T.L. Taylor's Guide to MMO Culture

by L.B. Jeffries

20 April 2010

"There is no culture, there is no game, without the labor of the players."

One of the most interesting shifts in MMO design compared to single player gaming is moving from an emotion centered design to something oriented around social spaces. Rather than focusing on making a game fair and fun for one person, you have to orient it around thousands. T.L. Taylor’s book Play Between Worlds is a careful study on the effects of design in Everquest over an extended period of time. Detailing her observations as a Gnome Necromancer, the book relies on academic research and interviews to paint a broad picture of how the design of the game interacts with the culture.

Taylor starts by pointing out that academics initially treated the relationship of real life and virtual worlds as a hard divide. There was your digital life, and then there was your real one. The approach emphasized the novelty of becoming an entirely new person independent of your old self. That proves to mostly not be true in the sense that the two spill into one another. Taylor writes, “What seems more to be the case is that people have a much messier relationship with their off- and online personas and social context . . . we have phenomena that are unique to both spheres and also occupy spaces of overlap” (18-19). Everquest and most other MMOs are a merger between the social aspects of forum culture and video game elements. Over time people get to know other players and develop relationships that go beyond mere in game rewards. She comments, “People create identities for themselves, have a variety of social networks, take on roles and obligations, build histories and communities. People live and through that living, play” (28).
This is not to say that there is not still a distinction between these two spaces. Players can ignore the social aspect and focus purely on the game, often shifting between the two approaches to suit their mood. This causes a unique twist on the game’s culture because the design is more of a foundation rather than a governing set of laws. There is the game, and then there are the cultures and practices that emerge in and around the game (32).

An example of design creating a relationship would be Everquest forcing interdependent relationships through the rules governing death. Dying takes away experience, and you have to make a corpse run to go retrieve your gear. Often you need help doing this, and players can ask for help with a few simple phrases. Usually there was also a solid experience bonus for the assisting player. These eventually evolved into social customs, so if someone asked you to help recover a corpse and you weren’t doing anything at the time, refusing would be rude. Another example is yelling “Train!” when a horde of monsters are chasing you and some players are about to run into them (34). Taylor writes, “At the individual-player level, there are both mechanisms to facilitate making new connections with other players as well as sustaining them.” So a person can both friend another player and also chat with them at any time, no matter their location in the game (39). She observed that often players would chat while performing boring activities like grinding just to pass the time. In this way, the tedium and boredom of an MMO is actually an essential element to the culture because these downtimes gets people to chat with one another. The game alone is not enough during key portions of play.

Everquest also relies heavily on status symbols and power to coerce cooperation. This comes in the form of either powerful gear or being a high level. Grouping level caps made it so that being at a certain level made it impossible to group with someone much stronger or weaker than yourself (50). The purpose of the design is to get people to play together by making sure that they’re never left behind because their friends are too powerful. Keeping players with groups in their own league also makes it possible for many social connections to be built around mutual respect for someone’s abilities in game rather than on power or gear (86). The cultural dynamics arises once you factor in that players are always going to need allies with differing skill sets to help them play. People interact because they’re good at playing the game rather than out of pure stat superiority. Taylor comments, “Groups act as a micro-level, short-term social network. By creating a group out of characters specializing in different but complementary skills, members collectively can take on and defeat opponents who are equal to or stronger than the individual characters in the group” (42). People are constantly making judgments about who to trust, who is a cheater, and what groups they work best with.

This is where guilds come together via common interests, like people who want to pursue high end goals versus casual players. Since you can’t join a Guild that you’re vastly superior to or leaching off of due to the level cap requirements, the dynamic of guild membership revolves around your social interests. She writes, “Guilds themselves come to act as unique agents—entities encompassing more than the sum of their members—in the broader game community. That guilds themselves might become valuable actors in the community shows the ways not only individual players, but more formal organizations, make up an integral part of the game space” (45). This dynamic plays out in more complex ways than it sounds. It is not particularly valid, for example, to identify guilds by griefing or power-play conduct. Griefing, in Taylor’s view, mostly amounts to personal values since pretty much everyone engaged with the behavior on some level.

A highly respected player would sick a mob on someone that they thought was being rude just as much as someone might with a more sadistic bent (51). Another example of notorious behavior is power-play, or when someone studies the minute details of the design to gain an advantage. She notes, “‘One player suggested that average players do not confront failure as a learning opportunity in the same way that power gamers do: “When we die we say ‘What went wrong?’ and try to understand what happened”’” (74). Power Gamers are “dynamic goal setters” who keep creating new objectives for themselves, treating bosses and problems like puzzles to be solved (76). To a lot of players this was regarded as cheating because power gamers can play the system too well. The point being that Everquest’s grouping limits and class interdependence spawned an entire culture that did not revolve around power in terms of game design but rather social customs.

Design quirks also led to the development of institutions and even their subsequent demise once the design was changed. Buffing was when a high level character could, with little cost to themselves, help a weaker player by casting a spell that boosted their stats. People would just do this randomly as they walked through an area. Taylor observed that players were generally more polite and behaved better because otherwise no one would buff them. She writes, “Players who did not stick to some basic conventions were often thought of as rude, newbies, or young and socially inexperienced” (58). As the game was patched, buffing was made more costly and the practice died down. Players even began to charge for it.

Porting, which was teleporting people around the game world, followed a similar course for players who made “side money” by offering telepotation services for weaker characters. Once insta-travel was introduced, a shift from provincialism to cosmopolitanism occurred because suddenly you were no longer grouped with players at your own level. People of varied skills and ranges came to occupy the same region, so that high level players would be exploring newbie zones out of curiosity, whereas once they were isolated communities for beginners (62).

