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Communities of Play

Celia Pearce

Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds

(The MIT Press; US: 30 Oct 2009)

Exodus in the Online World

The immigrant experience has always been an emotional touchstone, regardless of where you live; the various diasporas of human existence are the one thing that binds us. For decades now, we’ve come to frame the immigrant experience in narrow, antagonistic visual and political terms; lately it’s been characterized in the context of fortress, a bulwark separating us from the outsiders. But the longer, wider view of our civilizations and their discontents reveals (for politicians and other ideologues) that more inconvenient truth: Wanderers are us. All of us.


As life in the Internet age becomes more so; as the tasks and interactions that used to be relegated to the physical world are increasingly achieved by something there’s an app for; as the reality of online gaming contends with our own reality, it’s only logical, or certainly fitting, that the immigrant experience would be replicated where we live so much of our lives.


Communities of Play, Celia Pearce’s scholarly and passionate study of emergent fan cultures within the worlds of digital gaming, would have been a welcome addition to the literature of sociology, ethnography and technology if it was only a study of that evolution in the online age. But Pearce brings her experience as both a game designer and a scholar to this book, which illuminates the power of play and the impact of culture, and puts a spin on our perception of the immigrant experience — showing how this most emotional dimension of human contact is fully transferable to the online realm.


Pearce, an assistant professor of digital media at the Georgia Institute of Technology, focuses on the Uru Diaspora, a group of game players who first gathered in the community of Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, a video game developed by Cyan Worlds and published by Ubisoft in 2003, and the fourth game in the wildly successful Myst series, launched in 1993 and for eight years running acclaimed as the best PC game of all time.


What lay at the heart of the Uru cosmology is the restoration of the ancient civilization of the D’ni people. Through resolution of puzzles and narrative clues, players unravel the secrets and history of the D’ni, and the shadowy D’ni Restoration Council dedicated to their preservation.


In a chapter called a “polyphonic cultural history”, Pearce articulates her findings after an 18-month ethnographic study of the Gathering of Uru, a neighborhood (or hood) of the Uru online game officially formed in November 2003. This, the kernel of the Uru Diaspora, was the cohort of loyal long-time followers of the ,i>Myst series.

The ages of Uru players spanned the generations, from teens to septuagenarians; both genders were amply represented. The foundations of a culture — customs, traditions, societal structure — were established and observed by a growing number of subscribers. A true community had the potential to flourish. For a while.


Then the bottom fell out. Eventually, Uru Prologue, the multiplayer component of Ages Beyond Myst, was canceled in February 2004, reportedly because of a shortage of the players needed to sustain the project, but just as certainly a victim of its own success, and the technology that made the game possible in the first place. Pearce reports:


[T]he actual facts behind the closure have never been completed revealed by either developer Cyan or publisher Ubisoft. Differing accounts can be found on forums and blogs on the Internet, but according to Ubisoft’s Uru community manager, a total of 40,000 people ended up receiving invitations to Uru Prologue, of which only 10,000 actually signed up. Ubisoft was both surprised and disappointed by what they perceived as low turnout …


A much more challenging problem stemmed from the instability of the client-server architecture … Because of the way the client (player’s software) processed incoming data from the server, the more players who were logged on, the more unstable the client would become; this caused both excessive lag and frequent client crashes …


So in fact, had the game been as popular as Cyan and Ubisoft had hoped, it still might not have survived because of challenges with the client-server architecture.


But by then, the official reason was pretty much beside the point.


The server closed at 9:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on February 9 and concurrently for players in Eastern and European time zones (midnight and 5:00 a.m., respectively, on February 10).


One member of the community, Aria of Katran, put it in terms that were eloquent and truly emotional:


This is no longer a game to me
These people are part of my family


A diaspora was born.


Writing in a way that’s always empathetic to her subjects, Pearce explores the effects of the closure on the members of the Gathering of Uru (TGU for short), which had begun to meet at Koalanet, an online forum created for these newly dispossessed. “Players experienced what they characterized as a ‘shock and catharsis’ and many described symptoms of post-traumatic stress”, Pearce notes. “At this point the players had been made refugees, and the impact of this shared trauma on long-term community building cannot be understated”.

