For years I've argued that fantasy in virtual worlds is a special human joy and that everyone (courts, legislatures, players, devs, pundits) ought to do their best to prevent anything that breaks immersion. A chief culprit has been RMT, that practice of using dollars during games that some of us play in order to take refuge from the world of dollars.
This position of mine has gradually eroded and recently has taken some severe hits. The roof is cracking and the lights are dimming. It might be time to get out of here before it caves. Below the fold, the hits and what they mean for the future of living fantasy. There are also some implications for social theory.
First, the Truth.
Dmitri's paper on role-players, which I've known about for a year or so, shows pretty clearly that players who desire strong refuge from reality, the sincere role-players, are a distinct minority. My arguments were delivered with a background assumption that very large numbers of people were scrambling over themselves to get out of the real world. Not so. That doesn't make the arguments wrong, it just indicates that any plea for the right to live in a deep fantasy is less socially resonant than I thought. In this, I am an oddball, a goofy RPer like the ones so deftly maligned in popular media. I'm an advocate for a minority, a somewhat disturbed one at that according to Williams, Kennedy, and Moore.
This morning I read through Joshua Fairfield's paper on the Magic Circle. It is a brilliant piece arguing that the magic circle is not useful if we take it to define the border between real and virtual. Indeed most of us don't agree that there is any useful distinction there at all; we just keep using those words because the audience understands this to be a meaningful border. But in fact everything is real, and reality just trades in things that are represented by various kinds of costumes, skins, symbols, and pictures. Given this, Fairfield argues that the most useful distinction that a term like "magic circle" might denote is that between communities of consent or (my interpretative extension) cultures. In a poker game, you can freely defraud someone by lying but not by hiding some of the chips you have bet. The difference is that the player community has consented to one kind of fraud but not the other. While this is a very useful way to think about the Magic Circle, and I advocate it, it does have an implication that depresses me: Living fantasies, as refuges from the real world, can only happen by consent of the community. And since RPers are a minority, their norms can never dominate an open-access world that has any entertainment value whatsoever. People merely seeking entertainment will inevitably enter such a world and bring their money and their trash-talk about the Yankees. Pfeh.
Third, I note with approval the creativity of game companies in their approaches to monetizing social network gameplay. Trade in virtual goods is taking off and with it our ability to pop in a credit card number in order to get a few extra coins, some magic beans, and a better cow. In Dragon Age, I go to my party's camp and find a quest-giver waiting there...but he won't send me on a mission unless I pony up some real world money (albeit masked by an in-game "points" system). Well, alright; this makes good sense from a business perspective. But, but: I was hoping to get away, to live an alternative life, to drop myself into a new world and lose all awareness of the times of trouble that have been.
Next, the Consequences.
As Fairfield notes, it is becoming weird now to insist on an RMT-free gaming experience. I freely trade money for time all day, every day. The community here in Bloomington finds this utterly normal and so does the most of the community in Azeroth. As devs will argue, they don't make all this stuff for free; they have to get paid somehow, and given the general disinterest of their players in pure refuge, there is quite a lot of give along the immersion / cash spectrum. How can I oppose RMT?
LARPers and MUDders will say, why not join us? Their communities have been pure forever. True. But my personal hope was for a large population and a huge fantasy world in which I could be largely anonymous. Honestly, knowing everything there is to know about your character's backstory, at some point, becomes immersion-breaking for me unless you are a truly fine actress. And most LARPers and MUDders are about as good at playing another person as I am, which is to say, not very good. My hope was for an environment that was so strongly suggestive of otherness that all society was more or less unconsciously transported to another place and time. I was hoping for a world in which 'thou' came naturally to everyone.
Of course, that did not happen. On the contrary, The Barrens became a high school cafeteria, a locality whose social features, even when now recalled 30 years later, once again make my face break out and my hair, what little is left of it, stand on end. Horrible.
But these events are worth noting from a social theory perspective: Even such strongly framed alternative environments have had little effect on the way people act. The fact that people do NOT role-play, that they do NOT treat dragons as monsters, the fact that they do NOT treat evil as Evil and good as Good, nor kings as Kings nor quests as Quests, the fact that if they change at all it is only to revert to strategies of mooning the whole world just for the adolescent joy of it (which, I respectfully and lovingly submit, turned out to be a special devotion of my gameplaying colleagues in academia), seems to reject social construction theories. Drop a society of 20th century people into World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online, and you get a masked ball, only: A thoroughly unremarkable 20th-century society playing around with high-fantasy costumes. You cannot remake a people by changing the world in which they live.
Very well, such was the course of events. I had a feeling. In Right to Play, I argued that if Middle Earth and the High School Cafeteria ever came to war - and I felt indeed that the conflict was inevitable - Middle Earth would lose. There's just too much money and fun in the Cafeteria model.
It seems that RMT has won and the hope of grand social fantasy is lost. While I personally would prefer an anti-RMT environment, I no longer expect players to keep their money in their pockets. While I still think EULAs are important and those who violate them should be banned (simply because you should do what you agree to do), I no longer expect devs to make RMT-free worlds or set up RP servers or anything of the like. I agree that player consent, player cultures, and player norms should have a very strong voice in what happens in virtual worlds, and that the best contract is not the EULA but a social contract among players. I recognize that any such social contract will not generally ban RMT, ganking, or talking about the Yankees (which really ought to be banned in RL, but, hey, one windmill at a time). However, I wish for the day when Roleplayers become self-aware enough that they not only get their designated server but also get the power to boot people who don't play by strict RP rules set down in a social contract of their own. Until such things happen, and I don't expect them to happen soon, if ever, when I crave virtual world immersion, I will assume it must be a solo activity, with General chat set immediately and permanently to "off." Whatever my hopes, it seems no less true today than in 2004 or 1004 that the only fantasy world you can inhabit on a persistent basis is the one in your own mind.