Towards a Critical Aesthetic of Virtual-World Geographiesby Eric Hayot, Edward Wesp
This article addresses the interaction of players and designers in the creation of Norrathian geography. In the context of contemporary geographic theory, the authors examine the ways in which EverQuest players have worked both with and against the game’s delineation of meaningful places within the virtual world, arguing that the game’s virtual geography is best understood in the context of the real world geographies within which it is situated.
Keywords: EverQuest, MMORPG, virtual space, geography
Pictures of the world
One of the major insights of Giambattista Vico’s New Science, published in 1744, is that dominant forms of literary representation could be understood as themselves second-order representations of a given culture’s relationship to reality. The works of art a culture produces, by showing us how that culture tries to preserve, repeat and represent reality to itself in the form of stories, paintings and songs, constitute a window into that culture’s relationship to the reality it lives. At one point in the text Vico makes the surprising claim that “the Greek peoples were themselves Homer” (Vico, 1984, par. 875). He meant this quite literally: Homer, he argued, was simply the authorial name used by the Greeks to designate the literary output whose real source was, Vico wrote, Greek culture itself. Readings of the Illiad and Odyssey that see them as the work of a single person “have hitherto concealed from us the history of the natural law of the gentes of Greece” (Vico, 1984, par. 904). Any culturally important literary text can in such a scenario potentially reveal the “natural law” of the people who make it.
Edward Said explains that Vico believed that knowledge “of the past that comes to us in textual form … can only be properly understood from the point of view of the maker of that past” (2003: xii). That argument has had a profound influence on a number of important twentieth-century literary critics, among them Erich Auerbach, whose Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature attempts to trace from Homer and the Hebrew Bible the history of Western culture through shifts in literary representation. The goal of a literary criticism implicitly proposed in Mimesis would be to eventually inhabit from the inside, by a “combination of erudition and sympathy”, the representational structure of a given text and in so doing to acquire a clear sense of its world view (Said, 2003,p. xiii).
For criticism of massively multiplayer online worlds - an immensely complex made object that condenses “knowledge of the present coming to us in digital form”, to rewrite Said slightly - Vico’s insight opens things up interestingly. While no one would disagree with the notion that EverQuest’s Norrath is a representation of a world, the crucial thing that Vico allows us to see is that Norrath is also a representation of the world. That is, Norrath tells us not only about the ambitions of its individual designers or its corporate sponsor, nor even simply about its hundreds of thousands of players, but something more fundamental about the historical imagination of our present, about what our world is and how it can be imagined.
Representation and the Anthropos
A reading of EverQuest and its world, Norrath, that proceeds from Vico through Auerbach and into the present would treat the game as a digital work of art, focusing extensively on the world’s presentation of its own verisimilitude - the relationship between its self-presentation as world and the real world it exists in. Sustained attention to the game’s representational structures will show that what Norrath “represents” is not merely a picture of a world - the visual surfaces of its objects, landscapes and buildings - but rather an entire world-structure, organized by a set of physical rules that determine how computer-generated objects and player characters move through space, as well as a set of game rules that encourage certain forms of behavior and experience and discourage or forbid others. Understanding these rules and looking at the ways EverQuest players have interacted with them, will allow a reader to deduce what Norrath’s sense of the world it is, to understand as though from the inside Norrath’s imagination of itself as a world. An attempt to approach this self-understanding leads, as Vico suggests, to a sense of the cultural value of Norrath in its own terms - terms which are also, for now, the terms of our cultural present.
Insofar as EverQuest announces itself as a world, therefore (and here you may recall the game’s slogan, “you’re in our world now”) and not simply a game or a hobby or a pastime, it does so to invite forms of participation that will take for granted that it provides many of the features that the world does. Among these is the experience of three-dimensional space, whose structure in Norrath offers a powerful representation of the living world outside the computer servers on which the world’s data reside. As such, a strictly representational reading will be unable to account, for instance, for the ways in which players use and create space in the game-world in ways that were not written into the original structure of the game-world itself. Borrowing from the work of scholars like Yi-Fu Tuan, one can attend to the ways that player movement and behavior alter the game’s organization of the lived experience of space and place. “Place,” Tuan wrote in Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, “is wherever stable object catches our attention” (Tuan, 1979, p. 161). Space, on the other hand, “allows movement,” is the open field from which place emerges, like a “pause” (Tuan, 1979, p. 6). Thinking through the relations between space and place leads us toward a anthropological geography of Norrath - a study of the human (anthropos) world that exists on Norrath’s surfaces.
Reading anthropologically has little to do with the question of how space and place are “mapped” by the framing of the screen (as explored by Mark J. P. Wolf in 1997), or by the production of atlases and other extradiegetic guides to Norrathian space, which tend to succeed rather than precede the articulation of space and place inside the game-world. These representational analyses disappear in the anthropological optic, which requires taking Norrath-as-work-of-art as merely a substrate or an occasion - a playing field - for the activity of its players, much as the physical and geographical constraints of the real world (rivers, mountains, the laws of physics, eventually cities and roads) can be understood as the substrate on which people imagine notions of space and place (and then, finally, name those notions and study them). The movement of players around and across Norrath can be understood as a particular experiment in the production of human community and geographic meaning, one whose constraints occasionally resemble and occasionally differ from those of the real world that has invented them.
