This is the final paper of four that I wrote for my final course in Cultural Anthropology.
Once considered the realm of the socially inept, video games have become a significant source of entertainment that rivals Hollywood in sales (Chatfield, 2009). With over two-thirds of American households playing video games, and nearly two-thirds of those playing socially, clearly these attitudes are outdated and require recalibration (ESA, as cited by Barnett & Coulson, 2010). One type of game, the Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG or MMO), is expressly designed with social activity in mind. These games often have both large- and small-scale groupings of members who play together or have similar ideals. One of these groups, founded in 2007, is the Mortal Voyage Permadeath Guild (MV) in the game Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO). Identity formation and role-taking will be analyzed through symbolic interactionism to explore the world inhabited by these “Mortals.”
Using a blend of Kozinets’ “netnography” and Escobar’s cyber-anthropology and ethnology, Mortal Voyage was studied through the time-honored tradition of participant-observation (Kozinets, 1998; Kozinets, 2010; Escobar, 1994). A “pure” cyberculture, MV exists only online, without a “real life” component besides those that already existed prior to joining the guild (Kozinets, 1998). The observations took place over a period of four weeks in June and July 2013 within the game of DDO itself as well as the guild’s website and forums. Since most members of the guild are over thirty-five, hold a normal “day job,” and spend time with family, most observations took place during the evening hours.
A dialogue was maintained between the author and the players through the forums, including surveys and a discussion of ethical concerns. Every player who commented about privacy stated that the use of their naming convention rather than their “real names” was sufficient. Though MV does occasionally have minor players, none of the players who participated in filmed sessions, interviews, or surveys were underage. In addition, when playing with a new group, the author reminded the other players that the session was being filmed and analyzed to allow for questions and requests to stop the film. There was no noticeable resistance to the study.
The research itself went through several versions of focus, from power structures to social adjustments to the environment, but eventually the social aspect of the guild shone out of the data. With symbolic interactionism focusing on identity and roles within social circles, the guiding questions became about how people, who can choose to be anyone from the anonymity of the Internet, develop their online identities and how these identities influence their experiences.
Since the Internet became available for leisure, there have been individuals coming together digitally to discuss their favorites with like-minded people. These “meeting places” have been called virtual worlds, communities of play, digital communities, virtual cultures, and several other iterations of each (Boellstorff, 2008; Escobar, 1994; Jones, 1997; Muramatsu & Ackerman, 1998; Pearce, 2009; Taylor, 2006; Wilson & Peterson, 2002). “Communities, ethnicities, societies and nations have always had a virtual element that exists only in the minds of humans,” and the extension of our minds to the cyberspace between our computers does not diminish the community or social world held within these lines of code (Madden, 2010, p. 179).
Social worlds on the Internet leapt forward with the creation of Multi-User Domains, or Dungeons (MUDs), which were effectively chat rooms, often with a fantasy-role-playing basis. Muramatsu and Ackerman explored one MUD, Illusion, including the ways the game was designed to encourage new players to stay and grow, preventing a stagnation of the community (1998). They followed the Chicago School of Sociology’s interactionist view to discuss social stratification between players of various levels and impact on the game by players called “mortal” or “immortal” based on the amount of influence they wield (1998).
Virtual worlds experienced another leap forward with graphical interfaces, giving characters avatars to control and visible worlds to explore. These worlds are split into two categories- Massively Multiplayer Online Worlds (MMOW) and the previously mentioned MMOGs. An MMOW such as There.com and Second Life is “not goal-oriented; it has no beginning or end, no ‘score,’ and no notion of ‘winning’ or ‘success’ . . . [Such a world] isn’t really a game at all” (Curtis, as cited by Boellstorff, 2008, p. 22). They also provide the purest form of online community, and as such have been the focus of a few ethnographies such as Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life and Pearce’s study of a group of players who wandered from a discontinued game into other communities (Boellstorff, 208; Pearce, 2009). She called this the Uru Diaspora and chronicled how a group of virtual refugees found a new land and changed it to replicate their “lost homeworld” (Pearce, 2009).
