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.