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Sep 16, 2003



"the emergence of social structures in online worlds that are not created by the developers"

With all respect, I think that this is no longer the most compelling question about human behavior in persistant worlds. People seem to want to create their comfortable social structures anywhere, from children playing "marriage" in a kindergarten yard to the complex arrangement in the basement of the Branch Davidian complex to a shopping mall in Second Life. Far more intiguing is what sort of completely *new* social structures we find, based not on our primal needs for proximity and physical familiarity, but on the ethereal wings of the disembodied, geography-free internet. I can't even begin to imagine what these will be, but I'll bet the very faintest foundations are being laid before our eyes, right now, in our finite graphical worlds.


Embellishing Bridget's question of "new social structures" - I wonder to what extent we are captives (or not) of some sort of recast of a (sapir-)whorfian perspective: "to what extent would such structures be determined by the previous games we played."

Or more strongly, will there be classes of structures to emerge corresponding to the clusters of current gaming traditions.


Potential new social structure: The cross-world elite guild. These guys enter new worlds, dominate until bored, then move on. On the way they place their stamp on the world's culture (for example by trampling any role-playing culture into the dust). If there's a dupe, hack, or exploit to be found, they find it, and use it. Powergamers also express a kind of ownership of the world, and place high expectations on the developers to fix things that are "obviously broken" (never mind whether the stuff is working as intended.) Sometimes it seems their influence on designers is substantial, although I don't really know, having never been behind the scenes. So, what are these guys? I have trouble thinking of an Earth equivalent. International mafia? A global movement of influential policy critics? A clique of oppressive connoisseurs? Really rich, really powerful, really entitled tourists? Internationally mobile capital-holders?


Closest parallel to cross-world guild seems to be international corporations. Destructive of local cultures. Seeking to exclusively own and exploit previously social assets. Demanding restructuring of local laws to favour their activities. Monsanto plus WTO ?


The cross-world guild is very interesting. And guilds are certainly the best example of emergent social structures. The Taylor and Jakobsson paper does a really nice job of articulating the nature of guilds (at least in EQ) and detailing their importance.

At the risk of pushing discussion in a different direction, I was wondering whether we have examples of social structures or institutions outside guilds. Guilds or raiding parties or other social-intercourse groups are very interesting, but they are a pretty limited form of organization. (This is not a flame troll, just an observation about their role in social and political organization in the real world: I love getting together with friends but they don't collect my trash, pave the roads, represent me in congress, etc)

I'm particularly interested in dispute resolution mechanisms (which, of course, can operate within guilds, informal posses for PKers, etc), examples of governance or political structures (revolutionary anti-tax movements in Second Life, etc), the rise of economic institutions (currency in ATITD, private banks in other worlds), and so on.

I guess my question is whether we are likely to see institutions emerge here. Because if we don't (or if those structures are entirely created or mediated by developers) then claims that these places will be "worlds" are seriously hamstrung.


I think that you have to differentiate between the VR's that are primarily goal-oriented (like EQ and the ilk) as opposed to "games" like There which is more closely akin to a VR chat room. The social structures that are likely to emerge in There-style VR's might probably amount to little more that subject specific discussion groups and ring. Where in goal-oriented games you'll obviously have structured guilds and player organizations that pool resources to accomplish in-game objectives. The most interesting type to me though would be in the emergence of groups in goal oriented games that attempt to craft new goals, i.e. merchant empires and other such organizations that attempt to create and control markets utilizing basic functions of the game (item trading, real estate amnd such) and building them into corporate style structures.

On the concept of social governence it must be remeberd that in all but the most extreme cases (like LambdaMOO or ATITD where the point of the VR is to create these structures) the players and personas have very very little influence and ability to affect meaningful change in the way the game is run except in instances where they can create massive public consensus on a subject (like social norms) and even then they have little strength in enforcing or controlling the memes that they have unleashed. ATITD is unique in the fact that the social structures "created" (or perhaps more accurately, "fullfilled") by the players are mandates from the programmers. Even LambdaMOO in the end could to little to spontaneously create law and government without "wizardly fiat". Any meaningful structure in-game must in the end by coded by someone with RW power over the game (i.e. non-players, most likely employee's of the controlling company).

