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Feb 23, 2007



I would posit--and I could be crazy, maybe it's just me--that the vast majority of the people who play video games are doing it as an escape from the real world, and that the last thing they want is a carbon copy superimposed.

Or is that not taking games "seriously" enough for Terra Nova?


Although I like the idea of implementing cults and religions, Is there truly a difference between these and the omni-present "Guilds" found in all MMOs? I realize you could make distinctions between them but aren't they just the same thing under a different name? (Clans, Tribes, Guilds, Cults maybe?) And the same with the idea of dependents, they would just be a 2-dimensional addition to the storyline. I think what you are asking by this is for more user-functionality. I mean, yeah start a religion, but what would make it different than a clan? You could add features to it, (cult-specific spells anyone?) but it is still just a guild in sheep's clothing. Anyone else feel the same way?


I disagree with the question, which is why are social structures missing in mmo's. They exist, it just seems you are unable to find them.

Take shared value systems. I tend to find players that have the same values as I do in gameplay. Do we grief or go pvp-ing in game, or do we both work 9-5 jobs with 2 kids?

Recreation/education, do we take time off in the game? I know in halo we group together just for the fun of it try different weapon combinations, team configurations (3 on 5, etc), and to recruit and teach other members how to support each other. Do we post our exploits on forums/blogs, yes.

Sharing, do I get items and turn them over to other team members, and then get hand-me downs from other players? Yes.

So in summary I surprised you can't find any social aspects in games.


I think what he is asking is not to HAVE the social structures in the first place, but to actually integrate them better. After re-reading the question, it seems that he just wants to add more individuality within the game itself to these guilds/cults/families. This would be good and could make for some very interesting additions.(Guild-leader defined quests for new joiners.) I also like the idea of families, what if when you joined you would be paired with three other new players and that would form a micro-guild between you three. This could help with getting new players into the community and PVP faster, (Older players could even become the "Parents" and bring the others under their tutelage) This could be a good, if somewhat abstract, feature.


I think some of push-back, here, Jen, is that people do see forms of gamer culture in abundance in MMOs. (See TL Taylor's book, which documents this in Everquest.)

But you're thinking, I take it, of a richer mimesis of cultural forms as part of the goal of immersion. And I think the question you might encounter there is whether a richer mimesis of cultural forms is something people desire in entertainment.

Many games are not immersive, yet are compelling. Some games are culturally immersive in the way you'd like to see (take, e.g. A Tale in the Desert) but aren't incredibly popular. Plenty of MUSHes have the depth you're talking about -- but they don't get huge influxes of cash.

So is rich fictional culture a key selling point for MMOs, such that you'll see it built into some future games? I don't know -- I think Star Wars Galaxies had some of it, Shadowbane did too, but WoW is flatter than those in many ways.


I’m not implying at all that there are no social aspects of MMOs. In fact I think the social factor is the main draw for most MMO players. The main point of my question is related to my belief that there is a great desire on the part of people creating virtual worlds to make them more “real” – more realistic graphics, more immersive, more verisimilitude in general. So, to rephrase my question, “if they want them to be more realistic, why not make them seem more like actual living cultures with all the attendant social features?”


I would argue all of these things are already in virtual world societies. You're just looking for them in the in-game mechanics rather than in the communities using them. Why do they need to be integrated into the game mechanics?

To take your example of education. You want players to push a button on another player to give them another button they can push. What kind of 'educating' is that? In Eve, the teaching of real-life skills to new players is an important part of making them ready to be contributing members of their corporation / empire. I know of several corporations that set up their own 'academy' corporations to put their new members in to where a few of their veteran members would lead them on group activities to teach them how to use their ships effectively in pvp, so that when they joined the main corp, they are already skilled players.
There's even the Eve University corporation that provides this service for any new players that want it, providing them with certificates and references upon 'graduation' for applying to other corporations and alliances.

Any in-game gameplay mechanism that tried to represent that would fall far, far short of what's already going on in the communities around the game. Why do we need a fake society in the game if there is a real one?

I don't think there's anything in your list of things found in human society that isn't also present in the Eve societies.


But unlike some of those, WOW is much more down to earth and due to its relative lack of complexity, guild teamwork is a necessary and expected part of the game experience. I mean, if I bought an offline version of WOW, I would feel ripped off, the gameplay isn't very fun on its own. It is the guild community which is the strongest selling point of the product. I think people in Blizzard offices (and elsewhere too) need to realize this and start focusing on that in updates. (I don't actually play WOW but my brother does and that seem to be the biggest draw.) While I understand that outside communities are abundant, the companies need to realize that their games will be more appealing with in-depth guild customization.


@roBurky: Interesting! Those EVE examples are exactly what I’m talking about. I actually expect that players are already implementing these social forms in various ways in various games (human nature and all that). I simply wonder if there could be mechanisms to encourage such things - what if EVE University’s certificates conferred some in-game ability, skill, power, etc? Though perhaps the social mechanisms are already in place and we don’t need the in-game tools? If an EVE University certificate carries social value then maybe we don’t need the game itself adding weight to the system?


"I would argue all of these things are already in virtual world societies. You're just looking for them in the in-game mechanics rather than in the communities using them. Why do they need to be integrated into the game mechanics?"

To make them better I would hope. I think guilds would exist without game mechanics to support their functioning but, imo, they work much better when supported by the game mechanics.

It's all well and good to point to guilds and say 'all that stuff is there' but isn't there more than can be done? and done better?


> Where are the mechanisms to participate in
> player-conducted rituals or create new branches
> of a religion?

That already happens in some MMO's - seen on some Talkers.

> When will creating your character include
> constructing a dependant or family that can
> then play a role in that character’s own
> motives and missions?

Why would you want to do that? If you're a "stranger" to the world until being part of it (and in lot's of MMO's you are - which is good because you then _feel_ like _being_ in an alternate world), then your family should be built _in_ the world.

> Where are the in-game mentoring systems through
> which you can actually teach other players
> powers available in no other way (taking it a
> step beyond City of Heroes and Asheron's Call)?

