Games & Culture CFP

For those of you who want to escape family obligations today and tomorrow, tell them that you have to work on a submission for this call for papers!  It's for a special issue of the Games and Culture journal, focused on Gaming in the Asia-Pacific region. Read on for details...

Games and Culture: A Journal of Interactive Media Special issue: Gaming in the Asia-Pacific

As a region, the Asia-Pacific is marked by diverse penetration rates of gaming, mobile and broadband technologies, subject to local cultural and socio-economic nuances. Two defining locations – Seoul (South Korea) and Tokyo (Japan) – are seen as both “mobile centres” and “gaming centres” to which the world looks towards as examples of the future-in-the-present. Unlike Japan, which pioneered the keitai (mobile) IT revolution and mobile consoles such as playstation2, South Korea – the most broadbanded country in the world – has become a centre for MMOs (online massively multiplayer) games and convergent mobile DMB (Digital Multimedia Broadband i.e. TU mobile). 

Adorned with over 20,000 PC bangs (PC rooms) in Seoul alone and with professional players (Pro-leagues) making over a million US per year, locations such as South Korea have been lauded as an example of gaming as a mainstream social activity. In a period marked by convergent technologies, South Korea and Japan represent two opposing directions for gaming – Korea emphasizes online MMOs games played on stationary PCs in public spaces (PC bangs) whilst Japan pioneers the mobile (privatized) convergent devices. These two distinct examples, with histories embroiled in conflict and imperialism, clearly demonstrate the importance of locality in the uptake of specific games and game play. 

This issue seeks to explore the politics of game play and cultural context by focusing on the burgeoning Asia-Pacific region. Housing sites for global gaming production and consumption such as China, Japan and South Korea, the region provides a wealth of divergent examples of the role of gaming as a socio-cultural phenomenon. Drawing from micro ethnographic studies to macro political economy analysis of techno-nationalisms and trans-cultural flows of cultural capital, this issue will provide an interdisciplinary model for thinking through the politics of gaming production, representation and consumption in the region. 

Topics of papers will discuss the region in terms of one of the following areas:

- Case study analysis of specific games and game play

- Is there such thing as a culturally specific aesthetic to the production and consumption of certain games?

- What is the “future” of gaming?

- Emerging and re-occurring productions of techno-nationalism in the region

- New media and experimental gaming in the region

- Convergent technologies and the impact on established modes of game play

- Gendered consumption and production of games

- Government regulations and types of game play

- Pervasive gaming and the role of co-presence 

Deadline for this special issue of Games and Culture: 15th March 2007. Authors should submit all inquiries, expressions of interest and papers to Larissa Hjorth (RMIT University) larissa.hjorth [AT] rmit.edu.au. 

Games and Culture: A Journal of Interactive Media invites academics, designers and developers, and researchers interested in the growing field of game studies to submit articles, reviews, or special issues proposals to the editor. Games and Culture is an interdisciplinary publication, and therefore it welcomes submissions by those working in fields such as Communication, Anthropology, Computer Science, English, Sociology, Media Studies, Cinema/Television Studies, Education, Art History, and Visual Arts. 

All submissions are peer reviewed by two or more members of the distinguished, multi-disciplinary editorial board. Games and Culture aims to have all papers go through their initial review within three months of receipt. Manuscripts should be submitted with four paper copies and electronically in Word or Word Perfect format and conform to the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (Fifth Edition)0,000 words in length. Papers that do not conform to these guidelines will be returned to the author(s).

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UCLA Mediascape CFP

UCLA's film, television, and digital media e-journal would like to solicit contributions from the TN community for the features and reviews section of an upcoming issue.

Read on for more details...  (but hurry, deadline is Jan 1, 2007!)

Mediascape Call for Submissions:

Mediascape, UCLA’s online Critical Studies journal, is now accepting submissions for the Features, Reviews, Columns and Meta sections of its next issue. This journal, a place for articles pertaining to film, television, new media and other areas of visual culture, is peer-reviewed and published on an annual table. The deadline for the next issue is the 1st of January, 2007.

Submission guidelines and section-specific calls for the next issue can be found on the submissions page of the Mediascape website:

http://www.tft.ucla.edu/mediascape/about/submissions06.html 

Any other questions can be directed to Erin Hill (erinhill [AT] ucla.edu).

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The Trouble with "Addiction"

Normal_passion The problem with the addiction issue is that it often splits people up into simplistic "yes/no" stances with no sensible middle-ground alternatives. When the SF Chronicle did a piece on the plethora of dangers lurking on the Internet (which included online games), they noted that:

The Internet once was seen as a golden "information superhighway" transporting the next generation to the Promised Land. Now it may feel more like a minefield -- seductive on the surface, but seeded with subterranean hazards.

You know there's trouble when allusions to heaven and hell enter any discussion. On the other hand, companies like Wal-Mart use "addiction" to sell games (click on thumbnail). Between this demonization and casual treatment, it may not even be clear what a sensible middle-ground stance would look like.

I've struggled with this issue a lot over the years because it always seemed clear that some people develop problems with gaming, and yet at the same time, I felt that there was something very conceptually misleading about the "addiction" rhetoric. The most difficult part of this is in trying to understand the problem without falling into a simplistic "online games are addictive" framework. And I think it's possible to articulate a way of thinking about the issue that makes sense to gamers, game developers, as well as non-gamers who are concerned about the problem.

In the new issue of The Daedalus Project, I have two articles that deal with the issue. The first tries to reach a sensible middle-ground by complicating the terms of the discussion. For example, does it make sense to claim that "online games cause online gaming addiction" when most behavioral problems (technologically related or not) are typically caused by many inter-related factors? Also included are excerpts from a recent paper in a psychiatry journal that presents a surprisingly nuanced case study dealing with an online gaming problem.

The second piece is an interview with Shavaun Scott, a licensed therapist who has both treated people with addiction problems as well as being an MMO gamer herself. Shavaun provides helpful ways to think about gaming problems from a functional point of view, as well as giving some insightful advice on how to approach and help someone with a gaming problem.

When reporters ask loaded questions such as "Are online games detrimental, addiction-feeding?", there is no 30 second answer that can untangle the conceptual mess, but I think underneath that mess, there is a sensible way of thinking about the issue. I imagine that this is an issue that I will continue to grapple with for a while to come, but I hope that something in these two pieces is helpful to others in framing and conceptualizing what's going on.

Thoughts on either or both pieces are much welcomed.

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Meaning, Games, and Bureaucracy

A while back in a comment posted in this thread, Ren posed an excellent question that I've been pondering for some time. Wondering about the implications of my model of games as process for the question of meaning, he asked:

Do we then just have that the meaning-generative property of games is just a fact of process [i.e., no different from other social processes] and the types of meanings [in games] are consequences of the contrived contingency?

Curse you, Ren! I haven't slept since August!

Puzzling through this in the wee hours of the night, I began with how I responded to Ren originally: on Weber and bureaucracy.  This has led to the beginnings of a paper that I hope to have up to ssrn soon, but I wanted to talk about it now because I gave my first airing of its ideas on a recent panel that I wanted to mention. Tom Boellstorff (SL: Tom Bukowski) and I co-organized a panel on virtual worlds and anthropology at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, where we were joined by Heather Horst and Mizuko Ito (co-authored paper, Ito presenting), Genevieve Bell, and Douglas Thomas, with the distinguished linguistic anthropologist Michael Silverstein as our discussant. The panel was filled with great ideas, on everything from virtual methodism in England to the Neodaq, and I hope to have news to those presentations' culminations in paper form soon.

As for me, I gave a version of my current and still-rough answer to Ren's question. I proposed that virtual worlds and their emergent effects demonstrate an aspect of the human condition that has largely been obscured under modernity – that of the human engagement with the unpredictable or contingent. Max Weber and his definitive account of bureaucracy and the state formed the backdrop for a century-long inquiry into the vanishing sources of meaning under the advent of rationalization; for Weber, charismatic leadership provided the only answer to the iron cage of rationality. But a consideration of bureaucracy, games, and virtual worlds alongside one another fills in this bleak picture. If bureaucratic projects are driven, at root, by an ethic of necessity (in their procedures and logic of consistency), games, and the virtual worlds based on them, are driven by its antithesis: contingency. As socially legitimate spaces for cultivating the unexpected, games provide grounds for the generation of meaning that is not ultimately charismatic. Virtual worlds like Second Life have largely retained this open-ended quality, and they rely on game architecture to create a domain that, while not utterly unbounded in possibility, has wide opportunities for success, failure, and unintended consequences, and it is this that makes possible the meaningful and emergent effects we witness today.

So the answer to Ren's question is that, in my view, the engaging mix of constraint and contingency that well-designed games (and the worlds based on them) have makes them more productive of meaning than those parts of our lives that are increasingly governed by regulatory projects which aim to eliminate the uncalled-for. (One might further say that those parts of our lives that are too contingent, too unbounded in possibility, also create a challenge of meaning.) Of course bureaucracy in practice is also a site for contingency (and regularity). Bureaucratic projects certainly do not perfectly realize the modern aim of consistency, but they always aspire to do so. Games, by contrast, are socially legitimate domains where unpredictable events are supposed to happen, and that is why they are valuable lenses through which to see key points of discursive and practical contestations over meaning and resources played out. Games, then, do not create "unbounded" contingency; they are not places where anything at all can happen. But they provide room for a contrived mix of constraint and contingency. By mixing the regularity and the sources of contingency just so, they create their potential for the meaningfully unexpected, as well as for unexpected meanings.

Claude Shannon in the mid-twentieth century presented the surprising finding from mathematical information theory that messages which contain the most information are those with 50% expected (redundant) information and 50% unexpected (noise) information. Katherine Hayles of UCLA expanded on this point during a visit to my seminar on ethnography and technology at UWM. Imagine, she said, a language in which it was impossible to say anything new; it would be meaningless. The lesson is that contingency is inextricable from meaning. New circumstances, new experiences, and new collisions between different systems of meaning are at the heart of meaningful human life. This is why we should be very interested in virtual worlds and the approach to cultivating the contingent which underwrites them. By leveraging the techniques of game design, Linden Lab and others have almost accidentally fallen into creating products which are supposed to do things they do not expect, and in this way they have made a choice that turns out to be strikingly anti-bureaucratic in its ethical stance. For Weber, it was only the individual virtuoso – a master of performance in a singular context – who could provide new meaning in an era of the iron cage. Virtual worlds show us another possibility; that meaning can be cultivated through techniques derived of game-making.

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Mike fright

Nate has been talking and talking about VATSIM, the Air Traffic Control simulator environment. One of my guildies in WoW is a pilot and was explaining why he hasn't got into the VATSIM environment:

One interesting thought that popped into my head -I have the vatsim software for my flight sim, I presume it would work and as I mentioned its a very good thing. I wonder why I havent tried it. My thought is that I dont want to look like an idiot in front of real (all be it virtually real) people. People get mic fright in real life, the unwillingness to talk on the radio. I wonder if thats the same in a virtual sense? In WoW and similar there isn't the requirement for real time voice communication and action, you can chat via text if you feel so inclined but you respond at your leisure. I wonder how it would be if you could only chat using your real voice and the normal rules of sound were enforced so you could be out of earshot of things if you were too far away...

This led me to wonder about the nature of voice, the problem of mike fright, and the great big hairy furball of the magic circle.

Richard has an extended meditation on the introduction of voice into VWs, where he argues against it on the basis that it kills the magic circle and ruins the play characteristics (and lots more, of course, but I'm paraphrasing). I think that this is right if your job, as Richard's is, is to think about this from the perspective of the designer of immersive MMOGs where suspension of disbelief is key. But this can't be the complete answer from the Terra Nova perspective. First off, we have the empirical observation that the punters love it and are rushing to use voice. There could be lots of reasons for this, but my guess is that it may have something to do with that problem we keep bumping up against: the love of the magic circle, which I will define (badly) as the intuitive sense that these worlds are separate places where the self may be expressed without the limitations of the real and should therefore be protected against the osmotic pressure of real world considerations like money (and voice and external regulatory activity). Now, I don't buy the magic circle in the way that people like Richard and Ted do. I think the concept and experience of VWs as wholly distinct place is useful and I often find myself immersed in the environment; but my acceptance of the concept is highly contingent. Like most people I'm not a role player, even in games where that is rewarded. So I don't have any obvious play-based objections to the introduction of voice (pace Richard) or RMT (pace Ted). And in performance-critical environments such as MMO raids it's hard to imagine doing without Teamspeak or Vent; otherwise how else can the raidleader scream that "the next hunter to grab aggro will get booted"? (Although I do recall the amusing moment when of the class leaders in one old raiding guild I was involved in finally got a mike and we all discovered that he was a 12 year old. There was an extended period of total and utter silence. You could hear the crickets).

Leaving aside the magic circle problem (yes, please, let's leave it), the effect of voice doesn't play out consistently in all worlds, and the reception of it must be different depending on the social conventions and milieu. The truly social worlds (SL, There, etc) don't have any sense of a magic circle as far as I can tell. If the standard greeting in There is "ASL?" then it's not a big step for its residents to expect to hear reallife voice as well.[fn1] The social conventions of There assume identity-revealing behavior, and voice is an important part of that.[fn2] It's a neat trick, and totally in keeping with the social expectations of the world, for There to introduce a space-sensitive voice system where your voice fades as you walk away from me. It's hardly a surprise that it would be done in There and not, say, WoW. (Where I have never been asked for ASL info; unlike say CoH where I got it all the time).

Which leads me back to the thing that motivated my interest in this to start with: the psychology of voice use by players when it is available. Krista-Lee Malone, one of Thomas Malaby's students is looking at the way that women play MMOs within raiding guilds. One of her neat observations is that some women just refuse to talk at all, and will initially claim all manner of hardware-related excuses to do this. Or in the end they just abandon the pretense and it becomes clear in time that they don't want to talk and won't. Although I'm not female, I've had some experiences with mike fright. Of the two raiding guilds I've been involved in in WoW, I basically never said anything at all in one guild because I didn't have any sense of possessing any social capital within that guild and also because I felt that my voice would signal me as a Kristevian Other (Like the rest of me, my accent is Australian; and the rest of that group was distinctively North American). Even in the other raiding guild, where I feel much more at home, it took a while to feel comfortable saying much.

I don't have any strong sense about voice, except that it's pretty clear it is a significant issue to study. Richard's essay on this was called "Not yet, you fools". I wonder if today's response is "Yet. And yes, we were fools."
----
fn1: "Age, Sex, Location."

fn2: Let's leave for another day the interesting paradox that a world that has been adopted by teenagers has (internally generated) social conventions of identity disclosure that are problematic for exactly that class of individuals. I find it hard to conceive of a better lesson for "Save the Kiddies" regulators of privacy and identity than the emergence of these conventions in There and Myspace. But I digress. More on this when I get a moment.

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The MMO Brand Goes Bad?

It’s easy to look at the graphs of MMO growth over the last few years and think that it’s a game category that will continue to grow exponentially.  In fact, I have often said that since games have always been largely social (and single player gaming an anomaly that resulted largely from technological limitations), that once people have a taste of gaming with others few will choose to go back to solo play.  And I do believe that.  Other players represent that sort of super sophisticated AI that no NPC can begin to approach.  And for me, the only thing that makes the average MMO grind at all fun, for instance, is the chaos and uncertainty brought forth by other random players.  Social structures make games more complex and interesting, to be sure.  But is that always a good thing?

I think we are at an interesting crossroads with regard to the continuing appeal of the types of MMOs we are currently seeing in the marketplace.  If there isn't some significant diversification soon, I fear that the whole MMO category is in jeopardy of plateauing or even seeing numbers drop off, due to various negative impressions that are circulating about the game environments and the ongoing commitments (financial, social and time) necessary to experience them.  Marketers often refer to negative brand equity to describe what happens when a product (or category) develops a reputation that is not desired.  For instance, no one involved in its development or distribution wanted people to think of the Yugo as a crappy car from some obscure country in Eastern Europe.  However it didn’t take long for stories (worse yet, jokes!) to emerge that belied whatever messages the marketers were concocting

Similarly, I think MMOs, at least in the West, are developing some seriously negative brand equity.

I’ve had the opportunity to talk to some non-MMO gamers about why they haven’t been bitten by the MMO bug and have been surprised by how passionately some of them feel that MMOs aren’t for them.  Here are some of the reasons that have been cited:
 

- Some people simply refuse to play a monthly fee on top of paying for a game.  This seems to be a matter of principle for many, but is often related to the fact that they feel trapped into one game environment if they are paying the fee.  They don’t feel that they can pick up a game, drop it for a while, then pick it up again later if the mood strikes them.  (the Asian predilection for item-supported models, etc. seems to be a decent way to deal with this issue)

- The second most common thing I hear is that people don’t feel like they have the time for an MMO, even if they spend lots of time playing videogames otherwise.  The perception that one has to play upwards of 30 hours a week in order to play properly is a huge barrier to a lot of people who perceive themselves as more casual gamers.  (Jim Rossignol wrote a great piece about this in a recent issue of the Escapist).

- Tied to the previous issue is the idea that one’s time is not one’s own in an MMO.  For a lot of people, having to adhere to a guild’s schedule or priorities is a responsibility they are unwilling to take on.  They hear stories about mandatory raids and other prescribed activity and think (rightly so, perhaps) that it sounds an awful lot like a job.  And unless you don't have a job already (the core MMO audience of university students, it would seem), then who needs a job that doesn't pay some real cash?

- A lot of people complain that it is too hard to just jump into an MMO and start playing.  There are complex social rules to be learned, grouping can be tricky and time-consuming, and navigating huge worlds can take a ton of time just in terms of travel.  I have heard lots of stories about people logging on at lunchtime to play, but not even being able to prep and find playmates in that time.  And I have heard other stories about people joining a game to play with friends, yet being unable to meet up with them in a reasonable timeframe.

- Although it’s appealing to play with others, it is a double-edged sword in a level-based system where people have to play at a similar rate in order to be able to continue to play with each other.  WoW is particularly problematic in this regard (to the point that people have to work hard to synchronize quest chains, etc.), but CoX is somewhat better with its side-kicking/exemplaring system.  Still, it’s a big problem for those buddies who want to invest significantly different amounts of time in the game.

- Many standard videogame players, especially those attracted to adventure/RPG genres, perceive that MMO gameplay  is extremely non-linear with too few concrete goals (yes, yes, even with WoW's linear questing system - just having more than one path or option, or a whole world that one could explore, is overwhelming to the gamer brought up in the Myst-like box-to-box environment progression).  For them, there is too much freedom of choice, making play difficult and diminishing the satisfaction of progress (aside from leveling, which while pleasurable in that Skinnerian/dopamine unleashing sense, may not be so appealing to those who look for more complex challenges).

- A LOT of people fear becoming addicted, even people I work with in the game industry. Nearly every person I have talked to has some terrible story to tell of someone they know who knows someone who locked themselves in their room for a year or two and completely forgot the real world after getting sucked in by some MMO.  And then there are the stories of silly Koreans falling over dead or Chinese gamers killing each other for virtual swords which make people think that MMOs are like some kind of crack that makes completely normal people go crazy (not to mention the possibly apocryphal stories about people wearing Depends so they don't have to afk for their bio breaks).

