Me, myself and my avatar

Discussing participatory culture and player rights in virtual worlds
By Simon Larsen

Supervisor: T. L. Taylor
Course: Computer Games Culture – F2005

IT-University of Copenhagen


Me, myself and my avatar

The currently biggest virtual worlds 1 on the market boast millions of active players 2 and have indeed become as a second home for many. More and more of our leisure time are being spent in the world of Azeroth, Paragon City and Norrath 3. At the same time, more questions arise about player created content and the ownership of that. But what rights do players have in the games? To briefly sum it up; none. The majority of players have properly never even read the End User License Agreement or the Terms of Use for their game. But because games like these have become such a participatory media, or co-creative media to use the words of Sue Morris (2004) it is important to discuss ownership and control of these game media.

What problems lies in the fact that commercial companies effectively owns content created by players of virtual worlds?

Identity extension

The common statement you hear when discussing rights of players in virtual worlds is; “it’s just a game”. Yes and no, but there is much more to it. Scott McCloud writes in his book “Understanding Comics” (1993) about the interaction with inanimate objects;

When driving, for example, we experience much more than our five senses report. The whole car ” not just the parts we can see, feel and hear “is very much on your minds at all times. The vehicle becomes an extension of our body. It absorbs our sense of identity. We become the car.” (p. 38)
This notion of inanimate objects being an extension of our identity can be translate directly to virtual worlds. We and the avatar we control in the game are one and the same. That is why people spend so much time in the games and feels very much attached to their avatar and the actions done by and to them. The avatar is another version of them.

In online multiplayer games without persistence, the skill of my avatar and the skill of me, as a player, are directly linked together. If the game company Valve took the (however unlikely) decision to shut down all Counter-Strike servers worldwide, I could just take my FPS 4 skills and start playing Quake III or Unreal Tournament. With persistent game worlds that is much more difficult. The skills I have as a player only count for a part of the abilities of my avatar, the rest is gained from leveling in the game. If I was to change to another game, I had to start all over from scratch.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe

The counter-argument to this statement is – again “it’s just a game”. No actions in the game have real-life consequences. Still people spend months, even years, in some of these games, building social networks and honing their reputations by their actions (Taylor, 2002).

Who Watches the Watchmen?

If we take a closer look at World of Warcraft, we clearly see that the balance of power and control is uneven to say the least. Blizzard Entertainment? who runs World of Warcraft? explicitly states in their Terms of Use that:

“All title, ownership rights and intellectual property rights in and to World of Warcraft (including but not limited to any user Accounts, titles, computer code, themes, objects, characters, character names, stories, dialogue, catch phrases, locations, concepts, [..], transcripts of the chat rooms, member profile information, [..]) are owned by Blizzard Entertainment or its licensors.” (Section §13. Ownership).

In short, everything related to the “universe” of Warcraft is owned by Blizzard. Any story that you as a player creates either in or outside of the game, through role-playing or otherwise is owned by Blizzard. It is, presumably, your labor of love, but you have to rights to it.

Furthermore, they state that: “You may not do anything that Blizzard Entertainment considers contrary to the ‘essence’ of World of Warcraft” (Section §3. World of Warcraft Code of Conduct, C.v). Even the quotation marks around “essence” are there, but the term is never defined clearer than that.

The power of many

But where is the fair use of the game? If I want to role-play a certain character in the game and create a back story around it that, goes against the ‘essence’ of World of Warcraft, what then? Will they ban my account from breaking the Terms of Use?

The value these players give to the overall game experience is higher than that of the game itself. Reed’s law 5 certainly applies to these games, where the number of participants in the network is directly connected with the value of the network. These games are nothing without the players 6.

Question left unanswered

“MUD players are people. They don’t stop being people when they log on. Therefore, they deserve to be treated like people. This means they have the rights of people.” (Koster, 2000)

Many questions still linger unanswered. This is a topic of continuously heated debate, and each side of the table has still to come up with the argument that would end the discussion.

If the balance of power over intellectual property and the player rights shifted more in the direction of the players (customers), would this unleash a barrage of legal issues that would eventually end the MMORPGs, as we know them today? Is it then best to leave the balance in its status quo?

