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May 04, 2006



What's the difference between mediating interactions with people on your local baseball team or people in your global guild. There's still a person at the other end of the relationship. It's not like you're hanging out with NPCs or something. What if your professional colleague IMed you (he didn't phone?) to tell you son to stop cheating at Little League?


Interesting cross-link: Joi Ito's comments on VW communication found on Raph's blog:


There are certainly a lot things to think about in terms of how Virtual Worlds are reshaping our day to day communications/interactions.


Liz, I have been enjoying your posts. I especially liked the one about taking your son to SWG meeting (my mom just took me to JC Penny’s). I think it is neat too see things like your teenage son, and a colleague from work participating on a level playing ground in a virtual world. Perhaps, virtual worlds can strip away some of our social/cultural boundaries? Here you have your son, and a colleague from work running an instance together. Obviously, they know who the other is in RL. However, it is still fascinating to see how people, who are normally drawn members of the same demographic in real life, participate so easily with people of different demographics knowingly or not in virtual worlds.


What's the difference between mediating interactions with people on your local baseball team or people in your global guild. There's still a person at the other end of the relationship. It's not like you're hanging out with NPCs or something. What if your professional colleague IMed you (he didn't phone?) to tell you son to stop cheating at Little League?

Actually, it's an interesting point that she, her son, and her professional colleague are all playing -- according to this analogy -- Little League.


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'd suggest that many (if not all) MMO spaces are in fact actively designed to encourage a form of (virtual) social aggregation. This posit is reflected by play-mechanical concepts such as Guilds, Groups and Raids. During the course of our virtual endeavours we are coerced to form social ties by having game encounters which can only be overcome by multiple participants, thereby serving as the emotive impetus in bringing people together. Unfortunately, some participants’ behaviours can be less than desirable, and it is this fact that’s perhaps the most compelling reason for recruiting a real-life associate over a solely virtual presence. The distinction is one of the direct accountability of the individual concerned.

Cynically speaking, the play-mechanical structuring of groups, guilds and difficult encounters are as much a marketing feature of the product that helps promote the game outside the immediate sphere of its media hype, as it is an acknowledgement of the need of social interaction. But however it’s construed, it does actually work in a social capacity. I met my current partner of some 3 years in an online game, due to us both being in the same guild. The backdrop of the gaming environment necessitated social interaction due to in-game pursuits, which in turn afforded a common ground for discourse. Ultimately this extended beyond the mandate of the virtual game scenario and into the real.

Arguably then, it could be said that both directions of migratory flow are facilitated through the medium of a concurrently interactive virtual space, although not in a necessarily equally functional capacity.


I'd never thought about how true this was until this week when I told a grad student she could meet me in WoW to discuss a research project. I'm off campus until next week and I made the deal with her that if she could catch me during some down time (WoW-ing) that we could chat then, otherwise we'd have lunch on Monday.

Let me say that I am not a terrible person. I am grading seminar papers and grades are due Monday, the research project being discussed is not her dissertation project per se but something that she worked on for her final project, and I would be more than happy to chat with her in Azeroth or via voice when I am not trying to meet the crazy grading deadline.


Orc-fice hours for a professor and grad students... verrrrryyyy interesting.

I just hope Serenity Now doesn't hear about it. They'll gank your kawfee tawk

; )


Starting to go play with their friends in MMOs? When was this not the case? Word-of-mouth is our largest driver of traffic, by far, adding up to as much as all advertising efforts combined. I think it'd be newsworthy if people were playing MMOs largely without knowing anyone else who is playing, but this is just standard behavior in MMOs and has been for many years.



I also want to add that the idea of intermingling the physical world with the virtual for purposes other than entertainment is hardly new. Those boundaries got crossed decades ago. I got my first investor (from Hong Kong) 10 years ago in a virtual world, and to this day, I have never talked to him on the phone or met him in person.



Perhaps, virtual worlds can strip away some of our social/cultural boundaries?

A tad of an aside here --

I've experienced this effect first-hand for several years now, seeing that most of the people I've met in MMOs, I only know them as an elf or a halfing, or.... My opinions of them have been formed on how they play, and how they interact, how they post on forums, and the like.

BUT -- Now 15 years into playing on MUDs and MMOs, I find myself becoming again unconsciously classifying folks. I've met alot of folks I met in MMOs in RL. I've seen a lot of my RL friends play MMOs. My brain has begun to reconcile my observations into (you guessed it) stereotypes.

For good or ill, I catch myself more often now observing how someone acts in a MMO and drawing conclusions about their RL personality. While racial cultural distinctions are often impossible or at least difficult for me to make, I definitely find myself stereotyping based on behavior. "That's either a 10-year-old or a social-misfit...otherwise, who would be following me around trying to attack everying I'm just about to attack." Or, "This person quietly and competently manages a 40-man raid group on a weekly basis, with a pleasant attitude. They must be a management-type in RL."

