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

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Virtual Worlds/Real Communities

Now that we have surveyed the terrain, we might want to look at some core concepts around the notion of “communities of play.” As we’ve established, the communities of networked play that concern this research exist within a variety of different types of “virtual worlds,” some of which can be characterized as games. As we’ve established, during the period of time during which this research was conducted, online games and virtual worlds have gone from a niche audience of computer aficionados to a decidedly mainstream practice. And although millions of players now spend time in these environments, practices of play within virtual worlds continue to be maligned within the mainstream culture and in particular within the news media. Some of this has to do with a misconception of terms, so I wish to spend a little time on terminology in order to set the stage for the research and its outcomes.
The term with which ethnographers and sociologists of virtual worlds grapple with the most is the term “virtual.” The word “virtual” is highly problematic, contested, and continuously in flux, as illustrated by this random sampling of recent dictionary definitions:


1. Being something in effect even if not in reality or not conforming to the generally accepted definition of the term;

2. Used to describe a particle whose existence is suggested to explain observed phenomena but is not proven or directly observable;

3. Simulated by a computer for reasons of economics, convenience, or performance;

4. Used to describe a technique of moving data between storage areas or media to create the impression that a computer has a storage capacity greater than it actually has.

Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation, by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. (USA)


  1. Existing or resulting in essence or effect though not in actual fact, form, or name: the virtual extinction of the buffalo.

  2. Existing in the mind, especially as a product of the imagination. Used in literary criticism of a text.

3. Computer Science. Created, simulated, or carried on by means of a computer or computer network: virtual conversations in a chatroom.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition; © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company (USA).


1. (before noun) Almost a particular thing or quality:

Ten years of incompetent government had brought about the virtual collapse of the country's economy.

War in the region now looks like a virtual certainty.

2. Describes something that can be done or seen using a computer and therefore without going anywhere or talking to anyone:

virtual shopping/banking

Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary, © Cambridge University Press 2003 (UK).

Needless to say, these widely varying and notably inconsistent definitions do nothing to bring clarity to this discussion. The last definition also highlights the challenges in working with terms whose “official” usage is still highly contested, if not entirely incorrect.
A clarification of the etymology of the expression is probably the most useful avenue to a more fruitful discussion. The term “virtual reality” in its original sense, is used to describe high-end real-time 3D environments, generally accessed via sensory immersion techniques, such as head-mounted displays or panoramic screens, usually but not always in single-user applications. These had their earliest applications in the early 1980’s in computer-aided design and flight simulation applications, and came into the popular culture through novels such as Neuromancer and Snow Crash, and films such as The Lawnmower Man and Johnny Mmemonic. Virtual reality is distinguished from other forms of computer animation in that they are described as “real time 3D,” meaning that an individual can navigate through a simulated three-dimensional space and the position and movement of objects will change based on her orientation towards them. While this was once an arcane and expensive enterprise, confined to corporate, academic and military labs, the majority of today’s digital games, which involve navigating through a virtual three-dimensional environments, could be characterized as a form of virtual reality. The term “virtual world” has come into more recent use to refer to multiplayer, real-time 3D online environments that are accessed via consumer-grade computer hardware over the Internet. I have also introduced the term “extra-virtual” to describe activities that happen outside the virtual world but index or relate back to it.
The term “virtual community” has gained popularity in common usage as a way to describe communities whose members interact with each other via a network (Rheingold 1993). However well-meaning, this term suggests that mediated communities are in some way “not”—or “less than”—“real.” I would argue that while the online “worlds” may be virtual in terms of the nature of their existence being confined to a computer screen, the relationships that form between people within these screen-based worlds reach well beyond the screen and inform direct and mediated social interactions of players, which are no less real than relationships that form in the so-called “real world.”
It would be easy to get side-tracked here into a philosophical debate about what is “real” and what is “virtual,” the many philosophical analysis written about this topic. (REFS: Heim, Beaudrillard, Klastrup, Ryan, Benedikt, Stone) But such a debate is well beyond the scope of this book, which concerns itself with the lived practice of inhabitants of virtual worlds, and their own interpretations of the meanings of that practice. Anthropologist Tom Boellstorff calls this “virtually human,” pointing out that inhabiting a virtual world, far from being “post-human” and potentially alienating, actually highlights our humanness in interesting and unique ways. He also adds “…virtual worlds show us that, under our very noses, our ‘real’ lives have been virtual all along. It is in being virtual that we are human: since it is human ‘nature’ to experience life through the prism of culture, human being has always been virtual being.” (REF Boellstorff p.5)
For purposes of specificity, and to avoid falling into these types of debates I have chosen the terms “distributed community,” and, more specifically, “play community,” to describe groups who assemble for the purpose of social play. This mitigates the potential impression that the individuals who inhabit virtual worlds are themselves virtual. Indeed they are quite real, and their relationships to each other are no less real than bonds formed in the “physical” world.
Emergent Cultures

