Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Online Games and Virtual Worlds

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Communities of Play:

Emergent Cultures in Online Games and Virtual Worlds

Celia Pearce

Version 10

May 8, 2008

Editorial notes to Janet:

Don’t worry about references (I am adding those over the weekend), typos or stuff like that as this will be copy-edited and proof-read. Mainly what I’m looking for is your input on content and organization. Please do not be polite. I am open to cutting anything that seems extraneous and does not serve the larger cause of the book.

Table of Contents (Revised 5/8/08)



  • Tom Boellstorff (confirmed)

  • TBD (Janet Murray?)


BOOK I: Games, Community and Emergent Cultures





BOOK II: The Uru Diaspora




BOOK III: Playing Ethnography: Research Methods


BOOK IV: Being Artemesia: The Social Construction of the Ethnographer

BOOK V: Beyond Uru: Communities of Play on Their Own Terms


Applied Cybersociology as Design Research

In 1983, I began a career as a designer of games and interactive media, a passion that has gone through several transmogrifications leading to my present “avatar” as an academic games researcher. The 25-year span of my career has been intertwined with several major paradigm shifts in the world and the communication landscape. 1983 was the year before “The Internet” and the Macintosh computer were born, two years before the first mass-market CD-ROM hit the streets, and ten years before the “World Wide Web” began transforming communications and the economy forever.

When I began working in the field in New York City, there was no term to describe what I did. This was probably for the best since I wasn’t allowed to talk about it anyway due to the nondisclosure agreement I had signed my first day of work. A decade later, returning to my hometown of Los Angeles, “interactive multimedia” was the big buzz. The first exposure I had to the Mosaic web browser (later Netscape) was in the office of a record company executive. The Electronic Entertainment Expo was launched that year. Everything was changing, and rapidly.

The constant thread throughout all my various instantiations can be summed up in three words: social mediated play. The first games I designed were multiplayer games, and I went on to work on public venues for museums and theme parks. I was fascinated by the power of networks to augment social play. It was very apparent that there was great social need for expanded play opportunities among adults. In my initial role as director of play testing, I was constantly surprised by people’s responses to the games we were designing. Over and over, I saw adults using multiplayer games as a way to experiment with social roles, to role-play, to reveal and explore sides of their personalities that might not be accommodated in their day-to-day lives. In a stock trading simulation game we designed, players sat in a semi-circle in front of touch screen consoles that allowed them to trade items. Each player position had a phone. On numerous occasions, I witnessed players turning to the player to the right or the left and asking: “Do you want to trade?” When the other player answered “yes,” the first player would say: “Great. I’ll call you,” then pick up the phone. It was if the telephone gave them permission to take the role of a wheeler-dealer. There were numerous other examples. The metaphor we often talked about for what we did was a masquerade party that combined social interaction, role-play and imagination.

Through this and other experiences in user testing, designing and playing games, I realized the tremendous power of mediated play. During the nineties, I followed the progress of consumer games and interactive media, and noted that they were almost exclusively single-player, a mode of play that was less interesting to me. Because of my preference for social games, I continued to work on high-tech attractions and museum projects, , including Virtual Adventures, a 24-player virtual reality game I designed for Iwerks Entertainment and Evans & Sutherland that won several awards. I also did some consulting on consumer game projects. Naturally, I pushed this in a social direction whenever possible, including a concept for a party-style game show for the short-lived CD-I platform and a trading card series girls to accompany the Purple Moon CD-ROM series.
In the mid-nineties, I developed an interest in the emerging field of online virtual worlds, open-ended play spaces that had the same kind of social and public character as the projects I was accustomed to. They also introduced the notion of player content-creation, and in that sense were the precursors of today’s “Web 2.0” virtual worlds. I began conducting “guided tours of cyberspace” and teaching game and virtual world design. During this period, I was dubbed a “cybersociologist” by some of my clients and peers.
The late 1990s saw yet another quantum shift. The Internet and gaming merged, and online multiplayer games grew from an arcane niche to a mainstream entertainment genre. After a brief slump, virtual worlds reappeared and by all appearance are also becoming mainstream, broadening the audience for networked play significantly.

