18 January 2011

[Literature] Communities of Play, book 2: The Uru Diaspora

Celia Pearce and Artemesia. 2009. Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds. The MIT Press.

Some notes on the second book of Communities of Play by Celia Pearce. You can also read a summary about Book 1: Play, community and emergent cultures.

Chapter 5: An imaginary homeland

Ethnography conducted in the TGU hood (the Uru version of a guild) from March 2004 to September 2005, following a method for research that serves to inform game design.

Uru is the MMOG version of the Myst series. It was developed by Cyan Worlds and published by Ubisoft in 1993. Myst was the best-selling PC game until The Sims came out in 2001, it sacrificed speed and action for visuals and audio. Most Uru players were Myst players. Hence the typical player was around 45-year old, did not really play other games but liked puzzles. Many write poems (later analyzed by the researcher). In many game communities, players may not be aware of the values and ideologies that attract them to a game. Uru could be played multiplayer connected to a server or single-player locally. In the game, players live in neighborhoods, aka hoods. The game company created artificial drama between players through paid actors. Books are used to teleport avatars between places.

Uru has several places of particular interest:

  • Tutorial zone,
  • Home: contains player's items, a library with books and a teleport link to the player's hood. More features are added to the home as the player progresses through the game.
  • Hood: place where the hood (same name for the group of players) gathers. Contains a message board.
  • City: public, shared by all players, uninhabited and in a poor state of devastation
  • Ages: player-instantiated maps. Players can join other player's Age to solve the Age's puzzle collectively or chat. Seems similar to Furcadia's dreams.

Chapter 6: Identity as place

TGU was one of the biggest and most influential hoods of Uru. It formed during the beta of Uru and officially started accepting members in November 2003. At its maximum, it was so large (400+ members) its hood map required to be sharded in 3 different instances.

Invitations were sent to Myst players. A total of 10.000 players signed for the free beta and each beta cycle accepted 500 players of the waiting list, approximately every month (gating). Two clerical errors resulted in the entire beta list accepted in late December 2003 and late January 2004. Uru never made it to commercial release, it went on sale in November 2003 and the servers closed on February 2004. The last thing Uru players saw was a screen indicating an Internet error. Developer and publisher blamed the market for the lack of success of the game, players blamed the faulty technology and lack of marketing. Despite the 2.000 players who petitioned to pay a year of subscription in advance to keep the game running.

The Koalanet forum was opened by TGU members when the game closed. Members of TGU showed symptoms of posttraumatic stress, the shared trauma became a bonding experience. Poems expressed ethnic identity and diaspora. Players explored 2 alternatives: recreating Uru thanks to game development tools (eg virtools, VRML, Active Worlds, Atmosphere development environment or LSL scripts) or joining an existing ready-to-play virtual world (eg temporary text-based MUD, There.com or SL; EQ or Ryzom were considered too violent and competitive).

The hood leader joined There.com but said players could go anywhere, Koalanet would stay the main TGU hub. There.com's TGU club got up to 450 members, some not from Uru. The migration on a shard of There.com caused lag on this shard, hence griefing from indigenous. TGU became self-protective but There.com's community managers were accommodating. TGU members knew a permanent solution would be one not controlled by a corporation. Over time, TGU members integrated and some even became leaders in the There.com player culture.

One TGU player who wanted to program his own hood found that the fountain and water are attractors in public spaces. Other Uru players manage to reverse-engineer the game and were allowed by the developers to launch their own server "Until Uru". Some players did not want to come back to "Until Uru" because they wanted to move forward. Ubisoft and Cyan never attempted to intervene or interfere with any Uru player initiatives. In September 2005, the Myst franchise is retired, becoming a fan-owned and operated phenomenon.

Chapter 7: The inner lives of avatars

Avatar customization and animations matter. There provided little choice in customization, and SL animations were stiff. TGU players wanted to reproduce their Uru avatar. Avatars are intentional bodies, ie avatars' actions have been designed by the game makers (cf Taylor). If Uru avatars were humans, and not from any of the game's factions, it is because developers chose to position players as explorers, not as participants (unlike in WoW for instance). Because Uru came from Myst (a single player game), Uru avatars tended to look like an idealized version of players, hence little cross-gender (3 cross-gendered out of 450 TGU members).

