Imported Vs. Native Behavior: How Real World Norms and Game Structure determine MMORPGG Interaction

While readings this term have discussed topics ranging from the history of board games and the emergence of videogame culture, to hostile game environments, and avatarial identity, one of the topics which has interested me most is how real world (RW) norms and virtual reality (VR) structures come together to shape behavior in virtual environments, particularly MMORPGs.

As we have discussed in class, it is often difficult to identify if the social behavior in online environments such as WOW, EverQuest (EQ), or Halo are simply RW behaviors such as homophobia which are imported, or are a product of game structures such player anonymity possibly promoting trolling and griefing. How much do RW imports vs. VR structures contribute to the overall shape of online behaviors?

In Play Between Worlds, author T. L. Taylor identifies two main layers of games such as EQ that “work to acculturate players into the world and the gameplay” and determine player culture and interactions. (Taylor, 32)  The first is game structures such as the yell command in EQ, which Taylor argues is one of the “basic building block[s] in supporting cooperation within the game.”2 The yell command helps determine methods of dealing with danger and the etiquette of warning other players and requesting aid. The second layer which Taylor identifies as determining in-game behavior is the set of informal norms such as the social etiquette of shouting “train” to warn others when being pursued by a large mob. While the yell command is a built-in feature of EQ the social norm of shouting “train” as a warning to other players is an informal behavior which, as Taylor notes, “is not something mentioned in detail in the game manual” but which has emerged as a means for the gaming community to navigate risk management. (Taylor, 34)

Is this second layer of informal social norms in-game a product of the game community and therefor native to the game or is it merely an in-game expression of imported RW norms concerning warning others of danger? If viewed as a native in-game social dynamic which helps to structure player interactions then we can identify a third layer that helps determine VR interactions. The third layer consists of social norms and behaviors which are not products of the game environment but are directly imported from the RW. A striking example of RW social behavior which determines in-game interactions is profiling avatars to discover the race or gender of the RW player. As the blog post “Can We Have a Little Privacy?” discusses, the possibility for player anonymity in VR is often in conflict with peoples’ desire to profile and categorize other players. In Lisa Nakamura’s article on the conflict surrounding gold farming in WOW and the radicalized profiling against Chinese that it has promoted, we are told how nontraditional cues such as poor language skills with English or certain choices of avatar are used to profile players as Chinese gold farmers. While Nakamura clearly identifies the conflict between leisure vs. worker players as promoting hostile profiling behavior it is clear this is behavior which stems from pre-existing patterns of RW racial bias.

Another interesting example of imported RW behavior influencing in-game behavior is reported in an article published by researchers at Northwestern University, titled Is It a Game? Evidence For Social Influence In The Virtual World. The researchers tested compliance tactics on players of the persistent online environment There.com to probe if virtual spaces allow people to abandon RW inter-group biases such as racial bias. The researchers found that like in the RW, if an extravagant demand was placed on an avatar and then subsequently a more reasonable request was presented to them the avatar would on average be more likely to comply with the reasonable request if first presented with the unreasonable request than if just presented with the reasonable request. Additionally they found that more positive results were recorded when the researchers used light skinned avatars than when they used dark skinned avatars, suggesting RW racial biases are imported into VR and help determine in-game interactions.

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2 Responses to Imported Vs. Native Behavior: How Real World Norms and Game Structure determine MMORPGG Interaction

  1. cstabile says:

    A lot to think about here, as well as some follow-up questions. It makes sense intuitively that people would bring racial and gender biases into persistent virtual worlds. The more important question, as you suggest, is the extent to which the very design of the persistent virtual worlds helps to reinforce these biases. That is, do the game structures work in tandem with design to reproduce and perhaps even heighten these biases? In addition, is there something about environments understood to be games that impacts behavior? The experiment you cite above was conducted in there.com and there’s some evidence that suggests that communication in persistent virtual worlds functions differently than communication in MMOs.

  2. vhsieh11 says:

    Blog Response #1

    I think you bring up a really interesting question in how much the RW affects the VR or is it that VR are creating an environment to harbor offensive behaviors. I think that it’s fantastic that you brought examples of positive aspects of RW importation into VR. I had never really thought about how informal etiquette is shaped. I, however, will respond through the more negative route because I am a woman and the negative issues will always be my priority since I cannot escape from them.

    I strongly believe that VR are created in a way for RW to be imported in easily. There are many factors to this. One is that VR are created by RW factors. Game developers had to have been affected either positively or negatively by something in the RW. No matter how unique a game space may be, there were factors from the RW that steered the developers to make the game how it is. Maybe since in the RW we cannot fly on giant birds as a means of travel, the developer deceives that in their game you must be able to fly on giant birds. I believe that there is always a cause and an effect.

    Two is the design of avatars themselves. This point is to address the sexist and homophobic atmosphere in VR. As we spoke many times in class, avatars are made to be sexy though there is no real benefit of doing this. The fact that there are a large percentage of men who play as female avatars is a projection of the RW into VR. The men that defend themselves by saying that they don’t want to stare at a man’s butt while they play are projecting insecurities from the RW into VR. If players are truly playing games to escape from reality, then what they believe in the RW should not project into the game. Society views gender as binary. Though there is an incredibly small leeway in the real world regarding gender, in VR there is none at all. Females are portrayed with big boobs and males have broad shoulders. This point was particularly hammered into my head when I saw that in WoW the panda avatar had boobs. Really? Do avatars that are created to look more like humans need the entire physical appearance of humans?

    Three is that women, homosexuals, or any other minority did not choose to be the butt of the joke. As Professor Stabile stated in class multiple times, the worst insult in the VR is to be compared to a women. This is a direct effect of women not being as present in the computer science world. Games are made by men for men, therefore they of course would promote only masculine traits and tendencies. I don’t believe that games would be as sexist if they were not constructed the way they are.

    I think that it is interesting that game developers continually make female avatars to be sexy event though, as we seen in our class, it does not enhance the gaming experience in any way. I feel that our feelings that we shared in class are shared with many individuals. Now we just need to make our voices heard and promote action.

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