Play Between Worlds by T.L. Taylor

[13 July 2006]

By Rob Horning

Online role-playing was once significant only to a hard-core cadre of technologically savvy science fiction and fantasy geeks, the lone contingent that could be expected to want to spend its leisure time fiddling with computers. Now that broadband Internet access has become widespread, it has impacted the way we all spend our leisure time,  changing the way we shop, consume media, find out about events and opportunities, keep in touch with friends and relatives, and so on. The issues evoked by massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs)—reputation and presence management, mediated identity, avatar creation, text-messaging conventions—are no longer relevant merely to those regressive, imaginative types eager to slay orcs, wield epic weaponry, and map out dungeons; these issues are at the heart of Internet existence for all of us, whether we are gauging how much to trust an eBay auctioneer, trying to multitask with fewer distractions, or deciding how much to reveal about ourselves on Live Journal or Facebook. After all, MMOGs are essentially MySpace with more dragons and less crappy indie rock (probably the same amount of sexual single entendre): you design an identity, you beg for adds to help get yourself further and extend your access, and you burn all sorts of time in a quasi-fictional realm looking to make pleasant little discoveries and marking petty achievements like how many experience points or friends you’ve accumulated.

In short, MMOGs have served as avant-garde prototypes for the online social spaces more and more of us are electing to inhabit, and players the first to understand how integrating with a computer world allows us to subject our social lives to the same efficiencies that govern our work time and make it seem rational and productive—what in Playing Between Worlds, T.J. Taylor, a media studies professor at the University of Copenhagen, calls “a much less sensational, even mundane, integration of technology into people’s everyday lives.” MMOGs try to make this integration remain strange, reserving it to the arcana of role-playing games. But we have all come to take it for granted. Having to maintain presence online is no game for most of us. It’s become the serious business of getting on with our lives.

So rather than residing at the fringe of society, MMOGs now seem an ideal topic for academic study, to explore how online property rights are established, to test what degree of bureaucratic oversight will spawn the most economic growth and class mobility, to witness the flourishing of spontaneous order in real time, to see how the infrastructure connecting economies within and without game spaces build themselves (as Edward Castronova writes about in Synthetic Worlds : The Business and Culture of Online Games), to assess the techniques for stabilizing identity without the crutches of physical presence, or, as Taylor proposes to do in this account of her experience playing EverQuest, to survey the “border work” such games require of us and delineate the boundaries between physical and Internet space and between on- and offline selves. “I am interested in gaps or boundary work in that such locations can be the place in which definitions become problematized or previously hidden practices are accounted for,” Taylor declares in her introduction. In another typical sentence, Taylor announces, “This book is deeply concerned with understanding the nuanced border relationship that exists between MMOG players and the (game) worlds they inhabit.”

If that sounds vague to you, don’t expect Taylor’s methodical account of her EverQuest playing to clarify it much. If you are the sort of reader whose brain leaps to work at filling in the blanks when presented a bracing string of abstractions and notifications of the author’s “deep concern” or unsubstantiated sense that certain details are “important” and “impressive”, you probably won’t mind this, and you will profit from this book’s dense thicket of undigested detail. Taylor provides nitty-gritty details about EverQuest itself, everything from how to form a character, how to join up with other characters, how to keep oneself busy in a game universe that provides players no specific goals to how the hierarchy of gamers sorts itself out and what sort of lingo EverQuesters use. If you have no intention of ever playing EverQuest but are still curious about what sort of spells clerics can cast and the contingent ethics of “kill stealing”, this text is for you. But at times Taylor’s analyses can become tentative, general to the point of uselessness (“The relationship between design and culture, and the importance of understanding the ways those intersections feed into the game, can not be overstated”). She prefers to raise questions—how should online spaces be governed? How can the players work in maintaining them be respected? How can women gamers coexist with the games’ often sexist marketing?—rather than venture answers. And as such an evident fan of the game itself, she seems reluctant to adopt the skeptical point of view necessary to yield a more probing critique, particularly in her chapter dealing with property rights and online gaming spaces. Her tepid conclusion: “there must be a simultaneous move toward more progressive understandings of intellectual property, product identity, and the status of players as active co-producers of the worlds they inhabit.”

Not there aren’t insightful observations. Taylor’s chapter on the way online environments allow female gamers to circumvent some of the limitations gender places on them in the real world and allows them to, for example, explore landscapes freely is provocative. And her discussion of “power gamers,” goal-oriented obsessives who are the most susceptible to the allure of climbing the game’s arbitrary hierarchies and are willing to undergo hours and hours of grueling boredom to attain advanced levels, illustrates how dubious the dichotomy between “fun” and “work” is. Power gamers’ intense focus, devotion to methodical tasks and fixation on quantitative rewards makes work and fun almost synonymous—their ambition animates drudgery and imbues it with a meaning that perhaps transcends more-transitory pleasures. Taylor suggests such players are able to integrate a overriding fixation on instrumentality—on pressing all the buttons the game provides to be pressed—with affable sociability quantified by the extent of their social networks, measured by the guilds and groups of the game. Thus such players make acceptable and natural what in a factory would be considered rate-busting behavior.

Taylor is also effective in tracing the ways in which the game’s designers have tweaked the online environment in order to compel players to spend more time there and develop the social bonds that would bring them back. Online gaming, like online dating, sells the opportunity for sociability, providing ground rules to guide interaction and supplying pretexts for cyber rendezvous. EverQuest is designed to require social interaction, which its manufacturer knows is the aspect most likely to addicts users long-term. Taylor quotes Brad McQuaid, one of the game’s original designers, who explains that community “is a form of persistence, which is key to massively multiplayer games. Without community, you simply have a bunch of independent players running around the same environment. Players won’t be drawn in and there won’t be anything to bind them.” What EverQuest manages to do is commercialize community, making it a commodity that can controlled and parceled out like property, that can be enjoyed on one’s own time and often on one’s own terms. As we grow more isolated in our everyday lives and opportunities for social interaction are slowly but surely engineered out of the physical world—too unsafe, too inconvenient, too random—the online communities become more attractive as outlets for our inherent gregariousness. 

Non-gamers might assume that since MMOGs can mediate a large proportion of players’ social lives, there’s something defective or immature about them, but Taylor’s book makes clear the short-sightedness of such a view. Despite its Runequest trappings, an online gaming avatar seems not so different than a work water-cooler identity. Taylor points out “it is in the moment of play in which the social and formal game intersects that the more familiar connections are created. Shared action becomes a basis for social interaction, which in turn shapes the play.” It becomes like the work world, where more or less arbitrary shared tasks dictated by management produce as a byproduct the conviviality that makes the tasks worth doing. The template of an MMOG affords management a new tool, allowing them to enliven a dreary office by supplanting it with an imaginative online world with online wikis and collaborative projects recast as gaming missions for workers to inhabit, which at the same time is capable of measuring a worker’s output with precision undreamed of by even the most fanatical time-management gurus. As the modus operandi of the MMOG becomes more familiar and widespread we should expect our work worlds to resemble them more and more, and eventually our bosses should be able to make power gamers of us all.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/play-between-worlds/