Finally, Barnett and Coulson provided an in-depth look at today’s MMOs from a psychological perspective, focusing specifically on social interaction (2010). They discovered that MMO players are a separate breed of gamer. While other games are mostly played by adolescent and young adults, typically male, MMOs have a much wider age range, as much as twelve to eighty-three years (Barnett & Coulson, 2010). In addition, while there are more male MMO players, women tend to play more often and longer hours (Barnett & Coulson, 2010). Far from being socially isolated while playing games, or socially inadequate in general, MMO players play to “seek social support or generally socialize with other players,” and the “majority of [Yee’s] online gamer sample had successful careers and families” (Barnett & Coulson, 2010, p. 169). In fact, they found that rather than attracting the socially awkward, MMOs require a set of social skills to succeed because those without will be ostracized within their community and be unable to find groups to progress to the higher leveled content (Barnett & Coulson, 2010). In addition, “current evidence suggests that social connections formed through such online games can be very deep and meaningful to those involved” (Ferguson, 2010).
Mortal Voyage itself was created in 2007 by Parvo who had played in other Permadeath guilds prior to founding MV, but wanted specific changes to be made to the ruleset. Recently, Parvo decided to step down to focus more on real life and other games, appointing Red as his successor. Red has been in MV since 2010 and is attempting to live up to the mission statement of providing a pen-and-paper-like environment where “character advancement is an accomplishment” (Mortal Voyage, n.d.).
When video games were mainly in arcades and pushing for quarters, they were challenging and there was a limit on how many “lives” a character had. As gaming moved to the living room, puzzles became plot, and storage space increased, “lives” became “save points,” places where a character would wake up after his death to keep the player engaged in the story. In MMOs, the goal is to get people in easily and keep them playing (and paying) by getting them to high levels quickly. This is often done by reducing death penalties to near-negligible levels. In DDO, if a character dies, his teammates can take him to a “resurrection shrine” which will restore the character to life, allowing him to continue his assault.
To bring challenge back to gaming, Mortal Voyage has decided to institute strict rules and largely ignore the larger game. The most obvious of these rules, and the one mentioned in the guild’s full name, is that of death. Any character that dies in the guild must be deleted and started anew at level one. The name Mortal Voyage, and hence the title of “Mortal” for the player, is a stark contrast to other players who get up from each death as though immortal. Hectic battles fought with such stakes are also a huge draw to the permadeath playstyle, providing an adrenaline rush that leaves players with pulse racing and hands shaking as they take stock of injuries and decide on their next move. After experiencing one of these battles in a group, one of the players, Soldiere, stated with emphasis, “That is why we play MV.” Many players can even recount quests run years ago that ended in glorious victory or agonizing defeat. As a result, the players in MV are tight-knit and value one another’s characters as much as their own. “Psychological research suggests that people choose to join groups because they want to feel a sense of belonging, share information, achieve goals, and receive rewards” (Watson & Johnson, as cited by Barnett & Coulson, 2010).
Along with other rules related to teamwork and restoring DDO to its “pen-and-paper” Dungeons & Dragons roots, the guild attracts particular players who prefer the slow, careful dungeon crawl over the so-called “zerg” of the designed game. The guild attracts a certain type of player, and that starts with its tabletop roots. Most players have played video games “since Pong” or since they were children for the few who are too young for Pong, and the majority have experience playing tabletop Dungeons & Dragons. One former member stated that it also draws a player who can develop an emotional attachment, not only to their own characters but to the players he plays with. He believed that this emotional attachment also meant a player could “burn out” from all the character loss over time, which led to his leaving the guild for a more relaxing experience in the game.
This particular player was the only one to mention a form of “survivor guilt,” feeling ashamed that one of his high level characters had survived not one, but two separate events that left all the other characters in his party dead. Typically, when a quest “goes wrong,” one or two characters will fall, or everyone will. It is not at all normal to have a single survivor. It is, however, common to have a shared sense of grief across the guild for a fallen character. It is frequently announced in guild chat that a character fell, in which quest, and sometimes how, though with careful attention not to “spoil” per guild rules, which is usually followed by expressions of grief, regret from teammates, and apologies for the loss. Each character is an investment of several hours of time. It takes about an hour to reach level two, then the time investment between levels only grows at each step.
This emotional attachment to other players is most easily seen through the answers of a short survey completed by some of the guild members. When asked why they play in MV, the general answers were challenge and great people. Interestingly, the longer a player has been in MV, the more likely they were to cite “people” as their top reason for playing, over the challenge. One long-time, respected member stated:
MV was a way to keep the game challenging and fun, and led to my making some great friendships in the gaming world. Anyone who sticks around here and plays this style without cheating have consistently been stand up folks. They also tend to be caring and intelligent people, all in all just great individuals as well as great teammates. (Bragi survey, 2013).