The sections that follow focus on
two of the major forms of world-experience in EverQuest: the
experience of the game as a work of art which represents a world and
the idea of a world, and the experience of the game as an anthropological
surface supporting player behavior, movement and community-building.
Though in the history of EverQuest’s development Norrath-as-work-of-art
Consider Norrath’s cities. Most of these are homes for the game’s various races, outside of which new characters begin play. In terms of design, each city reflects an attempt to illustrate a cultural backstory for each of the races. The differences between the basic stone buildings and tents of the Barbarian city Halas, the dense, well-manicured Human city Qeynos and the Halfling’s quaint farming town Rivervale provide a prompt for the ways players are invited to imagine their characters beyond the specificity of their numerically determined characteristics. Alongside the physical appearance and clothing models used for the player characters, the toughness of the Barbarians, the well-cultured Humans and the bucolic charm of the Halflings is established in part by the architecture of their home towns.
At the same time, Norrath’s cities are also designed to look like cities, which is to say their layout and contents resemble those of towns and cities in the real world. There are bars, banks and shops, religious and government buildings. Appropriate to the vaguely medieval-era setting, the cities seem to reflect a need to be defensible, as entry is gained through guarded, narrow passages or gateways, across water, or in the case of Kelethin, by riding elevators into a Wood Elf city suspended safely in the tops of towering trees.
The plausibility of the cities’ design furthermore makes it possible to imagine the patterns of social life that the cities seem to support. The city of Erudin is centered around its library, the Dwarves’ Kaladim is built into the side of a mountain, extending back into an active mining operation, and the Dark Elf city of Neriak contains a designated Foreign Quarter which keeps visiting allied Ogre and Troll emissaries at arm’s length from the temples of the central city. Meanwhile, the presence of multiple taverns - like Freeport’s Grub and Grog, Chops and Hops, Tassel’s Tavern and Seafarer’s Roost - in most cities suggests a distributed and active day-to-day existence of the sort that we associate with the social experience of city life.
But for all their success in evoking the representational look of a living city, the cities in EverQuest have been desolate places, by and large. Real-world sites of public activity such as schools and venues for entertainment were represented in the gameworld’s initial design, but they were never used. No one gathered to meet friends in the taverns; no one worshipped in the churches; no one participated in any of the major forms of civic engagement we associate with city life and its architectural forms. Though most cities contained private homes, some populated by non-player characters, players could not live in them. And, despite their representation of busy regional crossroads, many of the world’s cities are located in dead ends. That is, in most cases, you can only leave the city in the direction you came in, which means that these cities do not benefit from through-traffic on the part of players and have only limited proximity to the rest of the world. The design offers traces of a backstory in which the cities developed organically as social and commercial crossroads, but this was not how the players encountered them. Taken together these gaps between representation and use prevented the cities from evoking the experiences players could recognize as living in a city.
The division of space within the cities of Norrath, with designated neighborhoods, named shops and general accommodation for the practice of quotidian city living thus never became meaningful to the game’s players. This is because there was essentially no way to participate in the mundane elements of city life in EverQuest. Without homes to go to, or jobs to work, there was no way for players to live “in” the city in any meaningful sense. Though there were reasons for all players to go to cities and most characters would have had many occasions to do so, the cities’ actual, practical value to players - as places to deposit items and money in the bank or train in class skills and buy spells - meant that they encouraged brief stops for errands rather than a sense of residence. Cities were places to visit but not to stay.
Tuan’s notion that meaningful places are located according to individual and social attention seems by and large borne out by the mismatched design and use of Norrathian cities. The negotiation of some cities could be frustrating and confusing for new visitors, in part, it seems fair to say, because the arrangement of the cities was more or less random or senseless. A player whose Wood Elf ranger returns to his or her home city Kelethin is apt to wonder why archery supplies were on the opposite end of the city from the guild devoted to rangers, the player class most likely to need them. A player visiting Rivervale might wonder why the merchant selling clay would be located outside the city, while the pottery wheel and kiln where the clay could be used were tucked away in a corner of the city by a private home. Through experience, of course, players could identify the places of interest to them and find their ways, but the ordering of space marked out by the places of interest to characters would be far more disordered than the generally reasonable real-world arrangement of city space that the outward design of the cities lines up with the implied (but invisible) everyday social life of their residents.
The estrangement between players’ experience and the town’s design is perhaps explainable by considering the idea that Norrath’s cities were not, after all, built for the players. The cities are of an earlier time, designed around a logic that is meaningful as part of the backstory or pre-history of the player’s world. They provide an often compelling way to access an understanding of the world the players inherited, but once the first character arrived in Norrath the geography no longer belonged to the implied citizens of Norrath’s cities. From that point on the geography belonged to the players; it would be their perspective that identified places of import amidst Norrathian space. And the relative emptiness of the cities testifies to the importance of understanding space’s active social construction. Even when the representational deck was stacked by offering players what looked like already socially authenticated places, genuine places appeared not where they were given but where they were made.
As players move through the game’s levels, their relationship to Norrath changes. Zones that were at one time impossibly dangerous become at first, navigable sites where players can gain experience and treasure and then, as the player gains levels, largely irrelevant collections of monsters to be moved through on the way to somewhere else. This is true even for large collections of players; a group of players who cut their collective teeth on Trakanon might graduate to Derakor the Vindicator and so on.
