Virtual environments and online games
In this post, I will try to tackle two interesting and somewhat overlapping blogposts in two very different style blogs: Nick Montfort's post in GrandTextAuto on virtual environments and Andrew Phelps in Got Game on online games.
These two posts are connected in my mind through certain key words:
Both Nick Montfort and Andrew Phelps discuss categories, which, one might say, proves Nick's comment that it's not just a "tedious Scandinavian pasttime". Nick discusses Espen Aarseth's use of the category "virtual environment", while Andrew discusses the commercial use of "online game". They are also discussing the same kind of game/environment, and the increasingly obvious problems with naming these environments correctly. Nick has an advantage through his understanding of the history of the multi-player games as he reaches back into text-based games such as MUDs, while Andrew Phelps skips the MUDs entirely, and forgets to mention the many multi-player environments before the Massively Multi-pPlayer Online Role-Playing Games. It is significant to his discussion that Richard Bartle was writing about Player Killers as a category of online players in 1990. But Andrew most clearly reveals his lack of play-MUD experience is in discussing cheating and his ability to influence other players:
The thing that is a little different, I suppose, is that you can influence the game of someone else, and so cheating takes on a much larger significance. But people still cheat (anyone have a packet-sniffing linux box running next to their EQ machine? eh?). And it doesn't kill the game. In the parlance of our times: /shrug.
In 1999 I interviewed the players of Dragon Realms, the MUD I based my doctorate thesis on. One of the questions I asked them was if they could make me a list of game categories. Several of the players made two lists: one consisting of the commercial labels, and one which depended on their experience. The most problematic concept for these players was the category "Role-Playing Games". All the players I interviewed who had problems with the commercial RPG-label were experienced players of table-top games as well as what they called "online role-playing games". The most important aspect of an online role-playing game in their opinion is that it lets you create a character with a background and a history, it lets you play this character among other, similarly individually crafted and played characters, and the role-play influences and is influenced by that of the other players as well as the development of the environment within which the play takes place. All other games they would label Adventure or Action. This supports Andrew Phelps in his frustration with the commercial labels "RPG" and "online", and emphasises the distance between how the industry understand games, and how their players understand them.
For these players, influencing the game WAS the game. They were unafraid in the face of an unstable, changing game. The magic of their game was that when they left it, the changes which had happened before they returned were not all "somehow, a result of my influence in the world'.
These online, multi-player role-playing games take place in an environment which is, I agree with Espen, virtual. It is a textual or graphic representation of something which is imagined, and as such it is more virtual than it is a simulation. It is doubly imagined: the rules of the game-world are not representations of the natural laws of this world, and so it is a result of the imagination of the creator. But the player accepts the world and its rules, and continues the act of imagining: a multi-player role-playing game is an act of collaborative imagination - a common virtuality.
I do however not see that "virtual environment" is limited to computer-mediated environments. The virtual aspect is not a function of the computer, but of human imagination. The dollhouses of previous centuries that Mary Flanagan referred to in her paper at DAC2003 (pdf) are similar virtual environments. To me, a virtual environment is the imagined common arena within which play happens. In this I almost disagree with Nick Montford, but I think our disagreement comes from the definition of play. I find that the playfullness of creating or just chatting in a social MOO is, while not gaming, playing. This means that interactive fiction becomes a kind of "play" as well, but play in the understanding of "leik" rather than "spill" - playfullness and not competition. Mimicry and perhaps ilinx rather than alea or agôn. The virtual environment depends not on technology, but on the human mind.
This leads us back to the other category which now gets tied to the new technology: role-play. This is mimicry, and an important human ability. Our society depends on our skill at role-play, as we step in and out of different social and cultural roles, and we try, test and learn these roles by playing with them.
Based on this, I'll attempt and answer to two of Nick's questions (and ignore the others who have made similar and, who knows, perhaps better attempts in the comments to the post). First: we are attracted to virtual environments because they are familiar, they are the way we think, theorize and explore abstractions. To create, understand and enjoy virtual environments is a fundamentally human ability. Second: hopskotch and chess have virtual environments. We call them things like board, arena and rules.