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Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture

Author: T. L. Taylor
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: February 2007

 REVIEW 1: Mark Chen

My parents used to tell me that I was wasting my time with computer games. When I was going through college and seeing friends drop out due to the same obsession, that message was reinforced. After college, I worked for several years during the day and went home in the evenings to play on my PC, my work life divorced from my play life. Then something strange happened. Academia started looking at my play life. It was happening for a while, to be sure, but I wasn't in academia, and, as we all know, the ivory tower doesn't always make itself transparent to the world outside. After dropping everything to move to a new city and a graduate program to embrace the side of me that I was always shameful about -- the secretly subscribe to gaming magazines side, the rush home to play side -- I realized that my life was one of many in an emerging culture of lives and experiences. In hindsight, I realize I was part of an existing culture all along -- only now, it is much easier to connect to my affinity group through message boards, cell phones, instant messaging, MySpace, and gaming sites of all sorts.

Gaming culture has existed all my life, and it will only become more pervasive as time moves on. As it becomes more pervasive, games themselves will become more accepted as a full-on medium for communication, and talk about games will gain more respect both in high-brow research and in popular culture. Warren Specter knew this when he said in an interview for the July 2006 issue of Computer Gaming World, "It's only a matter of time before the President's a PlayStation owner" (p. 35). Given this, T. L. Taylor's new book Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture is a timely portrayal of gaming life, telling us that, now that the culture has been established, we should be examining its participants closely rather than superficially labeling them. She does this by describing the practice of gamers in and around a Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) known as EverQuest (EQ).

EverQuest is a game where players create characters based on high-fantasy archetypes such as the strong dwarf warrior, the magical elf, or the sneaky rogue to role-play while exploring a virtual world full of monsters to kill and quests to complete. As players explore the world with their characters, they meet up with other characters controlled by other human players in addition to the many characters and creatures controlled by the game system or server. These human players communicate with each other via an in-game text chat interface similar to an online chatroom. As with any setting, people form friendships and allegiances, either temporary or more permanent, centered on common goals (such as common quests) or like interests. This kind of game is social by nature and the kind of life in and around the game is highly dependent on the culture that emerges through common play and practices.

Taylor, an associate professor at the Center for Computer Games Research at IT University of Copenhagen, takes a sociocultural view of gamers, stressing that the culture should be grounded in its socially established practices rather than a superficial understanding of what gamers do and who gamers are. She is influenced by over a decade's involvement with virtual worlds, having focused on embodiment, gender, identity, and the co-construction of culture. As a fellow player and through interviews and other ethnographic methods, Taylor has a very close insight into the life of gamers in EQ. Throughout Play Between Worlds, Taylor argues that the interaction between in-game life and out-of-game life is important to look at, noting that "real" life often seeps into in-game life and vice versa, such that the line between them is blurred, if it exists at all. Play Between Worlds' main points unfold as follows:
  • Gamers do not fall into the stereotyped patterns commonly portrayed in the media. This means we should look more closely at what gamers actually do.
  • In an effort to do this, Taylor paints a picture of socialization in and around EQ.
  • She then describes the practices of "power" gamers.
  • Taylor also writes about women gamers (and, to a lesser extent, gamers of other real-world minority groups) and how their experiences in-game cannot be completely disassociated with who they are off-screen.
  • Finally, Taylor writes more about the world around games including practices such as treating in-game objects and avatars and ad space as real-world commodities, modding (modifying) games, and having discussions and creating websites based around games outside of the games themselves.
A common theme is her emphasis on the co-creation of experiences taking place between players and developers of games. For example, Taylor writes:
    While we sometimes imagine games as contained spaces and experiences in which a player sits down, examines the rules, and begins play, those like EverQuest seem to suggest a more complicated engagement. In large measure because of the multiplayer nature of the game, participants undergo a socialization process and over time learn what it means to play far beyond what the manual or strict rules articulate. (32)
The result is that the experiences players have--what it actually means to be a player and do what players do--emerges out of the interactions between players, the game developers, and the game itself. These player practices that emerge then affect and are affected by the players and the general gaming culture even further in a self-referential fashion such as happens within any culture.

