Chapter 4: an imaginary homeland: a polyphonic cultural history


Birth of the Uru Diaspora: Immigration to New Worlds (Book II, Sec. 6)

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Birth of the Uru Diaspora: Immigration to New Worlds (Book II, Sec. 6)



Yearning for the Homeland



My Homeland Uru
From my beautiful homeland

From my beloved homeland

I hear the Bahro cry

and Kadish's wife sing her song of despair
And a refrain is sung by a sister who lives far from her homeland

And the memories make her cry

The song that she sings springs from her pain and her own tears

And we can hear her cry
Your homeland strikes your soul when you are gone

Your homeland sighs when you are not there

The memories live and flow through my blood

I carry her inside me, yes its true
The refrains continue, as does the melancholy

And the song that keeps repeating,

Flows in my blood, ever stronger

On its way to my heart
I sing of my homeland, beautiful and loved

I suffer the pain that is in her soul

Although I am far away, I can feel her

And one day I'll return
I know it
 Raena
This poem, posted May 13, 2004, about three months after the server shutdown by TGU member Raena, expresses this sense of losing ones homeland, a sentiment that many TGUers shared. To an unknowing reader, it would be hard to recognize that its writer was talking about a virtual world. In reality of course, she knows it is a virtual world, but her deep attachment to Uru as ‘homeland’, and the implied ethnic identity that goes with that, is clearly expressed in this text.

In discussing the Uru group at-large and the TGU group in particular, I adopted the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘diaspora’. The former term I adopted directly from the Uru community, who regularly refer to themselves as refugees. Diaspora is my own term for the dispersion of Uru players that now inhabit other games and virtual worlds. According to The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition (2000, Houghton Mifflin Company) a diaspora is defined as: ‘A dispersion of a people from their original homeland’. Refugees are persons who have left their homeland due to persecution. It may be more proper to call the Uru Diaspora exiles, but the term ‘exile’ implies individual rather than group expulsion. (Ironically, one of the games in the series is entitled Myst Exile). ‘Refugees’ also implies a wandering from place to place, which was precisely what occurred. In addition to TGU, there are a number of other communities of the Uru Diaspora in a number of MMOW/Gs; the Welcomers’ League for instance (of which Leesa is also a member) has chapters within There.com, Star Wars: Galaxies and The Matrix Online, extending its original mission to welcome and help newbies in Uru to other games. Especially in the beginning, as TGU members and other Uru players searched for a new homeland, there persisted a hope that they might someday return to Uru.


Immigration: The Quest for a New Home


With Koalanet as their main convening site, the TGU group began to gather there, either using the online chat or contributing to the asynchronous discussion forum. Koalanet provided a communication hub for the group, but it was clear that they missed sharing the avatar experience within the Uru milieu. Certainly they could talk to each other, but they needed to play together and ‘see’ each other. It was also clear in talking to players that the spatial environment of Uru was part of what they missed; they often spoke in interviews of the visual beauty of the game. Even before the server shutdown, they began to investigate alternatives. Most players did not perceive this as having happened in an organized fashion; rather different players began to take it upon themselves to explore options and share their findings with the group.
Two branches of research emerged. One was geared towards re-creating Uru using some kind of virtual world authoring tool. Players investigated a range of options, including sophisticated game development packages such as ‘Virtools’, to online 3D technologies such as VRML. They also looked at virtual environments that had affordances for player-made worlds, among them Active Worlds (Britvich 1995), a ten-year-old player-built virtual world. The second branch was more interested in a ‘ready-to-play’ solution that did not require any technical skills and to which the group could immigrate as soon as possible in order to maintain some momentum.
A debate surfaced at this time and one of the outcomes was that different activities could go on concurrently.

As an interim solution, two members, Basil and D’evon (who later served as TGU’s shard administrator for Until Uru), created a text-based MUD (multi-user domain) of the hood. It provided a context for chatting, and employed skillful writing and humor, but many players had difficulty navigating the interface. Players seemed to long for the visual experience of the Uru world, for their own and each other’s avatars.

Meanwhile, the ‘ready-to-play’ camp was considering a number of potential candidates for migration. Self-appointed scouts began to investigate other possible virtual venues. Ryzom (Nevrax 2003) and EverQuest were two games under early consideration, but most players found them too violent and competitive for their liking. The two primary candidates that came to the forefront were Second Life and There.com, both online virtual worlds that were less games and more virtual recreation zones; each of these worlds also had mechanisms for players to create their own digital artifacts. Another group of about 200 Uru players had settled in Second Life. Of these, a small handful, varying in size from 6-9 players, began to construct Shorah Island, the heart of which was a facsimile of areas of the Uru game, taking advantage of Second Life’s flexible in-game modeling and scripting capability. A resourceful and dedicated group, they managed to re-create several key areas of Uru, complete with scripted Linking Books that, if clicked on, would take players to another zone within their Uru-themed area in Second Life. They also created a Nexus with links to a series of Reltos and private group member homes. This group was a secondary part of the study, and more will be said about them in the section about artifact creation. In the summer of 2005, another group consisting of former Myst and Uru players built an entirely new Myst-style game in Second Life.

Uru’s community managers, concerned for the well-being of their players, tried to support the newly formed diaspora in whatever way they could. When they became aware that Uru players sought to migrate into other virtual worlds, they alerted a number of operators, including There.com and Second Life, in hopes of securing them a new home. This top-down approach did not result in any formal relocation program, but did serve to alert community managers to the incoming refugees.
The way in which the search for a new home took place also seems to have the classic hallmarks of emergence. Rather than a centralized, top-down effort, players dispersed and explored different worlds, bringing back travelogues. Self-appointed scouts Katsushiro, Felion, Raena and a few others reported back with screenshots of activities from There.com (Figure 6.1), while Ezra brought back a report on Second Life. Erik, whose primary interest was in making a new hood from scratch, continued to report on the various tools he was investigating that might be suitable for this task.

