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Jan 05, 2005



I just had the experience of teaching a class on MMOGs and I found it fascinating to be confronted with my own inability to articulate what precisely an MMOG was on the first day of class. By the second week, the students were all in a virtual world (SWG in this case) and completely blown away by the immersive nature of the experience. By the fourth week of class, we had not only a shared vocabulary from the game, but our own cultural discourse that was both about the game and the class. It was unlike any other course I have ever taught. And, perhaps the most interesting aspect from a pedagogical point of view was that the students wrote some of the best midterms I have ever read. They were dedicated to making sure that a "class where they play games" was an academically challenging and legitimate experience.


I often lead friends and colleagues on short guided tours of virtual worlds. While it's true that one can't possibly have a deep experience without experiencing gameplay first-hand (and arguably, for a considerable period of time), I find it's enough to get them over the initial hurdle of even beginning to conceive what they're all about. It's interesting how much of an impact seeing a bunch of avatars congregated can have on the uninitiated. 'You mean those are people from all over the world??' You'd think that with their exposure to the Internet and videogames independently, this wouldn't be such a mind-boggling experience. But it does seem to be, at least among the people who have never really heard of an MMOG. And these friends and colleagues absolutely walk away with a much, much deeper understanding and a great deal of pure delight as they marvel at what technology now affords us. I can perceive the change weeks later, as well, as they continue to discuss what they've experienced relative to their interests or discipline.

I think we do ourselves a bit of a disservice by assuming that people need to play in order to understand. It's really important for parents and teachers, in particular, to get a handle on what their kids and students find appealing about these environments, even if they might never play themselves.

That's why I think Tracy Spaight's effort to create a feature film about MMORPGs is really great. It allows all the armchair gamers (or sociologists, psychologists, what have you) out there a chance to experience some facets of the worlds we inhabit, without them having to invest a lot of time and effort. I hope this will lead to greater understanding that balances the negative backlash that is seemingly inevitable when there is no bridge between the fans of a new medium and those who find it new and frightening. MMOGs offer some amazing benefits in terms of personal transformation and development that aren't perhaps as common to other videogame formats. It's important for non-gamers (especially those who wield influence over gamers) to know that.



I often lead friends and colleagues on short guided tours of virtual worlds. While it's true that one can't possibly have a deep experience without experiencing gameplay first-hand (and arguably, for a considerable period of time), I find it's enough to get them over the initial hurdle of even beginning to conceive what they're all about...

I think this is a great point. I personally believe a key element to emphasize, however, is that this is a guided/explained tour. I think there is a dangerous middle ground. I can recall a specific conversation with someone who I met at a conference who's only exposure to MMOs was from discussion beforehand and a quick crash course demo at the conference - he claimed to be underwhelmed by what he saw...

Simply too much detail was not accessible.


The response I've received when trying to describe or even give guided tours of certain MMOGs is unfailingly "Yeah, but whats the point?" or "It looks boring". And then I try highlighting things an outsider would find interesting which include the details Nathan mentions and those quirky situations that allow one to build an entertaining story in one's head of what happens. Unfortunately these situations doesn't happen often enough.

And so I think the problem with relating what is inside a virtual world is related to the majority of activities being too mechanical/technical in nature... Getting this item to trade it for enough of those ingredients to increase your skill in alchemy or whatever... I guess what I m saying is that I DO understand why outsiders dont get what goes on in most MMOGs. And then I start wondering why I m going through this constant chain of problem solving chores or errand running fest that resmebles a bit too much early adventure games on the old Amstrad CPC64 only in a much prettier world and shared with a multitude of people.

This problem in explaining what one does in an MMOG can be translated to explaining what goes on in RPGs. If you've only ever played rule-bashing, mob slashing, loot-pillaging oriented games, it becomes very difficult explaining to non RPGers what you do. On the other hand, if the game is oriented towards playing a character in an shared imaginary world, and the game is run thus then it becomes much easier to explain and. I believe that at their current stage of development MMOGs still share more in common with the former rather than the latter, and that is a major element of the difficulty one finds in relating them to the outside.


...and now I wish I would actually read entries before I press the Post but... :)


"It strikes me that a basic challenge... lies in how hard it is to communicate about their insides to the outside."

