Digital Games as Designed Experience: Reframing the Concept of Immersion

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1 Digital Games as Designed Experience: Reframing the Concept of Immersion By Gordon Calleja A thesis submitted to the Victoria University of Wellington in fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy Victoria University of Wellington 2007

2 Contents Acknowledgements...3 Abstract..4 Introduction...5 Chapter 1: The Study of Games...11 Chapter 2: The Virtual.38 Chapter 3: Metaphors of Immersion, Presence and Transparency..82 Chapter 4: A Tale of Two Worlds..100 Chapter 5: The Digital Game Experience Model: Macro-Involvement.132 Chapter 6: The Digital Game Experience Model: Micro-Involvement..175 Chapter 7: Designing Experience: Digital Games and Other Fictions Future Directions References Bibliography 251 2

3 Acknowledgements I would like to thank Brian Opie, my thesis supervisor, for his dedicated guidance, wisdom and unending patience. I am also grateful to the English Department at Victoria University of Wellington for its support as well as the university at large for providing me with a Doctoral Scholarship. This award was the reason for moving away from Massey University, where the thesis project initially started. A heartfelt thanks goes to my supervisors at Massey, Joe Grixti and Warwick Tie for their guidance and stimulating conversations. I also thank Thomas Malaby for his interest in my work and valuable feedback. Finally I would like to express my gratitude to Ivan Callus, for his life-long mentoring and unflinching belief in my abilities. Thanks also go to Colin and Chez Legget-Cook for their friendship and support; Pippin Barr for the feedback and the game-discussions; and Gary Elshaw who read the entire manuscript at ridiculously short notice. I would also like to thank my parents and friends in Malta who made me believe I could get this far. Finally, I would like to thank my friend and partner, Anne Hamarsnes for standing by me in all the difficult times and bearing with my ceaseless game-banter. Thank you all. 3

4 Abstract Games are a complex social phenomenon which seem to elude holistic categorisation. Attempts at formulating stable, universal definitions of games seem to always fall short of the mark, leaving important aspects of particular games unaccounted for. Yet these omissions can often be as instructive as the ground covered by attempts at definition, reminding us of the multiple perspectives that are relevant to understanding the role of games in social reality. This thesis will take as its object of study the player experience of graphically represented digital games. It will focus specifically on various forms of engagement with digital games, ranging from general motivations and attractions to a detailed analysis of moment by moment involvement in game-play. An important component of game involvement is the shortening of the subjective distance between player and game environment, often yielding a sensation of inhabiting the space represented on screen. This phenomenon is known by the terms presence and immersion. The latter is the more commonly used term in popular and academic discussions of game engagement, but its widespread use has diminished its analytical value. The term presence is similarly affected, with the main figures in the field of presence theory often using the term with divergent or even conflicting applications. This thesis will therefore examine the application of these two terms and propose an alternative conceptualization of the phenomenon they are being used to describe, which will be represented by the term incorporation and a model of gameplay which I am naming The Digital Game Experience Model. The performance of a game occurs in two, often simultaneous, domains: the player s subjective or noetic dimension, and the visible practice of playing. Rather than viewing digital games as a set of formal rules, the thesis emphasizes their status as powerful forms of aesthetically designed experience that go beyond assumptions of games as bounded domains defined by a specified set of rules. In this conception of games the virtual is viewed as being a constituent part of the real, challenging the commonly held assumption that the two stand in opposition to each other. The centrality of human subjectivity in the game process lies at the very heart of the challenges game theorists face in the process of their analysis, which The Digital Game Experience Model is intended to advance. 4

5 Introduction Games are a complex social phenomenon which seems to elude holistic categorisation. Attempts at formulating stable, universal definitions of games seem to always fall short of the mark, leaving important aspects of particular games unaccounted for. Yet these omissions can often be as instructive as the ground covered by attempts at definition, reminding us of the multiple perspectives that are relevant to understanding the role of games in social reality. One such perspective is the view of games as manifestations of the structures by which the human mind organizes reality. Games reflect aspects of the society and culture that made them while contributing to that society in the process, making their understanding a recursively spiralling process of exploration into collective knowledge and social practices. To further complicate this process of understanding, the performance of a game occurs in two, often simultaneous, domains: the player s subjective or noetic dimension, and the visible practice of playing. Game-play includes actions ranging moving a piece on a game-board, pulling on a joystick, or sprinting, ball in hand, towards a distant white line. Most importantly, a game becomes a game when it is played; until then it is only a set of game-props awaiting human engagement with them. The centrality of human subjectivity in the game process lies at the very heart of the challenges game theorists face in the process of their analysis. These difficulties are not aided by the fact that the term games includes a wide variety of disparate activities. Although Poker, Fencing and Half- Life 2 (Valve Software, 2004b) all fall under the general heading of games, they entail very different forms of engagement. The last of these three represents a relatively new form of game, the digital game. Although digital games have been around for just over three decades, their presence in popular culture has become pervasive. Since the arrival of the first commercially available consoles like the Atari VCS and computers like the Spectrum ZX, Amstrad CPC and Commodore 64, digital games have slowly altered the landscape of media entertainment. In my home village in Gzira, Malta, as soon as school is over, the roofs and streets would be covered with swarms of kids playing football. As soon as the Commodore Amiga hit the shops, the streets and roofs emptied. Now, when the school-bell rang the swarms of kids had joysticks strapped to their bags instead of footballs. The football tournaments 5

6 moved indoors, to the houses of the lucky few that owned an Amiga. Digital gaming, particularly to people of my generation and beyond, has become an important aspect of everyday life. This thesis will take as its objects of study, the player experience of graphically represented digital games. It will focus specifically on various forms of engagement with digital games, ranging from their general motivations and attractions to a detailed analysis of moment by moment involvement in game-play. An important component of game involvement is the shortening of the subjective distance between player and game environment, often yielding a sensation of inhabiting the space represented on screen. This phenomenon is known by the terms presence and immersion. The latter is the more commonly used term in popular and academic discussions of game engagement, but its general use has diminished in analytical value. The term presence is similarly affected, with the main figures in the field of presence theory often using the term with divergent or even conflicting applications 1. Part of the work done in this thesis will therefore be to examine the application of these two terms and propose a clearer conceptualization of the phenomenon they are being used to describe. An integral part of this conceptual analysis will be the formulation of a model of game-play which I am naming The Digital Game Experience Model. The thesis opens with an overview of the main approaches and key debates that have been influential in the growing field of Game Studies. Although play and games have been studied academically long before digital games came about, the recent and massive popularity of these media objects in contemporary societies has fostered rapid growth in academic attention. Until recently, academic research into games presented games as exemplifying theories developed in disciplinary contexts which were not specific to games. The social, cultural and economic significance of digital games in today s world has burst gaming, particularly adult gaming, out of the stigmatized closet of sub-cultural nerd-dom into mainstream entertainment media. This has encouraged academics from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds to turn their attention towards digital games as sites for analysis. Since 2001, the field of Game Studies has expanded rapidly through an increasing number of game-focused conferences, peer-reviewed journals and book publications. The variety of academic perspectives that are now brought to bear on the study of games has also 6

7 resulted in contesting theories and accounts that can often be traced to the epistemological biases of parent fields. Chapter 1 signposts these issues while positioning my own thinking in relation to these developments. It also introduces two important threads that will run through the remainder of this work. The first relates to the commonly held view within Game Studies that games are somehow separate from the everyday by a clearly definable boundary often called the magic circle. This chapter critiques the oppositional relationship this concept implies, and related binaries such as play/work and real/virtual. The second thread is the need to acknowledge the specificity of the mediated form of digital games. The instantiation of the game within a virtual environment encourages specific modalities of interaction, identification of which is formative for the conceptual model of digital game involvement outlined in chapters 5 and 6. Chapter 2 takes up both of these threads and develops them into a discussion of the significance of the term virtual in the analysis of digital games. Terms like virtual worlds, virtual environments, virtual communities and virtual reality are often used interchangeably, but an analysis of the distinctiveness of these technological artefacts depends upon a more precise application of these terms. This chapter thus sets out how each of these terms will be used in this thesis and presents a specific definition of virtual environments and virtual worlds that avoids the common practice of using them interchangeably. The second part of the chapter takes up the critique of binaries initiated in chapter 1 with the notion of the magic circle and applies it to another, equally problematic binary; the tendency to conceptualise the virtual in opposition to the real. An alternative view of the virtual proposed by Levy (1998) and Ryan (2001) will be used to formulate a more productive conceptualization of this concept. Levy s perspective will also be applied to digital games as specific manifestations of the virtual to demonstrate how a shift in conceptualisation changes considerably the assumptions on which research is carried out. The rest of chapter 2 will give a brief history of major aspects of the development of virtual worlds. The chapter ends with a consideration of two other important sources that have influenced the development of contemporary MMOGs; tabletop fantasy role-playing games (RPGs) and cyberpunk literature. Chapter 3 gives an account of the main ways in which presence and immersion have been characterized in the literature on virtual environments and digital games. First the field of 7

8 presence theory is discussed and some of the more problematic issues in the conceptualization of presence and immersion are set out. Then the focus shifts to the use of these two terms within Game Studies. Although the term immersion is used widely within Game Studies literature, there seems to be little consensus on what the term precisely means. It is often used in its non-media specific context of deep absorption, but that ignores how the particular characteristics of the medium and text in question influence players engagements with them. This equating of immersion with general absorption overlooks the important fact that the term was applied to digital games and virtual environments to identify a specific type of experiential phenomenon. Seeing immersion as a form of deep involvement fails to differentiate the experience of being absorbed in solving a crossword puzzle from the sense of inhabiting a compelling virtual environment like Cyrodiil in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion s (Bethesda Softworks LLC., 2006). The chapter ends with a consideration of the pervasiveness of metaphors and the way in which they shape our knowledge of and assumptions surrounding a particular concept. My assessment of the literature on presence and immersion led me to conclude that, in addition to research oriented towards conceptual issues and textual analysis (and introspection on my own experience of digital games), access to knowledge about the experience of other players could significantly inform my analysis. Chapter 4 gives an account of the qualitative research carried out in two MMOGs: Planetside (Sony Online Entertainment, 2003) and World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004). This chapter describes the methods used in this research process and addresses a number of issues that are particular to qualitative research in MMOGs. The research process draws on analytical tools developed in the humanities and social sciences through a combination of textual analysis, long, semi-structured interviews with selected participants in the MMOGs and a series of focus group sessions. The chapter also provides a comparative description of Planetside and World of Warcraft that clarifies their principal similarities and differences. It is also intended to give readers who have not participated in any MMOG a clearer understanding of what happens in these virtual worlds while acting as a glossary of the common terms specific to MMOGs. The analysis of data gathered in the qualitative research yielded the skeleton of a conceptual model describing broad categories that could be divided on two temporal levels: 8