Once again, that already happens in some MMO's - seen on some Talkers.

> Can’t we create missions that involve a
> character’s dependant (they kidnapped Aunt Em,
> go save her!),

Why should we? I mean, doesn't society (even the "virtual society") create those "missions" by itself?

> provide room for people to create in-game cults
> or become part of existing religions that have
> all the benefits and restrictions of
> membership, provide tools for players to
> conduct meaningful rituals such as initiations,
> weddings, coming of age events that change the
> status of their characters?

Once again, that already happens in some MMO's - seen on some Talkers.

> Here’s my question – is it even possible to
> provide players with meaningful activities and
> tools with which they can develop these kinds
> of fundamental social structures in a way that
> is integrated with game play?

To be slightly different, that already happens in some MMO's - seen a lot on MOO's.

> If possible, why are these things still missing
> from MMOs?

Because this "new age" of MMO's tend to concentrate a lot in "the game" instead of "in the world".

> Perhaps because we still believe that it is
> “just a game”?

Yes. a lot do...


> So, to rephrase my question, “if they want them
> to be more realistic, why not make them seem
> more like actual living cultures with all the
> attendant social features?”

Well, social features are crucial, and, for me as a "player", one of the most important factors in a MMO. OTOH, you can't "impose" a structured society at day 0 - you just have to provide the tools needed so that society can create itself. Young MMO's usually lack strong society "features", but that's because society itself isn't grown-up yet. I can give you an example of one MMO with an humble number of 1383 users nowadays, but with a not-so-humble age of 13 years. It has such strong social factors that most people don't feel like they "fit" there, so they just go away and look for alternatives... So yes, you have MMO's with complete societies ;-)


The question you ask is a good one. I expect we'll see more variety and greater depth of culture once the genre matures. MMOGs seem to still be in the exploration stage, finding out which social models work and which don't. Once people feel more inclined to take chances with their game design and get out of the "safety zone" of what they think will sell, we'll begin to see some real innovation.

I've noticed that among roleplayers on World of Warcraft, the structures you mention are often provided by the players. People have created "cult" guilds, have had religious wars, created families with other players, and so on. Still, it would be nice for more support for these things within a game.

By the way, I've heard rumors of player-run cities and government modeling in Vanguard. That may be something you want to look into.



I'm currently doing research for undergraduate work in Second Life. My project focuses on Belief in Second Life, a change from what was originally Religion in Second Life because I found that religion was too exclusive (belief is turning out to have problems too, as I discover the complexity and sophistication of the atheist community).

I can't claim much experience in other MMOGs, but I can say that Second Life has a pretty extensive and diverse religious/spiritual community. Throughout the course of my research, which has only been a few months at this point, I've attended everything from pragmatic humanist meetings to Quaker service modeled after the "Silent Worship" of real life. One of the most interesting phenomenon to me is the "Avatarian" religion of Taras Balderdash, a new "religion" created and practiced entirely within Second Life that recently held a "grand oracle" which probably would strike you or any other anthropologist as a certifiable ritual.

Of course, in Terra Nova, even the slightest mention of Second Life from any angle, in any way, shape, or form inevitable triggers a firestorm of challenges and cynicism. Are they really "praticing?" Do the religions and belief systems fully integrate with the calculus of motives and desires of the avatar and the person behind that avatar? And the classic, how many people are actually doing this kind of stuff?

Hopefully, my research can do something to answer these questions. Until then, I invite you to take a look at religions in Second Life if you're interested in finding some compelling examples for at least one aspect of your cultural formula.


Well, time for me to invent a new term.

I've talked on my blog at length about the difference between "social function" and "social feature" in online platforms. In short, a "function" being a key requirement and a "feature" being something that is useful and maybe even necessary to the system, but not the output.

For example, a dating service serves a social function, as dating is a social activity. Wikipedia, although it relies on social features, does not serve a social function; the fulfillment of reference data for users/readers is not (except in the widest possible sense) a social activity.

Of course, there is lots of overlap between the two. A dating site/service can/should have lots of social features. And social features can lead to unintended social functions.

But, now, it seems I need a new term: "social fiction."

Because, Jen, what it seems you're talking about is the idea of inventing, in explicit roleplay or UI or rule senses, cultural/social hooks on which to hang game experiences. And while I'm sure it's been done to some degree, I agree that it hasn't been done enough, or quite right.

Fantastic idea. I'm grooving on it and wigging out a bit.

To the folks who are alternatively commenting that either, A) It's already happening through social aspects of extra-game cooperation, education, etc. like guilds, or; B) That it's not necessary because it's too worldy or not gamey enough... I think that maybe we need to have some clarification. Because I disagree that a guild structure imposed outside of what is allowed by the game itself is what we're talking about.

And I REALLY disagree that doing these things well would make a game more "worldy." In fact, there's no reason that the mechanics Jen's hypothesizing need be a one-to-one match with what happens in the real world, any more than our antics in WoW or SL match what we do in RL. She is just suggesting -- and I 100% agree -- that just like we use graphics, sound, 3D emulation, maps, statistics, etc. to mediate and model and describe various experiences that are "somewhat like" those things in RL, so we should consider using "social fictions" to game things that are like those things in RL.

Nothing, for example, will make you give up your regular routine like danger to your child. Yet, as Jen points out, there is no game (I'm aware of) that models -- explicitly, as part of the system -- a situation in which your character has to care for a dependent. Now, I'm not suggesting that it would make any kind of fun game for us to drag along a 1-to-1 RL equivalent of a RL rug-rat into WoW or EVE to do RL things in a fantasy or SciFi MMO. Just like nobody said, "When you use these cool graphics, that look more and more like real things, you should make them look like Ford cars and carrots and Bea Arthur."

The point is that people, groups and tribes protect kids. Why? Because they grow up and feed/enrich the tribe. Great. Model that in-game. Why? Because it taps into an existing gestalt. There's a whole world full of "stuff" we do (see Jung) because it seems "right." Put that into the UI.