The emergent properties of real-world cultures have long been a topic of interest to historians, economists, sociologists, anthropologists and urban planners. Urban historian Lewis Mumford described and mapped out patterns of growth in European cities, radiating from a central core, usually a cathedral. (Mumford 1961) Urbanist Jane Jacobs, in her famous critique of 1950s urban planning policies, spoke about the ways in which urban, mixed-use densities promote and hinder emergent behavior, both positive and negative. (Jacobs 1961) Thomas Schelling described this in economic terms as “systems that lead to aggregate results that the individual neither intends nor needs to be aware of.” To demonstrate how such a system might work, he created a simplistic model of racial segregation using a rule-based, checkerboard simulation. Individual agents of two binary types were said to more happy when neighboring agents of their own group. Consequently, the outcome over time of a series of proximity moves would result in increased segregation, regardless of whether the agents were deliberately segregationist. He used this model to show how segregation in ghettos can self-organize in an emergent, bottom-up fashion rather than through deliberate or institutionalized exclusion. (Schelling 1971)

Contemporary approaches to human cultural and historical development have taken a similar complex system approach, and have also reconfigured how we think about the notion of “progress.” The now outmoded idea of “cultural evolution,” which suggests that some societies and “civilizations” are somehow “more evolved” and hence “better” than others, is being challenged in various ways by interpretations that frame society and history in terms of the dynamics of complex systems. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond argued for a new reading of the historical domination of some cultures over others as an emergent process arising from the intersection of available resources and technologies, geographical conditions, and biological processes (such as disease), rather than an essentialist predisposition for superiority. Diamond illustrates the role of feedback loops, such as European exposure to and consequent immunity to disease, which served as a powerful, if inadvertent, biological weapon against the indigenous cultures of the Americas. (REF: Diamond)
Manual De Landa argues for a “realist” philosophy of “nonlinear history” and rejects the presupposed linear outcome of evolution, also an emergent process. Like Diamond, he critiques the notion of the dominance of “Western culture” as “progressive,” and looks instead at history as a possibility space that does not necessarily produce inevitable outcomes. He describes emergence as “unplanned results of human agency.” And while some decisions made by individuals are constrained by the goals of an organization, in other cases, “…what matters is not the planned results of decision making, but the unintended consequences of human decisions.” (De Landa 1997) De Landa argues that emergent properties, which can be characterized as the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, cannot be studied using reductive methods:
These emergent (or “synergistic”) properties belong the interactions between parts, so it follows that a top-down analytical approach that begins with the whole and dissects it into its constituent parts (an ecosystem into a species, a society into institutions), is bound to miss precisely those properties. In other words, analyzing a whole into parts and then attempting to model it by adding up the components will fail to capture any property that emerged from complex interactions, since the effect of the latter may be multiplicative (e.g., mutual enhancement) and not just additive. (pp.17-18)
Historically, emergent cultures can take hundreds or even thousands of years to develop. Yet as Diamond points out, the advent of new technology can rapidly accelerate these processes. Guns, for instance, allowed for much more rapid colonial expansion and accelerated the rate of genocide throughout the “new world.” (Diamond 1997) Technologies of transport, as McLuhan has pointed out, accelerated the movement of goods and people across the developing United States. (McLuhan 1964) The Internet is just such a technology, and emergent social processes that might take years to play out in real life, such as the example of inter-game immigration used in this book, can happen in a matter of months, weeks, or even days. The speed of communication enabled by the Internet allows for a kind of “snowball” effect in terms of the feedback dynamics discussed earlier. People tend to follow trends among their peers, not, as some might cynically suppose because people behave like “sheep,” but because, as Schelling’s model suggests, they wish to maintain a connection to a community. Thus, as with his segregation example, we find numerous instances of humans gathering, moving and assembling based on a desire to join or to remain proximal a community with which they identify.