As I read Play Between Worlds, I could not help relating it to my own experiences as a lifetime gamer and particularly my experiences with another MMOG, World of Warcraft (WoW). In fact, most of my comments focus on the similarities and differences I found between Taylor's description and my personal experience.

The common stereotype of a computer gamer is one of a teenage boy holed away in a basement alone with poor hygiene and lacking in social skills. Taylor does a good job of dispelling this myth in her introductory anecdote of visiting a local EQ convention and meeting some of her servermates, describing them as a much more "mundane" demographic. This is reinforced throughout the book as she describes the actual practice of gamers. Online games -- and, I'd say, all games in general -- are social by nature, and recognizing this necessitates description of social practices instead of claiming social deficiencies. I find it ironic, then, that sometimes I do hole away for a day or two, completely engrossed in a new game. Although I am engaging with the authors of the game and sharing an experience with others who are also playing the same game (even if it is a single-player game, through online discussion boards, fan sites, etc.), I still feel antisocial and misanthropic when I do this, preferring this other community to my off-screen one. I think it is clear that gaming culture permeates into players' lives, and, yes, it is a fully legitimate way of life, but Taylor doesn't write enough about how this affects their non-gaming lives. What does it mean to recognize that by logging into a game like EverQuest or World of Warcraft, people are immersing themselves in a fully realized culture? How can people manage their existences in multiple worlds when paying attention to one means ignoring the other to some degree?

One of the most interesting things I find about MMOGs is the formation of guilds or clans -- more permanent player groups which often come with tools to help keep the group together, such as chat channels, guild halls, etc. -- and how these groups understand membership and participation. In chapter 2, Taylor writes, "the main mechanisms at work in all guilds, to varying degrees, are reputation, trust, and responsibility" (43) [1]. She then describes what each of these mean to those players and how they manifest themselves. Later on, when she talks more specifically about power gamers, Taylor describes how players can have their "play" turn into "work." I believe this happens because players become socialized to a community, where taking on an identity means taking on the roles and responsibilities that identity requires. If belonging to a particular guild requires certain responsibilities (on top of the ones required by the general game community) then looking at different types of guilds and the roles players are expected to take (and actually do take) seems important. Taylor does a bit of this by describing some of the practices of "high-end" guilds -- so called "uber" guilds which are comprised of players who've agreed to tackle the most difficult monsters and quests in order to be rewarded with very powerful weapons and equipment. To do this, the players value mechanics-level understanding of the game and "pushing the limits" of the game system to discover the most efficient way of meeting their goals. Taylor also points out that:
    Many players see the most dedicated [guilds] as operating contrary to the spirit of the game. They are sometimes seen as being too instrumental in their playing style -- taking the fun out of the game by being too focused on achievement, which is often seen as acting in opposition to community. In these instances they are framed as valuing objects or accomplishments over people. (45)
In other words, just as in real life, people do not always agree on how to interpret each others' actions and do not hold the same values and goals in the game. The many values that emerge are socially determined and are often at odds with each other.

This is similar to my observations about WoW, where some newer players get blinded by the values of high-end guilds, thinking that joining one and participating in its endeavors is the only way to play the game. I've seen many players complain about how their guild is not socially supportive, how they are totalitarian or very hierarchical, and yet think that they have to live with it in order to get the best gear or loot, as if getting the best gear is the only possible end goal. Yet, saying that goals and values are socially constructed (and not just the providence of the game developers) places responsibility on players like me who are dissatisfied with the system-defined end-goals. Is it worth it -- to try to steer the emergent culture a certain way, against the intent of the developers and a majority of the players -- or am I playing the wrong game? [2]