- Finally, many non-MMO gamers think that MMOs mean, by definition, PvP, or more accuratel,y open PK-ing.  And no one wants to pop into a game world a n00b and get killed right off the bat. (this happened to me, btw – I played UO very briefly back in the beginning, was repeatedly ganked within 5 minutes of entering the game, and as a result I didn’t play another MMO for years).

So what does this all mean for the burgeoning (?) MMO marketplace?  Is there still an untapped audience for MMOs?  Maybe, but maybe just about everyone who might be compelled to play an MMO has already been tapped by WoW?  And if so, what effects are those experiences having on both those gamers and those who observe their infatuation?  It seems to me that MMOs frighten a lot of people, even relatively hard core gamers - and that can't be a good thing.

Parodies like the recent South Park episode inspired by WoW have alerted mainstream non-gamers to the darker side of the MMO compulsion (at least those who watch South Park – your Grandma is still probably in the dark about this, unless she reads Slate or the NY Times regularly…).  In fact, the Everquest Widows list was in a gleeful frenzy after the episode: they viewed it as a sort of unintentional PSA for the perils of online gaming.  Yet it’s easy to look at that sort of thing and think, wow, MMOs have really arrived.  They’ve been parodied on South Park, written up in the mainstream media -- all we need is Britney Spears to write a song about her hawt night elf and we’ll know that the tipping point is nigh. 

But we could be wrong. 

The thing is that WoW could well be an aberration, a red herring that makes us think that MMOs are really taking off when it might in fact be the only MMO that several million of those players ever play.  For a lot of people (in the U.S. anyway- I'm painfully aware that Asia is a whole different ball of wax), WoW is their first MMO – and the reason they started playing was either a) they simply thought it was the next installment in the Warcraft franchise and didn’t give much thought to the MMO aspect or b) they got nagged by friends to play it and flocked to it in the same way they all rushed to set up their MySpace pages (and as uncommitted Web 2.0 types will all follow sheeplike the inevitable diaspora, as well).  They may  decide that the investment/pay-off equation just doesn’t add up, or just experience boredom with the whole repetitive experience (WoW-nnui, as our own Mike Sellers calls it) – not all of us can possibly find the grind to be a delightful experience in Zen, after all. 

So my question is this… how can MMOs evolve to combat these perception problems and barriers to entry/continued participation?  Or will they continue to remain a niche activity for those who have the time and inclination to make the necessary investments? 

Comments (47)

Superstition

B.F. Skinner is well-known for his theory of behavioral conditioning, but one of his quirkiest studies involved inducing superstition in pigeons (1948). 8 pigeons were placed in a reinforcement contraption (i.e., Skinner Box) and were given a food pellet every 15 seconds no matter what they did. After several days, each pigeon had fixated on a particular superstitious behavior. One pigeon danced counter-clockwise, another two developed a left-to-right head-swinging motion, another attacked an invisible object in the top right corner of the cage, and so forth. This phenomenon has also been replicated among high-school students (Bruner & Revuski, 1961). And given that MMOs are a kind of Skinner Box that offer some random rewards (e.g., rare drops), it's not surprising that superstitious behaviors emerge in MMOs as well.

During our weekly meeting at PARC, we stumbled upon the issue of superstition in MMOs. Cabell Gathman mentioned that the current "trick or treat" event in City of Heroes/Villains has some players convinced that there are ways to increase the odds of a "treat" when knocking on doors. Eric then mentioned that in his WoW guild, some believe that it's best for Hunters to be the first to enter an instanced dungeon because Hunters supposedly have better loot tables. I was also reminded of Raph Koster's account of the gibberish ghost language in Ultima Online and how many players were convinced that ghost language could be deciphered and that ghosts answered player's questions.

But the incident that stuck out the most in my mind was the amount and intensity of speculation in Star Wars Galaxies as to how someone unlocked a Jedi character (before the anti-climactic truth was revealed). As in the case of the pigeons, what spurred these speculations was that the game showed system messages to certain players that they were one step closer to the truth without telling them what it was they had done that brought them closer. The sheer creativity and conviction that people had towards the main competing theories was mind-boggling. There was a very well thought out theory involving completion of a chain of specific NPC quests; another involved describing the different requirements for different professions; others focused on unique geographical landmarks that had to be visited. I thought this was actually the most interesting period in the SWG universe because of the player productivity. Unfortunately, the truth (i.e., grind levels, abandon profession, grind again, etc.) was much more banal than any of the main theories.

What's clear is that it's not that hard to create superstitions among MMO players. Several questions come to mind:

- Is encouraging superstition a good thing for an MMO (i.e., leads to player productivity and player-generated content)?
- What is the most interesting case of superstition you have seen?

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It Takes a Guild to Raise a Child

In my WoW guild backchannel not long ago, there was a lively discussion of our childrens' experiences in MMORPGs, and the question of what constitutes "stranger danger" in a virtual world context. As a parent of two avid underaged gamers, this is a question of more than theoretical interest to me. On the one hand, I love that online games provide my children with opportunities to learn how to work in groups, to collaborate in order to accomplish tasks, and to understand economic behaviors. On the other hand, like most early online adopters, I've had my share of encounters in which my online friends were revealed to be something other than what they presented as online.

Those of us who play games _with_ our kids have a decided advantage here. We're not dealing with an unfamiliar environment, and while we may not be around for every second of their gameplay, we have a sense of their behavior and actions in virtual environments. We're more likely to know when they're exhibiting "risky behavior," and better able to explain the risks and benefits.

Back in the spring, I wrote here on Terra Nova about the overlap between my professional and parenting roles that occurred when a colleague of mine in Japan had to IM me at work because my son was ninja looting during an instance run with guildmates. At the time I found that more irritating that encouraging, but I've begun to think of that as an example of something both valuable and important. The event touched off a discussion in the guild's officer forums on how to handle the issue of cross-generational play. Several guild members had kids in the guild, and as the guild grew, many new members weren't aware of the age of the players. This led to frustration on the part of the new player, who didn't realize that what they saw as inappropriately immature behavior by some players was in fact entirely age-appropriate. At the same time, those of us whose kids were in the guild found that the increasingly "adult" nature of the guild chat made us (and our kids) somewhat uncomfortable.

What happened as a result was that a number of the guild officers took the responsibility of looking out for the younger players--sending /tells to new players complaining about behavior reminding them that 13yo behavior wasn't inappropriate for a 13yo, and providing a little more guidance and support to the younger players than they might have offered to an adult. ("Sure, I'll run you through Deadmines. Again.")

That, to me, represents the very best of what virtual worlds have to offer to our kids. The guild had become an online village, a place where I knew that even if I wasn't there to play with my kids, adults I knew and trusted were there. A virtual "neighborhood watch." This provided not just security for my kids, but also an opportunity for them to learn. They had role models, people who exhibited the kind of behavior online that I wanted them to emulate.

These days, however, my older son is much more engaged in Second Life. He started using SL because the guild leader from WoW, someone we know well in "real life," encouraged him to come visit his private island. In order to facilitate that visit, I allowed my son to use my SL account, and watched with delight as he began teaching himself complicated scripting in order to build things on the land that our friend had given him access to. But, of course, allowing my under-18 son to use my account was a violation of Linden's terms of service--and as soon as a Linden discovered that he was using my account, the account was deactivated.

SL does have an option for kids ages 13-18, their "Teen Grid," and my son now has an account there. I'd love to be able to interact in that world with him--and to learn from him, since his building skills are lightyears beyond mine. I'd also love for him to continue interacting with all the people I know doing cool things in Second Life. But none of that is possible. Not because I don't want to hang out with him, and not because he doesn't want to hang out with me and my colleagues, but because the Teen Grid is entirely segregated from the Main Grid, and there's no ability to communicate between the two. He can't come visit me, and I can't go see him.

Do I feel as though he's safer as a result? Quite the opposite. To start with, if I'm worried about predators, it seems to me that putting all of the most attractive potential victims in one place with a big sign over their heads that says "TEENS!" doesn't make him a whole lot less vulnerable. More importantly, though, I've lost that ability to have trusted friends and colleagues keep an eye on him when I'm not around--and he's lost the ability to model his online behavior on that of adults that he and I both respect.

I don't mean to slam Linden Labs here--I understand the fear-based and litigious climate that led to their decision to set the grids up the way they did. But I hope that other virtual worlds don't follow their lead in segregating youth away from the adults. We have so much that we can learn from each other, and as a parent I genuinely believe the rewards of these online villages greatly outweigh their risks.

Comments (30)

Are Virtual Worlds Good For the Soul?

Dmitri recently received an e-mail from Mike Fred, a Behavior Intervention Specialist who uses WoW therapeutically as part of his work with challenged kids: 

I play WoW with a few of the students from my school. It has proven to be beneficial to the students socially, academically, and therapeutically. In general these students lack social skills. Even when they want to make friends, they often behave inappropriately and tend to push people away. Yet, as these students have gotten involved with playing WoW, they have made social connections - not only with each other, but with other players online. They are all active members of their online guilds… their online relationships are not deep. However, the fact that they make relationships at all is significant. Moreover, two of these students have developed a real friendship.

WoW has proven to be a help academically. One of my students, who has a learning disability, has shown an increased interest in reading as a result of having to deal with the text in WoW. I have also noticed his "tells" and ingame emails have gotten easier to read. One of the important factors in getting children to read is giving them a reason which has meaning for them. For this student, finding out where to go to gather Laden Mushrooms in the Barrens is a reason to work harder at school. 

The most important benefit from playing WoW with my students at school has been the therapeutic effect. It has proven to be a bridge to one of my students who was withdrawn and disconnected from school. He refused to engage with his social worker, and was determined not to work with his teacher. Through WoW I was able to form a relationship with this student. In the course of our game interactions, he would bring up things that had happened during the day. Perhaps as a consequence of the peronal distance afforded by intergame communication, he was able to talk about these things. Over time, he was able to extend this willingness to talk to his teacher in the classroom. I am happy to say that he has taken steps that have started to put him on track for return to public school. In the course of my job, I often deal with students when they are in crisis. I have very little trouble dealing with the kids I play with, even when they are in the throes of a violent tantrum.

 
I asked the TerraNovans if I could be the one to post about this because my Ph.D. research looking at social learning associated with virtual worlds has morphed somewhat into an assessment of the socio-cultural literacies that players develop in order to achieve mastery of a virtual space. In more basic terms, I've become interested in the 'soft' skills (social intelligence?) like communication, team-work, leadership, etc. that players develop as by-products of play, and whether those skills are potentially transferable to real life. In fact, I have just returned from New Zealand, where I was invited to do a keynote at a Ministry of Education conference about these possibilities, especially important there, where a set of soft skills-based competencies (based on the OECD's five key competencies) have been introduced into the formal curriculum - these competencies emphasize core life skills like managing self, relating to others, and participating/contributing. The local media, in particular, has taken quite an interest in this idea, and I spent a few days taking advantage of a whole bunch of opportunities to assuage parental fears about their kids' videogame play (and hopefully making myself a few juvenile gamer friends in the process!). So the reception there, even (or especially) among the teachers, was fantastic, though it has certainly stirred quite a lot of debate, especially as it relates to the transferability to RL bit. 

Aside from my own observations while conducting ethnographic research in various virtual worlds (but particularly City of Heroes/City of Villains), I was encouraged to think about these issues more fully when John Seely Brown introduced Steven Gillett, a Yahoo executive who scored his job in large part because of his experience running a big MMO guild, at the Games * Learning * Society conference last year. And this year, JSB collaborated with Doug Thomas on a related piece for Wired magazine. In the meantime, I have been attempting to collect some data to support these ideas, though not quite the rigorous and longitudinal study this sort of thing really deserves. Still, there are some interesting hints in my data, a survey of nearly 10,000 City of Heroes/City of Villains players, that though based on self-reporting, serves to help generalize some of the things that most virtual world residents have observed anecdotally. 

So when asked to write a book chapter for the just-published Games & Simulations for Online Learning: Research and Development Frameworks, I collaborated with educator Melanie Zibit on our chapter, 'Online Games for 21st Century Skills' [12 MB PDF]. That chapter outlines the hypothesis that online games, particularly MMOs, are excellent practice arenas for 21st century skills. My survey data definitely supports this idea, with about a third of participants acknowledging improvements to their RL skills in areas like communication, team-work, conflict mediation, patience, sense of humor, etc. But some of the most poignant examples came from the open-ended comments: people with Asperger's syndrome, for instance, who have found MMOs a safe place to practice their social skills, or a recent widower who used an MMO to cautiously reintegrate himself into life, or a fellow who sought RL social skills training after being marginalized by his guild. Ted Castranova has referred to this 'socio-emotional therapeutic potential' as 'sanctuary', and I agree that this is a very compelling feature of virtual worlds to the large number of people who find physical reality scary, unfriendly, inaccessible, or just downright unfair  (the mysterious R.V. Kelly 2 covers this ground compellingly in his chapter on the reasons for problematic usage in his book Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games: The People, the Addiction and the Playing Experience)

In addition, there have been a spate of articles about various games and virtual worlds, including Second Life, that have attempted to focus on the pro-social aspects, like the development of skills (in some cases just basic computer literacy) that are potentially transferable.  I appreciate this sort of reporting, because  I think looking at what kinds of benefits can emerge spontaneously from play in entertainment spaces is a nice counterpoint to much of the consternation surrounding the potential of games for explicitly education or training purposes. Gonzalo Frasca, for instance, has been (rightly, I think) raining on the serious game parade, echoing a sentiment many of us have felt: the potential of serious games is perilously close to being over-hyped.  Though most people can see the potential, there is something a bit awkward about trying to take a medium like videogames and stuffing pre-established curricula, designed for a linear and pre-digital context,  into it.  This is a big part of the reason why I got out of e-learning/educational game design and into game research from an anthropological perspective (a la Jean Lave, I like to think, and inspired mucho by Constance's work).  I believe that the key to understanding the potential of games/virtual worlds for learning is to understand what is being learned there already, and how that learning happens. So that's my question to you all… what are people learning? And is it transferable to RL contexts?

One final wrinkle in all of this:

A fair number of my respondents, when asked whether skills learned in-game have had an impact on their real lives, are adamant (!) that an MMO is 'just a game' and has no effect whatsoever on their lives. When I probe those responses, I most often find that it's a statement being made by young males. Does anyone have an explanation for this? 

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Daedalus Headlines

In this issue of The Daedalus Project:

  • Of those players who are physically dating someone they first met in an MMO, about 60% of them think that the relationship wouldn't have happened if they had first met in the physical world. Player narratives reveal how these "impossible relationships" become possible in MMOs.
  • On top of their normal in-game playing time, the typical player spends about an additional 50% of that time each week in the meta-game: searching for information, posting on forums, or managing guild sites.

This and more at The Daedalus Project.

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Against Exceptionalism: A New Approach to Games

John William Waterhouse, The Magic Circle (from Wikipedia)Selling games short -- it's happening all the time in games research scholarship and in books on game design. In the rush to carve out a special place for games scholarship, to demonstrate its importance, and to attempt to convey what we feel as gamers is powerful about games, games thinkers have relied on an exceptionalist approach to games, seeing them as a form of play necessarily set apart from the everyday, and therefore requiring a distinct treatment. In short, this inherited and largely unexamined theory of games assumes there is a rupture (in experience, in form) between games and other aspects of social life.  But while understandable, this is precisely the wrong approach.

What people find fascinating about activities labeled "games" is precisely how they make the contingency of our day-to-day experience available to us, but within semi-bounded (never fully separable) spaces. It is because of this that they are able to take on the same stakes and range of meanings that we find in everyday experience. If we are ever going to be able to ferret out what is powerful and important about games, we must work from an approach that: (1) sees them as never fully separable from other aspects of experience, (2) recognizes what is at stake in them (they are never entirely "consequence-free"), and (3)  avoids normative, culturally-located assumptions (about "pleasure" or "fun"). In short, this approach must see games as processual -- like everyday life, they are open-ended sites for social practice. Once we have such an approach in place, we will be free to do the more interesting (and challenging) work of exploring their stakes, relative separabilty, and affective or normative associations through empirically-grounded research, no longer assuming what we should be explaining.

I have posted a paper to ssrn, "Stopping Play: A New Approach to Games" (here), that presents such an approach to games  (and briefly outlines the sources and limitations of the play assumption along the way). Any comments welcome.

 Abstract:

Games have intruded into popular awareness to an unprecedented level, and scholars, policy makers, and the media alike are beginning to consider how games might offer insight into fundamental questions about human society. But in the midst of this opportunity for their ideas to be heard, it is game scholars who are selling games short. In their rush to highlight games’ importance, they have tended toward an unsustainable exceptionalism, seeing games as fundamentally set apart from everyday life. This view casts gaming as a subset of play, and therefore – like play – as an activity that is inherently separable, safe, and pleasurable. Before we can confront why games are important, and make use of them to pursue the aims of policy and knowledge, we must rescue games from this framework and develop an understanding of them unburdened by the category of play, one that will both accord with the experience of games by players themselves, and bear the weight of the new questions being asked about them and about society. To that end, I offer here an understanding of games that eschews exceptionalist, normatively-loaded approaches in favor of one that stresses them as a characterized by process. In short, I argue for seeing games as domains of contrived contingency, capable of generating emergent practices and interpretations. This approach enables us to understand how games are, rather than set apart from everyday life, instead intimately connected with it. With this approach in place, I conclude by discussing two key recent developments in games, persistence and complex, implicit contingency, that together may account for why some online games are now beginning to approach the texture of everyday life.

[Edit: One more piece, to fill out the picture I am offering here...]

Here is the short version of the definition of games I offer in the paper, plus a brief elucidation:

"A game is a semi-bounded domain of contrived contingency that generates interpretable outcomes." (p. 9)

All games, I argue, include the incorporation of one or more sources of contingency (the paper identifies four: stochastic, social, performative, and semiotic), carefully calibrated (by design or cultural practices) to create a compelling experience. This is the first aspect of games. The second aspect of games is their capacity to generate meaning. The outcomes that games generate (never perfectly predictable) are subject to interpretations by which more or less stable culturally-shared meanings are generated; the key point about this generation of meaning is that it also is open-ended, potentially transformed by the unfolding of the game itself.

 

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The Prison of Embodiment

As strange as it might seem, VR technology was a natural offshoot of the counterculture - a reliance on small-scale technologies to create a disembodied, connected global consciousness (think LSD, funky musical instruments, Whole Earth catalog of gadgets, and personal computers). As an aside, Fred Turner has a wonderful book coming out on the intersection of the counterculture and personal computing.

Of course, contemporary virtual worlds reveal an insistence on embodiment. Most virtual worlds are avatar-based. Where the counterculture was heading towards the liberation of disembodiment, the opposite has taken hold. In a recent study (PDF) at Stanford, we explored this tension between liberation and embodiment in virtual worlds.

