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

Regardless of whether a virtual world is classified as a “game,” a “metaverse,” or merely a “social world,” they all seem to share in common the following key characteristics

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Regardless of whether a virtual world is classified as a “game,” a “metaverse,” or merely a “social world,” they all seem to share in common the following key characteristics:

  • Persistent: Identities, structures and objects remain the world and evolve over time; the world remains “on” at all times and actions within it are cumulative.

  • Inhabitable: The world is inhabitable, meaning may enter the world and live inside it. Marie-Laure Ryan points out that this is distinguishing characteristic from literature and most other media in general. (REF)

  • Populous: A virtual world is by definition a social world; this is one of its distinguishing characteristics from most traditional immersive virtual reality applications, which are by-and-large a single user experience. Thus, they can be inhabited in real time, or asynchronously, by a large population of users. While this population does not have to be massive in all virtual worlds, those with the extra M, such as MMOGs and MMOWs, are by definition, massive, in other words, populated by large numbers of people, typically in the thousands or even millions.

  • Maintain Persistent Representation/Identities: All virtual worlds include player representations, also known as avatars, which are persistent and which also evolve over time. One of the key properties of these worlds is that the avatar name is fixed: while you may be able to change your appearance or other aspects of your character, your avatar name is primarily identifier, your virtual fingerprint as it were.

  • Worldness: Virtual worlds have the sense of “worldness,” by which we mean they represent an entire, self-contained fictional or synthetic world of significant scope and size with consistent world rules and aesthetics, although in MMOWs, the worldness may be defined as much by players as by designers.

  • Contiguous: A virtual world is typically geographically contiguous, and possesses a sense of spatial continuity, or a reasonable premise or breaking that continuity. Games sometimes use the premise of an instance, in which a certain part of the world is presented to a selected group of players for a quest or mission. However, even instances typically have some sort of physical relationship to other elements in the world. In some worlds, areas can be conceptually contiguous through a fictional construct, such as the linking book in the case of Myst games, or interplanetary travel in a science fiction games. They may also be contiguous through scale shifts, such as the tiny room a player build inside a television in LambdaMoo.

  • Explorable: The contiguous space of virtual worlds also makes them explorable; players may go wherever they want, although their movements may be constrained by their level or status in the world, or by available transportation modes. Indeed, traversing the world can sometimes be challenging or involve complex mechanisms. Furthermore, exploration is often “real time” so that the time it takes to move from place to place is directly related to the distance traveled. Unlike films, which use time compression to remove the boring stretches of story or distance, in virtual world, travel happens in real time. Transportation modes can be used however to make exploration more efficient or even more scenic. In World of Warcraft, players must walk for sometimes hours to get from one area of the world to another. Obtaining a mount at a higher level significantly shortens travel duration. “Flight points” throughout the world allow players to fly between fixed locations on rented creatures, while viewing areas of the world below them. Players can also take a subway train between the main Human and Dwarf cities in the world. Travel between continents is done by boat. In the original Lineage, there was no compression to sea travel; you sat on the boat for the entire duration of the passage. World of Warcraft has introduced time compression to shorten the duration of what is typically a fairly uneventful trip. Most virtual worlds also use portals of some kind. Myst games use the construct of the “linking book” that takes players between game levels, some of which may be geographically connected. In roleplaying games teleports can be earned as a spell or through collecting a special rune or scroll. In social MMOWs, players can typically teleport at will and even summon friends directly to their location.

All of these characteristics transend genres and can be applied across anything that is classified as a virtual world wheter it is an MMOG or an MMOW. The next section shall concern itself with the distinctions between these two sub-genres of virtual world.

