Lisbeth Klastrup

Lisbeth Klastrup is an Associate Professor in the Innovative Communication Research group at the IT University of Copenhagen. She has published a number of articles and book chapters on the relation between design, aesthetics and sociality in online gameworlds, an area of study she also explored in her 2003 Ph.D. thesis "Towards a Poetics of Virtual Worlds: Multiuser Textuality and The Emergence of Story".

The Worldness of EverQuest: Exploring a 21st Century Fiction

by Lisbeth Klastrup


"You’re in our world now!" has been the slogan for EverQuest since 2000. This article takes this quote literally by exploring what it actually entails "to be in a gameworld". Taking its point of departure in a more general discussion of online gameworlds as a new form of engaging fictional universes, it argues that it is in the complex interplay between a) the aesthetics of the gameworld as both an actualised explorable and mentally imagined universe; b) the experiences and means of expression the world as a game system and tool allows and affords; c) the social interaction in and about the world, that the unique characteristics of an online gameworld, its "worldness" emerges. How these aspects can by studied more concretely is demonstrated in an illustrative analysis of EverQuest.

Keywords: Gameworlds, worldness, MMORPG, fictionality, engagement, player experience, sociality


"You’re in our world now!" has been the slogan for EverQuest since 2000, a year after the world first launched[1]. This article takes this quote literally by trying to explore what it actually entails "to be in a world", and what the distinguishing features of the world of EverQuest are, those that make us, the players, feel that it is indeed our world. Accordingly, this article reflects on the challenges we as gameworld researchers face if we want to describe and analyse how the feeling of being and belonging to a world comes about. The underlying point of departure is that applying just one theoretical perspective to the understanding of the experience of an online world will not take us far, but at the same time "understanding" one gameworld might teach us much about how to understand them all. For instance, we can successfully analyse an "old world" like EverQuest as a game and learn a lot about the functions of this world by looking, for instance, at the game mechanics and the type of goals and challenges the players are presented with. But in doing so we might not understand why players choose to engage themselves exactly in EverQuest and not any other gameworld. One might also look at a gameworld like EverQuest primarily as a social culture by looking, for instance, at how people in EverQuest socially interact with each other and for which reasons, but then we might not be able to explain why some players enjoy playing a world mostly by themselves. In this context, it should be pointed out, that even though the scope of academic literature on gameworlds has increased significantly in recent years (see for instance Castranova 2005, Taylor 2006, proceedings from the DIGRA conference 2005 and 2007, proceedings from the CHI conferences from 2006 and onwards, the Corneliussen and Walker Rhettberg anthology 2008,), much writing on EverQuest and newer worlds still seems to suffer from this one-dimensional approach and misses out on the complexity in the experience of gameworlds as worlds.

Taking its point of departure in a discussion of the "fictional reality" of one of the oldest massive-multiplayer gameworlds still around, this article will argue, that it is in the complex interplay between a) the aesthetics of the gameworld as both an actualised explorable and mentally imagined universe; b) the experiences and means of expression the world as a game system and tool allows and affords; c) the social interaction in and about the world, that the unique characteristics of a world, its "worldness" emerges, that which makes it different from all worlds of the same genre, both gamewise and socially. To examine this interplay more closely, I apply a hybrid methodology which combines a traditional literary aesthetic perspective and "reading" of the world with cultural ethnography and game studies. Thus, I first consider EverQuest as a new form of fiction and meaning producing system, an interactive signifying "text" in a very broad sense, and I then combine this reading with my own observations of being a player in this world and with an analysis of some of the basic options of interaction the gameworld system offers the player. Through this triangulation (aesthetics, lived culture, game design), I hope to make more clear how to analytically approach what creates and informs a player’s experience of a gameworld.