9 a general motivation for engaging with games and the moment by moment instance of game-play involvement. Chapter 5 outlines the overall structure of the model and gives a detailed account of its broader temporal phase, which I refer to as macro-involvement. This segment of the model explores issues of motivations and sustained engagement with digital games through the long-term (as opposed to immediate) aspects of the six broad categories of involvement that make up the model. These six categories, which I call frames, following Gary Alan Fine s (1983) appropriation of Goffman s (1974) concept, outline the main clusters of emphasis described by participants during the research process. The concept of the frame is useful because it highlights the fluid movement in and out of these experiential categories as well as their frequent blending. The six frames are once again discussed in chapter 6. This time the focus is on the immediate instance of game involvement. Within this phase of the model I found it useful to distinguish between engagement with ergodic 2 and non-ergodic media. Each of the six frames describes a modality of experience that players may find potentially compelling. The six frames include: affective, spatial, narrative, tactical, performative and shared involvement. These are described as ranging on a continuum from conscious to internalized involvement. The internalization of spatial and other frames of involvement can result in what I will call incorporation. This term replaces presence and immersion with the aim of displacing the binary relationships implied in these metaphors while proposing a clear conception of the experiential phenomenon they are employed to describe. It replaces the uni-directional plunge of player into game-space implied by the term immersion with one of simultaneous assimilation of the digital environment and presence to others within it. Throughout the thesis I argue for analytical models that account for the specificity of digital games. Chapter 7 considers their continuities with other media technologies. As the multitude of academic perspectives that can be brought to bear on digital games would offer different forms of continuities, chapter 7 expands only upon those that relate to the main concerns of the thesis: the reconsideration of binary arrangements such as game/nongame, real/virtual present/absent, and the resulting relationship between user and virtual environment that this shifting of theoretical ground implies. These issues are explored through Jorge Luis Borges short story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. The thematic content 9

10 and formal structure of this pre-digital (1940) work challenge these binary formulations and foreground the centrality of textuality and social practice in any act of artistic creation, whether its outcome is a short-story, virtual world, movie or theatrical play. The chapter ends with a discussion of the practical applications and the possible future directions for further research into the conceptual model proposed in this thesis. I have opted to use the term digital game rather than computer game or video game to preserve the generality of application which does not privilege any particular hardware format over another. Although the conceptual model developed in this thesis is also applicable to the broader category of graphical virtual environments 3 I have retained the use of the term player instead of user both to emphasize the gaming roots of this work as well as to highlight the internal, subjective dimension that lies at the heart of any textual engagement. 1 Discussed in chapter 3. 2 The concept of ergodicity described by Espen Aarseth (1997) is discussed in Chapter 1. 3 As defined in chapter 2. 10

11 Chapter 1: The Study of Games References to digital games are starting to appear in every aspect of contemporary life. If games were considered the domain of a specific interest group two decades ago, they have have now become the pastime and passion of the masses. Interest in games now ranges across cultures, social groupings and age groups. Game adverts are seen anywhere from bus stops in downtown Wellington to giant billboards portraying the anime avatars of Ragnarok Online (Gravity Corporation, 2002) spread over central Bangkok to regular articles about World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004) in the Dagbladet, one of Norway s foremost newspapers. It is no exaggeration to say that digital games have become a pervasive element of everyday life in the contemporary world. Their presence demands attention from across the academic spectrum. Approaches to studying games The first volume of the journal Games and Culture offered a number of academic perspectives on the question Why Game Studies now? It is reassuring to see the diversity of the authors academic backgrounds. Games can be viewed from a variety of perspectives, none of which can ignore the role of the human player to enable the game process to take place. It could be argued that the complexity of games, and the diversity of perspectives that can be brought to bear upon them, is a result of the human presence in the feedback loop between player and game. The indispensability of the human actor to the game process implies all the difficulties and unknowns that studies of mind, cognition and the social bring with them, creating opportunities for studying games and game-play in a wide variety of disciplines: Why do we want to make games and game-play our object of study? Given a field which is interdisciplinary varied and empirically varied in the extreme, there are a great number of different reasons to do research and a great number of types of research to pursue. A more or less complete list reads like an A-Z list of subjects from a major university (Aarseth, 2003). 11

12 The last five years have seen an unprecedented increase in research and publications on games (Bryce & Rutter, 2006). Although this interest is a testament to the perceived significance of studying games, the diversity of approaches has created a number of disagreements about the ways in which games can be studied. These can be traced on two axes of difference: on the one hand, there are significant disagreements in determining what kinds of activities can be classified as games, and what disciplines and methods are appropriate for their study. Common usage applies the term game to a wide range of activities, but research is facilitated by more precise conceptualisations. It is common, for example, to call virtual worlds like Second Life (Linden Lab, 2003) games, where it is clear, even to a casual visitor, that there are few, if any, specific game-objectives. Various games can be created or organised inside it, but is not in itself a game, much the same way that a village piazza is not a game but games are often played on it. With Second Life this distinction is easy to argue, but what happens when we consider EVE Online (CCP Games, 2003) or any other MMOG, or for that matter Half-Life 2 (Valve Software, 2004b)? Are these games in the same way that table-tennis or fencing? Do analytical frameworks and theories established for games apply to digital as well as non-digital games? Answering these questions is not made easier by the variety of disciplinary perspectives, but working towards forming a consensus on such problematic issues constitutes an important step in establishing a stronger platform for research collaboration. Another way of reconciling disciplinary differences has been proposed by Aarseth (2006) in a recent paper titled Mapping the Madness: A Game Analysis Framework. The paper aims to counter the notion that studying games-as-texts is opposing or incompatible with studies focusing on the player. Aarseth offers a map of the sub-fields related to the study of games, whose aim is to identify varying approaches that revolve around the study of games and players: Ontological: The structural study of game components and configurations. Aesthetic: The study of games as art, its history, evolution, and use of artistic elements. Clinical/Sociological: The study of how games affect society and the individual. Critical: The study of games as a representation of an ideology or as part of a broader cultural phenomenon. 12

13 Utilitarian: The study of how games can be useful. Exploratory: The attempt to invent new and better games. Affirmative: To affirm an existing theoretical paradigm (p. 2). Aarseth stresses the importance of studies combining a number of these approaches, while admitting that certain combinations are more compatible than others. This outline is useful in signalling to entrants to the field the possible avenues for research that may be undertaken. It also serves the important function of acknowledging that diverse methodological approaches can be traced on a common map, thus hopefully dispelling a degree of antagonism that tends to develop from such when the same research object is approached from different disciplines. This thesis finds resonance with Aarseth s call for the necessity of a combined approach to games (p. 5) and locates itself at the intersection of the ontological and clinical/sociological sub-fields. A game theory of games? In a famous editorial of the first academic journal on digital games titled Game Studies, Aarseth proclaims 2001 as the first year of Computer Game Studies as an emerging, viable, academic field (Aarseth, 2001). The claim rests on three important events in the history of game research: the first conference dedicated to the study of digital games is held, the first postgraduate programs are offered in universities and the first issue of a peerreviewed journal dedicated to games is published online. In this editorial Aarseth states that Game Studies 4 needs to be established as a discipline related to but independent of other disciplines like Media Studies, English, Sociology and computer science, among others. The proclamation of independence by Game Studies is based on the assertion that theories developed by other disciplines cannot be applied without modification to digital games because the latter have intrinsically different qualities to media texts studied in these disciplines. This point was made by Aarseth in Cybertext:Perspectives on Ergodic Literature where he states that: The cybertext reader is a player, a gambler; the cybertext is a game-world or worldgame; it is possible to explore, get lost, and discover secret paths in these texts, not metaphorically, but through the topological structures of the textual machinery. This is not a difference between games and literature but rather between games and 13

14 narratives. To claim that there is no difference between games and narratives is to ignore essential qualities of both categories (pp. 4-5). Frasca (1999) expands Aarseth s call for exploring the specific qualities of games and applies term ludology to define a discipline that studies game and play activities. In order to sustain this claim for separation from other disciplines Game Studies needs to create a sustainable game definition that indicates clearly what the factors are that constitute this crucial difference, what Juul (2003) has called the heart of gameness. Comprehensive reviews of previous game definitions have been made by Juul, in Half-Real (2005) and Salen and Zimmerman (2003) in Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Rather than rehashing their work I will summarize their conclusions. Salen and Zimmerman define games as follows: A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome (p. 80). They isolate six elements: system, players, artificiality, conflict, rules and quantifiable outcomes. According to Salen and Zimmerman, all games are intrinsically systems (p. 50). They define a system as a set of things that affect one another within an environment to form a larger pattern that is different from any of the individual parts (p. 50). Players are a crucial constituent of the game which is experienced by interacting with its system. The third element, the artificial aspect of games, refers to a mode of experience different from everyday life. This is related to the concept of the magic circle coined by Huizinga (1955) in Homo Ludens, the implications of which will be discussed more fully later in this chapter. The fourth element is conflict; all games embody a contest of powers (80). Conflict encompasses both competition and collaboration with other players as well as conflict with a game system (such as the case in solo games). Rules are seen as being essential to games enabling play through defining what players can and cannot do. A quantifiable outcome or goal means that at the end of a game a player has either won, lost or at least received some sort of numerical score. This element distinguishes games from play, which has no quantifiable outcome. Juul creates a model for defining games which he calls the classic game model (Juul, 2005, p. 22). His aim is to create a definition that applies both to non-digital and digital games and in so doing show the relationship between them. 14

15 A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable (p. 36). This definition is built on six constituent elements: Rules, variable and quantifiable outcome, valorisation of outcome, player effort, player attachment to outcome and negotiable consequences. Juul argues that because rules can be computed by a machine or enforced by human participants, they are the common factor linking digital and non-digital games. Games are therefore transmedial. This is a term that Juul uses to drive home the point that games are not restricted to any particular medium or objects. Chess can be played with the classic pieces, marked bottle tops on a board made of sand or through a computer. In his account, the rules constitute the system of relations which is the game, and these rules are independent of the media by which effect is given to the rules. Rules also create the possibility of a variable and quantifiable outcome. This refers to a definitive state of affairs which is objectively final at the end of the game and is valorised by the players involved. Some of the possible outcomes are objectively better than others and therefore harder to obtain, and these valued outcomes are a result of player effort. The rules of the game define which player actions can influence the state of the game and thus its outcome. The player has to therefore invest some amount of effort for the game to actually occur. This effort will tend to result in an attachment to the outcome of the game. Winning is favoured over losing and yields more pleasure. Juul states that this element of the definition is less formal than the others and is dependent on the player s attitude. Finally the consequences of the game are negotiable. Games can therefore be optionally assigned consequences that reach beyond the domain of the game. Juul adds a proviso for this element of his definition by saying that the consequences can be varied per game session. Juul provides a diagram that maps a number of activities in three concentric circles: games, borderline cases and not games. Traffic, hypertext fiction and free-form play are examples of non-game activities. Pen and paper role-playing games (hereafter referred to as RPGs 5 ), games of pure chance and open-ended simulations like Simcity (Maxis Software, 1989) are 15

