged on the day everyone was acting strange was only moments after the article had been read. It is also apparent to me that many have somehow conflated the journalist’s interpretation of my comments, indeed reduced to newspaper-worthy sound bites, and my own words. Although most of the article is fairly neutral, I can understand some of her comments might seem offensive, such as: “Online, characters do crazy things that they might not do offline, like establishing the Uru subculture.” Naturally, this is not a direct quote, nor is it even paraphrased from something I actually said.
One of the most scathing posts is a lengthy diatribe by Tristan, and I at once realized the meaning behind Raena’s words. In it, he refers to the article as my “so-called report” and describes feeling “Like were under the microscope.” Although few are as strident as his, most are equally negative. Most devastating are posts from the people within TGU who I know fairly well, especially group leaders with whom I have by this time developed a rapport. A small handful also chimes in to say they really didn’t see what the big deal was (possibly because they recognized that it was not my actual report or my words.) As I sit reading the posts, I feel like my life has come to an end. I realized that I have to find a way to amend the situation…not only to salvage my Ph.D. work but, more importantly, because I genuinely care about the TGUers. In spite of their feeling I had held them at arms-length, which I now believe was an accurate critique, I feel profoundly concerned and connected with them and their well-being on a variety of levels.
Still in Until Uru while reading this text, I immediately begin this process by making contact with Tristan, who happens to be in-world. He invites me to his relto, where we sit, along with D’evon and Petrova, for a long and talk about what happened. I explain to him that the article, by a journalist, is her interpretation of what she and I talked about, not my words, and certainly not my report. The outcome is positive. Tristan had been one of those TGU members who I did not know well before this event. Raena was right, however. He turns out to be a really nice guy. Due to what happened to his community, he is fiercely loyal and protective, and that is the root of is ire. As a result of this interchange, Tristan and I become and remain very good friends. I’ve also made a new friend along the way, Raena, who was very generous to stick her neck out and help me when most of her community was furious with me.
I realize now how vital it is to set things right with Leesa and Lynn. So I send an email to Wingman telling him I want to somehow patch things up and could he please help me out. It’s clear that he really doesn’t want to get involved, but he reluctantly agrees anyway and sets up a meeting with Lynn and Leesa a few days later.
The day of the planned meeting, by an unfortunate coincidence, I have a horrible day at work. I am informed by management that “people” at my job (although I am never told who) are angry with me about the very same article that has put me on the rocks with the TGU community. The complaints are somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, I am criticized for failing to mention my department; on the other, since the research has nothing to do with my job, I am criticized for mentioning my employers. I’m also criticized for calling myself a “researcher,” which apparently, according to management anyway, I am not. (It did not seem to make any difference that I had published a book and numerous academic articles by this point.) Needless to say I’ve had about enough of this article by now.
I get home from work so beaten down that I end up missing the meeting with Leesa and Lynn. This only exacerbates the problem and now Wingman is furious with me and will no longer intervene on my behalf.
It has been a hard week. I have tried to connect with Uru people for the past couple of days, and after several failed attempts, was not able to. This afternoon, I notice Lynn is on, so I IM her. She is working on building something but agrees to come and talk with me. We talk for quite some time, maybe an hour or more. I am glad we get a chance to talk, because most of what she tells me was not at all what I expected. I am also keenly aware that I am experiencing firsthand the very process I have observed others undergo, with Lynn taking the role of resolving conflict. Only this time, instead of watching the conflict from the outside, the conflict is me.
She starts by saying she isn’t angry with me, and that I am free to say whatever I wanted about the community. I tryto clarify that not all of what was in the article represented anything I said or would ever say.
But there are other issues as well. The first and perhaps most surprising issue is that Leesa is angry with me because I don’t use voice. Lynn explains that a lot of TGU people cannot use a keyboard comfortably, due to a disability, repetitive stress disorder, arthritis or other conditions. I hadn’t realized this was such an important issue, but having just talked to Wingman, who admonished me about it as well, I had gone off to a private place and tried to get my voice working prior to meeting with Lynn.
This shift in cultural conventions had slipped by me in part due to a technical problem. The study began before voice was introduced, and initially we communicated exclusively via text. Once voice was introduced, I had had difficulty getting it to work on my computer. As a result, I was unable to hear others’ voice chat, and since I hadn’t heard anyone talking about it, I did not realize it had become so important to the group.
When she mentions this, I said absolutely I have no trouble at all with that. She says it’s okay to use text chat when doing interviews, but when I’m hanging around with the group, I should use voice.
The second surprise was that Leesa doesn’t understand my research techniques. She has an educational background in anthropology and she feels I am “observing them from afar.” This really surprised me because I had been making a great effort to be as unobtrusive as possible, but I guess she is looking for a deeper level of engagement. I suppose this is a question/challenge from the perspective of anthropology that I need to investigate further, but since this is an “experiment” it may turn out that some variation of “going native” is exactly what is called for. The funny thing is that I feel drawn to the community in a personal way because their core values resonate with me.
Lynn also recommends that I post on Koalanet, maybe starting with a response to the current thread, and then initiating another. I had been reading Koalanet fairly regularly but had never posted, so apparently this was also considered a sign of my arms-length approach to the group.
She also says something else that is interesting: “You are always asking us questions, but we never get to ask you questions.” This may have been what people meant by saying they felt “under the microscope.” In some way I felt like I was supposed to let them do all the talking… but clearly the TGUers have a different idea.
The conversation with June is hard but very helpful. Lynn is wonderfully candid and direct. She is really a fantastic person and the more I get to know her the more I appreciate her. She told me she has a spinal condition and is in a wheelchair and that is why it is uncomfortable for her to type.
She tries to introduce to some of the subtleties of etiquette issues around typing versus speaking. It’s okay, she says, to do my interviews with text. No, I say, I can take notes. Then she takes me to visit Uno and sort of interviews him for me, switching to text to do so. Even though she prefers speech, she will type on some occasions. In Uno’s case, she explains, he feels more comfortable with text, because he is both shy and not a native English speaker, so everyone accommodates his preference for typing.
First Koalanet Post (15 December 2004)
I made my first post on the Koalanet forum. I wrote it and rewrote it several times. I tried to explain my position, to clarify that the article was not my “report” as some believed, but that it was by a journalist, and that the comments they found offensive were not my findings but her own interpretation. I also welcomed criticism, said that I was planning to modify my approach based on their feedback, and appreciated any other further comments they had. As Lynn suggested, I then made a new thread in another section of the forum, sort of starting a clean slate. This is where I will post a link to the participant blog once it is done.
It was a hard post to write, but I’m hoping that it will help move things in a positive direction. I realize that a number of the core methodological assumptions I made were just wrong. Trying to keep a low profile, trying to avoid having any impact on the group… well clearly it didn’t work, and it resulted in my being viewed as an untrustworthy outsider. In addition, my desire to avoid any personal information is also problematic. Knowing that Lynn is disabled is a very important data point in understanding the group dynamic. In some way perhaps it’s presumptuous for me to have worried so much about my potential impact on them; it’s very clear that their impact on me has been far greater.
From Participant Observation to Participant Engagement
Not long after my conversation with Lynn, an event took place that marked a turning point in terms of my involvement with the group. To a certain extent, I resisted the temptation to become more involved, but due to their own insistence, I began finding opportunities to do so. It seems like one of the biggest complaints they had was that I wasn’t “a part of them.” On the one hand, as an “ethnographer,” am I supposed to be? I was taking this approach of being a passive observer. And this may have been easier with a different group. But the Uruvians are smart, challenging, mature. In the same way that they took an active hand in transplanting their game culture to other worlds, they are also taking an active hand in my research.
One afternoon in There.com, I became privy to a series of conversations that gave me some real insight into TGU’s decision-making process. Clousseau was telling Wingman and some others bout an event he wanted to produce, and I was subsequently able to witness him pitching the idea to Leesa. She didn’t say much, just listened. This was my first public appearance with voice, which everyone duly noted as significant, even though I really didn’t say much. I was particularly interested in how process transpired, both in terms of coming up with the idea, vetting it with Lessa, and then actually bringing it to fruition.
Clousseau’s aim was to do something that would help build community cohesion and bring more people to Yeesha Island, which had become seriously underutilized. His idea was to have a huge buggy convoy from one of the Uru spaces that Leesa had set up to Yeesha Island. They would to drive en masse from one area to the other, arrive at Yeesha Island for some game-playing, and then conclude with a floor/talent show at the new nightclub which had been recently added at the end of the island. The whole premise of this was somewhat interesting because it follows on Suits notion that a game is “the least efficient means to accomplish a goal.” Rather than teleport, which is the conventional and far more efficient means of travel, they instead chose to drive across the terrain between their two areas, not so much as a way to get people to the areas in questions, but as a bonding activity. It was also made all the more challenging by repeated problems with lag that would be created by such an en masse venture.
Clousseau was quite enthusiastic about this idea, and Leesa didn’t seem to have any major objections. Group cohesion was a high priority with some of the key group members, especially Leesa. It really came across in this interaction, by the way, how shy she is. But she has a kind of silent authority. The two of them could not be more oppostive, but they have a very effective synergy. As I’ve got to know them, I’ve found that Lynn does most of the talking, whether as an intermediary, or even in interviews. But yet Leesa’s wisdom is highly respected by the group, and maybe the fact that she does little talking is part of that. As I learned from the earlier incident with the newspaper article, however, when Soos has something to say, she says it loud and clear, and does not mince words.
Within a few days an invitation was issued. For this event, Wingman invented a new sport called buggy polo. Over the course of the week I was included in most of the planning process. As is often the case, they scheduled twin events for the European and US crowds. Because it is taking place between Christmas and New Year, the “Buggy Boogie,” as Clousseau has dubbed it, is something of a holiday celebration.
I attend both events, which are formatted exactly the same way—Clousseau has the entire thing scripted and timed to a tee. Everyone gathers at the group’s frontier zone, a kind of tented pavilion on a mesa. Buggies are strewn about and everyone is encouraged to hop on one, even if it wasn’t theirs. (This is a common practice, avoiding the potential problem people who do not own vehicles being left out.) At the European event, Clousseau invites me to ride with him at the front of the caravan, which I do for a while. But since we are in the front, I cannot not see the rest of the group, which is behind us. (It’s not possible to look behind you when in a buggy.)