For example... I think everyone who jumps everywhere in WoW should be punished by the gods. That's my new religion.

Neat idea, J. I will grok on it further.


Heh, perhaps I need to hire you as my translator Andy. I love the idea of "social fiction!"



The data on RP in MMO shows that there is little demand these features. The percentage of RP servers are low as most people just want a streamlined game. It's not high on a developer's to-do list nor is it a core competency.

Guilds, rather than religious institutions, emerged in these games because there was an in-game need to form tribes. So in the same way some societies have not emerge beyond tribes or guilds, some game spaces will not see the emergence of more complex social institutions. Moreover, the developers already have a hard time on the economic front.

It's an interesting angle that could be fun and a competitive advantage, but I think it is not yet for prime time.



Frank... Interesting point re: the data not supporting RP servers, it's what I've always suspected deep down, that most players are too deeply entrenched in the world of the "here" to invest themselves in an alternate reality.

And granted, while the rebel-artist in me sees that statistic about most people not wanting to roleplay, scoffs and goes "HA! That's just because they haven't done it right yet!", the pragmatist in me is willing to suspend that disbelief for the moment.

So I ask you this, if players don't want to roleplay, what do they want, besides flashier graphics? I don't understand what a "streamlined game" implies- straight battles, with as little grinding or downtime as possible? More challenging, engaging missions, combat, etc? Or less challenge, because that would cut out the barriers to beating the game? Does there have to be one right answer?

Now, back to thinking about why alternate universe fiction hasn't resonated with gameplayers yet... after all, in film aren't 17 or 18 of the top 20 highest-grossing films ever either fantasy or sci-fi epics, so is there a "right amount" of the fantastic to put into a particular story and still have it work?


That's phat!

Anyone that likes that will like...


Catch it!



But I'm not talking (necessarily) about RP in the sense of RP server vs. PvP vs. PvE. I'm talking about game mechanics, UI, code-as-law rules, game rules, world rules, play balance, faction balance, race balance, ways of leveling, class attributes, combined-group / class attributes, etc. etc.

There are several guild elements in WoW, for example, that are "explicit" in game. For example, the need to have X-amount of gold to buy a tabbard, the guild chat channles, the guild ranks, etc. These elements are hard-coded into the "world." Most everything else that happens with guilds are "extra-fictional," i.e, they are actions determined by the guilds themselves. I'm not saying that's bad or good. In many cases, much of the pleasure folks are finding in the game is from these guild relationships that are happening because of "layered value," provided by the guilds themselves; the leaders, the guildmates, off-world Web sites, methods of loot sharing (as discussed), etc.

From a game/publisher perspective, however, the downside of this is that the value is highly variable by player/group/guild, and also highly portable. If you value your guild relationship much more than your WoW fun, what will you do if a WoW clone comes along that has better graphics, is cheaper, has some better features, etc? If the "fun is in the guild," and "the guild ain't in the game..." bad for Blizzard.

It's also bad for the players, because it means that my social experience will be much more highly dependent on my ability to find good guildmates than on my ability to plunk down $15/month. I can do the latter. And a company's ability to predict that is (relatively) high. How likely is it that I can find guildmates? Er... well... where's the model for that? I work with people exactly my age and income group and close to my psychographic profile who have had great success in finding and working with several WoW guilds. I know others whose experiences have sucked, simply because of the guilds they've hooked up with.

Now... imagine if the most successful social elements of the best guilds were *in game.* A good loot-sharing model, for example. Good voice-chat. A good system for voting and promoting officers. A way to track alts and mules, maybe. And imagine that those elements were worked into the *fiction* (the RP element) as well as the engine. "You need to complete this quest (or get to this level) in order to earn a guild hall that will hold more than 10,000 gold." "You need to have 25+ guild members in order to earn the Map of Goiijin Quest which will give you the Guild Map, showing you where all your members are at all times." "All your members need to be at level 35+ before you can join the Guild of Guilds and auction stuff at the Uber Hall."

All of a sudden, more of your "game" is taking place "in game." Which is better from a publisher perspective (stickier) and from a gamer perspective (more likely to find consistent play). And when the "social fiction" matches the "social features," it adds the level of realism that Jen is talking about, and doesn't NEED to be RP'd in the "Thou shalt only use BS midieval talk, varlet" sort of way. You don't need to RP better graphics or a better physics engine for them to effect your roleplaying/immersion. They just *do.* Which is the goal of really good GMs; to get you into character without you realizing it.

You don't have to be an actor. If I hand you a stick, and I pick up a stick and go to hit you with mine, you'll defend. That's not RP; it's realism. And if I mock you, you'll be less likely to defend me with your stick, and more likely to poke me in the back. Not RP; human nature. Enabling human nature to interact realistically and interestingly with the game fiction can only be, I think, a good thing.


I’ve been poking this idea with a stick for a little while now and this has been a very interesting series of responses so far. Andy again hit on exactly what I was trying to say. If you provide good enough in-game mechanics and tools to elaborate these types of social relationships in meaningful ways, then you no longer require players RP them.


It's really hard to invent a religion that players will find psychologically satisfying.

The easiest approach is to say that whatever religion players have in the real world, their characters also have. And failing that, borrow a different real-world religion, because it's likely to be batter thought through than something the GM has just invented (e.g. my characters in the Ars Magica RPG are usually Catholic, although I'm not in RL. I also think the Ars Magic source-book "Kabbalah: Mythic Judaism" is a pretty good example of what can be done).

My guild I belonged to in Ultima Online had a made-up religion, but I found it fairly lacking. (What is my character supposed to believe, ezactly? What kind of rituals do we perform? etc.)


Jen Dornan>Where are the mechanisms to participate in player-conducted rituals or create new branches of a religion? When will creating your character include constructing a dependant or family that can then play a role in that character’s own motives and missions? Where are the in-game mentoring systems through which you can actually teach other players powers available in no other way

These questions seem to imply that the culture in virtual worlds needs to address the same issues that the culture in real worlds addresses. Why should they? People in the real world have children, therefore in the real world people have to develop social systems for dealing with family. In virtual worlds, whether this happens or not is the decision of the designer. Some designers may wish to free players from the concerns of responsibility for others; some may include it in some way that doesn't involve virtual children; some may decide to have the virtual world mimic the real world.