There are many well-known patterns that goven how people interact in the physical world. For example, within a social distance of about 12 feet, the closer two people are, the less likely they will maintain eye contact. This is the elevator effect. Proximity and eye gaze are both signs of intimacy. To keep things in equlibrium, eye gaze compensates for distance when we stand too close to another person. Another well-observed pattern is that men maintain less eye contact with other men than women do with each other.

The question we looked into was: Do these patterns carry over into virtual worlds where people move with mice and keyboard instead of arms and legs, and where virtual gender need not match the real gender of a user? We used a script to collect positional and orientation data on social groups in Second Life over a period of about 2 months.

Our data showed that many patterns of physical interaction in the real world carry over into the virtual world. In other words, our insistence on embodiment in virtual environments structures social interactions in these worlds in ways that we may not consciously be aware of. On the other hand, this implies that virtual worlds may be useful platforms for studying things even as visceral as the rules of physical interaction.

-------------------------------------------------

Yee, N., Bailenson, J.N., Urbanek, M., Chang, F., Merget, D. (in press). The Unbearable Likeness of Being Digital: The Persistence of Nonverbal Social Norms in Online Virtual Environments. The Journal of CyberPsychology and Behavior. PDF

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In Praise of the Grind

During my first few years a faculty member, when I was balancing impossibly heavy teaching loads with an impossibly demanding family (hey, I love my kids, but having two under five is challenging!), I didn't use summers to do research and course development. Instead, I used them to clear my mind, to get much-needed downtime. I developed a habit that to everyone else seemed extremely odd...I'd sit on our lawn, literally for hours at a time, tracing the stems of creeping, flowering weeds to their tap roots and then pulling them out.

It was indescribably satisfying, this mindless task. When I found a particularly wide ranging cluster and yanked it out by the roots, I felt triumphant. Everybody who saw me do this thought I was nuts. By the end of the summer, I would only have cleared a few visible patches of lawn, mostly in places where I could sit in the shade of a tree while I worked. But the point wasn't really to eradicate every weed...it was to engage in an activity that felt at once mindless and productive, something that gave me bite-sized victories and could be stopped and restarted easily when toddlers demanded my attention. I could talk on the phone while I did this, or chat with neighbors. I could be social, but I was safe from emails on my computer and laundry in my basement.

Now we have a lawn service, so there are no creeping weeds in our lawn. That's okay, though, because I've got World of Warcraft. And unlike many of my "serious" gamer friends, I love the leveling grind of WoW. It's why I prefer a PvE server to a PvP server, in fact, since it's hard to get into the zen-like grind-mind I enjoy when I'm constantly being ganked. And it's why I so resent being ganked, in fact...those players are interrupting my cleansing trance, my "I don't need to think very hard about this" downtime activity. It's as though a neighbor's dog had come charging onto my lawn while I was peacefully weeding, and nipped me. No blood drawn, no real harm done...but not enjoyable in any way.

I spend far too much of my personal and professional life strategizing, dealing with intellectually and emotionally challenging situations. I don't want to replicate that stress in a game environment...instead, I want to relax, to clear my mind, to do something repetitive that provides visible (to me, not to you) and lasting evidence of my efforts...however small that evidence may be.

Not everybody plays this way, I know. There are plenty of people who want to think about strategy and interaction, who find the grind tedious and off-putting. Probably more of those people than there are people like me (after all, you don't see a lot of people hand-weeding their lawns these days). But not everybody suffers through a grind as just a way to get that status-enhancing "massive, glowing, meat cleaver of a sword." Really. And to assume that when designing games is a mistake. Honestly, who plays Katamari _just_ to get a bigger star in the sky, or the praise of the King of the Cosmos? The fun is in the rolling, not in the status. For me, the same is true for MMORPGs. It's the process, even (especially) the mindless parts, that makes these games so endlessly attractive to me.

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Time to Turn the MMO Inside Out?

Joystiq reports on a recent talk by Thomas Bidaux of NCsoft Europe at the Develop UK event where apparently it was revealed that 'everything we think know about MMOs is wrong'.  Mr. Bidaux  has a number of opinions about how MMOs are going to be revolutionized, turned on their heads even, via platform innovations (though anyone who played Everquest on the PS2 might be a bit skeptical that this is a positive move), Xbox Live style persistence in terms of player rankings and achievements, novel payment models, and yes, 'a lifestyle revolution' enabled by our experiments with Web 2.0, 'collective intelligence (e.g. Wikipedia) and viral content (e.g. MySpace)' that  'provide opportunites for community and collaborative efforts'.

Well, we like our trend watching here at TN...

The 'lifestyle revolution' is the one that intrigues me the most because I think it hints at something quite interesting, without having any tangible referents whatsoever.  But maybe what he means is that the whole basis for the MMO might change, based on our collective experiences with social software, collaboration and the like.

During my research trip to Asia last year, one trend emerged in Japan that struck me as quite striking:  the rather pervasive idea in the game development community of the MMO as a small subset of a larger community experience, rather than the game as the hub around which community grows.  Although I hadn't given it a great deal of thought till then, it struck me as very intuitive that a social network should be paramount, and that the way MMOs have developed elsewhere is actually quite counter-intuitive, encouraging the growth of communities with quite ephemeral characteristics, the pick-up group being symptomatic of a need that is otherwise  unfulfilled because of a lack of community-centrality outside of guild constructs.  One Japanese company, GaiaX , is creating a community platform that is basically MySpace on steroids, where users also have the option of inviting their friends into a variety of play activities, including MMOs.  Their management have developed this strategy from the ethos that connecting people, especially in Japanese culture (where connection is a really big problem), is of core importance; the activity that unites people is secondary, but it's the primacy of the social network that must be fostered.

Ever since I visited them and gave some thought to this approach, I've thought it strange that we give so little credence to the importance of the social network, whether it's been made explicit or not.  I have lost contact with countless in-game friends who jumped to another game and had no way to leave forwarding info.  And how many communities were lost when worlds like AC2 ended?  And what about the frustration when an in-game friend gets lost in the black box of another game that one hasn't subscribed to?

Author Steven Johnson, a guy who likes games but doesn't research games per se,  has even complained about the separation between the various virtual worlds. I heard a talk recently in which he suggested that we need, at the very least, an open communications standard between worlds, much in the same way that Compuserve, Prodigy and AOL once walled off their subscriber base only to be forced to open the gardens once open standards for e-mail like SMTP emerged.  City of Heroes/City of Villains, for instance, implemented a global chat function, allowing communication across characters and across shards, in an update last year.  This was rendered particularly necessary in that environment given the average CoX player's propensity for dozens of toons (really quite seductive given the range of customization  options that the developers apparently delight in enhancing).  Global chat in this case allows players to communicate one-to-one across servers and toons, or to join up to five global chat channels that allow for cross-server coordination.  So is this a trend?  Will we see developers opening up further and creating communication protocols that allow for cross-shard and cross-world communication?  Will SOE add that capability to their multi-game packages, then create Xbox Live type tools that allow one to manage friends globally? (Wait!  Do they already?)

If I might speak for him (and hope that he speaks up here), Jerry Paffendorf  is also passionate about this topic.  He made the excellent point in an earlier TN discussion about trends that the walling of virtual worlds will be increasingly unsatisfying, that a big part of the future will be "the ability to communicate externally to the MMOG or digital world you're in (IM, email, pics, social software, etc.)", also pointing out that Second Life users can already send e-mail or Snapzilla pics to the outside (ideas akin to, but well beyond /pizza) and that the Matrix Online allowed (allows?  has the Matrix imploded yet?) integration with AIM. And obviously, external tools like IM, Teamspeak, Ventrilo, Skype, etc. create community hubs that cross those boundaries, though I find it striking that players use those tools to circumvent a lack of in-game options that could otherwise allow them to create the sort of community dynamics they want. The problem, as I see it, is that few MMOs are designed for sociability first, and for gameplay second.  This is not to say that this approach, in terms of design, is even feasible, but I have found it striking how few developers can answer the question of how they think about sociability, or even recognize that this in an issue (Rich Vogel, who worked on SWG, was one of the few I've talked to who could).  Community features are often tacked on, as if in afterthought, when in an MMO environment, they should really be central.

And this is where I have to plug ethnographic  research methods.  How will we ever know how to design for sociability if we haven't spent time really understanding how the communities that do exist emerge, how do they self-manage, how do people self-organize?  (but this is probably another post, as this one is already getting much too long).

But let's say we do figure all that out.  What does the Metaverse look like in terms of technology architecture?  Is it, one big crazy behemoth, or like the Internet, are there actually a bunch of small metaverses that are not consistently navigated by the same people  (as in the English-language Internet vs. the Chinese-language version), but the basic architecture and open standard protocols allow for interoperability and communication to whatever degree desired?  And how will that be accomplished?  Will it take a total MMO platform?  And if so, are we then talking about skinnable worlds all based on the same architecture?  Perhaps the back-end of the Metaverse is the virtual world equivalent of Amazon's business services, spinning fully-branded user experiences off of one tightly-integrated, hugely interoperable back-end?  Heck, even Microsoft and Yahoo have recently merged their IM clients.  Are we on the cusp of becoming one big interoperable digital family?

Here's why I care about this.  I am so, so tired of rebuilding my social network in every new service, social software site, IM client, and game that comes along.  When is someone going to give me some persistence, allowing me to filter for levels of friendship/professional relationships, but maintaining one common repository of social network data from whence all these activities can emerge?  Of course, to play devil's advocate, leading with community can mean creating a sort of social echo chamber.   But there must be ways to introduce serendipity into the system.

But all you people know way more than me... I just like to ask the questions.  Can the MMO be turned inside out, even if only in a few limited ways?

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Social Space Griefing

Mark Wallace has a great bit over on his 3PointD blog about griefing in MySpace and how it is following an established practice from TSO. Read the piece for the details but his conclusion is worth repeating here:

One of the criticisms that’s always been levelled at the ... [virtual world reporting done by Wallace and others] is that it takes these things too seriously. “It’s only a game,” is the constant rejoinder whenever we call into question the things that go on in these virtual spaces and how they are managed by the companies that run them... But, as we’ve maintained all along, it is not in fact only a game. These places are models for the kind of society we’ll live in, in the not-too-distant future. They’re worth paying attention to — close attention, since much of what happens in them has a direct bearing on the way we will live... [T]he societies that are developing in these places point the way toward the societies of the future, whether online or off. To a great extent, if you want to know how we will live tomorrow, look at the way we live now in a place like Second Life.

Great stuff.

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Grounded in Virtual Spaces

A personal blog is a complicated thing.  On the one hand, it gives you a chance to say what you want, to put your thoughts in order, to clear you head at the end of the day.  On the other--as your less internet-obsessed friends are always happy to point out--it's rather narcissistic.  After all, what's a personal blog but a chance to hear yourself speak?

But a personal blog can always serve a different purpose; it becomes a surrogate home.

The idea that we even need homes to weigh down our ramblings on the internet super-highway (or whatever the kids are calling it these days) seems a bit cheesy.  "Home, sweet home."  "Home is where the heart is."  Embroider it on a pillow and hang it on the wall.

But internet wanderers or not, we're still human, and some of our most basic physical needs keep on coming back, even in virtual spaces.  Like sex, for one.  Or the need to feel grounded in a place we can call our own.

Thus we have blogs. Blogs galore.  We have millions of MySpace pages.  We have Facebook.  We have, essentially, an innumerable number of metaphorical houses (some mansions, you might say, some mobile homes) dotting the internet landscape.

Maybe that's why, when I recently considered what day-to-day online life would be like without my own blog, I got a little flustered--dislocated, even.  Or why, in Second Life, a place with so much freedom you can literally fly, players still buy up plots of land with homes. 

Freedom can be overwhelming.  To appreciate it, we set up our own boundaries, our own tiny corners of the world.

This is certainly not the only example of "grounding" our virtual spaces.  Even our internet lingo reveals our land-based heuristic at work.  Websites are just that: "sites".  You can "visit" them, like you would places.  And should one become your favorite, why not make it your "home"?

We've transformed virtual space into physical space. As for physical space as virtual space... oh, the possibilities.

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Data: Daedalus + Presence Paper

A new daedalus issue is out. Several articles in this issue focus on role-playing:

  • 20% of players role-play at least once a week. 28% of players indicated that at least one of their characters belong in a role-playing oriented guild. 24% of players have role-played a scene or event with a group of at least 10 players.
  • Role-players talk about which character creations they feel are over-used and what counts as original.
  • What are the protocols of role-playing? What makes a role-player a good role-player?

Also just out in press is a journal article on MMORPG demographics in the journal Presence (manuscript PDF here). Many of the basic player numbers - average age, gender ratio, average hours per week - are in this paper, as well as a factor analytic model of player motivations. Also some numbers on relationship formation and potential leadership skill acquisition.

The turn-around time for journal articles pains me, especially in this era of blogs. This paper was actually written in 2004 and accepted in mid-2005. Nevertheless, this resolves the problem of people in academia feeling hesistant to cite a website when talking about who plays MMOs.

</em Jedi mind trick> - cite this article in your paper:

Yee, N. (2006). The Demographics, Motivations and Derived Experiences of Users of Massively-Multiuser Online Graphical Environments. PRESENCE: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 15, 309-329.

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Naked in a Lawn Chair, LOL

Things don't always mean what they mean -- especially on the internet.

When we speak to each other online, we use real-life language in non-real-life environments. The rules of our virtual linguistics shift accordingly, mutating to fit their surroundings. Phrases become abbreviations; abbreviations -- evolved beyond their meanings -- dominate our written landscape.

A few months back, in the midst of doing some linguistic research on the performance of gender through Second Life sex language, I came encountered the following utterance: "im naked in a lawn chair, lol."

The player my research alt was chatting it up with -- a self-admitted middle-aged, overweight, married man -- was testing the waters turning our virtual flirtations into a real-life proposition. He wanted to draw attention to his actual physical arousal, but didn't want to scare away the theoretical cutey behind my alt.

So what did he do? He said exactly what he wanted to say, except he added "lol."

Now, technically, "lol" means something very specific, namely "laugh out loud." Using "lol" makes literal sense, for example, in response to something funny. But the fact of the matter is, it's used for a lot more than that.

In a world of text communication where real-life facial expressions and vocal intonations are impossible, abbreviations like "lol" sacrifice their real meaning in order to articulate our nuanced intentions. They, in and of themselves, become glib, cliche -- while at the same time almost necessary for expression online.

"Lol" has come to mean: I'm being playful; I'm just kidding; I'm flirty; I'm friendly. It tints everything around it with a certain joviality. To replace it's original meaning, we have new favorites, like "rofl." And who knows what that will come to mean, someday.

Of course, "lol" is just one example of many.

This is why it always make me laugh when someone who isn't familiar with internet speak -- my tech-clueless mother, most recently -- proclaims with a knowing air, "Oh, 'lol'? That one means 'laugh out loud.' These kids think we don't understand, but we do."

But what is there to understand? Meaning is no longer meaningful. The pragmatics of the internet have shifted language use beyond real-life recognition.

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Do We Need a Virtual Gaming Commission?

In another life I was a researcher on gambling, and perhaps the most important public policy question that (legalized) gambling presents is regulatory: how are the games guaranteed to be "fair"?  In Nevada, for example, the Nevada Gaming Commission oversees the casinos to ensure that the operations of the employees and of the technology (roulette wheels, slot machines) are, as their mandate from the legislature puts it, "honest and competitive." The point is not to protect people from making some bad bets (such as betting on a single number in U.S. roulette -- a 38:1 gamble that only pays 35:1), but to guarantee that the games are (a) run as they are claimed to be and (b) in the case of slots, not paying out less often than a certain floor percentage. Why think about this here?  Well, with RMT now openly encouraged by the makers of some virtual worlds, can their players trust the 'house' not to skim a bit too much off the top? 

In recent discussions here and here, the possibility was raised that in MindArk's Entropia Universe making money is more akin to striking it rich in Vegas than to the just rewards from applying oneself through hard work and entrepreneurial skill. In a related vein, Jason Archinaco has recently posted a piece to ssrn about the career of a virtual horse at horseracingpark.com. While the piece for the most part applies a number of the ideas by our esteemed messrs. Castronova, Hunter, and Lastowka to ask questions at the intersection of law and (virtual) horse-breeding, Archinaco also points to the position of the game's makers and their high level of control over the conditions under which the virtual breeding and racing take place.

Big deal, you might say. If people want to bet their money in an enviroment where the mechanisms for determining outcomes are hidden, it's their money to lose. But public policy on gambling has usually wound up in a more regulatory position, forcing gambling venues to open their procedures and machines to the public or barring that (in the case of slots) to a licensing commission. Most policy experts on gambling point to the well-documented capacity of gambling to prey upon the hopes of the desperate, thereby worsening poverty. The Nevada legislature's mandate to the Nevada Gaming Commission states:

  • The continued growth and success of gaming is dependent upon public confidence and trust that gaming is conducted honestly and competitively, that the rights of the creditors of licensees are protected and that gaming is free from criminal and corruptive elements.
  • Public confidence and trust can only be maintained by strict regulation of all persons, locations, practices, associations and activities related to the operation of licensed gaming establishments and the manufacture or distribution of gambling devices and equipment.
  • All establishments where gaming is conducted and where gambling devices are operated, and manufacturers, sellers and distributors of certain gambling devices and equipment must therefore be licensed, controlled and assisted to protect the public health, safety, morals, good order and general welfare of the inhabitants of the state, to foster the stability and success of gaming and to preserve the competitive economy and policies of free competition of the State of Nevada.

The free market, then, does not reign over gambling in Nevada. Should it reign over online virtual worlds that encourage the speculative inflow of real capital (via RMT)? The key issue here is information; must virtual world makers with significant economies and RMT "open their books" about how their economies operate, given how much control they have over the conditions and mechanisms of those economies?

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ATITD Tests Psychological Origins of Play

At Ludium I, five teams competed to develop scholarly research questions that could be tested in a synthetic world. The Koithuo team proposed to test some implications from Francis Steen's theories of the evolutionary origins of play. Andrew Tepper, who was on that team as well, has now implemented the tests in A Tale in the Desert III, which goes live today.

The photo shows Thom Gillespie, Francis Steen, Randy Farmer, Andy Tepper, and Ian Pottmeyer. Also on Koithuo were Bill Sams and a student whose name escapes me.

While Koithuo did not win the Ludium, they clearly had the most controversial set of proposals. Here's why. Develop in your mind an evolutionary theory of human gender differences. Examine it; note that it explains why we have many ugly behavior patterns and outcomes that we really wish we did not have. Now because you developed your ideas using evolutionary psychology, you've endowed them with an uncomfortable robustness. We can't just pass a law and make them go away; they are the result of aeons of development.

Continue examing your theory but apply it now to games. Note how easily it explains why more guys play the current crop of MMORPG games. Here comes the hard part: use the theory to redesign games so that they appeal to your evolutionarily-designed model of females. It's not hard to do, just uncomfortable to think about. We're fine with the idea that boys and young men like to fight each other in a game environment. "It's a guy thing," we say. But this implies something queasy: maybe there are "girl things." To some, the very idea is revolting. And when Koithuo presented some theoretically-derived notions of what evolutionary psychology predicts "girl things" would be in games, they were criticized.