To get a better view, I don my hoverpack so I can fly along side the convoy and take pictures. I don’t know very many of the people from the European contingent, although I get to meet some folks that I have heard a lot about from the European community, and to see some European players I have met in Until Uru. I play spades, which is also significant. I play very infrequently, but really get into it. My partner and I end up winning a round, something I had never accomplished before. Many Uru-Thereans play spades and it is a particular favorite of Leesa, who is always looking for a spades game to get into.
At the event for the U.S. contingent, I end up riding with someone I didn’t know, which is fun, especially because she is a pretty wild driver. She keeps crashing into everyone and flipping the buggy. One of the things I notice about the way the group plays is that the women are very aggressive and physical—not in a competitive way, but more in just a risk-taking way, especially where vehicles are concerned. They like to roughhouse. Faced with the same problem as in the earlier convoy, I eventually get on my hoverpack to take some aerial shots, then fall behind, but managed to find my way back to the group.
In contrast to the European group, I know the majority of people at this event, many of whom I have interviewed. I am very aware that given all that has happened in previous weeks, it is important for me to demonstrate my new approach to show them that I was being responsive to their feedback. After a memorial flyover of Yeesha Island for Cola, who had just passed away, people begin to assemble on a field created for the buggy polo game.
One surprise that occurred en route to Yeesha Island was that Lynn had appeared in a giant, translucent orb, just big enough to envelope her entire avatar. Now it becomes apparent why: Lynn is “driving” the ball for the buggy polo game! We profess over to the field, which has goals on either side, some trees around the perimeter, and a big scoreboard. Throughout the convoy as well as during the game, participants communicate via voice and text in a group chat window. This is to improve fidelity and also help in shepherding everyone to the various locales.
For the first part of the game, I ride shotgun with the woman with whom I rode over. This was my first step toward getting more involved. Typically I would have stood on the sidelines and taken pictures. After a while, I decide I did need to get some documentation, and it’s a little difficult to see in the midst of the buggy melee that is the playing field. So I hopped off the buggy and don my hoverpack. I flit about in the air and take a load of pictures of the proceedings. The field is total bedlam. You can from the voice chat that group members are having a huge amount of fun. They laugh and sing, tease each other, and do wordplays. One woman sings “am I blue” in response to being assigned to the blue team. Another teasing a third about the fact that her buggy is “Pepto-Bismol colored,” a quip that continues through the rest of the day.
I am thus flying around, taking pictures of the chaos below, listening to the chat box banter, when I notice that the orb-ball, now empty, has somehow managed to get itself lodged into the upper branches of one of the trees by the soccer field. It is one of those moments where a series of clues add up. First I notice the ball has landed in the treetop. Then I notice that everyone is grouping below, looking up from their buggies, trying to figure out what to do. At that moment, I have a startling revelation: because I am on my hoverpack, I am in the air, so I could actually get the ball. Apparently everyone else had the same thought at the same time, because I suddenly hear (and see) people yelling, “Arte, get the ball! Get the ball!” At the same moment I am yelling, “Hey, I can get it; I’m on my hoverpack!” I keep flying towards it, bumping it and trying to knock it out of the tree, but I cannot to get it to move. Then someone yess, “Pick it up Art.” So I draw my cursor over to the little blue circle (the primary interface to objects in There.com), and click on it, and before I know what has happened, I am instantly sucked inside the ball.
At this point I stop taking pictures because I am too caught up in the moment (one of the hazards of playing and doing research at the same time), but I realize very quickly that the orb is drivable, so I use my arrow keys to roll it out of the tree back onto the playing field. With lots of shouting from the group, I find my way to the center of the field, position myself, take my hands off the arrow keys, and prepare myself for an all-out assault. It was in this way that I become the ball for the remainder of the buggy polo game.
At first, I am thinking, this is great because now anyone who is still upset with me about the article can use this opportunity to work out their aggressions. But it seems that at this point we were well past that. So I spend the rest of the game inside the orb-ball being knocked around by Uruvians. It is great fun being right in the middle of the action for a change. Afterward, a whole group gathers around me and we excitedly discuss what transpired.
This is a turning point. I have finally gotten in on the action played with them. This was the beginning of my shift from participant observation to participant engagement. Turning the Tables on Arte (January 2005)
Shortly after the crisis was resolved, I was approached by Bette with a proposition: she and Wingman wanted to “turn the tables” on me by doing an interview with me in the University of There Times. “You are always interviewing us,” she said, “now we want to interview you.”
I think they felt that having me talk about my research to the avatar community in my own worlds, without the filtration, distillation and potential distortion of a journalist, would help to clarify matters and would also be of inherent interest to their readership. It was a cool idea because it addressed a lot of issues, and in a sense brought the whole situation back around.
Bette and I did the interview 9 January, and when it was published, she posted it with this picture:
with a caption alongside it that said: “Research?”
Artemesia’s Field Station
Right around the time of the Buggy Boogie incident, I took another bold step in participant engagement. Lula, a non-Uru player but friend of the community, had purchased Damanji new one-piece, two-story cone house. I told her that I was thinking about buying one myself, and she had an extra, an model that came in several pieces, so she offered to give it to me. She and a newbie who strolled by helped me set it up in a PortaZone (which I could then move to another location.) It actually took quite a bit of effort by the three of us—me in low zoom mode, Lula on a jetpack, and the newbie running around and looking at it from different angles on the ground, and then all occasionally swapping positions. I got enraptured and decided to haul out the few other items I had in inventory and decorated my new house. Lula gave me some stuff and then took off with the newbie to show him around. I bought some more furniture, put out my gazebo in the garden, and stayed up until 2am decorating my house, a true sign that I had finally gone over to being a full-fledged Uru-Thereian.
When I was done I realized—wow, that’s it. I’m now officially part of the group. I have an Uru cone house; I am a co-conspirator in Damanji’s plot to take over the world through emergence.
I planted my house across the water from Yeesha Island, next to Bette’s enclave. I referred to it as my “field station.” Later, after the main period of the fieldwork was done, when the group settled a neighborhood on a larger island, I moved my field station there, where is stands to this day. After I passed my thesis defense, the TGUers threw a party for me and Raena gave me a beautiful hand-made sign that she had hand-crafted that said “Dr. Artemesia’s Field Station.”
The Social Construction of the Ethnographer
Last night I was reading Life on the Screen, the part about multi-user worlds, and found myself feeling uncomfortable with Turkle’s focus on the individual: she describes people’s online experiences as if they are entirely self-determined (Turkle 1995) The deeper I get into this, the more ai realize that this is not the case. My observation is that people’s identities online are socially constructed by the group, not by the individual.
I am beginning to realize that what is happening at this moment is that the group wants to socially construct me as well, in the same way they have constructed each other. In a sense they want to have more engagement/involvement with what I’m doing. I’m totally game for this.
At the same time, I think in my focus on the social, I may have inadvertently neglected the individual. I had no idea Lynn was in a wheelchair. How did I miss that? It seems like an important detail. Even though I’ve tried to privilege online identities, maybe I need to integrate offline identities more because really they are not completely bounded, not completely irrelevant to the online identity. Lynn’s rl avatar is a person sitting in front of a computer in a wheelchair. Her game avatar is a persona, an extension of her. I am totally convinced of this more than ever. The avatar is a social extension, prosthesis of sorts, but perhaps because one can be together and alone at the same time (a unique property of virtual worlds), there is also something about the individual that I have been missing. It seems like it must have been a cathartic experience for players, each of whom had spent so many years alone in the sublime world of Myst, to burst forth into a shared universe. They were all in the same place alone; now they were in the same place together. They must have felt like thy finally found their tribe.
I think I am falling in love with the TGU people, which is something I am afraid of…but then on the other hand… I suppose it is inevitable. You have to fall in love with your research subjects at some level, even if it is unscientific. Or is it? Can one really learn from something one doesn’t love deeply? My friend Mary the molecular biologist is in love with DNA. Maybe Jane Goodall and Diane Fosse have it right—you cannot really know something unless you are willing to develop some level of intimacy with it. Maybe that is what Leesa is saying, and I think her the others’ critique of me is perfectly valid. I have been too much of a passive observer. I need to make a commitment to engage with the group on a deeper level.
Déjà vu All Over Again
I had that experience again…I was taken into another Until Uru Age that I had seen in its Second Life instantiation. As Teddy was leading me around, I not only recognized the environment, but I knew where everything would be before I saw it. My spatial memory kicked in and I knew exactly where we were going.
It seem that have encountered Uru in reverse, discovering it backwards, in exactly the opposite direction of the players I’ve studied. My first experience of Uru has been through their retelling, and now the original seems like a facsimile of their version, rather than the other way around. I’ve had the experience of seeing a VR simulation of a place, and then visiting the real place a few days later. This is sort of like that, except that these are simulations of a simulation.
I talked with Erik at length the other day about this. He does not want to see the other Uru re-creations because he wants to keep his memory of Uru intact…for me Uru was nothing but re-creations for a long time. And I did not want to see the real thing because I did not want my imprint of its collective memory, the narrative that has been passed to me, to be polluted by “reality.” It is a strange set of nesting eggs—memories within virtual worlds, simulacra of simulacra, simulated memories of experiences not yet had, the reinscription of memories upon memories. It is the ultimate in “remediation.” (REF: Bolter & Grusin)
One Year After: Remembering Black Monday…or was it Tuesday?
February 9 (from what I can discern) is the anniversary of the server closure, although it is hard to pinpoint a date. Some call it “Black Monday,” others refer to it as “Black Tuesday.” It took me a while to realize that it was a different day and date for the Europeans than for the Americans. The Uru refugees in Second Life are having some kind of anniversary celebration. It also occurred to me that as Uru ran for less than six months, the Uru Diaspora has now outlived the original Uru Live game by double. How much longer will they persist? Will there be a Yeesha Island in Second Life in three years? What about TGU? Will they become fully acclimated to There.com and cease to be Uruvians?
