As my Pandaran reached level 100 in World of Warcraft, knowing that 10 million other people were playing alongside me, and something over 100 million accounts had been created over the decade lifetime of that influential game, I couldn’t help but think of how much I personally like some of the most unpopular games. If our goal is to study “popular culture,” then of course popularity matters. But there are so many other scientific, scholarly, and personal goals we might legitimately have! Experimental studies typically use small Ns of research subjects. Ethnographies of cultures often study low-population societies. How many books did Bronislaw Malinowski write about the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands, a society that today Wikipedia tells me has only 12,000 members and must have had fewer nearly a century ago? Two of my own earlier books were ethnographies of “religious cults,” the Process (Satan’s Power, 1978) which had 100 inner members and a total around 500, while the Children of God (The Endtime Family, 2002) had about 10,000 members, 1,025 of whom filled out my questionnaire. A valuable study of a gameworld might not even care about the players at all, for example analyzing it as a total work of art.
When the magazine New Scientist asked me what was the best game of the year, back in 2010, I could not resist answering A Tale in the Desert 5. Of course, this was already the fifth telling of this MMO, set in an ancient Egypt that is born, grows, and dies, in a seemingly endless cycle of rebirth, beginning back in 2003, not really a new game. The sixth telling began in 2011, so we might have expected the seventh to give way to the eighth about now. In fact, the sixth telling has entered some strange kind of suspension, as a new owner apparently hunts for funding, and it is possible to play for free. If the seventh telling ever launches, perhaps it will be a subscription MMO again.
I explored Tale extensively from July 2009 to March 2010 during the fourth telling, then carried out a quick census of guilds in 2013, during the sixth telling. Just this minute, I downloaded the software again, entered, and checked the census of "permanent citizens," which totals 4,682 at the moment. When subscriptions were required, during my visits, the population never surpassed 2,000. Tale is all about cooperation, ritual, puzzle solving, and exploration, with no combat at all. What does it say about humanity that the most popular virtual worlds require slaughter? If you want to know more about A Tale in the Desert, you can enter now yourself, or check out many blog posts about it during earlier years of Terra Nova.
Another quasi-historical favorite of mine, somewhat more popular, is Pirates of the Burning Sea, set in the Caribbean in 1720. Unlike the now defunct Disney competitor, Pirates of the Caribbean, it eschews zombies, has pretty good but not perfect historical accuracy, and requires intellect to appreciate. Oh yes, one inaccuracy is inclusion of the Barbary Pirates, who never went to the Caribbean, and were not really pirates, but in appropriate ways PotBS admits these facts. If you check, several of the NPCs were historical figures. I suppose one attraction for me is that the historical William Bainbridge after whom I am named (the grandson of my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather) actually was held captive by the Barbary Pirates for two years, but let that pass. Can we complain about the anachronism that PotBS depicts string quartets, when that form of classical music did not become popular until a later decade? Can we complain about the inaccuracy that the ships still make a little headway sailing directly into the wind, given how many of the sea battles take place in archipelagos of islands where only real experts could navigate in the real world. Like Tale, PotBS is in the midst of an ownership change, and we cannot be sure it will survive.
Last April and May I tried Xsyon, another unusual low-population virtual world, existing precariously in both PvP and PvE variants. In many respects a sandbox game, it takes place in the future on the shores of Lake Tahoe at the California-Nevada border, after the fall of civilization, requiring the player to rebuild from scratch the technology required for survival. My avatar was an impersonation of the classic American sociologist William F. Ogburn, for a book I am currently writing, Virtual Social Science, in which avatars based on many social scientists analyze worlds selected to energize their theories. Ogburn was an influential technological determinist, who in 1945 argued that world government was essential, or nuclear war would destroy humanity. So having him explore gather-craft technologies in a post-apocalyptic world seemed very appropriate.
Give one of these three unusual MMOs a try, yourself! Or, tell us about some unpopular but fascinating virtual world you happen to inhabit.