Symbolic interactionism focuses on the interactions between people as actors, specifically for this paper, as they apply to identity formation and roles (McClelland, 2000). The first step to joining or observing any MMO is the creation of one’s avatar. An avatar is the graphical representation of “you,” the player at the keyboard. An avatar can be designed to look as close to the real player as possible, a “better version” of the player, or as wild as the software will allow. What matters is that for all intents and purposes, this is who other players will see when they see “you.” As such, the avatar is the one who becomes your agent in the digital world. His or her personality may be like yours or may be a character you portray as on a stage.
In DDO, players are given several options for avatars. They can be male or female, one of several races or species, with several customization options and a unique name. In MV, each player has a chosen naming convention which is incorporated into each character’s name for ease of recognition. For example, the guild leader’s “name” is Red, and some of his characters are named Redini, Redcicle, Redempsion, and so on. Another, the aforementioned Soldiere, adds a silent “e” to the end of his names for more flexibility in available titles, and yet another simply chooses names that are twelve letters long, leading to his title, “Twelve.” As MV operates solely by naming convention and character name, never by given name, this paper will address the players by their chosen naming conventions.
There are only four active female players including the author in MV today, and they all play female avatars. However, several of the men in the guild also create female avatars, either exclusively or frequently. As Pearce pointed out, however, this does not indicate cross-dressing or other gender-bending habits outside of the game (2009). The reasons for male players with female avatars vary from customization options or a fit with the intended identity to preferring to stare at a female’s rear for the hours of play each day, the last mentioned by Barnett and Coulson and confirmed by at least one MV player personally (2010). One player admitted that his healers were female, while the rest were male, and that he copied this trait from a friend of his, though he also wondered what this said about him. Ducheneaut, Yee, Nickell and Moore “found that male players who chose healing roles, or other classes that wore light armor, were more likely to “gender-bend” and play female characters” (as cited in Barnett & Coulson, 2010, p. 169).
MV is not a “role-playing” guild. Guilds like that tend to only speak in character and come up with elaborate back-stories. Instead MV is focused on the challenge of permadeath and trying to recreate the tabletop games of Dungeons and Dragons as closely as possible. However, it is not uncommon for one character of a player’s to discard the player’s personality and take on one of its own. Bragi, a gruff Montanan, is generally a nice fellow, once you get past his surly exterior. He played a character called Mocker who has the personality of a super-egotistical trickster. Having many characters in one’s repertoire allows some experimentation as well as some characters to simply let loose and have fun.
Most players are content to keep their identities tied to their online avatar, though it is not unheard of for players to develop strong enough rapport to speak outside of the game, and speaking about “outside the game” is actually quite common. Just as with any large group of people, some people tend to gravitate to one another though “cliques” are generally discouraged. Some have exchanged Facebook friendships, e-mail addresses, and so on. At another level, many players feel comfortable talking about their children, their jobs, and other personal topics to the guild as a whole or just their small party. Where Muramatsu and Ackerman found shallow relationships within Illusion, “if personal disclosures foster friendships,” MV is certainly an arena where friendships can bloom, given two willing players (1998; p.110). Interestingly, the opinions of Mortals themselves are split on the subject, some claiming a true friendship requires face-to-face contact, others taking the other side of the argument.
Since DDO is a role-playing video game based on a role-playing tabletop game, it stands to reason that characters would have roles within a group. These are traditional roles that are present in nearly every role-playing game, MMO or single player. The most important to MV is the rogue. The rogue is the only character that can spot and disable traps, allowing the party to venture deep into the dungeons. Another important role is that of healer, patching up the fighters after and during combat. There are other roles such as “tank,” the character who is supposed to get the attention of monsters to prevent them from damaging other characters, “DPS” (damage per second), the character who is responsible for killing the enemies quickly, and “controller” for those who use spells to confuse, charm, or otherwise disrupt the enemy. “Controller” is not generally used in MV as a term, though his role is still applicable.
A group is formed around a rogue, but the other abilities may or may not be represented well. For example, a level nine rogue may ask if anyone else has level six to nine characters to run a particular quest. Two may only have fighters, two only arcane magic users, and nobody has a healer or tank. The group would still run the quest, adjusting tactics as necessary to successfully complete the challenge. To better accommodate these issues, most players have a large number of characters within the guild at various levels, and many characters can fill two of the roles, such as a wizard-rogue who can be a rogue but also act as a controller.