As scared as I was to get into the “real” Uru, I now see how necessary it was in order to really understand my study subjects. I cannot just live on their retelling, although that is the most poetic way to do it. But to understand their experience, where they are coming from, the origins of their culture and their play style, I need to spend time with them in their “homeland.” I suppose one could do an ethnographic study of Italian Americans without ever visiting Italy, but it adds another dimension to the research to have done so. I can see something about their spirit here. The way they play, and the way they explore, and play with, and exploit bugs; they are always trying to walk through walls and sink into floors, and they turn everything into a game. Today they were “avie bowling” by immersing themselves into the floor up to their chests and then running very fast to knock over the numerous cones that are lying around in the Hood.
I think this culture of play, more of a paidia-style, a kind of horseplay, is really interesting and revealing. It is more of a sandbox way of playing than the competitive, heavily goal-oriented forms of play seen in most video games. With this group, sometimes there is a goal, sometimes not. Nobody seems to care much if they win; no big deal is made of it one way or the other. And everything is a potential game or play object. It is particularly refreshing because I know they are not children, but they play in a very childlike fashion. And yet it is sophisticated at the same time. They constantly experiment with the edges of the world they inhabit, and even though the world structures are different, the group itself reamains about play. And in each new world, they discover different edges. They are constantly pushing the envelope. I wonder how much of how they’ve learned to play in There.com has influenced the way they now play in Uru…This is one question the answer to which I may never know.
Interview with the Avatar (Mid-January, 2005)
Sometimes I come out of these interviews feeling both emotionally drained and exhilarated. Tonight I had a long session with Raena, the woman who was in part responsible for salvaging disaster around the article. This was by far the most intense interview to-date, in part because she was so honest…she glossed over nothing, and told me things that no-one else has told me, about the darker side of the transition. She is a very thoughtful person, and her openness was somewhat astounding, even more so in light of the fact that she approached me wanting to tell me her story.
Much of the story was similar to the others. Finding emergent patterns has been surprisingly easy because the responses are so consistent. One pattern is this notion of time compression, which jibes with my research and that of almost everyone I’ve read. In spite of the fact that the pace of text communication is much slower, emotional experiences tend to become compressed, and friendships form much more quickly than they would in “real life.” In the case of the Uru people, this process was intensified by the time constraints of the Uru closure (knowing the world was ending), and by their shared trauma.
Raena also talked about her relationship to her avatar… the sense of death… she talked about “the end of the world,” and how she and her friend wanted to ‘party like it’s 1999’. She talked about what it felt like to move from the first person experience of the Myst games into the avatar-based environment of Uru. Having a representation of herself was a big deal for her, and it gave her a sense of “proprioception” (her word.) I think a lot of these people felt their avatars were dying, and even though they’ve tried to approximate their Uru avatars in other worlds, it’s obvious that they miss the nuance of the Uru avatars, the “realism,” the modest attire, the ability to show age. They often complain about the cartoonyness of There.com avatars, although they like their expressiveness. Though Uru avatars are more “high fidelity” than There.com avatars, I find them to be a little strange. They all have this sort of glazed Mona Lisa smile.
The one part of the story that was entirely new to me was the tale of Teddy and Daisy, the backstory of which was known to most of the original TGUers by now. I know them as real life partners, and I had met them together that day in the Moroccan pavilion, back in the pre-Uru, text-chat days. I had even seen a photo of the two of them in real life on the Imager in Teddy’s Relto in Until Uru. So imagine my surprise when Raena reveals to me that Teddy was Daisy…or rather, that Daisy was his first incarnation in Uru.
Since most Uru players created their avatars as representations of themselves, or as a variant of themselves (“you are you”), there was no reason to suspect that any cross-gender play was occurring. Raena had, to her own surprise, made a number of friends in Uru, the closest of whom was Daisy. The Daisy I know is his wife, who never played the original Uru game. Apparently the original “Daisy” revealed his true identity to Raena just hours before the server shut down, when he appeared as a male avatar. Raena was upset by this, in part because of the deception, but moreso because she had really wanted to say goodbye to her friend Daisy. But he couldn’t log off and switch avatars, because it was too risky as the server was being put to sleep. (Teddy later told me that when he first started playing Uru, he had not anticipated that he was actually going to make friends, so this situation somewhat threw him for a loop.) Raena also told me that somewhere in the back of her mind, she had always sort of suspected that Daisy was really a man, due to her sense of humor.
When he came to There.com, he followed the custom that players had adopted of recreating their Uru avatars There.com. He continued to play as Daisy, and his wife, not an Uru player, joined him as Teddy. They maintained this charade until the advent of voice, which eventually forced them to come clean via the Koalanet forums. They stayed swapped for a time, but the gender-switched voices bothered some, so eventually they simply traded avatars, the male partner now inhabiting the male avatar, and vice versa. Teddy’s reason for the gender switch, as I learned from reading the forums afterward, was to avert any concern of his wife’s that he might engage in an online affair, a situation that had broken up a friend’s marriage. For the most part, from this point forward, each used the avatar of the proper gender (although Teddy also occasionally used the male avatar he had created to make his “confession” during the Uru closure.) A small handful of players said they had suspected that Daisy was a man, in particular because of her sense of humor.
In some way this job is a lot like being a therapist… you want to get stories out of people… you want to get them to describe things as vividly as possible but also to find out their interpretations, how they felt about these things when they were happening. Maybe (and of course I’m hypothesizing here) but maybe in part because so many of them are women, as well as men who are a little older, it is easier for them to talk about their feelings.
I can’t help but compare these conversations to those I’ve had with players in Lineage, mostly young men in their late teens or early twenties. The depth of insight here is so much richer… I really don’t have to do much interpretation because they are doing it all for me. The hard part is when to stop. I am sort of enraptured really; and every time I hear the story of the server shutdown, it still sends a chill up my spine. I relive it with them each time it is retold. While each of them lived it once, in some way I have relived it dozens of times because I have relived it through each of their eyes, through multiple subjectivities.
In losing her Uru avatar, Raena said she felt like she had experienced a kind of death. In way it’s true. And does Cyan/Ubi have that right to kill an avatar? I suppose technically, they do, because they own it. Yet who really owns the avatar? The avatar is nothing without the player, but the “code” that comprises it is owned by the company. It’s as if your soul were owned by you, but your body were owned by somebody else. Clearly, losing an avatar is very painful, because it is a part of the person, even if they’ve only been an avatar for a short period. It is like losing a limb, or perhaps how a child feels when their favorite toy is lost… there is an emotional attachment that happens through play…That seems like an apt metaphor.
Hmmm… that’s very interesting. We become emotionally attached to our projected identities. It’s what Halopainen and Myers referred to as “somatic displacement,” the ability to project yourself into an object, such as a doll or a toy car. (Holopainen and Meyers 2000) This seems consistent with the ways we project alter-identities into avatars. This type of emotional attachment can be very real and very powerful. When you lose your avatar, you feel as though you have lost a part of yourself. I think this is really interesting. The avatar becomes like a ghost limb—you can feel it even though it is no longer there.
This is perhaps what Sandy Stone called “falling in love with our prosthesis” (Stone 1996), but it’s also a feeling I have about my own avatar when I’m not logged on. The avatar also serves as a bridge to others, a kind of interpersonal connecting tissue. We know that these connections are real, even if the worlds that facilitate them are virtual. To the people experiencing them, they are very real and intense, and in some ways can be more intense then rl… I know this is true. I’ve experienced it myself. My two hours with Raena was more intense than the dinner I had with my housemate earlier this evening. I learned more in two hours about Raena, who I’ve never met, than I know about my housemate, who I’ve lived with for nearly a year. It’s mysterious, but amazing.
I’m really excited about this work. There is something important and powerful that I’m uncovering here… peeling away like layers: the social… the psychological… the distributed self, as Turkle calls it (Turkle 1995), and then the social construction of the self… The avatar is a precious entity, because it is an extension of yourself, a social prosthesis, especially those where the game embodiment is compensating for a physical embodiment that has broken down (Lynn in her wheelchair, Cola with her arthritis) it’s even more important. Because not being able to run and jump isn’t just a physically painful experience… it’s also socially painful. There are aspects of yourself that must be shut down that can be reawakened through an avatar. Lynn can run, jump, ride horses, and be a soccer ball in There.com. So in a way Lynn in Uru or in There.com is more the real Lynn, than Lynn in the Wheelchair in Cedar County, New Mexico, who has lost part of her identity and her social agency with the loss of her ability to walk. I feel like I know a side of these people that no-one in their real lives will ever know. And since I have made it my business to know as much about them as I possibly can, I feel I’ve taken on a big responsibility. I’ve become the steward of their collective “self.” TGU itself is an avatar in a way. It’s the aggregate avatar of all the individual TGU avatars, isn’t it? This is a very interesting way to look at it.
“Me and my shadow…”
Reflections on Uru Server Shutdown Anniversary (9 February 2005)
I gathered with the European contingent at noon, along with a couple of U.S. folks, Lynn among them. She always points a point to be present with every grouping in every time zone, and I think this is significant to her role in holding the group together.
I was expecting there to be discussion about the shutdown, and there had also been storytelling planned, but we never got around to that. Instead, Lynn suggested hide-and-seek, which took up the next three plus hours.
It was fascinating. Here we were, this group of adults, mostly over 40, some over 50 even, playing a children’s game in a virtual world. How many other occasions do we have to do this? Lynn was even on the phone (we could hear her over Teamspeak) telling her friend we were playing hide-and-seek.
Hide-and-seek had been a favorite activity in Uru Prologue, even though it’s not really part of the game, but the brand of hide-and-seek they play is very much unique to the Uru environment. They particularly like playing in Eder Kemo, the garden age. I asked them why they never play hide-and-seek in There.com. “Because of the nametags,” they said.
This subversion of the environment into a playscape is a trademark play style of the group, and they do this in each environment in a different fashion, experimenting with, and sometimes against, the virtual world’s given properties, capabilities, and bugs. It is particularly interesting to look at the way that certain game features promote or restrict certain types of subversive play. An interesting research question would be to look at ways of creating features specifically designed with this type of play in mind.