Why is this design background important? Though my research into multiplayer games and virtual worlds borrows extensively from traditional anthropology, sociology and Internet, and game research, I am, at core, a game designer. Thus, my research continues to explore the intersection between play and technology, between social interaction and design. I am interested not just in how people play in mediated spaces, but specifically in what it is about particular mediated spaces that enables people to play in particular ways.

By bringing together issues of design and mediated social play, this work serves as a form of “design research” that might be characterized as “applied cybersociology.” What do I mean by this? Today’s multiplayer games and virtual worlds are vast in scope, containing hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of players, sometimes rivaling nations in size and population. They are three-dimensional, graphical representations of entire worlds that players, in the guise of “avatars,” can explore, communicate through, and, in some cases, take part in building. Sometimes rivaling nations in population, they have become their own mini-societies that reflect, contrast and illuminate the larger societies they inhabit and connect. Because they are framed as spaces of “play,” they constitute their own unique mediated playgrounds, in which players invent their own rules just as often as they follow those of the designers.
And this is an important point: virtual worlds are designed. Even worlds that are largely emergent, in which most of the content is created by players, are designed. The types of behaviors that occur within them constitute a collaborative exchange between designers and players. Designers have various ideals and ideas, goals and visions, about how their game should be experienced and played. But once the game is “turned on,” the game is no longer in their hands, it is in the hands of its players.
The role of design in the sociological phenomena that play out in online games and virtual worlds (and indeed most online spaces) is often under-explored. Studying design helps us to understand the relationship between the affordances (features) of software applications and the emergent behaviors that propagate within them. It is through the intersection of play and software that emergent behavior develops; emergence does not happen in a vacuum.

Key to this study is investigation of the features of software applications themselves and their role in permitting or hindering emergent behavior. The affordances are not always deliberate on the part of the designer. In fact, it is often the very features that designers take for granted, the errors, oversights or bugs, that provide raw material for emergent behavior. Players, who are at liberty to explore a world for many more hours than the developers, often learn more about these worlds than the designers themselves. In fact, in the study case, they knew enough about the world to recreate it, and even to extend it to create original content. Emergent behavior is highly creative and sets up a kind of meta-game with and against the designers. In some cases, such as cheats and exploits (REF), this can take on an antagonistic character. In other cases, as in this research, the relationship is much more dynamic, with tensions, contentions, and mutual, if sometimes uneasy, respect. For the community this study concerns, its relationship to the developers is a key factor in the overall trajectory of its narrative.


As the title indicates, this book is about two things: communities of play and the emergent cultures they create. By “communities of play” I mean groups of people who come together through an affinity for some form of collective play. Communities of play are not unique to the Internet. They formed “offline” around many different play practices over the centuries, from chess clubs, to historical reenactment, to fantasy role-playing. Their members communities have in common that their members are drawn together by a common interest in a particular type of play that is fundamentally social in nature. Play communities provide their members with unique identity and role and unique opportunities for creativity and expression through play.

Why is this important? Isn’t play for kids? In Western culture, in fact, play is viewed as primarily the domain of children (although arguably, the very concept of “child” is largely a construct of Western thought.) Yet there are many forms of adult play and many communities that form around these shared interests. Many of these activities are discounted as a form of “escapism” for people who need to “get a life.” Yet such forms of adult play culture are on the rise. More and more adults are engaging in online games and virtual worlds, as well as new and traditional “offline” forms of play. Part of what this research will explore is why.
The goal is not to identify some deep neurosis in our culture that causes people to feel they need to escape from “real life.” Rather, it is to understand the appeal of these worlds, to study them on their own terms, and to describe what is actually taking place within them. We are not concerned with placing any particular value judgment on these worlds, rather with observing them as they are, and trying to understand them from the points of the view of the people who inhabit them.

I join an esteemed group of colleagues in this endeavor, many of whom will be invoked in the pages that follow. One of the goals I believe we all share, regardless of our disciplinary orientation, is to pull back the veil on networked play cultures, step away from stereotypes, and paint more nuanced portraits of who is inhabiting these worlds. We wish to understand and to communicate to others what, beyond the sensationalistic and often misleading accounts of journalists, is actually going in these worlds.

