Anthony Giddens' theory of structuration maybe gets less frequent use than it deserves in part because it is ultimately rather commonsensical. Agency and structure are a loop, in his view; we can only understand why things happen in human societies by combining an attention to the microscale of individual practice and action and the macroscale of social structure across broad expanses of time and space.
A fairly large percentage of my interests in synthetic worlds ultimately come back to structuration as Giddens describes it. In fact, I think synthetic worlds are the ideal focal point for a study of structuration in action. Try to apply it to the unmanageable complexity of a given human society in motion, and the kinds of practical limits that have to be placed on the analysis can feel arbitrary. But synthetic worlds come with manageable boundaries that are intrinsic to them: the rules or structures governing social and economic activity are knowable, the cultural histories behind and within the players are specific, the economics of the industry that produces them are specifiable, and you can study the evolution of a synthetic world from an initial condition in a way that is never possible in the ongoing history of real-world societies.
So with this prologue in mind, a sketchy report from the field, in this case, Lord of the Rings Online.
I'll probably have more to say about LOTRO over the next month or so here at TN, but for the moment, a narrow point. Turbine has invested considerable effort trying to get the feel of their gameworld to match the mood and feel of Tolkien's world. Hardcore devotees of the lore aren't likely to be satisfied, but I'm much more impressed than I expected to be, particularly with the way that the gameplay interweaves with the storyline of the first book of the LOTR trilogy.
One consequence of this commitment is that the available emotes in the game are much more visually and expressively restrained than those in World of Warcraft. Yes, you can do a handstand and a few other mildly silly things, but /dance makes your avatar do nothing more than clap and tap his feet. No elf pole-dances. There are some nice combinatorial emotes that involve inventory items, primarily smoking pipe-weed and playing instruments.
This is completely appropriate, given that LOTR is not a particularly whimsical fiction (with the exception of some of the hobbit-material, and LOTRO has plenty of hobbit hijinks in its quests), whereas Warcraft has a long history of whimsical and silly threads running through it.
I'm interested in the consequences for player behavior, however, and how that might be an interesting illustration of structuration in action. In my experience so far, when in groups doing quests, you see very little of some of the behavior that is common in WoW. In WoW, when players are bored for various reasons, the use of emotes tends to rise, as do what I would call "nervous action" (such as rogues jumping around and around a group of players who are waiting for another party member to arrive). In LOTRO, from what I can see, a group of players who are bored waiting for a party member to arrive rarely use emotes except for smoking pipeweed. If there is "nervous action", it tends to be moving out from the instance entrance to kill nearby mobs.
Now assuming that this is in fact an accurate observation on my part--and I fully expect that some commenters may report that they see huge groups of champions jumping around and doing handstands outside of the Great Barrow--here's a case where we could probably talk intelligibly about specific kinds of explanations that would variably emphasize the prior structure of the gameworld, the contingent agency of players, or the contingent intersection of the two over historical time.
1. Maybe the emotes ("structure") intrinsically direct themselves to more naturalistic uses consistent with the "magic circle" of the fiction because of how they look and relate to the gameworld's overall aesthetic. Maybe they contain within themselves a clear message from the designers about their use, and make clear that doing handstands in front of barrow-wights while you wait for a lore-master is, well, not really the right thing to be doing.
2. Maybe the players have a prior cultural understanding of the aesthetic of Tolkien that informs their sense of what appropriate expressive action within a Tolkienesque world ought to be. They therefore know that hobbits and dwarves can be silly, but that warriors from Gondor and high elves rarely are.
3. Maybe the intersection of the structure of the emotes and the orientation of players is producing a culture of gameplay over time in LOTRO, that the more you go to instances and don't see a lot of silly emoting, the less you're inclined to do silly emoting yourself or get a sense that it's not on.
4. Maybe LOTRO is drawing players because of the core mythos who have little experience with the conventions of synthetic worlds and therefore don't know what an emote is. (Last night in the Great Barrows, I ran into several players who didn't know that they had emotes, so anecdotally this seems possible to me.)
5. Maybe players aren't bored yet, and therefore aren't exploring the small paratextual or secondary systems of play available within the gameworld, and therefore the culture of emote-usage in LOTRO is still very much in flux.