Posted by: holdenlee | April 7, 2013

Communities of Play


I want to share a summary of a reading I did a while ago for 11.127 (Educational games). In Chapters 5-6 of Communities of Play, Pearce tells the story of the community around Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, a massively multiplayer online game released in 2003.

An Imaginary Homeland

Pearce presents the findings of an 18-month long ethnographic study of The Gathering of Uru, which is a “neighborhood” or group of players within the MMO game, Uru. Pearce was motivated to conduct the study because she wanted to understand how players in MMO games become attached to the people, places and things they experience within the game. Pearce compares the connections felt in real-life communities or social circles and that of communities of play. She accomplishes this by interviewing the members of this “neighborhood” and tracking their activities throughout various points in time, particularly after the Uru server was shut down and the members were forced to find alternative means of keeping their community together.

First, Pearce gives an analysis of the game itself. Uru has important qualities that make it an ideal to study the concept of communities of play. First we must understand Myst, the single player precursor game that eventually led to the creation of UruMyst, released September of 1993, was named the top PC game of all time for eight years, largely due to its groundbreaking use of high-quality graphics and audio, as well as a dedicated focus on the story line. In addition, Myst was the first game to attract a significant number of adult women into its following. It was considered a work of art and served as indication that computer games had “come of age” and moved beyond childish game mechanics that were presumed to be fun because of contemporary gaming culture. This breakthrough in gaming led to the creation of a series of Myst sequels, one of which being Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, which was released in November of 2003.

Through in-game interviews and surveys of online forums, Pearce was able to better understand the types of players that were attracted to Uru and collect significant information about the characteristics of the members of The Gathering of Uru community.

  • Most of the TGU members had been fans of Myst prior to joining the “neighborhood.”
  • The gender demographic for Uru was consistent with Myst, which was essentially equal.
  • The age demographic for Uru ranged from mid-teens to mid-seventies, though there were a much higher concentration of players in their forties and fifties.
  • Because Uru was more intellectual-oriented than other games, largely due to its focus on puzzles rather than violence, it drew a very specific type of audience that valued intelligence and problem solving over more brutish game mechanics.

Above everything that was discovered during these interviews and surveys, one idea was expressed by most players: after dedicating a decade of playing Myst in solitude, they relished at the idea of actually playing with others and working together to solve puzzles and explore the world of Uru. It is clear that the framework of fandom that existed in Myst allowed Uru to become an ideal subject of a successful community of play.

Identity as Place

Through the case study of The Gathering of Uru, Pearce shows that the social experience of a game is at least as important to a player’s experience as the actual game content. The community surrounding Uru stays together even though the game servers are shut down. Pearce and Artemisia draw parallels between the community around Uru migrating to another game (as “Urefugees”) and a community of immigrants moving into a new country.

On February 9, 2004 (PST), Ubisoft/Cyan shut down Uru servers, and provided a forum, Koalanet, to allow players to stay in contact afterwards. Players congregated together in-world right before the shutdown time, moving their characters together in a farewell huddle. Afterwards they gathered spontaneously on Koalanet to mourn the end of Uru. Through the following weeks, people realized that the community was more about the people rather than the game, and wrote various eulogies where they treat Uru like a lost homeland.

However, players found Koalanet insufficient. They wanted to play together and see each other, rather than just talk on a forum. Two camps formed:

  • One camp tried to recreate Uru using virtual world authoring tools.
  • The second camp looked for a ready-to-play situation that players could “immigrate” to.

A group of Uru players migrated to Second Life where they founded D’ni Island. Other groups explored different games; they used Koalanet as a “home base” for communications. One player was upset at the fracture but later said, “Why can’t we ‘fracture’ into different places?… It will be no different than real life.” Eventually most Uru players migrated to There because it allowed worldbuilding closest to the style of Uru.