The point is, though, that in the real world we have biology, physics and the environment directing our cultural development, but in a virtual world all those are up for grabs. Why would a virtual world necessarily follow the real world in its cultural features if the imperatives for having those features don't apply in it?



Richard: I don't think the point is (at least, my point isn't) that the virtual world would/should follow the real world in its cultural features; but that cultural features are available *at all* and aren't, generally, being employed.

You could certainly make the same argument against any other RL stimulus or set of generally well understood and effective, entertaining and important impacts. For example, sound. It is possible to have good games without sound. Some people turn off the sound, or at least the (generally awful) in-game music. Why the-f do 90% of games have music? And bad or incredibly repetitive music as opposed to dropping it altogether? Or sound effects whose cheesiness borders on the absurd? RL does not come with background music. And our ambient sound is highly rich with implied meaning that is rarely done well in games. So... why is there sound in games?

Because it's a sense that we like to thump, and if there isn't *something* there we feel kinda nude. I'm fine with that.

What Jen's suggesting, and I'm agreeing with, is that there may be "cultural senses" that aren't getting any play in most games. It's not as easy a translation as a one-to-one "sound" thing. I can surmise that if a hammer hitting my trashcan sounds *thus* (clank_1), a sword hitting an anvil may sound pretty close to *thus* (clank_1a), and nobody will tell me different (or probably know), and, huzzah! We have some sound translation from RL moved into a game feature that allows us to experience additional sensory reality in a way that increases enjoyment of game. Cool. Clank. I dig it. Metal crap makes noise when I hit it in RL, so I'd like it to do so in VR, since the platform (software, physics, game, rules) and apparatus (sound card, speakers) and fiction (fantasy world with swords) all support a game logic that (to me) says, "Hey! Hitting metal crap with swords in-game should make a 'clanky' noise."

A game designer could certainly have just one clanky noise for all sword or all weapon noises. Or three. Or 206. Yes, there's a diminishing return on investment at some point. But if the noise of a morning-star striking a wooden shield is the same as the noise of a sword striking a metal helmet... well... er... ok. Maybe not game-breaking. But not as cool as "thump" vs. "clang."

You said: "...in the real world we have biology, physics and the environment directing our cultural development, but in a virtual world all those are up for grabs." Well, sure. In a VW, *everything* is up for grabs. That makes the easy stuff easy to get wrong and (hopefully) a bit easier to get right. People's eyes shouldn't be too far apart. You should get more points (whatever that means) for doing hard stuff. Gravity should affect my boots and my sword the same. Clang vs. thump. But clang vs. thump is still, technically, up for grabs, isn't it?

As are any kind of social/cultural relationships. WoW encourages grouping and guilding by its very nature, but doesn't build in that many tools to enable its use in-game. Some, yes. And they're not badly implemented. But they're certainly not embedded in the fiction, are they? Is there any mention of guilds in any of the WoW history? I don't know, as I'm not that familiar with it, but I don't recall any. In a "worldier game," that would be odd, wouldn't it? Because the higher-level quests and instances and PvP stuff all (in a meta sense) *require* guilds in order to work. So why aren't guilds *of* the game as well as *in* the game? The game breaks its own magic circle all over the place.

Of course you don't need kids. That's not the point. The point is that there are all kinds of social behaviors that could be modeled and enabled within the rules and code of a game.

And the "Why?" is the same as "Why have sound?" in a game. Because social stuff is important. Cultural stuff makes us happy, mad, excited, etc. It's pre-loaded into our psyche. Same as how the sound of a twig-breaking means, "Danger nearby" and the sun going down means "Creepy things coming out," so does "Family, clan, tribe" mean "people I should protect." And if you can give people game reasons linked to cultural norms to do stuff, it will be a stronger game than just "run here, get thing, bring back, earn XP."


@Susan: Real world religion in an RPG? That's not something I've ever done. We've taken aspects of real religions and mucked around with them (easier than starting from scratch). But since most fantasy RPGs use magic, most of the RPGs I've been involved with in pen-and-paper worlds where I've had a say in the writing, have had a link between religions and magics.

This, again, links back to what Jen (and I) have been saying about putting cultural or social constructs into the game mechanics.

Let's imagine a simple two-sided religion; good god (Oscar) and bad god (Felix). Like the game "Black and White," but in a fantasy RPG setting.

So... if you worship Oscar the Good, you can be a White Mage. You get appropriately good magic stuff; healing, light, speed, XP-bonus, armour, crop growing spells. If you worship Felix the Dark, you get bad spells; harming, cursing, traps, coercion, hiding stuff, etc.

That's step one. Step two might be that "doing good things" if you worship Oscar gets you XP faster, while doing bad things retards your progress. Opposite for followers of Felix, of course.

In RL, priests are the ones who focus prayer and religious power. You spend time doing "religious stuff," and your god blesses you. So, again, there would be a bonus for "sacrifice" of personal power (gold, XP, time, resources) to a priest-class, location, item, etc. Maybe if you spend lots of gold on your priest's raiments, his healing powers improve faster. Maybe the longer you spend in prayer before a raid -- doing nothing, standing in a circle around your priest -- the more buffs you get from your god.

Religion is only meaningful when it *does something* for you. If switching from Catholic to Buddhist doesn't mean anything in game, then, yeah... who cares? But if switching from Felix to Oscar makes me lose a couple thousand XP, the usefulness of all my high-level religious items and the protection of my local sanctuaries... then the religion might be meaningful.