The world of a low-level player is, one now sees, a fairly restricted geographic space limited more or less to a starting city and its newbie zone. Midrange players can cover most of the game world, though they may have to tread carefully in some places and high-level players have the entire game-space open to them. The experience of geographical diversity, or even the experience of geographical choice and freedom - deciding to go here rather than there, to earn experience at this or that camp or dungeon, to meet friends quickly across the game world - therefore corresponds almost entirely to a player’s progress through the game. In this way the game world effectively acts as a mirror of the player’s accomplishments, congratulating him or her by opening more and more of its surface to being traveled.
At the same time as the world opens up to travel, however, it shuts down as a site of possible forward progress. Since players have to fight monsters close to their level in order to gain experience, very high level players will find that the “useful” portions of the game world shrink to a very small percentage of its actual space. Thinking now of the game’s real-world production and distribution, one can understand the release of game expansions in the form of new continents or spaces as an external solution to this internal geographic problem. Each successive major release, beginning with the first Kunark expansion, provided not only new geographic places to explore, but substantially more content for players at the upper levels. In this way the expansions allowed the world to continue to respond geographically to player achievement.
The long-term representational experience of Norrath - the degree to which it produces new sights and sounds for players over time - becomes in such a schema a function of player experience: the amount of the world the players can see corresponds fairly rigidly to how much time they have spent playing the game and advancing their characters. Any sense of what Norrath means as a representation will have to remember, therefore, that to speak of Norrath as representation means also to speak of it in relation to player movement and progress.
All this prepares us to ask the kind of question one learns to ask from Vico: how can we understand the correspondence between geography and achievement in Norrath as an imitation or revision of their relationship in the real world?
How Places Were Made
While the shops and taverns of the pre-established cities of Norrath lay mostly dormant, the social nature of Norrathian space made it all but inevitable that players would have reason to gather somewhere. The gradual identification and development of those places within the space of Norrath constitutes a real version of the history implied by the design of the cities. That is, while one could imagine that the Dwarven city of Kaladim came into being as Dwarves settled around a mining project, or that Freeport grew to prominence from humble beginnings as a trading port, this kind of development exists only in the game’s imaginary backstory.
Intriguingly, the growth of the East Commonlands Tunnel and Greater Faydark as two of the most important places of player congregation follows very much the same logic or pattern, but over the course of the players’ history within the game. Other than grouping together to fight monsters for experience and treasure, the most significant in-game interaction between two players is the trading of items and money.
While a player might expect to hear an offer to buy or sell items here and there throughout the world, two elements pushed players toward finding a centralized location for trading in the years before the activation of the centralized Bazaar zone after the Shadows of Luclin expansion, which fundamentally altered the nature of trading in EverQuest. The first was the requirement that trading be done face to face - at some point buyer and seller would have to meet up in the same location. The second was the limitation - during this period - that surrounded the announcing of buy/sell offers. Until alterations to the chat system made wider distribution possible, the most widespread general announcement a player could make covered the single zone in which the announcement was made. So, both for the greatest efficiency if connecting buyers and seller and to be able to complete trades once agreed upon, it was in the general interest in buyers and sellers to identify consistent spots to gather for the business of trade.
The determining factor that led to the selection of Greater Faydark and East Commonlands is their convenient location in Norrathian geography, though their convenience would hardly be obvious to anyone looking at a map of Norrath. Before changes made by the Shadows of Luclin and Planes of Power Expansions, the fastest mode of travel available to players was by way of transportation spells cast by Wizards and Druids. As more and more characters of those classes became able to cast the various transportation spells, the destinations they made available became effectively more close to all other points in the world. The geographical convenience of possible market locations, then, was impacted by the availability of transportation spells and it is no coincidence that the Greater Faydark zone and West Commonlands (adjacent to East Commonlands) were among the first locations to which Wizards and Druids got the ability to teleport other players.
So while the outward design of Freeport and Qeynos reflects the real-world importance of port cities as crossroads of trade and therefore sites of eventual urban development, the location of trade areas in East Commonlands and Greater Faydark make visible the actual patterns of player movement and accessibility in Norrath. This development is a compelling example of the power of social construction in the understanding and ordering of space. As indicated by the relationship between travel and trade location and by the alternate locations - East Commonlands, Greater Faydark, North Freeport - selected by the emergent behavior of players on different servers, given elements of space shape but do not determine the geography of the human world.
While the development of player marketplaces (and their eventual replacement by the official equivalent of the Bazaar) can be said to produce large-scale, real-world forms of geographic place, in the game’s major player activity, namely killing creatures for experience and gold, place functions on a slightly smaller scale.
Consider East Commonlands, a zone in which many new players adventure from levels five to ten. Prior to any player’s arrival in the zone, the Commonlands” visual geography represents in a number of ways traditional forms of anthropological place, mainly a few shops, a clearly marked road, two tunnels through mountains, some uninhabited huts and two small tent camps. Taken simply at the level of their visual presence, each of these features has roughly the same sense of “place” and each of them represents some place-like feature of the real world that players will recognize as potentially significant.