The Concept of Worldness and Online Worlds as Fictional Universes

Before looking more specifically at EverQuest, I would like to briefly discuss the concept of worldness and the fictional status of online worlds in more general terms. Thus, I have previously been looking into what are the defining aspects of an online world, its poetics (Klastrup 2003, 2007, 2008), inspired by the work of a number of literary theorists in the 20th century who sought to define those specific aspects of works of literature, which defined the "literariness" of literature, An essential part of this project was to study what I defined as a world’s "worldness". Inspired by Tzvetan Todorov’s definition of a poetics as something that focuses on the general and unique properties of a discoursive genre, its literariness (Todorov 1977), I defined the study of "worldness" as the "systematic study of virtual worlds as virtual worlds" (Klastrup, 2003: 262), including the process of examining and generalising some of the properties that define online worlds. Following, it is important to understand that the concept of worldness is applicable on two levels which continuously inform each other: we can speak of worldness on a very abstract level as a number of essential aspects applicable to all worlds and on a specific level as the defining characteristics of an individual world, reflected in the way the general properties are set into motion and transformed by the world once implemented and by its players. This article will primarily focus on the latter level, in that it aims to present some of the elements which influence the experience of the worldness of EverQuest, while in these opening sections it will discuss the more general aspects, that is how online worlds as such function and exist as a new form of fictional universe. Hence, rather than approaching online worlds as games or communities (or both), I argue that an important aspect of the attraction of online worlds is that they can be seen as a new form of invented universe, a next stage in the development of the entertaining fictional universes we know from films, novels and single-player adventure computer games.

Are Gameworlds Fictions?

Let me begin by establishing what is radically new about the gameworld as a form of cultural text. It presents an invented universe, that is characterised by the fact that is simultaneously used by several users who can explore the world from within and with each other. As an effect of this, the nature of the gameworld’s reality is radically different from previous forms of fictions. However, there are some important similarities. When entering an online world, we engage in a game of make-believe, just as we do when we engage in any other form of fiction, that is: on one hand we pretend that we are elves or trolls, magicians or warriors living in a world where orcs, wandering skeletons and dragons are as real as we are - this is what is known (but rarely quoted correctly) as the "willing suspension of disbelief", with reference to a quote by the English poet Samuel Coleridge.[2] This practice is supported by the concrete act of logging into and out of "the game", so that players experience a very concrete act of entering and exiting the world, allowing them to draw a very concrete boundary between the space of physical reality and the space of the gameworld. When we enter the world, we enter another "game of discourse" as Searle has phrased it:

"What distinguishes fiction from lies is the existence of a separate set of conventions which enables the author to go through the motions of making statements which he knows to be not true even though he has no intention to deceive" (Searle, 1975, p. 326).

Even if we are as players performing characters inside the world of, for instance, EverQuest, we consciously and continuously perform a series of feigned acts just as we in fictional discourse recognise that the fiction is not talking about real events: we are well aware, that dealing a death blow to another player’s character and thereby killing him does not mean that the other player "behind" the screen somewhere else in the offline world drops dead. At the same time, it is not a lie that the character is dead within the world of EverQuest it is in fact a "true" event. Consequently, what we do in an online world can be considered as belonging to this genre of "fictional discourse" that Searle describes. However, a very important way in which online worlds differ from traditional fictions is that we as users of it know that the people we meet and interact with in the world are real people and that our real-time interaction and communication with them is not imagined or scripted by someone else, but actually takes place here and now. To sum up, one could argue that our understanding of the ontology of the world is that we know it is a fiction and by entering the world we as players become part of the fictional discourse ourselves, while we are at the same time well aware that what goes on inside it is indeed a social reality and that this reality, as T.L Taylor has aptly pointed out in Play Between Worlds (Taylor 2006), often is, or will be, closely interwoven with our social world outside the fiction. An analysis of an online world should therefore also include an exploration of the interplay between the fictionality and sociality and how these two aspects of experience inform each other.

Are Gameworlds Narratives?