16 borderline cases because they do not satisfy all six categories of the classic game model. Juul s discussion does not clarify what the difference between the status of borderline games and non-games implies for game analysis. They are both considered activities that fall outside the classic game model. Juul is however explicit about the fact that the latter is no longer an adequate model to understand games because of the development of games like RPGs and the majority of video games: The classic game model is no longer all there is to games. With the appearance of role-playing games, where a game can have rules interpreted by a game master, and with the appearance of video games, the game model is being modified in many ways (p. 52). The usefulness of this model is therefore not in creating a strict taxonomy of what constitutes a game and what does not, but rather, as Juul himself states, it provides a barebones description of the field of games; it explains why computers and games work well together; it explains why games are trans-medial and it points to some recent developments in games (p. 54). He performs the important function of laying the foundation for a formal perspective on traditional games while highlighting how digital media are changing this conception. By admitting that this model has its limitations in the context of contemporary developments in digital games Juul implies that we need to ask how video games deviate from this model; what aspects of games like Half-Life 2, (Valve Software, 2004b) The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Bethesda Softworks LLC., 2006)or World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004) are omitted when the classic games model is applied to their analysis? Ludology and its discontents A number of theorists working with games have objected to Game Studies and its aim of creating a game theory of games. Opposition to Game Studies can be traced back to its declared inception in 2001 (Aarseth, 2001) in the form of the narratology versus ludology debate. These two positions have been discussed across a number of game conferences and papers as well as being a central focus of First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game (Wardrip-Fruin & Harrigan, 2003), which includes a good primer to the debate. The main thread of the discussion related to the centrality of narrative in game analysis. 16

17 The ludologists held that narrative is an important aspect of games but not the dominant element and thus a direct application of narrative theory to the analysis of games would not yield a sufficiently well rounded account. The narratologists, for their part, claimed that digital games are part of a long tradition of textual representation designed to tell stories that can be studied using narrative theory. A related disagreement between the two camps relates to the ludologists claim for a creation of a separate field of Game Studies which the narratolgists feel is not a necessary institutional move. It is worth noting that the ludologists have been both the strongest voice in the discussion as well as the more identifiable group. It has also been recently claimed by Murray that the whole discussion was in fact a form of academic monologue created and fuelled by the ludologists: The ludology v narratology argument cannot be resolved because one group of people is defining both sides of it. The ludologists are debating a phantom of their own creation (Murray, 2005). Despite Murray s claims the argument has abated considerably in recent years with both sides admitting that there were considerable misunderstandings which interfered with positioning the discussion to more neutral ground. At the 2003 Level Up Conference, Frasca delivered a paper with the aim of clearing some of the confusion that arose around the discussion. In it he claims that the ludologists, referring specifically to himself, Juul, Aarseth and Eskelinen, do not reject narrative and goes on to give examples of how each of them has highlighted the importance of considering narrative theory when considering games. He also feels, like Tosca (2003) before him, that accusations of academic separatism levelled against ludologists are unfair, especially when one takes into consideration the multiple perspectives published in Computer Game Studies, the journal which is most commonly associated with the ludologists. Frasca claims that the term narratologist, as it has been used in Game Studies, varies from its wider application outside it: The de facto definition of a narratologist in this so called debate seems to be a scholar that either claims that games are closely connected to narrative and/or that they should be analysed at least in part- through narratology. However, the widely accepted definition of narratologist in the Humanities is- a scholar who studies 17

18 narrativology, a set of theories of narrative that are independent of the medium of representation (Frasca, 2003). He therefore feels that it would be helpful to keep the term narratologist to its established use and follow Mateas (2002) suggestion to use the term narrativist to refer to a scholar who uses narrative and literary theory as a foundation upon which to build a theory of interactive media (p. 34). Frasca also notes how, in the ludology/narratology debate, the ludologists are identified yet the narrativists are not. The debate tends to revolve around the ludologists, with counterarguments made to their statements rather than vice versa. One reason for this is that the label of narratology has tended to represent the varied groups that disagree with the often clearly stated views of the ludologists, rather than define a specific position itself. The question of narrative, once one digs beneath the surface claims made in the tired debate, as it has been often called (Steinkeuhler, 2006; Tosca, 2003), detracts attention from the more considerable epistemological and methodological conflicts between the ludologists and various other clusters of interest. This opinion has been articulated by Burke (2004) who situates the debate as within the context of a general tension in academia between ontological views that privilege the textual and those that privilege practice: What the debate boils down to in many cases is an assertion by some scholars that there is a (social or otherwise) reality which has an ontological status that cannot be reductively encompassed as text or representation. Those who argue this might concede that we might benefit at times from understanding practice or experience or society as texts, but that to make this out to be more than a provisional heuristic or metaphor, to begin to believe that text or representation is ontology, that it is turtles all the way down, is a big mistake. Burke explains that the ludologists have stated that the representational and narrative aspects of games are important while emphasising concrete practice of their consumption: the experience of play. The other aspect to the debate is a methodological one, according to Burke. He sympathizes with the concerns expressed by Aarseth, Juul, Eskelinen and Frasca with regards to the emphasis placed by a number of game scholars on representational elements of games at the expense of a serious consideration of game rules and mechanics: 18

19 In the context of games criticism, this tendency might lead to a narratologist placing enormous interpretative weight on the fact that most first-person shooters are structured by conflicts between the player s avatar and small groups of three to six enemies, seeing this as a narrative choice that has authorial intent behind it, that can be related to various similar kinds of narratives in other media The problem is that the narratological kinship between Die Hard and first-person-shooters is a much more complicated matter in its actual historical evolution. If anything, when first-person-shooters first appeared with narratological structure that resembled the narrative of action films, to some extent that content was a superficial add-on rather than a deep structure of game-play, a kind of narratological skin If some academics interested in games have protested about narratology, this style of writing is often what they re really talking about, rather than criticising a very legitimate and important kind of games criticism which focuses on the narrative structure of a game, or on the larger ways the narrative functions in games and between games, or legitimate and necessary concerns with the meaning and content of games. Burke further states that this mis-application of theory is related to a lack of engagement with the object of study, in this case games. Like Aarseth before him (Aarseth, 2003), he criticises academics who write about games without having played and analysed them first. This fresh perspective on the discussion teases out the focal points without getting caught up in overly personal and somewhat petty skirmishes. 6 If current discussion has moved on from the ludology/narratology debate, the underlying tensions that Burke outlines have not abated. The view of Game Studies as a separate discipline, or even that games require specific analytical theories that take into account their game structure, or gameness, have been ardently refuted by media studies theorists with an interest in games. In a review of Juul s book in Convergence, Wilson (2006) succinctly summarises another dimension of the debate: Designers, gamers and writers have gotten along without the crystalline purity of an idea of gameness or a neo-structural account of the relation between rules and fiction; perhaps the job of the academic aesthetician is to generate informed, sensitive evaluations of particular games on their own terms rather than abstract 19

20 prescriptions. Apart from delaying the advent of an academic criticism that might be useful to those designing games, or learning how to, one is left wondering what precisely is at stake in this late bloom of ludology (Wilson, 2006). Wilson summarises the tension on the two axes of difference I referred to earlier: diversity among the games being discussed and disciplinary methodologies used to study them. If the breadth of variety in objects that are called games is unquestionable, attempts at defining common characteristics by Juul, Salen, Zimmerman are an important step in the development of game theory. I believe that such work is crucial for creating a theoretical framework for the study of games. What is important to keep in mind, both by the creators of such frameworks and their critics, is that theories are likely to remain provisional. The processes of identifying characteristics common to all games, and of building theoretical frameworks should be mutually supportive. A critical issue however is whether digital and non-digital games can be fully accommodated within the one framework. The specific characteristics of digital games If all games share a set of common characteristics, (one of the founding concepts of Game Studies as a separate field) then theories created for the analysis of non-digital game such as boardgames, cardgames and sports, should be applicable to digital games such as console, computer and mobile games. But there is as much disagreement between those who support this position and those who argue that digital games are distinctive as there has been among narratologists and ludologists. Bryce and Rutter (2006), for example, direct harsh criticism at Game Studies theorists seeking to form a separate discipline on the basis that the qualities described as unique are not in fact specific to games at all: Wolf stresses the aesthetic content of digital games to suggest that research into digital games adds new concepts to existing ideas in moving image theory, such as those concerning the game s interface, player action, interactivity, navigation, and algorithmic structures (2001:3). However, this emphasis on discontinuity prevents any significant comparison with other new technologies. Digital games (or rather their design and play) may well draw on the issues Wolf highlights but are they really unique in doing so? Do many of these issues have equal relevance to other 20

21 forms of multimedia design, head-up display in fighter planes (or racing driver s helmets) and programming structures in general? (p. 7). Just to mention one of the many points that can be deployed against this argument, a headup display is an interface designed to aid processing of information in the context of a very immediate material environment with terminal consequences, while digital games are virtual environments that include but are not reducible to, the interface. Making a case for an equivalence between fighter plane HUDs confuses two categorically different objects: the game s interface is only one component of the media object in question, while the HUD fully constitutes the object studied. Bryce and Rutter also critique Aarseth, as the most famous proponent (p. 10) of Game Studies on the grounds that he considers digital games to be intrinsically different (p. 8) from other games. This is a rather odd claim to make about a discipline that is founded on the view that the medium in which a game is played is not a distinguishing factor, what Juul has called the transmedial nature of games (Juul, 2005, p. 48). In their fervour to attack Game Studies, Bryce and Rutter seem to have overlooked the fact that it is exactly because theorists like Aarseth, Juul, Frasca and Eskelinen (among others) argue for a continuity between digital and non-digital games that they have been most heavily criticised. Bogost (2006) in his book on comparative video criticism Unit Operations, makes clear from the outset that he does not feel it is appropriate to create a methodology for game analysis without separating digital from non-digital games: When I speak of videogames, I refer to all the varieties of digital artefacts created and played on arcade machines, personal computers, and home consoles. Although videogames follow in the long tradition of parlour games, table games, pub games, and the many varieties of board games evolving from classic games like chess and Go, their necessary relation ends at this bit of common history (p. xiii). This work argues that digital games require specific theoretical models that account for their digitally mediated nature. Bryce and Rutter (2006) argue that this mediation can take forms other than digital: 21