Figure x: TGU scouts posted screenshots of their adventures in There.com (Image by Raena)

This discussion of where to migrate to was one of the few instances in the Koalanet forum where there were obvious disagreements among TGU members. Players had strong feelings pro and con as to the various options presented—although all agreed that any substitute for Uru would pale by comparison. This debate, primarily comparing Second Life and There.com, revolved around two areas of world design: avatar expressiveness and navigation. More details on this will be covered in the section on avatars to follow; however, because the avatar served as the representation of player identity in-world, players had very strong feelings about its expressive features in each of the worlds being considered. The other issue of paramount concern was navigation. As explorers, players felt that ease of navigation was critical, and Second Life was deemed weak in this regard. In addition to more refined navigation, There.com also offered a method of loading graphics to the client that allowed for more scenic vistas whereas Second Life’s loading schema did not load objects in the distance, thus making scenic vistas impossible.

Although these differences of opinion appeared to present a major rift, the group finally arrived at a compromise in their approach to the problem of where to settle. This key moment in their development could easily have torn the group apart, but it seems that TGU’s main priority was to stay together, and they were willing to find a way to overcome their differences in order to assure their long-term sustainability.
Ezra, who Leesa later appointed Deputy Mayor of TGU in Second Life, brought this to light in a March 5 post on the Koalanet forum:
I was thinking about this more last night and realized the reason I was feeling upset was because my worst fear when the cancellation of Live was first announced was that the Uru community would fracture and fall apart. I had met so many wonderful people in Uru and didn't want to lose that connection. Thinking of TGU fracturing into different sites/chat rooms/games/etc. that I couldn't/wouldn't participate in was very distressing.
But then I had a thought! Why can't we ‘fracture’ into different places? What's wrong with that? If various groups of people hang out in various places online, it will be no different than real life. We should have a Meeting Place presence everywhere -- in any area people want to hang out. Heck, if some TGU folk want to hang out in EverQuest or The Sims Online, more power to them!
The very process of this debate made it clear to TGU members that the Koalanet forum itself had become their primary communication hub, a ‘home base’ that transcended whatever virtual world they ultimately chose to inhabit. This was articulated a few hours after Ezra’s post by TGU founder Leesa, who demonstrated her role as ‘thought leader’ by explicitly giving members permission to settle wherever they wished:

First, there is no competition between ‘There’ and ‘Second Life’ or any other place. We go where we want. And like Petrova said, we had three shards in Uru. I had to spend time on all three, obviously, but most people seemed to settle into one shard they liked the best.

Secondly, this forum and chat are our home not ‘There’ or ‘Second Life’ or anywhere else. Those places are for us to interact and play. So no matter where you are: There, Second Life, Ryzom, somewhere else or nowhere else, you are a TGUer and this forum is where you come home to (and when Erik is done we'll probably all stop going to those other places anyway).
The outcome of this dispute was that ultimately There.com was to become the main settlement for a majority of TGU members, although there was no official decree to that effect. Rather it was a spontaneous chain of events coaxed along by a few members. Raena, concerned that if they didn’t find a new home quickly the group would fall apart, acted as an informal ambassador and made contact with her appointed There.com mentor, Alice, telling her their plight. She also managed to convince Lynn and Leesa to try it. Even though no formal dictate was given, once the two group leaders decided they would settle in There.com, it was only a matter of a few weeks before the bulk of remaining TGUers followed suit. Alice, an established Thereian, offered the refugees some space near her community, Emerald City, as a settlement.
A small number of original TGUers chose not to make There.com their home. Some visited occasionally; others did not go at all. Concurrently, TGU continued to maintain a small contingent in Second Life. Ezra, who was one of the strongest Second Life proponents, eventually retired as Deputy Mayor (primarily due to real-life priorities); Katsushiro, one of the original There.com scouts, eventually moved to Second Life but visited There.com on occasion. A few players, who will be discussed later, took central roles in creating and/or maintaining other TGU zones.

Initially, The Gathering of Uru, one of about a half a dozen Uru Refugee clubs in There.com, had about 300 members. Most of these were members of the original TGU group in Uru. During the first six months, the group actually grew; new members formerly of Uru but not from TGU joined, as well as Thereians who hung around the TGU group and enjoyed their culture. At the midway point of this study, The Gathering of Uru in There.com had around 450 members. At the end of the 18-month study, this number had waned to about 160, although most of the key members of the community remained active.

For a small and growing virtual society like There.com, the sudden onslaught of a large group of players en masse placed a significant burden on the system. Once again, the clients and servers were overworked. The TGU community that had settled near Alice’s Emerald City grew to about sixty people in a matter four weeks, creating huge problems with lag and ‘blockheads’ (avatars reducing to low-polygon representations). There were also festering resentments among the ‘indigenous’ Thereians and Emerald City residents, a number of whom moved out. TGU then moved to an adjacent lot to create more space between the two communities. Emerald City then moved, in part to get away from the server congestion caused by the growing immigrant group; however, TGU followed as a gesture of support for Alice, allowing still more space between the settlements to mitigate the lag. Nonetheless, the TGU group continued to grow steadily, and eventually was forced to move away from Emerald City entirely. In each case, the move was brought on either by a battle for processing resources, or ‘griefing’ (harassment) from other players.
The primary form of griefing entailed players running over avatars with dune buggies. While the avatar suffers no long-term damage, the impact is very disruptive to whatever the avatar might be doing at the time. Another form of griefing was what one TGUer described as ‘sign wars’. Because players in There.com could not ‘own’ land per se, settlement was done on more or less of a squatting basis. Thus any unclaimed land near or around the physical structures placed by the group was ‘up for grabs’. Whenever the TGUers would create a new settlement, they would plant a sign identifying it as their area. Griefers would then place another sign in front of theirs, such as a billboard advertising cybersex.

A significant faction of existing Thereians were suspicious and fearful of this sudden inrush of ‘outsiders’. Many were afraid that, by sheer numbers, the Uruvians would take over There.com entirely, turning it into Uru. Some There.com denizens thought the ‘Uru people’ a bit odd. They were clearly a very close-knit group, and often greeted each other in a foreign language with words like ‘Shorah!’ (D’ni for ‘peace’). They were intelligent, resourceful, and some felt, potentially dangerous. Some Thereians even took up the matter with There.com management, complaining about the refugees. As a result, TGUers became very protective of one another, and the persecution from Thereians only served to further strengthen their bond.