Hmm.... but would you say it is harder or easier than, say, writing an ethnography about a people whose initiation rituals involve inseminating (through anal intercourse) young boys and then marrying their sisters? Translating between worlds is always difficult -- and immersing one's self in a culture always involves "intensely personal and intellectually complex" experiences" -- but are mmogs more different than any other immersion in another culture? Explaining why insemination seemed natural to everyone at the time is challenging enough -- explaining why it makes perfect sense to do it on a full moon (and only a full moon) is even more challenging.

So I'm not convinced that the experience of cultural different in MMOGs is different than the experience of cultural difference anywhere else -- just that people who study MMOGs maybe haven't had the experience of mediating between cultures professionally the way that some anthropologists have. To a certain extent MMOGs make a lot more sense to the standard average American than, say, insemination, because the cast in MMOGs is quite familiar -- superheros, jedis, and D&D fandoms that are familiar to viewers.

Is the experience of explaining of playing a MMOG to nonplayers really so novel and different then the experience of explaining different cultures in general?



Is the experience of explaining of playing a MMOG to nonplayers really so novel and different then the experience of explaining different cultures in general?

Hmmm. I think in the "worst case" it is as hard - where the worst case is the one where the virtual culture is as complex as its comparison in the real world, and as different. I think in practice its better than the worst case because odds are you are playing with folks who you share external frames of reference, culture: /ooc as the classic conduit.

In any instance, though, assimilation takes time and attention to detail... how much time and how much detail, would, well, depend...


One of the problems here is that our games don't "mean" anything yet. We're barely stepping beyond the limits of raw technological capability into a realm where we can start trying to "say" something in an authorial sense (what "authorial" means in this context is a problem I gladly leave to you folks).

What we've got is skinner boxes. We're (developers) tapping into the raw, primal reward/response mechanisms built into the deeper levels of our (players) brains, and then as players we are inventing rationalizations for why we're doing it. Some of those rationalizations contain truth, for example the fact that there are other people observing our efforts *must* be a very important piece of the puzzle.

Other parts are sheerest fantasy. People do not spend 6 months on the hamster wheel, fighting monsters in order to get stronger, so that they can fight bigger monsters and get even stronger, because of any inherent value creation of the excercise. Rather, the effort itself generates the value, but the impetus is coming from elsewhere.

And that apparent pointlessness of the activity is not just in the eyes of the outsider. There is, in fact, no point outside of the context of the game (and precious little within it).

Before we can explain what is happening in these games, before we can shape that in order to convey an artistic commentary about ourselves or our world (real or virtual), we need a clear, unrationalized understanding of what's going on, in the heads of the people who are playing them.




So I'm not convinced that the experience of cultural different in MMOGs is different than the experience of cultural difference anywhere else -- just that people who study MMOGs maybe haven't had the experience of mediating between cultures professionally the way that some anthropologists have.

Even the professional mediator can present behavioural facts out of context in a way that can mislead readers about the true motivations of participants in a culture. Daniel Freeman's challenge of Margaret Mead's work in Samoa is, of course, the famous example of this kind of thing. The reader is seldom presented with comprehensive raw data, but is almost always given an interpretation (quite often presented as objective).

But what strikes me about MMOGs is that the best scholars are not just mediators, but participant observers in the truest sense of the word. They are often gamers first and scholars second, allowing for a unique perspective that has not been commonly available in anthropological endeavours. As such, they truly know of which they speak... (perhaps Mead did, as well, as she was a young woman studying young women). But in this advantage also lies a problem, the fact that so much is taken for granted in the mediation process. Still, it's impossible to comment on these communities without full material participation... so, do we have a paradox?

If so, I think we must find a balance between this kind of in-depth coverage and perspective with the need to allow non-MMOG-gamers arrive at their own conclusions by allowing them to see, if not experience, virtual worlds in action. As we're discussing, MMOGs are a phenomenon that cannot be readily understood through textual or verbal descriptions, be they simple or complex...

So I believe that these new media require new means of analysis and dissemination. I just think of Nanook of the North and other classic ethnographic films and think, no one could have made those cultures so compelling or understandble to me simply through words, no matter how many monographs I read...

Does anyone know, is there any visual ethnographic work being done in this arena? Aside from films and such, is anyone attempting to package findings in a visually compelling way?


Lisa Galarneau>Aside from films and such, is anyone attempting to package findings in a visually compelling way?

Do you count photography as film? If so, there's Robbie Cooper's work.