Pearce ably recounts how, in the throes of separation from their online homeland, in their ache for a place of their own from which to thrive, the Gathering of Uru bore a travail with the same earmarks of the pain of separation as any example in real-world history: from the forced transit of slaves from Africa to the New World, to the enforced historical wanderings of the Jewish people, to the anonymous surreptitious movements of Mexicans and Central Americans seeking better lives in the United States.


The exodus of TGU would be resolved in fits and starts, over weeks and months as many (but by no means all) Uru refugees ultimately recongregated at There.com, an online community launched in late 1993. But the process of being integrated into another community had as many challenges in cyberspace as it often does in the physical world:


A significant faction of existing Thereians was suspicious and fearful of this sudden inrush of “outsiders”. Many were afraid that, by sheer numbers, the Uruvians would take over There.com entirely…


Pearce’s book is its own world: a teeming zone of facts and analysis, images and correspondence that explores the phenomenon of community in virtual worlds from a perspective by turns scholarly and colloquial. Pearce is part professor here and part fangirl (her avatar, Artemesia, gets co-author credit), and it takes that level of both intellectual rigor and outright passion to make a book like this work.


She dutifully breaks down the differences between MMOG (massively multiplayer online games) and MMOW (massively multiplayer online worlds), and the contrast between ludic, or “fixed synthetic” game worlds — those animated by relatively rigid, goal-oriented game rules — and paidiaic worlds, or metaverses, in which players participate in a generally unstructured, open-ended experience.

These distinctions roughly form the contrast between a game environment controlled by the game’s designers and one largely created and controlled by the players themselves. “Each of these worlds can be viewed as its own play ecosystem with its own unique characteristics”, Pearce notes.


Both types bear the earmarks of “emergent culture”, which Pearce describes as “bottom-up individual actions that aggregated into large-scale patterns of social behavior”.


She details a powerful proof of such online grassroots action, and its consequences:


One example is a game-wide protest that was staged in World of Warcraft in 2005… Warriors of all races, dissatisfied with what they felt were unfair statistics associated with their class, gathered at urban centers and even blocked a bridge to demands a change to the very software they inhabited… [Game manufacturer] Blizzard, in the typically top-down approach of corporations, squelched any further uprisings by banning players found to be involved in or planning in-world protests. In other words, the company took the stance of a totalitarian regime by making civil disobedience punishable by virtual death.


Emergent game cultures mirror those in the physical world, only faster:


“Historically, emergent cultures can take hundreds or even thousands of years to develop”, Pearce says. Yet, “the advent of new technology can rapidly accelerate these processes… The Internet is just such an accelerating technology, and emergent social processes that might take years to play out in real life… can happen in a matter of months, weeks, or even days”.


The power of such cultures can often bear surprising results:


This emergent phenomenon inspired economist Edward Castronova’s now famous economic analysis of [MMOW] EverQuest, in which he determined its imaginary universe, Norrath, to have the real world’s seventy-seventh largest economy…


His groundbreaking work has inspired a growing interest in the economies of virtual worlds. This interest has reached as far as the U.S. Federal Reserve, which is investigating both the tax and regulatory ramifications of virtual economies…


Despite their differences and theoretical possibilities as surrogate economies, though, it all comes down to a sense of belonging. “[A]lthough the worlds may be virtual”, Pearce writes, “the communities formed within them are as real as any that form in proximal space”. Aria of Katran would surely agree.


Communities of Play is a strong exploration of the ethnographic principles at the heart of multiplayer gaming, and reveals how such games are the latest gloss on real-world play communities we’ve known forever: from fantasy sports leagues to Civil War reenactments to weekend paintball excursions. With clarity and insight, Pearce examines the ways in which play is serious business; fundamental to culture in the widest sense of the word; and a reflection of that baseline human drive to pursue community, identity and connection, to be part of something bigger than we are — a central truth of life in that massively multiplayer off line world into which we’re born.

Rating:

Michael E. Ross writes frequently on the arts, race matters, politics and American culture. He has worked as a reporter, critic and editor at various news organizations, including The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and msnbc.com. He blogs on politics and media at Short Sharp Shock. American Bandwidth, a book of essays and blog posts spanning the 2004 presidential election and the dawn of the Obama administration, was published by Authorhouse in October 2009.


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