There.com management had the opposite response to the new arrivals as the other citizens of their world: they were conciliatory and accommodating. After all, the Uru immigrants represented an instant market. There, Inc. (the world’s owner at the time) was more than happy to nurture this growing population and the subscription fees it brought. In the long run, Uruvians would go on to spend quite a bit of money in There.com, paying many additional fees related to keeping PAZes up, buying and selling numerous items in auction (for which players are charged a transaction fee). Because they were older and more committed than the average online game player, they were willing and able to spend money. The combination of their economic sway, their maturity, and their experience of suffering at the hands of an MMOG company contributed to their forthright and demanding manner with There.com management. The perception, not entirely unfounded, that the Uru people had undue influence with the ‘powers that be’ only served to exacerbate the tensions between the new immigrants and native Thereians.
Between February and April, TGU moved no less than five times to avoid harassment before settling its sixth and finale locale. Finally, There.com management was able to secure an available Island for the group, although some Thereians believed its occupant had been pushed out to accommodate the immigrants. This became their permanent settlement in There.com.

The TGU Community Center, which followed the group around from place to place, was originally created by Ember using a Moroccan kit available from There.com. (Figure x) Although there were other kits that were stylistically better suited to Uru, the Moroccan was selected for the simple reason that it had a fountain. With each move, the Community Center had been carried along with the group and re-positioned at each new location. This structure became the focal point of the new Island, initially called Leesa Island, and later changed to Yeesha Island. (Figure x) Eventually, the Community Center was rebuilt using Uru-style architectural components designed by Damanji, who emerged as one of TGU’s leading artisans. The centerpiece of the Community Center was his replica of the Uru hood fountain. (Figure x)

Figure x: Uruvian immigrants romping in the Moroccan fountain in the first TGU Center in There.com. (Image by Raena)


Figure x: The second instantiation of the Center on Yeesha Island.


Figure x: The final iteration of the TGU Center in There.com complete with Uru hood fountain and Uru-style architectural components.


Throughout the period that TGU was in a state of flux in There.com, and even after settlement on the Island, many group members had a sense that this was a temporary arrangement until they could build their own self-contained virtual homeland, Erik’s special and still ongoing project. In early interviews, TGU members frequently commented that ‘once Erik is done, we won’t need There anymore’.
Implied in this was a deep desire for self-determination. Having already been ‘wronged’ by the operator of a virtual world, TGU consistently harbored a sense that the best solution would be one not controlled by a corporation. This desire became particularly acute during brief periods when there was some possibility that There.com would be closing. The uncertainty of the status of their world was, understandably, unsettling to the displaced Uruvians. Perhaps fuelled in part by this anxiety, two key group members, D’evon and Erik, never visited There.com for the duration of this study, although Erik eventually did set up his first There.com account after meeting other TGUers in real life.

A Home of Their Own

Throughout TGU’s trials in There.com, Erik continued his effort to create a new version of Uru with the Atmosphere 3D world-authoring environment, a technology he had never before used. Erik described his motivation as follows:

this may sound a little silly, but it was because of a promise I made to leesa on black tuesday…she was utterly devastated…she didn’t make it to the hood where the rest of us were and just sent messages to us. and i was pretty upset over uru closing as well.
anyway, i promised leesa that i would rebuild the hood – for her, for me, and for the rest of us. got a bit carried away here, i think it is safe to say. especially since i didn’t know anything about 3d environments…or 3d at all really.
Erik was so motivated that he was willing to learn an entirely new set of skills in order to create something that would serve as a home for his community. His goal was to create a self-contained re-creation of the hood, rather than attempt to create something in another 3D world. ‘To me, Uru wasn’t only about the people – it was the people AND the place…the mood, atmosphere, ambience’.
Erik did not like the atmosphere or ambience presented by the alternatives. He felt There.com was too cartoonish and he did not care for the aesthetics of Second Life; nor did he care for the cultures of either world. Working entirely on his own, he taught himself Caligari TrueSpace, an easy-to-use, less-expensive alternative to more high-end programs such as 3D Studio Max, to create the models, and used Adobe Photoshop, with which he was already familiar, to create textures. Erik also created replicas of his friends’ avatars for use in this new hood. He created the textures by hand, rather than appropriating them from the Uru game software, because he did not want to infringe on any of Cyan or Ubi’s copyrights. For the same reason, he also alerted Cyan and a representative of the company came and viewed the Atmosphere hood, but did not contact him further. Erik took this as an indication that it was safe to proceed.

In an interview, Erik cited his favorite aspect of Uru: ‘the water…that was the genius of the hood—as well as other places (in Uru). Placing a fountain in the hood meant that people would gather there…because people are drawn to water -- esp running water’ [sic]. As a practitioner, I knew that architects and urban planners are well aware that water, whether as a natural feature or a man-made element, is a major attractor in public space. As Erik put it, ‘look at any piazza in any italian [sic] city. or the water cooler at the office for that matter. water is life, therefore people seek water’. Erik began his re-creation of the hood with the fountain, ‘the centerpiece of anything Uru’. Indeed the importance of the fountain can clearly be seen, as it is a recurring artifact that appears in many different player-created instantiations of Uru. (Figure 6.5)

Figure x: Erik’s custom-made avatars hanging out at a re-creation of the Uru fountain in his Atmosphere Hood.


Figure x: Detail of Erik's Atmosphere Hood.


Initially, Erik released the fountain courtyard area of the hood, and then later added some other rooms of his own invention. (Figure x) Using their custom-made avatars, players began to meet in the ‘Atmos Hood’ as players came to call it, typically 10-12 concurrently, at a fixed weekly time. A regular meeting time for the MUD (multi-user domain/dungeon) of Saturday noon (to accommodate European players) was supplanted by Lynn to encourage people to gather in Erik’s Atmosphere Hood on a regular basis. This scheduling activity on Lynn’s part exemplifies the ways in which TGU members worked to support each other’s efforts to keep the community together. It is also interesting to note that while Erik was considered a very active member of the community, the only instantiation of Uru immigrant culture in which he actively participated was the Atmosphere Hood.