I love the ideas. I have been doing some independent research on my own time for one of my college classes asking a lot of the questions you are asking just in a more simplistic way. I think we need to get beyond the "it's just a game mentality." It is a game. At the same time the people who play these games are real people. People by nature are created in such a sophisticated way that we do nothing without purpose. Everything we do spawns itself out of some need or purpose or belief about the world around us. People play games for a purpose. I cannot believe that the 23 year old male who spends eight hours a day on the computer does so just because. I believe by nature we are relational beings and so if a person is having their only social interaction over a computer screen I think there are needs and reasonings behind this action.

I am definately interested to see where MMORPG go in the future in this regard. Currently these games are having huge success as millions of people are finding themselves new social structures that they never had in "real life." How real is this social interaction? Another good question to ask. How many walls do a computer screen and an avatar create from getting to know the genuine person behind the avatar. What is the nature of real relationships? And I ask myself the same question you ask, what does it ultimately mean to be human? What is it about us that extends beyond our economics, our education, our communication, our social structure and perhaps even our expressions of religion.

I wouldn't be surprised to see games in the next few years continue to explore some of the dimensions you propose. My hunch (and I am no professional on such matters so take this with a grain of salt from a young man who is learning) is that we are in the midst of a generational change. The outdoor recreational program I am currently involved with is seeing big changes in the way our students interact with each other, behave towards authority, approach the world, deal with their personal issues etc. My impression is that the generation growing up today knows that it is in a world of uncertainty, of pain, of struggle and so it is far more open to help. Gone is the "stick it to the man" attitude of the GenX'ers and it is replaced by something a lot softer and a lot more sensitive. All this to say that this is I believe one of the reasons why the current games (Second Life) are in such high demand. People want safety. People want identity. People want to be valued. I think we will continue to see more of the "real world" developed into these cyber communities.

I think a lot of the things you are looking for already do exist, they are just being expressed in a very different mode then we are used to seeing. Religion for example may not be demonstrated by your Second Life character visiting the cathedral 2 times a week, however the character does HAVE a belief system that is in a sense acting as his religion. Religion is demonsrated towards an object of worship. Worship is characterized by devotion to an object/person/God or service to something. The person who worships the god of money may think that money is not a realistic God, but when you look at thier life and see how controlling it is on them you have to conclude that they do in fact worship money.

If we look at these games from a different viewpoint I think we will find that they do in fact offer and meet the basic principles of things that we as humans experience in the real world (values, beliefs, needs), it just may take a different perspective to see things as they really are.


"1) some kind of family structure"

Arguably fulfiled by "permagroups" and "guilds" but I agree with you that this is not the same.

"2) religion/shared value systems"

Alliance vs. Horde or the triangle available in DAoC or Freeport vs. Qeynos. Shallowness is the problem, not lack of existence of such mechanics. The problem is there's no real convincing reasoning. "We hate those guys becase (on PvP servers anyway) we can kill them."

"3) communication networks"

Arguably these exist and are mutable in most MMOs. They may, however, be unrealistic to the point of detraction . . .

"4) social complexity (government, social organization, leaders/followers, etc)"

Found to some extent via "guilds" but often lacking support by mechanics.

"5) recreation/arts"

Arguably this is highly player-driven and not within the purvuew of the designers without adopting UCG, which most MMOs avoid for many reasons such as quality control and intellectual property rights.

"6) education"

Some form of this is integrated into training systems in many MMOs. It is, again, quite shallow.

"7) economics/goods procurement and sharing (food, clothing, etc)."

Probably one of the more structured and encouraged facets in most MMOs.

There's room for future development in many areas. It's going to be interesting to see what other designers come up with in the coming time.


Religion, I think there should be a distinction between a players VW religion and their character's VW religion. If faithful dedication, or evocation increased their character's VW outlook, attributes, potential in a meaningfully thematic and socially recognised way that would be a big advance (and perhaps why in a single RPG like Oblivion it will never quite work).
But for a player to have a meaningful faith in a VW is a kind of magic circle inside a magic circle.

Someone confused cultural with social. I tend to think of the cultural as the artefactual ie designed and used learning blocks and highlight indicators of society rather than being equivalent to the social (you can have social worlds where no objects get modified by the social discourse but that to me is not very cultural). Culture is one of those dangerous words which can mean how we teach learning about it through it, the highlights/visions of society, the taste to recognise masterpieces or the 'refined', or the coded social conventions we take for granted, but in VWs the way in which culture is participated in, is so seldom INSIDE the virtual world, I don't see the typical VW as a VW but an interactive virtual environment.

And almost all cultural signifiers are 'situated' not digitally reproducable to infinity, and culture lives on past us, is learnt in a myriad of ways, and is capable of subtle mutations. The philosopher Kim Sterelny has written about maps as external cognitive artefacts (or artifacts), and that is a big part of what culture does, a form of external memory designed to remind us and others of the most important, and that which binds us together in terms of values, dreams, and rewards.

At most, our avatars are our cultural identifiers, and they don't express enough of our personal values, character development, 'traces' or interaction history [If my elf avatar makes stressful decisions, its hair doesn't go grey] and background to others.
--Sorry for the long post--


Andy and Jen,

I get the idea...which is great...and i'm with you on the idea...particularly the social tools...but my point still is that the majority of current MMORPG players like the streamlined theme park apporach toward gaining levels/skills and the raiding gameplay.

There are already games that have family structures, complex religions, communication systems, social complexity, recreation/art, education, and economic systems.

Some people like them, some don't. What's known is that no developers have create a combination of features that has gain popularity. I'm not saying that it can't be done and not saying that they won't be great features to have. But I just not seeing the demand yet. Moreover, any feature or tools developers add can suck and go unused. It's not easy and it's probably not a high priority.

For the current type of games the players will still want to know what will get them faster to that level or get that gear or finish that raid they want.



Working on it. Kinda hard to create all the nuances of culture, history (and thus history's impact on culture), and so on for an entire WORLD when you're just one or two people and have to juggle something that pays (real life job) with something that doesn't (yet). But I, and many others out there, have a vision and we are all working on fleshing our visions out.

