Monday, July 24, 2006

Play between Worlds

I have been studying World of Warcraft, an online video game, and recently read T.L. Taylor’s new book, Play between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture (MIT Press). Taylor, at the IT University of Copenhagen, has been studying games for several years. Play between Worlds is a thoughtful discussion of many issues, but the two of most interest to me were her examination of gender and player produced culture.

Taylor has conducted participant-observation field research in Everquest, a popular role playing game, since 1999. She has immersed herself in larger sociological, economic, and legal questions of the game, avoiding the pitfalls of ethnographic positivism Kallinikos identified. Taylor knows the game inside out. She handles a broad range of issues with authority, and, I might even say, wisdom. Her writing has a kind of quiet power.

It’s hard to know how many women and girls play competitive role playing games such as Everquest and World of Warcraft. There are no reliable statistics. Nick Yee has self-reports but I believe there are sampling issues there. Taylor says that it appears that females comprise 20-30% of Everquest players. That number feels very right to me after several months of playing World of Warcraft. I just run into females too much for it to be any less, and I think when the dust settles (if it ever does), we’ll find similar statistics for WoW.

OK, so Everquest has a clear majority of male players. Taylor describes the way the significant minority of females is marginalized in design discussions, as though somehow they are aberrations, and if only designers could find out what women want, they could appeal to women. It seems that the game does appeal to women, as Taylor argues. It appeals to women who like competitive role playing video games. The question for me is what cultural forces outside the game produce this number. Other games such as bingo and some of the simulation games have higher percentages of women. But the women who prefer games like Everquest are not aberrations – they are women who like games that a lot of men like too. I found myself wondering if we should be aiming for games that are 50-50 genderwise? Is that the ideal? What exactly do we want? Taylor’s book is a contribution in pushing us to ask such questions.

Taylor points out that while women and men both enjoy the social aspects of role playing games, it’s not just chat women are after. As she says, calling out chat as the main driver trivializes the activities of competing, playing, and socializing which go far beyond chat. In my preliminary interviews on gender and WoW, the word competition comes up as something that appeals to women who play. It seems this orientation precedes the game, so back to my question about the lower numbers of females for whom competition is a passion. Taylor notes that only recently have women’s sports really taken hold. A desire for physical competition was apparently either squelched or hidden in the bad old days. And still, only some women want to compete in sports.

Taylor writes quite a bit about the hypersexualized images of women in games. I am not an expert here but my sense is that World of Warcraft has toned this down somewhat, although representations of females with Barbie Doll proportions seem to be a permanent part of the culture in games and everywhere else. My darker question is whether women care about this. In looking around, I see young women going to work and school in revealing clothing clearly chosen to be provocative. Yes, yes, yes, playing around with subverting gender stereotypes and all of that, but honestly, men don’t get those subtleties. Women’s everyday clothing can be nearly as hypersexualized as the images in video games, so it seems if anything, a significant number of women have gone along with the culture on this one. Certainly some female gamers are uncomfortable with their choices for female characters. Taylor writes well about this. But I wonder if removing such images would have any impact on numbers of females players. I think not, but it would be interesting to find out in some empirically grounded way.

Taylor has identified the many ways in which players co-produce the game such as add-ons, FAQs, guides, forums, fan sites, and so on. While this point is very well-taken, it seems to somewhat delete the artistry and imagination of the developers. My most gut reaction to World of Warcraft is that it is a work of art. Yes it’s derivative of Tolkien and of other games, but the game experience is more than the sum of its parts. It’s tricky to say why it works, and I’ve never seen anyone put it into words, so I’m going to fail here too, but WoW is a work of art as a participatory experience. It’s not like looking at pictures on a wall in a museum, it’s not like playing a sport, it’s not like being in a club, but it’s a bit of each of these in an indefinable mix. There are many other ingredients that go into this mix but the end result is enormously engaging.

I don’t believe Taylor mentions the word “artist” very much in the book, but I think the leap of imagination the developers made in Everquest must be acknowledged as a key part of its success. Taylor suggests more input from gamers as a way to broaden co-production, but might this not kill the artistry? Artists must go beyond the ordinary. If one wants the gamers’ input, there’s Second Life.

I haven’t played Everquest, but World of Warcraft is beautiful, it’s witty, it constantly surprises. For those who play I’ll just mention a few places I consider amazing in graphics – Ashenvale, Jintha’alor, Ironforge. The references to high culture always make me laugh, like Kurzen’s Compound (Heart of Darkness) and A Tailor to Cities (Dickens). There’s tons of references to pop culture, most of which I’m sure I’m missing, but, for example, Jethro Tull’s Bungle in the Jungle. The game takes you back to the Middle Ages but it also takes you back to your own cultural experiences. Is this part of the elusive depth of play?

Taylor suggests that game companies pay more attention to gamers, but it seems Blizzard is already doing that. The challenge is to get the user input but then not just create a paint by numbers product. It’s clear from every patch that Blizzard has listened to feedback. It’s also clear they are worlds ahead of the users in dreaming up new content. That’s their value, their product.

Taylor comes pretty close to suggesting that game companies owe their users because of all the player-produced content, as well as free beta testing, and so on which add up to what she calls “labor.” I can’t quite see this. Labor, if that is what it is, is voluntary. People ask enviously in guild chat how a fellow player got to be a tester. Writing about how to play a game seems more like play than work to me. Of course this distinction raises many interesting issues that need further thought. Just because games enter people’s lives in meaningful ways does not mean that for-profit companies owe customers anything beyond normal terms of service, in our capitalist economy. I think Taylor wishes it were otherwise. If consulting users makes for great profits then companies can be expected to do so. Otherwise, nothing is changed about the fundamental game of capitalism which is profit.

We must ask if games such as Everquest could exist at all outside capitalism. One answer might be the simple MOOs and MUDs that preceded current massively multiplayer online video games. Back in the day they were great but they were never going to attract millions of players. Perhaps today’s game are a fruit of capitalism. With WoW there is a kind of proof in the 6.5 million player pudding.

I think it would have been interesting for Taylor to compare fandom in Everquest with fandom in some other realm such as those who love Disney experiences. There are some distinct similarities. Understanding how Disney attends to its customers might provide some insight into gaming, not in the radical way Taylor wants, but in an analytical way at least.

Games such as Second Life are all about user content so Taylor should be happy about that. There is room for calling upon the creativity of users and pushing the envelope in terms of player-production. While we could argue that Second Life is not really a game, there are player-produced games within Second Life. Maybe that’s why Second Life is not a game – because there are no artists creating a unified coherent experience.

Who should read Play between Worlds? Anyone interested in games of course, and anyone interested in thinking about the relationship between a company and its customers. That’s a pretty big audience for this lovely book. Don’t forget to read the footnotes, they are just as engaging as the main text.


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