Steen's theories propose some very controversial girl game modes. Those modes are based on a prediction that women will be interested in a) games about rating men's prowess ("The Yenta Game"), choosing men to connect with ("The Marriage Game"), and getting men to stay committed to them ("The Newlywed Game").

These kinds of hypotheses are such that even stating them ends all rational discussion. Some even argued that such things should not be said as research hypotheses, just because of their political implications.  The ideas themselves got everyone into a major tizzy.  So I'll stop talking now and leave the heavy lifting to Teppy. Here's how he described the implementation of these games in ATITD 3, in an email earlier this month:

** BEGIN QUOTE **
"The Marriage Game" is now known as The Test of Marriage. One change  from the way it was presented at Ludium I is that your score is the sum of  your progress and your mate's progress *or* the number of marriages that  you ("Casanova") have been in. This made it a lot more palatable to our  players, without changing the optimal play strategy. It will be  interesting to see the distribution of "Casanovas" vs. "good spouses", and  to see if there is some correlation with player gender.

"The Yenta Game" is now known as The Test of the Prophet. Each week,  you'll have a chance to pick another player that you believe will go on to  have much future success. It is open to both men and women, though each  must prophecy about a member of the other gender. Though the Test is now  open to both genders, it is unchanged from the way it was presented at  Ludium I. Again, I look forward to seeing whether women or men are better  at this, and more importantly, if women rate this Test as particularly  fun. (Which was Koithuo's hypothesis.)

"The Newlywed Game" is now known as The Test of Souls. Each week,  forecast a marriage that will survive a long time. "Survive" means that no  divorce has taken place, and that both accounts remain active. Scoring is  paramutual style. It is essentially unchanged from the presentation.  Although we didn't explicitly give a hypothesis for this one, I'll propose  one now: heavily wagered marriages' players' accounts will have higher  retention rates than unwagered ones.
** END QUOTE **

These game modes implement the theory in a gender-neutral way. We will see whether there are any differences between the way men and women approach them.

I think this is really cool. Regardless of whether you agree with Steen's theories or not, the exciting thing here is that we get to see them tested, at the level of an entire society. It's not just a theoretical/political debate any more. We're getting some information. And that was the essence of the mission of Ludium I.

I can't wait to see what happens.

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Comments on the "Cyber Queen"

Blame it on my biased perspective, but what resonates most with me about Rufa's story is his attraction to the written word.  As Richard Bartle pointed out recently in his article at The Escapist, text is sexy.  It's mutable, it's accessible, and it offers endless possibilities.  In short, it's the perfect medium for sex.  But what the Rufa's experiences reveal is not just the inherently sexual nature of writing, but the inherently writerly nature of sex.

It seems to me that Rufa's exploration of cybersex was also largely an exploration of the use of language.  He experienced sex through the lense of the written word.  For example, he describes bad sex not as a lack of physical pleasure, but as an awkwardness with writing: "I cut and paste something in, but after that, I'm really struggling with something to say."

Similarly, sexual prowess becomes a matter of writerly skill: "I had thought I was totally clueless about cybersex, but really, I had already built up some of the basic skills from writing stories and playing roleplaying games. I knew a story needed a beginning, a middle, and an end."

This measure of skill applies not just to Rufa, but to his potential partners as well: "Of course, everybody has to pass the basic 'coherent sentence' and 'no ur' test. 'For' is three letters, 'your' is four: you may have gained two keystrokes, sir, but you have lost my respect."  Even arousal becomes a textual state: "Once I'm aroused, I have a tendency toward circular writing and purple prose."

In one sense, it's hardly surprising that Rufa's story is one about writing.  He began cybering in the time of text-based play, and perhaps developed his tastes around those initial patterns.  In another sense though, it's important to remember that, even when presented with other options, Rufa preferred cybersex in a wholly textual medium.  It was writing, narrative, and the "stories" he created that aroused him -- not simply sex itself.

Text-based cybering, unlike other forms of real-life or technological play, makes something new, something that wasn't there before: a transcript.  In is, in this way, a form of artistic creation.  As Rufa says, "It's addicting. It has a little creative spark."

Was Rufa more inclined toward text-based play because he was engaging in sex as a woman?  Did this additional "fantasy" element impact his choice of mediums?  Or does all cybersex necessitate the recreation of the self -- a recreation that is itself most effectively expressed through language?

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Shifting Social Tides

I'm in the process of reading TL Taylor's excellent new book Play Between Worlds, which got me to thinking a bit about the relationship between "virtual" and "real" social connections. Taylor (at least in the first section of the book) talks about the extent to which social relationships begin to extend from in-game to real life, and this type of social spillover has been a constant theme in discussions of virtual life for quite some time (see, for example, Howard Rheingold's 15-year-old The Virtual Community).

Lately, however, I've seen something different happening in the context of virtual worlds and MMORPGs. The social tide isn't moving from the virtual to the real...it's going the other way. Increasingly people are starting to play games like World of Warcraft, or visit worlds like Second Life, because friends and colleagues in the real world are inviting them into that space.

I started playing World of Warcraft in December because a friend and colleague had encouraged me to join his guild--and a big part of the appeal was being able to interact with him and with other real-world friends and colleagues. My kids then started playing WoW because I was there, and because my friends and I were in a position to be able to help them navigate the game and fund their early explorations.

Not long after I started playing WoW, however, the convergence of my real-world and virtual social networks began to present some challenges for me. What do you do, for example, when a professional colleague IMs you at work to tell you that your teenage son is ninja-ing loot in an instance and could you please log in and tell him to stop? (Yes, you're laughing, I know. But I wasn't, at the time.) It was an indication of how these virtual contexts are beginning to affect real-world social ties and boundaries--sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

Recent discussions of WoW being the "new golf," are another indication of the shift that's taking place. And I think there are implications here for virtual world and MMORPG designers and marketers. The days of "if you build it, they will come" are going away, and the importance of seeding your virtual space with real people who will attract their friends and colleagues is growing. Making it easy for groups that exist in one context to re-form in another virtual space will matter. Creating more sophisticated tools for handling group relationships and communication "in world" will matter, as well. And finding ways to bridge the communication gaps between the virtual and real will be important--from presence indicators that we can embed on our blogs, to IM that reaches both inside and outside of virtual contexts.

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community outreach, or community outrage?

Sometimes I forget how much my professional and personal lives are beginning to merge. As a result, last weekend I was in "mom" mode, preparing to take my 11yo son to a Star Wars: Galaxies "Community Summit" at the Seattle Hilton. (That URL doesn't look static, btw, so I suspect that it won't be long before it features a new event.) It didn't occur to me to bring a notebook along, and it wasn't until the event was well underway that I started to realize how much of what I was seeing and hearing related to my growing interest in the social aspects of MMORPGs. My lack of note-taking apparatus makes it hard for me to provide the kind of journalistic detail that I'd like, but there's still plenty for me to say about the experience.

My son starting playing SWG just a few months ago, after the infamous "new game enhancements" (NGE) had been rolled out. When he started, I did a little reading about the game--both here on TerraNova, and elsewhere. I wasn't surprised, given his enthusiasm for the game, to see the general consensus that the NGE was targeting adolescents. Given that, what surprised me most at the Community Summit was how few adolescents were there.

But first, a little contextual framing.

The event drew what looked to me to be around 200 people, most of whom had registered in advance for the event (they accommodated a number of walk-ins, as well). There was no registration cost, and dinner (pizza, a few veggies, and lots of of brownies and cookies) was provided. This wasn't a full "fan fest" style event with focus on social interactions (despite the use of the fan fest URL to promote it)--it was a communications event, designed primarily to get a controlled message out to the fan base, and secondarily to hear what those fans had to say (or at least to appear to be hearing that).

There were five Sony employees there--a woman who runs events for LucasArts, a "game producer" (who sounded to me, and to my son, more like a marketing guy/spin doctor than a producer), and three devs. At registration, players received name badges with their "real life" first names (in tiny print), their character name (in big print), and their server name (slightly smaller than player name). The room was set up with round tables, each labelled with a server name. From 5-6pm they encouraged us to "socialize" with people at our table. From 6-6:30pm we retrieved plates of starchy food from the buffet. And from 6:30-9:00 we had the actual program. It began with Julio, the producer, reviewing the publish plan for the next year. What it boiled down to, so far as I could tell, was "We know there are lots of bugs. We're committed to fixing the bugs. We don't want to keep rolling out new content and introducing new bugs without fixing the ones that are there." An excellent sentiment, but it says a lot about how badly broken their platform is that they had to emphasize this so heavily and repeatedly. After his review, they opened up the Q and A, which went on for over two hours, with easily 30-40 people queued up

If you're interested in the game-related details, you can check out some of the online reports from previous summits (like this one from Austin). Since I don't play the game, most of what they outlined in their publish (aka "patch" or "update") schedule didn't mean much to me. What was interesting to me had to do with who attended, and what they had to say--both in the public Q and A session, and at the table of "Kettemoor" denizens where my son and I were seated.

Of the many people in the packed room of hard-core players and fans, I think probably less than 10% were under 18, and other than my son I only saw one pre-teen with a name tag (guests and parents were not given name tags; we were clearly persona non grata in this context). The bulk of the players were adults, many in their 30s and 40s. There were more women than I'd expected, including 3 at our table--two of whom were there with their real-life partners. One couple at our table had met in SWG, and the woman had then moved from the southeast to the northwest to marry the man. Most (possibly all) of the people at our table were long-time players, who told me that they'd joined on the second day of the game (because, as they patiently explained to me several times, _nobody_ could get online the first day).

Most of the people at our table seemed unhappy with the NGE, and had attended the event because they wanted to be sure the development team heard about their concerns. They were in the game still not because of the changes, but despite them. Their social network was in this virtual world, and they couldn't quite bring themselves to leave it completely. The met-and-married couple (who at one point pre-NGE had apparently had over 20 accounts, for a cost of over $300/month, between the two of them) told me that they'd recently started playing World of Warcraft, and liked it a lot better. And yet, there they were at this summit, still passionate enough about the game to spend their Saturday night in this hotel ballroom.

The question and answer session gave me--and my son--a great deal of insight into both the level of emotional commitment so many of these players had to the game, and the level of their anger and grief over the changes that the NGE had brought. Certain themes came up over and over again--in particular, a chorus of requests for an "adult-only" server, not for x-rated content, but because these adult players felt that the influx of youngsters post-NGE had changed their gameplay in a way they weren't happy with. The producer was firm in his negation of this request, saying that the social tools in the game allowed players to choose with whom they interacted, and asserting that virtual worlds were intended to have this kind of diverse population. This was not particularly well-received by the crowd.

Other consistent themes in the questions had to do with what long-time players saw as a dumbing-down of the game, the gutting of skills-based professions (and the economic devaluing of the fruits of those professions, which left many players with crates full of originally expensive but now value-less items), and an unrelenting focus on "twitch combat" skills rather than complex interactions. This latter point was made particularly strongly by a disabled woman who stood in line on her crutches for well over an hour in order to have her say. The emotion in her voice was powerful, and the sense of loss and grief in her questions for the developers was palpable. (I use "questions" loosely-- most of the people who spoke were making statements more than they were asking questions.)

Also interesting to me were the number of women who got up to speak, and the high percentage of them who were entertainers and/or craftspeople in the game. I pointed out to my son that when they showed iconic representations of each of the various professioins in the game, _only_ entertainers were represented by a woman. (Hey, they're _never_ too young to be educated on implicit sexism, I think.)

And speaking of chauvinism, the low point of the evening came as a young man (mid-20s, I'd guess) with slicked-back hair and a tight leather jacket got his turn at the microphone. Before he even started to speak, I whispered to my son "don't grow up to be like him; he's probably never had a real date in his life." My son was quite offended by my snarky judgement--until the guy started to speak. His question? "When are you going to let us see more big titties?" He then turned around, smarmy grin on his face, arms spread wide, to query the audience--"That's what we really want, guys, isn't it?" Sigh. To their credit, the Sony folks handled this well. The woman emceeing the event wrestled (literally!) the microphone away from him, and when he protested to the devs on the podium that he had more questions, they announced quite loudly that he had burned all of his question time with his remark.

I'll close with a quote from my son's blog, in case you're wondering what the new target market thought of the event:

I went to a developer dinner for the MMO I play most, Star Wars Galaxies. The game producer, mainly a marketer, but trying to make sure the developers didn't say anything stupid, was there, and he said the words "is key" about a thousand times. "Community is KEY." "Content is KEY." "Players are, (you guessed it) KEY." Sure, he sounded like a complete idiot, but he had an awesome jacket. The developers themselves were not so bad, they made it sound like they cared about the kids in the game, but in fact, they didn't. Considering over 50% of the game is kids, they're not too smart. I still love the game, but this thing has changed my outlook on it greatly. I see why so many people quit a year ago, and I agree with them. They took the SKILL out of the game, the aspect that keeps adults worrying if they made the right choice, if they crafted the right items, if their weapons were going to be disabled (which, by the way, they were). Basically, the devs ripped the player's hearts out of their chests, as one man put it.

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Q&A with the "Cyber Queen"

Having read Rufa's self-described origins story, I asked the "cyber queen" some questions of my own. The following are excerpts from his answers:

"Am I really only attracted to women, i.e. straight? I've got nothing against being attracted to a guy... I've just never met a guy I've been attracted too. I've never said to myself, 'Boy! I sure could go for some cock today,' while I've spent plenty of time agonizing over the fair sex. But can anyone who has spent as much time as I have pretending to be a girl for the sexual gratification of other males really be called straight?...

Am I attracted to my own character? Easy one first, yes, I'm always attracted to my own female persona, except for a few cases where someone has asked me to play a certain character for them that I wasn't really into. When I'm playing female, I'm much more interested in what's happening to my character, what she's thinking or feeling, than what's happening with the other guy... Do I envision a girl attached to the persona? Not really, but I do self-identify with the female persona. It' s 'I' rather than 'her' when I'm logged on as woman.

Once I'm aroused, I have a tendency toward circular writing and purple prose... What makes me attracted to a guy online? Mostly just the fact that he's got more sex in his head than just 'I really want to fuck Britney Spears!' Things I remember people doing that got them added to the friends list: wanted to eat sushi off a girl, wanted to be anime characters, wanted to do it in a car, wanted me to be his secretary. Of course, everybody has to pass the basic 'coherent sentence' and 'no ur' test. 'For' is three letters, 'your' is four: you may have gained two keystrokes, sir, but you have lost my respect.

What female names have I used? Back in the MUD days, when you could set your gender in game, I'd take a neutral name. I can't remember any of these. Internet stuff tended not to show your gender globally, so I started going by female first names, like Jenny, Amber, Melissa. I tended to go through a few names a month. If I wanted to collect solicitations on IRC, ICQ, or AIM, I'd add something cloying like 'Lil', alternating caps or the ever popular underscores and Xes. My longstanding ICQ name for pervy cybersex was Bonnie (sorry), giving the guy a good set up for a 'Bonnie and Clyde' line (they all thought they were so damn clever). I'd usually attach the spec for some cool piece of machinery to the end...

Have I ever wanted to cross dress? Never during my teenage years. My image of cross dressing for most of my life was set by the Rocky Horror Picture Show...

What were people's reactions when they found out I was male? I never told anybody, really. If they wanted to verify my sex, I'd just excuse myself from the chat, and that should have led to a conclusion on their part. With the guys I regularly cybered with, I think it was an open secret that most of us were surely male. If it didn't bother the other guys, it didn't bother me...

I did get asked for a lot of unusual things, but this was often after I had asked for something even more unusual first. I got asked to be the prepubescent girl a couple of times. More than a couple. Some of the anime-themed MU** there would be a guy who would ask for a character like Sasami. Sometimes a guy in chat would just flat out ask me to be a 10 year old girl. So that always takes things from good dirty to bad dirty.  Sometimes I'd get weird stuff like "be inflatible." Some guys had specific costumes or clothes they liked, of course. One time I got "And we're in Soviet Russia." Well, there's actually a lot of weird stuff over the years...

[Why was I afraid?]  The real problem is the femininity. Where I went to school, a boy who likes girly things is just as much a fag as a boy who likes sex with boys. There's not much distinction between being gay, being feminine, being incompetent and being worthless. They all make you a fag. Cybersex would have made me odd, pretending to be a girl would have made me a fag. That would have been the end of most of my friendships, my relationship, and put me on "polite" terms with most of my extended family.

So that's what I used to feel, that was the fear. Do I still feel it? Not nearly as much. I don't return calls from any of the people I knew in highschool anyway. I definitely wouldn't miss the family. I already broke up with the girlfriend. It would be embarrassing to get confronted about it by my co-workers or parents, but they are both stuck with me. I don't feel guilty about anything except deceiving people about my gender occasionally, and there I use the 'should have known better' defense.

So all that leaves is how I do feel about it now. You know what? I don't feel much at all. I've got no problems with who I am or what this meant about me. Yeah, it's a little embarrassing, but so is regular sex or pornography. It's okay."

Remember to check back again soon for commentary on Rufa's story.

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The Life and Times of a "Cyber Queen"

The following is something of a case study: the story of one internet user and his experience presenting cross-gender online.  From harmless experimentation to hardcore solicitation, alias "Rufa Hendeiger" went through it all.

Rufa first contacted me in the comments section of a blog post.  There, using the name "X_x_Lil-Anonymous," he confessed, "under the cover anonymity," to being "a complete cyber-queen!"

"I have no illusions," says Rufa "about the true gender of the slim yet large breasted 18-25 year old Asian full time students/part time lesbians I have met on AOL instant messenger. Or about 'their' pictures. And I’m fairly sure that the guys who are contacting me when I’ve got some ridiculous cutesy-feminine screen name (see above, add more pink) and asking about sex have any illusions either."

The quotes below are excerpts from an interview I conducted with Rufa via email.  Check back soon for the results of a Q&A session with the "cyber queen," and, after that, some humble commentary from yours truly.

"I'm only 23, and this kind of stuff is really an off and on thing with me, and lately it's been off for a good two years or so... for most of my life I have been a boy who did something that he was scared might ruin his life, and now I'm a man who is only slightly concerned it will come back to ruin his life later...

I remember the first time I played a girl online. I was about 13, I had a 33.6 modem, a copy of telnet, and the numbers for a bunch of local gaming BBS... My favorite was Midnight, because it was really small. It could only handle 5 or so connections at once, and the only game it had was MajorMUD. That forced people to party together who normally would not. And plus, it had a Real Live Girl who would sometimes play: the sysop's sister, who went by Sunflower. That made the whole thing cooler somehow.

I learned a hack on some other BBS to get into the mail system. Of course I used it to see what my friends over at Midnight were up to when I wasn't there. What I found was Sunflower's username and password in her mail. I immediately logged off and logged back on as Sunflower. She had a high level Ranger, which I had never played.