DDO’s character creation is somewhat different from most other MMOs in the flexibility and creativity permitted. In many MMOs, a level ten fighter is nearly identical to every other level ten fighter. In DDO, characters are a collection of ability scores, feats, and skills, and each character can have up to three “classes” that further adjust the way a player can interact with the world. Many Mortals prefer to “splash” (add a level or two of a synergistic class to an otherwise pure-class build) or build “mutts,” characters with a wide variety of abilities. This flexibility is certainly a bonus for MV.
Some players have developed an identity around their preferred roles. For instance, one player prefers to play arcane DPS sorcerers almost exclusively. Another is typically the rogue in his groups. Still another has built his identity around his love of the Warforged race, a sort of sentient robot. There is even a player who is known for his “mutt builds” where most of his characters, like a sorcerer who is a tank, are more than meets the eye.
As stated above, some games have a distinct social stratification, such as Illusion, but this is adjusted to fit MV. A high level character is certainly a marker of a good player as well as one who has likely been around the guild for some time. However, because characters are constantly dying and being re-born at level one, there is no “high-level/low-level” divide in the guild. Once a week, the guild holds a “Lowbie Night” when high level characters are ignored and everyone plays in the low-level areas to help new members learn or old members get their recent deaths back up to level (Muramatsu & Ackerman, 1998).
Similarly, there is no “mortal/immortal” divide as no player has control over the game itself. Rather there are roles such as “veteran.” It denotes a player who has spent enough time playing in MV to have a handle on the typical tactics and all the rules within the guild. These players are made officers in the guild, capable of inviting other players into the guild, though these players are mostly just returning members with a new level one that needs to be invited back. These roles, while provided for in the game’s programming, are far more organic in nature. To become a veteran, a player does not have to reach a certain level or play for a pre-determined amount of time. When they start taking control and stepping up to the social responsibilities of a veteran, they have arrived.
Identity in MV is a tricky subject. Most players have several characters, and the majority of these characters are interchangeable as far as “personality” is concerned. Few players go through the effort of maintaining different attitudes with each character, instead focusing on the given role for that character. A front-line fighter, for instance, may act in a more aggressive manner, but that is the role, not the avatar.
It is easy to play a role for a couple hours across the internet. Perhaps this ease is the reason so many are fearful of who may be listening in on their conversations. However, it is much more difficult to play the same role for several hours, day after day. Most Mortals play at least once a week, many play almost every day after their children are in bed. Many players learn quite a bit about one another during the lulls in combat when small talk leads to personal disclosure. A player breaks away from the group to tend to a crying child who woke up with a nightmare, and the whole group starts talking about their own children’s issues with troubled sleep. Another player, in another group, comments that he and his wife are trying to get pregnant, and later mentions his mother-in-law’s recent passing which sparks a conversation about honoring those family members by naming children after them, including the real names of the children without bothering to falsify them for the sake of “internet security.”
It is for these two reasons that I believe Mortals do not so much “choose” their identities as they carry them forward from their offline lives. Their online identities are simply an extension of their off-line personalities. There are certainly some exaggerations and a certain freedom inherent in the knowledge that one will probably never meet the other people they are speaking to, but overall, the members of the guild are as respectful to one another as they would be if they were in the same room. This virtual community is a place where they go to get away from personal drama, to play their chosen role, and relax. It is also a place where one’s identity, by way of naming convention, follows from character to character, adding the social pressure to behave properly or risk being ostracized.
A common thought among Mortals is that whether you know the player by the name he chose or the name his mother and father chose, you still know the player. Within this guild’s ruleset, one can discover whether a person is selfless and brave, willing to rush into certain danger to recover a fallen character’s “body,” or if he is willing to run from battle, leaving his comrades to their fate. Even if it is not a real person’s life at stake, it is certainly a significant investment of time and effort.
The world of Mortal Voyage is a vastly different one from the world inhabited by other DDO players. They run past each other on the digital streets of Stormreach since they share a server with hundreds or thousands of other players, but the way they play separates them, literally and figuratively, from the rest. They do not take part in the festivals and frivolous activities, and they refuse to group with non-Mortals. The strict rules, enhance “member cohesion and encourage positive social communication” which are “important for a guild’s collective well-being” (Barnett & Coulson, 2010, p. 173). Mortals identify with the guild and although they are already predisposed, since they self-selected for membership, they quickly acclimate to the guild’s culture, internalizing the advice given by veterans.
Without a doubt, its members proudly acknowledge this identity of “Mortal” and this role of “survivor.” When each quest completion is fought for and earned through teamwork, creative tactics, and gaming skill, each level truly is an accomplishment. Those who earn these accomplishments and survive tough encounters together cement their bonds as guildmates, perhaps even as friends.
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