Regarding children, I think it's fair to say that the ESRB cripples that a little. Children are the result of sex. Sex = No Teen rating. No Teen rating = Fewer Potential Sales. Also, if you're in a world where you can attack any NPC (such as The Elder Scrolls), being able to do so to children can also affect the Teen rating. No baby-murdering players in OUR games, no sir! We're a clean-cut company.

No, I don't understand why MMORPGs just buckle down and accept a Mature rating either. It's not like M-rated games don't sell in the first place.


@Frank, who said: "For the current type of games the players will still want to know what will get them faster to that level or get that gear or finish that raid they want."

Agreed. 100%. A lot of people -- a BIG lot -- a lot of the time, want to have a clear-cut, entertaining, interesting, functionally-straightforward game that is, before any-and-all-else... FUN. That's the whole point for most of our leisure; to do something that makes us forget the daily grind, obscures the vague ennui and gives us a glimpse of something cool and fruity. I'm never, ever gonna argue that with you.

The translation of RL goals, issues, ideas -- anything, really -- into game-space fun, however, is the whole point. If I told you that I was going to make you drive 2 hours to sit in the freezing rain for 2 more hours while waiting to watch (in the freezing rain for 3 hours) the Buffalo Bills get their ass kicked by the Dolphins... you might not describe that as "fun." Yet many Bills fans pay large dollars for the privilege.

Similarly, WoW has many required elements that are referred to as "the grind" by fans. We have many arguments about RMT that center on the fact that some players would simply rather pay $$$ as opposed to sacrificing time to "the grind."

Let's take one small, cultural thing and add it to the idea of "the grind" and see if it would make a difference to play in an MMO like WoW. Let's say... instead of clicking on a yellow dot and calling that "mining for gold," and having that yield a resource (same every time, no cultural or social meaning there, beyond the inherent meaning of "gold"), that in order to get the benefits of the resource, you need to bring it to a central location for your race and/or class and deliver it to a priest or shaman of sorts, who takes the raw ore and transmutes it too metal for you. Then, however, the left-over ore is used to build a visible pyre (obelisk, pyramid, whatever) of your race or guild or class' progress toward various religious meta-goals. Long-term crap. Like "Wonders of the World" in Sid's "Civilization." And when those things are built, they confer either various real, in-game bonuses (which, as you request, get you "faster to that level") or at least provide a visual metaphor for "we have come this far."


Jen, MMOGs definitely need to make strides in the direction of a more integrated cultural and social experience. Like what others have said in response, many of these educational and cultural aspects exist in structures outside the “game” itself and can be observed within guild interactions. These subcultures are not built upon the structure of the game, and though they arise and are prevalent, it is not something the game provides to the player; the players form it themselves and bring it to the game.

Some people have indicated that the integration of cultural functionality could render the game “un-fun” as it would be too akin to real life, or it is simply unnecessary because people already encountered all seven phenomenon resulting in culture within MMOG’s.

Frankly, that is absurd. MMO’s strive to strike a balance between emulating reality and fostering fantasy and escapism. Games will not throw this balance off by introducing more complex structures for encouraging substantial culture to form. Rather it will allow for new levels of exploration for both of the competing forces to be reached. Secondly, if people are already experiencing all of these social structures through other avenues such as guilds, then why not make them inherent to the gameplay and therefore more easily accessible to all players?


Andy Havens>I don't think the point is (at least, my point isn't) that the virtual world would/should follow the real world in its cultural features; but that cultural features are available *at all* and aren't, generally, being employed.

Virtual worlds are full of cultural features. Lineage sank in the USA because it embodied Korean cultural norms about groups and grouping that US players simply couldn't/wouldn't adopt. Cultural features are there, you just have to look.

Another example would be the prevalence of character races and classes in game-like worlds. We have humans, elves, dwarfs (or, most likely, "dwarves"), orcs and other forms of humanoid, all of which are distinct and don't mix. Where are the elf/dwarf hybrids? The most we get are half-elves, which are crosses between elves and humans. Why do we get these distinct lines between character "races"? Why isn't there more integration? And why do so few players pick up on it? It has to be cultural.

Similarly, character classes are all about conformity. People choose a role, then they're stuck with it. There are perhaps opportunities to specialise, but basically if you want to be a mage you can't also be a warrior. Why is that? In terms of gameplay, you can easily allow characters to have the skills of multiple classes - you can have them choose which one they want to be at any moment by having them equip different ways. Why do we insist on having distinct classes? Again, this is a cultural thing.

Designers are saying things though their designs, and players are saying things through their playing choices, that pass behaviours and accumulated knowledge from once generation to the next, each one shaping the next. Virtual worlds are one of the best ways for a culture to spread its values around. It's just that the culture isn't necessarily at the same level of abstraction as we think of it in the real world.

>if the noise of a morning-star striking a wooden shield is the same as the noise of a sword striking a metal helmet... well... er... ok. Maybe not game-breaking. But not as cool as "thump" vs. "clang."

Just as an aside, textual virtual worlds, with their lower cost of implementing sounds (you just type the onomatopoeia), do have different noises for different materials hitting each other (or at least mine do - MUD2 has around 150 of them).




"Where are the elf/dwarf hybrids?"

Interestingly enough there are relatively few examples of this even in literature. A notable example is the "half-dwarf" (human cross) in the Dragonlance series. (I believe that she is only featured in one book which examines the Kender in more detail.) Another notable example is in the Xanth series (Piers Anthony being a big fan of moderate eroticism in his writing) where certain mixes (such as centaurs) are attributed to love potions or springs.


Surely there is a mythical spectrum of personality/culture/physiology with the human in the centre, and elf at one end (the ethereal, slender) and the dwarf at the other (short, stuborn, concrete details) and a dwarf-elf combination may appear too human! (Unlike human-giants, these seem popular, if biologically eyebrow raising).
A dwarf-elf who retains the extreme traits of both might be interesting ("feel the edge of my delicate warhammer, it was forged by Prada") but also a tad confusing.



I'm with you on Great Wonder feature example. There are already quests and objectives that require the whole server to work together. Players are usually focused on the achievement objectives, but there are some that have cultural objectives (it's not all about the loot). Live teams are already incorporating these elements.

