Advantages of having a ‘Second Life’ – a short essay on how MMO Games may change the World

On: September 26, 2010
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About Bart Brodzki
My name is Bartłomiej Jan Brodzki. I was born in Warsaw, Poland, in June 1987. I am interested in both The Arts and computers since early childhood, and as soon as I got my first machine, I started combining the above, creating a fusion between what I love and new technology. Still, being a designer and a visual artist did not prevent me from taking a deeper insight into other forms of art. Following, I started painting graffiti, created sketches, learned stone-carving and got my first analog camera. I also learned the basics of web design, as well as simple animation. After writing the Polish A-levels I finished one year of Social Psychology in English at SWPS which is a well known and respected academy in Warsaw. Since then, my life changed drastically and I moved to UK and started a Media Studies programme at the University of Derby, where after three years of education I received a 2:1 bachelors degree. During my studies I focused mainly on the listed topics: Social Psychology, Biological Mechanisms of Human Behavior, Logics and Philosophy, Academic Writing, Statistics Packages, Photography in the Media, Digital Publishing, Mass Media in Contemporary Context, Media Research, Audience Research Project, Print Production, Photography and Photojournalism, Image Music Sound, Cultural Studies and Media Culture, Conflicting Images, Print Media Production, Ethics and Creativity, Contesting Cultures. My bachelors thesis was on Logo design, and its ability to adapt to the flexible world of mass media. During studies I also had a chance to work with people from the industry. For the module called work experience I rebranded a visual art company called Harlequin Display, working both in UK and Germany, additionally creating leaflets, posters, and a website. I also learned basics of management via the module called Management Experience in creative and Cultural Industries. I based my paper for this module on my work experience from two advertising agencies: Ad Fabrika+DRAFT FCB which is a medium sized firm, and the Polish branch of a French advertising giant called PUBLICIS. I also work as a freelance graphic artist, where I create leaflets and packaging for drugs and medicine. My hobbies are: Historical reconstruction (both X-XII and XV century), sword-fighting, Gaming (focusing on PS3 and computer MMO games). Sports I played are: Tennis, Swimming, Skateboarding, Basketball, Football and Judo. Recently I had an honour to join the University of Amsterdam (UvA) Masters in New Media programme, where I am planning to combine my colorful past with the everchanging world of New Media.

Website
http://www.bbrodzkiart.blogspot.com/    

What are MMO games?

Massively Multiplayer Online games are a fresh genre to the gaming industry, as all of them require a strong and stable Internet connection. This particular branch of gaming is becoming more and more popular due to the rapid emergence of new technologies. The genre of MMOG’s probably evolved from Internet MUD’s, which were Role-playing story-line follow-up’s with no graphics nor sound, and later Online Role Playing Games such as BioWare’s Neverwinter Nights. It is important to add that despite the fact of MMO evolving from RPG, multiple genre variations have been created, such as MMO Social games (Second Life), MMORTS (EVE Online), MMO Management Games (The Sims Online), MMO Racing (NFS: World), or even MMO abstract games (LOVE). The main notion carried by MMO’s is that all players are caught up in the same virtual world, following similar rules of physics and gameplay. Differently as in the real world, in each of the games a player begins with nothing of value, creating a more or less even starting point for everyone. The evolution of Web and the gaming industry already have found multiple perspectives for the use of online gaming. The most known examples can be found while approaching the US Military which uses First Person Shooter games (FPS) and Flight Simulators to train soldiers. One of the latest projects by US Army is called asymmetric warfare environment. Following, MMO gaming and virtual worlds open a wide range of perspectives to humankind.

What is WoW?

