18 Oct
2010

Inhabiting Characters

One of the most striking aspects of this particular game is the extent to which players are devoted to their characters. The explanations for this devotion include some that fairly straightforward and common to many games:

  • simple time investment; in some cases as long as 12 years
  • effort; time and energy may have been spent achieving certain goals, such as strengths in particular areas or abilities that are difficult to acquire

Other reasons are not as typical, such as the devotion to the community of other players.  Within the larger player base, most players develop networks of people with whom they routinely hunt, and while these friendships may grow beyond the confines of the game, for those who are geographically distant from each other, the game may represent an important way in which they can “be together.”

The most interesting reason to me though, is the way characters become more and more individual over time, and become more and more real — meaning they form ongoing relationships with other characters, not only in the game, but through posts in the game’s forum, through individual “scrolls” (blogs) that players create, and in the websites made for clans — players that form cooperative groups that are somewhat familial in character and may share a common purpose.  Some purposes are rather lofty while others are humorous, as can be seen in this description of the Laughing Academy.  My own clan is the Zouclougeist Alliance, which is devoted to silliness and being lazy.  I am very fond of ducks.

In order to further explore the emergence of these characters as individuals, I’ve started keeping a “scroll” for my character.  Interesting her voice in the scroll is not the voice she uses in game — it’s far more in character (IC) and rather serious.  I’m not sure why, it just comes out that way. More on that experiment later.

10 Oct
2010

Update…

I am way behind on posting because in late summer I started a new job and moved myself and the family to a new city.  The job is interesting, challenging, and pays well, but it is 9-5ish and I am busy the whole time. Not much time for blogging.

But, now I have more incentive to resume because I’ve been accepted to a conference for next March and need to get my paper written by mid January.  🙂  And I’ve just seen a call for an online conference at which I could make a presentation on the same topic, only multimedia instead of just text.  So, yay.  🙂

The conference is Practicing Theory: Imagining, Resisting, Remembering; the annual conference of the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA).

I submitted the following abstract:

Finding Balance Through Doubled Resistance: Piloting a Collaborative Ethnograpic Approach to Game Studies in the Clan Lord MMO

The tension between theory and practice is long-standing, but in recent years it has been brought into sharper relief by the work of scholars such as Henry Jenkins, who argue for study of popular culture from stance of engagement rather than distance. Jenkins resists the dismissive stance toward popular culture and fan communities that long held sway in academia and coined the term “aca-fan” to describe one working from such a position.  He has further argued for the recognition that fans themselves bring a critical eye to pop cultural texts that deserves recognition as having some scholarly value.

Jenkins has recently called for the development of “another set of critical practices which reflected different emotional and social relations to popular culture” than those of the scholar looking from a distance or an aca-fan looking only from inside. This brings us back to the question of resistance.  A scholar who is also a fan may try to study the cultural product of which she is a fan, resisting on the one hand theorizing from a distance, and on the other a perhaps over-enthusiastic engagement. Is an uneasy balance between the two the best we can hope for?  Or can these stances be in some way integrated into a more productive whole?

This case-study aims for just such a synthesis, using the community around a smaller Multi-Massive Online Game (MMO) in which the author participates to pilot a collaborative ethnographic approach.  While the author takes a traditional ethnographic approach, members of the MMO’s community are invited to add their voices, as are game theorists who stand entirely outside the MMO. The resulting poly-vocal work offers a possible model from which to develop a more balanced and integrated approach to pop cultural products and fan communities.

The MMO in question is Clan Lord, and so now I need to figure out the best way of inviting involvement of other players, GMs, etc.

14 Jun
2010

When Players become the Story

Clan Lord differs from other MMOs in many ways; one of the most basic is longevity.  The game has been running since it was released in 1999 And there are a number of players who have participated since the beginning.  This longevity suggests that there must be some unique features, and there are — but I’ll get to those later.  😉 The presence of players who have participated for so long in a game in which there are no caps to the level (ie player strength) has some interesting consequences.

