Structuration, Synthetic Worlds-Style: LOTRO and Emotes

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.

To wit:

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.


Comments on Structuration, Synthetic Worlds-Style: LOTRO and Emotes:

Thomas Malaby says:

Structuration FTW! Great stuff. All 5 seem like great candidates, and I'm sure most, if not all, of them apply to one degree or another. Deep qualitative work would be needed to generate a reliable set of claims about it, but it's great fodder for thinking through how these worlds are always in the process of becoming.

/goes off to explore LOTRO

/boggle: no Mac OS X version?!?

Posted May 26, 2007 1:13:04 PM | link

Adam Hyland says:

/reminds Dr. Malaby of the wonders of boot camp vis a vis the reticence of developers not blizzard to port games to the mac.

Posted May 26, 2007 10:07:12 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

Interesting. Having played all the Warcraft games prior to WoW, yeah... there's a strong stream of goofball juice running through them. Same in WoW. Orcs breakdancing. OK...

I'd be interested to hear, over time, if the less irreverent atmosphere of LOTRO bleeds through into more central play behaviors than just "what people do when they're standing around." For example, if there would be less ganking, griefing, etc.

If the system has fewer in-built breaks in the 4th wall, perhaps it strengthens the wall in general.

Posted May 26, 2007 11:50:04 PM | link

Rosemary says:

My brief experience in LoTRO fits best with 1 and 5, though I think all of your suggestions work. I was in a group last night in the Great Barrows. We had to wait for a sixth member, and so several group members (human and dwarf, in this case) starting smoking and doing handstands. We were impatient and a little bored. Then the dwarf says, "you realize we're doing this in the DEEPEST, DARKEST, SCARIEST place we've yet seen, right?" I do think that players in general are aware of the more serious atmosphere in this game.

But the genre has become well established enough, I think, that when you're in combat, it's hard to incorporate the combat mechanics with the story you're continuing via quests.

Posted May 27, 2007 12:06:30 PM | link

Steve Williams says:

I think 5 to a degree - when WOW started there wasn't a lot of nervous tics going on... but I think the "restrained nature" of these emotes simply cause people to not use them.

With the exception of my roleplayer cohorts who wax rhapsodic about how chairs work and listening to "Stairway to Heaven" on lutes, I've seen very little interest in emoting in this game compared to others I have played like WOW, EQ2, Vanguard, and SWG.

As a case in point, in most MMOs I have played, the practice of /wave or /bow-ing to someone when you run into them is nigh on the order of social contract, but in LOTRO I see very little of this.

By way of experiment, for the past week or so I've initiated emotes with people to see how they respond. Normally, if I do a few handstands and bows, the others in the group will follow suit and people will emote for a bit, but when I stop, they stop. This is especially true in front of places like the Barrows, where you can start a "cancer-cult" (as I call them) by simply running up and typing /smoke. Within a few seconds most of the people there will be smoking. Without an instigator though, I simply don't see it.

Finally, the nail in the coffin (for me) as to whether there is an interest in the emotes this game has to offer is the complete lack of "emote parties" to unlock the special emotes. If 100 people do a /handstand for you, I believe, you will unlock the new emote /juggle. There's a number of other emotes handled the same way. Normally, this sort of fluff would be seized on and organized methods of making the process of acquiring them be made highly organized. When it comes up in conversation, folks do seem to think it odd that no one has organized "emote parties", but the final analysis by most is simply that it's too much a bother to get another emote they won't use.

Now, displaying titles and the deeds system is another story. Pie-eating Champions get WAY more respect than they deserve....

Posted May 27, 2007 2:21:10 PM | link

Timothy Burke says:

I think Steve hits the nail on the head, at least as making me feel confident that I'm seeing what I think I'm seeing vis-a-vis a relative lack of emote usage in LOTRO. Normally players will avidly do whatever it takes to unlock features and marks of achievement or differentiation from other players. As Steve notes, in LOTRO, that's exactly what's going on with titles and deeds (particularly the one that you get for not dying as you level). But I have seen very few players working doggedly to unlock their emotes. That may indeed change as more players head towards the point where the quests become less and less available, but there's a major content update coming that is likely to keep players questing.