So bam, now I'm Sunflower in the middle of the night, using my cool Ranger stuff to bash monsters. Then, somebody else logs on. Busted. He could easily see that I'm logged on using one of the lines, and not as a local user, like Sunflower would be. But he doesn't. He messages me. Could I help him in the tombs? He needs new ring mail. Sure, I can.

So we bash monsters a little. I disable my attack/cast/heal/get gold script because I know that Sunflower doesn't use one. I make like I'm interested in what's going on with the guy and make vaguely encouraging remarks, because that's what Sunflower does. I say I've got horrible homework and talk about baseball because that's what Sunflower talks about. I'd played some D&D, so I just imagined Sunflower as “my character,” and off we went.

For some reason, everybody decided to log on at about 1:30 AM. Soon we got a full party. I started to become aware of the social dynamic that was surrounding me. The other guys argued, ragged on each other, fought over treasure, did the stuff that I would usually be doing, but as Sunflower, I was a little above it all. People considered what I had to say without first making a sarcastic comment, didn't rush for my gold, and if somebody gave me the business, one of the guys would say, “Hey, leave her alone, she's a friend.”

A little background here. At 13, I was really, really nerdy: red hair, glasses, no friends, the whole bit. I felt basically unwanted wherever I went. Later, I'd get a lot better at this kind of stuff, but at that moment, this was as wanted as I'd felt for a long time. It really started to get to me...

There was a shock of new feelings...

I never logged back on as Sunflower, since she really was my friend and I didn't want to piss her off, but I did play female characters after that. I remember justifying it. I would say that it was because people were nicer to girls, didn't grief them, shared items, etc. That was true, but really, it was that girls got a little more attention (both good and bad) and that I let myself play a more neutral, less extreme social role when I was in a female character. It was less work to be friends when you were a girl, especially with other girls. The fantasy started becoming less “I'm a magic warrior who can kill his enemies without consequence!” and more “I'm a pretty, hip teenage girl, one of the most sought after members of society, instead of a ugly, geeky teenage boy, one of the least sought after.”

I'm not quite sure how long after that my family got access to the internet... I used Excite to search for a MUD and logged on to the first one I found... I got my first solicitation for cybersex in like fifteen minutes.

Hey, new experience: rejecting someone! It felt kinda cool! Commence to bashing monsters. A day or two later, I'm in a party with a guy who asks for cybersex... I tell him, 'I don't think I'd be any good at that.' This is true, I'm a virgin and I've got only a hazy concept of what actually goes on during sex. However, I'm intrigued.

I search for any information I can get about cybersex, logs especially. I relate it back to my experience playing roleplaying games and playing MUDs as female characters. I copy some cybersex stuff into a text file, and log back into the MUD, intending to accept the first offer for cybersex I get.

I don't have to wait long. Soon I've got a private session with some random online adventurer. As the supposed female, I wait for him to kick things off. He waits for a moment and then jumps right in with something that boils down to 'I'm fucking you. I've got a huge dick.'

Jesus Christ. Way to fail to meet my expectations, sir... I cut and paste something in, but after that, I'm really struggling with something to say. I invoke the power of the internet and just log off, leaving the guy hanging in a MUD chatroom, never to be seen again.

So lesson learned. I had thought I was totally clueless about cybersex, but really, I had already built up some of the basic skills from writing stories and playing roleplaying games. I knew a story needed a beginning, a middle, and an end. I knew that we're both playing pretend together, and we shouldn't break the implied contract of how this pretend world worked. I knew that what we were doing was similar to what other people did, and I could learn to do it better by reading their records. Right there that made me 'better' than most of the guys messaging me for cybersex.

The next time out, I teamed up with a couple people, and struck up the standard MUD conversations. When I found a guy who was cool, funny, etc, I went ahead and asked him for cybersex. This time, I had done prep (like a DM!), and I took the initiative, setting a scene. We're in the enchanted something-or-other, tired from killing monsters, a moment of silence (an idea from a romance book). Bam, he takes to the idea right away, and we're doing all the romance novel stuff I had originally imagined we'd be doing.

It's addicting. It has a little creative spark, a little spontaneity. It makes me feel desired. It's reinforcing all that social-female fantasy I've got going, and adds in lots of powerful new stuff, courtship, attraction, a story to tell that's about me as a female, instead of just involving me as a female. And of course, its got sex and I'm a teenage boy. I start playing less of the MUD itself, using it more as a networking service. I also start getting my real life together, and the reduced computer time gets cut from the game playing, not the cybersex.

I keep doing the MUD thing for a while, but it gets pushed to the background after I discover instant messaging – ICQ mostly. I also develop a little baby conscience about deceiving these guys about my gender. Mostly, I've got a few people on my friends list who I do it with, no random people in the MUDs or chatrooms. If I meet someone who wants cybersex, I stop if any interest is shown as to my real life gender...

There's just too many benefits to being a straight white male in small town America. I like being just one of the guys. When I say, “I suck at football,” I don't want any questions as to how I define the word 'suck.' I don't want my friends and family to be tested by having a weirdo amongst them, because frankly, I don't think many of them would pass. I'm just barely scraping myself up to Whitey McNormal status from the untouchable geek caste, and backsliding is going to be painful. I have respect for those of us who are publicly identifying as gay, transgendered, genderqueer, what-have-you. That bell is impossible to unring sometimes.

When playing female characters in MUDs, I thought that I was gaining some kind of valuable insight into what it meant to be a girl in our society. I thought it might help me get a girlfriend. It's not really true, though. I could switch my femaleness on and off at will, and that's not what it means to BE female. What I was really getting was insight into myself, and that really did help me get a girlfriend, among other things...

Anyway, I ran out of money, and had to sober up and get a job. And that's where I stand today."

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Indebted

I started to play Animal Crossing: Wild World with my 5 y/o son the other day, and was struck by the initial game mechanic. After rolling his toon we were informed that we could go and hang out in his house, which seemed like a deeply cool thing. (Aside: one of the things that I've (oddly) missed in WoW and CoH is owning real estate, but that topic is for another day).

Anyway...we went to his house only to be informed by the Chief Running Raccoon of Capitalism, aka Tom Nook, that we owed him some ungodly number of bells (the local currency) for the house. This was a wonderful "teachable moment" for me to explain to my son about mezzanine debt structures, junk bond financing, and the enforcability of oral contracts based on part performance. (He naturally asked about the validity of this contract given the Statute of Frauds requirements of formalities for a contract involving land and the reality of his consent in this case; but quickly answered his own question on the basis of standard conflict of laws principles).

Anyway...(again)...this got me thinking about the game mechanic of debt within virtual worlds, especially as a motivator of behavior that is, frankly, pathological. In WoW, a guildie is currently engaged in grinding faction with Timbermaw, and he has been doing this pretty much to the exclusion of everything else. He jokes about it, of course, and is very aware of the pointlessness of what he is doing. But why is he prepared to do this? It's not the rewards at the end of this, since even though it involves some rawking plans and armor and the like, they're not that good. It's certainly not that the experience of faction-grinding is pleasant. At best one becomes used to the pain of doing it. It might be the sense of completing a difficult task, but that seems to be a weak explanation. There are lots of difficult tasks spread throughout the world, and most of them are interesting; why would my guildie grind faction to the exclusion of hitting BRD or Temple or WSG if it were just about completion of a hard task?

It seems to me (as I'm embarking on my own faction-grinding nightmare with the Thorium Brotherhood) that this is not about the rewards in finishing this Sisyphean task, so much as once you accept the call you have a large debt that you have to pay to the grunting bearmen or those accursed dark iron dorfs. In watching my son respond to the obligation of owing 19,800 bells to the Shopkeeper of Darkness, I was struck that the notion of duty inherent in debt seems to be one of the more significant motivators of behavior in these worlds. I think that part of this is deeply held human response to social obligations, even social obligations to humanoid-like Raccoons of Ultimate Evil like Tom Nook. I suspect that this it linked to Ted's observations about the economy of virtual worlds being an economy of fun. It's just that here the fun is generated by reciprocal obligations that are compelling even though they are--as in the case of faction-grinding or bell-grinding--utterly stupid.

Anyway...(for the last time)...I can't spend any more time musing on this. Gotta go get some bells and some incendosaur scales. Anyone know if IGE carry these?

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Say Please and Thank You

Sit up straight. Don’t play with your food. Keep your elbows off the table.

In real life, we accept certain things as common-sense good manners. When you meet someone for the first time, you shake hands, you make eye contact, you smile. Tempting as it may be, you don’t bombard your new friend with sensitive questions, or ask, point blank, whether he’d like to get kinky back at your place. We call this being polite.

In a virtual community like Second Life, however, the rules of politeness are often quite different. How could they be the same? Here, personal information is hardly ever personal, and private encounters rarely stay private. So – in a world where public nudity, open solicitations, and gropings between strangers are all run of the mill – what determines "rude"?

It isn’t rude to interject into someone else’s chat. It isn’t rude to friend someone you met five minutes before. It isn’t even rude to hold three conversations at once. What is rude though is asking about someone’s real-life gender.

Or, at least, so I’ve been taught. When I first started in Second Life, about six months ago, a veteran was kind enough to show me the ropes. And when I asked his advice on that age old question, "R u a guy or a grl IRL?", the answer was simple: don’t ask. It’s just rude.

More recently, I’ve doing research for a study on how male players who present female in Second Life use language to perform femininity. The biggest obstacle has been finding subjects who will admit to being male. Or, more specifically, the biggest obstacle has been even asking. Between me and my research alt, we’ve heard countless theories on how to tell if you’re chatting with a cross-dresser.  One blog reader even suggested quizzing the player on women’s shoe sizes. Brilliant.

But no one has said, "Just ask." Not only because you’re likely to get an inaccurate answer, but because it’s impolite.

So I decided to tarnish my own good, Second Life name a little and see what would happen if I did the unacceptable. Specifically, I asked thirty players (20 female, 10 male) the same two questions: "Hello, I’m doing some research. Do you mind if I ask you a question?" and then, "In real life, are you male or female?"

Every single player answered. All but one – a real-life transvestite, who cheerfully pointed out the complication inherent in the question – responded quickly and clearly with a gender that matched that of their avatars. Seven of the thirty asked after the fact what the research was for. One asked before.

No one expressed outrage, or even mild discomfort, at being asked, even the five female escorts polled, who could have easily taken the question the wrong way. The only people who could be said to have been offended were those who didn't answer the initial query – "Do you mind if I ask you a question?" – but who, in all cases, were camping for Linden dollars, and were most likely away from keyboard.

Whether or not these thirty players were telling the truth about their genders is impossible to know, but it’s also irrelevant. What’s interesting instead is their nonchalant reaction to the question.

Perhaps it was the sheer bluntness of my asking that kept the question from being perceived as "rude." Or maybe the fact that it was presented as "for research." Also, it’s important to note that my toon had no standing relationship with any of those questioned. If, instead, I had been asking acquaintances or friends, the players might have felt more pressure to answer honestly, and therefore the question might have been more invasive.

It seems though that there’s another issue at work here as well. When we participate in virtual worlds, we create new forms for ourselves, cyber forms, avatars with certain physical attributes, personality traits, etc. These new forms act, in some ways, as shields for our real-life selves. But often, weo create another new form, a non-cyber form, an imagined back story about the person at the key board. The housewife becomes the eighteen-year-old dancer; the eighteen-year-old becomes the successful mother of two. We are not who we are on screen, but, frequently, we are also not who we say we are. In effect, we set up two lines of defense between the virtual and the real.

Maybe this is why asking a stranger about real-life gender isn’t rude after all. What’s rude, in the end, is what cuts too close to the truth. And the stories many of us keep on the tips of our tongues about our "real lives" are anything but. Even if we tell the truth about ourselves, the understanding that our stories may be mere imaginings seems to buffer us from the sting of intrusion, from the imposition of the impolite.

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Daedalus Data

In the new issue of The Daedalus Project:

  • What's life like as a guild leader? Narratives from current and past guild leaders highlight common pain-points and lessons learned.
  • As to the origin of guild leaders, younger players who are guild leaders tend to be leaders of guilds they created themselves whiles older players who are guild leaders tend to be leaders of guilds they inherited. An interesting life-cycle of guilds may be at play.
  • About 30% of respondents use a VoIP tool on a regular basis. The best predictor of VoIP use was the Achievement motivation (Socialization comes in third).
  • 45% of respondents had at least 2 computers in their household on which an MMO is regularly played. About 20% of male respondents and 50% of female respondents regularly play with someone else in the same room.

Comments (3)

More Than a Pretty Face

They could be your neighbors, your best friends, even... you! Yes, video-game cross-dressers are all around us -- but just who are these gender-bending gamers we keep hearing so much about?

Last time we touched on the subject of video-game cross-dressing, we asked the question: Where does it happen? This time, we want to know: Who's doing it?

Let's start with a some background info:

Lynne D. Roberts and Malcolm R. Parks 1999 piece, "The Social Geography of Gender-Switching in Virtual Environments on the Internet," indicates that 40% of MOO-ers surveyed were either currently presenting cross-gender in-game, or had gender-swapped in the past.

From the work of fellow TN-writer Nick Yee, we see that men are more likely to present cross-gender than women, and that, among men, older players (over age 25) are even more likely to do so. Nic's research also shows us that, out of an assumed 1,000 EverQuest players in the year 2003, approximately half of the female toons were being controlled by men.

When Dr. Kathryn Wright of Women Gamers put together an informal survey of her own on the topic, she found that the majority of her respondents -- all male -- were between ages 20 and 30, and that most played as female for at least 50% of their game time.

These statistics alone certainly raise a lot of questions: Why don't more women choose to present cross-gender? How come older men, and not younger men, more often switch gendered identities?

Statistics aside though, another question remains: What are these people like? Is there a certain kind of person, a certain personality-type, that's more likely to cross-dress than another? On one level, the idea seems a bit absurd, but remember that, in real life, we have plenty of preoccupations and presuppositions about what transvestites and trasgendered persons are supposed to be.

Many gender-bending gamers are quick to describe/defend themselves in forums as "normal" guys who simply prefer watching female tail. But what does that really tell us? I recently conducted a (highly informal) survey as well, and asked for anonymous personal profiles, hoping that the gamers behind the buzz could shed a little light on themselves -- and answer for us, in, perhaps, a more meaningful way, the question of who is cross-dressing.
------
-"I am a male computer geek, 31 years old, married, and a long time gamer. Currently I’m a full time college student again, focusing on east asian history, and the Japanese language. I used to do olympic style fencing, though today I’m too out of shape. Before I went back to college full time I was a computer tutor, corporate trainer, and repairman... I play World Of Warcraft and I tend to play female characters. Of my five characters only one is male. While in game I do not make any particular effort to fool people into thinking I’m a woman in real life, nor do I make any effort to let people know that I’m a man in real life. I don’t flirt, or try to produce any sexual vibes... I *do* tend to refer to myself using feminine terms (ie: “I’m your girl” instead of “I’m your boy” when agreeing to help someone)."

-"I know female characters are just as popular as male ones, but I [male] like playing as non-traditional ones, like a female Tauren. Female Taurens are so loveable! Then again, I did enjoy playing as a female troll, who was very cute, but very insane (it was an RP server). I like haiving cute, silly characters, that will actually whoop your ass... IRL, I’m a 20 year old male who is about 96% attracted to other males... I play as male characters sometimes, but when I do I usually choose an attractive one."

-"I’m a 40 year old male computer programmer/business owner, single, long time gamer on a variety of levels... Strongly introverted; favored hobbies are orienteering/hiking, reading, and game design; music tastes range from classical to new age. In terms of creating avatars, I usually seem to end up with somewhere near a 50/50 split in terms of gender... I generally create avatars the same way I did back in my pen-and-paper gaming days: I have a concept in mind, perhaps based on a character in a recent novel or movie, and that determines the character’s gender... While I have female characters of nearly all shapes and sizes, my favorites generally fall into one of two basic categories: tiny and brash (usually a redhead, heh), and the blond Valkyrie/Amazon type. Then there are the oddities like my female troll priestess in WoW with the red mohawk… I really enjoyed playing her :-)."

-"I’m a 30-year-old [male] software development professional who is an avid multimedia gamer, musician, and armchair psychologist. I’m rather new to the MMO scene, having never gotten involved in Everquest and being disappointed at Dark Age of Camelot. But when playing games that allow me to create an avatar, I usually choose a female character model first... When playing a female avatar, I enjoy feeling popular, sexy, beautiful, and more than a little powerful. it’s amazing how much power a smart female can wield over the desperate, the socially awkward, and the stereotypical unwashed masses of geeks that typically inhabit an MMO setting. And I play that up. Even something as simple as using an atypical male response (like using “cutie” when addressing a male or demonstrating “physical” affection) is enough to convince all but the most jaded skeptic that I am female."

-"I am a 42 year old male. I work for a large school district as their Director of Technology. I’ve been playing computer games since they were text on mainframes, and have beta tested just about every MMO since the first Everquest. I wrote for a major Computer Games publication for about 5 years freelance... I play my avatars like I would play with remote control cars. I am not my characters, nor do I role play much... In the fantasy MMO’s I am just as likely to play male as female. I have two males and a female avatar in WOW right now. My female is a human rogue, I really had this idea of a trim red head dressed in black avatar for this character, don’t know why, it’s just the image I was after... I don’t flirt or participate in blatant female ways."

-"I'm currently 19, straight white male. In addition to the female characters I've played in RPGs, I also play the occasional female skin in FPS I play... [In high school] I played michalla. She was an elven ranger/fighter in D&D. I'm not very good at make up names so I just stole my sisters hawaiian middle name. That was all my sister lent to the character though. She didn't last long... Recently I decided to take up my other big female character... There is a little bit of feminism in the character and I'm trying to be conscious of female aspect."

-"In real life, I'm a 39 year old [female] straight game designer. Pretty normal person, normal family. My hobbies are my kids, three of them. I give them all my time. Before I had kids, though, my hobbies were classic cars and metalwork. I plan to take the latter up again in the fall, actually. I've been a gamer since 1981. Given my long gaming history, I most fondly remember playing party-based RPGs where I would play a whole crew of male-characters. At first, I played characters like this because there was no option to play a female character. Now, I choose characters not so much on their gender - in fact, when I am playing, the avatar's gender doesn't even occur to me - but on what they do in the world and what their statistical benefits might be."

"I’m a [thirty-something, male] writer between employments right now, spent a lot of time in the tech-support business, the insurance business, and a few other odd jobs between... It used to be more of a mix, but these days I find myself playing female characters almost all the time. The ratio is about 3:1. I blame a long-standing fascination with the feminine mystique... I try to imbue the women I play with something of that sensibility. I also tend to play “Girl Fridays.” These are dependable, helpful, cheerful women who don’t shrink from adversity, don’t flinch from a fight, but are still, undeniably feminine... They are not, therefore, sexpots, nymphos, or anything else of the sort. I do not shy away from sexual play... I am also married, no kids."

Comments (60)

Race Bending

One of our readers, George Lara, sent us a question that is interesting, provocative and on which, no doubt, the hivemind has views.

