Tuesday, 19 June 2007

The Community in DaoC: first awareness

One of the first things that we are told about community is that in order for it to exist it has to construct its boundaries. In order to do that it has to define who is in the community and who is out side of it. Usually such definitions will follow a series of 'codes'. Codes are not a set of rules but are basic communication distinctions that are used to simply distinguish between those who are in the community and those who fall outside it.

By now you should see that in fact any one MMOPRG will have multiple lines for defining multiple communities and such groups will form and break on the codes they use to identify themselves. Its why the idea of a 'community manager' is in some senses an anathema. Communities don't by definition have manager's they form and collapse all the time depending on how they are able to maintain their boundaries. Their boundaries depend on the maintenance of codes that people identify with.

Now if the definition of codes holds true then strictly speaking everyone on any server is a member of a community because they are distinguished by the fact that they play there. So whilst in many respects 'community manager' can be an anthema and is a conflictual role it does have some grounding in the semantics of communication. Anyway the server versus other servers is the first distinction and therefore the first code you tend to encounter i.e. the name of the server (in this case Prydwen) versus all other 'undefined' servers. It is important - why for example does a community like Prydwen.net persist long after the server has merged and changed name? Long after most people have moved away? Because they identify with the Prydwen code. It might seem odd but as you can see codes are persistent.

Now we have three kinds of codes:
Objects - where the other side of the distinction is not specified i.e. Prydwen versus all other servers.
Distinctions - where the other side is specified i.e. Prydwen versus Excalibur a well known distinction
Second order distinctions - this one is complicated. A second order distinction is a distinction that can re-enter itself. Such distinctions enable a high degree of social organisation i.e. government and opposition, there is the basic distinction government and the opposition but then there is also a more sophisticated aspect to this. You can be in government but within the government there will be an an opposition and a government. Most governments have a ruling elite and an opposition within you can see this in any political party.

Second order distinctions are really not seen in MMOPORGs or at least I haven't noticed any as yet - mostly because the codes that people use to communicate tend to either be objects or distinctions.

Now at the time I didn't really think of this but now when I reflect back I can see that in fact these distinctions were happening all the time in the game. They are used to demarcate groups. Communities within a community as it were. The rest of my story is about how I gradually became aware of the various distinctions being used to communicate group boundaries. I am a naturally curious person and you can bet I tried to experience all of these distinctions as best I could. Anyway back to the story - the distinctions at this stage are fairly basic.

When Aithne and I first started to go out into RvR in Molvik we had some memorable experiences. We acted on the basis of the distinction between us as a duo and them the opposition. We duoed for many days in both Molvik and Lervik. Back then we did not have a buff bot - you can guess that my degree of ignorance of anything to do with the game was pretty conclusive. Instead we would run out in both BG's and get chewed and zerged, but we were a duo and we won a fair proportion of fights as well.

RvR in battlegrounds is ok but going out into the old frontiers well that was what we were living for back then. The opportunity came when Hibernia announced an epic relic raid at the end of old frontiers. I had never been on one but as a level 42 Nightshade you can be sure I was going. The only distinction I was aware of was us versus them. Once more a very crude distinction but I was going to do my best.

Now I had to prepare for the fight. I printed out all the maps of the frontier in a state of fervour. I liked the maps that had the animals on them because you could look at the mobs around you and guess where you were. Back then old Emain as we are still told on the forums was apparently where men where men and boys were boys and sheep where very frightened. There was no online map and you had to pick your way through without any guidance.

I had loads of printed maps on my lap and was sitting in skype trying to find my way around. I got lost very quickly because my laptop could not cope with the lag of the raid. So I ended up trying to find where the main BG was all the time talking to Aithne who also managed to get lost. After dying loads of times to high level stealthers at the milegates we eventually got through to Midgard. It took ages to get to the keep.

The Hibbies got the relic then had to hold the keep from Midgard who to all intense purposes were ferocious. Jupiter was constantly talking in the BG telling people to calm down to hold their position to wait then to charge. To pull back to hold out of line of sight and wait then to charge. It was the raid where he screemed that infamous slogan "DON'T PANIC! WE'VE GOT SHROOMS!" These words are iconic to us.

I was lost out in Midgard - the closest I got to the relic keep was the slope outside where my screen went black and I died to lag and a Mid zerg.

