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The Words That Took Us There: Ethnography in a Virtual Reality

Author: Frank Schaap
Publisher: Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Aksant Academic Publishers, 2002
Review Published: October 2003

 REVIEW 1: Stephanie Bennett

Frank Schaap is an anthropologist, trained to observe culture with a "forked eye." However, when he entered the shadowy subterranean city of New Carthage, the footing and perspective of the research specialist radically changed. Could this dark world of nebulous virtuality be considered a viable culture worthy of study, and could there actually be salience for significant research in social interaction to be advanced in this digital domain?

The tale Schaap tells in The Words That Took Us There: Ethnography in a Virtual Reality revolves around a role-playing MUD known as cybersphere. There, within invisible digital codes, a post-apocalyptic community exists located in the minds of online role-playing enthusiasts throughout the world. A notable element of interest is that as Schaap records his findings in New Carthage, he simultaneously creates them. He explains the unusual dynamic, saying: "Literally I am writing myself, my character -- into a virtual world and in a more metaphorical sense I am also writing its culture, partaking in the creation and continuation of its mores" (30). Thus the cultural environment depends upon the input of Schaap himself as he navigates his character into interactive experiences with other characters.

Another aspect of the social order in New Carthage is that of the software. Created by Unix systems, the framework provides culturally biased constructs for interaction. An example of this is the essential use of objects within the program. Objects are of particular importance to the culture of New Carthage for objects are the building blocks of MOO [MUD] environment. These "objects" -- clothing, furniture, tools, etc. -- create a sense of ownership, class, and hierarchy that simulate a culture of cooperation. The simulation reflects increasing or decreasing dimensions of reality, depending on the credibility the character creates through use of objects. This is directly related to one’s ability to function in the culture. As Schaap explains, "one of the qualities of text in real-time CMC is that it seems suspended, the durability and readability of the words only lasting as long as they haven’t scrolled off the screen. Admittedly, the words that make up a ‘virtual text-based world’ are quite a bit more solid than the ephemeral spoken word, but they are also quite a bit more fluid than the printed word" (26).

As Schaap notes, the fact that the software was developed by human beings living in a western culture and thus embeding contemporary cultural biases is an important element, for it means that the options available for interaction are those that simulate current relational norms. In many ways, this factor keeps the interaction closely akin to life in geo-space, providing socially restrictive choices through which players interact. In other ways, the social constraints embedded by the software restricts the types of interaction and response that may have been available if other developers had created the software. Another example is the embedded construct of gender. The software automatically adds gender pronouns to each command based on the initial description of the character. If a gender has not been specified, the software will add gender-neutral pronouns such as "eir" or "eirself."

Schaap triangulates his methods of inquiry by combining qualitative elements in the way of open interviews with players; quantitative methods, in the useful 20-question survey; and primary research involving immersion in the environment for up to 16 hours a day, for a period of over two years. Instead of recording his observations and notes on a thick yellow pad or portable recorder, Schaap saved all conversations to floppy disk. He kept a record of data gathered from his character’s interaction, logged in daily, and cross-checked his information with other players to verify. His daily log charted items such as objects, personalities, interchanges, and character specifics.

The virtual experience is powered by a MUD (multi-user domain) program and generated by the individuals behind the characters. Using words to create actions is the only way to operate within the text-based RPG; thus, text is the essential element of the game. If words are the primary means of creating reality, the words used in cybersphere are of even greater significance. Each verb is followed by a character’s action. When in these various modes, the characters are able to function with a greater sense of fluidity than if they were simply sending text messages back and forth in real time. All action takes place by use of the following commands: Go; Emote; Say; Look; and Wear.

Some data, such as personal descriptions, room décor, and locale, are stored in the MUD database. While words are essential, they do not form the essence of the game. Interpersonal relationship, community, and belonging are the experiences this cyberculture fosters; relationship, albeit highly technologized ones, do exist. The missing everyday sensorial cues are denoted through text and actionalizing the characters rather than merely making them speak. In this way, it is more like a movie than a book or a chat room. Moreover, specific to the MUD environment is a language of acronyms and short cuts. Schaap points out a few of the most popular "words" of New Carthage culture: RPG (a role-playing game); IC (in character); OOC (out of character); AFK (away from keyboard); and ! (exclamation point to switch modes). These cues or signs are used to switch a character into a new mode or to simply remind everyone else in the room that you are in character.