22 As a games-related example, think of a simple shooting gallery game, such as one of the numerous Flash and shareware games that can be found on the Internet. As a game, this could be compared and contrasted with a game in which rocks are thrown at cans staked along the top of the fence. It may be clear that the digital game is a technological simulation of the low technology version of the game. In the digital game, technology replaces the physical action of throwing. However, by replacing the rocks with the shooting of an air rifle, we can mediate the throwing action with technology without going digital (p. 8). Equating shooting of an air rifle with moving cross-hairs on a screen and pressing mouse buttons to shoot targets made entirely of flickering signifiers (Hayles, 1999, p. 30) ignores the crucial fact that one is an activity in the material world, while the other is a simulation of such an activity engaged through a representational medium. The shooter of an air-rifle and the mouse clicker are fully aware of the different contexts of their actions making the two activities of a completely different experiential order. This is a perfect example of the critique that Burke levels against over-simplified skin level equations above. Applying the term mediation to digital game-play or rifle shooting ignores the crucial differences between a mediated activity in a wholly designed, representational space and a mediated activity in the material domain. Finding a middle-ground Crogan (2004) similarly advocates an approach that treats digital games as distinctively different to non-digital games. Unlike a number of other theorists that are critical of the ludological approach he acknowledges the importance of their efforts in fuelling the development and discussion in Game Studies. He argues that the problem with the ludological perspective is the exclusion of theories derived from textual (in the broader, cultural and media studies sense of the term) studies which inevitably informs the perspectives of the ludologists. He proposes a middle ground method that brings together theories that treat game aspects of digital games in conjunction with other work done in related fields: I nevertheless believe that the ludological insistence on the game as game points to something very significant about the specificity of games in comparison to 22

23 narrative-based media works. Hence, in the remainder of this paper, I would like to take a slightly different position in the ludology debate- that is, not one in simple opposition to the ludological stance. Rather, I propose to pursue a line of inquiry that departs from an acceptance in broad terms of the ludological approach, namely that narrative is insignificant to understanding what is of most concern for analysing a computer game as a game, that is, as a work that is played As with the analysis of other contemporary forms of entertainment, historical and contextual factors, including other media forms are relevant to this interrogation. One of the tasks would be precisely to understand the adoption by many (but not all) kinds of computer games of traditional media elements such as narrative, theme, character, and the representation of fictional worlds in a way that makes them necessary but secondary to the essential elements of game design and play. The texture and cultural inputs employed in digital games are worthwhile objects of consideration for this task, and this is so in spite of or even because of the fact that they play a different, less central role in games than in other media forms such as films, television programs and literature. The way they thematise their altered role in computer games can tell us important things about the ludological nature of computer games (p. 14). Although Crogan states that in the ludological approach narrative is insignificant in studying games, it is worth noting that when Frasca proposed the term ludology to be applied in the context of digital games (not games in general), he intended it to be used in conjunction with other theories, not as a replacement of them: Our main goal was to show how basic concepts of ludology could be used along with narratology to better understand videogames (Frasca, 1999). As was discussed above Frasca has also rejected the notion that the ludological perspective excludes narrative from the study of games. The theoretical views that Crogan proposes are closer to those of ludology than he admits. In fact, Juul s work has treated narrative structures in games, even in a book like Half-Real which is often cited as a bulwark of reductionist ludology. As Juul asserts in the opening pages of Half- Real the title refers to digital games as a hybrid of the game structures embodied in the rules and the fictional elements associated with textual elements: 23

24 In the title, Half-Real refers to the fact that video games are two different things at the same time: video games are real in that they consist of real rules with which players actually interact, and in that winning or losing a game is a real event. However, when winning a game by slaying a dragon, the dragon is not a real dragon but a fictional one. To play a video game is therefore to interact with real rules while imagining a fictional world, and a video game is a set of rules as well as a fictional world (Juul, 2005). In formulating the study of video games in such terms, Juul, like Crogan is attempting to bridge the divide between the textual/representational and the formal or essentialist notion of gameness. This move is also related to exploring the divergence between digital games and the classic game model, discussed earlier. When he states that digital games problematize the classic game model, he is foregrounding the need to weave the textual and representational with the rule-based structures. Juul s recognition that the classic game model cannot account for digital games is a crucial assertion of the nature of digital games as more complex media artefacts that can be partly described, but not wholly subsumed under a game definition, precisely because they tend to enable a wider potential for action and expression than is possible in more traditional games which provide the basis for the classical game model. Again, I will be clear about my stance: theoretical models like Juul s are essential to furthering our understanding of games, even if they do not account wholly for the object under scrutiny. If Juul admits that the classic game model is limited in its application in the context of recent game developments, Half-Real acknowledges, but does not resolve, a central problem of the model: the separability of the game from the everyday world. The next step in the process of creating a framework for game analysis cannot be accomplished by thinking in terms of dualisms: game/non-game, work/play, virtual/real. Such binary opposites create clear-cut boundaries which deter a richer understanding of the object of enquiry (Malaby, 2007; Taylor, 2006). These terms will be the principal focus of the rest of this chapter, but the need to move beyond a dualistic conceptualisation will be one of the prevalent threads of this work. 24

25 Thinking outside the circle Huizinga s work Homo Ludens has been a great influence on contemporary Game Studies. One of the key defining concepts of play in Huizinga s work, and one which has been adapted by contemporary Game Studies literature (Juul, 2005; Salen & Zimmerman, 2003), is the notion of the magic circle. Huizinga s (1955) original use of the term is related to the social and cultural pervasiveness of play: All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course The arena, the cardtable, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e., forbidden spots, isolated hedged round, hallowed within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart (p. 10). For Huizinga the term refers not solely to games but to a number of social contexts where social rules distinguish one particular type of social space from another. An important aim of Huizinga s work was to propose that play is not an activity that is limited to games but a salient aspect of all facets of human culture. Thus the magic circle according to Huizinga applies to play situations rather than to games specifically. The magic circle has been used in two related ways: as a separation of play from everyday life and a more formal separation of game-space from non-game-space. It has thus been applied to two different perspectives: the experiential and the formal. A number of theorists in Game Studies have adopted the concept and applied it without considering the wider discussion in which it was developed: Although the magic circle is merely one of the examples in Huizinga s list of play grounds, the term is used here as short-hand for the idea of a special place in time and space created by a game. The fact that the magic circle is just that-a circle-is an important feature of this concept. As a closed circle, the space it circumscribes is enclosed and separate from the real world Within the magic circle, special meanings accrue and cluster around objects and behaviours. In effect, a new reality 25

26 is created, defined by the rules of the game and inhabited by its players (Salen & Zimmerman, 2003, pp ) Juul also adopts the use of the magic circle, but differentiates between its status in the context of what he calls physical games like football or tennis and digital games. He applies the magic circle in a more specific formal capacity in terms of game-space. According to Juul, physical games and board games take place in a space which is a subset of the space of the world: The space in which the game takes place is a subset of the larger world, and a magic circle delineates the bounds of the game (Juul, 2005, p. 164). Digital games, however, are viewed as being circumscribed by the hardware devices that enable their representation: But in video games, the magic circle is quite well defined since a video game only takes place on the screen and using the input devices (mouse, keyboard, controllers) rather than in the rest of the world; hence there is no ball that can be out of bounds (pp ). Juul represents these two manifestations of the magic circles by the following diagrams: Real World Space Fictional World Game-space Real World Game-space Magic Circle Figure 1 : Juul's conception of the magic circle (pp ) Magic Circle The application of the magic circle to the formal consideration of what Juul calls physical games usefully outlines the boundary inside which the rules of the game apply. This boundary can be made up of spatial and/or social perimeters and is often also temporally defined. The game can be limited to a specific area such as a tennis court or fencing piste 26

27 or woven into the everyday world such as the case in Live Action Role-Playing Games (LARPs), treasure hunts and other forms of pervasive gaming. What creates the magic circle is therefore not necessarily the physical bounds but the agreed upon conventions of play defined by the rules. But in the case of digital games, where is the magic circle? Even from this formalist perspective, the concept becomes redundant when the game-space is equivalent to the entirety of the virtual space in which mediated action can take place. The separation Juul creates between the game-space and the fictional world is not particularly useful in digital game analysis, since there is in fact no traversable space outside the gamespace. The magic circle is useful in marking out an area where game rules apply. The utility of the magic circle as a spatial marker is its ability to differentiate domains of action where game rules apply from zones in which they do not. Since this is not relevant for digital games, the formal application of the magic circle in the context of their analysis is therefore redundant. The concept of the magic circle has also been applied to the experiential dimension of game-play. Within Game Studies, it is often taken as a given that game-play involves entering what Bernard Suits has called the lusory attitude (Suits, 1978). There are distinct problems with viewing the game-space as somehow separable from the everyday, especially when viewed from an experiential perspective. Any attempt to create a clean demarcation between the game-experience and the experience of the world (supposedly) external to it will be severely challenged to explain how the players personal and social histories can be excluded from the game activity. It is hardly possible for the game-space to block out the complexity of social and personal relation. The lived experience of the players invariably informs, to different degrees depending on circumstance, the experience of the game and vice versa. The clear demarcation of game-space from non-game-space becomes even more problematic when contemporary developments in digital games, like Massively Multiplayer Online Games (hereafter referred to as MMOGs), are considered. Activities like planning and coordinating 40 man raids in World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004), which include several hours of tedious farming 7 of items that will be needed to ensure the success of the raid, are often viewed as boring chores rather than pleasurable play. Nick Yee has collected a wealth of quantitative data on MMOG players and in a recent paper 27

28 published in Games and Culture he observes how MMOG playing can often feel like a second job: The average MMORPG 8 player spends 22 hours a week playing the game. And these are not only teenagers playing. The average MMORPG gamer is in fact 26 years old. About half of these players have a full time job. Every day, many of them go to work and perform an assortment of clerical tasks, logistical planning and management in their offices, then they come home and do those very same things in MMORPGs. Many players in fact characterize their game-play as a second job: It became a chore to play. I became defacto leader of a guild and it was too much. I wanted to get away from real life and politics and social etiquette followed me in (Yee, 2006b, p. 69). Further examples of the limitations of the magic circle come in a host of other forms: companies employing people to farm in-world gold and sell it on e-bay or offer character levelling services, social and cultural issues that crop up whenever you have masses of people interact in persistent environments, virtual worlds which require real money expenditure for the acquisition of virtual goods, such as Second Life (Linden Lab, 2003) or Project Entropia (MindArk, 2003) and more. Dibbell (2006) has written a compelling account of his forays in trade of virtual assets and gold. In order to investigate the phenomenon often referred to as real money trade or the exchange of virtual world items for widely accepted currency, Dibbell embarked upon a year long stint buying and selling property, goods and gold in the popular Ultima Online (Origin Systems, 1997) MMOG. Dibbell s Play Money is a self-reflexive meditation on the wide spectrum of experiences that MMOGs enable and the profound impact these experiences can have on a person s life. Dibbell describes how his engagement with Ultima Online transformed from a form of entertainment to a full time job. He uses his experiences to foreground the inadequacy of the magic circle and the application of the work/play binary to MMOGs. Malaby (2007) affirms these observations in his paper Beyond Play: A New Approach to Games, where he argues that games studies needs to move beyond the a priori association of games with concepts like fun and play. Malaby draws on a series of anthropological studies of play in various cultures to support his view that the separability of games from 28