World of Warcraft (WoW) is the most popular Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing game (MMORPG), produced by Blizzard Entertainment, one of the world’s largest gaming corporations. It consists of more than eleven and a half million players from Europe, America, and Asia, giving the company billions of dollars of income each year. The game is located in a virtual environment called the world of Azeroth, rooted in the fantasy books of J. R. R. Tolkien, which consists of multiple locations divided between ever-growing continents. For a fresh player it would take numerous days to visit all the places offered by the in-game world. In many ways WoW is similar to other MMORPG’s such as LineAge II and Everquest II. The storyline of WoW shifts drastically with each game patch or expansion, but the basic notion of the game is the war between The Horde (red) and The Alliance (blue). This very common theme of conflict used many times in other games (see: Fat Princess, command and conquer series) is furthermore diverse: After choosing an in-game faction, the player has to define his character/avatar. The game offers multiple choices such as race, class, looks, professions, items, titles and game styles; making sure that each of the characters is diverse not only because of the player, but also due to visible in-game differences. Further on in the game each player approaches various choices. He can follow various storylines, complete quests, earn and spend virtual gold, or even get involved in social activities. All of the actions open to the player give an illusion of freedom, where the boundaries lie in the in-game world physics and imagination, not in the storyline as in most non-MMO games. But World of Warcraft offers its players much more than just the game:

“World of Warcraft is a complex world indeed, an extraordinary mixture of art and design, technologies, economics, the social and the cultural. It is a game, a virtual world, and an online community.”

(Krzewińska T., Lockwood H., ‘Games and Culture’, 2006: 280)

All the aspects of the game pointed out by Krzewińska and Lockwood can be directly related to what Castronova explains in ‘Synthetic Worlds’. According to the author:

“These computers on our desks are turning into portals to other realms of existence, realms of our own creation according to idealized standards of fun and personal validation, realms that will one day be preferred to Earth (…)”

(Castronova E., ‘Synthetic Worlds: the business and culture of online games’, 2006: 251)

In this essay I am going to analyze and describe some of the aspects of the World of Warcraft game, which I believe may have serious consequences for the MMO genre, gaming industry, and even an impact on mankind.

Entertainment Aspect – What it ‘really’ is?

I believe that entertainment aspect of World of Warcraft should be the first one to analyze as it roots in the very idea of gaming. Many people started to play WoW simply because it was fun, where this very entertainment can be found in multiple features. I will base this part of the essay on information collected by Nick Yee, owner of probably the most famous MMORPG data collection project called ‘the daedalus’. I will also try to answer the question: Why is World of Warcraft so absorbing, compelling, and addictive?

The most important and visible feature that makes the MMO genre differ from other games is the constant evolution of the virtual world. As soon as either a patch or an expansion pack is released, new areas/game rules/features/items/skills are incorporated into the game world. Not only new content is being added, but the old one is usually getting renewed. This provides the players with a shifting environment, where there are always new things to do and new ways to play. The rapid technological evolution which follows mankind can be seen in this feature of the entertainment aspect of gaming. As electronic equipment begins to be cheaper and easier to access, the in-game world also evolves not only in quantity, but also in quality. The graphics are getting refreshed, the game mechanisms change as well, providing the gamers with a virtual world which is slowly becoming more and more real. This simple tactic used by the developers created a situation in which the game itself has no end, and is constantly being reshaped.

In Yee’s survey on the question: What do players want to see in MMOs?; the most frequent answer is ‘Quests’ followed by ‘Storylines’. In each role-playing game one of the main goals is to get experience to evolve your character. In World of Warcraft you can do this also by completing quests and following the story-line. It is important to add here that WoW falls into the category of Hero-Fantasy, where the player is placed in centre of the most important events. Following, during his gameplay, starting as a thug for hire, he becomes the turning point of events that govern the existence of the world; shortly speaking: from zero to hero. All this is strongly linked to the reward system of the game: as you complete quests you gain experience/gold/items. What follows, the more quests you complete, the more in-game power you have. And the more power you have, the harder quests you are able to do. The mechanism exposes the same circulatory values as the one from the previous paragraph, showing how one can get caught up not only by the attraction to the shifting environment, but also to the need of becoming more and more powerful.

The entertainment aspect of the game can be narrowed down to two major features. First one can be explained as the aesthetic experience of a shifting environment, which attracts the player by rewarding him with a visually pleasant and interesting world. The second one will be the need of power and in-game attractions. Both of these aspects can be perceived as circles locked around the player, where usage of any of them only tightens the boundaries between the gamer and his second life.

Social Aspect – Who we ‘really’ are?