Figure x: Erik's attempt at creating a new Uru Age in Atmosphere.


Assimilation/Transculturation

In the context of immigration, the term ‘assimilation’ generally implies an immigrant group assimilating to its new locale. In the case of TGU, it is clear that, over time, a process of mutual assimilation occurred between TGUers and Thereians. This might equate to what Fernando Ortiz calls ‘transculturation’ (Ortiz 1947), in which a cultural context adapts to new arrivals as much as the immigrant group adapts to its new milieu. Over time, TGU players made major contributions to the There.com community, and eventually became fully integrated, while still maintaining their group identity. The University of There, for instance, founded by TGU member Wingman, was composed primarily of Damanji’s Uru-inspired ‘Cone Houses’. Damanji became not only TGU’s lead artisan, and also one of the top developers in There.com. Other TGU members took leadership roles in fashion design, art creation and curating, sporting events, event hosting, performance, and building, as well as There.com’s Member Advisory Board. Through the social mediation of the world, Uru immigrants have become ‘Uruvian-Thereians’, in the same way that Italian immigrants to the U.S. became ‘Italian Americans’. As a result, Uruvians have become an integral part of There.com’s culture, economy and political structure.

TGU member Cola, in an essay entitled A Thereian makes peace with the Urufugee within, making several word plays based on Myst content (including the last line, which is quoted Uru) voiced it this way:
The merging of the soul of the Urufugee into the citizen of There is happening. It wasn’t without its tantrums of not wanting to merge, not wanting to believe Uru was gone and the guilty feelings of actually enjoying something other than Uru. But time does tell and there will always be the memories of D’ni and having been together there. Perhaps we could have a dual citizenship; Uruvian and Thereian. I have Myst being in D’ni, my soul, heart and being were Riven from D’ni, I am an Exile from the place where I want to be yet Uru has been put to bed. But perhaps the ending has not yet been written.
It is hard to say what percentage of the There.com population is comprised of Uruvian immigrants, as There.com management will not release subscriber numbers. However, of the estimated 10,000 players who played Uru Live, TGU appears to be the largest single group of Uru refugees, and is considered by many in the Uru community at-large to be the strongest in terms of group cohesion.

The trajectory of the TGU experience in There.com demonstrates the power of play communities to remain together even in the face of adversity. The profound and deep connection formed by ‘partners in play’ suggests that play activity has unique social qualities to form sustainable long-term affiliations. With the help of online communications tools, these can be sustained well beyond the term of the original play context in which they were formed. The unique style and personality of the group can also be transplanted into another play context or ‘ecosystem’ where it will adapt to new conditions, while maintaining its essential attributes and group cohesion.


Uru Reclaimed


Concurrently with both Erik’s ‘Atmos Hood’ and the TGU migration into There.com and other virtual worlds, and the Second Life re-creation of Uru, a group of Uru fan/ hackers who were actively working on restoring the original game succeeded in reverse-engineering the server software. Because of their loyalty toward Cyan, however, they approached the developer with a proposal: grant special permission to players to run Cyan’s Uru server software on their own servers. This arrangement came to fruition in summer of 2004 under the auspices of Until Uru, and the TGU shard became active in August of 2004. The Until Uru game was, as one player put it, ‘exactly as we left it’, in other words, there were no new Ages or new gameplay. The hacker group also continued to conduct experiments with their reverse-engineered server infrastructure, including attempting to create new Ages.
The origins of the creation of Until Uru seem deeply embedded in the gameplay. As Xploros, Uru’s community manager, who held that title until the summer of 2005, described it:
There had always been a segment of the community that ‘hacked’ and reverse engineered the Uru software…The Myst world is very dedicated to puzzle solving, and self-reliance, and that the experience of the participant could be immersive in many ways. And when Uru was hacked, it was found that there was additional material that made it clear that some expectation of such hacking was built into the game…which had no internal game function, but were enjoyed immensely by those who discovered this hidden material. 

After that, and especially after the closure of Uru, the community (congregating mostly on one of the fan sites…) began reverse engineering the Uru Live servers, and quickly gaining enough success to be able to predict a public run server to be released at some point. At this time they began talking to Cyan so as to secure permission for this effort.

Based on prior posts and conversations, one would have assumed that players would return to Until Uru and abandon their settlements in other virtual worlds. However, this was not the case. Uru refugees had already, to a certain extent, assimilated to their new environs. Rather than the anticipated return to their homeland, Until Uru was lauded as something special. TGU members began meeting there regularly at noon on Sundays, a date and time that allowed for all of the international members to participate. Players also conducted special events in the Until Uru shards, such as a St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the D’ni Olympics, originally founded by TGU member Maesi. A number of TGU members remained disinclined to visit Until Uru; they saw it as a symbol of the past, and preferred, in their words, ‘to move forward’.
The introduction of Until Uru also provided the opportunity for newer members of TGU who had never played Uru before (including the author of this study) to experience the game firsthand. My own experience of Until Uru came in the Fall of 2004, shortly after the TGU shard was opened. Having heard about and seen Uru through the eyes of players, via their homages and simulations, for about six months, entering the world about which I knew so much but had never before visited brought another dimension of insight to the research.

I was already familiar with both the places and artifacts of Uru through both player-created instantiations and descriptions of them. TGU members were very excited to take me through the different Ages of Uru, help me with the puzzles, and show me the different areas of their beloved home world. They knew the nooks, crannies and nuances of the game in detail, and one of their greatest pleasures continued to be showing the original Uru game to the uninitiated. Furthermore, almost everything in Uru has special meaning, which players relish sharing. For those who knew TGU members in other games, venturing into Until Uru explained a great deal about the group and its unique characteristics. Visiting Uru exposed one to the source of key symbols, images and artifacts that are referred to repeatedly by Uru groups in other virtual worlds. Understanding the importance of those artifacts to Uruvians was key to understanding the group and its particular personality, which will be described in more detail in the sections on Communities of Play and TGU Play Styles.