Thirdly it would be very interesting to attempt a multi-VR social group (and not just in the milieu of Clans or guilds of friends and players but rather as inter dimensional corporations) that acts in-game but with accomidations from the VR gods/coders. They would create needed functions and try and introduce them into each game. One could say that Ebay has, in a distributed manner, become one of these interdimensional companies.

sorry to ramble so much. . .


Hmmm, benevolent cross-world guilds without the l33t status are a possible new social structure. Now we have bunches of people who call themselves friends who have never met, yet may travel through the shared experiences of different games as a group. They are perhaps close to alum of a university, people who shared some time and space but in a less intimate way than, say, a military unit. This group transcends online and meets occasionally in RL. So, perhaps one of these new forms, albeit not the exclusively ingame ones Dan is inquiring about, is the concept of long term online friends. Maybe in 10 years no one will tilt their head and look at one inquiringly when you talk of friends online.

Can this extend also to a romantic relationship? Will it be accepted broadly, as a mistress is now in many older cultures, that one also has an online partner with which you share experiences and virtual places?

These are the beginnings of the structures I think are most interesting; the ones that begin to separate behavior from time and space constraints. Was just reading "The Point Is.." lecture by Brian Moriarty given in 1996 http://ludix.com/moriarty/point.html
predicting MMOs and he says "Time and Space are boring. Let's not invite them"

Most "emergent behaviors" in games are very fun (min-maxing, creative character revolts) but are really just adaptations of traditional voting systems, assembly lines and other mechanisms for dealing with justice, production, and commerce.

Who will be the ones to look with genius eyes at persistant worlds, will the EQ DaVinci or Ghandi be a designer or a guildleader?


I think its becoming quite obvious that many of the once stand-alone virtual world communities are increasing in crossover traffic.

Two quick examples;

I have a habit of ridding around There in a buggy while listening to my SWG character play in a Cantina Band. On a few occasions, one of the other Band members has mentioned going AFK for a few minutes to go 'cut a deal' in a EQ Bazaar. At some point, this type of concurrent duality may start to redefine player types, maybe like a mixing pool mechanism. For example in the real world we have terms like "Asian-American", because someone sees themselves as a member of both communities or sometimes as a member of a shared sub-community. I could see similar terms like 'EQ-SWG' or 'There-SWG' becoming useful in the future.

Also in There, I am a member of a 'beta testers' club. The purpose of the club is to use There's voice chat, club forums and clubhouse as a communication focal point to connect with members that are participating in other beta tests. Its not uncommon for us to work out strategies and swap tricks in There and then all hop into some world together. After a few hours we return back to the clubhouse to discuss how the day went.

My guess is that both of these trends will only continue to blur the unique community lines between various virtual worlds going forward, with both cross platform communities and small virtual world sub-communities spawning outside of games that have no built in community of their own.


"To what extent are we seeing the emergence of social structures in online worlds that are not created by the developers?"

Honestly, right now, there's no way to accurately tell since there's very little publically available data around besides some occasional first-hand accounts (which are sometimes nothing more than marketing speil).

Currently, I'm trying to link developers with academia as I make my own personal transition from working in the industry to a researcher at Stanford. Hopefully, I'll be able to get eGenesis to make their law library data (stretching back into previous beta incarnations of the world with detailed statistics) available to analysts and interest people associated with Stanford School of Law (looking directly at you, Dibbel, and your friend Lessig right now) in doing a serious study of it.

Anyway, here's a little tidbit of data right now you can dissect. In ATITD, we found that users tend to first make "meta-laws" or laws that govern the system of lawmaking by declaring what a "region" is or calling for the creation of a "law library" (great idea that we neglected to include at first). Interestingly enough though, the players never combined all these meta founding laws together into a sort of constitution. Instead, what we have in the gameworld of our ancient Egypt more closely resembles European legal systems with a hodge-podge of related "common" laws and occasional infamous "Magna Carta" style laws that set a precedent that decendant laws always refer back to.


Some more interesting stuff from Jia on gamegirl...



Oh, and Raph has a snippet about plane raids as part of his tour de force slide show on "Competitive and Cooperative Structures in Online Worlds" -- great stuff...


"Looking at EQ plane raids: as the number of players competing for the exact same resource rose, complex rules of social standing and precedence started arising spontaneously."

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