A note on the blog genre: I find it somewhat difficult to write longer, more structured essays in blog form. The rules of blogging substance and form seem to involve short, punchy observations. So I apologize for the somewhat rambling nature of the following.
Last summer I played quite a bit of Dark Age of Camelot, a MMPORG based on the King Arthur legends, Viking mythology, and Celtic lore. I enjoyed it quite a bit, mostly because I was able to play with a friend who knew the game well. As I read the readings for this week, I tried to reflect on how I could use them to analyze my DAoC experience.
The sort of cultural analysis exemplified by Notes on the Balinese Cockfight is very relevant to games like DAoC. I saw a number of parallels to online gaming.
First, the importance of the fair referee. Geertz points out that the Balinese trust their umpires completely and cede them total authority. Online gamers have no choice but to trust their unseen “umpires” (the game administrators), and in those cases where trust is lost it can be devastating to the game community. See the discussion of a well-publicized case of arbitrary and unfair adminsitrative decisions in Everquest, “I Saw God and I Killed It.”
Geertz describes the cockfight using Goffman’s concept of the “focused gathering,” characterized by a flucuating group of people engrossed in a common flow of discrete activities. This concept is also quite appropriate for describing the DAoC “party,” a group of several players joined together to hunt monsters. Hunting is best done in groups so that more difficult monsters can be taken on, yielding more experience points and greater treasure. Parties can last for tens of hours, even though their membership may change quite a bit over time as people sign off and sign on. Killing mosters, like cockfighting, is a discrete activity. The party finds some acceptable monsters (not too easy and not too difficult), there is planning, there is combat, there is the result–utter triumph or utter defeat–and there is the gathering of treasure or the resurrection of the dead. Unlike in cockfighting, however, events are usually rehashed afterward. More on that later, when I get to the dramaturgical aspects of DAoC. First, more observations of the cultural values and ideologies of DAoC.
Like cockfights, MMPORGs are intimately linked with the wider market economy. Like for most other online games, DAoC items and accounts are auctioned off on Ebay, giving the in-game economy an explicit link to the “real” economy. Edward Castronova has studied this phenomenon extensively. But even without that explicit link the influence of capitalist society on DAoC gameplay is clear. Every settlement from small encampments to large cities has a marketplace (sometimes several). Much of the game revolves around killing monsters to obtain treasure in order to buy weapons and armor so as to kill stronger monsters to obtain treasure… The “progress” of levelling (as this process is called) can be compared to the “progress” of economic acension in actual life. In non-fantasy games like There the link is even clearer, as characters work to obtain the same brand-name goods as in real life.
Finally, Geertz’ observation that
[T]he cockfight renders ordinary, everyday experience comprehensible by presenting it in terms of acts and objects which have had their practical consequences removed and been reduced (or, if you prefer, raised) to the level of sheer appearances, where their meaning can be more powerfully articulated and more exactly perceived.
explains quite a bit about why online games are so appealing. There is a clarity of purpose in these games lacking in real life, and the fact that there are no serious consequences for actions makes these worlds far more forgiving than the real world. Achieving level 50 in DAoC has no effect on one’s social or economic status, but it satisfies the same urges for success that drive us in real life. It is both “play as progress” and “play as power.”
As for the rhetorics of gender in DAoC, I’ll just point out that my friend advised me to play as a female character so that male characters would give me expensive weapons and armor as gifts. He was right: I got loot despite the fact that my Valkyn could hardly be described as feminine…
On to dramaturgy. Players in DAoC are obviously performing for one another; on some servers any sort of “breaking character” (like naming your character something not suitably medieval, using modern terminology, or talking about the real world) is taboo. Even more interestingly, players will log their games or record screenshots and videos of important events in order to document them. As someone (I can’t remember who) pointed out, these movies are similar in form to machinima but opposite in intent: rather than using game software to realize fictional narratives, these players are making documentaries, recording actual events that “happened” to them.
Information Theory & Game Theory
Taking an information theoretical or game (in the microeconomic sense) theoretical view might be interesting for game designers, but it is less interesting for analysis from a player’s perspective. Salen and Zimmerman touch on most of the relevant points: the amount of uncertainty and information in the DAoC world is very great, given the huge space of possibilties in which players can wander. The result is a sense of freedom. However, the designers have been careful to maintain a certain predictablity to the outcomes of one’s actions, particularly in battle, to keep players from feeling lost in chaos.
DAoC also has the typical “huge worlds to explore, complex economies of items, and hidden fighting moves” of which Salen and Zimmerman write. Players have imperfect information in regard to most aspects of the game, like player and monster levels (which are indicated by the color of the name labels–but since this is relative to your level, you cannot necessarily know how strong a given monster is relative to your stronger or weaker party member with asking that member). Most fundamentally, the player’s information is limited by physical distances in the game: you can only see what’s around you (though you can communicate at a distance with friends).
This is the least interesting and useful method of analysis, at least in respect to DAoC. I could ramble on about how DAoC has inherited some of the genre conventions of IRC and its instant messaging successors, but I think I’m going to call it a night…