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.