I’m Crying – The Existential Crisis

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Its just too much for me sometimes. The closing of virtual communities is such a terrible and sad occurrence. I just finished another chapter of Celia Pearce and Artemisia’s book where she describes the return of Uru by Cyan through GameTap, only to have it shut down again after a year. The image of the final message sends my mind reeling.

I can’t help but to see the end of my world there:
Scariest thing ever

The story of Uru moves me, because I can’t imagine the end of NexusTK. There are some marked differences of course, Nexus has existed much longer, and we didn’t have to deal with the migrations and troubles that the Uru community did. Did you know they opened and closed that game twice? And when I went to check out There.com, one of their main “new” homes, I found THIS.

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The Problem of Time

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Time. A mysterious concept in general, but economically its one of the most equally distributed resources (Castronova, 2005). It presents a particular challenge to the researcher of online games and communities. Anyone with familiarity with the MMORPG genre can tell you that these games are a huge time investment, even for the relatively casual player. Hardcore players often log upwards of 40 hours a week, and even more when their work and school schedules allow.

Time also plays a larger role to players of online games than I think many people would suspect. In fact, the issue of time might be most evident as an entry barrier to virtual worlds. Players often speak of “the grind,” a type of gameplay characterized by rote repetition of the same or very similar tasks to advance one’s character. This often takes the form of spending hours killing monsters to level up, or collecting particular items either for crafting or accrue currency through the market. Most gamers feel as though the grind is a necessary part of playing online games. No one loves it, but everyone has to do it. Continue reading

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Intersubjective Flow

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Lately I’ve been reading Celia Pearce’s “Communities of Play” (2009). In her book, Pearce concerns herself with theorizing the concept of “communities of play” and many related concepts drawn from her ethnographic work around the Uru Diaspora. One the of the most interesting concepts so far is her idea of intersubjective flow, based on Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow (1990) and DeKoven’s related concept of CoLiberation (1992). Csikszentmihalyi defined flow as a mental state achieved where the balance of challenge and abilities allows for a feeling of total engagement. Should the challenge outweigh one’s abilities the result is anxiety, in the opposite situation we see boredom. Both of these outcomes eventually lead to apathy, a state no game developer ever strives for. DeKoven later reexamined this idea and applied it to a more psychosocial realm, exchanging challenge and ability for isolation and conformity and theorizing an optimal state of CoLiberation, where players are able to navigate between being too individual or overly conforming, but rather can feel both a part of a larger community of players while maintaining a sense of individuality.

Pearce then attempts to combine these two concepts into one, intersubjective flow. She states that she places the flow state “between players rather than within the individual,” and thus out of the psychological realm into the social world. One of the key features to intersubjective flow that she mentions is its ability to accelerate the group dynamic that is particular to games where a group of players previously unknown to one another can form a relatively strong bond in a short time frame.
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Digital Archeology: How to preserve online cultures?

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There are at least 150 active MMORPGs in existence today. Add to this number other virtual worlds that aren’t strictly part of that genre such as Second Life and other social worlds as well as the many non-commercial worlds either created entirely by individuals or that are run as questionably legal ‘alternative’ servers for other game clients and we see that there’s a large number of distinct spaces each with its own community.

I’ve always found the question of culture in these worlds to be thought-provoking. Its immediately clear that there’s a sort of umbrella culture of gamers, and online gamers in particular, that users of these worlds are a part of. This is a culture with its own boundaries, rules for membership, social norms and expectations, as well as the host of unique vocabulary terms that are applied to these games in general. However, I argue that each of these worlds holds within it a unique community with a shared history and experience. This is more evident in some games than others.

Recently a few institutions joined together under a grant to examine the issue of preserving virtual worlds. This is very interesting work. The original project is finished (view the report here) but it seems that a second project is currently being planned. Here’s a link to the original project website which includes a wiki and a blog.

