NCSoft’s City of Heroes is an MMORPG that allows players to live the fantasy of being a superhero. It features an extensive character creation system that allows players to design their costumes and choose their powers before setting out to fight evildoers. The entire game takes place in Paragon City and its outskirts, where players can meet up with each other and form “supergroups” to complete missions together. Missions primarily consist of raiding hideouts, knocking out all the villains inside, and retrieving items such as stolen cash or secret weapons.
In Sulake’s virtual world called Habbo Hotel, players are not given any sort of arbitrary goal or aspiration. There is no "leveling up." Rather, they chat with other players, play mini games with them, and visit their virtual rooms in the hotel. Habbo is free-to-play, but players who want to add furniture or decorations to their rooms will be subjected to microtransactions. The game compulsions take a backseat to social networking and personalization akin to The Sims. There's no fighting or killing at all.
Players of both types of games may play them as a means to "escape" reality and relax, but virtual worlds offer an escape that resembles reality in many ways. Sure, players can fly in Second Life, but they can also participate anonymously in many of the same social activities they would in real life. Mnookin relates virtual worlds to "the utopian possibility, the notion of a virgin place in which we can wash off the mistakes of the past and begin anew...there have been those who have believed in the possibility of transforming humanity by moving to a new space, an untouched place." (Mnookin) People in virtual worlds are judged based on their clothing and what they have in their rooms. Without any other preconditions to be judged upon, it's an environment where people can socialize in ways that maybe they want to in real life, but can't for one reason or another.
It can be difficult to understand how a simulation of everyday social activities can be desirable for players in virtual worlds. Pearce says "we need only look at the history of hobby culture in the United States and elsewhere to see that for many, productive leisure is a welcome escape from the regimen of being productive at someone else’s behest." (Pearce) Although some of the in-game interactions may be similar to real life, their motives can be driven by self interest. This is a stark contrast to the players of MMOs. In another article, Pearce notes that in MMORPGs "players are not simply spectators, but rather take the roles of elves and orcs fully engaged with the narrative and conflicts of the game." (Pearce) In City of Heroes, players create heroes to represent themselves while fighting crime, but the players themselves don't do any such thing in real life. Personalization and communication with other players are simply means to complete the game's predefined narrative.
Virtual worlds and MMOs are designed with this difference in mind. "For the designer of an ordinary game or simulation, human diversity is not a major problem, since he or she gets to establish the goals and motivations on the participants' behalf...[a virtual world] provided a broad palette of possible activities from which the players could choose, driven by their own internal inclinations." (Farmer) Beyond gameplay design, the level design between the two differs significantly as well. MMOs feature hub cities or hangouts where players can always find other players to talk to or group up for a mission. Outside of the hubs are large worlds where they can explore for long periods of time without even encountering another player. Virtual worlds are made up almost exclusively of these hub cities - any area that doesn't have players in it is generally considered a failure.
Players in MMOs are working towards reaching the maximum level, completing every dungeon, and making other players envious of their accomplishments. To die in an MMO is to lose experience, money, pride, and valuable time. Player versus Player (PvP) combat is intense because of the stakes. When engaged in battle, players don't want to talk to each other because it's a serious brawl. Virtual worlds could not be any different. "The permissions systems...generally prevent any player from having any kind of permanent effect on any other player...players can annoy each other, but not in any long-lasting manner." (Curtis) Players cannot truly fight each other, and the only damage they can receive is emotional.
This presents another issue altogether. Emotional damage is generally a bigger problem in virtual worlds than MMOs because players are much more invested in their characters and personas. There are no heavy game mechanics or objectives to distract them from regular interaction with other players. Emotional damage includes name-calling and griefing on one side, but it also includes serious problems like threats and sexual violence. Julian Dibbell recalls an incident where a player wrote a script for a MUD that allowed him to control the speech of other players. He used to it to cause the other players to perform outrageous sexual acts. Most significant is that the players affected by the incident experienced real emotional trauma, even though no physical altercation had occurred.
Players are more likely to cause emotional damage in virtual worlds as well. In an MMO, any inappropriate conduct by a user could be grounds for terminating an account - resulting in a loss of progress in the game. A player would have to level up all over again, redo all their missions, and find all new items. In many virtual worlds, though, players can change their identities with ease. Taylor quotes one designer saying "Although we wanted people to experiment with their self-image, we knew that making it very easy to change allows people to avoid social responsibility." (Taylor) In other words, the presence of this problem in virtual worlds does not mean that they have a perverted audience, but rather that it's easier for players to get away with despicable behavior because they can simply change their identities.
City of Heroes could be viewed as a virtual world with a game tacked onto it, or Habbo could be viewed as a stripped-down MMO. It doesn't matter because they offer very different experiences because of player behavior. Some MMOs have the technical capacity to do everything that a successful virtual world can in terms of player interaction, but the players aren't as interested in those features. Players of virtual worlds may not enjoy the best MMOs for the same reason.
Works CitedDibbell, Julian. (1993/1998). "A Rape in Cyberspace." http://www.juliandibbell.com/texts/bungle.html
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
Curtis, P. "Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities." http://www.eff.org/Net_culture/MOO_MUD_IRC/curtis_mudding.article
Farmer, R. & Morningstar, C. (1990/1991) "The Lessons of LucasArts Habitat." http://www.fudco.com/chip/lessons.html
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
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.edu/~cpearce3/PearcePubs/PearceSpaceTimePlay.pdf
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.pdfTaylor, T.L. (2003). "Intentional Bodies: Virtual Environments and the Designers Who Shape Them." International Journal of Engineering Education 19, no. 1. www.itu.dk/~tltaylor/papers/Taylor-Designers.pdf