Would this damage the game playing experience? Would it destroy the play, as in? I play a game to escape real life, why bring real life in here? Is this the Pandora’s Box of virtual Worlds?

Could the game companies gain more from loosening the grip on the rights, instead of controlling them rigorously? As Henry Jenkins writes (2002), some game companies already do and seem to be gaining from it.

 

References

All links checked as of April 2005. Not all are referenced directly in the text.

Notes

  1. Here I am referring to Virtual Worlds, MMORPGs, MUDs, MOOs (The terms are here used interchangeably) and the like, as game spaces that encompasses some form of interaction with other players (people). It is intently used very broad, so here it includes, without excluding, games such as “World of Warcraft”, “City of Heroes”, “Second Life”, “Counter-Strike”, “Quake”, “EVE-Online”, “Anarchy Online”, and so on. Even respected scholars are finding it hard to determine what constitutes as a virtual world and what does not (http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2004/06/a_virtual_world.html)
  2. According to MMOGchart.com
  3. “Azeroth” being the fictional world of “World of Warcraft”, “Paragon City” is from “City of Heroes” and “Norrath” is the world of “Everquest”
  4. FPS: First Person Shooters. An action-oriented genre of games, currently dominated by games such as Counter-Strike, Half-Life 2, DOOM III and Far Cry.
  5. Reed’s Law states that a value of a social network is directly connected with the number of participants. 2N − N − 1, where n is the number of participants in the network, e.g. a network of 5 participants would have the value of 26, while a network of 10 would have a value of 1013. The value of the network scale exponentially with more participants (Wikipedia).
  6. As of writing this players of World of Warcraft are leaving the game by the numbers and canceling their accounts because of their dislike of a new PvP system that has been implemented

Please do not walk on the grass

On how role-playing in “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” can be difficult

Before you starting spamming the comment function with enlightening comments such as “GTA is not a RPG you idiot!”, let me explain what I mean with role-playing in a game like Grand Theft Auto (GTA);

It is correct that GTA is not marketed as a RPG, but in it you play the role of Carl Johnson ((or just plain CJ among friends)) in his quest for correcting all the wrongdoings that has come upon him and his family. This, in itself, does not really constitute GTA as a RPG, since then all games would more or less be RPGs, but the sheer size of the game world and the freedom to roam around in this, creates a narrative vacuum that the player has to fill out by him/herself, very similar to “normal” RPGs. Furthermore you, as a player, are free to dress up Carl in more or less any way you find suitable and “pimp his ride” in various ways. On top of that you have the element of the fitness and sex appeal of CJ. These elements are clearly added into the game in order for the players to identify more with CJ, e.g. that they share the same goals and behave in a way you would prefer etc.

The overall story arc of the game is very well constructed but in some cases the narrative that the player is creating (though his/her (inter)actions) clashes very hard with the narrative that Rockstar Games has put into the game.

When I first loaded the game on my PS2, I was expecting the grandeur of the two previous games in the series, GTA III and GTA: Vice City, and Rockstar delivered. The game is bigger, prettier, sounds better and driving around in the game is just a fun as it was in the others. It has a great and better written story than the previous game. But this is also where GTA: SA goes down an unfamiliar path for the series.

In GTA III the protagonist was an unnamed guy with a gritty past, the plot was familiar in sense of “Goodfellas” kind of way. And again with GTA: VC the setting was instantly recognizable, everything from the Miami Vice inspired intro, the Don Johnson and “that other Guy“, the pink flamingos and everything in between.

These two games worked perfectly, because the story was loose and the setting geared towards only one kind of storyline, so there was little difference in the story that Rockstar had put into the game and the story that the player developed while playing.

I would argue that the focus on a better and stronger story proved to be San Andreas’ Achilles’ heel. As I said, the story is better, no need to argue about that, but it is also tighter and more confined, therefore limiting in the way the players act out their “inner criminal”.