Before we started, there were some rules that had to be sorted out with respect to the new Ki pack that had been given everyone as a Christmas present by the hackers that set up Until Uru. The Ki extended features of the game, including a hug without opening the Ki, higher jumps, and the ability to float. The group decided it was okay to float and to use the higher jump commands to find hiding places; the person who was “It” could use higher jumps but not the float to find people. You were not permitted to spawn to escape detection. All this was negotiated in advance, like game rules in a real world playground.
Naturally, using my new “participant engagement” method, I played along. This strategy has been somewhat challenging since I am a “noob” by Uruvian standards, and since this was my first time, I fumbled along trying to get the hang of it. On the first round, while looking for a hiding place, I accidentally linked into out of the Age. When I returned at the spawn point, Phae’dra was there and immediately said “I found Arte.” I explained that I had just spawned in, but it made us all laugh. On the second round, I was slightly less inept at finding a hiding place, although I was one of the first people discovered.
In this version of the game, once you are found, you have to help the “It” person to find the others, which is really much more fun than hiding. One of the things I immediately noticed was the cleverness of some of the hiding places. For example, there was one spot where a couple of people were hiding that was one of those rifts in cyberspace. If you did a particular high jump in the right spot in the tunnel, you could land on the back of the cave ceiling, which wasn’t a “real” place in the game. From here you could see the “back of house,” as if you’d gone inside the wall of a theme park ride. From this vantage points, you could also see other parts of the Kemo that were not visible from other locales. This was one of a number of ways the new Ki commands introduced some new possible hiding scenarios to the game.
Since they all know the space so well, and have spent a lot of time looking for hidden clues, they know all the nooks and crannies. The know the cubbyholes, the backs of things, the weird ledges that require runs and jumps to get to, arcane combinations for getting on top of things that would otherwise seem inaccessible.
The best hiding place of all was by Kellor, who figured out a way hide inside the trunk of a Braintree. The trunk collision detection was flawed in some way and it was the exact width of an avatar. As a result, he was able to just stand inside the tree trunk, and visible from the waste up, he was hard to detect because he was not discernable as a geometry element. Everyone gathered round to express their appreciation for the cleverness of this hiding place. This was a big part of the experience—trying to come up with a really clever hiding place that everyone else would appreciate for its creativity. Since the group places such high value in solving puzzles, finding hidden things, and being clever about it, it was a really pleasure to play the Uru variation of hide-and-seek because it turned out to be a very sophisticated version of the game.
This is another case of the ways in which players subvert or reframe the virtual environment to their own ends. So in a sense the virtual world becomes more like a playground than a game, a terrain that can morph or take on a variety of shapes, that can be adopted at will by simply changing the game terms. This week Uru is a hide and seek game; maybe another week it is a treasure hunt. This week There.com is a card game, next week it is a cross-country race. The playing board is constantly being redefined. This is significantly different from a game like monopoly where the game board is fairly static, even if the theme changes. Whereas on a checkers/chess board, you can play a couple of different games, and of course with playing cards, a seemingly infinite number. It’s like a playground in which a vertical wall, a ball, some rope and a piece of chalk allow you to constantly reconfigure the play parameters of the space.
This causes me to question this notion of the magic circle a bit. How finite it is, really? The magic circle is really nothing more than a mutual agreement to abide by a set of social constraints. These can be independent of the terrain, and they can also be highly malleable and contingent on people and context. In some cases, the social constraints are terrain-dependent; for example, we play Monopoly on a Monopoly board; but there is no reason we could not make up a new set of rules to play on the same board; and no reason we can’t play that same set of rules in a different board, depending on its configuration. Monopoly could be played with chalk in a playground, or even on the city streets, as long as you had some markers to represent player progress and some form of currency, etc. This is the principle behind the “Big Game” “Pac-Manhattan,” in which the rules of Pac-Man are played out in full scale in the streets if New York City. (REF) In fact, Thereians later invented a series of board games in which avatars served as playing pieces. I think one of the phenomena at-play here is that players run out of things to do as prescribed by the game. The TGUers have already solved all the puzzles in Uru, so now they explore and invent new modes of play.
The most noteworthy thing about the anniversary gathering was that it was not a grieving of the past. There was some passing reference to the initial loss of Uru, but they also reminded each other of what they had gained. The flavor of the event, stated by Lynn up-front, was really more a celebration of play and community than anything else.
And under that lies this new theory I am formulating. One of the reasons the emotional bonds of social play can be so intense is because in these liminal zones because people “let their hair down,” as Lunar pointed out in my interview with him. And people can do things, like Teddy’s gender-bending, that in any other space would completely socially inappropriate. But because it is a liminal space, anything goes, and all manner of experimentation and subversion are accepted as part of the territory, although hurting others is not tolerated, at least not among this group, and deception can be an egregious crime, although it can also be tolerated within certain bounds. In the case of Teddy’s cross-gender play, this seemed to fall within an acceptable boundary.
In addition to the Until Uru event, there was also an event in Second Life hosted by the Uru refugees there. At the behest of some of the Second Lifers, I invited a few of my Thereian friends, including Lynn, with whom I had now become good friends, and we all went to the event together. Although I seldom saw anyone but the creators in the Uru area of Second Life, this event had the largest turnout of any event I had attended in any area of Second Life. It was impossible to actually count the number of people present. As usual, the high traffic also revealed the prime vulnerability, the Achilles tendon of virtually all MMOGs: It’s not clear exactly how many people gathered in the Second Life Hood, perhaps as many as 100, because at a certain point, we were all ejected into a barren desert. Once again, the server had failed. This was unfortunate because this was one of those highly emotional occasions where people really wanted to be together.
More on Presentations (February 2005)
Over the course of doing several presentations as Artemesia, I’ve evolved the technique significantly. Due to the voice vs. text controversy among the TGUers, since the first presentation, which was done purely with text, I have shifted to giving presentations with voice. I also now shift back and forth between Celia and Artemesia, rather than keeping Celia silent in the background. While this is awkward and uncomfortable, I think it makes for a more interesting presentation, and it’s more aligned with my new methodology.
In one presentation I gave in Holland, an audience member came up to me afterward and said “when you were switched to the avatar, you were more boring.” I realize there are some language issues here, but after talking to some other people present, I think what he was trying to say was that when in avatar persona, I project through the avatar, so my rl avatar is not as expressive.
After my presentation in Copenhagen, T.L. Taylor told me that she found the fissures between real-life and the online avie to be interesting. I think what makes this type of presentation challenging is that I am almost always alone when I’m “being Artemesia” and I often feel embarrassed or awkward if even one other person enters the room. I suppose this is in part due to the fact that most of the people I deal with in my daily life do not really understand what I’m doing; they think it’s strange. In addition, while being in-world is a highly social activity, at the same time, it feels very private. So while it is very uncomfortable to do this in public, to perform the act of being Artemesia with both rl and virtual avie simultaneously, I think that awkwardness is precisely what makes it interesting. It might be comparable to a puppeteer pulling away the curtain. Usually a puppeteer is not that interesting to watch for the same reason—she is usually channeling her persona through the puppet. I suppose when you channel your persona through the avatar, there is a visible shift in energy, or charisma, or whatever you want to call it—you can see the life force move from being inside the body to being extended into the embodiment of the avatar. I can feel this happening myself, but it’s interesting that it is also visible to an audience.
Philosophical Conversations (February 2005)
So much of the ethnographic process has to do with being in the right place at the right time; there is a certain amount of kismet I suppose to this work. Today, in the course course of exploring, I accidentally stumbled upon exactly the sort of situation that every ethnographer dreams of encountering. Wingman, Nature_Girl and Bette were having a deep existential conversation about the nature of their Uru/There.com experience.
On the one hand, says Wingman, Lynn wants there to be a re-creation of D’ni Ae’gura in There.com. But there is a difference, he says, between re-creatingUru versus extending the world into There.com. The former approach entails making facsimiles of Uru artifacts, the latter is an approach to making Uru-like objects that is more like creating new Ages. (This is what Damanji is trying to do).
Nature_Girl, being the group’s rabbi, as usual, covers the theological and historical perspective of the story. The D’ni chose Earth to build the cavern, the underground city of D’ni Ae’gura. They came to Earth, to New Mexico, when their world was destroyed.
But, Stung argues, the world we are standing in right now (There.com) is not Earth. Nature_Girl says it’s kind of a linking book that leads to another Age. We put our hand on the There.com book and came here from Earth.
But, I think, maybe like the D’ni who chose to come to New Mexico when their world was destroyed, the TGUers chose to come to There.com when their world was destroyed. At this point, though, I say nothing. I am just listening.
Nature_Girl suddenly turns to me and says: “Arte, what do you think?” Bette suddenly says: “Art is just taking it all in. She’s typing frantically wondering where the chatlog is.” I laugh because she is right; my fingers are flying across the keyboard trying to capture every word they are saying.
Is There.com the same “place” as the cleft in Uru? Is it another Age of Uru? Is it the “real world” in relation to Uru? Or is it a place for a new Age to be “written?” Nature_Girl of course will argue that we cannot write Ages; only D’ni can do that. But to Damanji, writing Ages is the next logical step, especially in an environment like There.com, which is extensible by players. Why not write Ages? We have all the tools we need here. What’s to stop us?
START HERE (this needs to be consolidated somewhat)
St. Patrick’s Day Parade (12 March 2005)
One Sunday when we were having our usual noontime Until Uru meet-up, one of the members of the Tapestry Shard popped into our hood and wanted to know if TGU wished to participate in a St. Patrick’s Day Parade they were planning. Petrova, the Deputy Mayor and co-administrator (with D’evon) of the TGU Until Uru shard, agreed to take the lead on making this happen.
Although having a parade doesn’t seem like that big a deal, in Uru, because server and client interactions are not always well-synchronized, coordinated formations of any kind are extremely challenging. Thus this enterprise entailed a great deal of strategic planning and rehearsal time to compensate for the flaws in the server architecture.
First, it was not possible for the entire group to parade concurrently in a single shard due to continual crashing. Instead, each group was to be “warped” (teleported) by an administrator into the Tapestry Event Shard, where they would march one length of the parade route, then be “warped’ back into their hood to make way for the next group. There were no spectators allowed, as this would cause crashes. Two players were assigned as cameramen to stream the parade out to the web, not only so spectators could watch, but also so those organizing the parade could monitor what was happening.
