T.L. Taylor: Play Between Worlds

[Readings] (03.24.09, 12:13 pm)

Finding New Worlds

The opening describes Taylor’s experience at an Everquest conference. She explains this as a strange and shifting environment with a mix of real and virtual identities, and a blurring of the in game world with the out of game reality. There is an intertextual nature in the space, where the convention bleeds between real life and the concepts and themes of virtuality. It also blurs between what is part of the game and not part of it.

Taylor argues that the social connections and shared knowledge are central to the individual’s experience. She investigates social spaces, social systems of Everquest, but considers the types of players to be not clear cut or uniform (as suggested by Bartle). She explains her experience in character creation as being a process of identity formation and exploration. She chooses a gnome because both gnomes and humans have the least overtly sexualized female avatars, and, wanting to be adventurous, chooses the gnome over the human. She chooses to be a necromancer because of its appeal as referencing some of the lore evoked in the documentation.

Character choice determines social role and function, and ultimately how player is involved in the world.

Explains that process of ethnography in virtual world is playing in between worlds, because the ethnographer is stuck within between these multiple spaces. Advocates a kind of immersion, but this is not only within the game world, but also the fan made sites and forums.

Gaming Lifeworlds: Social Play in Persistent Environments

Taylor gives a review of the origin and history of MMOGs, through tabletop, then to MUDs, then to 2d and 3d worlds.

She explains that the mechanics of the world result in certain social practices and dependencies being created. Examples of this is the yell command and the corpse run, and the obligations created of players as they interact with the world– ie, a player is supposed to shout “train” if they are running away from a series of mobs which are in pursuit. This is interesting because it is a point with the creation of social obligations. This gradually translates into a much deeper network of social roles and obligations with groups, guilds, and raids.

Economically, these systems lead to certain emergent effects, which in early version of Everquest, resulted in players needing to sell things to each other directly, and thus created a kind of emergent marketplaces. Later, this was changed and led to a much more automated system for trading. This resulted in a cultural shift, where the emergent market districts essentially disappeared.

Beyond Fun: Instrumental Play and Power Gamers

Taylor describes the phenomenon of power gamers, who are gamers who approach the game instrumentally. Her discussion goes over popular negative attitudes by other players, over the blurring of Explorer and Achiever (because power gamers like to push the rules) and the goals and motivations behind them. They have a much more statistical and numerical approach to the game, seeing things as only the numbers, and are tolerant of critique and close scrutiny and analysis of methods.

She presents them in a much more positive light than frequently given to power gamers. Ultimately, power gamers are part of social groups who work around these values and develop repositories of knowledge. Often they are the ones who write FAQs and the like.

Where the Women Are

Women are not generally acknowledged as part of the standard “gamer” demographic, although Taylor notes that women form a substantial portion of the players of online games. Generally, women are not explicitly targeted or marketed to and are frequently actively disenfranchised, but they still are interested in these games. Taylor is interested in why that is the case.

She looks at the types of play that women like to engage in within online games, and finds that the types of play most valued are social and identity oriented. The identity play is about identity experimentation (a la Turkle) and taking on of personas. She notes that all forms of interaction occur through avatars, so even while someone might not think that a player is an elf, they are limited to the interaction with the avatar to form impressions. Because character appearances are limited (it is not uncommon to run across another character with the same face) players must distinguish themselves through dress and name. Avatars enable a kind of identity and gender experimentation that is otherwise inaccessible in everyday life.

Taylor explains that exploration becomes attractive to female players because the exploration of the environment is faced with gender neutral threats. This is in contrast to real life, where threats to exploration are often explicitly gender oriented.

Taylor rejects the suppositions that girls attitudes toward games are indicators of any inherent disposition or biological bias. She criticizes the tendency of researchers to focus on these issues to the exclusion of social and structural factors that have gone into establishing the culture and labels of gamers, which have emerged as explicitly exclusive to women.

A few more examples of play types are given. Players value in-game status (by demonstrating accomplishments), and integrate this in with forum life. Female players make use of a mysterious element that combines femininity with in game status (which may be of a traditionally masculine frame). Combat is often valued because of its collaborative nature, but also can be a ground for expressing aggression. Ultimately, women are still predominantly disenfranchised by the marketing and the projected hypersexualized roles of women in the game.

Taylor concludes the section by looking at design, and cites Brad McQuaid, who was one of the lead designers of Everquest, who purports to design with a color-blind and gender-blind approach. This is something that proves to be problematic, as a “blind” approach invariably privileges one group as the default. Taylor emphasizes the value and importance of designing for women, but challenges the simplistic models put forth by the pink games movement. She explains that greater visibility of gender (not less) in both the game worlds and the design are necessary, and that this requires a sociology of the body.

Whose Game Is This, Anyway?

Taylor goes over a number of emergent phenomena, ranging from the lawsuit between NCSoft and Marvel, the auctioning of in game content, the idea of time spent in game as labor, fan made mods (and extensions), and fanfiction. These each introduce complicated relationships between the users, the game companies, and the idea of property as relates to the online game world. The final resolution to this appears to be that worlds should be co-created between players and designers.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorTaylor, T.L.
TitlePlay Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture
Tagsdigital media, games, cyberculture, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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