Virtual worlds, especially those of the 1990s, have historically been classified as either social worlds or adventure/game worlds (see Reid 1999; Watson 2008: 1), the former focusing on space, creativity, socialization and emergent behaviour while the latter has the character of a competitive, multiplayer video game with structured goals and stats. The same distinction applies to modern graphical VWs, with World of Warcraft and EVE Online being classified as MMOGs while Second Life and There.com are counted among the social virtual worlds (i.e. don’t call them games, at least not where any of their users can hear you, or you’ll get a lecture).
But obviously there’s a significant amount of crossover between the genres, with social worlds incorporating structured gameplay, while game worlds provide spaces for social interaction. I’ve chosen to compare Second Life (SL), which I classify as social world, and Myst Online: Uru Live (MOUL) (the now-defunct 2007-08 iteration), which was technically a game but in reality inhabited a unique and unprecedented hybrid game/social space not before seen in MMOGs. This is because although MOUL was a game, it was a puzzle and exploration game, free of grinding and stat-building. New content was released every couple of months, and in the interim, players who had already solved all the new puzzles would still log in regularly to hang out, play mini-games, or attend cultural events. For example, someone actually put together a “Cavern Choir” with singing avatars performing in front of a live audience – proof that “productive play” (Pearce 2006) can emerge out of MMOGs and not just in social worlds.
Taylor (2003: 25) and Curtis (N.d.) both argue that the affordances offered by a virtual world structure that world’s society, while those affordances are themselves determined by hard-coded design choices. Such choices may be intentional as expressions of a particular design philosophy, or they may be inadvertently limiting or hegemonic constraints that, due to the structure of VW design and production, are difficult to fix (Taylor 2003: 26-27). It’s clear that the respective designers of SL and MOUL had different goals in mind for the character of their world and the sort of society it created. Consider the differences between the avatar creation process in the two worlds:
In SL, the user has a great deal of control over the avatar’s appearance. He/she chooses a gender, which provides a basic shape, and then adjusts some 30 different sliders to customize that shape into just about any configuration imaginable (at least for a realistic body). Textures can then be overlayed on that shape to give it visual definition. Users can also purchase or create shapes, skins and clothes in theoretically infinite combinations, giving them near complete control over their virtual embodiment in their avatars. They don’t even need to choose a gender or a humanoid shape (I’ve seen users embodied as featureless, floating geometric shapes). In other words, SL hearkens back to the days of social MUDs where embodiment was fully customizable through description and numerous alternate gender choices like “spivak” were available (Curtis N.d.).
By contrast, MOUL offered players limited control over their avatars. Players were offered the choice of basic adult male and female shapes, and given fifteen or so sliders to modify appearance and textures, with no other options for customization of basic form. A wardrobe of standard clothing was offered, and while there were dozens of choices, there was nowhere near the endless variety in attire offered by SL. As they advanced through the game, players did not design or purchase new articles of clothing, but rather found them – certain specific items that were offered as rewards for completing puzzles.
Then there’s building, and customizing the world itself. SL takes after LambdaMOO in that players are encouraged to create and program their own environments and their own objects (Curtis N.d.; in fact, every SL user has by default the “programming privileges” that in LambdaMOO were bestowed by wizards only on request to those players deemed experienced enough with the basics). MOUL, like most MMOGs, offered a themed, professionally designed, static world with which players could interact, but which they could not modify or expand in any significant way. The visual difference between the two worlds is striking. MOUL was a beautiful, self-contained, living, lovingly designed, centrally planned and thematically consistent world adored by its inhabitants, while SL is a stark, often empty, occasionally attractive world of odd angles and jarring thematic juxtapositions that calls to mind the unplanned, sprawling suburban wasteland. William Gibson has some harsh words about SL:
It's deserted. It seems like functionally it has to be deserted. If it's not deserted it crashes. So there's all this empty, empty architecture. There's whole cities where there's only one other person and they don't even want to get close to you. (Nissley 2007)
I’d argue, then, that MOUL is Disneyland while SL is the city (Pearce REFERENCE; I recall that the Disneyland/city distinction was also echoed by a member of the CCP design team at the September meeting of IGDA Atlanta, where it was cast in terms of theme park vs. sandbox). SL seems like it should be empowering because it gives the individual user so much creative agency, but it might really be precisely the alienating suburban space that Disneyland was conceived to resist (Pearce 2007: 204). MOUL provides the “human-scale pedestrian fantasy of Disneyland, a respite from the modern, homogenous, cookie-cutter reality of suburban sprawl” (Pearce 2007: 204). And while Disneyland’s pedestrian fantasy was a kind of nostalgia for a simpler time, MOUL is also very much about nostalgia – for serene and surreal worlds, free exploration, and (more specifically) for the themes and stories that came out of the first four Myst games that preceded it.
It’s worth saying a few words about governance and conflict resolution. Both SL and MOUL have a ToS that defines guidelines for basic human decency, and all users are expected to adhere to said ToS. But in my experience, harassment and griefing are much more common in SL. I suspect that social worlds generally have more conflict than game worlds, because game worlds provide a structural outlet for conflict: griefers in Ultima Online were more often petty newbie-killers rather than creepy perverts. Nevertheless, MOUL seemed to have an unusually low level of griefing, perhaps because MOUL players, like the users of PernMUSH, are “single-minded” (Curtis N.d.) and united in a common interest. As one friend puts it, “From the start, Myst just seemed to be covered in this magic spray that kept all the idiots away.”
Perhaps I simply wasn’t aware enough of the hot-button issues, but it almost seemed to me like governance was a non-issue in MOUL. By contrast, SL has all manner of contentious issues and the administrators tend to take a fairly laissez-faire attitude, establishing a few ground rules and otherwise allowing users to run amok. SL has its share of formalists and resistors (Mnookin 1996). For example, there are formalists who would like to see rules that would stop the spread of ad farms (miles-long strips of great big ugly billboards) in the narrow spaces between larger properties, or the use of automated bots to buy up cheap land so that nobody else can ever get a “good deal” on real estate. Anarchists and libertarians, on the other hand, don’t think that this kind of exploitation of structural factors in the world should be actively prevented. They instead advocate local and community-level solutions. And local solutions do exist – I talked to one designer and landowner who was part of her region’s virtual equivalent of a home-owner’s association. Collectively, they pooled their resources and bought up most of the tiny ad-farm parcels surrounding their properties.
When it comes down to it, MOUL was as much a social world as it was a game. The fact that it bears little resemblance to more conventional social worlds like SL, however, suggests that it was a new kind of hybrid social/game space – something I hope we’ll see more of in years to come.
Curtis, P. "Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities." http://www.eff.org/Net_culture/MOO_MUD_IRC/curtis_mudding.article
Dibbell, 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
Nissley, Tom. 2007. “On Second Life and In Second Life: William Gibson Q&A.”
Omnivoracious’ Amazon Blog (Weblog). Retrieved 29 April 2008.
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
Reid, Elizabeth. 1999. “Hierarchy and power: Social control in cyberspace.” In Communities in Cyberspace, ed. Mark A. Smith and Peter Kollock. London: Routledge.
Taylor, 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
Watson, Nic. 2008. “Our Second Lives: Social Reality and Fantasy in an Online Virtual World.” http://sites.google.com/site/hleakey/Home/nwatson_secondlives_unabridged.pdf