Chapter 4: an imaginary homeland: a polyphonic cultural history


Porous Magic Circles and the “Ludisphere”



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Porous Magic Circles and the “Ludisphere”

As mentioned in Book I, the magic circle has become an important principle in digital Game Studies, especially as the introduction of the computer creates an additional boundary around the game experience that is generally held to be sacrosanct (Salen and Zimmerman 2004). Castronova has even argued for a more hermetic enforcement of the magic circle, suggesting that ‘real world’ concerns, such as politics and popular culture, should not be allowed to leak into virtual worlds to destroy the suspension of disbelief or tamper with the world’s integrity (Castronova 2004-2005). This position has some unintentional clashes with contemporary anthropology, a discipline currently confronting a transition from the traditional paradigm of studying ‘primitive’ cultures cut off from outside influence to the study of cultures within a mediated, global context (Marcus 1986). Thus it is unclear if Castronova’s call for ‘purity’ in any world, whether real or virtual, is even attainable.
The findings of this study suggest that, just as contemporary world cultures must be looked at in a global context, online virtual worlds must be looked at in the context of the ‘ludisphere’, the larger framework of all networked play spaces on the Internet, as well as within the larger context of the ‘real world’. In this context, as with real-world culture, it may be more useful see the landscape in terms of a series of overlapping and nested magic circles, the outermost being the ‘real world’, with transactions taking place through membranes more porous than has previously been suggested.

Ludic Leakage and Multitasking

One quality of computer games that distinguishes them from console games is that computers are multipurpose tools. Not only that, but due to the affordances of multi-windowed operating systems such as the Macintosh operating system and its antecedent, Windows, players can engage in multiple activities at the same time, also known as multitasking. In addition, the fact that the computer is the primary portal to the Internet means that players can do various tasks, including game-playing, while toggling back and forth between web pages and browsers. This means that players might be conducting “real life” activities on their computer in tandem with or simultaneous to their game playing. In addition, audio features, such as voice in There.com and voice-over IP also predispose networked computer games to a variety of whit might be termed “ludic leakagages.”


Traversing Magic Circles


One of the most significant findings of this study is that the magic circle, the invisible boundary that distinguishes play activities from ‘real life’, is far more porous than previously assumed. The prevailing wisdom that the magic circle that surrounds a game activity is inviolate and impervious needs to be re-examined, particularly in the context of cyberspace. The Uru Diaspora in general, and specifically by TGU, exemplify play communities carrying their unique play styles across magic circles, and adapting it to each new play ecosystem they encounter. These trans-ludic encounters also introduce leakages between play, imagination and ‘real life’. Thus it may be more useful to think of clusters of intersecting and overlapping magic circles within the larger constellation of networked play spaces, which we might call the ‘ludisphere’, which exists in the larger frame of ‘real life’. The subsequent section will explore this notion a little further, and also talk about the ways in which persistent individual and group identities reinforce movement among different magic circles within the ludisphere.

Migrating Individual and Group Identities

The practice of maintaining either group or individual identities that cross multiple game worlds extends far beyond the Uru TGU group. Inter-game immigration is becoming increasingly commonplace. Guilds from medieval-themed MMOGs are known to inhabit several games simultaneously, or in some cases, move en mass into a newly released game; creating a form of market cannibalism between games of the same genre. Immigrants from The Sims Online have a community in There.com. Small numbers of players have immigrated between There.com and Second Life, and some keep a primary residence in one and a vacation home the other. There are also groups, such as Uru’s Welcomers’ League, who extend their mission to greet new players beyond their game of origin into other worlds.

Although TGU identifies collectively as a single group, as we’ve seen, they play and carry persistent identities concurrently across no less than five different networked environments: There.com, Until Uru (running on player-hosted servers), Second Life, TGU’s own Atmosphere Hood, and the Koalanet Forum, which serves as a central communication hub across all the virtual worlds the group inhabits. They also augment these environments with voice-over-IP software such as Skype or Teamspeak.
The collective group identity both enables and creates the necessity for identities that persist across virtual worlds. And while their representations may vary from world to world based on the capabilities of each virtual environment, most players who have these sorts of multi-world avatar identities conceive of the character as ‘the same person’. It would also seem that in the case of TGU, the diasporic element also served to reinforce the need for itinerant or portable identities. (Figure 11.1) Players were determined to ‘stay together’, both in an individual sense (‘stay together with my avatar’), and in a social sense (‘stay together with my community.’)

Figure x: Left to Right: TGUers Lynn (left) and Nature_Girl (right) in Uru, There.com, and Second Life respectively.