If you want to share what it is all about then look at player narratives. I.e. those they create spontanously for themselves. You fid them on guild and game sites.

An author/researcher with the intent of mediating will always change and distort the perspective... I think.



Do you count photography as film? If so, there's Robbie Cooper's work.

Exactly!! The beauty of this is that it really humanises players in a way that is accessible to the mainstream. The coverage is not about violence, addiction or other abstracted notions, but about people. And people are what MMOs are about.

I saw a documentary on NZ television last night that made the point (to its mainstream audience) that gamers are mostly social and cooperative, not sociopaths-in-the-making. It's really important for parents and teachers to understand this in the face of the sensation-seeking media coverage. The irony was that I was really worried about the doco after seeing the highly sensational commercial for it, but it turned out to be much more balanced than I'd expected. I wondered if that was the hook to get people watching who were looking for the bad stuff, then offer a balanced assessment of the research. Probably not, though... probably just the marketers at work.

I'd love the coffee table book of Robbie's work!


OK, it’s a trivial point but I think that MMOs are difficult to get over to people that have not experienced them because, in part, of the scope of the experience both in terms of the mechanical details (quests, trade, shards etc) and emotions.

I’m just not sure it is possible to get over the essence of an MMO in a short period of time, nor do I think that this is an issue of language.

When thinking about this I started to think about describing a game of cricket – getting the basic game over to someone is pretty simple but the core rules and actions have little to do with the pleasures of watching or playing a game. I guess where MMOs differ are the expectations on the part of those that one might be explaining things to – even (or maybe especially) gamers have a hard time getting their heads around the scale of MMOs.


I enjoyed Nathan's discussion of my article and have been following the ensuing conversation with interest. I've been teaching people to use MOOs on and off since around 1995 and it has often seemed to me that there are certain kinds of people who take to the experience very well, and others who feel immediately uncomfortable. These days, I can often recognise the two different types quite easily, although it's hard to articulate the difference. Technically, it's something to do with an interest in problem-solving of course, but it's also about having a certain turn of mind - adventurousness? openness? - as opposed to being fearful of other people and of some kind of perceived psychic/emotional danger.

Does anyone have a view on the question of how psychological makeup matches with a willingness to venture into virtuality?



Does anyone have a view on the question of how psychological makeup matches with a willingness to venture into virtuality?

This is a really interesting question. The analog in my life that immediately springs to mind is the practice of home exchanging, something I've been doing for some time. Swapping one's home with strangers from around the world makes a lot of economic sense (and we've made some great friends in the process!), but makes a lot of people really uncomfortable. I've arrived at the conclusion that one's receptivity to the idea absolutely depends on one's balance of fear vs. openness, just as you suggest might be the case with a willingness to explore virtual spaces. Can people let go of their fear long enough to experience the benefits of virtuality? Can they even conceive that there might be benefits that they can't imagine? For a large number of people, the answer is probably no. I hear this all the time at educational conferences and such... technology mediation never results in meaningful relationships and people are losing important social skills. But that always comes from people who aren't resident in vw's themselves and are simply heaping uninformed judgments on them, probably based on fear of the unknown.

Sadly, I think this represents a general dichotomoy in human nature. If you look at how Americans voted in the last election, a huge percentage of Bush supporters worried about terrorism (fear) whereas the majority of Kerry supporters were more concerned with making improvements (education, healthcare, Irag, etc.). It's about approaching the world from a place of abundance rather than deficiency... (is the glass half-full or half-empty?).

This is the armchair psychologist in me at work. Perhaps someone has a more informed view.


Lisa, you wrote:

'Can people let go of their fear long enough to experience the benefits of virtuality? Can they even conceive that there might be benefits that they can't imagine?'

I think the second point is especially interesting, because on the whole the answer is probably no - they cannot conceive of benefits. However, they *can* conceive of a whole lot of terrors! Porn, theft, spam... these are the downsides that they can well imagine, and do. When someone is too terrified to use a chatroom, they're not likely to try a virtual world. I've found this frustrating and depressing, yet I suppose I have to concede that their fears do sometimes have a grain of validity, not because of the porn and spam etc, but because the experience can indeed play with your mind and it can be hard to cope with. I was a victim of this in the early days and I am sure many here have experienced being taken for a ride or hurt in some way in virtual environments.