Emergent cultures in games have existed from the inception of multiplayer play spaces. Players have been staging weddings in MUDs and MOOs and MMOWs such as Active Worlds since the beginning. In the late 1990s the phenomenon of “eBaying” began to emerge, in which players of Ultima Online and other multiplayer games began to sell game accounts as well as virtual objects and real estate. Supported by an extra-virtual system, the eBay auction site, they were able to emergently spawn an entire real-world economy around the trade of virtual characters, commodities and currency. This emergent phenomenon inspired economist Edward Castronova’s now-famous economic analysis of EverQuest, in which he determined its imaginary universe, Norrath, to have the real world’s 77th largest economy. (REF: Castronova 2001) By analyzing exchange rates and trade volumes on the online black market for virtual goods and currency, he was able to calculate a “gross domestic product” of Norrath that placed it on an economic scale with real-world nations. Castronova’s research is itself emergent, the outcome of emergent behavior on a large scale, precipitating emergent behavior on a smaller scale. Castronova’s groundbreaking work has inspired a growing interst in the economies of virtual worlds. This interest has reached as far as the U.S. Federal Reserve, which is investigating both the tax and regulatory ramifications of virtual economies, and the ways in which they can be used as research contexts for the study of real economic patterns in society. (REF)
While “eBaying,” as the practice is called, is banned by most games, the black market for virtual items and currency not only flourishes, but has spawned an entire industry. In 2007, journalist Julian Dibbell, known for his early studies of the text-based world LambdaMOO, visited a “gold mining” factory in China. Here low-wage workers, usually young men, live and work in barracks-style housing, spending their days playing World of Warcraft and mining its currency, which their employers in turn then trade on the black market for real-world profit. Dibbell noted that when these mean finish work, they go to the facility’s cybercafé, where they enjoy their time off by playing World of Warcraft. This practice has also precipitated new emergent social behaviors within the game. Players believed to be Chinese gold farmers are shunned with a form of racism that conflates the real (Chinese) and virtual ethnicities and identities (gold farmers, and the most common game characters types used for this purpose.) Second Life has brilliantly leveraged these economic trends by sanctioning the trade of real-world money for its virtual currency, in both directions, and has as a result attained a huge amount of publicity as players have begun to make their real-world living through its virtual economy. This policy precipitated the emergence of an in-world banking industry, and the eventual collapse of one of Second Life’s leading virtual banks. As in real life cultures, the outcome was a run on banks, to the tune of $750,000 in real-world financial losses. All of these examples can be viewed as emergent: they were the result of individual agency, bottom-up actions that aggregated into overall patterns of social behavior.
While some forms of emergence in games happen as a result of an aggregate of individual actions, others are more deliberate, and resemble real-world grass-roots organizing. One example is a game-wide protest that was staged in World of Warcraft in 2005. (Castronova 2005, Taylor 2005.) Warriors of all races, dissatisfied with what it felt were unfair statistics associated with the class, gathered at urban centers and even blocked a bridge to demand a change to the very software they inhabited. In the process, they managed to down a the server, which did not have the capacity to process so many players in a single virtual location at the same time. Game operator Blizzard, in the typically top-down approach of governments and corporations, squelched any further uprisings by banning players found to be involved in or planning in-world protests. In other words, the company took the stance of a totalitarian nation by making civil disobedience punished by virtual death. Because Blizzard is a company and not a nation, players/customers/citizens, however you wish to frame them, had no rights whatsoever in this situation.
This totalitarian stance is common to MMOG companies, from the full ownership of all IP created by players within the game, to the banning of a variety of fan culture practices, from virtual currency exchange to fan fiction. As a result, ethicists have begun to ask the questions: “What sorts of rights, exactly, do avatars have? And how might these be reinforced? Do we need some kind of bill of avatar rights?” (REF) One thing seems to be clear: again and again, people inhabiting avatars inevitably arrive at the conclusion that they have rights, often driven by the rights they are accustomed to enjoying in their real-world culture. American players, for instance, expect the right to free speech as well as self-determination. These desires and customs often come into conflict with virtual world owners, who are more preoccupied with business concerns, such as maintaining a high profit level, and protecting themselves legally. (REF: Taylor) Corporations that control virtual worlds will tolerate a certain measure of emergent behavior as long as it does not threaten their bottom line. Consequently, griefing, which harms the enjoyability of games and the rights of players to go unmolested, is generally tolerated to a certain extent, while mass protests and virtual currency exchange are not.

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