However, I'm not with you on the waiting in the rain example as I bet almost everyone want to be in the nice VIP suites or in the comfort of a heated sheltered seats on the 50-yard line.

Thus, while the pursuit of culturally meaningful features is good and broadens the game the pursuit must feed the beast (the player's desire for entertainment).

So I'm with you, it's just that I'm narrowing them down to what is fun and perceptionally valuable to the current playerbase.



@Frank: How is grinding "fun" and/or "perceptionally valuable?" Run around. Find Rock. Click click click. Collect grey/brown/yellow rock. Take back to trading place. Repeat repeat repeat.

Mama always said, "Perceptionally valuable is as perceptionally valuable does." ;-)



"Designers are saying things though their designs, and players are saying things through their playing choices, that pass behaviours and accumulated knowledge from once generation to the next, each one shaping the next. Virtual worlds are one of the best ways for a culture to spread its values around. It's just that the culture isn't necessarily at the same level of abstraction as we think of it in the real world."

Absolutely agree - and the interaction with culture in the forms it takes online is one of the reasons people engage in this stuff. The freedom to engage in new forms, to adopt differing levels of fictional identity, to simulate and explore interaction dynamics that are effectively those in the other parts of our lives, to learn new skills, to create new forms of interactions, to adopt new social identities, etc. etc.

Although too, part of the original post, I feel, does accurately reflect a dynamic in our experience of virtual worlds (and which I also pointed to in the "ritual" conversation a week ago or so): that I didn't know of any ritual intended by the creators to be ritual, or that the few that do happen seem unconvincing, or unappealing. We'll ritualize certain interactions, but not engage in ritual per se the way it happens in the other world.

So, I'm beginning to get curious about how we view our engagement in these worlds: what makes a more "realistic" experience more appealing, to whom, etc. Why is it that sometimes "Firefly" is the thing, and others "Battlestar Galactica" (I'm seeing the difference in the versimilitude attempted by the two series as analagous to the range of experience in online worlds). Some are clearly fictional, and fun, others more serious, or realistic. Isn't this similar to the "taste" for a certain general lack of seriousness in our online worlds, and the lack of some of the social institutions that exist in the other world. I tend to see them both as definitly real and meaningful, but it looks almost as if we're choosing to leave behind certain facets of our normal world when we enter "play" space. Or something?



Grinding is not fun. And the gameplay is simply enough for programs like WoW Glider to bot so well.

Nonetheless, it's fun enough to get millions of people to pay more than $10 a month to play. Sadly, it's the best popular gameplay we have right now.

Games by Iron Realm and other VWs may have deep content related to culture, politices, and religion...but millions of people are not flocking to them. Iron Realms is launching Earth Eternal, which may match the deep content with nice graphics. And other new MMOs in the pipeline may also too, but the jury is still out on whether they will be a hit.

It's all good to advance the industry and the broadness of content, but I'm just cautioning towards prudent development and being just ahead of the curve to pull the masses along as opposed as being to far ahead of the curve.

Ron Meiners question about engagement (last paragraph) is a good question to ask at this stage. There are room for realistic engagement and room for themepark engagement. There are also other vectors like casual to hard core, not gritty to very gritty, comedy to tragedy, rated G to rated X, etc. WoW may skewed the market towards a polished themepark approach, but perhaps Eve Online may pull the market towards a more realistic and gritty VW.

The development of culture and aspects of being human (as opposed to aspects of being an avatar of levels, gear, and might) will develop as Richard as pointed out and Ron has saw fit to quote and follow-up on.



ErocC>Surely there is a mythical spectrum of personality/culture/physiology with the human in the centre, and elf at one end (the ethereal, slender) and the dwarf at the other (short, stuborn, concrete details) and a dwarf-elf combination may appear too human!

At least the mythology could explain that humans are a crossbreed of elves and dwarfs then (or giants and halflings).

The elf/dwarf continuum is complemented by a pirate/ninja continuum, by the way.



EVE has those Great Wonder guild quests already, I think. They're called "starbases" and "titans". Thousands, or millions of scavenged and scraped raw materials are passed through increasingly complex rituals combining with the Holy Texts of the BluePrints, by those of the Empire who Hold The Keys To Knowledge to make icons that are combined into effigies that are sacrificed to make limbs that are annointed and fused together to give birth to giant weapons of war.

I'm all for more ways to put proper in-game context to how we get along as groups of people playing games, but I don't think anyone really wants an "NPC mother", just some way of nurturing along the self-growth of player groups. Some framework stuff for sure, but not a tapestry already painted that you would have to fit into.

Online game guilds and groups seem to have more in common with street gangs than biological families, maybe there's something to look at there.


@ Ron: I think the Firefly/BSG is an interesting distinction because, although Firefly is clearly more tongue in cheek, it is still tapping into core emotional triggers. While I love BSG (the more ‘serious’ and ‘realistic’ show) it was when Wash died that I had the strongest emotional reaction (I actually stood up in the theatre in shock and horror).

Perhaps verisimilitude was the wrong word for me to use – resonant would have been better. Both shows are good because they resonate with familiar emotions in fantastic settings.

I hate to bring it up, but the Hero’s Journey is a great basic example (though relied on waay too much in my opinion). The recreation of the monomyth in a game or movie isn’t powerful because it is similar to my life. It is powerful because it resonates with what I would consider fundamentally human desires and relationships. Much of human emotion is tied to social relationships and there are some powerful, shared social triggers for these emotions. The best entertainment acknowledges and taps into these and I am merely suggesting some avenues through which to echo existing social emotions in games.

@ Ace: Interesting point about guilds and street gangs. Though the literature on gangs generally argues that street gangs are in many ways surrogate families…humans want to belong to a group that they can count on and feel safe with. They will then defend that group as an extension of themselves. This is precisely one of the reasons I think people gain satisfaction from guilds.



"Perhaps verisimilitude was the wrong word for me to use – resonant would have been better. Both shows are good because they resonate with familiar emotions in fantastic settings."