George writes:

"In the past, I've read articles from various sources about "Gender Bending" players who take on opposite genders while online. I wonder if and of your authors has dived into the subject of playing someone of a different race or skin color? I play a human character in WoW that has dark hair and skin and I notice that my character really was a true minority among human characters (I'm Latino in real life) who were overwhelmingly Anglo. It lead me to wonder if there are players out there who "Race Bend", and is it as common as those who gender bend. Are offline persons of color choosing to play Anglo humanoid players and vice versa and why?"

I can think of Jerry Kang's early piece about race in online spaces, "Cyber-race" and there must be more recent analysis of the issue. Other thoughts, examples?

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Disembodiment, Hypermobility, and Labor

Ge Jin, a PhD student from UCSD, is making a video documentary of the gold farming phenomenon (preview here). The documentary preview shows some of his interviews with Chinese workers in various gold farming workshops. In our conversations over email, he has brought up some interesting points based on his observations. He's also looking for feedback and suggestions for important research questions and different points of view.

One interesting observation he makes is on the general atmosphere in these workshops:

When I entered a gold farm for the first time (tietou's gaming workshop in the preview), I was shocked by the positive spirit there, the farmers are passionate about what they do, and there is indeed a comraderie between them ... I do see suffering and exploitation too, but in that place suffering is mixed with play and exploitation is embodied in a gang-like brotherhood and hierarchy. When I talked with the farmers, they rarely complained about their working condition, they only complained about their life in the game world.

Although they have to work/play for 12 hours a day, they take pride in what they achieve and they seem eager to escape into a virtual reality richer, brighter, and more exciting than their impoverished real world lives.

In watching the video, I am most struck by the intertwined empowerment/disempowerment that is occurring simultaneously for these Chinese workers. Their lives in these virtual worlds are brighter, but yet their interactions with American players (and associated slurs) are a constant reminder of their inferior socio-economic status. The disembodied hypermobility granted by these virtual worlds is, to a certain extent, dispelled when they are labeled as "Chinese gold farmers". For them, it is a double-edged sword.

Other issues that he's also thinking through are:

- the role of brokers in this system (auction houses, gold farm owners, etc.)
- is this a new kind of labor based on disembodiment and pleasure?
- how do these Chinese workers interact with American gamers?
- what does this all mean to the Chinese worker?

Ge Jin is currently looking for feedback, and suggestions for additional research questions. He is aware of this thread and will be happy to hear any comments you have.

Comments (66)

Mimicry, Melting Faces, and The Proteus Effect

Those of you who know that The Daedalus Project isn't my main research project at Stanford may have wondered what it is I actually do at Stanford. Here's the short version. I melt faces.

At Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, I work with Jeremy Bailenson in using immersive VR (iVR) to explore social interaction and self-representation in digital environments.  The over-arching theme is something we refer to as Transformed Social Interaction (Bailenson et al., 2004) . Given that digital environments allow us to break the bounds of physical rules of interaction, what can we change and how do these changes affect social interaction in digital environments? For example, in RL, we can only maintain eye contact with one person at a time, but my avatar in VR can maintain eye contact with everyone at the same time (because every person I interact with sees their own version of the world).

Here are three different lines of research that have gotten media coverage lately.

Mimicry

We unconsciously mimic people in real-life, and in fact, the more someone mimics us the more we like them. In our study (Bailenson & Yee, 2005), we tried to explore whether agents could leverage this advantage against people in digital environments. Participants were put into iVR and listened to an agent deliver a 3 minute argument. In the treatment condition, the agent mimicked the participant's head movements at a 4 second delay. In the control condition, we played back the head movement from a previous participant. We found that participants who were mimicked by the agent were more likely to agree with the argument. These participants also rated the agent more favorably. In other words, mimicry offers one simple way for agents to gain social advantage with human users.

This study has also been reported in the NewScientist and Wired.

Melting Faces

We like people who are similar to us, whether this is because they share our values, because they speak the same language, or because they look like us. Image morphing software has been around for a while, so what would happen if a political candidate took on some of a person's facial features? One week before the 2004 election, we took a representative US sample of voting age people (via Knowledge Networks) and blended their face with either Bush or Kerry (40% subject + 60% candidate). Participants always saw a split-panel image - with one candidate morphed with them, and the other image morphed with another participant (so that we could make sure that whatever effects we found weren't simply due to morphing artifacts). Not one of the participants detected the self-morph, but there was a significant effect of the self-similarity manipulation. People were more likely to vote for the candidate that they had been morphed with (see Bailenson, Iyengar, and Yee, 2005 for details and morph examples).

This presidential study built on some earlier work (Bailenson, Garland, Iyengar, Yee, 2005). Related news coverage can be found at The Washington Post and near the end of this other article at The Washington Post.

The Proteus Effect

Virtual environments let us alter our appearances dramatically, but as we choose our avatars, do our avatars change how we behave and interact with others? In one study, participants placed in iVR were shown an attractive or unattractive avatar in a virtual mirror (see video of example of mirror). The attractiveness of these faces had been pretested. The participants then interacted with a confederate in the same virtual room. The confederate was blind to condition and always saw the participant with an average face. We found that participants in the attractive condition were willing to move closer to the confederate and revealed more personal information than participants in the unattractive condition. More importantly, when we asked participants to guess the goal of the study, not one detected or guessed the attractiveness manipulation. In other words, participants in attractive avatars became more friendly and more intimate with virtual strangers.

In another study, we manipulated the height of the participant's avatar to be 10cm taller, 10cm shorter, or the same height as the confederate. Again, the confederate was blind to condition and always saw the participant to be the same height (trig was used in background to correct gaze angles). The participant and confederate then engaged in a negotiation task. We found that participants in the tall condition were significantly more willing to make unfair offers than participants in the short condition. Also, participants in the short condition were significantly more willing to accept an unfair offer than those in the tall condition. And again, participants asked to guess the goal of the study did not detect the height manipulation.

In other words, even though choosing our avatars is oftentimes framed as a one-way process, the avatars we choose actually come to change how we behave in cyberspace (paper under review). These findings have been reported in the NewScientist, NPR, and Gamasutra.

A full list of published papers from the lab (with PDF links) is available here.

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Play as Production / Labor

In the inaugural issue of the new game studies journal Games and Culture, Celia Pearce and I wrote two short articles that touched upon some similar themes. We both challenged the assumption of unproductive play in different ways. The full articles from that issue of Games and Culture are available after a free registration.

In Celia’s piece (link to abstract), she uses the example of the Myst/Uru diaspora to argue that play can be productive. The Myst/Uru example also highlights the blurring between content producers and content consumers. In my piece (link to abstract), I use the example of pharmaceutical manufacturing in Star Wars Galaxies (sadly, no longer a potential profession in SWG) to rethink games as work platforms where some players are trained to do work that may be more complex and stressful than their real-life jobs.

Instead of doing a normal post, Celia suggested we do a series of back-and-forth discussion posts via the comments thread so that we could think through some of the issues together. Of course, others should feel free to hop in at any time.

Celia, one question I’m particularly interested in is where you see this trend heading. I’m a little more cynical about this trend, and I see the hypothetical cancer-screening example as something that will eventually happen in some form. What’s your take on the blurring of production and leisure?

Your piece also seemed to resonate with other commentaries I’ve seen with regards to networked forums and communities (such as humdog’s perspective of The Well as a place where people pay to produce and consume their own gut-wrenching spectacles – also a cynical take). Do you see the “productive play” phenomenon as part of a bigger trend in networked media, or is there something special going on in games?

Off to you, Celia. Looking forward to hear your thoughts.

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Less *Bang Bang* for Your Buck

Much to the surprise of the folks over at GameDaily and trigger-happy GTA fans alike, sex workers are people too -- even when it comes to video games.

SWOP, the Sex Workers Outreach Project, recently issued a statement denouncing Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto for encouraging the mistreatment of prostitutes. "In the interest of furthering sex workers' human and civil rights to life and personal safety," the statement says, "we object to any media which represents sex workers as legitimate targets of violence, rape and murder."

While SWOP stresses their stance against censorship, they feel their boycott is warranted, given the circumstances, and call upon consumers to "vote with their dollars by refusing to purchase products which encourage the denigration and destruction of prostitutes." The statement goes on to suggest -- with the help of a David Walsh's "Video Game Violence and Public Policy" -- that players who act out against prostitutes in GTA are more likely to take out real-life aggression against them as well.

Whether or not GTA fans are actually running out to reenact their in-game rampages, a possibility that seems over-stressed both here and in other anti-game rhetoric, SWOP is making a valid point about the portrayal of sex workers in video games (Even if they have some of their details wrong; players can't rape and don't "accrue points" for murdering prostitutes.). Sex workers deserve to be seen as real people, not just disposable NPC's. However, as in the real world, where prostitutes are commonly regarded either as comic caricatures or pitiful victims, they're often looked at as non-persons.

To that extent though, games like GTA are merely reflecting the ideas of our larger culture. Even the impetus to sleep with a prostitute and then kill her, to reassert her supposed inadequacy with a bullet -- and to enjoy doing it -- is part of our socially-constructed view of proper and improper members of society. Do video games allow us a level of interactivity, of engagement and agency that other mediums lack? Sure, but they don't create new urges. And like all art forms, they have the right to portray respectful ideals or violent realities as they choose.

Of course, not everyone who shoots a hooker in GTA is thinking these issues through. Those impressionable players who aren't influenced in their actions by the in-game violence might well be influenced in their thinking. A virtual act, like killing prostitutes willy-nilly -- or just being able to do so -- can reinforce real-life stereotypes and preconceptions about sex workers.

Personally, having never shot, or even slept with a GTA prostitute, I've always found this element of the game amusing. I take the ridiculous violence as a satirical critique, or at least a comment, on our absurd attitudes toward sex workers, and the pop culture that reifies them -- of which, of course, GTA is the epitome. Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way: not many of the players, and, as an understandable result, not the real-life sex workers themselves.

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Invidious Comparison

Every now and again we host a “Friends of Terra Nova” cocktail party at one of a number of undisclosed locations. The last one we hosted was aboard our yacht (the “Acqua Nova”) which happened to be tied up at the Piton moorings near Cap d’Antibes. In looking around, some guests noted the gaudiness of the other boats, and began talking about conspicuous consumption and the meaning of ownership in the real world and in the virtual worlds. We hurriedly convened a Roundtable to discuss the issue; the following transcript is a lightly edited account of what took place.

The tape recorder missed the first part of the conversation where a number of people referenced Thorstein Veblen’s “The Theory of the Leisure Class.” In that work Veblen coined the well-known term “conspicuous consumption”, but more generally proposed that economic value in work came about through the separation between exploits and drudgery: initially exploits in battle or hunting come to be signified by trophies and booty, and then in time this material wealth came to stand for the honorable activity itself. As a result, as a leisured class emerges honor attaches to those who have greater material wealth than others. Thus “invidious comparison” becomes a fundamental feature of ownership, since the psychological and ethnological value of an item is determined in large part by the fact that some people are not able to access it, and some are.

The participants in this conversation were Tim Burke, Julian Dibbell, Roger Fouts, Dan Hunter, Eric Nickell, Alan Prosser (our boat builder, and a serious MMOG player), Mark Wallace and Dmitri Williams.

[Editorial note: The abrupt end of the conversation occurred when Prosser knocked the rapporteur’s dictaphone into the waters of the Mediterranean.]

Dan Hunter The invidious comparison we can make to the size of those yachts over yonder, or even better to those poor people who don’t own a yacht, is similar to something I see a lot in World of Warcraft. It’s the PvPers who insist on having some kind of glowing enchant on their sword. I’ve pretty much lost track of the number of times I’ve seen something like: “WTB lowest priced fiery red sword enchant” in the trade channel. It’s not about the utility of the fiery red enchant, it’s about the way it looks as against my pitifully non-glowing sword. It’s kinda like the way that rare hair dies operated in Ultima Online: no ostensible value, except by way of a signifier that “I have it, and you don’t”.


Tim Burke
I’ve long thought that this is the single most interesting thing about MMOG economies: the (often substantial) value of purely aesthetic or symbolic goods.


Julian Dibbell
Agreed. Though surely what’s most interesting about the phenomenon is how rare this most virtual aspect of real life economies is in actually virtual ones. The full panoply of symbolic goods—brands, industrial designs, art objects, collectibles, and above all, curiously enough, intellectual properties—is only dimly reflected in MMOs.

The most robust example I can think of is the “true rares” market in Ultima Online—odd bits of sloppy programming that survived in the database and became collectable as curios. Their value, in turn, was contingent on the ability to show them off in your house, which I guess is why the phenomenon never really turned up anywhere but in real-estate-crazy UO.

Bourdieu would have a field day, but it’s curious that there’s so much more grist for his mill in real life, than in these spaces that are so fundamentally symbolic and so relentlessly about distinction, class, level, and so forth.


Alan Prosser
Yes, I think that’s right. The virtuality of the virtual seems like a really appealling topic, until you realize how virtual the real is, and that actually seems more interesting. Especially with regard to appearances, group identification, money, and so on.


Mark Wallace
On aestheticized value, I wrote on similar topics for the Escapist not long ago. While I’m aware Veblen is not the most well thought of thinker these days, I do think he’s one of the most fun. I also think I may be overstating the argument and taking it a bit too far in the piece, but I still maintain there’s a lot more conspicuous consumption that goes on in MMOs than we usually think of. Which doesn’t surprise me at all, really. I think at a deep level the games are about individualism and identity as much as if not more than they are about progression. You can level up just as easily (more easily?) in a single-player RPG. But there wouldn’t be anyone there to see you do it. That’s not the only difference between single-player and MMO-player, of course, but it has a bearing here, I think.


Tim
The rares market in Ultima Online is the shining example of this. But what’s interesting is that the drive to aestheticized value is so strong even when the tools provided are so thin. In Asheron’s Call, the single hottest market for a long stretch was in different colored armor drops. People would pay fantastic amounts in various informal currencies in order to get the right mix of armor colors (of armor with roughly equivalent properties) to fit their desire for customization.

In World of Warcraft, check the price on the white wedding dress in the AH. People want that puppy just because it looks different. WoW has so very little in the way of unusual trophy items and aesthetic goods, which I guess goes along with the sparseness of character customization.


Julian
Point taken for sure, Mark. And maybe that’s one explanation for the dearth of more explicit examples like rares and wedding dresses—conspicuous consumption and intangible value so suffuses these spaces that there’s almost no point for players to reinvent it there. Building a brand or an IP regime in a level-based MMO would be like having the Steamwheedle Cartel build a little goblin-tech computer you could play Zork on.


Prosser
I used to think that the hair dye stuff was all about the “conspicuous consumption” social aspect of the game and the way the virtual thing signaled something about your different status—you got the cool pet or flashy armor to stand out in a group—same thing with the capes in City of Heroes, etc.

I’m now a little skeptical of that. There’s something to it, of course, but I don’t know how much, because there’s something else going on. I know of players who have numerous virtual pets, and they like to have at least one of them running around after them at all times. How much is it that they want other people to see the pets running around after them, and how much is it that they just like seeing the pets running around after them? My guess is that these guys would be buying them in a solo game too.


Mark
It’s not all about conspicuous consumption, of course. But as to the pets: That’s because they’re not all that rare. In the context of, say, World of Warcraft, there are certain pets that are more easily available to one faction than to the other, and these bring a great deal of money on the auctionhouse. People may be paying all this gold just to check them out, but I’d wager there is also a not insubstantial degree of invidious comparison that’s driving the price up. In any case, it’s not just that other people see you, it’s also that you know you’re better / different than the people who don’t have these rares.


Eric Nickell
Conspicuous consumption should be included in the broader category of recognition for achievement.

On my previous server, I bought and frequently displayed a Crimson Whelpling, consciously and deliberately, as a marker of wealth.

On my current Horde server, my character has a prairie chicken as if to say to the cognoscenti, “I know how—and have bothered—to accomplish something that is non-trivial.” The hoi polloi do not even understand the magnificence of my chicken, but what are they to me?


Prosser
Mark, you suggested that there is a substantial degree of invidious comparison that’s driving the price up. On the other hand, you could explain it by simple scarcity—if the Alliance has pets A, B, C and Horde has D, E, F—then, if ABCDEF are similar but not perfect substitutes, you’d fully expect the price for the rare thing to be higher because it is more scarce to that group. Not to say that this isn’t somewhat about the value of “import” status, but there are two stories.

Mark, you also said that “it’s not just that other people see you, it’s also that you know you’re better / different than the people who don’t have these rares.” But is there any way to parse that out from the more general state—ie “seeing X on my toon gives me pleasure regardless of whether it gives others pleasure—despite the fact that I know X is rare and not possessed by others?” Could there even be negative utility to possession of a rare?


Eric
There are several factors here that need to be teased out. Seeing an orc with a white kitten running around behind them does not tell you why they purchased that kitten. Are they deriving pleasure from watching the incongruity of the burly orc and the frolicking kitty? Or is the primary motivation to have something unique and rare? Or, slightly different, to display something costly?

To some degree, these questions get at the heart of why people are playing MMOs in the first place. Or part of the heart.


Mark
Prosser, I don’t disagree, there’s definitely more than one story at work. I just think there’s a certain amount of “cool utility” (for lack of a better word) that is missing from the equations.

Actually, there’s something of a control group to be found in character customization in single-player games, especially those few for which downloadable content is available for purchase. I haven’t followed this very closely, but it’s my understanding that this content is proving fairly popular. While this vacates my conspicuous consumption argument, it also calls into question scarcity as a sole or even dominant measure of value, at least in this one context. If you’re buying things with which to customize your single-player-game character, you’re not doing so because they’re scarce, you’re doing so because they give you more pleasure by virtue of the fact that they differentiate you from the general issue. I’m sure there’s some sound economic explanation for this (which I’m happy to hear and concede to), but I prefer to think of it as some kind of “cool utility” that has more to do with our notions of individuality and expression than with anything competitive. Perhaps it’s just that (WARNING: sweeping generalization ahead) in order to feel we’ve realized ourselves as individuals we need to feel we are “rare.” Which puts us right back where we started, more or less, but changes the tone of the calculation somewhat, in my view, and in any case is interesting to think about.


Dmitri Williams
Here’s a testable hypothesis: people seek to be different in a normally distributed fashion. On one tail are those who do whatever others do. In the center are varying degrees of individuality. On the far tail are those who do whatever no one else does by design.

World of Warcraft, for example, doesn’t enable a lot of the variance we’d see in, say, how people shop for clothes in real life. What little variation that’s there comes in the middle and you only get a few diehards (whom we’ll call “chicken wranglers”) who go to serious lengths to get out on that far right tail. Other games that allow for more customization show this normal curve in all of its varying glory.


Mark
The other thing all this reminds me of is Richard Bartle’s thinking about how MMOs help us explore/determine our identities. The question Eric raises, of why people show up in these places in the first place, is important. If, as Richard maintains, it’s to explore who they are, then the auctionhouse can’t be separated from that, I think. If that’s the case, then the value of your MMO dollar (in subscription fees) is affected by how much identity value you get out of your time in-world. I’ll leave it to someone else to tell me whether this simply circles back to the original scarcity argument, but I still feel like it’s a slightly different calculation, at least in tone if nothing else.