Although Until Uru did not include any new Ages, Cyan did release extension packs for the game after the server closure, and the hacker group behind Until Uru also created some new add-on packs. Players invented, both using these new capabilities, and by exploiting design features or bugs, a plethora of new gameplay activities within the Uru world.
Comments

"Based on prior posts and conversations, one would have assumed that players would return to Until Uru and abandon their settlements in other virtual worlds. However, this was not the case. Uru refugees had already, to a certain extent, assimilated to their new environs...."



Perhaps this group would have returned in a more substantial way to Until Uru if there was the promise of more content. The community has now settled in a variety of worlds which are being maintained and are moving forward with new content and new members. I believe there would be greater numbers returning to the cavern if there was the ability for members to create new content as they have become accustomed to in THERE, Second Life and other places.

Posted by: Raena | February 05, 2006 at 05:13 PM

Self-Determination

Because of the trauma they had been dealt at the hands of Cyan and Ubisoft, Uru players felt particularly sensitive about the their relationships with the corporations that governed them. This trauma reared its ugly head once again on ‘Black Friday’, May 21, 2004, when only a few months after TGU’s arrival, There.com threatened to close. Players petitioned and the company agreed not to close the game if current players could find a way to increase subscriptions. In very short order, subscription rates were brought up and There.com was saved. It is likely that this experience of feeling as though they were at the wrath of corporations is also what fueled TGU’s ongoing involvement in There.com’s Member Advisory Board. They did not want a repeat of the Uru eviction.

Technical savvy is one means of empowerment against the tyranny of corporate governance. Erik was motivated to learn two entirely new software packages in order to assure total control of his instantiation of Uru. And the Until Uru hacker group used their ability to hack the server as a means of leveraging in negotiations with the game’s developers. They astutely understood that the demonstration of power was better than its use. Cyan, well aware that Uru players were part of the core fan base for all their games, supported the hacker group’s efforts. Conversely, although Ubi and Cyan are aware of the various Uru-derived projects taking place throughout the ‘ludisphere’, they have never attempted to intervene or interfere with any Uru player initiatives.
For TGU members, Koalanet became their safe haven of self-determination. It was the clearing house for all things TGU, and spanned across all of the TGU settlements across multiple MMOWs. Through it, TGUers could safely traverse the ludisphere and still maintain control over the collective identity and destiny.

Over time, Uru players, both TGUers and others, have slowly taken over ownership of the Myst brand. While many players began by simulating artifacts from the original Uru games, eventually they began to create their own Uruesque objects. Uru fans like ‘collie’ who, at a recent Mysterium fan convention presented her Uru-themed quilts, are even taking the Uru culture out into the real world. Players who may ultimately know more than developers about the worlds they create feel both inspired and empowered to add their own creative contributions to the ‘database’ of the game’s narrative and culture. This type of emergent fan culture can clearly be seen in cases such as Star Trek’s ‘Trekkie’ phenomenon (Jenkins 1992); thus we find such player creations as ‘Pocket D’ni Dictionary’ among the new ‘extra-virtual’ artifacts that players create. In the summer of 2005, Myst and Uru fans in Second Life even created Inara, a completely new game designed in the Myst/Uru tradition.

A year and a half after Uru Live was put to bed, players still entertained hopes that the game would some day reopen, with all the planned Ages added. These hopes were put to rest when Cyan announced in September of 2005 that they were retiring the Myst legacy. While this news saddened fans, they themselves were already taking the initiative to transition the Myst world into a fan-owned and operated phenomenon. Uruvian-Thereians and successfully deployed their ‘emergent Age’ strategy; Second Life players had already created an entirely original Age; and the hacker group that had instigated Until Uru, which had been in negotiation with Cyan to release their Age-building tools, released a beta of the first player-made Uru Age in November of 2005.
These trends in productive play suggest that Uru and Myst players have already taken on the task of keeping Uru and Myst alive by preserving the game’s culture in other virtual worlds, and by expanding and extending the Myst/Uru world through the creative application of their own skills and imaginations.
But as players were fond of saying, the ending had not yet been written…Uru was to reopen…and then re-close…only a few short years later.
The Inner Lives of Avatars

Avatar Representation


The avatar is the essential ‘unit’ within the ‘network’ of the play community, and is the means whereby the individual player interacts with both other players and the ‘ecosystem’ of the play environment.

While the avatar is the primary form of expression provided to players in an MMOW, it is as much if not more the expression of the world’s designers as it is that of the players. Designers determine what modes of representation, and thus what forms of expression, are available to players. “In doing so,” points out media artist and theorist Allucquére Rosanne Stone, “they are articulating their own assumptions about bodies and sociality and projecting them onto the codes that define cyberspace systems(Stone 1991).” T. L. Taylor echoes these thoughts in terms of the intentions (or lack thereof) of the game designers when they articulate the qualities that player characters in games are to have (Taylor 2003a). These sometimes unconscious assumptions and intentions permeate every aspect of every virtual world, from the design of individual avatars, to the world’s narrative and values, to its “karma systems” of cause and effect. Player rewards naturally influence behavior, and as discussed earlier, players with certain sets of values tend to gravitate towards certain types of games and virtual worlds whose values they share.






Figure x: The author’s avatars from EverQuest (left) and Lineage 2 (right).

If the avatar is framed as a form of personal expression, as performance medium, it is not hard to see the ways in which the components of the ‘avatar kit’ dictate the forms of expression that occur. In most MMOGs, avatar creation involves an elaborate system of races, classes and skills statistics that are deeply tied to game mechanics; body types tend to be hyper-sexualized, and wardrobe options are tied to the statistical value of the gear in combat. (Figure 7.1) In Uru and the other virtual worlds described here, avatar creation is primarily aesthetic, the choices limited but straightforward. (Figure 7.2) Since Uru has no points, avatar design is not tied in any way to point values or game mechanics. Avatars are clearly human, with reasonably natural proportions, and for each gender, players can pick from a menu of hair styles, facial features, unusually modest clothing items (for an MMOG), and color palettes for skin, hair and clothing, including the ability to show thinning or graying hair. This was an astute design choice, possibly made in anticipation of the game’s demographics, and building off the Myst games’ known fan base. It is interesting that the designers chose not to follow the conventions of a traditional ‘role-playing’ game, which would have put players in the roles of D’ni or Bahro. Rather, they invited players to become explorers in the Myst world, giving them the implied option to do so as themselves.