Absolutely so - though I was also trying to allude to the difference in the "reality" of the two shows, both of which succeed in creating experiences that very much touch those emotional triggers.

Though I would also want to throw in cultural understandings of these human impulses or desires or whatever... ie., the view of sacrifice in Japanese warrior culture as opposed to the Western views. Or in a raiding Guild, for that matter. What can be meaningful in one culture is not so in another, etc. Though I would agree that it seems to me that the core human impulses or triggers or emotional keys are common, though they manifest in a variety of ways, subject to cultural influence.


Part of the problem (and ATITD is a huge counter-example here), is that by and large the games that are popular (WOW, Eve, so on) are basically military, or 'warrior' simulations at the heart. Whilst in EVE, a large percentage of the player populace are 'carebears', producers, miners, marketers and entrepenures; All of the items produced are by and large part of funding and supplying the PVPers and PVEers at the front lines. Now I love eve, its like a huge tom clancy novel, and eve even does a passable attempt at role play (For instance the highly religious but sort of 'evil' Amarr slave traders vs the wild che-guavarra like freedom fighters of the Minmitar) , but at the end of the day its ALL ABOUT combat.

Now, I've oft thought eve could really open its horisons by having a sort of 'civillian mode'. For instance stations shouldnt just be big robotic bases without staff, but have civillian communities requiring food, entertainment, and a purpose OTHER than supply lines for the pvpers. Its the CIVILLIAN world in our societys that have the religious and cultural institutions we value as inherently virtuous in our day to day life.

Now, the other side of this equasion was done well in ATITD. ATITD didnt have pvp or pve , other than a few ritualised games. But it did engender really tight little communities and ritual and roleplay. When I briefly played (before my trigger finger got too bored), I 'lived' in a little village near the mouth of the nile, around a lake with a group of mostly women, and we built up a lovely scenic township with gardens, and animals, and all that. There was a strong sense of roleplay and interest in the sort of bizaro-egypt mythos and spirituality and the like. Personally I got bored as Im a bit of a shooty shoot gamer, but I did apreciate these non competitive communitys that ran on consensus and non authoritarian collectivism, and total lack of serious griefing. It was still a game, and I especially liked the fact that the lack of tangible currency meant that it was difficult for RMT assholes to wreck the game. But it wasnt a military or warrior simulation, it was a civillian simulation and one refreshingly free of the dark cloud of commerce and economic stratification that really makes second life so dreary and un-escapist.

So yeah. I think the games we play ARE quite strong in the things they purport to emulate. Its just that they emulate specific parts.

Eve/WoW/etc : Warfare and armies.
ATITD : Civilian life and civil governance.
Second life : Work and 'serious business'.

Note I dont count second life as a good 'civillian' simulation, and for a reason. I personally thing second life is a dystopia. Everything Baudrillard(sp?) warned off with his hyperrea,l. Signs, advertising, economy and labour all as the focus of this alleged paradise, rather than in service of it. If I walked out the door and saw flashing neon signs floating in the air and everywhere I'd be wondering "How the *hell* did the ugliest parts of the CBD end up in my quaint little town?. I think ATITD does it much better, by drawing a stronger link between community and SHARED work. ATITD is drearily boring if you just want to build a little personal empire because there was (last time I played it ages ago) no real abstract currency. But its fascinating if you want great if you want to work with groups of people dancing and toiling a utopia into being.


If the VW is to have more religious/social interaction then the state of “childhood” needs to be involved. There doesn’t have to be any sex involved (That just wouldn’t do!) but all new Avatars would have to be in a child state for a period of time. Firstly when you create your Avatar you don’t get to chose which family, tribe or culture you come into. You just pop up at random in a family that has indicated a wish to obtain a child state Avatar. Secondly, you are totally dependent on the family you are assigned to for a period of time and they teach you how to survive. If you don’t go along with the guidance of the family or tribe you will die, and waste your $15 per month. Depending on the knowledge available to the family you join you could end up worshiping stones or researching DNA replication. Should you wish to influence a new child state Avatar yourself then you will need to establish an Avatar support agreement with another player and their family. But don’t forget you will need to prove your commitment to each other before the allocation algorithm will assign one to you.

Social interaction and religion introduced in one hit!



Many MMO's are linear in their quest-based systems, you finish the quest, you get your reward and you move on to the next one. If there was a system that incorporated a choice as part of the completion of the quest or thru your actions in the quest, not right or wrong mind you, just a choice. Then as you move along thru the life of your avatar there will be a subset of quests suited to you and the choices you have made that you will then have to find others in-game that have made similar choices to complete later missions. These avatars, extensions of you, will be finding and/or working with people that have made similar choices, people that are more likely to become your clic, tribe, your culture of people based on your views and moral choices made in the game. Thru these connections and your choices you create your own social group, one that could build upon itself, attract others, and based on the possibilities of the system your playing create things like your own religions, rites of passage, taboo's, and possibly their own gender views. It has the possibility of its own society, limited only by the evolution of the system.

There are a handful of games that allow for choice-based decisions in a game that usually tell you that your actions are "dark/evil" based or "light/good" based. This is not what I am talking about, I envision a collection of quests that fulfill you and advance you as a toon, but in the completion or the way you act to complete the quest the "choice" is what advances your selection of quests in the future of your toon. To have the greatest satisfaction in the game is to make these choices how you feel best represents your toon or yourself, morally or ethically, it doesn't matter, it just changes the range of quests that you have in the future. Even if you are having a bad day in RL and choose to do something that is unlike your character, well it doesn't break the tree of quests you are necessarily on it just shows that you aren't Captain America all the time, btw rest in peace Cap.

This is the "childhood" stage of the toon and for you, and for that matter, the "endgame" for this system is you finding like-minded individuals, capable of sharing your mindset, enjoying the game for exactly what you put into it, and hopefully you and your tribe are given the tools in-game to create whatever social abilities that your culture needs to grow and prosper, or even fall and collapse as cultures tend to do.

Just my two cents, what do you think Elf?

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