In the end I decided it is about maturation and that in the process of learning to live online we go through stages of child, adolescent and adulthood. In that context, it is easier to imagine how one's 'inner child' might be attracted or repelled by an initial encounter with a virtual world. To go one step further, I think it's possible to skip the growing up part and jump straight into online life as an 'adult', abiding by the rules and protocols you have been given rather than learning them from experience, but sadly missing out on some of the intensities gathered along the way by those of us who learned by trial and error.

But, Lisa, I'm just an armchair psychologist too! Like you, I look forward to a more informed view. And I'm curious to know whether any work has been done on this, because I'm about to embark on some myself.


As an addendum to that, I have just remembered that a while ago I posted an excerpt about this very topic in the blog for my book Hello World. It's at http://travelsinvirtuality.typepad.com/helloworld/2004/03/10_growing_up.html


Lisa --

First: it was Derek, not Daniel, Freeman and that controversy is considerably more complicated than you make it sound. At the very least if just indicates that Mead might just have been a lousy ethnographer -- it's an inditement of a person, not a method.

Second: When it comes to describing intersubjectively generated meanings, I don't think that there is a clear-cut distinction between 'raw data' and 'interpretation'. For just this reason, in order to inform one community about another you need to have a foot in both of them. An anthropologist who doesn't speak the local language is going lost no matter where they're doing fieldwork. And a local is going to have trouble to communicating her culture with the readers of the New Yorker no matter how much she knows about initiation rituals. That's not a paradox, it just means that the best mediators are often deeply involved in both communities -- MMOG gamers turned critics, or Native Americans turned linguists.

Third: Reading a book is often not nearly as compelling as watching a film. That's why documentaries are often (but not always -- let's not sell Julian Dibbell short here) more powerful than ethnographies. But that's just to say that ethnographic films are a good idea, not that they are a new idea or somehow required by MMOGs. Do MMOGs somehow require them when, say, rural Papua New Guinea -- which is certainly more experientially immersive than a MMOG -- does not? Is a tribal fight with machetes and homemade shotguns somehow less "readily understood through textual or verbal descriptions" than going to a lingerie contest in Second Life?

So I'm still unclear why you think "new media require new means of analysis and dissemination". As far as I can tell, all this only indicates that MMOGs deserve the same -- not different, and not new -- treatment as 'real' places. Or maybe I'm crazy :?)


Rex->"As far as I can tell, all this only indicates that MMOGs deserve the same -- not different, and not new -- treatment as 'real' places."

How can you treat two radically different ways of being in the same way? Even just looking at the most basic and obvious differences between, say, rural Papua New Guinea and a couple thousand people on a virtual continent in WoW, how could you study both in the same way, when one involves real lives, that for one thing, cannot be switched off when things go pear shaped or one's too tired, while the other is a networked projection of oneself into a long distance digital puppet ?

The differences in ontological structures surrounding both are so disparate that both the methods and the theoretical models used to analyse one cannot work on the other. The lack of physical presence and interaction in MMOGs sets them too far apart from those in 'real' life. If they both feed into each other, they do so up to a certain point that stops far from the demands and consequences of the latter.



So I'm still unclear why you think "new media require new means of analysis and dissemination". As far as I can tell, all this only indicates that MMOGs deserve the same -- not different, and not new -- treatment as 'real' places. Or maybe I'm crazy :?)

Apologies for the long post, but it's been a long time since I've dusted of my anthropology hat! Rex, I certainly agree with the points you've made. Visual ethnographic methods are in no way new... but they do seem to be a bit under-utilised. As we'd all probably agree, visual methods can allow a greater degree of personal experience on the part of the outsider, one that might allow for a greater understanding. They might notice a detail that's relevant to their understanding, yet something that the ethnographer may not have thought to interpret.

I suspect that my point-of-view rests in my preference for visual description over textual, at least in the very early stages of familiarising myself with a subject. Not only does a visual experience result in a greater emotional engagement with the subject, but it greatly increases my ability to visualise when I engage with subsequent textual descriptions. And no, I don't think that MMOs somehow require a visual approach more than rural Papua New Guinea, but I do think that in a way, MMOs are even more difficult for the non-digitally-savvy to get their head around. (Probably in much the same way that various native cultures were captured on film in the early days for then unfamiliar westerners to experience -- after they'd seen a few, was it then easier to read textual descriptions?). This assumption about the non-digital-person's struggle to understand MMOs is largely anecdotal... I've talked till I'm blue in the face about MMOs (and see a lot of eyes glaze over!), but it's not until someone sees one in action that they can even begin to understand. It's as if that experience creates the opening that gives them something to connect subsequent descriptions to.

