Online communities have always intrigued me. Even when I was young I would play this small scale online ‘game’ in the JumpStart series that allowed you to move around a theme park and interact with other people. Granted, users were rarely on, and my parents weren’t crazy about me playing with strangers, but I was fascinated by this idea of alternate identities and creating alternate communities. It wasn’t until much later in life that I was introduced to MUD’s, arguably one of the deepest forms of online communities out there. In these MUD’s you can create a character from scratch, to be whomever you what her to be, a truly unique personality, one that does not have to correspond to the physical person at all, but can be a total disembodiment of the user playing. You can literally create a completely new you with no consequences . While MUD’s are still around today, the more popular versions of online communities come in three dimensions now. With systems like World of Warcraft and There.com now readily available, there is a wide array of choices for people to be a part of one of these separate societies.
Personally, I have taken part in two distinctly different networked playgrounds: World of Warcraft and Second Life. WoW is a massively multiplayer game, with set rules, a tiered leveling structure, and objectives to beat. Second Life, on the other hand, is a virtual world that allows its users the freedom to do what they please without having to follow any sort of narrative or linear path. Both these platforms are ludicrously popular and, while they definitely share some features, we will see how different they really are. Why are online communities so popular? The short answer can be derived from something already mentioned- you can be anyone you want! Pearce and Curtis both discuss how, in online communities, you can create an avatar that may or may not be anything like your real self, and then inhabit a virtual world with this avatar. You can act however you want (assuming you follow the laws of the game) with little to zero consequence for social errs. There is no penalty, for example, for taking all of your clothes off in WoW and running around the city. And, in the worst-case scenario where your avatar has somehow been irreparably socially demoted, you can always just create a new avatar [1, 5].
Of course both WoW and SL offer this feature, the most attractive feature of online communities. But the difference is the context in which they are offered. In WoW you must make a character in a medieval fantasy setting. You can be an elf, a creature of undead, or perhaps a dwarf, but really there is only a static set of possible characters. While this limitation seems like a drawback, it actually increases the alternate social experience for people. Taylor talks about how, in games such as WoW, you are forced into these certain social roles, and then you must live that role. Players enjoy playing as only an elf, to take part in elf culture, to become knowledgeable in the social responsibilities of this role . Of course, in WoW, your class has a huge influence on your avatar, so this aspect further embeds the players alternate identity. Personally, I play WoW for this exact reason. I enjoy taking on an alternate persona, to have responsibilities that do not exist for me in real life but, because of my defined role in the game, people rely on me for. One character I had, for example, was a healer, and so I had to specialize in jobs and tasks that improved my healing. To me it is fascinating, and extremely satisfying, to focus on one responsibility and to excel at that, to become a part of the ‘healer’ culture of the Warcraft world, and then to fit into a team as a specialist in my talent. This aspect of avatar creation is something that sets WoW apart from SL.
Second Life has its own forms of unique attraction, though. While WoW forces its players to fit into a certain social identity, SL lets the player be anyone she wants. This ultimate freedom is what pulls people to this type of universe. In SL you can explore, buy, sell, start a business, build buildings, join a club, start a city, or do nothing. There are no quests and no story, just a world to inhabit, to be discovered and created by its citizens. This carries over from MUD’s, where players were “literally building their own universe room by room” . In SL, the players are in complete control to do this, to create their own communities and homes. It allows people the freedom of the MUD’s but in the visually rich environment of three dimensions, something MUD’s could not offer. This self-government feature is something that is crucial to the SL experience, but does not always work well. Farmer and Morningstar, in a discussion about the LucasArts Habitat, say you have to allow the users to get together and develop goals and that it is the responsibility of the developers to recognize what these goals are of their users and to help them achieve it, but to not become involved . Too much control will drive users who want the autonomous control away from the system, while too little control can cause internal issues and create a lack of focus for the world after awhile.
My personal experience with SL was initially enthrallment. I was excited about the potential of the world, and I had the most fun just flying around to different communities and seeing what everyone had built and done. But soon I discovered that if you didn’t join any groups or meet anyone, you could become bored extremely quickly. So I joined a few groups and met some new friends. I began to settle in a ‘society’ in the world. But eventually I became bored again and just flew away to new lands, to explore more. The vastness of the world kept me wanting to continually be moving, but it also made me feel like I could never truly become a part of it. Maybe I didn’t devote enough time to truly becoming a member of the SL community, but eventually I stopped playing. I think the similarity to real life (i.e. human avatars, normally structured communities, business, etc.) turned me away in the end. When I join an online community, I want to really lose myself in an unfamiliar world.
So it is clear that online games and virtual worlds will approach designing features differently, to cater to the kind of users that will be taking part. WoW strives to immerse the players in an experience that is very separate from real life, while SL wants to create an environment that its users can then inhabit and manipulate to make truly their own. But both are systems that are community driven and rely heavily on a graphical interface to push their features. Modern virtual games and communities are becoming similar to amusement parks where people can come together and take part in attractions, made much easier with the advent of 3D . The people are the focus of these worlds; how they create their avatars, what they do, how they interact with each other. Creating my avatar is something that is important to me when I join a community online, and Taylor says it is one of the most critical aspects of a successful virtual society. You must hand as much control over to the individual as possible, so they feel they are truly the ones inhabiting the world . Both WoW and SL do this successfully, if somewhat differently, and they have set the standard for online communities of their kinds.
1. Curtis, P. “Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities.” <http://www.eff.org/Net_culture/MOO_MUD_IRC/curtis_mudding.article>
2. Dibbell, Julian. (1993/1998). “A Rape in Cyberspace. <http://www.juliandibbell.com/texts/bungle.html>
3. Farmer, R. & Morningstar, C. (1990/1991). “The Lessons of LucasArts Habitat.” <http://www.fudco.com/chip/lessons.html>
4. Mnookin, J. (1996). Virtual(ly). “Law: The Emergence of Law in LambdaMOO. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. Volume 2, Number 1: Part 1 of a Special Issue, June, 1996. <http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol2/issue1/lambda.html>
5. Pearce, C. (2006). “Productive Play: Game Culture from the Bottom Up.” Games & Culture. Volume 1, Issue 1, Winter 2006. <http://lcc.gatech.edu/~cpearce3/PearcePubs/PearceGC-Jan06.pdf>
6. Pearce, C. (2007). “Narrative Environments from Disneyland to World of Warcraft.” In Space, Time, Play: Computer Games, Architecture and Urbanism: The Next Level. Friedrich von Borries, Steffan P. Walz, and Matteas Bottger (eds). Basel: Birkhauser. <http://lcc.gatech/~cpearce3/PearcePubs/PeaerceSpaceTimePlay.pdf>
7. Taylor, T.L. (2003). “Multiple Pleasures: Women and Online Gaming,” Convergence, Vol. 9, No. 1, 21-46, Spring 2003. <http://lcc.gatech.edu/~cpearce3/CourseReadings/TaylorMultiplePleasures.pdf>
8. Taylor, T.L. (2003). “International Bodies: Virtual Environments and the Designers Who Shape Them.” International Jounal of Engineering Education 19, no. 1. <www.itu.dk/~tltaylor/papers/Taylor-Designers.pdf>