It was an epic raid and in the end we lost the relic before the timer had gone but it was awesome. I was amazed and delighted to be part of such a group of people. Even now we remember those infamous words and they bring back fond memories of the night we shared. Virtually all of those people have gone from the server now. Its not even a shadow of what it once was.

The first meaningful distinction you come across in DaoC is your realm versus others. That is the point when you truly start to identify with 'the community'. Note that my point of reference was certainly not everyone else on the server. I could not communicate with them after all because of the way the game is designed. This point is deeply significant for the way in which people experience the game. It necessitates what some call 'the metagame' i.e. the forums.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Pause for thought - the "Just a game" argument

Ok its been a while since the inital flurry of posts. After posting the analysis up I thought it didn't seem right. It doesn't fit the tone of the other posts and it feels like I am lecturing which is not good. I have been here before really. Many times on the forums in the so called 'metagame' I could see stuff happening that fitted work. I noticed others from a psychology or social science background noticing similar stuff. It was hard to stop commenting and making note at the time and often when comments about the social science of a particular situation where made it was counter productive.

I guess it was a bit like Nikos Kazantzakis and mates in their 'Friendly society' running around handing beggars a cup of tea (See Report to Greco). The beggar isn't too happy with their condescending attitude and tells them to get stuffed. That happened to me quite a few times in the 'metagame'. 'No-one likes a smart arse' (Douglas Adams).

The thing is it wasn't a game it was quite serious at the time. When you see people destroying each others game because they cannot agree on how to accommodate each other then you really have to try and do something surely? Especially if you can see what the issues are. You can tell that in this respect I have a lot to learn still!

I don't know why more often than not I could not help. It felt like it would help if people could see that things could be explained or that something about what was happening could be revealed so people could understand each other better. But it just didn't work. I am getting ahead of myself slightly but the point needs to be made now. The previous post here is a very rough comment on a couple of aspects of the game to show that in fact with time something could be done to understand community interaction better. It is merely a cursory glance and I didn't even get into distinctions (which is the best way to analyse forum interaction by a long shot).

Why is it important?

Ok well take Eve. Right now it is going through a series of crisies associated with bias and feelings that the playing field is not level. The sense that one Alliance is being favoured over others is destroying player trust. Now no matter how crazy the actions from time to time of players (and in some cases here this has been pretty bad). I have seen the "its just a game" argument cited in this respect several times. But is it "just a game"?

The point has been debated in many places other than Eve but it is not surprising to see it happening again at this time in there: Let take a few quotes:
SamuraiJack says People say its just a game. Eve is not. Years of work are buried in here. as a quick example ASCN had 13 outposts in feyth. put up wiht long hours of hauling logistics and group work. Now u can do it with a frieghter or two and a group of mates...
Someone has even started a thread with the title "People: Its just a game...."
Bannion Yes, I agree, "This is just a game.........but, when I pay to play a game I expect to be on the same level as everyone else, only skill and tactics should beat me and they have on many occasions, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth when I read in lots posts now that Dev's have been helping probably the best Alliance ingame get ahead.
Obviously Ashira Twilight on page two of that thread is upset because it takes time to replace things you lose in Eve.

Yeah, my pvp alt has gotten his butt handed to him every time he's taken them on. He in his harbinger/vengeance/arbitrator, against their pilgrim/curse/ishtar/eos/astart/etc...makes me wonder how they get all those nice toys...
I'm venting too. I lose a tech 1 ship fitted with tech 2 modules, and have to grind for a while to get a new one. I used to think that all bpo owners were just lucky, now I don't know what to think.
Further Nev Clavain says:
Now on many points I absolutely agree with OP. I don't think people should be offensive or really systematically set out to ruin other people's fun, because its just a game. But if they choose to do that it is really their choice how they play the game, and other players must learn not to be offended, or learn how to enforce their own style of play - it is a sandbox afterall.

The one thing that i consider my money is paying for in this game is a Level Playing Field. The game is not fun unless everyone is playing on the same terms. It seems that idea of equal terms has been a myth for quite some time. In which case I have been to a large extent wasting my money. I don't like to throw away money to dishonest crooks. It makes me irritated to say the least.

I have had fun playing the game in the last six months, but that fun was based on an assumption which has turned out to be untrue. Sure its just a game, but the money that paid for it was real, the time spent earning that money was mine, and it was real.
At the end of the day "its a game" idea is a paradox after all games are not to be taken seriously right? Right?

Yeah right...