Posted May 27, 2007 4:45:06 PM | link

Synthetic says:

I commented about this at length my blog.

I don't know if what you are seeing is simply a reflection of the player base rather than something that Turbine has handed down through the game's setting.

I think the players that are inclined to wildly emote are (very very) generally "less mature", and are not affected by the game world's setting. In fact, these emotes seem to be an assertion of power, that you can break the social norms of the world. I would expect these same people would do the same thing in LOTRO.

Posted May 27, 2007 5:49:41 PM | link

JJ says:

Just personal observation...been playing LotRO since February. I never noticed any "nervous action," until I began to fellow regularly with two players. These are mature men with children, intense players but very enjoyable to converse with: humorous, kind and courteous. I noticed one would jump frequently in downtime, while waiting or traveling safe areas to reach quests--I immediately identified this in my mind as a "nervous tic" and assumed two things---one, that he must have played WoW (when I'd never played it myself or heard of this behavior!) and two, that he was just burning off excess energy the way a kid would jump around burning off physical energy. (In fact, he came to LotRO from EQ, not WoW.)

Otherwise, I have noticed a few--only a few--players exhibiting the jumping tic. Maybe there just isn't enough of an example to become a cultural norm. I do think this sort of behavior would spread easily by mimickry. After watching it I did it myself, but quickly dropped it after my thumb got tired.

Maybe Synthetic is right, and it's the more mature player base--but rather than psychologically mature, it may just be more physically mature and less inclined to extraneous expenditure of energy.

PS--In LotRO, a repetitive jumping tic has to be differentiated from accidental jumping which occurs when a loot box grabs focus during text typing. This happens all the time, players complain frequently about it on the forums. Any action such as loot/roll or mining while typing can cause the pop-up to grab focus from the text entry. The player continues typing and every space makes a jump.

A couple of random jumps are more likely to be a text-based accident than a tic. Jumping while running or truly repetitive jumping would be a behavior.

Posted May 27, 2007 7:54:33 PM | link

翻译公司 says:

Otherwise, I have noticed a few--only a few--players exhibiting the jumping tic. Maybe there just isn't enough of an example to become a cultural norm. I do think this sort of behavior would spread easily by mimickry. After watching it I did it myself, but quickly dropped it after my thumb got tired.

Maybe Synthetic is right, and it's the more mature player base--but rather than psychologically mature, it may just be more physically mature and less inclined to extraneous expenditure of energy.

PS--In LotRO, a repetitive jumping tic has to be differentiated from accidental jumping which occurs when a loot box grabs focus during text typing. This happens all the time, players complain frequently about it on the forums. Any action such as loot/roll or mining while typing can cause the pop-up to grab focus from the text entry. The player continues typing and every space makes a jump.

A couple of random jumps are more likely to be a text-based accident than a tic. Jumping while running or truly repetitive jumping would be a behavior.

Posted May 28, 2007 3:18:22 AM | link

翻译公司 says:

I don't know if what you are seeing is simply a reflection of the player base rather than something that Turbine has handed down through the game's setting.

I think the players that are inclined to wildly emote are (very very) generally "less mature", and are not affected by the game world's setting. In fact, these emotes seem to be an assertion of power, that you can break the social norms of the world. I would expect these same people would do the same thing in LOTRO.

Posted May 28, 2007 3:21:49 AM | link

VPN代理 says:

I think the players that are inclined to wildly emote are (very very) generally "less mature", and are not affected by the game world's setting. In fact, these emotes seem to be an assertion of power, that you can break the social norms of the world. I would expect these same people would do the same thing in LOTRO.