However, having pondered before about the issue of preservation with regards to games, specifically MMOWs, the issue of cultural preservation seems to fall as a distant second to that of physical or digital preservation in this work. That is, much emphasis is placed on preserving data about the game including issues of hardware, software, code, graphics, etc. but rather little effort expended on examining the networks of people who inhabit these worlds and their cultural practices.

Here I’d like to look at a game that I’m quite familiar with, Nexus: The Kingdom of the Winds. While it may seem necessary to preserve the code and information about the “physicality” of the game, how its software is structured and how its servers run, I feel that preserving this would provide only the barest of representations of our world. It would be like saying that a 3D digital representation of New York City was an accurate preservation of the whole. Of course, without the inhabitants and their behaviors, quirks, feelings, and movements, this representation would not even begin to approach the complexity of the city as a whole.

I haven’t begun to look into the next phase of this project just yet, but it would be my hope that these researchers begin to focus an eye to preserving the cultural heritage of multi-player worlds as well as just their “physical” structures.

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Why Do I Love It?

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(Adapted from my autoethnographic project Shooting The Breeze)

I’m just trying to figure out what it is that I have always found so captivating about this online world. I mean, it took hold of me more than 11 years ago now and for many of those years was a big influence in my life and upbringing. I’ve met hundreds of different individuals and forged varying levels of friendships and other relationships. I’ve seen the game advance from its humble beginnings as the first graphical MMORPG on the market through its peak after the turn of the century, and I have now returned to experience dusk in the Kingdoms of the Winds.

There‚Äôs something about the immersive nature of the experience. I’m more consciously aware of it now that I’m a bit older and have a slightly different perspective, but when I’m logged in as my character I feel as though I have stepped into another reality and act accordingly. That’s not to say that I’m a stuffy role-player who always tries to stay in character, but more of the sense that the Kingdoms are a real place. I don’t think you could convince me otherwise to be honest. I mean, what does the “real world” have that the Kingdoms don’t? We move our forms around in a space defined both by physical restrictions as well as by cultural ones. We have possessions, homes, families, loyalties. Many of us have labored for many years to achieve skill in the arts, or advancement in physical might. We have established rituals, culture, and traditions, shared among the many groups and institutions that have arisen from our virtual settlement of the Kingdoms. Even now as I write these words here, hundreds of adventurers are roaming the Kingdoms. The hunting, trading, learning, loving, hustle, and bustle are a constant.
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What in the (real) world is a ‘synthetic’ world?

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Synthetic worlds are digital worlds designed to facilitate interactions between users. They come in many different forms, the most familiar of course being large-scale 3D games like World of Warcraft and Linage, which together boast more than 13 million active subscribers. Then again, they’re not always games because you also have worlds like Second Life, which are completely social worlds largely created by the users. In the case of Second Life, you’d have a landmass twice the size of Hong Kong with a GDP of $64 million dollars.

All together online gaming is an industry worth more than $15 billion dollars. But of course, we’re not talking about all online gaming. When one speaks of synthetic worlds, it is often taken to focus on persistent virtual spaces. I mean, when you’re playing a FPS (First-Person Shooter) like Halo online, you are indeed interacting with people inside a virtual environment. However, the environment disappears once the game is over. If there’s no one around to hear this kind of tree fall not only is it silent, it doesn’t exist. Standing opposite these ephemeral worlds are the ones that persist and are progressing 24/7/365, whether or not any individual happens to be accessing them. Those are the ones we’re talking about…mostly.

Now, folks in the social sciences have, over the past decade, been examining all sorts of different aspects of these worlds. You’ve got economists like Ted Catstronova, sociologists like Bainbridge, anthropologists such as Bonnie Nardi, even psychologists like Nick Yee and others besides. And of course no one sticks to their simply their own territory. Many of these authors simply use their academic background as a starting point for their discussions. Castronova, for example, does view things from the vantage point of an economist yet also manages to make headway in discussing non-economic matters like game mechanics, world-building, and many of the social and political implications of synthetic worlds.
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