Once the zone comes alive with creatures and players, however, these potential places will come to have radically distinct intensities, as the players interact with a set of game rules in ways that allow them to maximize their own personal relation to the East Commonlands. While the uninhabited huts, for instance, acquire in a live zone no real sense of place because no one uses them, the road, which traces an east-west path to West Commonlands, becomes a useful place and players frequently follow it in order to travel (even though they could travel faster by running in a straight line across the zone). Likewise, the inns, which are more or less useless as inns (no one sleeps in them; there is very little to buy), develop intensities of place in relation not to their function but because they are points on a path followed by griffins, creatures which are dangerous to the vast majority of the zone’s player-characters. As a griffin moves, players will shout out its location in relation to the inns along the road (“Inn 3”, “Inn 2” and so on). The inns acquire these fairly limited names in relation to their east-west position (Inn 1 is furthest east), but they only acquire names at all because of the griffin, without which there would be little reason to invent names for or say anything about them. In this sense the griffin itself is, for players of EverQuest, an important part of the geography of that zone and its movement produces senses of space and place that players eventually acquire.
Such a notion is perhaps clearest when it comes to “camps” - places where a steady stream of experience and treasure is assured because monsters regularly appear there. In outdoor zones, such camps, which become places thanks to their names and the powerful stasis they exert on player movement, frequently appear alongside the visual trappings of places from the real-world: a trio of huts or a campfire, the entrance to a building, or a small ruin indicate that the location is a place, also, for its computer-generated inhabitants. This ersatz sense of place, produced by what is effectively the imaginative representation of, say, goblin culture, is one of the fundamental features of the game’s backstory.
The interaction between represented place and player-produced place becomes even less pronounced in indoor zones - dungeons, castles, or underground cities - where the game’s programming exerts a powerful effect on the player’s sense of space. EverQuest’s designers had originally imagined that players would begin at the top of a dungeon and work their way down or through, treating the space as more or less a path and had designed dungeons to produce narratives that mapped onto the paths a group could take, so that the unfolding of story corresponded to progress through architectural space (Najena and the Tower of Frozen Shadow are classic examples of this kind of design). Players, however, treated dungeons more or less the same way they did Norrath’s outdoor spaces, as containers for a number of discrete camps where they could find a supply of monsters that would respawn at rates guaranteeing the steady production of experience and/or treasure. The player geography of any given dungeon in Norrath, therefore, consists largely of non-places and a few camps, named either for the most powerful creature that spawns there (“undead jailor,” ‘spectral turnkey”), or for some architectural feature of the game-space. Some architectural names are motivated directly by the logic of the game world (for example, the prison, the crypt, the shelf), but others map real-world ideas onto the visible geography of the game space: two camps in the underground city of Sebilis, for instance, are called “disco one” and “disco two”. Many of these camps create place in what would be, in the real world, particularly strange places to single out and give names to: the corner of a hallway, for instance, or a perfectly ordinary-looking ledge, chosen because clear of wandering monsters.
What all of this suggests is that place in Norrath emerges in relation to a combination of physical landscape and the presence of monsters like griffins - that is, that Norrath’s geography combines static and mobile objects. As Norrath expanded to include new continents and the old continents changed (via software updates) to reflect the way the players used them, player-created geography and the game’s designed geography came closer together (or rather, the game developers made their new spaces reflect more accurately the way players actually behaved in the game). But there remains something profoundly ironic and even sad about the originary moment of the game’s coming live, when what slowly revealed itself was that some elements of the designers” created space would be met with a profound player indifference. Even as EverQuest changes, the visual evidence of Norrath’s original ambitions as a game remains layered under the new, more responsive geography, testifying to a powerful but unfulfilled representational dream.
The World in Miniature
Though Norrath feels, for the vast majority of conscious player experience, like an immense, open, complex space, it is still in some other sense - a sense, perhaps, driven by the fact that the lines of code that make up the world actually take up only a small amount of physical space on a hard drive - very small, capturable in a couple hundred square inches of a computer screen. This combination of immensity and smallness, of the overwhelming feeling of being in a world and the possibility of coming to fully master the very representational geography that feels so overwhelming, is crucial to understanding Norrath as part of a long line of representational media that begin with the stereoscopes and panoramas of nineteenth-century visual technology, each designed to allow access through visual manipulation to a world contained inside a small box or the inside of a kaleidoscope.
We live in a culture in which the large is often replicated or contained inside the small: we imagine a cell as a tiny factory, build a ship inside a bottle, represent a city or a world inside a globe of gel and floating snow, play with dolls and houses that make the scale of real houses and dolls manageable and manipulable. These miniatures are not simply “small” things; rather they are representations of the large inside the small. And though the miniature may perfectly reproduce the large, though in fact the objects may be identical, save for a difference in scale, the difference in scale the miniature produces means that it creates a completely different phenomenological experience from something that is just small. Doll houses, Gaston Bachelard writes, are “false objects” with a true psychological objectivity (Bachelard, 1969, p. 140). Though they are not true houses, that is, they are nonetheless expressions of a true desire, material witnesses to the fact of a psychological investment in making the large small.
Part of what this suggests for students of the concept of “presence” (as elaborated by Lombard and Ditton, 1997, for instance) is that theories of presence - in general, the sense of immersion or participation granted by a mediatic experience - ought not simply to base their analyses on the technological inputs that govern presence-oriented experiences (studying whether, for instance, people feel more immersed in a scene if they watch it on a high-definition television). Technological substrates - paper, surround sound, LCD screen - are only one feature of a more general cultural experience of immersion and themselves pass through the lens of culture prior to their conscious apprehension.)