29 everyday life and the related separation of play from work are not empirically tenable concepts. In Malaby s own ethnographic work with gamblers in Greece, it was clear that players of various games did not view games as separable from everyday life on the grounds of their being games. Here we have an example of how an aspect of Juul, Salen and Zimmerman s models does not hold up to practical application. The idea that games must have negotiable consequences is severely problematized when consequences are not related only to material gains but also to social issues like reputation and honour. In Malaby s ethnographic work, it was clear that even in non-gambling contexts, issues of cultural standing and social network are in fact highly consequential for the players involved. This goes counter to Roger Caillois (1962) view of games as a activities of pure waste (p. 5) where the pure space (p. 6) of the game should not be encroached upon by the outside world. All of the issues discussed above frustrate attempts to set firm boundaries between game and non-game, work and play. As useful as a neat separation between game and non-game might be from an analytical perspective, the above arguments and examples, derived both from theoretical and ethnographic work, demonstrate the severe shortcomings of such a concept when applied to the study of games, particularly in contemporary developments of multiplayer digital games. Writing about the magic circle (which he calls the membrane in the following quotation) in the context of MMOGs, Castronova (2005) similarly asserts that the clear demarcation between game and non-game, virtual and real, online and offline life is losing its utility: In each area, one can see that institutions outside the membrane have begun to formally validate institutions inside the membrane. In each case, it will be seen that the process by which this validation is occurring is driven by an interesting new behaviour pattern on the part of synthetic world users: they have begun to see no line whatsoever between their online activities and their offline activities. With all of this going on, where exactly is the line between game and life? Our culture has moved beyond the point where such distinctions are helpful (p. 148). 29

30 Although Castronova finds the magic circle problematic and tries to work around it by using the concept of the membrane, the rest of Synthetic Worlds is replete with references to a separability between virtual worlds (or synthetic worlds, in Castronova s terms) and the Earth. Castronova is unable to break out of the dualist conceptualisation of separability he earlier attempts to sidestep. He problematically sets virtual worlds apart from the Earth, the use of the latter term itself speaking volumes about the firm entrenchment in dualistic thinking of here/there, Earth/synthetic worlds. Furthermore, the Earth is associated with the destruction of otherwise beautiful fantasies that can be sustained in virtual worlds: When Earth s culture dominates, the game will be over, the fantasy will be punctured and the illusion will be ended for good Living there will no longer be any different from living here, and a great opportunity to play the game of human life under different, fantastical rules will have been lost (p. 196). The magic circle concept is typically applied to an area where game rules apply, therefore, favouring its use within a formal perspective as opposed to an experiential one. The question that follows is whether it is possible to consider one without the other. Can we consider game rules in isolation from social conventions in an MMOG, for example? One clearly informs the other in such a way that the game experience is strongly influenced by the rules and mechanics written into the designed environment. Although discussing game rules separate from the game experience is profitable for one level of analysis, we need to be careful not to let assumptions made in such a context spill over to the consideration of both aspects of game analysis. Salen and Zimmerman s (2003) implicit conceptual model suggests a dichotomous separation between game and non-game that is not wholly representative of contemporary gaming realities. Taylor (2006), in her work on MMOGs titled Play Between Worlds has emphasized the importance of re-thinking the concept of the magic circle in game analysis: While the notion of a magic circle can be a powerful tool for understanding some aspects of gaming, the language can hide (and even mystify) the much messier relationship that exists between spheres-especially in the realm of MMOGs The idea that somehow-be it to preserve the magic circle and free play, to tidy up 30

31 tricky property rights questions, or to ease an anxiety born of the space s indeterminacy-we can shore up the line between the virtual and real world or between game and non-game seems to pop up more frequently in conversation (and sometimes scholarship). It often sounds as if for play to have any authenticity, meaning, freedom, or pleasure, it must be cordoned off from real life. In this regard, MMOG (and more generally, game) studies has much to learn from past scholarship. Thinking of either game or nongame-space as contained misses the flexibility of both (p. 152). One approach to overcoming the distinctions that Taylor states are problematic has been proposed by Malaby (2007) who suggests that we view games from a processual perspective. One of the first thing we must recognize is that games are processual. Each game is an ongoing process. As it is played it always contains the potential for generating new practices and new meanings, possibly refiguring the game itself (p. 8). The term processual refers to the potential of change in every engagement and favours a dynamic and recursive view of games. This means that, in contrast to a taxonomic approach, a processual one allows for the identification of persistent features of games without the need to separate them qualitatively from other domains of experience. Malaby stresses the importance of replacing rules as a starting point for game analysis. He points out the different nature of game rules from social or bureaucratic rules. The latter are intended to reduce unpredictability across cases (p. 8),while game rules are intended to do the opposite: they are about contriving and calibrating multiple contingencies to produce a mix of predictable and unpredictable outcomes (which are then interpreted) (p. 9). Malaby formulates games as processes that create carefully designed unpredictable circumstances that have meaningful, culturally shared, yet open-ended interpretations. Therefore both the game practice and the meaning it generates are subject to change. Malaby goes on to define games in terms of four types of contrived contingency : stochastic contingency, social contingency, performative contingency, semiotic contingency. Stochastic contingency refers to the random elements in games. This ranges from dice rolling to weather at a football game or lag in online gaming. Thus stochastic 31

32 contingency can be designed into a game, such as the rolling of dice in boardgames, or be extraneous to the designed intent of the game (such as the weather in an open air game). Social contingency refers to the unpredictability of the choices and decisions made by other players, whether in collaboration or opposition. Making informed deductions about the actions of other players is a key element in most games. Performative contingency refers to the execution of actions by game participants, and is thus related to the ability to carry out intended actions. This can cover anything from the athletic prowess of a runner to the technical skill of a fencer, the gaming ability of a Counter-Strike Source (Valve Software, 2004a) player, or the simple act of counting the right number of spaces in a game of Monopoly (Darrow, 1935). Finally, semiotic contingency refers to the unpredictability of meaning that is involved in interpreting the game s outcomes. As Taylor (2006) and Malaby (2007) have noted, recent developments in networked gaming, particularly in the case of MMOGs, are raising new issues with a number of assumptions in Game Studies. The advantage of Malaby s model is that it is applicable to a wide variety of games and virtual worlds without reducing them to a prescribed formula. The greatest asset of Malaby s model is that it is not built on dualistic and formulaic assumptions making it a flexible and adaptive starting point for other work to build on. The nature of the game In the course of his paper, Malaby makes a point that embodies one of the more problematic issues in formulating game theories: The essential point, then, is that games are grounded in (and constituted by) human practice, and are therefore always in the process of becoming (p. 7) Games can be approached from a variety of perspectives, but one element that is vital to any theoretical framework that seeks to give a full account of their nature is the role of human agents in configuring the particular instantiation of the game: Since a game is a process rather than an object, there can be no game without players playing (Aarseth, 2003, p. 2). In Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Aarseth (1997) adopts the term ergodic to signify the effort required by the reader, who Aarseth calls the 32

33 operator, to actively configure the cybertext into being. He stresses the need to separate the active reader from the operator in the cybertextual context: The concept of cybertext focuses on the mechanical organization of the text, by positing the intricacies of the medium as an integral part of the literary exchange. However, it also centres attention on the consumer, or user, of the text, as a more integrated figure than even reader-response theorists would claim. The performance of their reader takes place all in his head, while the user of cybertext also performs in an extranoematic sense This phenomenon I call ergodic, using a term appropriated from physics that derives from the Greek words ergon and hodos, meaning work and path. In ergodic literature, non-trivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text (p. 1). The non-trivial effort required from the user is an important cornerstone of a theoretical model of digital games. Aarseth also places importance on the role of code as a component of the signs perceived by the user, as well as the specificity of the material medium. This gives three factors whose interplay yields the cybertext: human operator, (verbal) sign and medium. These form a matrix where each of the vertices effects and is effected by the other two. Although Aarseth included (text-based) computer games in the category of cybertexts, the aim of the work was not to define digital games specifically, but to demonstrate that the cybertextual perspective could be applied to them. The triadic matrix that Aarseth posits more generally for cybertexts is a useful starting point for a basic framework charting the relationship between the salient elements that make up the digital game process. Such a specific application could also benefit from an expansion and clarification of terms more appropriate to the digital gaming situation. To keep with the terminology prevalent in the field, I will use the term player to refer to the human operator. As has been discussed above and will become clearer from later chapters, the use of the term should not be limited to the characteristics commonly attributed to play. The player end of the matrix also includes the social and cultural contexts that have an important formative role in the individual s disposition prior and during engagement with the digital game. 33

34 The specificity of the material instantiation of the game (i.e. the medium) needs to be taken into consideration. Even if the same game is being discussed, its incarnation on the Playstation 2 and a PC will influence its form and experience to varying degrees. Playing a real time strategy game using a Playstation 2 controller makes for a very different game than playing the same title on a PC using a mouse, for example. Different types of hardware also allow for different social contexts in which the games are played, for example Nintendo DS systems are handheld devices small enough to fit into a jacket pocket and easily connected via infra-red ports, permitting a wider variety of contexts and thus different experiences, than, for example, a home PC enables. The third element of the framework, the sign, will here refer to the more general sense of a signifying entity whether this is alphanumeric text, imagery or sound, as opposed to Aarseth s (necessary) qualification of the sign as a strictly verbal one. The role of the sign therefore refers to the interpretable, surface representational elements that players read in order to be able to interact with the virtual environment. But as Aarseth outlines clearly, the role of the surface sign (p. 40) has strong relations to the function of the internal code that generates it. The examples that Aarseth uses in Cybertext might express this idea more clearly. There are a number of texts that are actualised as the result of more than one level of textuality: the play is a performance of the play s script; a literary text read out loud is an audible derivative of the printed book. Aarseth differentiates the processual production of cybernetic signs from these examples by referring to the relationship between code and its interpretative surface as nontrivial : they are both intrinsic to each other as opposed to the above examples whose relationship he calls trivial, meaning that one level of manifestation is a derivative of the other (theatrical performance of a play script etc). The nontrivial relationship between the code and the interpretable sign makes the cybernetic sign of a different order than conventional signs. When this is applied to digital games, the programming code performs two structural functions: upholding the rules of the game (in the conventional, non-digital sense of the term) and implementing the mechanics of the virtual environment. The game rules and the environment s mechanics shape each other s design depending on the scope of the game or virtual environment being created. The former cannot be implemented without the latter while the latter is at times defined by the former. I thus propose to foreground the coded structures made up of game rules and 34