Whether my conclusions are right or wrong about people, I find myself making them more and more often these days based on years of experience interacting by text, emote, and avatar in virtual worlds. I wonder if other folks do that too? And, as more people enter virtual worlds and interactions there, I wonder how long it will be before we, as a collective group, develop the skills (and/or the bad habits) of translating those niche subtleties into behavioral pattern recognition?

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?
I reply to him and say that my son play as he wants, and he should know how to deal with it :-P|

I don't know how convinced I am that the real/virtual distinction re: groups of friends is important in the way you speak of. I consider my friends IRL who read my blog to be very important, but not the audience for my blog; they'd be the audience no matter what.

Since the Internet is a virtual medium, it is important that the friends we make in virtual life translate into real friends, not that we import those we make into real life here. If the movement is "real to virtual," then there is nothing revolutionary or extraordinary about any of this. It's just a playground (some of you are going to be tempted to answer me that it is the flux between "virtual/real" and "real/virtual" movement that characterizes life on here. No comment).

I'm rambling because in the purely virtual realm, an issue has come up, esp. where I'm playing right now (EVE Online), that has the potential to make the virtual friends I'm making very real very fast.

The issue is that of justice, indirectly raised by the example of ninja-looting you gave above.

In EVE, an enormous number of players are clearly immature individuals, probably kids. They're player pirates, and have no problem destroying ships others have worked months for or assassinating the ejected pilots (pod killing, a very serious thing, because certain player enhancements can't be had back even though one can create clones of oneself in EVE). They have no problem trash talking and stealing and generally treating other people like crap.

I'm obviously a bit-biased. I look at every opportunity in game as an opportunity to teach. I actually got in a fight with a pirate, who told me that the Players' Guide told him that power for power's sake was the goal, so he was going to do his best to advance his power.

I told him that the Aristotlean actual/potential distinction meant that power only exists relative to a goal; without an articulate goal, there is only "force," but force without direction. I argued that his behavior was irrational in the deepest sense, and asked him about his goals for the game.

He, of course, had been playing for years. Barely made any friends. Constantly on the run from the NPC cops. Has a host of enemies that want to kill him for good reason. And isn't all that rich, to tell the truth. He had become his own Gollum in his own little cave.

Unfortunately, EVE is filled with those Gollums, who make some of the beginner missions very, very dangerous, and certain areas of the game impossible to use. And why does it have to be this way? Can't we work together to help each other in the virtual world? The developers and designers can always throw more challenges at us. And fighting piracy is not friendly competition, or even decent competition. A pirate must raid those who are weaker to survive. The only way to confront pirates is to use an overwhelming force to back them into a corner and obliterate them. It would be a wonderful battle, but one worth putting months of time and funds into?


The question of justice online is the question of the best gameplay experience for all. It's a touchy issue, for our real characters show up very quickly when we're allowed to imagine who we'd like to be. And order online is imposed by decentralized structures that correspond to those who are looking to build, and not merely blow off steam.

To that end, I want to propose this about the virtual/real distinction: the chaotic politics of online gaming are very real when they are built. Usually, there is nothing resembling a political: EVE is currently as much a state of nature as one can get. The corporation I work for, a bunch of good people, cannot band together for the sake of promulgation and execution of law because the premium right now is on survival.

But when we can survive, and when we have learned the rules that underlie the state of nature, the virtual community will become very real, a political order unto itself. Just wait until 50 of us decide we're going to clean out a sector of space, and keep it clean.

And what I want to conclude with is this: I think politics can be best learned in the virtual than it can in the real, and that importing our real friends into the online world can be what really makes things chaotic.

For friendship in modern democracy is not political. Fraternity is the hardest thing to achieve in this order, as liberty and equality are prerequisites to it. Our friendships stay in the realm of the private for the most part, a private carved out to us by "rights," which are a limiting of the public.

But friendship in other political orders worked very differently. Athenian democracy was composed of "demes," districts of Athens that had tribes. People knew each other there very intimately before coming together in the political institutions to deliberate. Our institutions, on the other hand, are meant to fracture us (cf. Federalist 10, 51), for fraternity is one step away from oligarchy and tyranny if the wrong individuals are "friends."

We're not meant to conflate the private and the public. But the virtual worlds we participate in, by letting us play around with a persona, push us into the public very fast, and force us to be not only political animals, but maybe even, eventually rational animals.