Practices of inter-game immigration and multi-world identities present some fascinating new research questions which ought to be of interest to game developers, who often have no way to track where players have gone once they have left a game. Furthermore, the implications of multi-game identities are particularly interesting when looking at issues of player representation and game mechanics. Because the affordances for avatar design and modification differ so greatly from world to world, players may find that differences in avatar representations may also lead to differences in personality, even in the same ‘character’, from one world to another. Groups may also evolve in different ways as they come in contact with new play ecosystems cultures, especially as they move between MMOW genres. Further developing methods for tracking and studying player migration patterns could potentially have a very high level of utility to MMOG designers.


Migrating Play Patterns


Inter-game immigration provides us with an interesting case of emergence in MMOWs. Clearly, immigration is not something intended by designers. Such immigration typically happens slowly over time, but in the case of Uru, a sudden cataclysmic event caused a relatively instantaneous mass immigration. This cataclysmic event created the opportunity to track a relatively large group of players across a number of different virtual worlds in a relatively compressed time period.
The narrative of TGU demonstrates that emergence begins to instantiate through a particular community’s play style, incubated in the group’s game or virtual world of origin, framed by the types of people that world attracts. These players then move into different play ecosystems where they transport and adapt their culture and play styles to the new context. As we’ve seen in the case of Uru settlers in There.com, the new context also adapts to them, a process which can at times be painful. In addition, TGU then took some of the new mutated play patterns they had developed in There.com back into Until Uru, thus bringing another forms of emergence behavior back into their ‘home’ world.

One might see this as an ‘all the world’s a playground’ approach in which, in each new world players encounter, they form a relationship with the virtual space informed and guided by their play style, and the play patterns they have developed in other worlds they inhabit. This echoes Iacovoni, whose small study ‘Game Zone’ explores the many ways that physical and virtual space are subverted in the service of play (Iacovoni 2004). It is also consistent with the Opies’ descriptions of the ways in which different street games mutate from one geographical region to another in the real world, taking advantage of local resources and environmental conditions (Opie and Opie 1969). Furthermore, play will inevitably blur the boundary between spaces as it functions by its own set of rules, independent of surrounding social conventions. Thus spaces are constantly subverted and reconfigured to accommodate the play impulse (Jenkins 1998).

TGU’s play style, insomuch that it is ‘of Uru’, is very much about the emergence of social relationships through their relationship to space. The examples given here illustrate the ways in which experimental play can lead to new patterns ‘indigenous’ to the space they occur in, but characterized by the group’s unique play style. Two good examples are Avie Bowling (Until Uru) and Buggy Polo (There.com), described in Chapter Eight. While these games arise from the same play style, their play pattern is unique to the affordances of each world’s design features and flaws (including bugs). A phenomenon such as the Hairier Legion Flight Team illustrates how when play styles such as mastery and exploration meet a virtual world feature such as air travel, a new play pattern is born. Players accustomed to migrating between multiple game worlds appear to become particularly adept at spontaneously adapting new spaces to their own play requirements.

Migrating Identities and Play Patterns to the Real World


While it may be easy to presume that these phenomena are somehow exclusive to the virtual, it would seem that many of these patterns can also migrate outside of the virtual and into the real world. This was borne out during There.com’s ‘RLG’ (Real Life Gathering), which took place at the San Mateo offices of Makena, Inc., now the owner/operator of There.com, in September of 2005. The TGU group, including spouses and resident ethnographer, comprised slightly less than half the total showing of Thereians.

While some members of the group had had encounters with each other prior to There.com’s Real Life Gathering, for most of them, including the author, this was their first encounter with each other’s ‘real-life avies’. The importance of voice became immediately apparent upon first meeting. One could easily recognize others due to the familiarity of voice, which served as a bridge between the real-life and virtual world avatars. Additionally, many players bore a physical resemblance to their Uru and/or There.com avies, and some arrived dressed in the typical garb of their avatars. (Figure 11.4)



Figure 11.4: Some participants at There.com's Real Life Gathering wore pink bunny slippers (above), an in-world item that allows your avatar to jump higher. Real-world Hairier Legion Flight Team T-shirt. (Images by Raena)




While most of the formal event was focused on panels, discussion groups and showcasing player creativity such as machinima films made in-world, live musical performance and real-life crafts made by players, the most revealing aspect from a research perspective took place the last evening in which we met for dinner in San Francisco, and then returned to the hotel to socialize.


Key characteristics of group members became readily apparent once within an open physical space. Finding parking places and coordinating a meet-up became a kind of puzzle, with members calling each other from mobile phones to arrange a meeting point. The exploratory urge came into action within the context of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, a popular and crowded tourist area. Several groups dispersed to explore, one, lead by Lynn, to visit the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory. This exercise brought into sharp relief the contrast between unencumbered exploration of a virtual world and attempting to navigate a hilly turn-of-the-Century urban area in a wheelchair. Again, rising to the challenge, non-disabled members augmented Lynn’s skills at seeking out ramps, lifts and other pathways to enable her to arrive at her destination. Thus the puzzle-solving urge and spatial literacy were no less present in the real world than to the virtual.