Insofar as it offers the ability to possess the large in a small space, to dominate or surround or hold the world, the tourist site, or the building that normally dwarfs you, the miniature can be understood as an attempt to give its owner power over those buildings or animals, people or whole geographies. But at the same time, miniatures - especially miniature worlds, like snow globes or doll houses, the universe inside a jeweled necklace, or Narnia behind the wardrobe door - offer the experience of immensity, as though the large had to be collapsed into the small for its size to be properly seen and understood (the first thing everyone does in The Sims is make a copy of their own house or apartment). The miniature exists, therefore, at a phenomenological intersection, in which the experience of the large as small alternates with the experience of the large as large, of the vastness of the large that has been reduced to something that can be held in the palm of a hand, or played out on a screen. When Alice falls through the looking glass, or Dorothy is swept up by the tornado, they enact in fiction precisely the representational dream that EverQuest players get to experience for themselves. And when Henrik Ibsen imagines turn-of-the-century bourgeois life to take place inside a metaphorical doll’s house, he captures the sense in which the miniature world of the created universe can always switch places with the real one, as though the real world, with its neatly divided rooms and roles, ordained by the controlling hands of culture, had suddenly become the miniature.
The Plane of Knowledge
The miniature vastness of Norrath makes it possible to imagine Norrath as a world, but the players’ use of that space marks the ways in which that vastness was also experienced as an impediment, in that valued places were separated by stretches of useless space. In some sense, the two-dimensional history of city-space in Norrath - the anthropomorphic mimetic surfaces of city/non-city spaces and the emergent social behavior that identified its own functional cities in those places where patterns of movement and attention made them most useful - is the history of the tension created by the scale of Norrathian space. A pivotal moment in that history came with the advent of the Plane of Knowledge zone, introduced by the Planes of Power expansion in October of 2002. Up until that point, the location of significant places of trade and interaction on the part of the players almost exclusively required adapting to a landscape they could not, by and large, alter. The Plane of Knowledge represents a response to player activity by the designers who had that capacity. It is reasonable to consider the Plane of Knowledge as an example of what Greater Faydark and the East Commonlands tunnel could have become had players been able to place merchants, bankers and tradeskill items where they were most needed.
In some sense, then, one could describe the Plane of Knowledge as having been willed into existence by the activities of the players. Their activities illustrated the patterns of life in Norrath with which the old cities were so out of synch. The primacy of their interests is reflected in the inversion of the priorities that marked the initial city design. The design of the Plane drew far less than the cities did from the urge to fashion an anthropologically familiar cityscape. The overall design and geography is more fantastic than many of the cities of Norrath, which clears the way for the design to accommodate itself more directly to the flows and interests of the players who would pass through and spend time there.
This priority is reflected as well in the location of the plane within the overall space of EverQuest. The large-scale geographic design of Norrathian space had, up until the Planes of Power expansion, worked to recreate a generally real-world logic of physical geography. That is, the world was designed around a number of contiguous zones whose connection allowed for the sense of moving across large territorial spaces. Exceptions included the boats connecting continents, which of course have the effect of reinforcing by contrast the illusion of the zones’ realistic continuity. This organization makes possible the sense of distance within EverQuest’s virtual world. For players without access to other means of transportation - a common circumstance for beginning players early in the game’s history - traveling across the continent between the two Human cities of Freeport and Qeynos meant a long run that convincingly established the sense that these two cities were remote from each other.
It is against this backdrop that the positioning of the Plane of Knowledge can be most clearly understood. Access to the plane is available by teleporting immediately to the plane by touching Knowledge Books resting on pedestals scattered throughout Norrath and so the Plane is made effectively equidistant from most points in the world. Similarly, instantaneous travel is possible from the Plane back to all of the books, making the Plane both easily accessible and a space across which players transit, as players travel up to the Plane via one book and back down to a distant spot via another.
Even more than its general design, this element of the Plane’s location represents an organization of geographical space that responds to the demands illustrated by the players’ use of Norrathian space. The Plane of Knowledge is in some sense the fully developed Greater Faydark or East Commonlands tunnel that the players could not build for themselves. The Plane’s crossroads location is complemented by a full range of player services, including trade skill shops and apparatuses, banks, spell vendors and class trainers. The fixed-location elements found distributed amongst the cities of Norrath are collected there, but even more importantly, this collection is located at the crossroads of the world.
As the overall rejection of the cities as places of gathering in favor of player-located places such as the Greater Faydark spires illustrates, designer-positioned elements like banks and shops could give people destinations for quick trips, but not a reason to congregate and linger. The success of the Plane as a developed space for gathering came as players transformed the crossroads of the Planes into a meaningful social location. In part this was simply the outgrowth of the traffic through the zone, which created a population density like few, if any, other places in Norrath. Once enough people began using the Plane as a convenient place to shop, bank and camp out (thus making the Plane the place that they would begin play when logging back on), a sense of social importance developed, zone-wide conversations ensued and gradually players began to treat the zone as a place worth slowing down to spend some time in. Recalling Yi-Fu Tuan’s suggestion that we think of space as “that which allows movement,” and place as “pause,” one might say that the Plane was not simply a space of rapid travel, but also a place where players had reasons to stay (Tuan, 1979, p. 6).