Eric
The kind of self-exploration Mark discusses tends to be interesting to people of certain personality bents. That’s not to say that it’s completely uninteresting to others, but I think there’s a case to be made for creative, intuitive types to want to explore edge cases and individuate, and for other personality types to prefer to excel by meeting community standards. Dmitri’s idea of a distribution of variation could be explained very well within a personality-preference framework. With Mark, I would argue for a broader set of motivations to play MMOs than exploring identities. In fact, one could argue that WoW’s break-out popularity might stem in part from a de-emphasis on roleplaying and exploring identity, the very things that helped attract previous generations of players and developers, but may be either uninteresting or even intimidating to a broader audience.


Roger Fouts
This is an interesting discussion. I would think that there are many different reasons for obtaining these adornments. To me it fits into the category of nonverbal communication called self-presentation. With self-presentation (clothes, cars, make-up, hair color, etc) we are making a statement about ourselves. Nonverbal communication is our loudest form of communication and in some circumstances accounts for more that 80% of the meaning in a two-person conversation. So it could be an “exploring who they are” in the same sense of a teenager doing this with the latest, radical styles. In addition, it could be the individual making a statement about a variety of different topics. With my toon I am perhaps rationalizing his plain attire as a cool form of understatement, and kid myself that my coolness comes from my battle skills… But the coolness of the Alliance praire chicken did evoke some envy.


Mark
Eric, you argued for a broader set of motivations to play MMOs than exploring identities, and I don’t completely disagree. But I’d just point out that exploration of one’s identity doesn’t have to be a motivating factor (at least, not consciously) in the decision to enter a virtual world. I would maintain, though, that once you’re in there, what’s happening is, at least in part, an exploration of identity, not through hard role-playing but simply in the fact that inhabiting an avatar loosens the constraints of who we are in the broader world (i.e., if we think of “the broader world” as encompassing both the physical and virtual). If that weren’t the case, if virtual worlds didn’t expand who we could be, I wonder whether we would visit them at all.

Just to clarify: I don’t equate “exploring one’s identity” with “role-playing.” In fact, I think sticking strictly to “thee, thou, thy” probably limits the kind of exploration one can do. Now, chicken wrangling, on the other hand, that is an exploration of identity. Seriously. What’s so cool about that chicken that you had to have it? What does it say about you that you went to the trouble to get it? What does it say about me that I think the prairie chicken is one of the coolest things in the game, but that I just can’t be bothered to get myself one? If the chicken is so cool, why doesn’t everyone want one? Do you respond to being ganked with anger, sadness, pain, humor, disappointment or an unstoppable desire for revenge? How close to or distant from your avatar do you feel? Does seeing a level 60 kitted out with the most über gear make you more committed to getting some yourself, does it make you want to give up, or do you have some more neutral reaction, perhaps just marvel at how cool he/she looks? Etc.

These are all pretty simplistic questions, but I just include them here to illustrate the kind of identity exploration I’m talking about. Come to think of it, if I remember my readings correctly, much of play is about exploring one’s identity in such ways. If you’re not a gold farmer, I bet most if not all of what you do in virtual worlds feeds into those questions in some way.

Roger brings up the excellent example of a teenager in their rebellious phase. These are the kinds of things we get to re-explore in these places.


Prosser
I think this is kind of the heart of the issue. The interesting thing about MMOs qua “games” is that, according to handful of ludologists out there that care about this stuff—MMOs don’t seem to be games. They’re too open ended.

The level advancement track that we’re all on does seem a little bit like a game, but at the same time, it feels a little bit like knitting or dancing—where’s the real challenge in getting to level 60? There is no challenge, unless you really want to do it “well,” whatever that means for you.

At the same time, I think the difference between MMOs and other games can be overstated—just because bowling has clear rules and win/loss conditions doesn’t mean that the social practice of bowling is just about those aspects of the game—people can bowl, or play many other games, for a variety of reasons that aren’t part of the formal rule structure.

I guess what’s most interesting to me about virtual worlds is the way we tend to drift between various sources of pleasure in playing. For me, one day, it’s all about the fishing and exploring new places, another day, I’m trying to level by grinding or playing with some new gear I bought, another day I’m doing quests and enjoying some hokey narrative, another day I’m just hanging out in a glorified chat room—most of the time I’m doing multiple things. The MMO as a database offers all sorts of affordances for play, and I think most people move between them.

One more thing. Dmitri noted how stripped down customization options were in WoW, and I think that’s a really interesting point. I wonder if this might be a reason for its popularity. It seems to me that the future potential of these spaces is to give players much more agency in fashioning their “self-presention”—maybe not as far as Second Life offers or requires—but I think City of Heroes is a good example of how a great degree of self-expression can actually be made to fit into a unified theme.

World of Warcraft feels lacking to me in that way—it seems to treat the player as a content consumer in something approaching the traditional video game or even movie industry model—this works in its own way, but to people interested in the art of virtual world spaces, I wonder if the success of World of Warcraft isn’t a little bit of a disappointment. But maybe some people are overwhelmed by worlds with greater demands on their agency, and so WoW is a type of helpful baby step toward something more rich.


Dan
You know, this doesn’t explain the guy in Ultima Online who had 10,000 white shirts and who…


[There is a smack sound on the tape at this point, and voices become muffled. The last discernible sounds seem to be the clink of icecubes, some laughter, and a faint “cluck cluck”. Tape then cuts out]

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Virtual Transvestitism: An Introduction

Transvestitism is common in virtual worlds.  That, if nothing else, is undeniable. 

While it may be hard to effectively determine just what percentage of toons are actually controlled by cross-gender players, transvestites have a presence in all types of online social environments.  Whatever the details of their personal experiences, these virtual cross-dressers are using the medium of cyberspace to experiment with the bounds of gender ideologies and performance... whether they like it or not.

This post will hopefully be the first in a series exploring tranvestitism in virtual environments.  Today's topic: Where and how does virtual transvestitism take place?  On worlds, chat rooms, forums, and console games...

Online gender-bending as we most commonly encounter it today -- in Second Life, for example, or World of Warcraft -- is in some ways quite complicated, but in other ways rather simple.  Men and women who present cross-gender in these worlds seem to be more open to the idea that their transvestitism has meaning.  Not that it necessarily carries some huge psychological or philosophical weight, but that virtual gender choice reflects, in one way or another, not just the avatar but the player behind it.

Perhaps this is due in part to the fact that, in such worlds, sex is a staple of interaction.  Sex may not be the act of sex, per se; it can also include any sexually-charged situation, such as flirting, gift-giving, etc.  Whatever its form, when sex is recognized as a pillar of a virtual culture, it becomes harder to insist that the choice of an avatar's gender -- an avatar that will then go out into the sexual environment -- is without implications.

In other online spaces though, the unity of representation and intention remains less clear.  In forums, for example, male posters often use female images for their "avatars."  Here, more so than in virtual worlds, it's debatable whether these images are actually avatars, representative of the speakers, or merely aesthetic accompaniments.  As may be expected, it seems forum-goers who use cross-gender images commonly do not consider themselves to be practicing transvestitism.

A similar case could be made for cross-gender presenting in a game like Second Life. After all, who said a toon must represent the user, or even a character the user is role-playing.  Couldn't it too be purely aesthetic?  The same argument could even be used for tranvestitism through name choice in chat rooms.  As a culture, we expect names to describe ourselves.  But do they have to?

Yes, of course they do -- or so some would say; labels, whether visual or textual, define the face you present to the world.  And that's exactly what transvestitism is about: presenting an altered face.

But what happens when the altering isn't done by the player?  Virtual worlds, chat rooms, and forums all allow users to decide how they appear.  In most console games though, character gender is predetermined.  In order to play, gamers must fill the gendered skin presented to them.  Men become the Samus Aran, blond bombshell.  Women become Duke Nukem, a towering muffin of muscle.  Is this tranvestitism?  Or more to the point, how could it not be?  Players have the ability to choose what they play, and they're choosing to cross gender lines. 

Virtual transvestitism is all around us, just waiting to be poked with the metaphorical stick of good old-fashioned curiosity.  Tune in next time for the exciting continuation: Who's cross-dressing?

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BDSM in a World without Pain

It’s hard to feel pain in virtual worlds; in fact, it’s downright impossible. Simulate any other facet of life – love, childbirth, the perfect pair of shoes – but experiencing physical pain is out of bounds. No amount of roleplaying can recreate it. Real-life pain requires a real-life body, one thing virtual worlds just can’t provide.

Not that anyone seems to be complaining. Virtual life has its advantages, and one of them is freedom from real-life restrictions like pain. This freedom makes online environments ideal spaces for experimentation, both personal and sexual. Needless to say, virtual worlds are rife with exploration of all kinds, much of it kinky. But in worlds without pain, what happens to those very masters of kink, the men and women who know pain best, virtual sadomasochists?

Strangely enough, nothing. There are plenty of online BDSM communities practicing today. Just club-hop through Second Life and you’ll see that soon enough. Sensual contraptions straight from a torture chamber line the walls of semi-private rooms. Xcite! has begun selling floggers with realistically drooping tails. Half the women on the street are calling out with their enormous, kinky boots, “Come on, hurt me!”

But you can’t. In Second Life, I can’t even hurt myself. On a slow Monday evening, I strap my avatar into a S/M device that sends an enormous spike through my vagina, over and over and over. Imagination and projection are important here, certainly, but even in the mood, I can’t feel a thing. My avatar looks bored. The BDSM I’m used to, real-life BDSM, stings, burns, bleeds. This doesn’t even tickle. If S/M depends on physical sensation, then what’s this?

Maybe that’s the problem: we expect to feel. We wonder, how can something so often dependent on physical action transfer to an electronic environment? But it doesn’t just transfer, it transforms. BDSM in cyberspace becomes what it’s been at its root all along, a matter not of pain, but of control.

Indeed, virtual sadomasochists sometimes act out the infliction of pain through toon or text play, but much more commonly they focus on domination and submission. Faux-torture devices may seem absurd, but voluntary in-world slavery is both feasible and happening. Collarings are taking place. People are living the lifestyle, even without the bruises.

Even real-life BDSM, though often steeped in physical response, has its basis in the language of control. Sub/dom, bottom/top, slave/master – pain may be involved in these relationships, but what makes it enjoyable is its place within a hierarchy of power. Pain is the manifestation, not the determiner, of control. The person in charge wields control; pain simply follows.

Besides, control might not be as simple as control over another person. Many gamers get involved in online BDSM because they “couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t” do it in real life. They’re actively exploring their sexuality in ways their nine-to-five would never allow. In that case, what does virtual sadomasochism offer but control over ourselves?

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Little Timmy, Uber At Last

We haven't just been talking on the Terra Nova backchannel about the evil or lack thereof of the Horde, but also of our visceral personal reactions to the social psychology and symbolic content of gameplay in synthetic worlds. I've lately been revealed to my TN colleagues as, well, something of a powergamer in World of Warcraft (though, cough, fellow Terra Novan Joshua Fairfield has me beat all hollow). I've been reflecting about that development some, because it's never been my orientation in any previous game of this kind, even back into my pen-and-paper prehistory. There's no doubt that the relatively friendly levelling curve and design of World of Warcraft is what has allowed me to develop this posture in the game, of course. Old-school powergamers laugh at the idea that anything in WoW could be regarded as such. But I'm still thinking about what I've learned through this experience in terms of my larger analysis of synthetic worlds.

I levelled an Alliance rogue to 60 fairly quickly on a PvP server when World of Warcraft first came out. Somewhat as a consequence, I was invited to join a guild that grew into one of the two dominant Alliance guilds on the server, largely focused on raiding endgame instances. I was by no means the alpha rogue of the guild, but I did participate fairly heavily in its activities before travelling last summer. When I got back from my trip, I decided not to re-up, needing a break from the game, but also partly because the guild had grown even more since I was gone and felt more formal and less socially "sticky" as a consequence.

In every other persistent-world MMOG I've played (and I've played almost all of them, most fairly heavily), I've always belonged to odd eclectic little guilds, and largely ethnographically observed the dominant powergaming groups from the outside looking in. My underlying sympathies have always been with what I've called the "moral economy" constituency in synthetic worlds, those players who feel distant from a powergaming, utility-maximizing sensibility for various reasons, whether because they're role-players or simply because they resent the way that barriers of time and repetition are the primary means of making gameplay challenging or difficult.

My experience in World of Warcraft has given me a much richer emic understanding of how powergamers navigate a synthetic world, and the sources of pleasure and satisfaction they find in it. I noted at the end of my 2001 paper that even critics of the utility-maximizing or powergaming approach needed to work harder to appreciate the creative power and fervent energy that many players invest in that style of play, rather than simply dismissing it as "catassing".  That was an injunction rather than an accomplished engagement on my part at that point.

Concretely in my recent experience, I've found that while labor-time is still the major thing that separates "uber" players from the rest of a server population (WoW endgame raids are extremely time-consuming, and a raiding guild demands a great deal from its members), it's not just a matter of labor investment or attitudinal orientation. On my current second run to 60 as a Horde rogue, I'm levelling even faster by a good margin: both knowledge of the game systems and technical proficiency in playing a class make a big difference, and significantly compress the relationship between time investment and achivement. I'm able to see a much wider gulf between players who simply don't know how to play (and yet who may be quite high in their level) and those that do. The conventions of skilled gameplay matter much more to me than they have in any other MMOG. In part, that's from discovering the meaningfully exciting "high" that comes from a supremely well-played endgame raid. I worked through Molten Core with my earlier guild largely simultaneously with other dominant guilds in the game, and so we had to discover step by step how to work the strategies that have now become standard. There really is a pleasure to be had in that achievement, which I couldn't have imagined in other game experiences I've had.

More importantly, I got enough of a sense of the sociology of powergaming from the inside to unsettle some stereotypes I had developed about the players most attracted to that style. One thing I saw from the inside that other researchers had already noticed were the political skills needed to sustain a guild of this kind, something that Nick Yee's interview with a major WoW guild leader also pointed to. Of the three dominant guilds on my original server (two Allliance, one Horde), only one survived as a dictatorship (and it predictably fell apart eventually). The other two, including my own, were sustained by an inner cadre of dedicated players whose political and interpersonal skills I found to be fairly impressive. Also as Yee's informant indicated, the stable core of the guild largely consisted of mature adults, almost all but not exclusively men, many with families and most with stable jobs, not of the 20-year-old-living-in-parental-basement of legend and rumor. The kinds of players I had tended as an outsider to identify as representative "powergamers" did indeed belong to the guild as well, but they tended to be marginalized outsiders, teetering perpetually on the edge of being kicked out, and eventually they often were unless they played a class in high demand. (My server had an entire guild composed basically of the players rejected from the two dominant Alliance guilds.) Most of the stable core members played a good deal, but not nearly at the level of excess that I had loosely expected.

This is not to say that I now believe that MMOGs should be designed by and for the powergaming sensibility. In fact, I would say that not even the powergamers that I met believe that: most of them were also  dissatisfied with the limitations of existing synthetic worlds, most of them were looking for more meaningful and aesthetically rich experiences, most of them hankered for persistent worlds with consequences that went beyond levelling up and accumulating wealth. What they did, they did well, and enjoyed, but the stable backbone of my guild shared in many ways the assessment that World of Warcraft was a conventional, minimal risk design with very clear limits to the satisfactions it could deliver against the untapped possibilities of virtual worlds as a whole. In the end, my heart still belongs to the "moral economy" players and to those who constantly push designers for better, richer, more emergent gameworlds--but now I feel much more confident that many of those who approach MMOGs as powergamers feel the same.

This experience has also been important for me in more precisely locating the misanthropic side of MMOG gameplay. I think after playing Ultima Online, Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot, I was more inclined to think that there was a correlation between powergaming and visible misanthropy in gameworlds, the kind of behavior that Edward Castronova mentions near the end of the recent Terra Nova thread on the evil of the Horde.  Ted mentions a player  who came up to him and  positioned himself so that his dance emote appeared to simulate coitus with Ted's character's pet.

Any of us who've played MUDs and MMOGs actively have a long personal catalogue of bad behavior we've seen, various kinds of substantive and symbolic griefing. Any given night reading Barrens chat on your average World of Warcraft server is like an encyclopedia of all the dysfunctions a modern human being can display: racism, sexism, ignorance, flaming stupidity, you name it, and it'll appear eventually. Some of it is just people putting on a show and trying to get the goat of other players, some of it more depressingly appears to be absolutely sincere in its backwardness.

One of the feelings I've long had in various games and virtual worlds, all the way back to various text MUDs and MOOs, was a sociological queasiness. At various times, I've asked myself, "How did it come to this, that a major form of personal leisure and academic study for me concentrates on a type of social experience where I am constantly relating both to people with sensibilities and backgrounds very much like my own and to people who appear very much like the people who beat the crap out of me at school from 3rd grade right up to high school?"  There have been and still are many times where my nerve endings tingle during a gaming session and I think to myself, "If this guy and I were both in sixth grade together, he'd steal my lunch money and smack me into a cinderblock wall for good measure." I don't remember having that sensation with pen-and-paper games back in the late 1970s: that was all geeks all the way down.

Once upon a time, I would have said that gameworld misanthropy correlated with powergaming and with player-vs-player servers or models. Now I'd say that neither of those intuitions are true. That leaves me searching for a better sense of the roots or sources of misanthropic and griefing behaviors (as are we all), but it's useful to discard less informed suppositions. Useful not just because it focuses attention on other possibilities, but also because it's made me aware that behaviors I've sometimes perceived as omnipresent or dominant in many virtual worlds are in fact much more marginal and isolated than I might have previously believed, that much of the antisocial signal in many synthetic worlds may be coming from a very small set of sources.

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Daedalus Links

A new issue of The Daedalus Project is out. Some highlights:

- A much revamped and elaborated version of "Yi-Shan-Guan" on tellings and re-tellings of the gold farmer story.
- A New Disorder is Born: an opinion piece on "gaming addiction" and why only certain media forms get labeled as being addictive.
- More numbers on the "playing together" issue. This time looking at the reverse side. Of all the players who do have romantic partners, how many actually play with their romantic partner?
- A look at the previous gaming experiences of MMO players. How many already had extensive video gaming backgrounds before MMOs? How many were table-top D&D players?

All this and more at The Daedalus Project.

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Beauty is Pixel Deep

Two intertwined thoughts:

From PlayOn analysis: In World of Warcraft, there is a higher percentage of female characters in Alliance than Horde. On Alliance side, 1 out of 3 characters is female. On Horde side, 1 out of 5 characters is female. Most players would probably also agree that Alliance female characters are far more attractive than Horde female characters.

Behavioral Confirmation: The psychological phenomenon where a perceiver's expectations of a target causes the target to behave in a way that confirms the perceiver's expectations. In the classic study (Snyder, Tanke, & Berscheid, 1977), male undergrads chatted over the phone with female undergrads they did not previously know. Half the male undergrads were given a photo of an attractive woman and the other half were given photos of unattractive women (unbeknownst to the women themselves). This is  analogous to interacting with an attractive female Night Elf online.

