The Social

Lesson 3: The Social
C&I 675: Research Virtual Worlds
Dr. Constance Steinkuehler
Spencer Striker

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.

Framing Games & Learning

Lesson 2: Framing Games & Learning
C&I 675: Researching Virtual Worlds
Dr. Constance Steinkuehler
Spencer Striker
Assignment Due: Analyze the first ten levels of World of Warcraft based on Gee’s 36 principles. How is the game built for learning?

Analyzing World of Warcraft’s Notion of Framing Games & Learning via a Close Reading of James Paul Gee’s “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.”

So, I’m finally starting to ‘flow’ with my Dwarf Hunter, ZZ Blackstone—I mean flow in the sense of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, or better yet, Jenova Chen. I’ve overcome the initial inertia of learning a new game system, a new control layout, a new gestalt—a new mise en scene. And yes, as Gee suggests, I’m becoming increasingly addicted to the gameplay, continuously seeking one more quest—one more level up—before I can find a good place to pause. This kind of perfect balance in the unfolding gameplay action reveals expert game design on the part of Blizzard. Their design team has executed a masterfully incremental learning by leveling up/leveling up by learning system, that’s always just hard enough to be challenging, but fulfilling and rewarding at the same time.

Since I only have a few pages to work with here, I’m going to select some of James Paul Gee’s key Video Game Learning Principles and apply them analytically to my specific experience playing World of Warcraft’s first ten levels.

2. The Design Principle. As Raph Koster once said in a GZ interview, “all games are systemic,” meaning they play out according to hard and fast rules. These gameplay dynamics and conventions can become well understood, predictable, and eventually mastered by students of the game, as happens when Halo players exploit glitches either to gain an advantage or to amuse themselves. In the process of unmasking the game’s design architecture, players begin to appreciate the artifice of game design and its principles. The corollary here might be an appreciation for the illusory craft of filmmaking. As a viewer, once one has begun to analyze and think critically about special effects and the trompe d'oeils that one is experiencing, a person may begin to enjoy films even more, since one is now able to appreciate this multimedia art form from a more rewarding, multi-faceted vantage point.

6. “Psychosocial Moratorium” Principle: My experience with WoW’s first ten levels has been similar to nearly every video game experience I’ve ever known in that failure is engineered into the game’s core design—it is expected to occur early and often. In WoW, I find it both original and uniquely morbid that you reawaken from death in a graveyard as a ghost and that you have to go reclaim your corpse. This strikes me as an idiosyncratic design convention that seems to have stuck. As experienced gamers might both hope for and expect: there’s no punishment for dying, other than the annoyance factor and the lost time. Other games, such as GTA, punish the player for dying by taking away money and weapons—a kind of tax for foolhardiness. As Ben Mattes points out in a GZ interview, modern games such as the new Prince of Persia utilize gaming conventions, exemplified by the reconsidered role of Elika, to prevent the act of death altogether. The goal is to prevent the game’s ‘flow’ from breaking.

Historically, games can wind up falling into a pattern like this: wind up, try it, fail, resurrect; wind up try it, fail, resurrect; wind up, try it, succeed, etc., on and on. Therefore, developers such as Ben Mattes have sought design methods to maintain continuous ‘flow’ and immersion. Therefore, Elika always saves the Prince of Persia when he falls, returning him to the moment just before he put himself in danger. This way the gameplay remains continuous. The trouble is that without any consequence for failure whatsoever players don’t feel properly challenged—the stakes aren’t high enough—and so they lose interest in the game.

The tone has to be just right.

The 12. Practice Principle is at work here, whereby the learner/gamer gets lots of more or less non-boring practice. This type of grinding performs a balancing act between being necessary in the early levels as a design tool intended to teach players the basics while providing players with a fun, rewarding experience.

Getting this right is invariably a challenge for both the designer and the gamer. The player can’t enjoy the game’s later levels without a firm grounding in the game’s systemic principles, but if the training is excessively tedious, the gamer will burnout, resent the game’s dull limitations, and rage against the designer’s lack of empathy, nuance, and controlled mastery. Harmonious design is essential for the 13. Ongoing Learning Principle and 14. “Regime of Competence” Principle to work, whereby the gamer is always testing the edge of his or her skill level, always having to build upon the skills learned earlier, unravel a previous understanding, and add a layer of complexity to it. This is where I think Gee really nails it. He’s absolutely right that game designers are excellent teachers—they utilize not only their own endless personal testing to find this sweet spot, but they also employ testers to play the levels endlessly until the level designs are functioning perfectly.

Learning a foreign language reminds me of playing video games in the sense that when you first look at a new language lesson, it could not appear more obtuse, random, and incomprehensible. It simply hurts your head to look at symbols and grammatical exercises for which you have no context, no clear means of deciphering their significance. But upon approaching the problem in increments, you decode this word, now that. And soon thereafter, the entire lesson makes perfect sense, and you can’t remember what it was like not to know what to do. You can no longer look at the lesson with that same lack of understanding—the memory of incomprehension becomes difficult to recall. Well-designed games achieve this via teaching/learning principles, to a point where after you’ve achieved Level 10 on WoW you can no longer remember what it was like to awkwardly move your character around the initial spawning area, trying to figure out how/why to click on a Quest Giver.

25. The Concentrated Sample Principle sustains as an ingrained training method in the early stages of video games, including WoW. Players must perform many types of fundamental tasks that are secretly training them, similar to the way Mr. Miyagi trains Daniel-son in the Karate Kid by making him paint fences and clean pools, only instead of Miyagi’s emphasis on monotonous work tasks, game designers attempt to integrate elements of enjoyable quests into core skill building. Importantly, modern designers avoid instruction manuals, attempting to integrate the instructions into the early stages of the game—something you experience both in WoW and in nearly every console game these days. Requiring a player to stop and learn the gameplay mechanics kills immersion and ‘flow’ and is therefore unacceptable. As defined by the 28. Discovery Principle, the game should unfold like an appealing, pleasure inducing narrative, totally immersing the player, creating invisible walls, and presenting the illusion that the player is experiencing an organic story world that emerges as they discover it.