I'm not sure, but I know many players who echo my sentiments. Terra Nova, an academic blog on virtual worlds (of which Taylor is a contributing member), recently had a post about end-game players' ennui -- that feeling one gets when the game hasn't changed but the satisfaction isn't the same. Something is missing, and I would argue that the emerged social norms cannot possibly meet everyone's desires. I think one problem is trying to self-identify which category of gamer one fits in and then realizing that the category doesn't fit. Even though Taylor argues that categories are often misused or too easily applied and "oversimplifies the much more complicated social experience of players in each category" (70), I found that just by describing the practices of power gamers, she inadvertently reinforces the idea that such a group exists so clearly. While I was reading her description, I kept thinking about various members of my guild in WoW and how many of them don't fit into the casual vs. power gamer dichotomy. For example, Taylor writes:
    While the casual gamer may visit a map site on occasion or sometimes peruse a message board, power gamers regularly consult, dispute, refine, and build knowledge through the more formalized mechanisms of Web sites and bulletin boards. By participating in guild sites, gaining status through contributions, and entering discussions with others, players bond to the collective and enact social modes of play. (84)
I do not find myself fitting in either group. My conclusion is that there has to be some sort of continuum or grayscale (or even some sort of rational number, multi-dimensional way of looking at things) rather than a binary system. Part of the problem is that it is easy to equate power gaming as valuing the same things that high-end guilds value (not to mention that high-end guilds should also fall onto some sort of continuum). While some of my friends play a lot and a few of them even play on multiple computers with multiple accounts, I think their main goal is not so focused on efficiency and discovering the games' boundaries.

Taylor does do an excellent job of helping me understand my guild members as individuals who play for different reasons. Their identities are blurred because their on-screen and off-screen lives are blurred, and they are not so easily stereotyped. What is done very well in Play Between Worlds is making clear how all behavior is understandable, justified, if one looks closely enough at people's situations and motives. Seemingly anti-social moves such as "griefing" (using game mechanics to "unfairly" gain an advantage over another player) become understood as socially acceptable by some players who have come to understand the game and its culture a certain way. And, of course, "how people make sense of and experience who they are online is not inherently separate from who they are and what they do offline" (18).

Also, social behavior can sometimes be deeply affected by seemingly innocuous changes to the game's code. In this way, both the developers and the players become co-authors of the game's experiences. Other times, overt actions of the developers affect social behavior. A good example of this is all the control work developers do regarding in-game economies, which, in turn, is subverted by players selling virtual goods for real-world currency. It is depressing to think that real-world haves and have-nots play the same roles in a virtual world. Yet, it is completely understandable that someone with little time would want to see everything the game has to offer, especially since all players (in the United States) pay the same monthly subscription fee (about $15 USD) no matter how many hours they actually play. Since seeing everything the game has to offer is only viable if a character has good gear, and only those players who play many, many hours a month end up getting the good gear, purchasing virtual goods (or even other players' accounts) seems justifiable. This is such a pervasive problem with the subscription model that the act of purchasing virtual goods with real-world currency has emerged for many players as a legitimate MMOG practice. By banning the purchase of EverQuest goods with real-world currency, Taylor argues that developers are essentially banning a culture by taking on a narrow view of what culture is (132). Careful readers should note that Taylor's work is ethnographic and speaks for a specific context.

To conclude, T. L. Taylor's Play Between Worlds problematizes stereotypes and categories of gamers, blurs the line between virtual and real world lives, and argues that meaning and culture is socially co-constructed. It does this by describing the practices of different groups of players of EverQuest both in and around the game. She makes her arguments clearly, with authority, and her prose is a joy to read. My hesitations with nuances only reinforces Taylor's main arguments that it is hard to generalize or typify gamers and that gaming life is rich and includes groups of players valuing different things, sometimes at odds with each other and the developers of the game. All of these different authors socially construct their own participatory culture which is both affected by and affects their non-gaming lives.

  1. While I haven't played EverQuest, this statement could also be made about "raid" groups in WoW. Raids are large groups of characters who are working together to explore a specific dungeon or fight a monster which is too tough to take on in small groups. It could be that in EQ raids are formed by characters from the same guild, but in WoW, or at least on my server, this is not always the case.

  2. Or have I become disillusioned with antiquated notions of "play" and "work" (see Taylor's discussion of this on p. 88-89).

Mark Chen:
Mark Chen is a PhD student at the University of Washington College of Education, looking at how players communicate and learn to cooperate in online games. He self-identifies as a gamer in academia and ponders writing an ethnographic account for gamers about academic life. Previously, he mastered the web and developed web-based educational mini-games at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. He holds a BA in fine art from Reed College. You can read about his life on his blog.  <markchen@u.washington.edu>

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