The bazaar system also underwent numerous changes as the game design was tweaked. Initially players would sell goods and services at hub systems or roads that everyone had to pass through to get to a popular area. It consequentially became a very laggy zone, and Taylor points out that the only way to get through quickly was to stare at the ground and run through. Eventually, the developers created a special Bazaar zone which was just a menu system that you clicked through. Prices became much higher in the menu system because people could take advantage of an unregulated market. There was no more bargain hunting as before or the odd experience of dashing through a crowded space when travelling (64).

Taylor then shifts her focus onto gender and race representation in Everquest. She writes, “The issue of how virtual-world experiences ‘filter back’ is particularly striking, though, when women report that playing the game helped them become more confident or assertive . . . . Women in EverQuest are constantly engaged in playing with traditional notions of femininity and reformulating gender identities through aspects of the space that are tied directly to its nature as a game. Identity is formulated in relation to formal play elements within the world such that active engagements, embodied agency, and full participation are guiding values for men and women alike” (97). This tendency went against most of the common design assumptions that grew out of the Pink Game Movement in the 1990s. Back then in order to address the complete lack of games for girls, new design formulas that relied heavily on gender stereotypes were created. It essentially divided games into the usual masculine power fantasies and asserted a feminine aesthetic of interpersonal issues, indirect competition, environments, puzzles, or character-based genres (99) .The problem is that there are often numerous exceptions to these generalizations. She points out that many female players enjoy the game from a variety of perspectives, including power gaming and even griefing.

Addressing gaming stereotypes means tackling the core question of how the player is relating to the violence in a video game. As Taylor points out, “Women’s relationship with game violence is complicated” (108). The average player does not think of the violence as real. Taylor observes, “the pleasure is closely tied to the skills involved to take down a mob, the precise timings and movements required, the skill of playing the class well in a battle situation, the adrenaline rush involved with a fight, and the general ability to even engage in this type of activity . . . the joy of game combat is then a product of the more elaborate and valuable activity of competently embodying a character” (109).

Despite the social and ludic pleasures that Everquest gives female players, they still remain an overlooked demographic in many areas. On the surface, the game should be complimented for coding neutrality into gender choice in the design, meaning that playing as a female has no statistical handicaps (121). Problems begin to arise, though, with about everything else. For starters, like the Evony ads that you still see today, almost all Everquest box art and advertising featured a large breasted woman. This isn’t just a sensitivity issue, hyper-sexualized video game advertising has been shown to turn off potential female players. During market tests for the Gameboy, the system was accepted positively by female players and testers until they saw the male focused commercials and discovered the name of the product. They then tended to dislike the system (119). It is very difficult in Everquest or in an MMO today to play a female character that does not look like a stripper, despite the fact that the art director of the game was female, Taylor points out that people are very diverse in terms of what they want in an avatar and having choices should always be the main goal of this type of game (112).

With a few exceptions, it was metal bikinis and giant boobs for anyone wanting to be a woman in Everquest.  This design decision was often justified and even internalized by female players because the game was “meant” for men between the ages of 18 and 30. Taylor explains, “There is a devastating cycle of invisibility at work here, one in which game designers, companies, and sometimes even players render an entire demographic as tangential. This move, to marginalize women and to not imagine them as a core demographic, in turn helps enact design decisions and structural barriers that create the conditions for disenfranchisement” (113).

Race was equally problematic in terms of character design because every species was white except for two, the Dark Elves and Erudite. Both races had a higher intelligence (which boosted magic) but the Erudite were disadvantaged by the design because they began in one of the worst newbie zones. If you didn’t have a way to port out of a newbie zone, you could be stuck there for a very long time, and it made it so few people ever wanted to try being Erudite. Like the issues with the female avatar, not being able to control your appearance in a game significantly interferes with player enjoyment. Taylor writes, “Avatars are crucial in producing a sense of presence, of ‘worldness.’ Just as corporeal bodies are integral to our personal and social lives, avatars are central to our experience in digital environments”  (117).

In the final third of the book, Taylor casts a wide net and touches on a huge variety of business and social issues in the game but in lesser detail. Sony’s banning of a player who posted fanfiction about a rape in Everquest is cited as an example of a larger problem with the design approach to MMOs. Like Taylor’s earlier observation about the flaws of thinking about MMO culture as “Real vs. Not Real,” you cannot break these games down into “Design vs. Culture.” Changing a bit of code or nerfing a weapon has much larger ramifications than the immediate fix that these changes intend. Taylor comments, “My call is for non-dichotomous models. One of the biggest lessons from Internet studies is that the boundary between online and offline life is messy, contested, and constantly under negotiation. Issues around gender or race, for example, do not simply fall away online but get imported into the new space in complicated ways” (153).

Recognizing the blurred boundaries of MMOs extends to the role of the player and acknowledging that they are not just a consumer. Instead, “Players are social laborers and act as central productive agents in game culture – more progressive models are needed for understanding and integrating their work in these spaces…there is no culture, there is no game, without the labor of the players” (158). Taylor asserts that, when it comes to MMO design, the notion of the designer as author is flawed. Players all bring their own unique desires and social customs to a game, and it is senseless to ever try to force values or to appease a single designer’s sensibilities without justification coming from the community itself. Taylor explains, “It isn’t your game; it’s the players game” (137).

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