CCP have a very large investment riding on it. The players have loads of time riding on it. It is simply stupidity to make that claim. An MMO is always more than just a game. Otherwise why would we see Eve cited in the Washington Post? Why do we see people paying real money to have in game money? Why is there a mini sweatshop industry of strip miners in the game?

People who cite that argument obviously don't believe it either. I guess they are trying to calm things down. Whenever people cited that to me in DaoC I would often see red - odd that I never thought that social science could be just as condescending isn't it?

OK summing up this one:
Trying to inject social science into any of these discussions through this medium doesn't really work its as condescending as 'its just a game' arguments.

I did not intend the last post to read like it does but it seems to sound all wrong. Doesn't fit the medium and besides this blog is not meant to be work. I am mindful of Susan Sontag, who is a legend in political essay writing in medical sociology often falling into lecturing in her essays when it doesn't really fit such a medium (the political essay). So time to leave that behind and try to work with the underlying ideas rather than lecturing. After all people are smart enough to get the point and smarter still to make better points.

Apart from this though the main reason why I haven't posted is because I have been working on a new Corporation concept for Eve, that and trying my hand at an Epic poem for that game. Rather than talk about the details you probably can guess where my gaming hobby energy is going to these days. Its not DaoC.

Ok back to the story....

Monday, 4 June 2007

Game Experience Analysis Part 1

Up to now I have been telling a story. My story as I remember it. Stories are not perfect by any means it is well known they are told from a certain perspective and usually have a lot of bias. Memory is not perfect and there is no doubt the memories here are distorted by my present views of the game and the purpose of this blog. So the account this far is imperfect, but it is as authentic as I can make it. Why do this?

A skilled narrative analysis would reveal a few things in the account so far, the way the accounts indicate a lot of innocence and stupidity. There are a lot of things in the first 6 posts already that a sociologist should see. One thing in stories is that the first few lines quite often hint at what is to follow. The very first lines of this blog are weary "Its late on Monday evening the kids have been put to bed and I am tired. Its been a strange day really." This indicates just how tired I am of the whole thing, but for some reason I cannot let it go, I am still wondering why I cannot do that. In the second entry you can see the new beginning of the narrator moving to a new town and taking in DaoC as a new experience. "I started him sitting in a rented house in Sheffield. We had just moved from London. I was delighted to finally start playing a game I had wanted to play for over six months." In many ways this line is setting the narrator up as the innocent victim. I know this but I am letting it happen for a very good reason, because I don't buy it even though thats how I want to tell it. The goal is to reach a reflexive awareness about how my perspective in the game led to a series of events that I am not wholly able to explain. I am still doing it right now. Now the story is that I am going to try and dig deeper and maybe 'explain' something.

The purpose behind this blog is to try and have a look at what happened and then point towards the kinds of things a social scientist would pick up on in trying to explain the experience. There is no claim here of anything superior in fact a psychologist would pick up on other aspects of the accounts given and make something else of them. Those kinds of analysis should be welcomed. Apart from this the analysis that follows is not exhaustive by any means. It simply seeks to demonstrate to those interested the kinds of social forces at work in MMO's.

The Symbolic meaning of DAOC: Introduction
In "Sharkith the Incompetent" and "Sharkith and I" there are a few things worth noting. The game only had meaning within a context and that context was a move to a new city and life. The game was new at the same time. Meanings like this have consonance and tend to combine to shape our relations to our bodies and the physical world around us (Douglas, 1970). You find for example that a Brethren preacher who does not value organised religion has an appearance that is shabby and 'disorganised'. Likewise DaoC was new and the in game experience mirrored the difficulties of settling into a new job. If the job had proved easier to get into perhaps I would have been able to cope with the game better?

Sharkith was disorganised and I was, it took a very long time to get going. A year ago for example I would not have been able to reflect and work like this on the hobby. The point then is that everyday life provides some of the meaning context that subsequently affects how players are playing. There quite literally is a lot going on in that relation alone. It would be worth looking for other examples where everyday life has had other kinds of effects. The in game content had very little to do with my experience of the game. It was more or less an empty phenomenon that had meaning poured into it from all directions.

Then there is the interactive dimension to the experience. This is something we are all familiar with in everyday life but something we rarely catch happening. The relationship between 'I' using the game and the 'me' as I reflect on how others see me in the game is fundamental to the experience. Understanding how others see 'me' begins the process of integrating me into a community. I start to learn rules of behaviour. I learn I am a 'noob' and I learn things like, who should 'pull' mobs and who should not pull them and I learn very quickly to not try and 'steal' another person's kill. All interactive rules and my orientation and acceptance of these were essential for me to become fully integrated to the community.