And so I want to see more develop in the virtual qua virtual, and then extend to the real. As far as I'm concerned, the real world is a mess, esp. in terms of the political. People shouldn't be calling the President a liar to his face, whether that President is Clinton or Bush, and then saying that freedom of speech means you can participate in libel or slander, and that criticism is good for the regime, even if it's thoughtless and baseless. Our institutions were meant to make us deliberate and act with our higher capacities, not just namecall.

And our institutions are corrupt today, probably, because what we indulge in privately we allow to escape publicly.

Let the virtual be what teaches us how to interact in public anew. I don't want any trace of the real world when I'm gaming, because when I'm done gaming, I want the real world to be that much better for it.


What's the difference between mediating interactions with people on your local baseball team or people in your global guild. There's still a person at the other end of the relationship. It's not like you're hanging out with NPCs or something. What if your professional colleague IMed you (he didn't phone?) to tell you son to stop cheating at Little League?

Actually, it's an interesting point that she, her son, and her professional colleague are all playing -- according to this analogy -- Little League.

Maybe I'm just so used to the entire thing. I used to play in a competitive FPS clan with a father/son team. Things got a little interesting when the son jumped ship to another clan and we ended playing his team. This was 5 years ago now, so I don't see much distinction between the people you play with online and those you play with in your local environment. Just because this has shifted to MMOs does not mean the quality and level of interaction with other players either through their avatars in game or through some other medum (skype, voice comm, phone conversations, email) has changed significantly.


This has always been the case in commercial MMOs; after the initial rush of motivated players into a game at launch, most of the new players have come from word-of-mouth, i.e. friends inviting others into the game.

Cementing the in-game social bonds with real life activity has also been around since the beginning. British Legends, the CompuServe version of MUD I, had its first RL player meet around 1986 (unsure of the year, sorry). I attended my first player meet for an online game in 1989 in Houston, for Air Warrior.

Really, the only thing that has changed here is the scale. As more and more people play the games, more and more friends are being recruited.


I definitely agree with you Liz and try to cover that in the book as well by, for example, mapping out some of the family/friends relations in one of the guilds or talking about the way people get introduced to the game. And I agree with Matt and others, it is not a new phenom (MUDders certainly took friends in with them) though maybe we notice it more as the demographic of players broadens a bit.


Our (i.e. me and my Illinois team and the PARC guys) recent survey/interview research of WoW players has shown that about 1/3 of all players in guilds are playing with real-life friends, co-workers or family.

Perhaps 5% of players move an in-game relationship back out into the real world in some way.

I think that gives some numerical teeth to Liz's OP.

The demographic horizon broadening mentioned here is something I've been calling bridging social capital (using Putnam), and it's been a steady finding in my work to date--even in games with little civic culture.


ashok: Eve is certainly Hobbesian, but I think PvP there is best seen as a somewhere betweeen a high-stakes poker game and Mensur fencing. You can choose how much to put on the line and how to manage your exposure to risk. I spent a while fighting a defensive corp war, where both sides would dock/safespot unless they thought their "hand" (fleet) was the stronger. Loss can certainly be very brutal, but at the end of the day it's a game from which people can walk away.

Not all pirates are like the one you describe; Veto are organised and mature, and very friendly among their own.

That there is little justice in the game mechanics means that justice has to be built and earned, just like ships. If you're interested in cleaning up some space, evemail "Vasiliyan" and I might join you ...


Peter - Veto sounds like a very interesting phenomenon. It might be a group I'd like to study, if not join.

There's something about piracy inherently I don't like. Cf. The Odyssey, where Odysseus says he will raid some other islands to get back the treasure he has lost.

The political tends to thievery, left to itself (cf. Xenophon, The Education of Cyrus, also Aristotle, Politics, Book 1). I can't say you're wrong about Veto being mature because they are certainly more mature than some of the kids at Eve.

But I think I can hold ground, ironically enough, on my post controversial point: we really don't know how to deliberate, and maybe our behavior in game is reflective of that when imported from outside.

Thanks so much for reading that obnoxiously long comment of mine, and I'll be in touch. You've raised good points and I could use a pirate hunting helper in a little bit.



I think you've missed one of the main points as to why people play games: it's because it's pretend. It's not real.

Games are sand boxes. You can build a castle and you can knock it down. You can build a guild and steal all its resources. You can make a friend and stab her in the back.

In the real world, you would not be more likely to build a castle than to knock it down. Games exist outside of the real world, and exist outside of real world mores, weltanschauung, even physics.

Games allow people to exercise their creativity, imagination, fun muscle. I think I can safely say that 99% of people who play games do not approach it as an opportunity to polemicize.

Taking a game and judging it against the world is a grave mistake. Games are inherently supposed to be fantastic.

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