Is research done in a world that is both futuristic and virtual completely legitimate? That is, can cyberspace generate social situations authentic enough to be studied by participant observers, and can they come away with useful data and helpful knowledge? Schaap answers, yes, and explains the way he makes sense of the obvious reality gap:
    Instead then, of trying to doggedly define what cyberspace is, there is another way to understand, to conceptualize the "reality gap," that strange lapse of reality that cyberspace presents us with. One of the most defining characteristics of cyberspace is its ephemeral quality. Cyberspace and the MUD are consciously entered by dialing in and logging on, "there" for the time being, but "gone" when the connection is. Virtually every researcher of cyberspace picks up on the fact that one you are "online" you have "entered another reality," where things work just a bit differently and where you are, or can become someone else to a degree. (112)
An interesting, easy-flowing read, the book tells the story of Schaap’s experiences as he ventures into the landscape of digital reality. His journey may best be described as something of a synthesis between credible ethnography and a ride through Universal Studios. Schaap, however, calls his experience, ‘going native,’ and asks the reader to join him in suspension of disbelief. Providing a dynamic synthesis of academic research and interesting dialogue with other players, the overall experience might be initially catalogued as an interactive novel, however, Schaap’s complete immersion in the experience proves otherwise. There is research to be done, and research to be cataloged. His primary involvement in the environment proves this is not just possible but worthy and interesting.

The book begins much as a novel would, with the author telling a story of his introduction into another culture. As he crosses the digital divide, Schaap discovers a subversive world of darkness and calamity. Simultaneously vying for his existence and becoming familiar with the terrain, very quickly he becomes aware that he is in the midst of a low, basement-type existence, one that is starkly separated from a "higher" life by a wall. The wall he perceives is a wall of money. In order to go beyond the wall and free himself from the lower dwelling, he will have to learn how to make a living and get around.

Part of the game involves being in several places simultaneously. A character can be IC in one virtual location and involved paging with another or multiple parties. Paging is much like instant messaging via an e-mail program. Schaap decided to play a cross-gender character, which he named Eveline. Although she was his assumed identity specifically created to provide an opportunity for research, he soon became immersed in the culture and in some ways "became" her. Through Eveline, he traveled through every corridor in New Carthage using her voice, thinking her thoughts, planning her strategy for existence. Schaap claims, "you can live your life in New Carthage with an amazing sense of reality" (16). Throughout the over two years he lived there, Schaap was busy doing anthropological research, registering all that occurred in New Carthage with the "forked eye" of traditional anthropological research. He studied his comrades in arms. He took notes. Frank Schaap related to them; he became one of them.

As one might imagine, the virtual world of New Carthage is a bit like theatre and film. Individuals must stay "in character" to be credible, otherwise the setting is littered with cardboard characters and players cease to pay attention. Schaap’s findings provide much insight into the world of these players. For example, these characters like to simulate reality. So, the characters maintain their credibility by utilizing a variety of modes of presence to signify their actions, feelings, and locations. Thus, the game is played by suspending disbelief and always sending messages to each other in-character (IC). Messages are sent out-of-character (OOC), yet they are rare and only for the purpose of clarification.

Schaap does not attempt to bring resolve to the ontological issue of what is real as opposed to what is virtual. Rather, he plunges into the environment and notes, with an attitude of respectful caution,
    For all intents and purposes the "real," even if we choose to construct it as a construction, is the reality we actually live in. Fantasy or not, it’s the world whose rules we must ultimately obey, for it this common sense, everyday world that holds power over our bodies. My body, whether I consider it a construction, a natural biological example of my species, or some god’s creation, is the body that can and will be punished, disciplined, or killed. Reality is my common sense context. (112)
Like any other culture, Schaap maintains that after a while one begins to pick up cues and learn the language. He writes, "I believe that one learns to speak and listen, or rather write and read in this world just as one would in a particular physical locale" (29-30).

Citing Geertz’s "Notes on the Balinese Cockfight," Schaap makes a noble effort to explain the "metaphorical liking of culture to text," noting that "the culture of a people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong" (30). Surely this thought can be applied to the simulated life in New Carthage. In many ways relating in a textual world is vastly different from the reality of geo-space and traditional social order, yet in others it is quite similar. After reading The Words That Took Us There: Ethnography in a Virtual Reality it becomes even more clear that virtual reality is a prosthetic. It both inclines people toward simulated community and is a result of the basic social needs to belong to community. A society such as New Carthage surely does not take the place of face-to-face relationships, but it is surely worth further investigation. Frank Schaap provides an excellent starting point for such an exploration.

Stephanie Bennett:
A seasoned journalist and media consultant, Stephanie Bennett's professional experiences include work as a feature writer, columnist, music reviewer and radio show host. In the year 2000, Bennett received her Master of Arts in Communication from Monmouth University, New Jersey. Presently she is a Mass Media and Speech instructor at area universities while concurrently immersed in doctoral studies. Bennett’s main area of interest is interpersonal communication with an emphasis in the intersection of relational development, community, and technology.  <Steffasong@aol.com>

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