35 environment mechanics as a fourth category in the matrix. The resulting framework can be expressed in the following diagram: Figure 2: The Digital Game Matrix The diagram represents the four constituent elements of digital games. The diagram is also applicable to the more general category of virtual environments by removing game rules from the coded structure element. It might be useful to foreground an approach which views digital games as being games in virtual environments (Aarseth, 2003, p. 3). This conceptualisation accounts for the fact that the artefacts we call digital games, video games or computer games 9 are virtual environments whose design is informed, to varying degrees, by a set of game elements. In some cases, these game elements are so closely aligned with the affordances for action in the environment that the two can be seen as being one and the same while in other cases the game elements account only for a segment of the activities possible within them. Let us consider a game like Half-Life 2. (Valve Software, 2004b) Although it includes a number of game elements (as defined by Juul, Salen and Zimmerman, for example), players are free to ignore these and decide to wander around the environment taking appealing screenshots, making movies or seeing what happens when they throw soda cans at police officers. The environment that Half-Life 2 makes available for players to interact with is not delimited by its game objectives. Counter- Strike (Valve Software, 1998a), the popular mod 10 that sprung out of Half-Life (Valve Software, 1998b), 35

36 is similarly a virtual environment with a game implemented in it. Here, however, the game aspects are more clearly defined: there are specified limits to when rounds start and end, specific goals to be attained by the two teams, points scoring criteria, and so on. The virtual environments in which action in such online multiplayer first-person shooters (FPSs) takes place are called maps and are designed with these game-rules in mind. Despite these restrictions, players can still decide to ignore the game rules and, for example, holster their weapons, meet in a central location and have a chat. This is not what the environment was built for, but of course there is nothing stopping players from utilising it in this way aside from the round s time limits (if these are enabled from the server administrators). More importantly, players may also decide to replace the specified game with games of their own devising. One example which I have witnessed a few times on Maltese Counter-Strike servers is a variant of football, where players shoot a specific can into a defined goal area 11. Players used the same maps and code for Counter-Strike and made their own rules, thereby transforming the game without changing the environment. In a sense, therefore, Counter-Strike is two things at the same time: a game with a specific set of rules and a virtual environment in which those rules may be carried out, or not. Another case of players making use of the virtual environments provided to create their own games can be observed on some Battlefield 2142 (Digital Illusions CE., 2006) servers. The game is a typical online multiplayer FPS where two teams attempt to capture objectives and hold them for as long as possible to win each round of the game. Unlike Counter-Strike, the Battlefield (Digital Illusions CE., 2002) series lets players drive land, air and sea vehicles. The latest in the Battlefield series includes buggies that have a special speed boost ability, making them incredibly fast and consequently hard to control, not to mention susceptible to crashing and blowing up or rolling over. Although the previous titles in the Battlefield series included similar vehicles, they were not made to drive as fast, have as realistic physics or be, in simple terms, so much fun to drive. This led players to ignore the entire scope of the game and hold races in maps which presented particularly challenging courses. By expanding our view of the artefacts we call digital games to virtual environments that have the potential of generating forms of designed experience, we displace the emphasis of the discussion from problematic binary pairings such as work/play, game/non-game, real/virtual. This does not mean that concepts such as games, rules, play or fiction are not important to discussion, but that the assumptions built into the above pairings are restricting 36

37 the robustness of current theoretical frameworks. The limitations of previous approaches that focus on these binaries are becoming particularly evident with the advent of online multiplayer gaming, especially where MMOGs are concerned. MMOGs challenge established game definitions, severely blur the boundary between work and play (Dibbell, 2006; Taylor, 2006), and above all, highlight their status as important domains of social and cultural practice, (Malaby, 2007). The next chapter will therefore investigate in more detail the general characteristics of virtual environments and virtual worlds, of which digital games and MMOGs, respectively, are important constituents. 4 As there is some disagreement to whether Game Studies should be viewed as an academic field separate related to but separate from established disciplines, I will use Game Studies synonymously with Ludology to refer to this proposed new discipline, and study of games, or Game Studies with no capitals to refer to the general study of games in whatever field this might be located. 5 For ease of reference I will use the term RPGs to refer to pen and paper RPGs and digital RPGs to refer to their computer and console cousins. 6 For an example of how unproductive and personal this discussion can become see the debate between Marku Eskelinen and Julian Kucklich featured as part of the online version of First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game (Wardrip-Fruin & Harrigan, 2003) 7 Farming refers to the activity of mechanical harvesting resources or repeatedly killing mobs that are known to drop items, materials or gold as a goal in itself. 8 MMORPG stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. This term is sometimes used interchangeably with MMOG or Massively Multiplayer Online Game. The former is a subset of the latter which includes other MMO genres such as MMOFPS or Massively Multiplayer Online First Person Shooter and MMORTS, Massively Multiplayer Online Real Time Strategy. I will be using the term MMOG to refer to all these genres of online games. 9 I am using the term digital game as a blanket term covering games played on computers, consoles, hand held and other devices. 10 Mod is short for modification, referring to alterations made to published digital games by the general public. These can be entirely new games in themselves or more minor changes made to existing or new items, weapons, characters, enemies, models, modes, textures, levels, storylines and game modes. 11 The interesting thing here is that shooting other players is considered a foul and players are penalised by being sent off the field. The usual aim of hitting other players avatars becomes an undesirable action, inverting the normal rules of the game. 37

38 Chapter 2: The Virtual The previous chapter conceptualised digital games as particular types of virtual environments and MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) as forms of virtual worlds. These terms virtual environment and virtual world are often used interchangeably. More problematically they also tend to be confused with categorically different phenomena such as virtual reality and virtual communities. The vague application of these terms tends to conflate diverse technologies and their associated practices. Although this is unavoidable in popular discourse, it creates serious problems in academic contexts where clarity of terminological meaning is necessary. This becomes even more important when it comes to objects of inquiry that are of interest to a wide range of disciplines. For the sake of clarity I will therefore outline how I will be using each of these terms in this thesis. Virtual reality and virtual community can be seen as categorically different from virtual environments and virtual worlds, while the distinction between the last two is one of emphasis. Virtual Reality Since Lanier coined the term virtual reality in 1986, it has been applied to such a wide range of objects and experiences as to have lost any technical and academic specificity. The media applied it to marketing any number of diverse goods, most of which bear no relation to the actual technology. Academia has adopted the concept to signify everything from alternate universes (Thompson, 2003) or hallucinogenic drug induced experiences (Rushkoff, 1994), to a techno-mediated reinvention of the everyday (Rheingold, 1992) or, in its narrower sense, a specific type of communication system (Sherman & Craig, 2003). Heim emphasises the need to retain the technical specificity of the term: When we talk about virtual reality, we have to keep in mind that it is indeed a technology, not simply a nebulous idea. It s not synonymous with illusion or mirage or hallucination. Virtual reality is not a state of consciousness or a simulated drug trip (Heim, 1998, p. 4). 38

39 A review of the academic literature that uses the concept of virtual reality yields three major approaches for its use. At times the three are used interchangeably by the same author making it impossible to attribute each approach to specific domains of practice or analysis. These three approaches constitute a spectrum with a conception of virtual reality independent of computing technology on one end to a conception of virtual reality as a type of computing hardware, on the other. Virtual reality in its broadest application has been used to refer to domains of experience which are perceived as being other to the experience of everyday life. This has included phenomena such as dreams and altered states of perception, often in conjunction with the use of psychedelic substances or shamanic practices (Ascott, 2000; Davis, 1998; Rushkoff, 1994). Another use of the concept of virtual reality that excludes its specific technological incarnation is often found in philosophical analyses of post-modernity. Here virtual reality becomes a vague trope standing in for what Baudrillard (1983), has called the order of simulation. The problem with this use of the term is the bland ubiquity with which it can be applied. It seems to operate as a techno-savvy replacement for cultural, artistic and philosophical concerns engendered by the media at large. Botz-Bornstein (2004), for example, applies virtual reality to anything from dream-like states of mind to the transformation of the self through lifestyle and clothing choices: Eternity can be simultaneously attained through cloning and the consistent integration of "virtual reality" into one's life. Both cloning and virtual reality serve to stop time in order to transform it into something aesthetic. This is not simply an aesthetization or a stylization but, in a way more efficient than it has been possible for preceding generations, it represents the creation of a "life style" as something absolute. The texts and images demonstrate the proximity of the idea of cloning and the realm of dream as well as of the virtual: how dreamlike must be a world peopled with clones, and how consistently is virtual reality working towards the "realization" of this aim (Botz-Bornstein, 2004). The above quotation was taken from an essay about Diesel jeans titled Save Yourself where Botz-Bornstein relates the expressionless, wax-like features to the contemporary 39

40 ideals of beauty, health and youth with a process of bio-engineering and computer technology he calls the clony-virtual dreamsphere. His meandering application of the term virtual reality displays a lack of consistency within his own writing as well as a lack of specificity with regards to the technology being discussed. For the scope of this work, such a broad conceptualisation of virtual reality is too vague to have any discursive traction and will thus be avoided. A second use of the term virtual reality tends to focus on the radical expansion of mediated experiences possible through these technologies, promising a near-future where virtual reality technologies will allow users to create, share and interact with multi-sensorial representations derived seamlessly from their imagination: Virtual Reality will use your body s movements to control whatever body you choose to have in Virtual Reality, which might be human or be something different. You might very well be a mountain range of a galaxy or a pebble on the floor. Or a piano I ve considered being a piano You could become a comet in the sky one moment and then gradually unfold into a spider that s bigger than the planet that looks down at all your friends from high above (Lanier quoted in Biocca et al., 1995, pp. 4-5) The second approach to virtual reality often confuses the potential of the technology with the experiences it is able to engineer in actuality. The important distinction in this second view is that the actual technology to which the term refers is included in the consideration. Proponents of this view tend to see virtual reality as an experience rather than a technology. Biocca et al. state this succinctly in the phrase: Virtual reality is not a technology; it is a destination (Biocca et al., 1995, p. 4). Steur places stronger emphasis on the experiential when he states: It is possible to define virtual reality without reference to particular hardware. The key to defining virtual reality in terms of human experience rather than technological hardware is the concept of presence. Presence can be thought of as the experience of one s physical environment; it refers not to one s surroundings as they exist in the physical world, but to the perception of these surroundings as 40

