World of Warcraft and Second Life embody the two current major approaches to online virtual worlds. The first is a heavily-themed environment that is controlled by the developers. It is driven mainly by goals, achievements, and competition. The second epitomizes a sense of “productive play” like that discussed in Celia Pearce’s essay of the same title. It is far less restricted than the first in terms of content and interactions, and it derives its content almost entirely from the efforts of its players. There is no goal, only a detailed social system and a giant sandbox world to play in. Both of these games have been very commercially successful, so it isn’t necessarily true that one is better than the other. They simply employ different strategies in their success.
Second Life seems to draw upon the success of the earliest online communities, such as Lucasfilm’s Habitat and MUDs (multi-user domains/dungeons) like LambdaMOO. LambdaMOO was a text-based world that had provided a social “chatting” environment as well as providing players with the tools to create objects within the world. Habitat embraced these same ideas, adding rudimentary 2d graphics to the mix. Second Life seems to be the modern evolution of the same concept, providing a fully 3D world and social environment.
In Second Life there is no goal or purpose. The entirety of the experience is through interaction with other players or objects created by other players. Because of this, the gameplay is very emergent, dependent both on the culture of the game community and on the desires of the individual player. For instance, a friend of mine uses Second Life to visit an island owned by his favorite author where the author’s avatar will occasionally appear and discuss his works. Other places in Second Life exist as role-playing communities, reproducing props from fictional works such as Star Wars and Stargate SG-1 and encouraging players to dress up as characters from those worlds. These communities reinforce the importance of identity in virtual worlds, a point emphasized by Taylor in his essays “Intentional Bodies” and “Multiple Pleasures.” The avatar in Second Life is a blank slate, able to assume whatever role the player wants it to be.
World of Warcraft (or “WoW”), on the other hand, is much more structured. It draws more from the Dungeons & Dragons tradition that preceded MUDs, building a narrative-rich fantasy environment. WoW’s ability to deliver a narrative experience, similar to the theme park analogy in Pearce’s essay “Narrative Environments,” is the strength of its constrained form, purposely structured by the designers to provide immersion, another important factor identified by Taylor. At the same time, the possibilities of the world are still very open (though not as free as Second Life), and players are free to abandon questing or monster-killing in favor of exploration or pursuit of specialized achievements that don’t necessarily depend on the player’s level.
When it comes to user-created content, however, Second Life far surpasses WoW. In Second Life, literally everything is created by the users. There is even an entire economy based around user-created stores that sell content. In this way, Second Life really fulfills the sense of “ongoing participation and contribution” described by Pearce. In WoW, however, user-created content is sparse and has practically no effect on the game, limited to add-ons that customize the user-interface for individual players.
The existence of user-created content also brings about the issues of ownership and other game laws, issues that both Habitat and LambdaMOO had to deal with during their emergent development. For WoW, this is pretty much a non-issue, as players obtain items individually and they cannot be stolen by other players. There are situations when groups of players are forced to divide rare items among themselves, in which case ownership is determined by a built-in random die roll. For Second Life, however, objects don’t always have owners. For instance, objects dropped on the ground in public areas can be picked up by anyone. There is the further complication of ownership of property, and the fact that in-game money relates to real-life money. In-game money in Second Life is purchased with real money. This adds a level of value to objects beyond the scope of the game itself. Because of this, some players have tried to manipulate the system by re-selling “freebies” for a profit, a practice that has ultimately been condemned by the game community and designers. Most other issues of ownership are resolved through the ownership of property. The owner of a virtual space in Second Life can set certain rules for their land, such as who is allowed to visit, whether or not people can spawn objects there, what can be modified, and even other rules such as whether or not players can utilize the built-in “fly” feature.
Other legal and moral issues arise in both worlds, particularly sexual depictions and activities (such as the incident documented in Dibbel’s “Rape in Cyberspace”). In my experience with both games, such activities are frowned upon by the community, but I have never seen or heard of any occasions that escalated to the extent of Mr. Bungle’s violent rapings. As such, I am uncertain as to the punitive measures imposed by the designers. As far as prevention is concerned, while WoW has been accused of “oversexualized” female avatars, it at least imposes minimum clothing on all avatars, as opposed to Second Life, which allows complete disrobement.
Another distinction between Second Life and WoW is the nature of the player’s “status” within the world. As Taylor points out, status is an important resource for players in a virtual world. In Second Life, as a social system, a player’s status mostly depends on their personality and their interactions with others. Another factor might be their involvement in the creation process and how much they contribute to the game world. In WoW, on the other hand, status is largely reflected by level, achievements, and a player’s skill and usefulness in combat groups. While antisocial behavior is still a negative factor, it is more tolerable if a player is exceptionally talented at the game and able/willing to assist others with difficult combat tasks.
On the note of combat tasks, WoW is definitely more combat and violence-oriented than Second Life. The majority of the game consists of “grinding” against large numbers of monsters, slaying them to gain experience and level up. However, given it’s flexible emergent structure, Second Life is not without its own player-created combat systems as well, though they are significantly less complex.
In the end, both games successfully achieve what they set out to do. Furthermore, neither game is necessarily “exclusive.” As Taylor points out, games such as WoW have many attributes that are attractive to females, despite the heavy focus on combat. Second Life’s versatility and flexibility is also attractive to most people, and the existence of everything from role-playing communities to guns to lingerie proves that it truly has “something for everyone.” While WoW might be slightly limited in scope as opposed to Second Life (for instance, someone has recently supposedly “beaten” WoW by accomplishing everything there is to do in the game), the experience of the game is the focus, not the amount of activities there are to do. The experience is the ultimate goal for both games, embodying different ideas in two unique online worlds.
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