The avatar was a re-embodiment for a player stuck in wheelchair. When the server shut down, players lost their virtual self and their friends. Avatars are a version of me that only exists in a particular mediated context. That part of the self expressed and projected through the avatar is as much a creation of the group as the group is the creation of the individuals within it. Avatar identity is an emergent collaboration between the individual player, the community and the designers, who present as the game and its ecosystem. UGC style and leadership of players were influenced by social feedback. A sense of social presence within the play space is more emotionally compelling to some players than a sense of physical presence.

Chapter 8: Communities and Cultures of play

A quarter of eligible (ie Myst) players signed up for the Uru beta.

Pearce challenges the Western assumption that play is a waste of time or "unproductive". She suggests that play may accelerate the process of social bonding. Uru players did not expect those bonds to happen. Disclosure of personal information was an indication of bonding. The game is virtual but connections between people are real.

Community of play: group of players who have switched from playing for the game to playing for the people. These communities share values. Intersubjective flow is the adaptation of Flow to a group of gamers. Selling user-generated content to other residents of Second Life or crafting elixirs for a WoW raiding guild are examples of intersubjective play. Intersubjective flow is an unconscious metagoal at the heart of play-based emergence. To achieve intersubjective flow, players need feedback and need to feel in a play practice, even if it's a professional activity. It can be solo play with the community in mind (eg crafting with raiding in mind).

Chapter 9: Patterns of emergence

Play styles are engines for emergence. Emergence is play beyond the original game design. Play styles can be: spatial literacy, exploration, puzzle-solving, cleverness and creativity, mastery, games within games, togetherness, wordplay and multimodal communication (ie voice + text chat), horseplay, dancing and acrobatics, spontaneous leadership, etc.

Chapter 10: Productive play: cultural production, meaning-making and agency

Productive play is creativity around play. Unlike Trekkies or cosplay, MMO fans can modify the world they come from. In the case of TGU, productive play consisted of inventing new games and practices, carrying their culture to other virtual worlds and UGC/artisans (ie creating game environments).

The Uru nostalgia increased group cohesion. Uru was also a source of creative inspiration: wherever Uru players went to, they created artifacts of their culture. Players who become versed in a game's content may [...] take possession of that content. Cyan, the owner of Uru, let players do their project. There were no pursuits for copyright infringement. Cyan was not only permissive but also supportive of fan creation. Original business models could leverage player creativity.

Chapter 11: Porous magic circles and the ludisphere

Arguably, each VW or MMOG is contained in its own magic circle. However, there are ludic leakages: TGU players carried and adapted their play style across magic circles. They had itinerant or portable identities: each person had avatars in many different online places. Intergame migration and multiworld identities could be useful for MMOG designers. Players who migrate a lot become particularly adept at spontaneously adapting new spaces to their own play requirements.

Chapter 12: Emergence as design material

The more agency players are given to design, the more emergence (and the more diverse). Emergence is an inevitable outcome of a large number of players within a network. More people means more emergence. Fixed synthetic worlds (MMOG) provide less emergence than co-created worlds (VW). Communities of play, social construction of identity, intersubjective flow, productive play and porous magic circles are contributing factors to emergence.

Addendum from Books 3 and 4

After having completed her PhD work dealing with the Uru Diaspora, Pearce was asked in Spring 2006 to do consulting for Cyan as to whether Uru could reopen. Uru later reopened in 2007, and closed again in 2008.

MMOG players have viewed their game's designers as deities of sort.

Designers should not try to step in to fix games that are already in the midst of emergent processes. The failure of The Sims Online is a prime example of a complete disconnect between designers and emergent cultures: researchers said player-made avatar skins were vital, and the designers went against it. The game industry has no such [ethnographic] research tradition, while big IT companies such as Microsoft or IBM have participatory or community design. Community managers have an important role to play in knowing the player community. Player representation can help.

Edit: PopMatters also has valuable reading notes.