Unsurprisingly, the male undergrads in the attractive condition were rated by blind coders to be friendlier than the men in the unattractive condition. What was interesting was that the female undergrads who were presumed to be attractive were rated by blind coders to to more friendly, charming, and sociable than the women who were presumed to be unattractive. In other words, the expectation of the men in the attractive condition caused the women to become friendlier, more charming, and more sociable.

Given that Alliance avatars are more attractive than Horde avatars (especially the female avatars), and given that many social interactions on Alliance side are parallels of the classic Behavioral Confirmation study - men interacting with who they believe are attractive women, might this cause Alliance players to become friendlier, more charming, and more sociable in general than Horde players over time regardless of their RL gender or attractiveness? That is to say, a form of behavioral confirmation cascade that has an effect on the community rather than simply the individual level.

Now, it's  true that choosing between Alliance and Horde involves personality and motivational differences to begin with (and Dmitri points this out too), but here I'm more interested in the dynamic social engineering that occurs during game-play itself. In other words, could avatar appearance itself be used as a form of social engineering in virtual environments? And if so, are Alliance and Horde players being socially engineered in different ways?

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Equations of death

dead (dead (un-dead)) = ?

When I get them time, between the spam clearance and the crack, I’m a lowly un-dead Mage in the corporate schmooze fest we like to call WoW.

Anywayz, I was happily hackin an’a zappin some Red Guard when I died. Which I find confusing at the best of times, being un-dead n'all.

So I’m ghosting my way back in my dead un-dead form when I decided that the most fun thing to do is to throw myself off the nearest cliff and into the sea. I then proceed to swim my dead-un-dead ass to the bottom of the ocean. As, well, I just want to see what’s there.

Then I die.

And I’m like – what the,,,

I mean now I’m a dead, dead un-dead.

Just how dead is that?

I guess what I was asking is what meaning I’m supposed to attribute to this condition. There is the purely ludic i.e. that this is just one of the states that the game can be in. Then there is the practical i.e. that it’s going to take me time to get myself back playing again, though being dead does not mean that I can’t do anything, it just means that I cant do many things.

What I struggled with was to attribute a useful metaphorical / game fiction meaning to what was happening to me. And I started to wondering, in a staggering un-informed way, what symbolic role death was playing in my experience of WoW and whether it had lost all moorings with death in a conventional sense.

It’s said that one of the functions of play is to inoculate ourselves against parts of life so that it makes it easier to cope, so it would make sense for death to be a big part of play but this just seems so very removed.

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ARGs and Utopian Dreams

Lastcallpoker_4Ron Meiners contributes an essay about the social possibilities in alternate reality - from Burning Man to Last Call Poker.  A selection: "The ARG creates a median space between the two poles: participatory but guided. Social, but driven by the need for collaboration and the self-selection of the participants and the underlying knowledge that the space is ultimately a protected one...which creates very strong social ties and consistently transformative personal experiences that she [Jane McGonigal] described as “pronoia” – the irrational conviction that the world is conspiring to your benefit in subtle and consistent ways..."

There seems to be a very curious and consistent dichotomy in social spaces, online and in realspace. One end of the spectrum are the systems where the social dynamics are moderated from on high, with the result of creating a very predictable, “safe”, normative social experience. MOO’s, or There (http://www.There.com) , or Disneyland (http://www.Disneyland.com) (or, arguably most competitive games) have well defined and enforced social rules, and thus become a chance for participants to interact without the fear of the “other”: social expectations are explicit, or, even more, the social norm is overtly friendly and accepting, even with individuals that might otherwise be seen as outside of one’s social group (it is a small world, after all). In contrast, at the other end of the spectrum are experiences where the social experience can more generally be seen as driven from the bottom up- ie., much less sense of social norm (though this can create a very strong social dynamic driven by an explicit cultural value on accepting others regardless of superficial appearance). MUSH’s, Second Life (http://secondlife.com), or Burning Man (http://www.BurningMan.com) have much less superficial social homogeneity, but this too can foster a greater sense of connection for members of the culture, as the acceptance of explicit diversity becomes an identification in itself and this creates a connection.  

The next piece of this is the element of creative collaboration as a social norm- at Burning Man it’s quite common to join in serious work (and remember we’re talking the desert in late August here) to help the art project of total strangers. At Disneyland even the notion of individuals creating something is seen as subversive (reasonably, the whole value is created by a sense of security and conformity – and by contrast subversion is a good part of the aesthetic of spaces like Burning Man). And, of course, the element of “professionalism” or the availability of resources and production values are appropriate to these two production methods. With the exception of the fireworks displays, the greater resources and moderated production processes of places like Disneyland or Las Vegas can create an aesthetic driven by sheer technique that’s a lot harder to find in the desert. Both experiences are driven by wonder, but the cultural perspectives that define that wonder can be worlds apart. One is driven by participation while the other is driven by a sense of luxury , a sense of holiday from responsibility or challenge. And, of course, these are huge generalizations: there is certainly a social world in Second Life, and collaborative creativity in There. But I think the general character of these worlds fit the model.

Yet there’s a third piece to this system, a cultural and social experience that combines elements of both ends of this spectrum to create an enhanced effect for participants. I’m going to draw heavily from the analysis of the Alternate Reality Game (ARG) presented by Jane McGonigal (http://avantgame.com/index.html) (she’s currently working on the lastcallpoker (http://lastcallpoker.com) ARG) at the Austin Game Conference (http://www.gameconference.com/), which presented the ARG as a combination of game and social experience that had profound effects on its participants, even transformative ones.  

Jane’s discussion of the ARG is worth exploring in depth (and hopefully will be online soon) but I want to highlight one element that struck me as very insightful, and that fits in with the taxonomy of social and cultural experiences described above. ARG’s blend elements of both types of experiences to create an enhanced social and personal experience for participants. The general space is moderated – but only remotely, and most of the social interaction is freely built by the participants. The experience is collaborative, but is part of an unfolding (sometimes dynamically so) game arc crafted by the designers. The ARG creates a median space between the two poles: participatory but guided. Social, but driven by the need for collaboration and the self-selection of the participants and the underlying knowledge that the space is ultimately a protected one.

In the ARG, Jane pointed out, much of the core experience revolves around collaborative problem solving, which creates very strong social ties and consistently transformative personal experiences that she described as “pronoia” – the irrational conviction that the world is conspiring to your benefit in subtle and consistent ways. (Her examples of this are very impressive, including the previously uninvolved individual who spontaneously took on a pivotal role in one ARG due to the conviction of the players that he was also in the game.) The consistently transformative experiences of ARG players, the tendency toward pronoia, reflects a cultural system that both involves and guides, that includes and also rewards individual creation. It gives a clear signpost of the kind of “game”/cultural experiences that can have profound personal and social consequences. 

To a large extent, the expectation of powerful experiences in the culture of the participants reinforces this effect, becomes part of the view of themselves shared by members of the culture. In my experience, this is what makes Burning Man still an often profound event: the cultural expectation of transformative experiences and interactions shapes the experiences of the participants, coloring how they interpret events and in how they present themselves to other participants. The expectation is communicated as a defining part of the culture, and events there are therefore often seen through this lens, and become personally meaningful.

And certainly cultural expectations are quite meaningful in online settings: one expects (for example) a different culture in Shadowbane from what one finds in the Myst community. And the expectations in turn influence, or even define, the way participants interpret events and express themselves while participating in that culture. I think people tend to approach online cultures altruistically, a little bit more open to a utopian dream, and that this results in cultures that tend to reinforce those dreams.

--Ron Meiners

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Picture This

Robbie Cooper, for those who have not crossed paths with the globe-trotting London photojournalist at fan faires, guild meets, or conferences,  is the Walker Evans of online gaming. His lush, perceptive side-by-side portraits of MMO players and their avatars have already contributed several thousand words' worth of understanding to our emerging picture of life online, but he's not stopping there: The newly launched AlterEgo.net steps Cooper's project up a notch or two to include professional gamers, LAN partiers, and console players -- and is now soliciting stories of online identity, community, and enterprise for a forthcoming book. Tell your friends and guildies to drop on by and post, and by all means check the site out yourself. Cooper's photos alone already merit the attention, and the more he learns, the richer they'll get.

Meanwhile, back here at the deep-thoughts farm: What can images tell us about online social and psychological experience? What can't they tell us? How do pictures complicate the text-centric discusssion of online identity surrounding CmdrTaco's late violation?

And so on.

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New Daedalus Content

Some highlights from the current issue of The Daedalus Project.

- While the media likes to focus on how strange it is that people have virtual friends, about 80% of players actually play with someone they know in real life (a romantic partner, a family member, or a friend). Thus, MMOs are places where existing relationships are strengthened as much as places where new relationships are made.

- 22% of respondents said that they had purchased virtual gold. On average, these players have spent $135 USD on virtual gold. While older players are more likely to have done so, there were no gender differences.

- Many people resisted Talon's militaristic guild structure, but about 1 in 6 MMO players has had military experience and most high-end dungeons/encounters require a lot of hierarchy, planning, and organization to accomplish. What does it mean when play spaces become more and more like military spaces?

- PvP servers attract younger players as well as more men than PvE servers. This has implications for gender-bending rates. On PvP servers, female avatars are much more likely to be played by men.

All this and much more at The Daedalus Project.

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Yi-Shan-Guan

People came to this frontier to become what they could not become elsewhere - heroes and millionaires. The early, undeveloped economy caused many inconveniences. Certain common tasks required a great deal of time to complete. Many Chinese workers took advantage of this entrepreneurial opportunity by providing a service that dramatically enhanced the quality of life. Providing this service was no trivial task, but involved tedious repetition, painstaking attention to detail, and often consumed most of their waking hours in a small room in front of the same machine. Nevertheless, their hard work did pay off. Some became wealthy and soon the Chinese referred to this place as the Gold Mountain. Yet their frugal industriousness incited others, particularly the Westerners who had arrived earlier. This triggered a period of systematic abuse and humiliation targeting the Chinese. Legal constraints were created in an attempt to put these Chinese workers out of work. Individual Chinese workers were harassed and sometimes physically assaulted. Mob lynching followed.

This narrative seems incredibly familiar (see Constance’s presentation from SoP II), but the year is 1870. And I am, of course, talking about the genesis of the Chinese laundry-shops (“yi-shan-guan”) during and after the California Gold Rush (see “The Chinese in America” by Iris Chang, 2003).

During the Gold Rush, dirty laundry was routinely shipped to Hong Kong (among other Asian cities) partly because laundry was seen as demeaning domestic work that burly beardy miners should not perform. The turn-around time for this process was 4 months. By the end of the 1800s, almost 1 in every 3 Chinese workers worked in a laundry-shop. Laws were enacted in 1870 that tried to cripple Chinese laundry businesses (as well as preventing the Chinese from gaining US citizenship - which effectively barred them from voting). Documented mob lynching and pillaging of Chinatowns occurred in 1871 and 1877.

Of course, the story of prejudice against the Chinese during the 1800s is far more complex and nuanced than stemming from just the laundry workers. And, of course, the parallel that I’m trying to draw isn’t perfect. But the juxtaposition of this historical narrative with the much more recent narrative we typically tell about “Chinese” gold farmers reveals its disturbing metaphors and framings. The contemporary narrative starts to feel too much like the historical one - Chinese immigrant workers being harassed and murdered by Westerners who feel they alone can arbitrate what constitutes acceptable labor.

Yet, like many MMO players, I too have experienced the other side of this “industriousness”. Recently in WoW, I ran into an Undead Mage in Hearthglen who frost-AE farmed the non-elites (literally 10-12 at a time). As a frost mage myself (on the Alliance side), I attempted the same trick. The first time I tried, the Undead Mage pulled elites into my Blizzard range in an attempt to kill me. I escaped. The second time I tried, a stealthed Undead Rogue turned his PvP flag on as he walked into my Blizzard, thus setting off my PvP flag. Another Undead Rogue then backstabbed me. Using a variety of ice blocks, blinks, and ice barriers, I somehow managed to survive that as well.

As I recovered and pondered how to exact revenge against these 3 gold farmers, I realized that in my mind I had instinctively cast them as Chinese gold farmers. And in return, they had probably instinctively cast me as the white leisure player. And in this mesh of historical and contemporary racial narratives, I found myself pondering what it really meant to be Chinese-American … because somehow, in this land of Elves and Orcs, I suddenly felt more Chinese than I usually do in the real world.

(I’d like to thank Jerry Kang for seeding this thread in my mind at SoP II.)

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I say tomato. You say it’s a warm day

According to Prof Richard Nisbett, Westerns and Asians think in different ways. What does this tell us about MMO design and the relative success of existing MMOs?

The story was spotted my friend of the show Matt ironrealms Mihaly, me and probably half of you. Prof Nisbett has sure been working the media this week.

One of conclusions of Nisbett’s work is that given an image a Westerner will tend to focus on prominent details where as someone from Asia will take in the images as a whole and the relationship between things – they tend to give a more overall, complete account of a scene.

Here is Matt’s take:

    It makes me wonder if the reason Asians are willing to tolerate, en masse, online worlds with relatively primitive graphics (Lineage, for instance) is partially explained by the cultural difference this study demonstrated. To a Westerner who focuses immediately on the individual models, Lineage may seem far more primitive than to someone who may try to focus on the image as a whole. I really have no idea if that’s true or not, but there’s no doubt that there are certain fundamental differences in how the two cultures look at the graphics in games (much less look at gameplay). It also makes me wonder what Blizzard has done that appeals so strongly to both Westerners and Easterners in terms of visual style. I won’t presume to guess, but it’s an interesting thought to think.

Another point that Nisbett makes is that Westerners tend to assume linearity but Asians assume circularity. For example he gave in a recent interview was a stable set of circumstances a Westerner will tend to think that this signified a trend and that things will continue in the same fashion but an Asian will tend to think that it is indicative of the potential for change and ultimate return to some pre-existing state

He also cited an example of a contract between a Japanese company and an Australian one for a commodity to be bought by the Japanese at a fixed price. The story goes that when the bottom dropped out of the market and the price of the commodity fell, the Japanese assume that the contract would change to follow suit, the Australians assume they were looking at a big profit. 

In some of the discussions I’ve had about entering the Chinese market, I’ve been given similar examples. Nisbett’s work seems to suggest this is a tendency rather than a well socialised urban myth.

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New Daedalus: Demographics of WoW Players

A new issue of the Daedalus Project is out. Most of the new data focuses on the demographics of WoW players, emphasizing the relationship between in-game class/race/gender and RL gender/age/motivations.

Some highlights:

  1. Female players are older than male players. (link)
  2. Younger players prefer Rogues and Shaman. Older players prefer Hunters and Warlocks. Rogues and Shaman also score the highest on the Advancement (goals/achievement) and Mechanics (min-maxing) motivations.  (link)
  3. Older players prefer Dwarves and Gnomes, who also happen to score the lowest on all achievement motivations. Gnomes score the highest on the  Role-Playing and Customization motivations. (link)
  4. The RL gender distribution is 84/16. The in-game gender distribution is 65/35. 55% of female characters in the game are being played by men. (link)

I'm not as interested in WoW in particular as much as using WoW as an example of showing how RL demographics and personality factors map onto game variables - such as race. The WoW data provides one cohesive example of that.

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Women Speak

EqRaya spent four months in 2004 interviewing 110 women, primarily EQ players, about their experiences in mogs. It's a nine-part series, should be interesting. Figuring out what exactly is 'pink' about online gaming - maybe nothing - is not easy.  Are most women online gamers involved in digital recreations of face-to-face gaming (spades, euchre, literati)? What are the implications?

Thanks Oloh, aka Don Shelkey of Silky Venom, for the tip.

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Contradictions (1)

Here's something that's been bothering me for a while about computer games in general and virtual worlds in particular.

For many years, suggestions have been made by politicians and in the media that there is a link between the playing of computer games and the committing of acts of real-world violence. They feel that if you play a violent computer game, it teaches you to be violent in reallife. Game-savvy people like us will typically regard these opinions as founded on ignorance, and argue that they should not be given credence.

One of the larger sub-branches of game research concerns educational gaming. Its premiss is that kids don't always like traditional teaching methods, but they love games, so we should design games that help teach them things. That way, learning will be fun, so children will want to learn.

Now, isn't there a contradiction here? On the one hand, we're saying that no no no, games don't teach people all those bad things, but on the other hand we're saying that yes yes yes, games do teach people all these good things. Can we really sustain both these positions? Is there something about how games teach (or how people learn) that genuinely does separate desirable from undesirable results? Or are we changing our story depending on whether we're being threatened with banning or being promised kudos?

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See Jose hit

Not living in the U.S. anymore I get my updates about the hot topics there in delayed, sometimes random, ways. I had heard a bit about the steroid uproar that happened on the heals of Jose Canseco's recent book and now just got a chance to read a review of it. In it the author (Steven Shapin, The New Yorker, 18 April) talks about the how Canseco sees steroid use as actually part of a new era of "clean living" in baseball where steroid use was part of a larger fitness trend where "you saw bigger, stronger, faster, and healthier athletes, instead of those raggedy, fun-down, pot-bellied balls players of previous eras." Shapin also recounts how President Bush dealt with the issue in his 2004 State of the Union address saying that performance drugs are bad because "it sends the wrong message--that there are shortcuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character."

I don't want to trigger a big pro/con steroid debate (though I actually find it a pretty interesting one - indeed the issues that pervade elite sports in terms of enhancement/recupuration/maintence are utterly compelling). But I was struck when reading that Bush quote how much it highlights what I think of as one of the most interesting aspects in the whole eBaying phenom. The issue often gets framed as one of people trying to do exactly what Bush says, take shortcuts (shortcuts that often signal a deeper failure of character). But that quote also highlights an angle we don't often talk about - that some people actually find the performance of play the crucial factor and the (theoretical/design?) focus on the top gear (top bodies?), generally framed as a reward for play, misses where some might put their actual interest and energy. What happens when we shift from thinking of object rewards to thinking about how people focus on, experience, and take pleasure in the actual act, the practice of, play? I've certainly heard of quite a few players who are already at the top-end of their MMOG game buy auction items and in this regard they seem more like someone who, having solid basic skills, invests in their own version of high tech bats, gloves, etc. (and dare we think of paying for trainers/physical therapists/sports medicine/coaches/nutrition?). And what about all the ways opting into the process of play at a very basic level is done? (Maybe Nick can jump in here on some of the surprising "relational" data he has found in his surveys.) I know I'm slip-sliding around the whole fair play debate but I actually want to a bit to at least get things going. Because I do wonder if we fully understand yet exactly the nature of play in MMOGs and the varying pleasures... not to mention pains and rewards... they offer us. Are MMOGs (at least in their PvE instantiations) even good (perfect?) fits for traditional me-against-you-level-playing-field frameworks? Of course, the Shapin review ends by getting back to the fundamental debates of fairness. But along the way he opens up some interesting avenues to think about at least.

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