The “no spectator” rule really highlighted the importance this new participant methodology approach I was developing. Here was a case where it would be impossible to just observe the situation; it was simply not allowed. The only possible way to study this event was to actually be a participant in the parade.
I also quickly discovered that this was a case where actually participating was the only way to really understand this client-server architecture problem in an experiential way. D’evon and Petrova lead the numerous rehearsal sessions, which mostly entailed practicing walking in a straight line. But in reality, this relatively simple task was actually impossible. While you might appear to be walking in a straight line on your own screen, to others, you may be “rubber banding,” sliding forward and backward in the scene. You may see your avatar as following another player’s, while at the same time she may see her avatar as walking behind yours. So from a perceptual perspective, there is no way to really walk a parade that looks right to everyone because each person is seeing something different on his or her client screen. Simply walking in a straight line required numerous rehearsals and co-ordination from Petrova, D’evon and others.
The parade itself turned out to be a grueling ordeal. It took much longer than expected, and while it officially began at noon, TGU wasn’t warped into place until well after 2:00 p.m. We were the last leg of the parade, and the largest group to participate. As soon as we arrived at our final destination behind the library, everybody crashed and the parade was over. Crashing is now humorously referred to as “linking to the Desktop Age.”
While not a game per se, the difficulties of orchestrating something as seemingly simple as a parade on a highly unstable server infrastructure presented players with a feat so challenging that, in the end, it became its own kind of game. Had I not participated both in rehearsals and the parade itself firsthand, I would never have understood the complexity of the task, nor the mastery and tenacity required to execute it.
The St. Patrick’s Day Parade also provided another instance of the of the conflation of meanings between real and imaginary worlds. When I first heard about it, it made me uncomfortable, in part because it felt like real world cultures intruding on the fantasy of Uru. It was another example of the magic circle breaking down, a phenomenon I became progressively more used to, and eventually came to fully accept as part of the trans-ludic lifestyle.
Shifting Worlds (May-June 2005)
Over the past few months, there has been some dissatisfaction with There.com. This seems to happen in cycles, but this time, the result is that Lynn, Leesa, and Nature_Girl have started spending more time in Second Life. Nature_Girl, who has mastered a number of content creation skills in There.com seems to like the building features because it gives her a new challenge. Lynn has purchased some coastal land and put out a houseboat, along with Uno, who has also been spending more time in SL. I ended up buying the adjacent land, so now we have a little Uru-Thereian waterside enclave.
This has caused a little tension with Raena, who is concerned that others will follow Lynn into Second Life. I’m less worried, as my impression is that Second Life has taken on the role of an after-hours club or a vacation home for Lynn. She tends to go there after most of the Thereian community has gone to bed. We hang out and play SL’s version of Mah Jongg, which is fun because it is a two-player cooperative game. Her husband Frank and rl friend Henry, who was responsible for setting up the Koalanet forum, also hang out there. I guess I am getting to know a different side of her as her SL neighbor.
Our neighborhood in SL reminds me a bit of Sausalito, and I’ve always wanted to live on a houseboat, so I ended up buying a galleon and setting myself up a pirate ship. Second Life is a little more conducive to fantasy role-playing than There.com. Clothes and costumes are much cheaper and people run around in all manner of avatar forms. Unlike There.com, where your avatar is pretty much fixed, in Second Life you can keep as many different avatar versions in one account as you want. So while your identity remains the same (your name tag is persistent), your visual representation is a lot more malleable. Our neighbor, Thomas Tuffnell, is a Victorian steampunk inventor with a giant mansion filled with wacky gadgets and works-in progress. There is something kinky going on upstairs, but I haven’t ventured forth to investigate yet. Just above Lynn and my boats, about 20 feet in the air, is a western saloon complete with playable piano, owned by Sam Smith, who is modeled after some historical character or another. Across the bay are a variety of houses, and someone has plopped a very cool submarine just offshore. Various avatars show up presenting as robots, children, and even animals, although it does not seem as populated as There.com. It’s sort of like being at a 24-hour costume party. We don’t know very many people, but we like our neighbors just fine. Lynn also likes to come there because of the dancing animations, and she also has some snuggle poses she gets to do with her husband. As much as she complains about There.com management, I don’t get the feeling she will abadon there from SL; she still doesn’t much care for the kinky culture there. She I like to sit on the deck of her boat and play Mah Jongg when we are online together. I also sometimes sit and play alone on mine. It’s funny to go into a virtual world to play what is essentially a single-player game, but it’s sort of a nice break from the other worlds I go to where I’m always “working.”
One evening I was sitting with Teddy and Raena in Raena’s house when Leshan popped in somewhat abruptly. Leshan was a fairly new member, having left another Hood in Until Uru. Since joining TGU, she had become close with a number of members, including Raena and myself.
Leshan was one of the few in the group who continued to use text even though voice was the communication mode of choice. She was very agitated and said she had something very important to tell us. The information she had to impart, via text chat, was that she was, in real life, a man. I do not think Leshan was aware of Teddy’s past at this juncture, and as I sat there I could not help but observe the irony of the interchange. In some sense, she had unwittingly come to the right place. Needless to say, the three of us were extremely blasé about the confession.
Leshan’s reasons were quite a bit different from Teddy’s: She had been playing female avatars in games for many years in response to her lifelong experience of gender dysphoria. Following the precedent set by Teddy, and the recommendation of the three of us, Leshan discussed this first with the group’s leaders, primarily Leesa and Lynn, as well as a handful of other close friends, and then posted her confession on the group’s forum. Since the community had already been through this once, it was not such a big deal the second time around, although frankly, it was not such a big deal the first time either. Similar to the first case, it was a much bigger deal to the person revealing their true gender than to the other members of the group. Unlike Teddy, Leshan chose to continue to play her female avatar, but now spoke with her natural, male voice.
I finally have got the hang of giving in-world presentations, although presenting in-situ requires some funny tricks. For instance, if I want my avatar to face the audience, I have to use mirror view and walk backwards, so this is something I need to practice.
I’ve done a couple of presentations to the Ph.D. cohort and at the Banff Centre, much more intimate settings predominately consisting of artists and designers (as opposed to the academics and lawyers of some of my previous presentations.) These have been much easier and more laid-back. These are generally smaller events where I know everybody in the audience, in a context where performance tends to be a natural part of the mix. They are therefore more interested in and more tolerant of performative experimentation. I’ve also developed a pretty fluid technique of switching back and forth between Artemesia and Celia, which still reveals the ruptures and boundaries, but gives me a little more leeway and mitigates some of the awkwardness of being in-game on stage. Artemesia is much more nervous on stage than Celia, but I think she’s getting over that slowly, with practice.
One thing that always makes these presentations more interesting is when the Uru-Therians themselves show up. I always let them know when I’m planning an in-world presentation. Initially I did this so they could have the option to avoid being seen, but it turned out that they actually liked it, and would often show up to be part of the presentation. One on occasion, a flotilla of hoverboats descended upon me moments after rezzing on Yeesha Island. The players jumped out and waved at the audience. It’s very sweet and really demonstrates their level of involvement in the research, which is always gratifying to me. I think to some extent, they also find it amusing to be famous.
True Confessions (Haslemere, Surrey, July 2005)
Raena is a man.
I was sitting on the sofa after a long session in the UK with the other Ph.D. candidates, about to close things down for the night, when I got a Skype from her wanting to talk. It took forever for her to get it out. There was a long preamble…but eventually she told me: “My real life avie is a man.”
Once she got that part out, we talked a little about the ramifications. I told her I didn’t care, which I really don’t. To me, this really has very little impact on our friendship. What interested me more about it was the fact that she had been at the center of the two other gender revelations in the group and had managed to keep this to herself the entire time. It also amazed me that she had been able to master the female voice. Re-gendering your voice is really challenging, not just because of pitch, but also cadence, and social style. Women and men just talk differently, and so Raena has managed not only to shift the voice pitch, but also get the social style and the cadence down. My God, she even sings in-world!
I suppose as a researcher, this should somehow taint her credibility as an informant, but it really never even crossed my mind. For one thing, all of the things she has told me about the group have been corroborated by other interviews and observation. This speaks well for the “crystallization” method. But more than that, I know Raena is totally reliable and totally honest. I suppose to anyone else this would seem outrageous. How could you trust someone who “lied” about something so crucial? But I guess it doesn’t really seem like a lie to me. And this is one of those issues where knowing about the real life avie naturally adds another dimension to the person, but in the long run, it does not have any impact on what happens in-world. Just because the real-life avie is a man, doesn’t make the virtual world avie any less of a woman. I know that sounds contradictory, but it makes perfect sense to me.
We talked about how she was going to handle it with the group. As seems to be the pattern a “true gender confession” seems to be a much bigger deal for the person confessing than for everyone else. She has already discussed it with Leesa and Lynn, who were fine about it. Following on the precedent set by Teddy and Leshan, they decided the best thing to do would be to post on the forum, in the same way that Teddy and others have done in the past. I guess she wanted to tell me, as well as her other close friends in person before she did this. The real question now is whether she is going to keep being Raena, as Leshan did, or switch to a male avie, as Teddy did. To test this out, she created a male avie, Raenen, who she is going to take out for a spin.
I did not feel in any way betrayed by her confession, but when she told me about Raenan, I found myself feeling sad. It reminded me of how Raena had reacted when she found out “Daisy” was not available to say goodbye on the last day of Uru. I tried to be really tactful and supportive. My main thrust was: I support whatever you choose do, but I would really miss Raena.
Raena’s priority has always been the community, and this is one of the things I respect about her. So even though I think she feels the same way about it as I do, I think she would switch to the male avie even if she didn’t really want to, if she felt that was what the group preferred. This really reinforces what I’ve been saying about the social construction of identity. She has basically put her identity up for group consideration, and as is always the case with TGUers, began with consulting with the leadership.