But back to the subjectivity issue, I do believe that the degree of immersion in the observed community impacts one's ability to communicate enough detail and context for the outsider to understand, no matter how hard the ethnographer tries to maintain an awareness of their audience. I know this discussion has been going on for decades, but I see it particularly with scholars/reporters who are fluent in digital culture. As much as they might try, there is still much that is taken for granted or left unexplained (often in the area of interface), especially when trying to explain concepts to 'digital immigrants'. I find that the resulting efforts sometimes result in an over-simplification of the issues. (this may be similar to the Freeman/Mead debate - was she a crappy ethnographer, or did her context simply guide her to focus on certain aspects, missing the bits that were actually relevant? Or maybe she was just misled, which makes this a bad example? ;-)) My question is, can we provide our audiences with more 'raw data' in the form of captured/simulated gameplay, chat transcripts, etc., so they can balance their own interpretations with the interpretation of the ethnographer? (and does the lack of intrusion by a camera operator make this even more useful in a digital venue?) Or must they always be led on an interpreted journey? Or could the interpreted be illustrated more effectively with more visual elements? In the Second Life lingerie example, could one even begin to conceive of the possibilities a virtual space such as this afford, without visual illustration? (and are screenshots enough?)

And is it different when the strangers in a strange land are other scholars vs. the public at large? We have developed language that allows the trained scholar to access these unfamiliar areas based on sets of disciplinary constructs, but this is not true of the layperson. I guess the question is whether our reporters of digital culture really have one foot in each world, as you say 'in order to inform one community about another'. Our communities have fragmented to such a degree that I just wonder if a person can act as an interpreter of culture in the same way, at least if they intend to reach a wide audience? Is their foot more firmly in the observed world than the one to which they are communicating? Is the experience of being a participant in an MMO akin to knowing the language or engaging in the rituals of another culture, or is it something much deeper? Or does technology itself mean that there are even greater levels of complexity to navigate? I don't know the answers, really, I'm just intuiting that something more is needed if we want people who don't play to understand the experience of play. But maybe it is the same thing and just feels different somehow...


I hope the opinions of another armchair psychologist won't be out of line here, but after over ten years of studying personality typing models, I have a somewhat different take on this question of how people respond to the opportunity to play in online worlds.

(Please note that although some of the following comments are stated in a fairly strong form, none of them are expressed with any personal heat -- we're just sharing opinions here.)

To state it simply, I believe it's a mistake to characterize people who don't "get" online worlds as somehow defective. They're not. Not appreciating online play does not mean that there is something wrong with these people intellectually, ethically, emotionally, politically, or otherwise -- all it means is that they have a different understanding of what's important than people whose primary goal is something other than security.

Nor is it correct to say that this difference in world-goals is a matter of learned habits, or a reaction to some "trauma" experienced early in life, or any other such environmental phenomenon. People are just born different. They pop out of the womb with different fundamental motivations, and to a great extent they retain those different motivations throughout their lives.

A study of the behavior toward strangers of newborn babies (the reference to which I don't have at the moment, but will find if asked; remember, we're just sharing armchair opinions here) characterized newborns as outgoing, reserved, or "slow-to-warm-up." Some babies would coo and express curiosity at being held by new people; others would cry if they noticed a stranger; others would express concern but would accept the stranger as non-threatening after a time in which nothing bad happened.

What's interesting is that these attitudes toward security are apparently retained throughout one's life, and underlie decision-making regardless of most life experiences. They appear to be based on innate preferences... which means that we ought to view those preferences non-judgementally.

(That's not to say that actual behavior should be immune to judgement, just that the basic motivations native to individuals are not "wrong" merely for being different.)

As for the specific motivations themselves, there are any number of reasonable categorizations, ranging from Myers-Briggs and Keirseian temperament theory to "Big Five" models to the description (by one of the DSM-IV's creators) of pathological behavior as a hyperexcess of one or two otherwise acceptable motivations. The main thing to recognize about all these models is that they begin with the modern assumption that "different" doesn't equal "wrong" where motivations are concerned.

