Tag Archives: online community

What MUDs Still Have to Offer to the Virtual World Discussion

There has been a lot of discussion within academic circles regarding the use of virtual worlds for the purpose of researching various forms of human and communal interaction and formation. Due to the exorbitant current cost of entry in creating an MMORPG (and the fact that they already have a population for the purposes of sampling), it seems like a great deal of the research is occurring within already established games. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, though there will come a time when the greater degree of control over variables that comes with creating your own environments will likely become necessary. (As a case in point, while they can select which games they choose to sample, researchers tend not to have control over how the game is marketed, nor which demographics it chooses to target.)

There also seems to be a fair bit of focus on contemporary games, like Second Life, and World of Warcraft. While this certainly has merit, especially in that these games reach a certain critical mass, allowing for a greater demographic sampling for research: you are more likely to get not just core gamers, but also casuals with other interests that play as a fad (because “everyone” plays). This can only help the overall direction of research into social dynamics and interaction, and examining the social organism as a whole. However, what I’ve found is very little attention to a return to prior research, prior virtual worlds and experiments.

I think this is incredibly unfortunate. I think there is still a lot of play left in earlier models, such as MUDs (Multi-User Domains/Dungeons, the text-based precursor to the modern MMORPG). Many MUDs at this point have been established for well over a decade, which I think would offer a wealth of opportunities for seeing how a community matures and shifts as it ages. Let’s take AvatarMUD for example, since I have nearly a decade of experience with it. Over the past decade, I’ve seen the population rise to a peak population count of 190 individual players on at a given time, with a median of roughly 120 across the day, to a slow decline as players moved on, where the median is closer to 60, with a daily peak player count of around 90. Even in this, it has survived better than many MUDs.

As the player community has shrunk, so has the sense of community, which could be partially attributed to several design implementations that allowed for greater fragmentation of the player base (in addition to outside factors, such as a shift away from MUDs in general, and the increased availability of broadband allowing for more visually robust games to be played). What is particularly notable is that as the nature of the game evolved, we started adjusting and adapting more and more for “min-max” players, and hardcore players. This came at the cost of the more casual, social player. While I don’t think it is a perfect ratio, I strongly suspect there is at least a passing corollary between the reduction in population, with the prior percentage of casual and social players. What has remained are largely committed players, who have invested hundreds or even thousands of hours into their characters, and generally have considerably more than one alt. They’ve “mastered” the play mechanics of the game, and generally continue to play because of their investment in the game, and the friends they’ve made within the game, rather than continuing to find new challenges.

Due to making these adjustments in order to “keep ahead” of the “hardcore” players, the barrier of entry for new and more socially-oriented players becomes untenable unless they already have friends within the game. This is not unreasonable, since MUDs are largely populated through word of mouth: they are often labors of love, and not even allowed to charge or generate revenue, which means they tend not to have the budget to advertise. It does, however, mean that the truly new player is largely left to fend for themselves, and can become extremely frustrated until they start establishing a rapport and support group among other players. If they aren’t willing or able to devote the time and energy towards that end, that often marks the end of their time on the MUD.

This isn’t meant to be a doom or gloom forecast of things to come with AvatarMUD, and the staff remains receptive to a number of ideas on how to aid the casual player in becoming established, without sacrificing the game mechanics and design path they’re interested in pursuing. It remains to be seen how effective these ideas will prove to be, but that returns me to the point of this essay: MUDs present an opportunity to observe communities further along in the cycle, and their continued use as a sandbox for virtual worlds should not be underestimated.

Games in the Social Tapestry

In a country of just under 300 million people, current statistics suggest that roughly 60% of the population plays games on a regular or semi-regular basis[1] — that games have taken a central role in how we occupy our time is undeniable. What is still under debate, however, is how these games affect our lives outside the game, and how we interact with others in society. There has been some indication that video games temporarily increase aggression, but no more than watching an action movie or even a particularly rousing football game, with no long term corollary showing up to date.[2] Additionally, the role video games have on aggression is a relatively small element in the larger role games have on the social tapestry. The question that most interests me in this field is “How do games bring people together?”

One of the most immediately apparent examples of games serving as a coagulant for community building is the Massively Multiplayer Online style of game, which places thousands of players together within a persistent virtual world, where relationships with other players must be formed to survive. The most popular of these games is Blizzard’s World of Warcraft (WoW), which recently passed the 6 million player mark, making it more than twice as large as its nearest competition. World of Warcraft has even been alluded to replacing golf as the networking tool of choice in the realm of technology oriented business.[3] The comparison continues to gather steam, with exclusive guilds replacing country club memberships, and a number of celebrities playing together (notably Dave Chappelle, comedian and star of The Chappelle Show, and rumors suggest that Jon Stewart of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart also plays[4]).

The more interesting question to ask, however, is not how World of Warcraft reached this position, but why it did. It clearly is filling a role that society felt was needed; the game has largely operated on grassroots advertising and gamer-centric marketing, so the fact that it has garnered a wider market appeal suggests that it is fulfilling a role that was lacking in society. In The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg discusses the essential role a “third space” that is neither home nor work plays in the health of a community, and decries the destruction and devaluation of these places with the growth of suburbia and a commuter culture. I have a strong suspicion that the appeal for WoW, and other online games, is in its ability to create a virtual third space, a place for people to have shared experiences and garner a sense of comradeship. While it is not necessarily a perfect marriage, since it still ultimately keeps individuals physically apart and isolated, it is a stopgap solution the larger social organism has created to fulfill this necessary role in culture.
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