Navigating out of San Francisco and back to San Mateo with Hairier Legion founders Wingman and Shaylah was equally revealing. Negotiation of the best path back to the highway was highly reminiscent of discussions regarding the optimal buggy path from point a to point b in There.com, especially with respect to finding the best shortcut, the most direct or least hilly route.

Once at the Marriott Hotel, I was able to see TGUers in an actual real-world play setting. Thereians, instigated largely by TGUers, transformed the hotel lobby into a play space. Having brought playing cards, players colonized seating arrangements and initiated spades games, re-creating the standard configuration of the spades tables in There.com.
Perhaps the most noteworthy distinction between the real-life and the virtual spades game was that, accustomed to There.com’s built-in computerized scoring system, no-one was really clear on mechanics of keeping score. Once the scoring formula was arrived at, it became apparent that it would not be possible for the players to keep score themselves. Ultimately, Lynn’s husband Frank took the computer’s role as score-keeper. For this and other reasons, the game was lengthier than usual, but it provided valuable insight into the differences and similarities between real-life and mediated interactions.
Players’ sense of humor and approach to the gameplay were similar to their in-world play personae, but with subtle variations. As with both spades in There.com and Heek in Uru, informal spectators stood at the corners of the table. Unlike There.com, however, it was possible for both spectators and players to see people’s cards, opening up the possibility of cheating, entirely absent in There.com’s variation of the game.
The familiar avatar animations were replaced by physical gesture, eye contact, and other features of the ‘real world’, although the voices were the same. This served to create a connection between the real-world persona and the virtual persona, and although the experience was a little disorienting, there was a familiarity to both the company and the scene that made the entire situation seem quite natural.

Comments

Oh My God, this made me laugh and cry at the same time. What a fun time it was meeting you in RL. I hope we can do it again. Meeting each other in RL was as comfortable as putting on a pair of beloved old shoes. We all just "fit" together.

Yes, I agree, the highlight of the gathering for me too was the San Francisco jaunt to the Chocolate Factory and taking over the lobby of the hotel. Too bad they did not have a fountain in the center for us to dance on. ;-)

The other noteworthy event that night was the heroic task Raena performed by walking around and making sure the web-cam was on and trying to show others who could not make it to the gathering what it was like. I heard so many comments on how deeply that was appreciated by those who could only wish they could have joined us. We wished they could have been there physically too but I know they were there in spirit.

Oh yes, and who could forget the little oriental doorman who kept mooching chocolate and getting in the group pics on the stairs of the restaurant? Lord I loved it. HAHA

Hey, who won that spades game anyway?


Posted by: Lynn | January 29, 2006 at 09:08 PM

It was quite an experience getting to the evening dinner event in the "tourist" harbor area of San Francisco. I recall a 2-hour exploration to find a parking space for the large wheelchair enabled van. Various members of the community spontaneously collaborated to help solve this problem, employing use of cell phones, foot excursions... etc. The group quickly found out that RL has its disadvantages! Oh did we long for a hover boat or even just a Linking Book.



Posted by: Raena | February 05, 2006 at 05:43 PM

Raena...thanks for the reminder of the parking co-ordination. I think this is actually a very interesting story because of the 'distributed' nature of the communication that took place. I’ll be sure to include a description of that in Being Artemesia!


Posted by: Artemesia | February 05, 2006 at 10:51 PM

Something else struck me about the jaunt. I felt totally safe in everyone's hands in a strange city without my protective hubby. I appreciated the fact that without my asking the path to follow was discovered in advance of me by all in that group.

It is like it happens in the games. We all see a need and try to fulfill it without question or having to be asked.

Of course my situation was obvious at the time being in a wheelchair, but there was no discussion and because I had made a comment some time before that I really would like to visit the choc factory, it then became a goal for everyone to get me to it.

I had taken a look at the streets and did not think it was possible to get to it but hid my disappointment and did not say a word about it looking like a lost cause so not to have to try and fail and be a drag on everyone. HA HA. Little did I know I was going to be gotten there by hook or crook with this gang.

My desire was acted upon by others calling me across the busy street and saying ‘follow them’. I had no idea until the next block that was the mission we were on. So I figured YAY, lets try and the mission accomplished by many. The forward guard ran interference and lo and behold, the store was found. The route sometimes was a bit round and about but you all got me there. It was worth the trip. :-)


Posted by: Lynn | February 13, 2006 at 03:28 AM

Lynn it's good to hear your perspective on this because it also reinforces some of what I've been saying about the dynamics between the individual and the group, and the fact that every problem encountered becomes a 'puzzle’. This is one of the interesting distinctions I see between Myst and Uru was that Uru added this collaborative puzzle-solving skill to your repertoire.



Posted by: Artemesia | February 27, 2006 at 09:58 AM




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