So any of these models can work for understanding the behavior of people generally and gamers specifically. None of them are perfect ("it's only a model"), but perfection isn't required -- they just need to explain human behavior to a useful degree. I've found the models I've named generally good enough (because they're models based on empirical data, and not data generated to support a theory), but others may work as well.

Speaking for myself, I happen to prefer the model David Keirsey developed, with a few minor tweaks based on my own experience and analysis. To express it in terms appropriate for this discussion, most people are guided primarily by one of four motivations:

Artisan: action-seeking (external change)
Guardian: security-seeking (external order)
Rational: knowledge-seeking (internal order)
Idealist: self-actualization-seeking (internal change)

(The names given are Keirsey's; the descriptions are mine.)

The same model in a more organized format (Keirsey's is slightly different):


Artisan | Guardian
Change ---------+--------- Order
Idealist | Rational


Myers-Briggs statistics indicate that there are a lot more Guardians and Artisans than Idealists and Rationals -- that is, the general population contains a lot more folks who are concerned with the physical, concrete, external world than with conceptual, abstract, internal phenomena. Most people are content -- in fact, prefer -- to concern themselves with what is "real": building things, making money, shaking hands, acquiring possessions, manipulating objects and people. To these folks, even the word "game" has certain undesirable connotations of something adults just don't do, or something not meant to be taken seriously.

Why do some of us think and speak as though there was something inherently wrong with this? Is it really necessary for us to react to a perceived slight to our interests by labeling those who don't share our motivations as "fearful" or "uninformed" or immature or closed-minded or some other term of disrespect and condescension? (The conflation of some of these attributes with "Bush voters" verged on the silly. OTOH, I've said some silly things myself, so let it pass.)

OK, so some people aren't interested in -- and live perfectly satisfying lives without -- playing computer games. So? How is that a problem for those of us who do find satisfaction in playing (and thinking about the playing of) games? Why should we consider others broken because they aren't like us?

Of course it's also true that Guardians and Artisans are wrong to consider gamers somehow defective because we don't share their externals-directed motivation. If someone doesn't want to play games, that's fine, but if someone goes beyond this to attacking the value of gameplay to others, or even trying to prevent others from engaging in appropriate play, that's not fine and it deserves to be challenged.

But it's not a mistake we should copy. If someone is wrong to deny the value of play, let's not emulate them by questioning the value of security. If we don't let others be different, why should we expect them to let us be different?

If we don't respect their motivations, why should they respect ours?


(Note: It's purely my opinion, but I believe there are some deep correspondences between Keirsey's temperament model as I've diagrammed it above, and Richard Bartle's "Players Who Suit Muds" model and diagram. I keep meaning to write something on that subject.... Meanwhile, those who are interested in this subject of psychological makeup and gameplay might enjoy Keirsey's book, _Please Understand Me II_, or visit his website at http://keirsey.com/ . Keirsey doesn't discuss gameplaying specifically, but attitudes toward play are described generally.)


Sorry about the formatting of the diagram above, by the way. (Sigh.)

Also, I can't resist adding a note on the subject of the ethnography of virtual worlds: Mead's work and methods were held up for many years as examples to be emulated. Given that, the exposure of her results as being mostly just what she wanted to believe aren't merely an indictment of her methods -- it's also an indictment of everyone who promoted her work so enthusiastically because they wanted validation for their own behavior.

Ethnographers of virtual worlds should heed that warning if they don't want their own work poisoned similarly.



Flatfingers, your reminder about tolerance and respect for differing attitudes is much appreciated. Perhaps I generalised a bit too broadly. The distinction I'm making is this, however: a number of people do not find virtual worlds appealing (totally fine - I have no criticism there), but also fail to understand why others might find them appealing. As a result, some heap reactive, fear-based judgments on them and proclaim rather loudly that they aren't good for anyone, for any purpose. This is the type of message that bothers me. I'm happy for people not to choose to do something, as long as they happily accept that other people might derive some unknown benefit from it.


Gordon: What's the difference between tap water and holy water, ontologically? There are obvious ontological differences between MMOGs and the meatworld, but humans invest meaning in them through the special-wide mechanism anthropologists call culture. A comparison of the two is possible because humans make both meaningful ('real' for them) and form relationships in both in a similar way. A comparison of the two is interesting exactly because of the differences you point out.

Lisa: I agree that visual methods are under-utilized. You agree they're in no way new. We agree -- w00t :!)

