Virtual worlds and MMOGs are two game forms which, at a superficial glance, appear very similar in their overall experiences. And in many ways, this is true; both encourage large online communities, employ complex computational frameworks, etc. But in the ultimate experience, there are actually a number of nuanced differences between the two. These differences manifest in a number of ways from gameplay, to social interactions, to expandability and the changing nature of these games. The majority of these differences can be illuminated through examining the precursors to both forms: MUDs and MOOs for virtual worlds and the archetypal video game RPG for MMOGs.
Acting as the crux of gameplay in both forms, avatars are the users’ lifeline to the game world. Throughout a player’s ‘career’ in one of these games, the status of one’s avatar is the most palatable vehicle of progression. Within Pearce’s framework on the productivity of play, the avatar is central product of gameplay for most players. For virtual world players, the avatar is much more a personal expression. As such, the level of intimate attachment appears more sincere in these users. Players can shape their online identities to (in some instances) anything they can imagine. As Curtis writes on MUDs, “many players, it seems, are taking advantage of the MUD to emulate various attractive characters from fiction.” Dibbell’s retelling of the emotional responses of MUD players when their avatars were abused paints a vivid portrait of how much stock some players put in their online personas. In MMOGs on the other hand, the rigid constraints of the game often limit the personalization of avatars. There are often a fixed number of permutations which any avatar can take (i.e. some combination of race, class, gender, etc.) the result of which is many similar (if not identical) avatars inhabiting the world alongside yours. While attachment to one’s avatar can often come to these players, it is often acquired after playing the character for extended periods versus tailoring the actual avatar to the player’s desires. Often in game worlds, more emphasis is placed on the performance of the avatar. In an MMORPG such as World of Warcraft, this might constitute what spells the avatar can cast, what gear it has attained, etc. The avatar in this context is more a vehicle used to interact with the game world. Some players become so concerned with the gameplay in MMOGs that the entire notion of self embodiment in the avatar is lost. On the whole, MMOG avatars are less personal than their virtual world counterparts.
Spaces and their uses are varying factors between both forms as well. The use of space in MMOGs tends to be very utilitarian. Towns are crowded with people selling goods, looking for groups, auctioning treasures or other services: social tasks that are dictated by the scope of the gameplay. And in other parts of the world you can often find adventurers or those who are engaging the ‘meat and potatoes’ of the gameplay: questing, slaying bad guys, etc. Virtual worlds, however, tend to mimic the MUD dynamics of players in space. As Curtis describes space in MUDs, users often congregate to wherever other user activity is taking place as the only immediate objectives are social-based. There is still room for individualistic exploring and other activities in these environments but they are much less commonplace than in MMOGs.
The production and maintenance of space by the user community is an important quality of virtual worlds that sets them far apart from MMOGs. Many virtual worlds employ tools which allow for user generated content including objects and accessories but in some cases entire environments or worlds. This provides an enormous relief to game developers as new content is constantly being created by the user base. Morningstar and Farmer touched on this problem in their recollections from Lucas Art’s Habitat. The content users create can often surpass the number of initial assets at launch, and in some cases be of comparable or higher quality to that of the developers’. A notable example of such content is the Uru recreations in There.com and Second Life as described by Pearce.
Developers who build in overly constricting designs into their products often end up alienating some players. As with the designers in Taylor’s paper, these constraints can sometimes end up casting the game into one player group over another (i.e. such phenomenon as ‘battle lingerie’). While some hard-coded constraints on player representation do exist in virtual worlds, most of the design philosophies revolve around abstraction and allow for the users to define themselves. This leads us perhaps into the single most potent aspect of user generated content in these worlds. Because the concrete experience (clothes, accessories, landscapes, etc.) is now in the hands of the users, there is potential for more impactful and meaningful spaces than anything delivered by the developer. Users create their own tailored adventures and experiences versus being immersed in a concrete environment as with MMOGs. In light of Pearce’s Narrative Environments, this can make the various spaces in a virtual world feel like different areas of a theme park. Travelling from one island to another in Second Life, it is not uncommon for the themes to change drastically: from pirates to hospitals to outer space and so on. These expansive spaces lend very well to exploration, secrete areas, and other more feminine uses of space as described by Fullerton.
The communities within MMOGs and virtual worlds are somewhat similar to each other in many respects. In larger worlds, groups of players tend to segregate into micro-communities wherein personal brands of politics, drama, and play can occur. In MMOGs these often come in structured forms such as guilds, clans, or servers. In virtual worlds, these often center around like-minded individuals or those sharing similar interests. Communities play a large role in the entertainment value for both virtual worlds and MMOGs as Taylor describes in her paper on women players. But MMOGs tend to put a larger strain on the purely social relationship between players due to the game at large. Whereas virtual worlds are almost entirely focused on the social aspects of play, MMOGs have other concerns and considerations when players choose to play together, such as skill or commitment. For example in MMOGs, certain players may forego playing with friends in the interests of maximizing the effectiveness of an adventuring party. This behavior is rarely seen in virtual worlds.
The ways in which communities are subjected to rules is another instance where MMOGs and virtual worlds once again part ways. Unlike the dynamic rulemaking as described by Mnookin in LambdaMOO, many MMOGs’ rules are handed down by infallible authority figures: moderators and designers. Virtual worlds, while still dictated by the parent company, are often much more lenient and allow users to generate their own situational rule sets. These are often associated with specific locations, such as role play guidelines within in a user generated space.
Overall, virtual worlds and MMOGs are very different animals. From gameplay to space to social interaction to user representation, each has its own take on the massively multiplayer experience. And even though the two paradigms may not agree on some core issues, they both have the potential to succeed in making compelling computational media.
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Farmer, R. & Morningstar, C. (1990/1991). The Lesson of LucasArts Habitat.
Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (2007). A Game of Ones Own: Towards a New Gendered Poetics of Game Space. In Proceedings, Digital Arts & Culture 2007, Perth, Australia. 1-11.
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