The second question addressed by this book is that of emergent cultures. Book I will explore the broader question of emergence in cultures, as well as its specific application to online games. The term “emergence” describes phenomena that unfold through a process of bottom-up self-organization. In fact, the phrase “emergent cultures” is a pleonasm, an expression redundant for effect. All cultures are emergent: they develop over time through a series of incremental collective and group actions. In some cases, they may come into conflict with the top-down agendas of institutional power structures.
Similarly, while player behavior in online games and virtual worlds is highly emergent, game design is not. The design of games and virtual worlds is a very top-down, highly controlled process. The virtual environments are developed by designers, under a controlled structure in which a) a production entity decides what gets made; b) a design team envisions the project and makes a plan, which is followed by c) a production team. But when the cultural artifacts produced as a result of these top-down processes intersect with large groups of individuals who form their own collectivities of various types, they collide with bottom-up processes of social emergence. This is the crux of the book: How do these top-down and bottom-up forms of culture intersect with one another, and what sort of outcomes arise as a result?

At the heart of this book is a very human story about a specific community of play, a community whose collective affinities were so strong that they transcended and outlived the environment that brought it into being. It is a story about an all-too-common narrative of the corporate, top-down institutional structure, which creates, owns and manages networked play spaces, deciding a game has outlived its economic utility and casting its players out into the world to fend for themselves. This is not the first time this has taken place, and it will not be the last.

This is the story of the Uru Diaspora, a group of some 10,000 players who were made refugees when their online game, Uru: Ages Beyond Myst was aborted after just six months of beta testing. These players immigrated into online games and virtual worlds, specifically and Second Life, and formed fictive ethnic communities that sustained the culture and play styles they had developed in Uru. They took advantage of content-creation affordances in these new worlds to develop cultural artifacts that expressed their collective identities. They adapted to the new communities they inhabited and these communities in turn adapted to them. Throughout this process, they were engaged in constant negotiations with corporate entities regarding their status as “community” versus “consumer.” Over time, they developed a sense of self-determination and autonomy that ultimately emboldened them to reclaim Uru in various forms and shape it in their own image.
The story of the Uru Diaspora is a “trans-ludic narrative,” spanning multiple games and virtual worlds. The unique nature of this traversal provides us with insights that are not available through looking at only a single game or virtual world. It reveals common practices across all virtual worlds, such as, etiquette, cultural customs, communication protocols, social status. It also reveals that communities within virtual worlds are typically comprised of subcultures that overlap and interact with each other in interesting, emergent ways, and each of these also has its own customs and protocols.

Why a book?

There are a number of compelling reasons to present this narrative in book form. A book, among the most accessible means of storytelling, provides an intimate glimpse into worlds with which some readers will be familiar, but which many others will be approaching for the first time. Virtual worlds and online games are not for everyone, but the insights they provide can be shared. For those who participate in the cultures of virtual worlds and online games, this narrative provides an insight into a subset of those cultures.

All narratives are a kind of virtual reality in that they seek to transport us to imaginary worlds {Ryan, 2001 #165}. This book is a blend of the fantasy exploration book, such as Gulliver’s Travels, Swiss Family Robinson, or the Chronicles of Narnia, and the classic anthropological monograph, both of which give first-hand accounts of adventures in new lands with new cultures. In this case, I attempt to transport readers to a world that is at once imaginary and real. There is an inherent contradiction in this endeavor. I repeatedly assert in these pages that there is no way to understand the dynamics of play cultures without playing. Yet humans have the remarkable ability through empathy to imagine the experiences of others vicariously, to put themselves in another avatar’s shoes. This is the art and craft of ethnography: to imagine another’s lifeworld and to convey that compellingly to the reader, Willis, after Mills, calls the “ethnographic imagination” {Willis, 2000 #182} {Mills, 1959 #4}.

And my imagined reader? No doubt a scholar or student of virtual worlds, multiplayer games, digital media, or Internet culture will naturally gravitate towards this book. More broadly, sociologists and anthropologists might find this book useful as a way to draw parallels between their own interests and those of Internet and games researchers. The trans-ludic narrative parallels many narratives of post-colonial cultures that have been addressed by contemporary anthropologists, and its analysis builds on sociological principles that transcend and are informed by new technologies. As there are few books on this topic that describe their methodologies in detail, it will be of particular value to those interested in research perspectives and methods, which are explored from various facets in chapters 3, 4 and 8, as well as Book IV.