I also agree these issues of mediation have been discussed for a long time -- in the Western tradition, ever since people started translating the bible! I think the answer lies in good writers who write for a general audience and who know a lot about the worlds where they live -- not journalists who work on a story for a week, or academics who write for a specialized audience (tho' as such an academic I would argue that the niche we fill is valuable). I just think 'Raw data' without interpretation is not much help at all. Imagine someone whose never played Dark Ages of Camelot with a transcript full of lines like "damn these mobs con purp to my eldi -- need mana regen plz". Now imagine someone working through My Tiny Life and the way Julian makes Lamba MOO real for his readers. Which one is really more helpful? Of course incorporating chat transcripts or movies in a documentary about mmogs or a book about them is one method among many of explaining to people what's going on.

But still -- the way out of the problem is the way in. The only way to solve the problem of interpretation is to do it well, not to try to avoid it altogether.


Oh, I just realised I forgot to post this earlier. For people interested in such things, there are a couple of other papers that make the Walter Ong point about text being speech (rather than writing) in virtual worlds:

the Modal Complexity of Speech Events in a Social MUD by Lynn Cherny;
Orality in a Text-Based Community by Jen Clodius.



Flatfingers>It's purely my opinion, but I believe there are some deep correspondences between Keirsey's temperament model as I've diagrammed it above, and Richard Bartle's "Players Who Suit Muds" model and diagram.

Was that you who wrote that excellent posting to MUD-DEV on this subject last year? The archives are down and my hard copy of the paper is in a pile awaiting sorting in my office, so I can't check right now.

If it wasn't you who wrote it, let me know and I'll try track it down for you.


PS: There is a discussion here that looks at some of this stuff. I didn't get involved in it myself because the people involved seemed so happy putting words in my mouth that I decided there was no need for me to supply any of my own. That said, it does raise some interesting issues.


Lisa, I appreciate the distinction you're drawing, and I agree with it. My point is not about ends, but means.

There are some who actively oppose play because they see no value in it. The question is how those of us who think they're wrong can best respond to these actions. I don't believe the solution is to try to find ways to change the minds of those who feel this way -- if I'm right about temperament, you *can't* change their minds. The security-seeking attitude (which is the most common source of "games are bad") is based on an innate conviction about what matters and what doesn't, and it simply isn't possible to change innately-held worldviews through any amount of persuasion or ridicule. Trying to help these folks "get" games is simply never going to succeed, and is in fact a waste of resources that can only lead to frustration on all sides.

The more effective course (I believe) is not to try to convert the unconvertable, but to bypass these people by persuading enough of the persuadable. Create fun games and find ways to demonstrate to the open-minded the value of these games, and you won't have to take on those who just don't get it -- the gamers who've been brought into the system will do that for you.

Why destroy that which can be made irrelevant?

Not that this approach will seem very satisfying to any Idealists among us, of course. *grin*

(Incidentally, I'd love to see Myers-Briggs results for the contributors to TN. I feel safe in guessing that most of the game designers would be Rationals, and most of the academics would be Idealists -- intuitives, all, who see Guardians as a kind of incomprehensible alien species... and vice-versa. I've written a discussion on this subject I'd be willing to contribute to the proper thread....)


Richard, no, I've never posted to MUD-DEV (that I know of), so I doubt I'm the author of the piece you mentioned. I'd like to read it, though, so a reference (as your time permits) would be very much appreciated.

(OTOH, I am the person who met you and Julian at lunch during the Community Work conference in Denmark, and who suggested to you that Keirsey's work might have some application to your model of online gamers.)

The discussion of your typology in the UMEC Forums was worth seeing -- thank you for that pointer. There were some interesting ideas in there about how motivations affect gameplay; in particular, it was intriguing how the author thought "Choice" and "Power" goals emerge through a player's actions in an online world. I'll digest that as I think about this in a more Keirseian context.

Oh, and I'd have been more circumspect than the UMEC author about using phrases like "Bartle intended" even if you didn't post here. ;-)



Flatfingers>Richard, no, I've never posted to MUD-DEV (that I know of), so I doubt I'm the author of the piece you mentioned.

The MUD-DEV archives are down at the moment (they seem to crash the hard drive of any machine they're one) and I don't have the CD version, but I'll try send you a scan of the hard copy I have just as soon as I can find it...

