Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Who am I?

OK, so in my last post I started talking about how forming social bonds within a game starts to make the virtual world real. By virtual world I mean not only the game world, in my case the rolling hills and aquatic badgers of Hibernia, but the websites, forums and social networks that accrete around a game. I want to talk next about prydwen.net, the forum that supported hib/pryd players (Hibernians on the Prydwen server in DAoC), but before I do that I'm going to allow myself to digress a little and take up the theme of identity. It isn't really a digression, because in order to be a member of a social network, one does have to have an identity. People need to know who you are.

Identity online can be a tricksy concept, however. In a roleplaying game, potentially even more so, as people adopt personae in order to play out scenarios in-character. DAoC is an MMORPG, the RPG is in there and roleplaying is an element of the game. It's not exactly rife on the Prydwen server however, and has never been a large part of my own playstyle. So, the dominant culture on Prydwen (now clustered with the Excalibur server under the collective moniker 'Dyvet') has always, I think, been one in which players present themselves as 'themselves', unless a roleplaying event has been arranged.

Why is 'themselves' in quotation marks? Well, when you meet someone online, you very rarely have a lot of information about who they are, unless you know them in 'real life' already. Take me for example. My first character in DAoC was a hero character called Ambera. I didn't roleplay her, except occasionally in my head. When I talked to people I talked as 'me'. They may have felt that they were getting to know the real person behind the avatar. However, I was cautious about sharing anything that didn't relate directly to the game. I enjoyed the anonymity. I liked that people didn't know I was really a 30-something English woman with dyed hair. I didn't pretend to be anyone else, but I liked the way in which the game system - avatars, text-based conversation - prevented people from judging one another in the usual ways. People still judged each other of course, but in game terms. If you had skill and treated other players with respect, it didn't matter what you looked or sounded like, what age or class you were (I'm talking social class here, not character class, which matters a whole lot), or where you were from.

So, anyone talking to me experienced only those aspects of myself I chose to share. And, although I never pretended to be someone I wasn't, sometimes... well, sometimes I was someone else. At least Ambera was. My partner also played that character during our first months in the game, and was never very forward about letting people know he wasn't me. It always made me deeply uncomfortable, and became unbearable once I started to make friends with Talien and others. I was acutely aware that if they didn't see some sort of consistent 'me' behind the avatar, we wouldn't be able to form a connection. Once my partner opened his own account and started playing, that tension went away, and the pair of us, playing together, became quite recognisable and made many friends.

I had to trade the benefits of anonymity for being able to make lasting social connections. People like to know who they're talking to.

Of course, there are degrees of anonymity. You don't have to share everything with everyone. There are many people, even in my guild, who know me simply as 'Ambera' (or Ascarii, the name of my warden character). They have little interest in how old I am, where I live or what I do when I'm not playing DAoC. They know the history of my characters, they know that I'm a mid-flight warden, not top-flight but not too shabby, they know what weapon I use, but they don't know, or care to know, who I am in 'real life'. And that's fine, but those people will not remain my friends once the game servers are shut down. Friends are the ones who ask you how work's going, have you had the operation yet, how's your mum? And those are the people who keep you coming back to the game.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Raph Koster says it better

I first realised that Dark Age of Camelot was not going to be something I could simply walk away from when my friend Talien quit the game. It wasn't until he quit that I realised I really valued his friendship, that I had, in fact, considered him a 'real' friend.

I'd been through the process of making 'virtual' friends before. I played a text-based strategy game called Utopia, way back in the last century, and, as a member of a group of very silly roleplayers called the Danish Brotherhood (nothing to do with Danes, everything to do with pastry), made several friends whose houses I visited, and whom I corresponded with for years after we all stopped playing Utopia. The difference between those relationships and my friendship with Talien was that my Utopian friends were only very loosely tied to the game. Our relationships existed chiefly on forums and via email; our shared world was one we'd created rather than the one the designers of Utopia had created for us. (More on that at some point). Talien and I on the other hand interacted mainly within DAoC, though we had spent a weekend together IRL, at a mini-meet in Brighton. We had not established habits of communication outside the game that would carry us through his ceasing to play. So we lost touch, and I grieved. I became confused about my other friends in the game. How 'real' were those relationships? Who would I miss, if they quit? Would anyone miss me if I did? And if we did miss one another - was that only within the context of the game, or had we taken root in one another's lives in a way that would transcend the virtual world and affect our 'real' lives?

In this essay, written way back in 1998, Raph Koster explains how, when a member of the UO community died in a car crash, the grief the other members felt changed their perception of the game:

In the end, the social bonds of the people in a virtual environment make it more than just a game. They make it Real. Sometimes it takes a moment of grief to make people realize it, and sometimes people just come to an awareness over time, but the fundamental fact remains: when we make a friend, hurt someone's feelings, suffer a loss, or accomplish something in an online world, it's real. It's not "just a game."

So we can take as established the fact that for those of us involved, online relationships are as real as any other relationships, and online 'communities' have social bonds that make virtual worlds real. Does that mean that those communities behave in the same ways as communities formed through other media? I don't think they (we) do; the issues of identity and ownership that Sharkith has been looking at over at The Empty Pixel feed into this discussion, as do the strengths and weaknesses of the virtual world in and around which the 'community' has aggregated, the methods of communication the playerbase uses to talk to one another, and the methods of communication the company uses to talk to the playerbase.

For me, the social bonds between myself and other players did not become clear until we had started to share more than just the virtual world - exchanging details of the other areas of our lives and establishing other, reliable, methods of communication that allowed me to beleive that our friendships were stable and would persist outside the game should any of us leave. I read somewhere (yeah yeah, I'll try and find the reference) that players who participate in forums subscribe to MMOs for one average 50% longer than those who don't. I think social ties are the likely reason. This would give weight to the argument that forums and all other arenas attached to but outside of the game itself need to be considered as part of the world; they are the foundation of the 'community' and are dismissed at the peril of the game-runners.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.

So said Einstein.

To be honest, I'm not terribly interested in whether our default reality is real or illusion, at least not for the purposes of this blog. I am interested in the shared realities deliberately created for us, purposeful illusions that hope to be persistent, known as MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games).

I'm a keen player of games, and for the past 4+ years I've been playing Dark Age of Camelot. My time there has come to an end, possibly temporarily, possibly permanent. As I explained over at Zora's Corner, this has been an upsetting process, and I am grieving for the loss of a major part of my life.

People often say things like 'It's just a game' and talk about games and 'real life' as being completely seperate things. But a game can become part of one's life, and if reality is what we can agree exists, as has also been claimed by philosophers, an MMORPG is lent its reality by the people playing it. If a couple of thousand people are sharing a virtual world, spending hours every week acting in it, forming and breaking relationships in it, it is real, if only in the sense that it has a real and sometimes profound effect on the lives of those playing it.