One is the challenge created for game designers trying to add new content, especially in the form of an event like an invasion or monster attack.  If there are several extremely advanced and powerful fighters and healers, it is very difficult to create an event or creature that will challenge those players, yet not slaughter the lower level players. Apparently this is referred to as the “Mujin” problem, named after a particular player (or collective) that has played so assiduously for so many years, that they far exceed much of the other population. (There are of course other high level players who cause this trouble as well, but the problem is named after an extreme case).

However, I think one of the most important effects of having so many players who have played for years and become powerful is that these players start to become part of the story of the game. Sometimes this happens through explicit roleplaying.  For example, one player who goes by the name Stinkfist styles himself a pirate captain and works to organize adventures involving himself and other pirates fighting against a particular group of enemies (the Darshak) in the game.  In addition to organizing raids against these foes, Stinkfist is working on building some kind of embassy and its completion depends on the success of his raids.

Interestingly, this player has gain the help of at least one Game Master (GM) so that Darshak that attack may demand to know his whereabouts and declare there is a bounty on his head.  At different times, one player or another has been elected President of the Fen’neko race; other players gain extra experience for helping the Fen president.  These are examples of players being deliberately incorporated into the game and in a sense saves GMs work; rather than creating a non-player character to drive a quest, they instead rely on players themselves to supply the AI.

Another way players become part of the story is simply through reputation. For example, if you need armor made, see Eomer, who trained as a blacksmith.  If you are fond of spiders, keep an eye out for Gremlins, who can transform into numerous varieties, and can also befriend them, and prevent them from attacking.  If you want to learn about using the Kudzu plant in battle, speak to Geotzou, who has made a lengthy study of their strategic use. Connie Crete is known for many things, from excellent knowledge of geography to her fishing skill. D’Ead is rapidly becoming known for her love of zombie costumes, Creed for her fondness for ponies, and Natas for his fondness for chains.

Chains are used to rescue fallen players by dragging them somewhere to be healed.

In general, many players are simply known for their strength, leadership, or other characteristics (both positive and negative).  They become subjects of discussion, advice to new players, and their doings are reported outside the game by a “media network” created by players to report happenings in the game.  Some even become the subject of parody. So in essence, the adventures and interactions of the players become the real story, growing out of the story provided in the game, but far richer.  And, because even those who don’t role play express some kind of personality, they can’t help but become characters.

In this way, the game story escapes the bounds of the game itself and of the control of designers.

Next up, more on inhabiting characters.

22 May
2010

Designing Cooperation

I said I’d have more to say…

So here are some ways Clan Lord pretty well forces people to cooperate:

  • The display is looking down from above, rather than heads up, and you can’t “run through” other players and most objects, so coordinating movement during a fight or hunt becomes a priority and requires agreement.  For example, that one of the stronger players will go out to lure creatures into the most favorable position for others to attack, or the weakest players will stay to one side or another, depending from which direction attacks usually come.
  • Most areas spawn creatures quickly and unpredictably enough that if a player is still gaining experience points and ranks from fighting those creatures, they need to hunt them in a group, or risk having their character fall and then have to await rescue. Depending on the area where they have been adventuring, this could take a very long time.
  • A related aspect is that you cannot just log off anywhere in the game safely.  If you leave the game when your character is in a dangerous region, you may log back in to find you are overwhelmed by dangerous creatures, or you character may already be dead.  Similarly, you cannot pause and leave the computer temporarily while playing for this reason.  Thus, you must somehow get back to a safe area before logging out or pausing the game play.  In the latter case, fellow players may be relied on to protect your character while you step away from the computer, but you will also have to help them achieve a managable state of play in the game first.
  • This game has a system through which players can “share experience.” While playing, each player gains experience (and thus strength and so forth) by playing against increasingly difficult creatures, or by sharing experience with another player doing this. In fact, of the three character classes, fighter, mystic, and healer, the latter two mainly advance through this method.  Further, players gain in other ways from sharing.  If you are sharing and fall to some creature, the players you’re linked with will see that you’ve fallen and to what, which will help them locate you.  If you are linked to a mystic before falling, they will be able to pinpoint your location exactly.  Further, if you are linked to other players, they will be more likely to return the favor by helping if you are in trouble. The share system also helps maintain connections between new players and much more advanced players.