Posted May 30, 2007 2:50:59 AM | link

Esther says:

I've also commented on this, and am in the throes of writing a paper about the world sphere of LOTRO. I think Turbine have to some extent forced the roleplaying into different avenues (removing immersion breaking emotes - everyone has similar dances which fit with the world vision itself, for example). By also taking away the usual icebreakers - /smile /grin /welcome /hail, players are forced out of casual emoting and into more thought-out replies. I also think the deliniation of channels - with a specific OOC channel, which is crucial, not the main one (reclassfied into the more linguisticall specific 'regional' and 'advice' rather than 'general') is all part of controlling linguistic usage within the game in more productive ways, enforcing the idea of Tolkien's world, and minoritising out-of-character chatter

Posted May 30, 2007 5:41:35 AM | link

Kathy says:

I think it just attracts a more mature player, both in chronological age and attention span.

Posted May 30, 2007 9:35:22 AM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Esther: the precise delineation of chat channels is an interesting feature, and I think you're right that it plays a role in this.

Posted May 30, 2007 1:30:20 PM | link

Richard C. Mongler says:

Note to stuffy bloggers and comment authors: go read this article (see about halfway down the page) and take yourselves a little less seriously. Please. A little less intellectual masturbation in the form of excessively bombastic language would do us all some good.

~A Concerned Citizen of /b/

Posted May 31, 2007 2:09:40 AM | link

Timothy Burke says:

Nobody's making you read, Richard. You can pretty much find any kind of discussion in any kind of tone about games out there: go find what pleases you.

A little less assholery in the form of comments would do us all some good.

Posted May 31, 2007 8:13:36 AM | link

Edward Castronova says:

Richard: Hilarious.

Posted May 31, 2007 9:36:17 AM | link

Chris Foster says:

When I was on LOTRO, we were committed to keeping anachronistic references out of the game's content. This was (for my part) influenced by Lee Sheldon's criticism of games that failed to take their stories and worlds seriously. While I never fully bought into the absolutism of his argument, it was compelling enough when combined with such a rich and specific fictional universe that I was compelled to hold to it.

My corner of the project centered on stories and quests, but it sounds like that approach mapped to emotes and other content as well.

Our goal was to be funny or silly by being true to the characters and races at hand, the idea being that there were certainly enough opportunities for contextual humor in Middle-earth, particularly when Hobbits were about. (But no dwarf-tossing, please.) And there's nothing stopping you from making something in-fiction that's humorous on its own merits.

The content team made one clear exception, for humor that referenced Tolkien and his life, within reason; it felt like the only people who knew there was a joke, would appreciate it and not be overly disrupted by it.

I think the rules got bent a tiny bit after I left (I hear there's a man named Colbert who has something against bears) but overall, I think the line was held. I'm hopeful it's had a net-positive effect on the game.

Posted Jun 3, 2007 3:21:17 PM | link

Kir says:

Posted Jun 4, 2007 8:50:41 AM | link

Kir says:

Posted Jun 4, 2007 8:50:52 AM | link

Harry Teasley says:

Hey, Chris.

Yeah, LotRO is still working to keep obviously anachronistic material out of the game, although it's trivial to find some visual assets that don't really fit the time period, if you want to look. Nothing outrageous or intentional, but some inconsistencies are there.

We observed this with Sin while we were developing Half-Life: while all the jokey bits may satisfy a certain whimsy, you're ultimately telling your audience that you don't really care about the world you're creating. The level of easter egg reference in HL was along the lines of, "Gordon Freeman enjoys Marc Laidlaw novels," which is an easter egg, but not one that breaks the 4th wall.

Colbert (seen here) is borderline, I'll admit.

Posted Jun 5, 2007 1:31:35 AM | link

Thomas Malaby says:

I'm personally very glad to hear that that principle is important to the LOTRO folks. Many kudos to you. I always think of the same distinction in relation to the Shrek films (the WoW of the silver screen) versus, say, most of the PIXAR films (and Robots as well). I always enjoy art that treats its own material with respect to a much greater degree.

(Dang it, I really need to get Bootcamp up and running and get LOTRO. /looks around for time)

Posted Jun 5, 2007 9:33:25 AM | link

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