An example of this is in the first part of the game. Here you take on the “Doberman” mission, a mission that involves taking over some gang territory from competing gangs in Los Santos (the first of three cities in the state of San Andreas). The game explain very clearly how the game mechanics works in connection with this and before long you and your recruited gang members are out cruising in pimped-up lowriders looking for drive-by action ((note the deliberate use of “you” and “your”)). Within minutes full-blown gang war is happening in downtown Los Santos.

The gang war gameplay element of SA is a nice little (mini) game in itself, but wear out after some time. And this is where the real trouble kicks in.

After I’d have taken over more or less the entire city of Los Santos and in the process developed my own story of CJ as being this “don’t-you-look-at-me-or-I?ll-shoot-you” kind of guy, that doesn’t take any crap from anyone (yes, really living out my inner criminal here) I decided to take on a mission I was more or less certain that would progress the story line of the game. And the mission did indeed progress the story, but in a whole other direction than the one I wanted.

The mission starts with a cutscene where a crocket cop named Tenpenny (brilliantly voice-acted by Samuel L. Jackson) back-stabs CJ. Since it was a cut-scene there was nothing I could do, even though my view of CJ had now become this before mentioned hard-boiled gangster that would blow the head of anyone trying to cheat him, even cops.

So there I was, thrown out of town, with no guns, no homies to protect me, no nothing. Just seconds ago I was the king of town, I was the guy with homies on every street corner looking out for me, I was the one everyone feared and few had live to tell the tale of. CJ and I were one, but no more. The bond between me, as the player of the game, and Carl Johnson was lost the minute he sat foot in the hillbilly town of Angle Pine… never to be found again.

I kept on playing the game, but CJ was no longer an important part of the game for me, now I was just looking for quick ways to complete the missions, earn money to buy property and scouting for nice cars to drive around.

After this “incident” I played the game in the way Rockstar properly wanted me to play it. The problem was that they had open up this huge game world for me and told me that I could do anything I wanted in. But in really they wanted me to act in a very specific way in it, and not walk on the pretty grass even though I could.

No Man is an Island

Looking for the dynamics between the game, the group and the player

“No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine own were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” John Donne (1572 – 1631)

 

Preface

This report was written in fall of 2005 as part for a project cluster in “Advanced Computer Game Analysis” at the IT-University of Copenhagen. The idea of this cluster was to look at games in an analytical and methodological perspective, and by doing so understand the elements and functions behind the game. During this report we will investigate how and why group structures within multiplayer games emerge.

As this is a new field for all of us we have consulted people who are currently working in this field. We would like to thank Miguel Sicart and Jonas Heide Smith, PhD students at the IT-University, for going beyond the call of duty and sharing thoughts and ideas on the subject.

 

Introduction

This was not how they planed it. This was going to be a walk-over. The dragons of The Blasted Lands were known throughout the entire realm of Azeroth, as being easy prey for seasoned adventurers like themselves. But something had gone wrong. Terribly wrong. Seven of the ten man strong group that had set out to bring down the dragons, were no longer among the living. Their lifeless corpses lay scattered on the hillside which had proven their final doom. One of them was still on fire, but the proud warrior that once occupied that body, had long since seized his panicking attempts to put it out. He was now walking the lonely road through the eternal fields of the afterlife. Their slogan of “you will never walk alone” suddenly had a very hollow ring to it. Every man for himself was now the order of the day. The chance of survival was close to none. Everyone was running around screaming. “I’m not even supposed to be here for crying out loud! You just be happy I’m helping you fight this dragon.” “Can’t anyone control that freaking rogue? We have rules, and a chain of command for the love of God. If nobody followed our rules it would just be total anarchy. I make the calls of when to fight and when to run!” Never before had they been in these parts of the barren wastelands. Before leaving the secure town of Ironforge behind, they had allied themselves with some highly skilled veterans to help with bringing the dragon down. Because down it had to go! The legend had it that the dragons of The Blasted Lands held guard over some of the most precious metals in the entire known world. Metals that could be used to forge mighty swords and armor. But all that seemed to matter little now…

The story above is an imaginary scene from the game World of Warcraft. Even though none of this really took place, it is included to illustrate some of the mechanics in the game. The game mechanics combined with the human factors, are some of the issues which we will try to cover in this report.

