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

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Editorial Notes: To be written. Please feel free to insert any suggestions about the introduction and its contents here.

PART I: Games, Community and Emergent Cultures


Play Communities

In the Well-Played Game, designer, philosopher of play, and co-founder of the New Games movement, Bernard De Koven describes the play community as a group of people who have made a commitment to play together, a commitment to play in a particular way that is the unique product of their collective play interests and style, and whose desire to play together is easily as important as the specific game they are playing. They are willing to bend rules or even make up new rules to accommodate each other, and they may carry the specific player’s philosophy of their community from one game to another. Rather than judging the players by how well they play the game, a play community judges the game by how well it accommodates its players. In some sense, their experience is transcendent. They have “discovered a relationship between the well-played game and the well-lived life.” (DeKoven 1978)

Play communities are nothing new. They surround us in many forms, from chess clubs, to sports leagues, to summer camps, to bridge clubs; from tabletop role-playing groups such Dungeons & Dragons, to live-action role-playing communities, such as civil war reenactment and renaissance fairs. In the latter cases, part of what draws a play community together is a shared imagination space in which they can express aspects of their personas that might not find expression in other realms of everyday life. This form of expression can be seen in tribal and traditional cultures in the more serious form of ritual. (Schechner 1988b) (Turner 1982)
In the West, particularly in the United States, with a few exceptions, adult play tends to be marginalized. Ritually sanctioned events such as Halloween and Mardi Gras create an allowance for anyone to engage in provisional, short-term, play community, although in the latter case, year-round communities have also formed in preparation for annual Mardi Gras celebrations. By and large, adult play communities that form around sports or card games tend to be more socially acceptable, while those who engage in role-playing communities tend to be viewed as somehow outside the norm, the best example of this being “Trekkies” who engage in role-play around the television series Star Trek.
With the emergence of digital networks, whole new varieties of adult play communities have begun to appear, enabled by global networks and increasingly popular online games and virtual worlds. Networks enable these communities to grow at a significantly faster pace, and significantly larger scale, than those unenabled by networks. Because they are typically geographically unconstrained, they also allow play communities to form beyond national boundaries.
Marshall McLuhan coined the term “global village” to describe the shared storytelling space of television. In a similar way, online games have created a kind of “global playground” where people can now interact dynamically in real time and build new and increasingly complex forms of play community.
The purpose of this book is to look at how these play communities are formed and sustained, and in particular, to study the intersection between a play community and the global playgrounds it inhabits. What is it about play environments themselves that promote certain types of communities to form? How do players both leverage and subvert these playgrounds to their own ends? And what happens with a play community develops such a strong commitment to its collective relationships and identity that it transcends the very context of its formation and begins to traverse into other playgrounds, building and maintaining its own unique play culture?

Multiplayer Games: The “Next Big Thing” Since 3500 BC

While massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) are lauded as the newest and fastest- growing genre of computer games, they could as much be viewed as a return to the natural order of things. In fact, the advent of single-player genres as the central paradigm for games is an historical aberration of digital technology. Even the first commercial arcade game, Pong, was multiplayer (Herz 1997; Pearce 1997) as were its antecedents, such as Tennis for Two, which was played on an oscilloscope. (REF) Prior to the introduction of the computer as a game-playing platform, virtually all games played by hundreds of cultures for thousands of years, with a handful of exceptions, were multiplayer.
From a cultural perspective, games have a checkered past. In Birth of the Chess Queen, historian Marilyn Yalom follows the migration and development of the game of chess across epochs, cultures and geographies, tracing the emergence of the queen as the dominant piece on the board to the time of Queen Isabella and the Age of Discovery. In each of its cultural contexts, from India to Islam to Western Europe, the game vacillated from high culture to low, from the game of Kings, to the source of social ills such as gambling, violence and even sex. (Yalom 2004)
The commercial board game of the industrial revolution has had a similarly checkered history. Early board games of the 19th Century were surprisingly didactic. The first published in the U.S., Mansion of Happiness, designed by a woman, was a didactic “serious game” designed to teach children values such as prudence, charity and thrift. The game used a “teetotum,” a kind of numbered top, because, at this time, dice were associated with gambling and vice. Board games of this era arose in the socio-economic context of an emerging middle class and its family “salon.” (Orbanes 2003) (Hofer 2003) Other play practices of this era included dollhouses, predominately geared to females, and the male equivalent, the miniature war game, a historical tradition whose resurgence in the early 20th Century can be traced to science fiction author H.G. Wells in the early 20th Century (Wells 1913). This era also saw the growth of hobby culture as epitomized by the decidedly industrial model railroad. Throughout this early period, board games were largely informative and edifying, with series such as “The World’s Educator” and games such as Authors, What’s His Name (a trivia game), and The Dissected Map of the United States, a geography game. (Hofer 2003)
The first board game to be patented, designed by Lizzie Magie in 1904, was also a “serious game” with an activist bent. Based on the economic theories of Henry George, the game was designed to demonstrate how the rental system benefited landlords and exploited tenants. With the rise of capitalist values, this simple game, in which players encircled the board based on dice-rolls accumulating property, eventually evolved into the pro-capitalist Monopoly. (Orbanes 2003) The turn-of-the Twentieth Century saw a shift of direction with the publication of games such as Finance, Banking Commerce, Railroad and Department Store, that celebrated the emerging capitalist ethos of Industrial Revolution in America. (Hofer 2003)
Throughout the first three quarters of the Twentieth Century, games continued to be viewed as a social, parlor-room activity, although the television soon vied for the attention of middle class families. It was not until the advent of the computer game that the single-player game emerged as the dominant cultural form, although the earliest of these were also multiplayer. Tennis for Two, an early game played on an oscilloscope and Space War, generally (although mistakenly) credited as the first computer game, both had multiplayer interaction. Even the Magnavox Odyssey, the first videogame console, developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was envisioned as a two-player experience, merging the television and the board game to create a new form of family entertainment. Early console games in Japan were developed by card and toy companies, with the “Famicom,” later called the Nintendo Entertainment System, leading the pack in the early 1980s. Some early arcade games, such as Pong, were also multiplayer, but over time, perhaps due to the complexity of the technology, perhaps due to the unavailability of networks, console and arcade games to a decidedly more solitary trajectory. It is not until the introduction of computer networks that we see a return to the dominant historical paradigm of multiplayer games.

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