This revelation of course causes me to see every conversation and story involving Raena in a new light. Her grief at losing her avatar, while no different from anyone else’s, had special significance because a part of her was dying that was unique to that place. She is also a pillar of the community, and has had a major behind-the-scenes role in everything significant that has happened to this group. She was instrumental in the move into There.com. While she has some male friends, she mainly hangs out with women (who as far as we know are also women in rl), although she’s been at the center of the two other gender-switching narratives within the group. The artwork she creates in There.com is very feminine in its content and style. Even the way she dresses, her modest attire, is unusual for a man playing a woman. Most men tend to create female avatars that are sexy, and wear flamboyant or frilly clothes. She mostly wears jeans and sweaters in-world, just like a real woman in real life.
Well this is an interesting turn of events, and I will be curious to see the outcome.
Following on the custom set by Teddy and Leshan, Raena, aka Steve, posted a confession on Koalanet. He described his reason for the gender switch as stemming from a house rule he had made to protect his daughter from predators online: that any online activity would be conducted with disguised identities without revealing any real life information.
After the post, there ensued a period of discussion and negotiation. Most members of the group had had no idea Raena was not a female as presented via the female avatar, although a few said they had suspected as much. By and large everyone was supportive, and while he was encouraged to do whatever felt appropriate, there seemed to emerge a general consensus among the community that Raena was a well-loved and pivotal member and if she were to go, she would be missed. While this discussion was underway, Raena made a go of trying to present as a male avatar.
Raena introduced me to Raenen, her male alter-ego, in There.com. She is practicing talking like a man. She told me she practiced talking like a woman when she made Raena and now she is used to relating in that way and the male voice is hard. She also said something about how you can have different cubbyholes in your mind to accommodate the multiple-identities of avatar life. This awareness came to her through meeting Leshan and his wife. Raena talked about listening to Leshan “talk about us as if we were rl people…” His wife knows all of us of course, but only from him. And so in her mind, the avies are all “real.” To her, we each have only one cubbyhole, as characters in her husband’s stories.
Even though I now know differently, I prefer to still think of Raena as a woman. I know I will meet the man behind the avatar. The There Real Life Gathering is imminent, which is in part what motivated her confession. Soon I will meet the man behind the avatar…and then I will have to make some adjustments internally I suppose. I continue to call her, and all of the other cross-gendered avatars I know by their avatar pronoun.
Raena is part of the man behind her, a part of his persona that gets to “come out and play” in this context. In this case, it’s not a sexual thing, but it’s a very risky and dangerous thing to do nonetheless… to explore parts of your personality that are not available to you in rl. You really have no idea where it will take you.
I am very uncomfortable with my reaction to Raenen. I find myself resenting him because I feel like he is replacing my friend Raena. It’s irrational, but I feel like he representas a negation Raena. Since that first introduction, Raenen has been hanging out intermittently in both Until Uru and There.com. I am having a really hard time with it. I want to be nice to him; I guess in some ways he’s a “newbie,” but in reality, I just want Raena back. On a couple of occasions, he’s managed to get both avatars into There.com at the same time. This has been very strange, because the struggle to create a male identity becomes so clear… his attempts to talk like a man are both poignant and amusing. At the same time, it’s somehow easier for me to be comfortable with Raenen when Raena is around.
We’ve seen pictures now. Raena has a beard. And yet when in avie, he’s just a woman. That’s all. The odd part is, I know they are the same person, but to me Raenen is not Raena. He’s an entirely different person. But they are both Steve. Yet somehow I don’t see Raenen as a male version of Raena.
As a result of the discussion on Koalanet, a kind of consensus has emerged. By and large, TGU members expressed that they would prefer to see Raena remain part of the community, even though they continued to leave the final decision up to Steve to do what he felt was right. This, combined with his personal struggles with switching to a male avatar, prompted Steve to maintain his identity as a female avatar, and continue to use the female voice. Most community members and friends know Raena is male, but they treat her as if she is a woman, and she has memberships in a number of female dominated groups.
There.com Real Life Gathering (September 2005) In the end, we did what we always did laughed, explored, talked for hours, and played spades until 2:00 in the morning.
The first thing that struck me was that the voice became the bridge from the real-life avie to the in-world avie. And the voice carries them between worlds now. I know the voices so well, I sort of wallowed in them. From the first moment I heard Lynn’s smoky voice and Blossom’s English accent from the bathroom stalls, I connected immediately with the real-life avatars. Leshan had the same voice, but this time coming out of a male body. Wingman was dressed as his avie, so that was easy, but his voice kept wafting between the rooms the whole time. Nature_Girl, possibly the most distinctive voice of the lot… Raena was the only one who sounded nothing like herself, although I could hear just a glimmer of Raena coming through the voice of Steve, the man standing there before me. The real-world hug…that’s the one I remember the most. Really she’s my best friend in game. There is no way around that. “My best girlfriend is a guy,” I thought. “Sounds like an episode of Oprah.”
Later, when we sat at dinner, the conversation was like those we have in-game. I kept picturing the avatar gestures that Raena uses, the cadence of the speech, the pauses to think, the “I’m thinking” gesture which is done by typing in ‘hmmm… I could also see in Steve, the man, the male rl avie, the ghost of the woman inside. These things are hard to explain if you have not experienced them. It’s not a gender confusion thing… Raena explained it best when she talked about the cubbyholes. I have two cubbyholes in my mind for this person—Raena, the game persona, and Steve, the real-life avatar. They are one, and yet they are two. Each is a fact of the other.
There were a few real live social conventions to sort out. One was what to call each other, but we quickly fell quite comfortably into calling each other by our avatar names. This was reinforced by the fact that those were the names on our avatars. And it was one to see how each had a glimmer of his or her avatar. Nathan8 wore a tie-dye shirt. Shaylah’s body was different from her avatar, but her eyes were the same. Nature_Girl wore braids, just line in there. Maesi wore the same glasses in rl as in game and her gestures seemed oddly similar the procedural movements of her avatar. People were actually doing a variety of avatar gestures and dances all weekend, which was hilarious.
Ultimately, I think humor may be the key to the soul. After voice, humor was the next distinctive personality trait that persisted outside of the game. Everyone’s humor was precisely the same as in-game. This is something you can’t really hide. Just as Raena said (ironically, now) that she had always suspected Daisy of really being a man because of his sense of humor, humor is unique, it’s spontaneous, like a fingerprint of the personality.
It was particularly special to meet Leesa. We had a moment mutual appreciation together. I really admire how she has developed as the reluctant leader of this group. And she expressed her appreciation for the work I have been doing with her community, which meant a lot to me after the controversy back in November. I think the outcome has been positive for everyone. In the end, the project really did feel like the collaboration I had always intended it to be.
I was both surprised and unsurprised to find that nearly half the gathering consisted of TGU members. This is a measure not so much of their numerical representation in There.com, but of their influence and their commitment to both There.com and each other. There.com was their refuge, it was their safe harbor… not entirely safe… but yet they stuck to it with admirable tenacity. They never let up, even after all the moves, even after There.com seemed on the verge of closure. As Raena said to me at dinner… “People were afraid we would take over. It looks like maybe we have.”
But it also attests to the power of play. In sessions, people kept saying “it’s not just a game.” I kept wanting to say “Why ‘just’?”
I think we need to stop belittling play like it’s something unimportant. Play is important, it’s deep, it’s human. The shared values of Leesa’s rules are about play. They are guidelines for the playground. They are a philosophy of play. And they were powerful enough to keep this group of people together for this protracted period of time, through trials and tribulations, well beyond the initial context in which their bond was formed. Each step of the way, they prevailed. They remained together. Why? Because they were guided by shared values and a philosophy of play that was robust and continues to sustain them.
Most of the RLG program was planned by the There.com staff. There were panels and sessions on “the Care and Feeding of the Servers,” and “Therenomics.” There were discussions about community management, perhaps reminiscent of Member Advisory Board meetings. There were screenings of films made in-world and performances by members.
All of these things were interesting, but they were different from what we would do together ordinarily, that it felt somewhat odd and a little bit overly restrained.
The most interesting part of the gathering was the last day, which were the unofficial events. There was a dinner planned at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. It was here, in these open-ended, unstructured activities that you could see the natural patterns of behavior emerge. The first challenge was finding a place to park, especially Lynn’s van, which had a handicapped sticker but was too large to fit in a conventional parking spot. We were on mobile phones to each other trying to co-ordinate this, scouting for parking, and arranging to meet up. This was very similar to the way we use the chat box in There.com, or Teamspeak in the background of Until Uru. Once we convened, we broke up into various exploratory groups, including a chocolate quest lead by Lynn. Here was a case where the play style was consistent… Lynn the explorer was alive and well in realspace. The challenge was navigating her wheelchair through the hilly streets of San Francisco, which were decidedly lacking in adequate accessibility affordances. But the group quickly turned this into a puzzle, and everyone contributed to the search for ramps and lifts. We were determined to get Lynn to the Ghirardelli Chocolate shop, regardless of the obstacles. A number of inventive solutions were found, many of which required group effort, some of which involved contraptions, such as a wheelchair lift. The relationship to space could be seen clearly: the questing, the puzzle-solving, the collaboration, and the relentless search for a solution. And above all, one could se the dedication of the group to Lynn and to each other. Others with disabilities or special needs were treated the same way. We all took care of and looked after each other.
After dinner we headed back to the hotel. In the car, I told co-navigator Wingman that something had been missing for me throughout the proceedings… I realized later that the thing I was missing was play. We had done everything imaginable together but play. When we got back to the Marriott, we took over the hotel lobby and quickly transformed it into a play space. We appropriated furniture, making our own spades tables, and just like every other space TGU has been in, they turned it into a There.com “Fun Zone.”
Spades said it all. It was the same but different. We all played in the same styles as we always play. We said the same things we always say. But the avatar fidelity was different. You could see the eyes, the smiles, the sidelong looks, the hand gestures. Throughout the two days, whenever I was with someone, I would have brief “avatar flashbacks” (cognitive haunting, again) where I would picture the person’s avatar talking. But it was not until we were playing spades that I realized that from here on out, whenever I play spades with them, I will experience cognitive haunting of their real-life avies as well.
It’s all quite an adventure. They are a quirky lot, each to varying degrees more or less like his or her avie. But as Leesa and everyone always say…the soul shines through, both good and bad. I don’t think anyone expected to see a bunch of Disney-esque cartoon Barbie dolls there. We all knew it would be a motley group, but part of what you find is you know something about a person’s inner life that transcends his or her appearance, and this awareness translates into the physical. And there we were, a bunch of people who would probably have no other occasion to have known each other calling each other family.