Now of course people react differently to norms and not everyone is of course willing to subscribe to them. Sometimes people do not have a strong sense of in game identity, others are well aware of the rules but decide because it is only a game to flaunt them. The point being that their reaction to these rules is based on the meaning those rules have for 'them'. We will come back to this again. Obviously norms of behaviour and the various meanings they can have for people are a big source of conflict in MMOs.

The Phenomena of DAOC: Introduction to intentionality
Phenomenological analysis begins by saying that knowledge is first and foremost intentional. From the outset the newness of the game left me in the dark. I did not know what to expect and in many respects my experience demonstrated this. Things improved dramatically when Aithne started to play on GOA's servers (he had been playing on the US before hand) and we renewed an old social bond and in some repsect re-created that bond in game. We would drink and chat and generally mess around in game. The number of times we had slight 'accidents' reflected how we always were before hand. The phenomenon of DAOC derived its meaning from our intentions as we logged in night after night. Playing with "The Numbnuts" was a similar thing.

We liked the thought of playing without healers and generally timing our pulls and damage control to perfection. Those sessions were imbued with the meaning we brought to it because our intention each night was to relax - slightly bored but getting to know each other. Later as we all hit level 50 many of us drifted in different directions. Aithne and I went to RvR and we gradually lost touch with Briannon and Wyst. Our intentions were different. I had always wanted to play the game for RvR and finally I was there.

Both Aithne and I were soon to realise that to survive in this game we had to go and complete the content in Trials of Atlantis. I will pick up the story there later.

The analysis here is deliberately 'light' but the point is a salient one. There is much to be done to unpack these games and what they are doing in the everyday lives of customers. We haven't even got to forum posting and what some call the 'Meta-Game'.

Douglas, M., (1970) "Natural symbols: essays in cosmology." London: Routledge

Forum life - the early days

I cannot really remember when I first started reading and posting on forums. I know for a fact I knew nothing about them nor did I care much about them until relatively late into my levelling Sharkith. It was close to around a major relic raid at the end of Old Frontiers. I had registered on the guild forums but I just assumed thats all the guild used to communicate with each other. We would often chat about in game events and try and arrange raids and things like that. Eventually the guild told us to all register on Prydwen.net I am not even sure it was called prydwen.net and I don't even know why.

At the end of the day prydwen was where most of the Hibernian players seemed to hang out. I registered and suddenly a whole community opened up to me. I didn't know half of the posters, after all I was limited to relatively low level in game interaction. Finding Prydwen.net suddenly got me a whole other perspective on the game. I began to see the politics of the server and the great community that Pyrdwen was back then. They were the underdogs but seemed to stick together. There were arguments and debates but these always seemed constructive.

I started to post on the forums asking questions about the community and why it was so hard to find people to group with. I think back then I was a right pain in the ass to forum goers. I would post all sorts of crap that didn't really fit the context. Like asking when they had stopped to level with people coming through the games. I think any accusation that Prydwenites were not the friendly seemed to grate with them at the time because unbeknown to me they took real pride in their togetherness.

I really don't know. My memory is very fuzzy about what exactly got me started on the game forums. It is not that I didn't know what forums were. I am an old hand at forum debate I was a founding member of Frothersunite after all - a forum that makes Freddys house look like kinder garden. I knew how online communities could start around the oddest of things such as Colonel Marbles Miniatures Masterworks so I don't think it was a surprise that there were forums. I think the main reason was that I was starting to anticipate RvR at level 50 and I needed to get to know my realm mates, but I really am not too sure why I signed up and started posting (apart from the fact that I am as curious as hell!).

The one thing the forums do is that they get you in touch with people beyond your immediate guild and group. They help you start to develop an awareness of the views of different groups in game. You start to learn that the game is played with very different intentions.

At that time there was a divide between RvR guilds and the rest of the realm it seemed. Not a destructive one but there was a palpabile difference in opinion and views about the game. In the end the one thing I was certain about was that my game had opened up even more. It was solidified when it was through the Prydwen forums that the first relic raid I would attend was arranged. It was the last relic raid the Hibbies ever had on Prydwen before New Frontiers was launched. The one where a certain quotation became immortalised. More of that later...