Another potential reader may be the ardent game or virtual world denizen who, as a member of a play community is interested in understanding more about other play communities and their cultures. This reader might be most interested in the brief history of play communities described in chapter 1, and the definitions of virtual worlds put forth in Chpater 2, as well as Book II, devoted to the Uru narrative itself. Such a reader may also appreciate Book IV, which chronicles my personal experience as a game ethnographer and describes some of the trials and tribulations of both studying and being part of a game community.
I also imagine (and have already experienced) a reader who has no expertise, knowledge or professional interest in any of these topics. He may be completely inexperienced in virtual worlds and online games: merely curious. Lacking motivation or technical proficiency to engage in these worlds himself, he may find a book an easier entry point to an otherwise inaccessible experience. He may find Books II and IV most interesting in their focus on the narrative, but he may also be interested in some of the points made in Book I, particular Chapter 1, which puts this narrative in the larger context of play communities through history, and Chapter 3, which ties emergent behaviors in play communities to larger cultural patterns.

What we find in following this narrative, is that players engaged in inter-game immigration are constructed in an iterative and dynamic process of meaning-making. And while others who share their environs may know, appreciate and even live among them, they may not be aware of the underlying meaning of the cultures they create. This focused account of a specific game communities allows us to interpret these events, to understand their relationship to each other and their role in the construction of a larger cultural milieu. We may understand these events in terms of real-world metaphors, or we may merely see this as a kind of fairy tale, an archetypical chronicle of diasporic cultures.

Book I of this book provides an overview and definitions: What exactly are online games and virtual worlds? How are they similar and different from each other? What is the relevance of their status as “games” or “not games”? What is emergence? How do we define emergent phenomena? What are emergent cultures and how do emergent cultures in games parallel emergent cultures in the real world? What are the best methods and perspectives for studying emergent cultures in online games and virtual worlds? What is the benefit of studying play communities in situ, in the wild, on their own terms? Here we look at anthropological and sociological perspectives and explore the problem of online games-as-performance. What are the implications of conducting research in a domain which the researcher must become a co-performer in order to study?
Book I also situations this work in the tradition of feminist ethnography which, rather than taking an “objective” approach reified in science, acknowledges that all accounts of
people by people are subjective by definition. Instead of trying to eradicate my own subjectivity, which would be impossible and disingenuous, I choose instead to privilege multiple subjectivities. Thus, I cast myself in the role of translator, interpreter, folklorist, and steward of a polyphonic narrative that allows, more often than not, its subjects to speak for themselves. In addition to direct quotes from subjects throughout the central monograph, which comprises Book II of the book, I invite them to reflect on and annotate my own interpretations of their culture, thus allowing them to take an authorative and authorial role in their own story.

In Book III, I provide a detailed description of my methodology, describing the day-to-day mechanics of conducting participant observation, the primary tool of ethnography, in virtual worlds and online games. I also describe the analytic process and the tools and methods that were used to identify patterns of emergence. I elucidate ethnography as a meta-game, a constant solving and unwrapping of mysteries and puzzles. In Book IV, I follow traditions of reflection and autobiography from anthropological writing, drawing back the curtain to reveal some of the more messy aspects of ethnography, and also describing how my method was modified in situ in direct response to my subjects. This narrative also reinforces conclusions made in Book II by revealing how the ethnographer is ultimately implicated in the very processes she is studying.

Book V provides a mediation on the implications of this research both for design and for larger trends in the culture as a whole. Here I argue that online games and virtual worlds have defined a new subset of the global village as a global playground. This global village, unlike the televised village to which McLuhan referred when he first coined the term {McLuhan, 1964 #28}, is dynamic, discursive and participatory. It is also improvisational, unpredictable, and emergent, properties that have broader implications across the culture at-large.
I also posit that we may be witnessing a “play turn” in culture, where not only are adults increasingly engaging in a wide array of play practices and communities, but also games and play are beginning to infiltrate other aspects of our lives. Rather than games being set apart as a distinct and separate domain, we see games finding their way into areas as diverse as corporate and military training, advertising, education and activism. Today’s teenagers are twice as likely be in a virtual world as the previous generation. When this generation comes of age, are we likely to see this “play turn” grow further? As they become a more pervasive part of the media landscape, online games and virtual worlds have something unique to offer in representing the complex, large-scale, and emergent systems that increasingly comprise our world and affect our lives.

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