The second most important aspect of World of Warcraft in relation to the notion of having a second life is the social feature. It was one of the main thoughts of the creators of WoW, as well as other MMO games, is that the player is never alone in the virtual world. He always is surrounded by both NPC’s (non-player characters) and other gamers, and this tactic used by the game developers turned out to be a strong force, enhancing regular gameplay and reshaping it into a social activity. This notion is confirmed by Edward Castronova, as he claims that “once single player games became massive online world, these environments (…) became societies” (Castronova, E., ‘Exodus to the virtual world’, 2007: 110). I believe that this part of analysis should be divided into two pieces focusing on the Identity of the user, and social networking and communication; as both of these aspects play an important role in the World of Warcraft. More importantly, I find it as a necessity to state what kind of people play MMO games. According to Castronova:

“The basic message is that there are many more users than you might imagine; their numbers are growing rapidly; they are located in places you’d never suspect; they are not the people you thought they would be; and their motives seem to be both sensible and loaded with heavy implications. In other words, you might think that once a fantasy world appeared, there would be a few rather nerdy people who would use it; they’d probably be high school kids (…), and they’d be playing because they like to hang out in dark basements and shoot orcs. All of these impressions are wrong. The people who immerse themselves in virtual worlds are much more like the target reader of this book (a reasonable, professional, serious adult person) (…)”

(Castronova, E., ‘Synthetic Worlds: the business and culture of online games’, 2006: 51-52)

The identity issue in WoW and other MMO games differs much, at least on the theoretical basis, from what sociologists write about social networking. It is important to state that players of fantasy MMO’s do not enhance their true self just to expose it to others, in such a way as on social networking sites. Instead they create an Identity, a character, which is their escape from reality. The best examples can be found on role-playing servers, where players tend to learn how to speak ‘dwarvish’ or ‘trollish’, and throughout the play they tend to use only this language to communicate with others. Additionally, players of rpg type realms tend to absolutely transform their selves into their characters, and what follows, you can find drunk dwarves in taverns or human guilds devoted to trade.
But still, those are, maybe not extreme situations, but they still happen. Assuming that most of WoW servers are PVP (player versus player) and PVE (player versus environment), the identity shift also takes place. Users tend to drastically change their regular behaviour, code of ethics, and moral values, probably to the same lack of punishment described by Gilsdorf:

“Commerce poisons; power corrupts. the unregulated, boomtown economy of online games like WoW and Second Life – no police, no legal system, no taxes – has created problems. Lawlessness breeds fraudsters, harassment, and other crimes. Perhaps these fantasy worlds deserve to be ethically complicated.”

(Gilsdorf E., ‘Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks’, 2009: 275)

What I am trying to argue, is that virtual worlds give each player a lot of freedom of action in terms of defining ‘self’. Players can dramatically change their regular behaviour and become totally different people, not only by breaking the laws of real-world physics, but by the shift of identity.

The other important social aspect given to players by the game is the communication system. It can be divided into two smaller subdivisions, which are communication mechanisms and socialization mechanisms. The first subdivision gives the player the power to communicate on two levels. A player can either talk/yell by typing the command (/say, /yell), or more privately whisper (send a private message) or expose his feelings for someone (/happy, /cheer, /cry, /flirt, /roar, /smile). This enables the gamer to communicate at a local level. On the other hand players can join and create chat rooms, where players can communicate now matter how far away they are. Examples can be found on channels such as ‘/join trade’, which can be overloaded with information in form of never-ending lines of text presenting items for sale, buying offers, but also other useful information. Basically, there are barely no limits when it comes to chatting in World of Warcraft, except communication between factions, but still, players find ways around it.
There are also other chat channels which enable communication such as ‘party’ which is a group up to five people, ‘raid’ which is a group of up to forty players, or a ‘guild’ which is unlimited in terms of the number of people. The described groups enable communication on a social basis, giving a player some sense of belonging to a group. Getting involved in that kind of activities is very common for players, and therefore meeting new people is on a daily basis.
Apart from the above examples the game has an in-built voice-chat which makes vocal communication possible. Additionally players are using various programs such as ventrilo or teamspeak. Those enable to communicate directly with a group of people, leaving behind the necessity of typing, and giving an opportunity to discuss various topics while playing.
Except from the above there are also other forms of communication such as internet discussion forums, guild-websites, WoW Wikis, stand-alone voice-chat channels, shops with various goods, official websites, fan-art sites, and more.