Zones are Rooms
One important technological feature of EverQuest’s programming, the division of the entire world into discrete “zones” (which means that a player’s computer only has to account for one small part of the world’s space at any given moment), exerts a powerful effect on the felt experience of its geographic structure. While players can cross zone lines, computer-generated creatures cannot, meaning that players being chased by something that will kill their character can escape by reaching the edge of a zone, or by teleporting out of it. (Needless to say, these two forms of movement - teleporting and running - exert substantially different effects on the game’s feeling of space.)
Though the zones together represent a world, the effect of zone lines is to divide the world into something like rooms. Just as the rooms in a house serve different functions and announce those differences by their location and their furniture (you don’t open a house’s front door into a bedroom), zones in Norrath establish via their geographic location inside the world, the visual facts of their landscapes (buildings or deserts) and their creature set their cultural place in the game-verse. And just as a room acquires, through use and arrangement, a character - intimate or open, quaint or modern, bright or calming - Norrathian zones present players with a set of features that can be readable largely in terms of “feel” or “personality”.
The personality of any given zone-as-room depends quite strongly on its physical structure and visual organization. Indoor zones, for instance, which tend to pack lots of danger into smaller spaces than outdoor ones and to offer a much more complex run back to the zone line, feel intimate, even cramped. Other zones - most of those on the light side of Norrrath’s moon, Luclin, for instance - feel expansive and large, with a wide-open sky and undulating terrain broken by flora unseen on the surface of the planet. These effects are modified, in turn, by player culture. For the game’s first few years public communication was limited to the boundaries of the zone a player-character was in (via the “shout” command), meaning that well populated zones like Kunark’s Lake of Ill Omen felt crowded, even impossibly noisy, while unpopular areas (the dungeon of Runnyeye, for instance) might have only a handful of players in them and wound up feeling lonely and dangerous.
Each of these spaces, divided from the other zones by artificial boundaries and often enterable only through geographic “doors” - tunnels through mountains, an opening into a valley, a break in the trees - produces the impression of a discrete tone or feel, a discrete set of uses and a discrete relation to the rest of the house-world: central, public, quiet, distant, dark, bleak, dangerous, safe, a place for resting or for fighting, for talking or for running scared. Identifying these characteristics as features of single zones, but also as features of the entire division of the game-world’s geography into zones, allows us to begin to approach the dream of a “critical asthetic” for virtual worlds elaborated by Richard Bartle (2004); a total analysis of Norrath’s geography as the product of an aesthetic intention would consider, first, the range of possibilities for spatial feel and place development at a variety of micro and macro levels, ranging from the corner of a dungeon to the arrangement of entire zones; second, the relationships between zones and between zones and continents, insofar as they represented a total feel and cultural context for world-activity; and third, the effects of the extradiegetic, purely formal choices made by game designers-to divide the world into zones to reduce CPU processing demands, for instance-on the previous two levels of analysis. The same geographic region means differently if it is a zone than if it is a continuous feature of an unzoned planetscape.
The eventual development of world-wide chat channels unconstrained by player location reflects, perhaps, the designers’ desire to mitigate the separation-effect created by the world’s division into zones. Nonetheless, zones, by limiting the physical horizon of danger and establishing a basic mental shape for Norrath’s spatial experience, continue to exert a profound spatio-representational effect, giving meaning to the space by presenting it as bounded by a limit, a geography and a unique name. To imagine them as rooms is to recognize, not for the first time, how readily the quotidian enclosure of a house functions as a metaphor for the ungraspability of worlds.
The World as Competitor
In carving out an internal space for the production of an entire representational universe, EverQuest effectively imagines a world into being. Though Norrath is obviously fantastic and not therefore representational in the same way as the New York of a Whitman poem, or even the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County of William Faulkner’s novels, it nonetheless shares enough features with the real world to make it recognizable as a world. Insofar as it does this - that is, insofar as what EverQuest aims to produce defines itself and is understandable as a world - it communicates a great deal about what its designers and players believe a world to be.
Much of that content mimics the anthropological structures of everyday life: the cityscapes, huts and shops, gypsy camps and small villages of the game’s non-player characters are very much a “straight” representation of what life might have looked like in pre-industrial Europe, or rather, the version of pre-industrial Europe that continues to be such a rich site for fantasy literature and games. Other aspects of the content, however, seem to speak of material and technological differences from the present - the ability to teleport, for instance, or the presence of mythological creatures like dwarves and dragons. These differences indicate on the one hand a general pleasure in the possibilities of the imagination and on the other, by virtue of their specific forms (dragons, not spaceships, teleportation via magic, not science), a preference for a particular representational modeling of a fantasy.
If Norrath is a representation of the world, it is, then, a representation of the world both as it is and as it might be different. It represents generally an idea of “worldness” - a bounded physical space dotted by places, organized by a self-sustaining and seemingly coherent set of historical narratives and physical rules - and an idea of what the world might look like if it didn’t look the way it does.
