I’ll briefly describe Urban Dead (http://www.urbandead.com -- note that it’s free!), since it might be unfamiliar. It’s a survival-horror text game based, as are many MMOs, on a conflict between two sides: the zombies and the survivors. Not unlike “Rock Paper Scissors Tag,” players will switch sides easily: survivors can become zombies when they’re killed (unless revived by another survivor), and zombies can be resurrected into survivors again. Players have a limited number of moves per day -- this is the Kingdom of Loathing model -- and need to find a safe place to finish the day’s turns (they “go to sleep” when out of turns, becoming fair game for the opposing side). The main emotion is fear, I found -- much of your time is spent barricading structures against attacks, or venturing out to ransack abandoned buildings (which aren’t always empty!) -- and I didn’t think that the text-based nature of the game detracted from the experience. What is interesting is that the source of this fear is always the players on the other side, since there are no AI-controlled monsters; somehow this made the danger more real, since I knew the zombies were clever and might be teaming up against me. However, in an interesting inversion of many MMO conventions, the zombies don’t have the ability to communicate with one another (at least, not until they reach a high level). I’m firmly in the camp of what Bartle, in “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDS,” would call an explorer -- I mainly want to do my own thing, experimenting with the world and its mechanics, and find that other people mainly get in the way -- so this constraint suited me just fine.
In other ways, too, a highly-directed, highly-constrained game like Urban Dead is a useful contrast with more community-based games like Second Life; I’ll mainly describe Second Life (which has been done to death already on this blog) as it contrasts with Urban Dead.
To begin running down the list: Urban Dead does not allow players to create their own objects (humans can create barricades against zombies, but these barricades are not unique and are not a mode of player expression), while Second Life obviously does. Urban Dead is therefore not “productive” as Pearce defines it in “Productive Play,” since there is no cultural production, art, or meaningful contribution to the game world (save for the fact that the strength of the game depends on having a lot of players altogether); Second Life, by contrast, is built mainly on the work of its residents.
The fact that Urban Dead is so highly constrained, in terms of the actions it allows its players to take, also means that an effective legal or political structure, as is present in Second Life and many other virtual worlds -- and described, in the case of LambdaMOO, by Mnookin in “Virtual(ly) Law: The Emergence of Law in LambdaMOO” -- is largely unnecessary. To some extent, the ideal social behaviors are embedded in the game, in the form of its incentives: for example, it is possible to kill other players on the same side, but players only receive half the usual number of experience points. Other forms of socially-unacceptable actions are basically impossible. There is, for instance, no way to “rape” another character or take control of them in any way (I refer, of course, to Dibbel in “A Rape in Cyberspace”), since it is only possible to communicate via plaintext; I suppose that one player can say to another, “I am raping you,” but in the year 2009 I don’t think this would raise too many eyebrows. Virtual worlds like Second Life, on the other hand, are often playgrounds for inappropriate or antisocial behavior, due to the wide range of behaviors available to the player (and, more generally, the extra control that players have over their environments), and therefore require more strict and comprehensive sets of regulations.
Additionally, the fluidity of the players’ identities in Urban Dead -- how one switches sides between zombies and humans -- most likely means that players have less of an attachment to their characters. Identifying strongly with one’s character is a common feature of online gaming in general, both in MMOs and virtual worlds, and is one reason why women gamers comprise a comparatively larger share of the online gaming market (as described by Taylor in “Multiple Pleasure: Women and Online Gaming”). Virtual worlds take this a step further, allowing players to construct and personalize their own environment (as Curtis might say, they are “extensible from within”).
I find that the constraints in MMOs, in general, lead to a more surface-level interaction with the game: as Farmer and Morningstar might point out, MMOs don’t “trust” players as much -- it’s not possible to “delve into the program’s mechanics” (“The Lessons of LucasFilm’s Habitat”). This is due, perhaps, to another major difference between MMOs and virtual worlds: the nature of goals, and the incentives that they provide. Since MMOs are more goal-oriented, players have a much stronger incentive to tweak the game’s rules in certain, very specific directions (stronger weapons, more experience, etc.). Conversely, one of the primary features of virtual worlds and MUDs, according to Curtis in “Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities,” is that there are no inherent goals; players therefore, in theory, have no directed incentives in which to cheat the game, and thus can be trusted a little more to create their own objects and environments (which, of course, leads us to the need for social regulations and laws, as discussed above).
Generally speaking, I think that Urban Dead is a more “game-like” MMO than others that have been discussed on this blog: it is less socially-oriented (though certainly there is a community), more specifically goal-directed, and more constrained. It is also meant to be played in short sessions, due to the limited number of turns per day (this was a bonus for me, as I worry that I would get addicted to a game like World of Warcraft); speaking as a “guest,” it was relatively easy to get into. Second Life, on the other hand, is the quintessential virtual world: more social, with more emphasis on your avatar, potentially very absorbing and immersive, highly expansive, and with a relatively high barrier to entry (at least for me -- I couldn’t really get into it). In other words, Second Life struck me as less friendly to “guests”; I was constantly reminded that I was a foolish newbie, that I hadn’t constructed anything, that I wasn’t really a “resident” yet. I might actually stick with Urban Dead for a little while, though, and maybe I’ll start to feel “at home” soon among the barricades and abandoned buildings.
Bartle, R. "Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDS." The Game Design Reader, ed. Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman.MIT Press:Cambridge, MA, 2006. 754-787.
Curtis, P. "Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities."
Dibbell, Julian. (1993/1998). "A Rape in Cyberspace."
Farmer, R. & Morningstar, C. (1990/1991) "The Lessons of LucasArts Habitat."
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.
Pearce, C. (2006). "Productive Play: Game Culture from the Bottom Up." Games & Culture. Volume 1, Issue 1, Winter 2006.
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.
Taylor, T.L. (2003). "Multiple Pleasures: Women and Online Gaming," Convergence, Vol. 9, No.1, 21-46, Spring 2003.