All of the types of communication leave the players with no barriers, enabling them to meet new people from around the globe, talk to family or friends, join in groups or guilds, or even onetime events. Ingame communication enables talking, writing and even emotion expression with people that are either close to us or we don’t even know them. Due to the fact that vast amounts of players are connected to the same environment open-source-like general knowledge is created. This knowledge is not only game-related, but also community oriented (WoW Wiki). Other advantages can be found such as learning new languages and slang, or finding a sense of belonging to a group. Bainbridge gives a good example of possibilities enabled by the in-built software:

“(…) the social software included in the WoW user interface gives players wide scope for creating social groups, notably guilds, with user-defined membership ranks, evocative names, role-playing styles, goals, and membership.”

(Bainbridge W., S., ‘The Warcraft Civilization: Social Science in a Virtual World’, 2010: 9-10)

Education Aspect – What can really be done?

The last aspect I would like to write about is the educational side of MMO gaming, as I believe it roots in the previously described issues.

“It has been suggested that playing MMORPG leads to positive side effects, such as improving leadership and organizational skills (Yee 2003). Playing n MMORPG can be more social than reading a book, can be cognitively more challenging than watching a movie, and can improve reading and typing skills more than surfing the Internet.”

(Steinfield Ch., W., Pentland B., Ackerman M., ‘Communities and technologies 2007’, 2007:203)

In World of Warcraft, no matter what type of gamer psychology do you have (see Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology), there will be always something for you to learn. Either learning how to exist in a virtual environment by learning how to play, learning how to manage a group of people by becoming a leader of a guild, or even learning more about cultures from other parts of the globe. It is important to state here, that the learning via access to the game is not only on the game level, but also on the community level. It gives various possibilities to develop social skills, language, and experience truly human emotions such as pleasures and pains of being a part of a society.

Still, educational aspects of virtual reality worlds belong to a more or less unexplored field, but it is obvious that the possibilities are nearly endless. When it comes to future perspectives of learning via MMO and virtual environments, Castronova generates a very future-oriented approach:

“Now that we have this technology, we have the ability to build societies under any physical conditions we wish. Through artful deployment of code, we can structure social, economic, and political institutions to meet specific standards. This opens wide possibilities for teaching and training applications. Throw in sufficient and effective AI, and each person can relive any history whatsoever, and shape that history from any vantage point, Anyone can try her hand at building a church, an empire, or a business. Anyone can learn how to run a city. (…) all of this learning can happen at a distance, from any spot where Internet is accessible.”
(Castronova E., ‘Synthetic Worlds: the business and culture of online games’, 2006: 252)

Conclusion

While taking under consideration the idea of a second life, we have to think of it not in terms of giving away your real life, but of separating it as a virtual entity. It is true that in some extreme cases (see ‘Second Skin’) this idea gets lost, and people turn out to blur this distinction between virtual and real, where the outcome of this situation is usually fatal. Nonetheless, living two lives has multiple advantages. Some can be found on the entertainment level, while exploring and interacting with a ever-shifting virtual environment. Others can be seen in the connection to a social structure, where one can meet new people, talk to friends, or get involved in various activities inside or outside the game. Additionally there are also educational advantages of joining a virtual reality, varying from gaining knowledge through play to understanding diverse cultures. I believe that there is much more to be said and much more research to be done, especially in times when Massively Multiplayer Online gaming is taking over a large piece of the game industry, attracting more and more players to join virtual worlds.

Bibliography:

Bainbridge W., S., (2010),  “The Warcraft Civilization: Social Science in a Virtual World”, MIT Press;

Castronova E., (2006), “Synthetic Worlds: the business and culture of online games”, University of Chicago Press;

Castronova, E., (2007), “Exodus to the virtual world”, Palgrave Macmillan;

Gilsdorf E., (2009), “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms”, Globe Pequot;

Krzewińska T., Lockwood H., (2006), Guest Editors’ Introduction in “Games and Culture”; in Bainbridge W., S., (2010),  “The Warcraft Civilization: Social Science in a Virtual World”, MIT Press;

Steinfield Ch., W., Pentland B., Ackerman M., (2007), “Communities and technologies 2007”, Springer;

Other sources:

The Daedalus Project

Second Skin

Bartle’s Test of Gamer Psychology

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