But it is also representationally organized, in the final analysis, by a set of ludic rules - the rules whereby it frames player efforts to kill creatures, to advance in levels and experience and to form communities designed to allow for greater exploration, discovery and achievement. Because Norrath is a world built to support a game (and not just some world that someone came across and decided to make a game in), every geographic feature of its representational structure reflects the fact that it was made to be used for gaming (and not for eco-tourism or urban planning). Though sometimes designers got things wrong - as when they thought players would congregate in places because they looked like cities - in general they have shown a remarkable ability to adjust to the ways in which players’ use of (and sometimes exploitation of) the game’s ludic structure has affected their relation to its geography.
In such a context, one might argue, the space that Norrath represents is not really very much like a world at all. Or rather, it is a world that is entirely defined by the agon of competition with the game world itself. The entire world of Norrath exists to challenge players and ultimately to yield to them - with a fight, of course - in ways that allow players to gradually dominate the world that, in the beginning of the game, completely dominates them. If this is a “world” in the same way our world is a world, then, it is a world absolutely governed by the dictates of competition, labour, productivity and achievement. Insofar as Norrath’s geography speaks to players, it speaks most clearly to them when it responds to their ludic achievement. In this sense all the representational work of the game - the look of the cities, the stone and the wood - functions like a screen or a game board - as an occasion for play, for advancement and achievement.
That such a world would prove as compelling as EverQuest indicates at some level the deep representational satisfaction it provides. People like and will spend money on, a representation of a world that looks more or less recognizable as world but which provides them direct access to a competitive structure mapped onto a responsive physical geography and will, in time, create anthropological places designed to help them compete with it. That the vast majority of online game players participate in worlds that offer some version of a medieval world like Norrath’s suggests the appeal of that representational model as a site for the ludic, competitive world of such a game. And the ludic model these representations enact produces, in turn, an especially intense experience of pure competition with a world, a competition largely carried out for the most part with rather than against other people.
This pairing of ludic rule and world-representation may, in fact, embody the game’s most profound dream of another epoch. “We cannot separate the function of the miniature,” Susan Stewart (1993) tells us, “from a nostalgia for preindustrial labor, from a nostalgia for craft” (p. 68). But here the form that such a nostalgia takes - both in the digital ground of its physical existence and in the ludic structure of its function as competitive game-world - appears to contradict precisely the nostalgic dream of medieval Europe it relates. In the combination of a powerful fantasy of pure competition mediated by world-like geography (a geography completely indifferent to the planet outside our computers) and the nostalgic return to a pre-industrial geography populated by none of the trappings of contemporary modernity, one sees, not for the first time, the thick schizophrenia of the current historical imaginary.
Norrath and Local Culture
An understanding of Norrath as an anthropological place in, or within, the real world proceeds outward from an understanding of the self-contained geography of that world. Thinking about how the players located spaces of importance and, in fact, defined them for themselves and each other, provides a map of their activities and desires. The history of those locations reveals the overriding desire for efficiency that drives player activity in Norrath. Because the ludic elements of EverQuest do not reward activity like going into a tavern in the evenings, players declined the more representational invitation of the cities. And while players express some nostalgia for the good old days of long dangerous runs across the continents, once the Plane of Knowledge made traveling between spots to fight creatures for experience and treasure easy, the efficiency it offered was irresistible. As a general rule, it can be said that the early gaps between Norrath’s representational geography and anthropological geography charted by player activity are marked by an underestimation of the degree to which the efficient attainment of experience and wealth would guide players’ identification of meaningful places in Norrath. Conversely, the sequence of expansions, especially beginning with Shadows of Luclin, marks the geography’s accommodation of that interest in efficiency, centralizing trade and travel for the entire virtual world.
This observation allows us to ask whether the same principle of efficiency that guides players’ movement within Norrath also motivates players to go to Norrath. To emphasize a consideration of Norrath as a place rather than playing EverQuest as an activity makes it easier to address the apparent irony of players sitting in a fixed location in front of their computer while they engage in the simulated experience of exploring virtual space. It’s not that EverQuest is unique in working like a place on the internet - to call chat rooms “rooms,” for instance, draws attention the spatial logic whereby that communal gathering is often imagined online. There is, though, no comparison between a chat room or message board and a MMOG like EverQuest in terms of the way it evokes a sense of the internal space that comprises it. So, while some will see EverQuest as a force that alienates players from their sense of space in the real world, it seems important to remember that their indifference to real-world space is matched by an evident desire to replace it with the exploration of virtual space. In other words, it is not that the experience of space in general has been devalued. However, whatever is at stake for players, whatever they hope to get out of their experiences in the game, the decision to spend time in Norrath is an indication that they expect to find it more readily, or perhaps exclusively, in Norrath.
As is so often the case with virtual worlds, a careful consideration of the apparent immateriality of EverQuest’s space reveals not just the obvious contrast with the real world, but also the immateriality of the real that can be otherwise difficult to recognize. Anthropologist Marc Augé argues that we live in a world increasingly dominated by “non-places”: in-between spaces of transport, transit, commerce or leisure that exist in some sense outside the traditional economy of anthropological place as “pause” or point of reference. Rather than establishing a set of relations that organize people into a series of relations with one another, non-places allow for the interaction of more or less anonymous, identical individuals, each of whom is simply passing through the non-place on the way to someplace that matters. It is in this sense that the “non-place is the opposite of utopia: it exists and it does not contain any organic society” (Augé, 1995, p. 112). That is, non-place organizes space, but, unlike conventional notions of stable or historical place, it does not map any social reality onto that space - it is, rather, a parenthesis inside human space, an intermediating site of movement organized largely around commerce (the airport, the mall, the airport as mall) and a set of public instructions for their use (“flight 1234 boarding at gate 22,” “No smoking,” and so on).