Ludic vs. Paidiac Worlds
It would be possible to generate an entire PhD thesis on the definition of the word “game.” Many have indeed attempted to define this term in detail, and the existing bodies of scholarship possess a wealth of game taxonomies that attempt to present the fundamental resolution of what is not and is not a “game.” (REFS) While these arguments and their resolution are not within the scope of this book, because this study includes virtual worlds that are both games and clearly “not games” by anyone’s definition, it will be helpful to articulate the distinctions and similarities, especially where they relate to emergent processes.
It might be helpful to begin with a generally accepted definition of play. We have already introduced Johan Huizinga, considered the father of “ludology” (the study of play), who defines the formal characteristics of play as:
a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means. (Huizinga 1950). (pp.#)
For the purposes of this study, this definition is perfectly serviceable, although I shall argue later against the assertion that “no profit can be gained by it;” this point was later expanded on by Caillois who argues that play is "an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money." (REF: Caillois, p#)
The notion of a game standing ”outside ordinary life” is central, and games are also frequently characterized taking place within a “magic circle,” or a play frame, in which participants have arrive at a mutual agreement to put aside everyday rules and social agreements for the time being to abide by a shared set of constructed rules, although these rules can and often are subverted or bent in the process. This “magic circle” can be a completely amorphous, abstract construct, as adopted by children in a street or playground, can be constrained by a ritual framework or context, such as Mardi Gras, can be defined by a “boundary object” of some sort, such as a ball (REF: Star and Greisemer), or can be encircled by physical or mediated boundaries, such as a sports field, a game board, or an online game or virtual world.
Caillois, writing later, elaborates on Huizinga’s points within his own definition, describing play as:
1) Free (not obligatory), 2) Separate (circumscribed within the limits of time and space), 3) Uncertain (outcomes are not determined in advance), 4) Unproductive, 5) Governed by rules, and 6) Make-believe (a ‘second reality’ or ‘free unreality’.) (REF, p.#)
While the universal applicability of these six qualities to all play activity is potentially debatable, they provide a suitable starting point for a discussion of MMOGs and MMOWs. The two exceptions that are countered by the outcomes of this study are 2, which suggests that games must be cut off from the “real world” or indeed from other games, and 4, again, the assertion that play is inherently unproductive.
While Huizinga’s study focuses primarily on the goal-oriented, constrained type of play that is often termed “ludic” play structure, Caillois also introduces the notion of “paidia,” which is defined an open-ended form of play that typically not goal- or rule-driven.
As noted earlier, both Huizinga and Caillois are men of their eras in that they tend to trivialize or even ignore female play practices. However, Caillois mitigates this somewhat by introducing concept pf paidia, an open-ended play form that does not necessarily require a goal or competitive framework. The paidia concept certainly embraces a wider and more diverse play styles than Huizinga’s somewhat narrow ludic notion of agonistic play, which is very debate-, combat-, and legislature-heavy, and thus, highly androcentric. Nonetheless, with this caveat, these two definitions, combined with Caillois’ paidia concept, seem to provide us with an a broad and adequate enough starting point from which to analyze both MMOGs and MMOWs as play spaces whose primary function is to create an engaging context for social play within an imaginary or “virtual” world.
Drawing from the aforementioned, and using a hybrid of several derivative definitions, most games researchers seem to agree that a game is a formal system for structured play constrained by a set of rules that prescribe the means for achieving a specified goal. (REF: Salen & Zimmerman?, Suits, Pearce) Bernard Suits humorously but accurately characterizes games as the most inefficient means of performing a task. (REF: Suits 1967) From here, debate takes over. Must a game’s goal be definitive, that is, must there be a “state” which represents the completion of the goal? Must the outcome of gameplay produce a “winner?” Must a game’s goal or even its rules be articulated up-front or can they be discovered through the process of gameplay?
These questions become particularly contentious in the context of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), most of whose goals and rules are seldom explicitly stated up front. Moreover, the over-arching goal is typically based on the open-ended, though linear, objective of “leveling.” This consists of increasing the numerical/statistical values associated a with player’s experience and skills in the game, with no conclusive state of “winning,” or for that matter “losing,” although there may be provisional micro-win/lose states associated with a particular quest or task. Players of MMOGs, for instance, are engaged in a constant cycle of death and resurrection, but few of these games possess the property of “perma-death,” a permanent lose in the game. In fact, losing or even winning are anathema to most MMOGs. Because they are subscription-based, they rely on an economic formula that precludes the closure that is typically associated with “winning” or “losing” in traditional games, be they analog or digital.
MMOGs can also contain individual goals that differ from the main goals, player- or role- or group-specific goals, as well as “one-off” missions or quests. Players can and do often augment the prescribed goals with meta-goals of their own, such as becoming a successful merchant or creating an über-guild. These meta-goals can be categorized as forms of emergence.