What is that? How can we say “it’s just a game?” Play is important. It’s spiritual. It can create a type of bond that happens nowhere else, a bond between strangers. Over the long-term, it can create friendships that emerge quickly but can also be sustained over the long term. Regardless of what goes on in our real lives, what our established roles are, here we are just playmates.
There is something magical in that, the freedom to play, and to play wherever and whenever we want, to be silly, to horse around, to explore, to experiment. This proves perhaps the final contention of my dissertation… that play styles are mobile, that they can move across virtual and even into the real world; that it is in play that the style of interaction is fully rendered, fully realized, and its personality both transcends and transforms the context, whether it be inside a virtual world, or in the lobby of a hotel.
There is so much more to all of this than meets the eye.
In October, about a month after the Real Life Gathering of There.com, Leshan invited us all to attend the first annual CAT (Community Achievers of There) Award. We had been informed about these awards about a month prior, but the announcement was made official at the RLG. The basic idea was to award selected Thereians for community achievement by having Imagina design a gown named for each award recipient. I had been awarded one of these gowns during the year. Now, all the recipients were to be gathered together for the first formal award ceremony, where trophies would be distributed. I was very touched that Leshan had given me an award, but until this ceremony was called, the award had felt more personal (perhaps based on friendship) than socially significant. Having the honor announced made real my sense of contribution to the community.
On the night of the ceremony, Leshan and Imagina alternated giving short statements about why each of us had been given the award. When my turn came up, I was very touched and surprised by what was said. Leshan began by saying “I don’t know if you are all aware of the work Arte does…” She then went on to say that I was doing great things for There.com by giving presentations to the outside world and trying to impart a deeper understanding of the online lifestyle of There.com, beyond the screen. Over the past eighteen months, I had traveled around the world and written papers describing their experience to people in a variety of settings. It had never occurred to me that this was being perceived as a contribution to the community itself. However, Leshan’s speech revealed that I (both Celia and Artemesia) had taken on the role as a kind of ambassador to the outside world, giving testimony to what had happened to the Uru community, and hopefully providing a more nuanced and less stereotyped view of what it meant to be part of an online community in a virtual world. Being acknowledged and honored for this contribution also imparted in me a renewed and extended sense of responsibility, which I carry forward into my current and future work.
PART V: Beyond Uru: Communities of Play on Their Own Terms
Editorial Notes: This Section is in-Progress; the first part is in draft form; the second part will need to be extensively expanded and rewritten.
Applied Anthropology: Uru Resurrection
In the Spring of 2006, as the writing of the thesis was underway, I received a phonecall from a woman at Turner Broadcasting who wanted to talk with me about the possibility of my consulting for the company on a project. She could not say what the project was, as it was under an NDA (nondisclosure agreement), but she requested to meet with me on a subsequent trip to Atlanta that I was planning in order to participate in a symposium at Georgia Tech. As it turns out, I was also in-progress on a job negotiation there, which I eventually accepted and where my current real life avatar is an assistant professor at this writing.
During the symposium, I was scurried into a conference room for a private meeting, and asked to sign the NDA. I was introduced to a gentleman named Blake Lewin, who told me that they wanted to hire me because Turner’s GameTap game portal, which Lewin had been instrumental in launching, was thinking about reopening the game.
As you can imagine, I was aghast. Early in my encounters with the Uru Diaspora, I had often daydreamed about ways to assist them, but it was clear that they were resourceful enough to have instigated Until Uru, so I had laid those thoughts aside. Now, I was placed in the unique position of being asked to actually contribute to helping the group I had been studying for the past two years in a very tangible way. I was assigned the role of official Uru anthropologist. This particular chapter in the story illustrates the growing need for sociologists to be engaged in the MMOG development. Community managers have an important role to play; a sociologist or anthropologist can augment this by making it his or her business to study and understand the game community on their own terms. Unlike community managers, whose valuable role is to serve as a liaison between players and management, an anthropologist has the ability to step back from an investment in what is happening and provide a broader view, one less tied to business interests. Players will often orient themselves differently towards someone perceived as an anthropologist because they do not associate them with management, even, a was the case here, if they are in management’s employ. It is often also the case that community managers communicate with players, but don’t have the time or, in some cases, the interest, to interact with them in-situ, to study their play patterns and emergent behavior.
Over the course of the months that followed, and while completing the dissertation, I was given three main tasks. The first was to help galvanize the current Uru Diaspora and bring them together to make a business case for the reopening of Uru. The second was to continue my ethnographic work and try to keep track of how that process was progressing. The third was to generate a survey to capture some demographic, play pattern, and marketing related data the team needed for design, planning and business development.
Lewin’s plan was to make a business case for the reopening of Uru by reconvening a very much alive and active fanbase in a single Until Uru. Along with other members of the community who had been drafted into service by Cyan, I was tasked to get the word out that Uru Refugees who had the Until Uru software should make an effort to gather in the D’mala shard. They also made additional software keys available to those who had not been in Until Uru up to this time. Over the course of about a month, via group and fan forums and Uru communities in other games, we were able to register 3000 players.
Throughout this process the identity of the owners of D’mala was kept secret. The entire scenario was framed within the context of the Uru storyline. The mysterious “Blake” was a potential new funder for the D’ni Restoration Council (DRC) to reestablish itself in “the cavern” and continue its efforts to restore the City. This would include opening up Ages that had never been “repaired” adequately to allow in explorers (players.)
It did not take very long for the band of resourceful and tech-savvy world-class puzzle-solvers to reveal the identity of the mysterious funder. They looked up the IP address of D’mala and found it was registered to Turner Broadcasting. Further research uncovered Blake Lewin, the original founder of GameTap (which had already added the Myst series to its repertoire), who was identified as the mysterious “Blake.” Virtually overnight, fans added this information to the Uru page in Wikipedia. As resident ethnographer, I was amused to inform Blake in an e-mail that he had been “outed.”
Around this same time, a change event occurred that so timely that it seemed providential. I was awaiting the start of a panel at the E3 Game Expo in Los Angeles, when a gentleman who was videotaping the speakers asked met to watch is camera. When he returned to his seat, I noticed his badge indicated that he was the “Uru Community Manager,” and immediately told him: “We have to talk.” We met a few days later and I told him about my Uru research. I immediately contacted Blake to recommend he bring Ron Meiners into the re-launch initiative.
During this period I worked with the team to design a survey which was used to poll D’mala players and other members of the Uru Diaspora in order to get a sense of demographics, overseas participation, and some of the play preferences of the community.
In February 2007, exactly three years after the plug was pulled on the Uru Prologue servers, Myst Online: Uru Live was opened under GameTap Originals, their brand of independently released, previously unpublished games. Known colloquially as MOUL, it quickly developed a following of established, dormant and new Uru players. The new Uru population consisted of a mix that included: players who had been in the original Uru Prologue; players who played the single-player Uru Prime, but had never gotten into the multiplayer beta test; players recruited by Uruvians from other games and virtual worlds, particularly There.com and Second Life.
The latter group took on an emergent marketing role. Completely on their own and with no provocation from Turner, they began recruiting players into the new Uru. Uru-Thereians, who were now a strong and established part of the There.com culture, were particularly instrumental in recruiting new Uru players. They set up a special Uru travel center, and added signage and links about the launch of MOUL to new and existing Uru artifacts and installations. They scheduled regular tours of Uru for incoming Thereians. At the same time, just as with Until Uru, they did abandon There.com, but indeed actually increased their production of Uru artifacts. A trans-ludic synergy emerged.
The scenario in Second Life was a little bit different. While the D’mala scenario was underway, the Second Life Uru Island had been forced to close. Operating large real estate properties can be costly in these worlds, and the Uru Builders were simply no longer able to sustain it on their own. When the D’mala shard was launched, there was a widespread viral information campaign, with players passing around virtual notecards (admittedly, made by me) directing them to the new shard. Second Life Uru Refugees were very activated around this effort and similarly to their brethren, dispatched a full-on recruitment campaign.
The summer campaign had been a success, and at the E3 Expo, GameTap officially announced that it would be launching Myst Online: Uru Live as part of its game portal service in February 2007. Around this time, I connected the Uru Builders from Second Life with GameTap, who decided to sponsor the reopening of Shorah Island as part of their Myst Online promotion effort. Because the group had had the forethought to work with Linden Lab in archiving the entire installation, they were able to rebuild it, though not without a significant amount of effort. With some minor modifications, the island was reopened with a major launch party, around the same time that MOUL launched. The new Shorah Island had a few modifications over its previous instantiation, including interactive billboards directing people to Myst Online.
While the success of this as a promotion strategy is uncertain, it was, to my knowledge, a first in fan-corporate partnership: A fan-created artifact being sponsored after the fact by the company whose content they were adapting. Throughout the preceding period in which Uru fans created Uru-derived content, while Cyan was aware of these activities, they never once intervened. During the Until Uru period, they even supported the idea in theory of fan-created Ages, a development that was never realized in Until Uru or MOUL, but continues to be discussed, both among fans and by Rand Miller and Cyan.
This inter-ludic dynamic opens up some interesting question. Now that Uru was back, one would have assumed that Uru refugees would abandoned their new homes and return to their “homeland” en masse. But as I had already observed with Until Uru, such was not the case. Not only did ThereUruvians and Second Life Uru refugees continue to flourish within their adopted homes, new patterns and synergies emerged. First, as mentioned earlier, Uru Refugees in other games recruited MOUL players. Second, perhaps more surprisingly, new MOUL players also started visiting the settlements of Uru refugees and formed new Uru communities in There.com and Second Life, continuing to follow the now well-established custom of trans-ludic identities that spanned several games and virtual worlds.Thus what could be characterized as a “second wave” of Uru immigrants began to join their compatriots in these new worlds, even while continuing to frequent MOUL. Longtime Uru Refugees for whom Uru was their first online games also started to branch out into the more traditional MMOGs such as World of Warcraft, Guild Wars and, Lord of the Rings Online.