As a third category in the anthropological dynamic of space and place, non-place allows Augé to argue that one of the major features of the contemporary world (what he calls its “supermodernity”) lies in the increasing production of non-places and the increasing time people spend in them. Given that one of the features of non-place is the general franchising of experience (so that a Big Mac tastes the same in Duluth as it does in London), one could go so far as to argue that the production of housing estates and gated development communities, in which people live separately in more or less identical houses, show that the reach of non-place as an idea can extend to and interact with one of the most traditional places in human society, namely the “home.”
The tension between EverQuest’s representationality, which presents the place in the form of visual elements and backstory and the actual behavior of the world’s human community, provides a striking example of how non-place works inside Norrath. The digital world’s representation of anthropological place - especially in the form of villages, routes, farmland, or cities defined by a represented history of “human” inhabitation - can be understood, in terms of player use, as non-places, as impediments to travel rather than as sites of stasis and community. In any zone a player simply runs across to get somewhere else, the solitude and boredom of that travel - as on a twenty-minute run across the plains of the Karanas - effectively allow players to disengage from the geographic reality through which they pass. As they run, they carry on long-distance conversations with friends in Norrath’s other zones, like the kind of person who spends a train journey making a series of cellular phone calls.
As Augé’s notion of the non-place suggests, our contemporary social geography provides countless examples of ways in which the historicity and specificity of places is giving way to non-places that substitute the representational for the material. Augé notes that the “link between individuals and their surroundings in the space of non-place is established through the mediation of words, or even texts” (Augé, 1995, p. 94). In this way, towns or neighborhoods are replaced by signs on the side of freeways or roads that attest to their existence, such that “certain places exist only through the words that evoke them and in this sense they are non-places, or rather, imaginary places: banal utopias, clichés” (Augé, 1995, p. 95). As more of our real-world landscape is experienced as representation, as an evocation of imagination, a trip across Norrath and a trip to a local chain restaurant might be less fundamentally different than they first appear.
More importantly, however, while Augé’s real-world non-places and Norrath share some degree of immateriality, there is reason to consider Norrath very much a place. In part, an explanation for this returns to the idea of efficiency. The non-places Augé identifies are, generally speaking brought into being by virtue of drives toward efficiency. Efficiency of speed motivates air travel, which in turn spawns the desolate airports that greet passengers on either end of their trip. Efficiency of profit motivates the spread of interchangeable chain restaurants and hotels that seek to reproduce the same experience regardless of geographic location. The social landscape is therefore shaped by forces beyond the scale of individual participation and in a way that is more likely to overwrite local sensibilities than it is to reflect or record them.
Norrath works differently. Even in its diffuse connection to points around the real world, it creates a sense of space that maintains a sense of something that might be called local culture. Despite the trappings of racial and cultural difference in Norrath, there is in the end only one culture - that of the players. That culture, which is so focused on finding the most efficient ways to accumulate experience and wealth in the game, has powerfully determined the geography of Norrath, both in terms of its collective adaptation to the physical geography of Norrath and its influence over the ways in which that geography has evolved in later EverQuest expansions. An important difference between Norrathian and contemporary real-world geographies might be that efficiency and intensity of effort leave, rather than erase, traces of the players’ desires and activities. The places of Norrath are by no means a perfect historical map of the players’ encounter with the world, but it is more reflective than the landscape of non-places that is - or is at least popularly imagined to be - one of the alternatives to Norrath.
One of the persistent dilemmas in understanding the relationship between virtual worlds and the real world is the ease with which such understanding takes a position that casts the virtual world as either the utopian transcendence of real world failings or the ultimate intensification of the same. In the context of Augé’s rather dismal account of the “supermodern” landscape of non-places, the virtuality of Norrath invites such consideration - an unexpected creation of a more real locality than its real-world counterparts or another nail in the coffin of people’s meaningful relation to place. That both of these possibilities seem so simultaneously plausible is indicative of the deeply ambivalent relationships we have to the geography of the contemporary world, which is in the end an important part of Augé’s argument and an indication of the ways virtual worlds offer a unique and revelatory index to our own self-understanding.
The obvious pleasures afforded to players who occupy Norrathian space offer access to one of the more subtle elements of the situation Augé describes, an element that makes it clear that our world of non-places is neither something imposed entirely from the outside, nor is it a simply negative phenomenon. There is pleasure in the non-place:
a person entering the space of non-place is relieved of the usual determinants. He becomes no more than what he does or experiences in the role of passenger, customer, or driver. Perhaps he is still weighed down by the previous day’s worries, the next day’s concerns; but he is distanced from them temporarily by the environment of that moment. Subjected to a gentle form of possession, to which he surrenders himself with more or less talent or conviction, he tastes for a while - like anyone who is possessed - the passive joys of identity-loss and the more active pleasure of role-playing. (Augé, 1995, p. 103)
That this account of real-world experience seems so astoundingly appropriate as an account of the passive and active pleasures of a world like Norrath suggests once again that virtual worlds must be thought of as part of, rather than apart from, the real world in which they take place. Norrath expresses rather than evades the culture of supermodernity in which we live.
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