At first, There players were hostile to the influx of Uru players because they put a burden on the servers. There players saw Uru players as foreign and would often run them over with dune buggies. Eventually Uruvians claimed their own island (Yeesha Island) and built it in a way to recapture the ethos of Uru. They did not “assimilate” into There as much as “transculturate”—a term used when “a cultural context adapts to new arrivals as much as the immigrant group adapts to its new milieu.” They were now “Uruvian-Thereians.”

However, Uru players—previously wronged by Ubisoft—had developed a deep desire for self-determination. Throughout this time, players tried to recreate Uru independently of any other MMO. Erik created a new version of Uru in the Atmosphere 3-D world-authoring environment, learning the technical skills he needed from scratch. Another group of hackers reverse-engineered the game, and asked permission from Cyan to run the software. They finished in August 2004, and called their game “Until Uru.” As one player said, Uru seemed “exactly as we left it.”

But by now, the role of Uru had changed. Gamers had already been accustomed to the new games enough so that they didn’t abandon those games to go back. Instead, Until Uru became a special meeting area for these gamers and hosted a variety of special events such as the D’ni Olympics. The game was opened up to new players as well.

In summary, Pearce makes the following points about gaming through the story of Uru:

  • Play activity has unique social qualities relevant in forming sustainable long-term affiliations. Leesa, a self-described loner, created The Gathering neighborhood in Uru. People asked to join and she realized she had to become organized and set up ground rules. The community grew up spontaneously after that.
  • Players may ultimately know more about developers about the game world, and continue building it even after developers have stopped supporting it. Through the act of playing, various aspects of the world become imbibed with player culture and stories, so that a community playing the game is an act of worldbuilding.

To further develop the last point, players can become wary of their relationships with game makers. In this way, MMOs often encourage players to gain technical skills to hack and extend the game, and hence become independent of the game makers. Ubisoft/Cyan let the players pick up the baton, so to speak.

Questions

My partner and I led an in-class discussion on the two chapters:

  1. One player said, “I find it interesting that the creators of MMOs, whose survival depends upon the communities which arise from them, have so little understanding of those communities and make little effort to learn.”
    1. In what way have game communities extended a game beyond what was originally intended by the creators? How have the creators reacted? Can you think of examples where they either supported or hindered fans’ efforts?
    2. Why would creators want to stop fans from experimenting or taking power? Are those reasons justified? What is the role of copyright?
    3. How should game creators cultivate a relationship with the gaming community? What responsibilities do they have?
  2. How can use the ideas in “Communities at Play” to form online learning communities? Could we draw a parallel between the relationship between a game designer and a community of players, to that of a teacher (curriculum designer) and the community of students in an online class? In particular, how can we use MMO’s to inform our design of MOOC’s (or MOOLE’s)? How can we reconcile the gaming experience with the demands of a traditional class (ex. need for assessment and content coverage)?

Here are some things to think about when answering the second question.

  • The use of an existing medium or theme that has already gained popularity and a strong fanbase seems to be a good starting point in creating a successful community of play. Social networking sites, such as Facebook, offer a variety of games and apps that allow users to interact with each other in different ways. These games do not gain their entertainment value by being great on their own, but rather they rely on the framework of a large social network that Facebook has laid out for them. As we saw with the Myst/Uru fanbase, it is critical to have an existing fanbase or some familiarity of the medium where information is being presented to be able to cultivate a sense of community.
  • The actual game, while important in attracting players, took second stage to the community that was formed as a result of the game. This is in a way similar to a particular type of MOOC (different from those on EdX) called cMOOC (connectivist MOOC).

    In this view, students learn from regularly participating, in the form of creating new content, sharing ideas, collaborating, and responding to each other’s points. The most important role of the teacher is to “assemble pathways of communication” between students. The philosophy is that the journey and experience is more important than the goal. An example of a cMOOC is Digital Storytelling 106.

    Steven Downes, the founder of cMOOCs, put it this way: We say explicitly that the content is the “McGuffin” – it is the thing that gets people together, gets them talking, gets them thinking in new ways. (See http://www.downes.ca/post/57911, 3rd question)

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