These multi-game trans-ludic practices fly in the face of conventional wisdom about consumption patterns among MMOG players. Among the traditional demographic described in chapter one, primarily male college students and recent grads, inter-game cannibalization is a well-known fact. Players in this somewhat oversaturated audience migrate en masse into new games, often taking entire guilds with them. So-called hardcore players of this sort typically maintain only one subscription at time, canceling prior subscriptions in the process.
The Uru diaspora, however, because of its older, predominately Baby Boomer demographic, follows an entirely different pattern. As a follow-up study I conducted with Baby Boomer Gamers revealed, this demographic has both more disposable income and more free time than the primary audience to which most MMOGs are targeted. (REF: Pearce, Baby Boomer report) As a result, they can afford to maintain multiple game and virtual world accounts. Furthermore, in addition to subscription fees, community-minded players can end putting out significant expenditures, in the hundreds of dollars per month, to engage in productive play and community-building (including real estate), as well shopping for virtual items, such as fashions and furnishings. So far from closing in to return to Uru, the Uru diaspora continued to expand and grow into other games as well as drawing in new players from elsewhere.
MOUL attempted to realize the original vision of Uru Live, which was to deliver episodic content and in-game narrative. This included the revival of the DRC, with fictional characters played by Cyan staff. It also included release of new Ages and some older Ages from the “Path of the Shell” extension pack, which some players had already experienced. The reaction to these was mixed. Players were thrilled when new Ages opened, and would flock to find the new book that opened a gateway to a new world. Some of the Ages were recognizable genres, such as a “machine age” where turning on power and various gadgets lead to the solving of a puzzle. Others were exotic never-before-seen types of puzzles, including a new garden age.
The staff-enacted drama was more controversial. For the most part, players enjoyed the elements of the story, but there were aspect of its intersection with the community that created a strain on the community. As with the previous Uru, some players enjoyed the roleplaying aspect of aligning with different factions, while others preferred to play “out of character’ (OOC) and did not want to get involved in any “drama” that might result in the hurt feelings of real people. The formation of an appointed liaison group to the DRC also caused some tension and power struggles ensued. One of the interesting challenges here was addressing the differences in play preferences between IC (in character) and OOC players. In many MMOGs this is resolved by creating specific servers (shards) that are designated for roleplaying. But because Uru did not have a shard system, OOC and IC players needed to find some harmonious way to coexist, and it is not clear that this was ever achieved. TGU maintained its position as an OOC Hood, however, and its members were free to roleplay in the City or other parts of the game, just not when at home base. This made TGU something of a “safe” zone for players who were less excited about the roleplaying aspects of the game.
As with all MMOGs, the relationship between creators and players is an important and often overlooked dynamic. Ever since the days of “Lord British,” MMOG players have viewed their game’s designers as deities of sorts, and Rand Miller was no exceptions. When he appeared in-world, such as at the Second Life Shorah Island reopening, or at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, it was like getting a glimpse of the King. In virtual worlds like There.com, while upper management sightings are also momentous occasions, they are typically more low-key and less formal. Because the world is player-made, its owners may not take on as deific a role as in the more structured “fixed synthetic worlds” such as Uru.
Beyond Uru One year after the reopening, in February 2008, GameTap announced that it would be, once again, closing Uru. While players noted the coincidence of this announcement taking place exactly four years from the original Uru closure, they also noted that GameTap that the announcement was made with more more advance warning, and in a much more respectful fashion. Players were given two months to say their goodbyes and make other preparations.
Unlike the original closure, where players had virtually no warning and no place to go next, this third wave of Uru immigrants had options. Those who had already settled in other games and virtual world continued to maintain their enclaves. In the Uru tradition of helping players newer than themselves, many of these first-generation Uru refugees have begun mentoring and even recruiting newer players, even taking them on tours of other games and virtual worlds to find a new home within established Uru communities elsewhere. These debates are ongoing, with some players moving into Second Life, others into There.com and still others into other games and virtual worlds. The MOUL Community Forum, much like the Koalanet forum for TMP, has become the central communication hub for the new Uru diaspora.
During the days of Uru, players from around the world gathered in-cavern to say goodbye, in spite of repeated server failures on the days leading up to the closure. Many stayed on line to the final moments, staging what one player referred to as a “wake.” European players who could not be awake for the shutdown at midnight Eastern time parked their avatars and seated them seated in their hoods, watched over by their friends.
TGU had already made a plan: Similar to their immediate transition to the Koalanet chat room, they would all go immediately to There.com after the server shutdown. Players stayed in the hood; their previous experience with server instability and being unable to log on after crashing, or being unable to link between ages, made then cautious. They all wanted to be present when the plug was pulled.
A few Cyanists, as Cyan staff was called, entered throughout the last day to visit and spend time with players, a gesture that was deeply appreciated. Even Rand Miller himself came in briefly. All of this gave players a clear signal than unlike in the previous circumstance, the gods of their world actually cared about them. The server administrators sent off warnings at the 15 and 5 minute points, and even inserted humorous quips to soften the blow. Finally, at 12:01 Eastern time on April 10, once again, players saw the message on their screen that had devastated them over four years ago:
Network Error 6. Server Disconnected.
Both Cyan and GameTap, now fully schooled in the emergent patterns of the Uru fan-base, have been trying to make some kind of arrangement to allow for Cyan- or fan-run servers similar to the Until Uru scenario. Whether or not Cyan will aid in the creation of sanctioned player-created content remains to be seen; however, prior experience suggests that they will not prevent players from developing content on their own.
Old stuff that may or may not be integrated into the ending:
When Uru initially closed in 2004, it was literally “the end of the world” for many players who had never been in an online game before and were surprised by the strength of the bonds they created there. Now, four yeas later, fueled by their own emergent phenomena, the Uru Diaspora has developed a sense of self-determination, autonomy and empowerment. Rather than seeing this as the end of Uru, many view it as an opportunity to reclaim Uru and continue to cast it in their own likeness.
Indeed a game whose goal is the restoration of a lost culture has taught them to exactly that. Uru players have and will take on the role of the D’ni Restoration Council, the fictive group that unlocked the cavern and restored the Ages. Uru is in the hands of emergence now…large-scale emergent processes that are beyond the control of any individual or even a corporate entity. Indeed the games’ very name, URU (you are you): Ages Beyond Myst, seems apocryphal now, as does Yeesha’s oft-heard adage:
“The ending has not yet been written.”
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i This “interdiscipline” is not to be confused with game theory, a branch of applied mathematics focused on conflict resolution and strategic decision-making, applied primarily to economics and military strategy. Morgenstern, Oskar and John von Neumann. 1944. The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Nash, John. 1950. "Equilibrium points in n-person games." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 36:48-49. While game theory has some application in Game Studies, it is generally viewed as an unrelated and separate field.
ii For an interesting taxonomy of game worlds, see Aarseth, Espen, Solveg Marie Smedstad, and Lise Sunnanå. 2003. "A Multi-Dimensional Typology of Games." in Level Up; Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) Conference Proceedings, edited by M. Copier and J. Raessens. Utrecht, Netherlands: Universiteit Utrecht.
iii According to personal accounts of the parties involved, Stephenson arrived at the usage independently of Morningstar and Farmer.
iv For more in-depth studies of avatars and virtual worlds, see (Damer, Bruce. 1997. Avatars! Exploring and Building Virtual Worlds on the Internet. Berkeley, California: Peachpit Press. and DiPaola, Steve. 1998-2005. "Steve DiPaola: A Body of Work (Web Site)."
v Much of the history of multimedia has been lost to history, in part because it has not been recorded in legitimate publications, and in part because many of the early publications that covered this material, such as short-lived multimedia trade magazines, have been lost. In the mid-1990’s, PC-makers began bundling software with consumer hardware. Myst, along with Compton’s Encyclopedia, were early CD’s that came free with such hardware. Many business analysts at that time, surprised by their failure to anticipate the boom in home PC sales, attributed the market success of the hardware to this practice of ‘bundling’. In some web forums, you can see passing references to receiving Myst free with ones first PC, etc. However, I was unable to locate any official publication that made note of this phenomenon.
vi For more on the history of Myst, also see http://www.tiscali.co.uk/games/Myst/history1.html as well as the extensive fan-created Wikipedia entry on the game at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myst.
vii For reasons of authenticity, all direct quotes from study participants are quoted verbatim from text chat or transcribed from speech. Quoted text will observe the spelling conventions of the speaker, including any grammatical or spelling errors produced.
viii Uru’s former community manager was interviewed several times with respect to this research.
ix This information was culled from interviews with Uru staff.
x In some worlds, although rarely among TGUers, players can often have numerous different avatar characters within a single subscription account, each of which has a unique appearance and personality. When There.com had a special on free accounts, many players created ‘twin’ avatars, identical in appearance and with similar names to their main avatar. Through a special trick that allowed you to log into two different accounts off the same computer, players were able to run both avatars concurrently. Players could park their twin avatars in other locations, or even, in some cases, play two simultaneous games of Spades at the same event. Even for players who made entirely new (sometimes trans-gendered) avatars, it was generally clear that this was a secondary character, what role-playing gamers would call an ‘alt’.
xi ‘Cosplay’, or costume play is a popular adult pastime in Japan. It’s manifestations run the gamut from dressing up as animé, manga and video game characters, to ‘The Matrix Offline’, a ‘smartmob’ (large-scale mobile phone instigated action) in which hundreds of Japanese men boarded Tokyo subways dressed as agents from the film, the Matrix. For more on Cosplay, see the work of Japanese media scholar Machiko Kusahara.
xii Summer camp in general seems to be an under-studied phenomenon. A cursory search on Google Scholar revealed only one scholarly publication on the topic of the sociology of summer camp, ‘Playing for privilege an ethnography of play in a summer camp’, a Canadian publication by Z.R. Cohen. I was unable to find any other reference to either this publication or its author. There were a number of other references to articles having to do with the health, educational and economic impacts of summer camp, especially on children with medical conditions such as cancer or asthma, or children with disabilities.
xiii There has been some writing by games researchers concerning flow, and responses to these positions will be integrated into the third part of this thesis.
Celia Pearce & Artemesia Communities of Play-v.06 Page