I’ll have even more to add later!  Until then, here is another picture…

One of the other experienced players reminds younger ones (Eirian and Mchl) to thank a high-ranked fighter (Geotzou) for taking us hunting.

16 May
2010

Games and Community

So I’ve been playing my first MMORPG ever, and surprise, have gotten a little addicted. But this one differs from most in being designed to require cooperation; it’s very difficult to play alone, and not as much fun.  The game is Clan Lord, by Delta Tao; the first ever MMORPG designed for Macs.

It first appeared in 1998 and over ten years later is still going.  It has a very small but intensely loyal user base.  I’ve been playing about four months now and while I originally wanted to just play it for fun, the game and the community around it seem really unique.  I might have to give in and write about it.  🙂

I’ll write in more detail soon but for now, a picture:

I am last in the line of fallen hunters being dragged back to town to be healed. I used to end most hunts this way, but it’s getting a little better now.  🙂

18 Apr
2010

Teaching with Blogs

There are many reasons I use blogs for teaching and encourage others to use them as well. I’ll elaborate further soon, but here is a prezi I’m using for a talk tomorrow:

7 Apr
2010

So…

The Semester has been busy.  My three classes are going ok, and I participated in two conferences.  One was the RSA Security conference, which I mentioned earlier, and that went well.  I’m hoping they post video soon. I also was on the agenda for CCCC 2010, but since travel funding has been cut, I instead sent my co-panelist a Prezi and short paper to present on my behalf.  Apparently it went very well.

That was my first time using Prezi and I liked it pretty well.  I don’t recommend starting with it the week before you are supposed to present something though… I will probably polish it up and post it here soon.  And when I say soon, I actually mean after the term ends.

More later… 🙂

22 Feb
2010

Upcoming Conferences

I have two conferences in the next few weeks, the RSA Security conference, in San Francisco, and CCCC, in Louisville, KY.  I’m not actually going in person to CCCC, because again, can’t afford to travel…no travel funding from my school for anyone this year…  Ideally I’ll video-skype in and talk over my slides that I’ll have sent ahead, but if that won’t work, then the panel organizer, Pam Chisum, will give my talk.  She’s a former MA student of mine and now is just starting her dissertation work up at Washington State University.

That talk will be about Twitter, and is a slightly more developed version of the talk I ended up not giving at MiT06 last spring (lousy economy!), about Ethereal Archives.  I’ll be adding a bit about the impact of some recent changes to Twitter, and of the more sophisticated Twitter clients.

The RSA panel is a little different (and apparently it’s “hot!”).  We are putting on two skits about the foolishness of trying to bar employees from social networking sites in order to preclude time-wasting.  It’s foolish for two reasons: first, many people who are even a little tech savvy can figure out how to get around whatever firewall or other barriers, which can create security risks. Second, as has been demonstrated by any number of PEW internet studies, and more formally argued by Clay Shirky, tapping our social networks and/or “the crowd” actually increases productivity and efficiency.  Hopefully there will be time to introduce some of that evidence because it’s not clear to me how much industry folk are aware of this research that might be highly relevant for them.

14 Feb
2010

Fun With Cloud Hosting and WordPress

I’ve just switched from a regular hosting plan on one server to cloud hosting, which should make my sites much more stable.  Unfortunately I did not back everything up exactly right and have spent days sorting out my databases and WP installations.  For some reason, though everything else seems right, the theme I was using will not display properly.  So tiresome, because it took me ages to find one that really seemed right.  So I’ll probably test new themes over the next few days.

At least now I know a lot more about MySql than I did… 😛

5 Jan
2010

Teaching loads and research.

Research came grinding to a halt this fall because not only did I have more classes, they were also all over-enrolled and my teaching assignment changed two weeks before classes started when my university laid off most of the adjunct faculty and cancelled a bunch of courses.  Thank you ongoing state budget crisis.

This month I am not teaching, so we’ll see what I can do before the spring term is upon me.

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