Books

Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds by Celia Pearce

Pearce’s book illuminates the power of play and the impact of culture, and puts a spin on our perception of the immigrant experience.


Communities of Play

Publisher: The MIT Press
Subtitle: Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds
Format: Hardcover
Price: $29.95
Author: Celia Pearce
Length: 327 pages
Publication Date: 2009-10-30
Amazon

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.

6

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image