Lesson 3: The Social
C&I 675: Research Virtual Worlds
Dr. Constance Steinkuehler
Observe a major in-game city for one hour. Make an argument, using your own observations as data, for MMOs as social or nonsocial.
Analyzing World of Warcraft’s City Life via a Close Reading of “Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen Name): Online Games as “Third Places”” by Constance Steinkuehler and Dmitri Williams and of “Alone Together? Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Games” by Ducheneaut et al.
Wow as a Neutral Ground & the American Wanderlust
Americans have long had a love affair with the freedom of travel—and of coming and going as they please. The unique attributes of our boundless continental geography in combination with the expansionist history of the settling of the Americas, the early 20th century automobile manufacturing revolution, and the building of a national highway system has led to a deep cultural fascination and affinity for freedom of movement. Americans like to be able to just get in the car and drive. If they’re not happy with their current situation in life, Americans reserve the right to pack up everything and resettle in a distant place—not asking for anyone’s permission to leave. Neutral grounds, or third spaces, are those places that are defined by a lack of obligation; thereby allowing people to do whatever they damn well please—within reason. To extrapolate on this further: the popularity of World of Warcraft in the United States can partially be attributed to American wanderlust and predisposition toward entering and spending time in neutral spaces where they have no “boss,” nothing they’re “required to do.”
Of course, as a caveat, I have observed from both playing the game and from my readings that entering into a guild “contract” can in fact bring the second place of work into the virtual world, thereby creating time and labor obligations, but I suspect this type of obligation is far less popular than the default playing style, which is to retain one’s total freedom of movement and decision-making, etc. After all, if you have to work in real life—and we all have to work—then the pleasure of immersion in a virtual world for most people must be the total freedom of the world. That’s what is relaxing about. That’s what’s fulfilling about it. That’s what keeps people coming back: the fact that they can, like free Americans, come and go as they please.
The Great Levelers of History & the Natural State of Man
There have been many great levelers throughout human history, one of which was the railroad, another was the mass-produced automobile, the personal computer, and yes, now the Internet. I believe the natural state of man is egalitarian. This was our Neolithic default condition. We evolved through the millennia as poor and struggling together to survive—to have enough to eat, to provide shelter for our families, to survive the harsh winters. It was not until the rise of civilizations, relatively recently in human history, that our society became drastically stratified and hierarchical. As Michael Moore brazenly points out in Capitalism: A Love Story, the richest 10% of Americans maintain 90% of the nation’s wealth. This is unfair, and humans have a natural abhorrence toward injustice. World of Warcraft functions as a leveler in that no matter how rich or powerful or connected you might be in the real world, in the world of WoW you are born again and forced to remake your identity, achievements, value, etc.
But therein lies another obstacle to the return to Eden: humans instinctively recreate the inequities of our real world in this virtual space. By default, we decide to create a world with levels, a world where some are weak and some are strong, and everybody’s trying to get to the top. It must be that humans can have it no other way. As famously observed in the Matrix mythology, the architects had tried to create a perfect world for humans to reside in, but they broke out of it, growing bored and rebellious. Humans crave inequality, risk, differentiation, strive, struggle, quests, and the chance for glory.
On Playing Alone Together: Laughing at and With Others & the Sense of Social Presence:
Playing an MMORPG for the first time this week, one of my strongest impressions is that the key difference between an MMORPG like WoW vs. a console-based RPG is the fact that there are so many “live” players around you. This does give the world a social network feel, like a Facebook video game? Of course, this could never be the case, I think, because people don’t play the game to share details of their lives. The constant stream of written dialogue and updates, chaotic as it is—requiring a specific “literacy” as Gee would say, one that can only be gained through lots of time reading and observing in WoW—nevertheless serves a kind of entertainment purpose. The anything goes, playful culture of WoW is predicated on a kind of exhibitionism and clever one-upmanship. How can I amuse you while amusing myself? How can I be funnier and more clever than the last person?
Because avatars are detached from real identities people are able to engage in a form of liberated behavior unavailable in the real world. In other game contexts, this can take different forms. In Grand Theft Auto, humans give into repressed sociopathy, letting loose all their carnal, bloody instincts in a way that’s inwardly very satisfying, precisely because you could never do these things in the real world. Similarly, though in a less illicit, less ultraviolent fashion, WoW affords people the chance to throw off the restrictions of the world and the consequences of outrageous behavior. For it is true, most of us are deathly afraid of being embarrassed in public. We have nightmares about—such as the common nightmare of walking around naked. Society socializes us unconsciously, tames us, makes us good little boys and girls. Virtual worlds afford the opportunity to be absurd and be indifferently celebrated for it. The social experience is, for the most part, not a binding one, but a solo one—perhaps even a shallow one. But a shallow social experience, without consequence, that’s amusing, and liberated from worldly obligation, is I suspect, exactly what people are looking for.