The primary distinction between MMOGs and non-game MMOWs is that the latter do not present the player with a prescribed overarching goal. Rather, they provide a range of activities and options for social interaction, including games, and often include affordances for players to contribute to building the world itself. Thus, drawing from Huizinga and Caillois, we might define the MMOG, goal-oriented, rule-based environment as a “ludic” world and the open-ended MMOW or “metaverse” as a “paidiac” world. These non-rule-based, paidaic virtual worlds are characterized more as sandboxes, in which players engage in open-ended unstructured play, although they typically allow for more structured play to emerge at players’ discretion. Such MMOW sandboxes often include structured “games” within their larger open-play framework, but due to the absence of an overriding goal, these worlds cannot be categorized as a game in the strict, formal sense.

All virtual worlds, whether they are games are not, have structures and even rules. “World rules” take the form of player constraints, as well as the world’s properties, its physics, potentially its cosmology or world view, its “karma system,” or causal structure, its feedback systems, its communication mechanisms and interfaces, its economic structure and transaction mechanisms and the like. These world rules constrain both the ways in which players can interact with and the ways in which they may contribute to constructing the world; they also dictate the parameters of social interaction and group formation.
In MMOGs, these “world rules” may or may not be tied to the game’s goal. “World rules” generally manifest as player capabilities within the world, such as transportation modes. Is the world primarily a pedestrian environment (as most virtual worlds are)? Can players acquire a mount, or utilize public transportation or a flying vehicle? Can they fly unaided? Or can they obtain a teleport, either from another player or by marking a place they’ve already visited? Can they swim in water, walk on or under it, or will they drown if fully submerged? Even if a virtual world has no explicit behavior constraints, the design of the software can introduce limits to player actions, which can also have an effect on social structures. For instance, as touched on earlier, in World of Warcraft, you cannot fly (via rented Griffin or Bat, depending on your race) to any location that you have not first visited on foot. At level 40, players also may have access to a mount, which they must purchase for a relatively high sum in virtual currency. This creates a kind of “class system” around mobility, but also opens up the opportunity for escort parties to help lower-level players obtain “flight points” that enable them to travel by air.
“World rules” can also come in the form of feedback or consequences. Can your avatar die or not? If so, does it resurrect (few games include “perma-death,” preferring elaborate methods of resurrection to create a type of restart)? If your avatar can resurrect, does this mean the loss of any possessions you are carryng? Do you have to return to your body from the resurrection point, or does the resurrection process include reclaiming your virtual body? Some players may also possess “rez” spells that allow them to resurrect felled teammates and reunite them with their bodies on the spot, making them valuable team members in a group mission.
World rules also include: communication protocols—Does the system allow for asynchronous communication such as in-world email or forums?—group formation protocols—Can I belong to more than one group?—and economics—Are there currencies, mechanisms for in-person or remote trading, such as in-game auction sites. Is there a mail system that allows me to send gifts or messages asynchronously to other players?
While both MMOGs and MMOWs have “world rules” that describe the world and its properties and some constraints of player actions, MMOGs alone possess “game rules,” meaning rules that dictate what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed accomplish given goals or tasks.
In both cases, players engage in a high level of experimentation, exploring not only the world but its rules and properties. It is at this intersection that we begin to observe emergent behavior. For instance, in, avatars cannot die. Therefore, the “avie sacrifice,” where players jump off a high cliff and tumble down a series of hills and rocks, has become a popular sport. Part of the enjoyment of this activity is the bizarre ways that the game physics interact with character animations as players plummet downhill. This is a classic example of emergent behavior where players discover and subvert an aspect of world rules for their own enjoyment.

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