All the members of this project group have been playing games for many years and take great interest in especially multiplayer games and how relations between people emerge in such games. Anyone who has spent a few hours in a multiplayer game has probably experienced how people act and interact in different ways. We have all experienced the good and bad things about such games. How people interact with each other and the game has been our starting point. What we intend to clarify is whether or not the player is influenced by the context of a group and if there is a mutual exchange between players. In the following sections we will clarify the scope of this project and how we will approach the subject.

Problem area

Games in the genre of “Massively Multiplayer Online Games” (MMOGs) have during the last couple of years exploded in terms of player population and popularity. Why, could one ask? What do these games provide that make people, month after month, pay fairly big amounts of money to play? Is it the chance to experience grand adventures, epic battles or the opportunity to rise as a hero in a world of chaos? Or is it something completely non-game related, like chatting, forming new friendships etc.?

In the beginning it is fairly reasonable to expect that the main focus of a player in any MMOG is to explore and learn how to act within the game world, but as time passes and you get more and more familiar with your surroundings other objectives arise; at some point you know everything there is to know about the world and you are faced with a dilemma – what to do now? Either you quit the game completely or you find new objectives within the game – e.g. acquiring the best item, being the best player at a specific game mechanic or building strong social relations. These objectives then serve as a means to keep playing, even though the game itself does not instruct you to. One could say that you stop playing the designers game and instead start to play within the world.

So why is this interesting? Well, people tend to approach games in a very rational fashion; how do I optimize my chance of winning. This is due to how games are structured – a cost-benefit principle where every move should be weighed according to the overall goal of the game. This is certainly the case if we were talking about single player games, where every move only affects you. So, would it be a sensible assumption to make when we are talking multiplayer games, MMOGs in particular? During our initial studies, we saw a tendency that people seemed to deviate from this assumption. Why is that? It seems there is something else affecting the player, when he enters a social context. Why would anyone emphasise a non-game related issues, like social interaction, in a situation where winning is everything? Of course there are anomalies among players – not everyone is playing to win a game, but it is, as we see it, a minority in comparison with most players (Smith, forthcoming).

During this report we will try to clarify the key factors when people participating in certain group structures – e.g. do players always choose, as one could expect, the rational choice in a particular context? In exploring this phenomenon we are using the MMOG World of Warcraft as a case study.

This game is currently the biggest MMOG on the marked, with more than 5 million subscribing users (Blizzard.com). It’s truly a game which has managed to appeal to players in a broader perspective. People of every age, play this game. It has become a leading title within this genre and is probably shaping the next generation of MMOGs.

Problem statement

Based upon the problem area we will try to answer the following question:

  • When playing World of Warcraft, what are the key factors of the relationship between the player and the group?

To understand why players make certain choices regarding group structures, we will initially have to clarify how the game facilitates group structures and what types of players it is dealing with. We will therefore use the following questions as means to answer the before-mentioned statement.

  • How are groups structured within World of Warcraft?
  • Which type of players takes part in these structures?

Problem limitation

As part of our problem limitation we have chosen only to focus on World of Warcraft. This is done due to two factors. First of all because of the extreme focus which World of Warcraft is experiencing at this time, which has, as mentioned in the first section, managed to capture the essence for many types of players and thereby their way of playing. Secondly we wanted a problem area of manageable size.

In our analysis we will be using different theories to verify or explain certain findings. We will not at any time try to verify or substantiate the theories, but merely use them as a foundation from which we will try to explain player behaviour in a social context.

 

The report

In the following section there will be a brief introduction to the report and how this is structured. In order to answer or problem statement we have decide to divide the report into two sections, where each part respectively will handle “the group” and “the player”. Each chapter will be organised in the following way:

  • Theory – the theory will be used to analyse the mechanics of the game and will be introduced at the beginning of each chapter.
  • The analysis – the theory combined with the empirical material should give us some answers to our initial (sub-) problem statement.
  • Conclusion – there will be a summary of all our findings regarding the analysis.

The consequence of this structure is that we do not have a purely theoretical chapter, where all the theory is introduced at once, but rather it is split up into smaller parts and explained when needed.

 

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No Man Is An Island (PDF – 1.3 MB)