>OTOH, I am the person who met you and Julian at lunch during the Community Work conference in Denmark, and who suggested to you that Keirsey's work might have some application to your model of online gamers.

I should have looked at your fingers to see if they were flat.

>Oh, and I'd have been more circumspect than the UMEC author about using phrases like "Bartle intended" even if you didn't post here. ;-)

I'm getting used to it. It's like people think I'm either dead or so senile as to be unable to answer emails.



Another paper I forgot: The Common Place MOO: Orality and Literacy in Virtual Reality by Don Langham. There's also a response by Michael Doherty.



As I read this brief article I couldn't help but think of how what is being spoken of here, of how subtle nuances and details shape experience and the overall gist of life, is really in no way particular to the online realm. This may seem excessively obvious, but as I read the article the sense that this was being overlooked jumped out at me several times. To illustrate my point, consider any specialized profession or pursuit: it has its own vocabulary and, to varying degrees, its own vernacular. This language is defined by those experiences taken to be commonly, if not universally shared by those who move about in the particular social and active space of the profession. Take for instance my job at the grocery store. I can turn to a bagger and say we need four cases of green, three of pink, and two yellows and they will understand without any delay or hesitation what I mean. Most any who are unfamiliar with the grocery world would have a hard time comming immediately to the conlcusion that I was talking about milk, however with some degree of knowledge and familiarity the vocabulary becomes second nature. Of course relating this to an outsider is beyond simple. After all, it is a code based on the color of the caps used on milk jugs. Easy. But is it? After all, can we not attribute much of the ease of communication to the shared base of experience? Everyone has at least SEEN a milk jug in the US, even if they have never bought one. Even if you were to move to a store where the color coding was different, the code itself would be understood instantly, though you may get improperly stocked shelves. But this is due purely to the shared experience of handling milk that is universal to the grocery industry in America.

Now it may well seem quite the leap to go from milk caps to MMOs, but it seems to me that the primary difficulty in explaining the forces at work in the MMO experience are due exclusively to the lack of integration into mainstream experience. Essentially, explaining something in a virtual realm is going to be more difficult based purely on the basis that for most people, they have no idea what something like powerleveling entails. A vocabulary has developed around the MMO experience as it is commonly defined currently, and it is a vocabulary which often has little correlative link with the world beyond. But as people become more and more familiar with the virtual realm as both concept and reality and as the ideas which fuel the vocabulary radiate out through our society's collective consciousness, much of the communicative difficulty will recede and ideas about these spaces will flow more freely.

Of course details define the virtual experience. Details define ALL of experience. The communcative barrier is due simply to a lack of experiental bridges between the details which define the MMO experience and those which apply to everyday life. The difficulty comes in not being able to rest upon any sort of shared understanding of the world being discussed. In effect, it's much like trying to explain the importance of fire to a mermaid. We can't simply provide an argument on what fire has done for humanity and the ways which it defines our lives to this day, we have to explain what fire is, how it works, why it works that way, and even then the mermaid may not quite get it. Fortunately, while the mermaid may never have a use for fire, the MMO seems poised to only grow in prominence and importance in our everyday life and collective understanding. I doubt that in a generation's time we will still encounter anything like the level of difficulty we currently experience in talking about the MMO with a lay-person. Right now we are scouts in a frontierland unlike any experienced before and as such much of what we have to say will be misunderstood, but that misunderstanding is sure to give way to familiarity as time passes.

We all live in the land of our own tongue and it is only our shared experience of life which makes us intelligible to one another. I'm sorry if I'm doing nothing more than giving voice to the obvious here, but I thought it should be said.


I would just like to point out that in my own brief experience with disseminating about an MMO to a group of lay people, the experience was greatly enhanced by the use of visual aides, "tangible" sources such as guild sites and official sites, and by giving an outline of the in-game specifications which defined my topic, which was an exploration of a religious guild. I found that when I gave enough general information about the game world's social environment and the means and methods by which people communicated, the class was able to really open up and engage with the topic. By building bridges of understanding which allowed those with no experience with such games to grasp the general thrust of how the world worked, they were able to cross those bridges and take their first few tenative steps into contemplation of the implications of such realms. Admittedly all who were there were familiar with the internet and so the very idea of such a game was not foreign to them, but the relative ease by which I got them to engage in discussion over them was heartening for the prospect of open and reasonably informed discourse on virtual realms.

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