The Virtual Social Continuum Expressed: Interaction and Community Formation in MMORPGs

The Virtual Social Continuum Expressed: Interaction and Community Formation in MMORPGs

Alan Rea
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-368-5.ch030
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From the interactive textual worlds of MUDs and MuSHes to the visually rich, textured three-dimensional realms of MMORPGs, participants move from loose to strong associations forming social networks via structured guidelines and interaction patterns. These virtual world inhabitants create communication conduits, collaborate to attain goals and solve problems, or entertain themselves. In this chapter, the author uses Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft, one of the most successful MMORPGs to date, to chart the various associations ranging from casual conversations to groups and guilds in which role specialization is critical to close-knit community success. The author argues that using rewards for accepted behavior creates a socialization continuum that stimulates players to interact with one another.
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Researchers date video games from the advent of Russell’s Spacewar in 1961 (Kent, 2001, p. 19) and the first commercial arcade hit, Computer Space in 1971 (Kent, 2001, p. 33), a remake of the original Spacewar. Analyses focus on the development of arcade and console markets into the early 2000s (Kent, 2001) because video games were traditionally played on screens, e.g., television (Baer, 2001). However, interactive text adventures designed for computers, such as Colossal Cave Adventure, inspired pioneers (Hafner & Lyon, 1996, pp. 207-208) to develop Adventure (Robinett, 2008) for the Atari 2600. It was one of the most popular titles for the console system even though it was among the first.

Most of the original interactive text games are from the Role Playing Games (RPG) genre, which contains the Dungeon and Dragon (D&D) sub-genre beginning with the tabletop RPG in 1974 (Birnbaum, 2004). Players take on the role of an adventurer (warrior, wizard, thief, etc.) embarking on never-ending quests to slay dragons, help others, and gain experience. The most successful RPGs today, such as Oblivion (Bethesda Softworks, 2008), use this approach.

Except for tabletop D&D games, players did not interact in early RPGs. Even in the interactive Colossal Cave Adventure, the player explored the game alone. However, in the 1970s programmers created multi-player computer games incorporating human interaction. In 1978, Roy Tribshaw created the first Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) (Antell, 1991). Eventually it became popular among CompuServe users under the title, British Legends (Toth, 2005). Its players were able to compete in battles and perform quests. MUDs appeared on computer networks and though the content varied from science fiction to war to simple adventure, many shared a common feature: online communication tools, such as “bulletin boards, [e]mail, [and] chat” (Antell, 1991).

MUDs evolved through many permutations, but select events increased MUD popularity. In 1989, Jim Aspnes released TinyMUD which focused on collaborative problem solving and user teams rather than combat and adventure (Bartle, 2008). Moreover TinyMUD ran on UNIX systems, so more people had access. TinyMUD diversified MUDs and more acronyms appeared. MuSHes began to connate MUDs with a strong social and collaborative focus. From these grew the academic MOO (MUD Object-Oriented) now used for collaborative instruction (Holmevik & Haynes, 2000).

Eventually the graphics of the video game combined with the RPG questing of MUDs and the social nature of MuSHes. In 1991 America Online (AOL) released the first MMORPG. In Neverwinter Nights (BioWare, 2008), AOL subscribers could form groups, talk via textual chat boxes, and share various adventures in real-time. With the growth of the Internet in the mid 1990s, the user base of MMORPGs and MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games)—a game not focusing on RPG play—grew exponentially. By 1997 games such as Ultima Online (Electronic Arts, 2008b) had proven MMORPGs’ popularity. Today’s successful MMORPGs, such as Star Wars Galaxies (Sony, 2008) and World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2008a), assure that more MMORPGs will be on the way.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG): This game type connects thousands of players (usually via the Internet) within a persistent virtual world. This term can connote all massive multiplayer games, but game experts use it specifically to describe MMO games that do not contain a role playing component.

Multi-User Dungeon (MUD): MUDs are the first multi-user textual environment. The term derives from the Dungeons and Dragons approach to the textual worlds. Players view textual descriptions of the environment and move and interact by typing commands.

Multi-User Shared Hallucination (MuSH): MuSHes refer to the more social MUD implementations. Less emphasis is put on completing quests and fighting monsters. Instead, players work together to solve problems in a collaborative fashion.

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D): A tabletop game in which players create and role play warriors, priests, thieves, and wizards using a variety of fantasy characters, such as elves, dwarves. Players group together and go on quests, as well as battle dragons and monsters.

Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG): Usually based on a Dungeons and Dragons theme, these games allow players to create avatars using races and classes similar to the tabletop D&D game. Players join guilds, go on quests, and compete in PVP combat. In recent years, the success of Everquest and World of Warcraft has increased people’s exposure to these games.

Socialization Continuum: The player’s progression through various character types. MMORPGs encourage players to act in an increasingly social manner to advance in the game.

Role Playing Game (RPG): Video games in which players create customized avatars within virtual environments or worlds. Players expect to adopt the persona of the created avatar and function within the virtual world as such.

Virtual World: A complete online representation of a physical realm where players’ avatars populate virtual worlds, as well as virtual world characters. Virtual worlds can mimic environments we are familiar with, or populate worlds with completely different inhabitants and rules of nature (e.g., people can fly). Most MMORPGs are complete virtual worlds.

Guild: Communities of MMORPG players who share resources, bond together, and provide a strong social component to the game. Many games offer tools to allow guild mates to share resources and communicate with one another.

Ludology: The study of play and games, in particular, video games. Ludology encompasses a variety of approaches to game research, including cultural, economic, postmodern, and sociological.

Persistent World: Except for technical issues and maintenance, the virtual world is continuously available and populated with players. When a player logs off, the virtual world environment continues to function unlike many video games which depend on a player’s interaction. Most MMOGs and MMORPGs are persistent virtual worlds.

Gemeinschaft: Small 19th-century European village communities where each person performed a specific role to benefit others (e.g., baker, blacksmith, etc.) and was willing to operate within social constraints for the good of the community.

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