41 mediated by both automatic and controlled mental processes. Presence is defined as the sense of being in an environment (Steuer, 1992, p. 75). There are several problematic assumptions in this view of experience, but as the experiential phenomenon that Steuer is referring to is the central concern of this work, these assumptions will be discussed in greater detail in chapter 3. For the scope of our discussion here, using virtual reality as the stand-in for a form of mediated experience such as presence, or its cousin term immersion, has the dual problem of confusing these already illdefined experiential terms as well as negating the technological dimensions that define virtual reality in its stricter sense. In this work I will therefore restrict my use of the term virtual reality to its third and more specific application following Sherman and Craig s definition: Virtual reality is a medium composed of interactive computer simulations that sense the participants position and actions and replace or augment the feedback to one or more sense, giving the feeling of being mentally immersed or present in the simulation (Sherman & Craig, 2003, p. 13). This definition of virtual reality is specific enough to allow us to differentiate between different kinds of computer representations and the experiences they afford. Using Sherman and Craig s definition, we can readily differentiate between playing a game on a standard home PC or console to playing a game on a virtual reality system and discuss the differences and overlaps in experience between the two using a specific register. Virtual communities Virtual communities are constituted by a number of individuals that share a particular interest (whether this is related to a specific activity or a social end in itself) that communicate regularly through computer networking technologies like online chat rooms, newsgroups, message boards, networked games or graphical virtual worlds. These groups vary hugely in size, social intimacy and frequency of participation but all provide a sense of social togetherness for remotely located individuals. 41

42 The distinction from virtual environments is therefore a categorical one. Virtual communities can meet in virtual environments or virtual worlds but the spatial metaphor that is a distinguishing characteristic of these is not an essential aspect of community. The emphasis here is on the connection between individuals, while the terms environment and world foreground spatiality as well as sociality. A group of people that play together regularly in the World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004) MMOG is called a guild. Guilds are examples of virtual communities, while Azeroth is the virtual world in which World of Warcraft is set. Virtual environments and virtual worlds This section will give a definition of virtual environments and their relationship to digital games. As discussed in the previous chapter, virtual environments can be expressed as a matrix constituted of the user, medium, representational sign and coded mechanics. The digital games discussed in this thesis add game rules as a constituent element of this matrix, following Aarseth s view of digital games as games in virtual environments (Aarseth, 2003). Out of the terms discussed above, virtual worlds and environments are the two which are most often used interchangeably within popular and academic discussions of computer generated spaces. Klastrup (2004) notes the difficulties facing the researcher of virtual worlds when the terminology used is unclear. She rightfully argues that if we want to discuss specific environments with specific properties, it is important not to foster misjudgement by choosing wrong terminology (p. 20). Although the terms are used widely in discussions of computer mediated technology, it is surprising to find that the kind of conscious terminological reflection that Klastrup employs is typically lacking. The diversity of application of these terms makes an effort at cataloguing their use in various academic literatures over the years a largely redundant enterprise. This terminological confusion is related to the metaphorical nature of terms like environment and world imported into computing contexts. If the commonalities of these terms outside of computing contexts are central to considering these two terms, it is 42

43 just as important to acknowledge that the reason for the importation into such a context is to increase referential specificity. This means that we also need to highlight how the virtual prefix alters each term in technical application. Klastrup emphasises the problem with virtual environment s broad application by discussing Susan Warshauer s (1998) categorisation of Multi-User Environments. Warshauer s creates a typology of internet-enabled communication technologies consisting of: IRC, MUDs, computer games, web chat programs, people browsers, audio-video conferencing programs and worlds. Klastrup argues that applying the term virtual environment to these diverse forms of mediated communication makes the term too general to be useful. But Warshauer does not use the term virtual environment or virtual world in her paper, as her focus is on social networking rather than the spatial nature of some applications she discusses. Using this typology to claim that the concept of virtual environments is too broad to be useful, and that it sidelines issues of spatiality is therefore somewhat misleading. I would argue that both virtual environment and virtual world have terminological value especially when their specific characteristics are defined enabling us to distinguish one from the other and deploy them with precision. The salient characteristic which links the concepts of virtual environment and virtual world is the dialectical relationship between space and agency. Murray (Murray, 1998) argues that the experience of agency is a key attractor of digital games. Giddens defines agency in the following terms: Agency refers not to the intentions people have in doing things but to their capability of doing those things in the first place. Agency concerns events of which an individual is the perpetrator, in the sense that the individual could, at any phase in a given sequence of conduct, have acted differently. Whatever happened could not have happened if that individual had not intervened (Giddens, 1984, p. 9). Users conceive of certain computer screen images as representing a virtual environment or world as such because they can interact meaningfully in the perceptual space delineated by the computer as they would in ordinary experience. They can walk through the door in the west wall or the passage in the east. They can do a hand brake turn to lose the car tailing 43

44 them or speed ahead along the highway. The responsibility for action is placed on the player, within the constraints placed upon the game environment by the designers. The spatiality of a domain encourages the exertion of agency within it and the ability to exercise agency in that domain validates its spatiality. This conceptualisation yields the following definition: virtual environments are computer generated domains which create a perception of traversable space and permit modification through the exertion of agency. This definition avoids vagueness of application while giving a precise and positive account of virtual environments, rather than sidelining them as an unimportant category. It allows us to separate chat rooms, web pages, blogs and webcam applications from virtual environments like driving simulators, virtual reality applications and the majority of digital games. I am here saying the majority of digital games, because not all digital games share these characteristics. This thesis and the Digital Game Experience Model described in chapters 5 and 6 takes as its object of study those digital games that share the characteristics of virtual environments. Digitized versions of card games like Hearts or Poker, or digitized puzzle games like crosswords, Sudoku and the like are not forms of virtual environments. When I use the term digital games, I will therefore be referring to digital games in virtual environments as I am defining them here. Now that we have established what the term virtual environment will signify in this work, it is time to shift our focus to virtual worlds. The distinction between the two is more one of emphasis than kind. Virtual worlds are conglomerations of virtual environments that are marked by their persistent temporality, support of large groups of concurrent users and a large enough spatial area as to make it impossible to visualise them in their totality. Bartle (2004), co-creator of the first text-based virtual world MUD (Bartle & Trubshaw, 1978) outlines the following as distinguishing characteristics of virtual worlds: The world has underlying, automated rules that enable players to effect changes to it (although not to the rules that grant them this ability). This is the world s physics. Players represent individuals in the world. They may wield partial or total influence over an army; crew or party; but there is only one game entity that 44

45 represents them in the world and with which they strongly identify. This is their character. All interaction with the world and other players is channelled through characters. Interaction with the world takes place in real time. When you do something in the world, you can expect feedback almost immediately. The world is shared. The world is (at least to some degree) persistent (p. 8). Klastrup (2004) arrives at a multi-part definition of virtual worlds that encompasses the majority of these points: A virtual world is a persistent online representation which contains the possibility of synchronous communication between users and between user and world within the framework of a space designed as a navigable universe. Virtual worlds are worlds, you can move in, through persistent representation(s) of the user, in contrast to the imagined worlds of non-digital fictions, which are worlds presented as inhabited, but not actually inhabitable. Virtual worlds are different from other forms of virtual environments in that they cannot be imagined in their spatial totality (p. 27). Klastrup places particular emphasis on the last point which is not included in Bartle s characteristics. She states that a key element of worlds is their complexity and size cannot be fathomed at first glance but need to be explored at length. This element attains significant importance when coupled with persistence and mass habitation. Unlike the online multiplayer game map (such as those featured in FPSs like Counter-Strike Source (Valve Software, 2004a) or RTSs like Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War (Entertainment., 2004) which re-sets after every round, the virtual world remains active for an extended period of time. This extended period can be anything from a few years or a few decades, depending on the commercial success or user-following the virtual world has. Persistence yields a continuity of existence which makes them independent of their inhabitants and to some degree, their creators. 45

46 Another defining element of virtual worlds outlined by both Klastrup and Bartle is the presence of other users in the world. This creates a sense that there is a persistent society which one can participate in to various degrees. Even if the user does not interact directly with others (although most users would) the presence of others creates a social context within which the user s actions are interpreted. This can also be true of virtual environments, but is not one of their defining characteristics. A number of characteristics that Bartle and Klastrup outline, however, are also shared by what I have defined here as virtual environments. Elements like physics, the possibility to traverse and otherwise inhabit the space or the representation of individuals through avatars are not necessarily defining features of virtual worlds but can be commonly found in what I am here calling virtual environments. Building on the definition of virtual environments I will thus define virtual worlds as: virtual worlds are composites of persistent, multi-user virtual environments extending over a vast geographical expanse. Just as digital games are a subspecies of virtual environments, MMOGs are a subspecies of virtual worlds. MMOGs are generally discussed on the same terms as digital games (Juul, 2005; Salen & Zimmerman, 2003). Although they certainly include a gaming aspect, their status as virtual worlds implies a persistent social setting with all the complexities this brings with it. As a number of theorists have shown (Dibbell, 2006; Malaby, 2007; Taylor, 2006), MMOGs encompass a range of activities that go beyond traditional notions of play, particularly when this is informed by the problematic separation of game and non-game discussed in chapter 1. Problems with the virtual Technological innovation has had a tendency to excite the popular imagination, whether this results in public executions, ecclesiastical excommunication or a quasi-fanatic dedication to heralding the age of a digital New Jerusalem (Wertheim, 2000). Every age of wonder has its champion speakers and championed tropes. In the contemporary digital age, 46

47 one of the most prominent instances of the latter comes in the form of a prefix: the virtual. One does not have to look very far to come face to face with the term: open a newspaper or magazine and you are bound to find catchy terms like virtual tourism, virtual classrooms, virtual dating or, for the more hedonistically inclined, virtual sex. Thanks to the joint efforts of techno-fetishist theorists of the late eighties and the ever-hungry mass media, the presence of the virtual within the popular imagination has become largely unrelated to its technical and philosophical roots, gravitating instead towards the novel and liberating powers of new technologies. This has resulted in a close connection being established between the virtual and the unreal and the virtual as vehicle to the unknown. If the meaning of the term virtual is not precisely defined, the meaning of the term real is often taken for granted, referring typically to the routine and mundane. In academic discussions of virtual environments and digital games this opposition of the real to the virtual is also surprisingly taken for granted. Although the virtual is used in every conceivable discipline to some degree or other, the implications of this binary relationship are rarely questioned. This creates a limited conception of virtuality which impedes progress in fields in which the term carries theoretical weight. In our present discussion, for example, conceiving of virtual worlds as somehow fake or separate from our everyday lives ignores the most important implications they carry for contemporary society. In his recent book, Castronova takes issue with the term virtual worlds and argues for a replacement of virtual with synthetic. He outlines how the rise and fall of the hype around virtual reality created a negative association with the term virtual: Finally, while being conservative in writing is one decision imposed by the nearness of this book to early VR writing, another is the importance of avoiding words like virtual. That word points a misleading finger from the game worlds back to the earlier VR paradigm. As I have said, no such connection is warranted. And therefore where I use virtual in this book, I just mean rendered by a computer : a virtual world is a world rendered by computer (Castronova, 2005, p. 294). The solution to the misrepresentation of the virtual in such discussions is not to remove the term from use or relegate its signification to its least interesting use. Castronova argues that 47