Figure x: Uru avatar creation.


Uru players’ inter-world migration presented the need to compare aspects of avatar expressiveness in different virtual worlds. When TGUers began to look at alternatives to Uru, they had already formed strong attachments to their Uru avatars; therefore, one goal was to replicate their Uru ‘avies’ within the constraints of the new game’s avatar creation system. For some, the cartoony avatars of There.com looked too much like Mattel’s Barbie and Ken dolls of the 1960s, and forced players to present as 22 year-olds. Avatars tended to be shapely, although there was some leeway to create more plump physiques. Some players actually liked the Disney-esque aesthetic, and one player posited the theory that this style might also have resonated culturally with the generation represented by many members of the group, the majority of whom who were in their forties and fifties. They also argued that There.com avatars were more expressive in terms of animation and gesture. ‘Here’, TGU Mayor Leesa pointed out with reference to There.com, ‘our avatars breathe’. (Figure 7.3)

Figure x: Avatar modification at one of There.com’s spas.


Figure x: Avatar modification in Second Life


Those in favor of Second Life argued that the avatars were more realistic and allowed for more customization, making it easier to re-create their Uru avatars; however, some found Second Life’s avatar animations to be stiff and unnatural. (Figure x)

All of these nuanced arguments evince the importance of players’ feelings about their avatars in both their sense of identity and their comfort within the virtual world. These arguments also highlight the fact that the avatar, at least in the case of these players, was viewed more as a form of expression than a symbol or measure of skills and status. Because these were persistent identities, for most players, the appearance and expressive qualities (such as animation) of avatars were a key factor in their migration preferences.


Becoming and Losing an Avatar


As mentioned earlier, the introduction of the avatar into the Myst world was a new feature to the Uru game, the importance of which cannot be overemphasized. All of the Myst games that preceded Uru put the player in the first-person perspective with an ambiguous identity. These games were effective at simulating immersion, the panacea to virtual reality at that time (Rheingold 1991).
As enjoyable as they were, however, Myst and its derivatives were very lonely games in which most of the world appeared abandoned. Few characters appeared during gameplay, and the player was not embodied in any way. From a Game Studies perspective, I am not aware of any other game franchise that provides the opportunity to compare a first-person vs. an avatar-based experience, but it is clear that even before entering the multiplayer world, this new feature produced a paradigm shift in the affect of the player experience.

Having an avatar—that is, a representation of yourself—is a prerequisite to being in a multiplayer world. However, even before players encountered other avatars in the multiplayer Uru Live, they had already had the experience of avatar embodiment through Uru Prime. Because Uru’s avatar creation left open the option to play themselves in game (as opposed to a fantasy role) many players created modified versions of themselves to inhabit the game. Compared to other games, there were remarkably few instances of trans-gender avatar creation. In the case of TGU, of 450 people at is maximum group size, only three known cases of trans-gendered play occurred, whereas in typical MMOGs as many as half the female avatars in-world may actually be played by male players. As Wingman put it: ‘I suggest their avatars resemble the way they want to think of themselves’.

All of the TGU players interviewed also described feeling that their avatars were ‘the same person’ across all the virtual worlds they inhabited. One recurring theme among the TGU players I spoke to was that the avatar was a window into the soul through which you could see the real person. This seemed to be the case regardless of whether avatar representation was fixed (as in Uru), somewhat flexible (as in There.com) or entirely malleable (as in Second Life). Thus persistent identity seemed more relevant than consistent representation, although the visual recognition of the identity is clearly also a factor, especially in the development of long-term relationships.vi
Raena, a long-standing TGU member and the group’s cartographer, described it this way: ‘Uru was the first game I ever played where I was an actual avatar…I discovered after spending all those hours…I kind of felt that I was living vicariously through the avie who was exploring the game…it was nice to see yourself, or think of yourself as a person within the game’. She equated it with the real-life phenomenon of ‘proprioception’, that is, the perception of where our bodies are in space, and this added another dimension to the game. Part of what Raena enjoyed were the ways in which embodiment afforded new forms of play within the world she knew and loved so well. She cites jumping as one of the fun things she could do with her new avatar. A sense of embodiment gave new and perhaps more resonant meaning to the virtual space she was inhabiting. She also found that over time she identified more and more with her ‘avie’ and also with those of other people. ‘I found in Uru’, she says, ‘I was kind of “feeling” the avie’.

Lynn, the Deputy Mayor of both the TGU group en masse and its settlement within There.com, enjoyed the avatar instantiation for other reasons. Due to a spinal condition, the once-active Lynn was confined to wheelchair. The avie had two significances for her:

I…didn’t even know what an avatar was until Uru. And all of a sudden I would be able to run and jump and walk and not have to worry about a damn (wheel) chair…or if a curb got in the way…it was to me a total sense of freedom to be the type of person that I was before. I was a very active person. And when I lost that I had no idea this opportunity existed…It just gave me such a great feeling. And I think that’s why I asked when (Uru) closed if we could come to a place that would also have avatars…because we have a chat program on Koalanet that would hold up to 600 (people). In avie you get to still play and run.
Thus for Lynn, the avatar became a kind of social augmentation. The ‘level playing field’ enabled by the avatar liberated her from her bodily constraints. It also availed her community of her energetic play style and considerable leadership skills. Lynn’s case contrasts sharply with arguments that online life is ‘disembodied’. On the contrary, in Lynn’s case the avatar experience has been a case of re-embodiment. Being able to help people brought her out of a deep depression she suffered as a result of her physical condition. “…I volunteered all of my adult life. This situation that we’re in with avatars allows me to continue to feel like I’m a productive citizen, a helpful person, where I can still be useful.” (Figure x)

Figure x: TGU Deputy Mayor Lynn exploring Until Uru.


Seeing oneself inside the Myst world had a profound effect not only on Lynn but also on all the TGU members. Indeed, part of the anguish of the initial loss of the Uru server stemmed from this deep connection that players had formed to their avatars. Once again, Raena gives expression to this experience:

February 13, 2004, 02:31:48 pm

Inspired by Scarlet and Aria I have written a few awkward words about our avatars and our relationship with them. For through our avatars in D'ni we made relationships with each other.


Avi in D'ni
by Raena of Katran
It began as a request: 'Create Player'
and you were led to the wardrobe to make choices.
To pick hair, color and cloths.
To be old or be young, or maybe rotund,
you could even change the length of your nose.
Those choices you made created an avatar that day,
your new life as Avi in D’ni.
Remember when you first felt scared,
of thunder or strange looking creature?
Did your heart skip a beat when you fell off a cliff?
Did you feel better when you wound up in Relto?
That moment was when you and Avi became one,
your true innerself.
Your soul free from the physical world
to be the person inside.
So precious!


In Uru your Avi found a level playing field.
Free from cultural pressures and bias.
Free to express emotion, say how you feel.
You could walk, run and dance,
see and be seen,
love and be loved.
We were family as Avi in D'ni.


Now our avatars are gone,
our souls are stripped bare.
We cry tears for our loved and lost Avi.
And here we will stay, as we wait for the day,
when we're once again Avi in D'ni.

Raena


The way Raena’s poem builds on others that preceded it highlights the role of social feedback, helping to generate a discourse by building on a shared experience. The ability to safely express feelings that might otherwise be frowned upon is a significant characteristic of this group. Safety begets safety, and as each player came forth with his or her deepest feelings, others followed in kind with their own expressions.

This poem also gives us additional insight into what the loss of the server meant; one lost ones friends and one’s virtual self. As Raena explained, it was a kind of death. This is quite distinct from the kind of death avatars in games like EverQuest experience—these are frequent and temporary deaths, similar to restarting a level in a game. You are revived, re-spawned, perhaps penalized by a loss of gear or experience points, but your avatar identity lives on. This was a permanent death, not of the people, but of their avatar personae in the virtual world.

What this suggests is that the avatar is neither entirely ‘me’, nor entirely ‘not me’, but a version of me that only exists in a particular mediated context. When that context, and with it the avatar, ceases to be, that part of the self dies as well. That part of the self, expressed and projected through the avatar in a shared virtual world, is as much a creation of the group as the group is a creation of the individuals within it. This echoes the ‘me/not me’ paradox of Winnecott and Schechner described in Book I. (Schechner 1988b; Winnicott 1971)
Comments

Looking back I find my fondest memories of this time frame are the poems we read and the poems we wrote. Safety among friends? Perhaps. For me at least it felt like we all were of one mind, writing with one hand and one heart.



Posted by: Raena | April 07, 2006 at 01:58 PM

The Social Construction of Identity


Rather than being a matter of individual agency, these findings suggest that avatar identity evolves through a process of interaction with others. Thus, the avatar identity is what sociologists would call an ‘intersubjective accomplishment’, the product of an ongoing and dynamic set of social transactions and feedback—in other words, emergence.
The oft-forgotten node in these transactions is the game designer. The game itself, the play ecosystem, is the medium through which these transactions occur, and the mediation is of their making. Thus the intersubjective achievement is really a three-way collaboration between the individual player, the community and the designers of the world, who present not as avatars but as the game and its ‘ecosystem’.

Perhaps the best illustration of the process of emergent identity formation is the way in which Leesa became the reluctant leader of a group of over 450 people. Ordinarily, one might think of ‘leadership’ as anathema to emergence, which is by definition a bottom-up process. However, Leesa did not really set out with the objective of being a leader. Rather, she grew into the role through a process of social feedback—as more and more players joined the group, she developed a sense of leadership and responsibility towards them, as indicated by her making a point to spend equal time in each of the three TGU shards in the original Uru. Even the fact that she did not post her ‘rules’ until after the group had begun to grow supports this bottom-up theory of leadership. Later, when she moved into There.com, most TGU members followed her, although she made a point to avoid making any official decree on the subject. In fact, shortly after the migration, Leesa made an attempt to abandon the group entirely, due to stress and real-life health problems. But TGUers begged her back and she returned to the fray. One tactic she used to mitigate the pressure that came with leadership was to create the TGU Council; this created a way to distribute both responsibility and power. Throughout this process, Leesa had a growing awareness of her importance to the group, and this awareness of who her avatar was becoming also had an impact on the person behind the avatar.

This pattern of social identity construction appears again in the case of artisans. The more positive feedback they received, whether social or economic, the more motivated they were to create. Damanji, who made architectural elements, vehicles, and clothing, Maesi, who made clothing, Shaylah and Raena, who created virtual paintings, are just a few examples within the Uru group. Within There.com, player designers become minor celebrities, known for their aesthetic style and productivity. Furthermore, the more positive feedback players get, the more they tend to experiment. Thus even personal, individual style appears to evolve through a process of social feedback.

One of the most interesting cases of the social construction of identity arises around gender. As mentioned, earlier, trans-gender play is a common practice in online games, although in general, it does not seem to equate with real-life trans-gender behavior. Designers of Ultima Online (Garriott 1996), for instance, were surprised to discover that while 50% of the avatar characters in-game were female, only 20% of the actual players were, suggesting that a little less than half the female avatars were being played by men (Koster 2001). A small amount of gender switching did occur within the TGU group. In each case, the player eventually revealed his true gender (all three cases were of men playing women), and in each case, the outcome of how this should be dealt with was largely decided by the group. One TGUer played a female consistently and effectively, even with the introduction of voice, for eighteen months before revealing the gender of her ‘real-life avie’. When the decision as to whether or not to continue playing the female avatar was vetted with the group, it became clear that, although they supported the player’s personal choice, the majority of TGUers had become attached to the female character. After a brief period of adjustment, including attempts by the player to use a male avatar, eventually, by something of an unspoken consensus, he returned to the female avatar as his primary in-game character. He continued to use the female voice in-world, even though other players were now aware he was male.