48 we should move away from the virtual/real binary by replacing virtual with synthetic. Synthetic is useful in highlighting the designed nature of virtual worlds, but in so doing creates another binary; between the man-made, crafted synthetic world and a largely unmodified reality that has been in existence for a while which he refers to as the Earth (p. 294). The problem with binary oppositions is that they create either/or relationships which ignore the richer middle ground. As Haraway (1991) has argued, contemporary culture is best expressed in terms of hybridity; of dialectic relationships between poles of difference, rather than reductionist dualisms. Castronova (2005) does not manage to escape the binaries he identifies as problematic. Synthetic Worlds is steeped in such relations, in many instances characterising interaction with virtual worlds as a form of encroaching migration from the Earth onto a domain which is distinct from it. Castronova is at pains to preserve the fantasy of synthetic worlds from the tainting reach of Earth s governments and Earth s culture (p. 198). The concept of the magic circle is once again invoked to signal these divisions, even if it is here called a membrane : The synthetic world is an organism surrounded by a barrier. Within the barrier, life proceeds according to all kinds of fantasy rules involving space flight, fireballs, invisibility and so on. Outside the barrirer, life proceeds according to the ordinary rules. The membrane is the magic circle within which rules are different (Huizinga 1938/1950). The membrane can be considered a shield of sorts, protecting the fantasy world from the outside world. The inner world needs defining and protecting because it is necessary that everyone who goes there adhere to the different set of rules (p. 198). There are considerable contradictions between this drive to protect synthetic worlds from the Earth and the analysis which first drew attention to Castronova s ideas. His paper titled Virtual Worlds: A First Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Front sought to establish that the money generated through online auctions of virtual world gold pieces, items and property (which has come to be known as real money trade or RMT) was on par with that of third world country economies thus creating an overlap rather than a seperation between the real and the virtual (Castronova, 2001). 48

49 Synthetic tells us nothing much about the underlying nature of these worlds aside from their status as designed objects, which is in itself not a particularly useful distinction from the Earth or the real. What is reality/earth if not a collection of designed structures: cities, media, social conventions and value systems? Our experience of reality, or the Earth is largely a process of interaction with designed material spaces and systems of signification, making a strong distinction between synthetic worlds and Earth rather redundant. The real can hardly be separated from the synthetic since the latter has been an intrinsic part of the former since the earliest stages of humanity. The notion of virtual opposed to the real is a relatively recent idea. In a recent history of the virtual Marie-Laurie Ryan (2001) locates the origins of what she calls the virtual as fake in 18 th and 19 th century discussions of physics and optics. The connotations of illusion and inauthenticity associated with the mirror image carried over to the virtual. This idea persists until today, not only in the popular view of the virtual, but even in various aspects of academia including philosophy. Ryan conceptualizes perspectives on the virtual on a continuum ranging from what she calls the virtual as fake and the virtual as potential that finds expression in the work of Levy and Deleuze. Levy approaches the virtual from the perspective of scholastic philosophy. The virtual here is not viewed in opposition to the real but rather as that which has potential to come into existence. The virtual is compared not with the real, but the actual (Lévy, 1998). Levy incorporates Deleuze s (2004) distinction between the virtual and the possible. For Levy, the possible is a copy of the real that is already fully determined. It is a phantom of the real (Lévy, 1998, p. 23), which comes into being without alteration. The possible is static. The virtual, on the other hand, is dynamic. It is not determined until it is actualised: the virtual is a kind of problematic complex, the knot of tendencies or forces that accompanies a situation, event, object, or entity, and which invokes a process of resolution: actualisation. This problematic complex belongs to the entity in question and even constitutes one of its primary dimensions (Lévy, 1998, p. 24) 49

50 The flow between virtual, actual and back is expressed in the processes of virtualization and actualization. Actualization is a solution to a given problem that was not previously contained in its formulation (p. 25). Unlike realisation where the components of the real exist in the possible, actualisation implies a process of creation that generates new qualities, a true becoming that feeds the virtual in turn (p. 25). The actual interacts with the virtual, while the real resembles the possible. Levy emphasizes transformation particularly in terms of a displacement of the centre of ontological gravity of the object considered (p. 26). Levy relates this displacement to the notion of deterritorilisation prominent in Michael Serres (1994) book Atlas. Serres focuses on the virtual as something which is not-there. This is not to be read as a form of inexistence, but rather as a form of existence, true to the etymological roots of the word: the conjunction of the Latin sistere meaning to cause to stand or place (p. 29) and ex outside. Levy points to a view of existence contrasting with Heidegger s philosophy of being-there : existence as a movement between places rather than being in a place. Virtualisation can therefore be understood as a form of existence related to a transformation of time and space. The virtuality of a virtual community radically shortens the geographical distance between participants and the speed of communication. The community is not pinned to a physical location but can be accessed from any terminal that provides a suitable gateway. The actual, represented by the material context of the participants, is transformed into a contingent variable, subservient to the new core of gravity: the participants shared interests and passions. Virtuality in context The virtual in virtual worlds is most significantly characterised by the vast landscape of potential configurations of text and its actualisation. This potential emerges from the persistent interaction of a few million human subjectivities with each other and the textual world written for their habitation, which is in turn constantly being re-inscribed, to varying degrees depending on the world s design, by the readings and practices of its inhabitants. This constant process of actualizing real human relations - love, hate, frustration, competition and collaboration - is accelerated by what Bolter and Grusin (1999) have called the hypermediacy of networked access. 50

51 The computer does not constitute the virtual in itself. It is a necessary tool for enabling the manifestation of the actual-virtual dialectic. The applications that run the digital games, MMOGs, hypertexts and other digital artefacts are fully realised in their coded structure. The clusters of programmed code interact in a predetermined way until the point of contact with the interpreting human subjectivity. It is at this juncture that the virtual comes into force: Potential, not virtual, for the digital engram and the software used to read the text predetermine a set of possibles, which, though immense, are numerically finite and logically bound. However, it is not quantity that distinguishes the possible from the virtual. The essential distinction is to be found elsewhere. If we consider the mechanical substrate alone (hardware and software), computer technology provides only a combination of possibles, albeit infinite, and never a problematic domain. Digital storage is a potentialization, display a realization The virtual begins to flourish with the appearance of human subjectivity in the loop, once the indeterminateness of meaning and the propensity of the text to signify come into play, a tension that actualization or interpretation, will resolve during the act of reading (Lévy, 1998, pp ). Referring back to the matrix of digital games I outlined in chapter 1, it is the interaction of the player with the complex problematic presented by the game rules, environmental mechanics, representational signs and the hardware interface that engenders a movement from virtualization to actualization and back again. Virtual environments, as defined above, are unique sites of mediated instantiation of this recursive process of actualization and virtualization. The process moves from the creation of a problem, and thus virtualization, in the design of the text to be traversed, to the creation of a solution: the actualizing of the text through interpretation of the surface signs. The possibility for exerting agency within the environment beckons the question what shall I do next?, creating another problematic; a re-virtualization that requires the solution of practice. The player actualizes thought into action, in itself a creation of a further problematic: the inscription of one s actions onto the environment, affecting the clusters of coded data as well as other users in the environment. The complexity of this recursive process is 51

52 multiplied by the presence of others and emphasized by the immediacy enabled by networked computing. Digital games are designed to enable the actualization of desired experience. Stating that this is their principal attractor would ignore the heterogeneity of players and games, but I would be confident in claiming that it is, at least a key factor that makes them such compelling media. This view of the virtual gives a constructive account of the essential features of virtual environments and worlds. It tackles the problematic formulation of the virtual/real in a constructive manner rather than simply dismissing its use. Castronova s replacement of virtual with synthetic in the context of virtual words, for example, ignores the richness that Levy s philosophy sets in motion when it is applied to our objects of study. Now that we have discussed the implications of the virtual I will give a brief history of virtual worlds highlighting important landmarks in their development. Due to the scope of this work, this history is not meant to be exhaustive, but aims to establish a context for the discussion of the two MMOGs wherein the qualitative research was conducted. These two are described in more detail at the end of the history in order to familiarize readers with their specific qualities as well as giving an introduction of what MMOGs are to those who have not played them. A brief history of virtual worlds Since virtual worlds are complex phenomena which encompass a multitude of activities within their domains, the history can be told from a number of perspectives (Taylor, 2006). These perspectives can emphasize the role of virtual worlds in a variety of histories: games (digital or otherwise), communication technologies, online communities, non-linear literature, collaborative story telling and/or performance; not to mention a deeper history of creation and interaction with other-worlds that has persisted since the earliest days of homo-sapiens (Calleja, 2006; Lewis-Williams, 2002; Lewis-Williams & Dowson, 1989). These perspectives form important threads in such a contextualization, but because a full genealogy of virtual worlds would require a thesis to itself, I will limit myself to signalling landmarks in the development of virtual worlds. The account will be divided in two sections: sandbox virtual worlds that place the emphasis on socializing and creation of in- 52

53 world locations and objects and Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) whose design is informed by a predominant game structure. The histories of these two broad types of virtual worlds are intertwined and they are being treated in separate sections here for structural clarity. The chapter ends with a discussion of the literary and filmic works that have fed into the history of development of virtual worlds. Early stages in virtual worlds: MUDs The computing genesis of virtual worlds can be traced back to Essex University, Trubshaw, inspired by contemporary text adventures like Zork (Infocom, 1980) and ADVENT (Crowther, 1976) created various iterations of MUD, a text-based virtual world shared over the university network. The acronym MUD stands for Multi User Dungeons. Dungeon here refers not to the Dungeons and Dragons pen and paper game, but the Fortran port version of Zork called DUNGEN. The acronym was adopted following Trubshaw s interest in creating a multi-user version of DUNGEN (Bartle, 2004). The first incarnation of MUD (Bartle & Trubshaw, 1978) was a basic program intended to test the pragmatic principles that dictated the virtual world s running. The second version was closer to what is currently known as a text-based virtual world. In 1980 the first external players were allowed onto the Essex University servers to test Trubshaw s MUD. The initial iterations of MUD could host up to 36 simultaneous players. Figure 3 : ZORK MUDs are text-based virtual worlds that represent the designed space through textual descriptions of various locations in the world. The world as a whole is made up of a number 53

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