In some respects, it is difficult to tell where group identity ends and individual identity begins. While Western Culture tends to reify individual identity and agency, this apparent ambiguity between group and individual identity may be more reflective of non-Western cultures, which view the individual on more of a continuum with the group as a whole (Jackson 1998). In the case of TGU, self-identifying as Uru refugees meant that the individual avatar identity was inextricably tied to the group identity. This collective identity both compelled and enabled the migration of individual identity to other virtual worlds.

In interviews, players would often speak in the collective we, identifying qualities and values of the group. The majority of these group indicators were couched in terms of play styles, e.g., ‘We are explorers; we are puzzle solvers; we do not like violence’, suggesting that a large factor in group identity had to do with their signature play style and values. Other qualities were tied to social interaction styles. ‘We are tolerant and respectful of others; we do not join factions; we avoid drama’.
Many of the play styles cited are directly tied to the play patterns of Uru, but the group style of TGU is distinctive, even within the Uru community, for its particular social values, epitomized by ‘Leesa’s Rules’. On the other hand, most TGU players asserted that those social values also arise out of the type of person that is attracted to a game like Uru. In interviews with key TGU leaders, all agreed that most in the group would never have gravitated towards a first-person-shooter or medieval role-playing game. Thus, even social values are intermingled with the game insomuch as they may be an attractor to certain player types.
An interesting linguistic idiosyncrasy highlights the relationship between the individual and the social. According to some TGU members, the word ‘Uru’ means ‘you are you’ in the D’ni language, a fitting name for a game involving avatars. However, both the official game web site and fan created D’ni dictionaries give the meaning of Uru as ‘a community or large gathering’. This contradiction provides a clue to the core quality of TGU: that the individual and group identities are integrally related to one another.

One of the most surprising outcomes of the study was the extent to which my own role as ethnographer became socially constructed through interaction with the group. I was conscious of the fact that my presence was going to have some kind of impact on the group, but even from the beginning was surprised by how this played out. When I first began interviewing TGU members, it was clear that my presence in their midst was having a therapeutic effect. Clearly they needed to talk about their experiences, and they appreciated having a willing ear. Far from meeting resistance, players were more than happy to talk to me, often for hours, about what they had been through. I was amazed at how forthcoming they were, and over time I began to develop an integral role for the group.

Over time, however, this role developed and transformed. In the Fall of 2004, a crisis precipitated by a magazine interview, and described briefly in the methodology section, caused me to rethink some of my methodological assumptions, but also shifted the dynamics of my relationships with the participants. It was at this point that I began to develop personal friendships with individual TGU members. Two members, Bette and Wingman, conspired to ‘turn the tables’ on me by requesting an interview for the There University newsletter. This created a further shift in the dynamics with the group. By the time I attended the There Real Life Gathering, I had become a fully matriculated member of TGU, and it became clear that the group had had much more impact on me than I had on the group.

Avatar Presence and Intersubjectivity


Based on interviews with TGU members, it appears that over the long term, players form strong emotional bonds with their avatars, as do members of their social circle. This may explain why a) losing the avatar can be so traumatic, b) switching to a different avatar identity can often be a difficult transition, not only for the player but for other members of the play community. Players also reported missing their own avatars, as well as the avatars of players who had switched characters, even if the players themselves were still present in the game using a different avatar.

Avatar experiences described by players contrast sharply with earlier theories about presence handed down to us from high-end virtual reality research of the 1990’s (Rheingold 1991). This branch of research has held the long-standing belief that first-person experiences create the greatest degree of presence, i.e., a sense of ‘being there’, within a virtual world. Enhancing and perfecting sensory inputs and so-called ‘embodied’ interaction was seen as the primary means of increasing this quality of presence. However, this and other avatar research suggests a different conclusion: that having a representation of the self visible inside the world may actually enhance the sense of presence, as well as the sense of embodiment.

Based on the outcomes of this research, this seems to stem from four contributing factors, each of which has to do with intersubjectivity. First, seeing a representation of oneself projected into the virtual world appears to enhance ones ability to emotionally project into the world, whether it be single- or multiplayer. Second, the sense of proprioception (the awareness of where our bodies are in space) produced by the avatar may create a more direct relationship with the 3D world, particularly through play, running, jumping, etc. Third, the emotional attachment to the player’s character seems to create a deep connection both to other avatars and to the virtual world they share. Finally, it may be that one of the key aspects of experiencing presence in an online virtual world is the quality of being perceived within a play context, or, as MacKinnon put it, in cyberspace ‘I am perceived, therefore I am’ (MacKinnon 1995). I would take this one step further and argue that the ability to be perceived through one’s play identity creates a unique mode of being perceived that may not be shared in other modes of computer-mediated communication.
Thus it may be that a sense of social presence within the play space is more emotionally compelling to some players than a sense of physical presence. Part of the reason for this may be the relationship between social presence and flow, which will be covered in more depth in the subsequent section.

Comments

Perhaps "immersion" technology is not sufficient to allow one to look down and see one's avatar hands and feet, or look into a mirror, or gain an adequate feel one's presence spatially. THERE offers a first person mode, which is rarely used. Uru has a first person mode as well but was only useful to get a close up look at some clue or other object intrinsic to gameplay. As in THERE, first person in Uru is rarely used for person-to-person interaction.

The ability to see your avatar on the screen defines where you are in-world in relation to the others. Called ‘third person mode’ my mind quickly adapted to this and as they say in sports ‘be the ball’. In "third person" mode you "be the avi". I have observed people in the Uru group excusing themselves when violating each other’s space. A good example is in Uru where it is possible to pass through each other when moving. It is common to hear someone say ‘sorry’, or ‘I felt that’.

Posted by: Raena | February 05, 2006 at 05:20 PM



It is interesting the number of people who dream about their online worlds on a regular basis and who are their avie in the dreams, not their "real life" self.



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