Another important question to deal with on a more general level, is the question of whether gameworlds can be considered as a new form of interactive narratives or if simulating a world can also be seen as an innovative form of representing a world, in the same way that fictional narratives also present a world (or worlds) to us. There is not much help to be found in current writings on this subject, because curiously very little has to this day been written on the nature of the fictionality of games and gameworlds. Though within game studies there now seems to exist a common agreement that most games project some form of fictional world, however limited it be, and though game scholars such as Jesper Juul, Julian Kücklich and Barry Atkins (Juul 2005, Kücklich 2003, Atkins 2003) have from this perspective in some detail discussed games as fictions, they have focused almost exclusively on single-player gameworlds, though Jesper Juul does in fact mention EverQuest in passing. However, in his book Halfreal, in the chapter on fiction, Juul focuses mostly on the category of worlds in games he describes as "incoherent world games", whereas online gameworlds logically belong to his category of "coherent world games" (Juul 2005: 131-162). Other scholars theorising games have attempted to discuss them as fictions, but tend to conflate fiction with "narrative" or spatial storytelling (see f.i. Jenkins 2004), and it is important, as Jesper Juul (2005: 122) and Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith and Tosca (2008: 172-173) point out to maintain the distinction between the two concepts. Fiction is a concept that describes an imaginary, "not-real" world, whereas narrative is a term that describes the presentation of a series of events. Through this presentation of events, a story (or narrative) projects a world, as literary theorists Marie-Laure Ryan (1991) and Ronen (Ronen 1994) have pointed out. Thus, in the case of gameworlds, though stories about the world exist, told in companion manuals and official and fan-based websites, the online world is more than a mental construct (a world projected by a story), it is unique in that it presents an actualised version of an imaginary universe. Contrary to earlier forms of fiction, the way we make sense of gameworlds in general follows not from what we are told (what is being presented to us), but from how we experience gameplay and the architecture of the world itself, the way we are forced to act in certain ways as players, the way we simulate that we live in this world. In other words, it is neither a case of of showing or telling but of acting out. This is not to say that players do not have the experience of taking part in an unfolding story. In fact, online worlds are unique because they enable the unfolding of many stories at the same time, not the least through the design of completable quests with a story-like structure (for further discussion of quests, mythology and stories in gameworlds, see Walker Rhettberg 2008, and Krzywinska 2008).

One important similarity between online worlds and narratives should however be pointed out. They share with narratives the fact that they function as symbolic frames for a special form of experience which we associate with the promise of "immersion", emotional engagement or flow we have come to expect from the engagement with narratives (the reading of novels, the viewing of films or theatre plays), which is brought about by the filtering out of what is irrelevant or uninteresting. Like novels or films, the online world is never a complete simulation of the real world (the map which covers the entire territory of the world it represents), rather it is a condensed presentation of what a world can be like, conveyed by the choices made regarding which aspects of life to include and which to exclude, which events to speed up and which to keep in real time etc. Just like in films or novels, the narrative function of ellipsis is applied as a discoursive strategy in order to maintain the user’s interest: online world characters never go to the bathroom, brush their teeth or take off their pyjamas, or all the other kind of actions which are normally excluded from most imagined universes, because they are tedious both to perform and watch.[3] In EverQuest the speed with which one goes through a 24 hour cycle is much higher than in our physical world; so you can pack much more action in them and literally feel, that "time flies".

Gameworlds as Frameworks for Interpretation

Though an online world is not a narrative, a presented story, it still has a representative function because it represents a mediated understanding of what a world is or should look like. Frasca (Frasca, 2001) was one of the first game scholars to point out that for instance in The Sims, owning many objects will make it easier for the player to make friends. Wealth in a world like EverQuest is equally considered good, since it makes it easier to advance in the game system, but it also has the side-effect of allowing the player to be generous towards other players and in this way to befriend them by giving them objects for free in a world where everything costs money. That owning objects or money is "good" and is, accordingly, rewarded by social and game-progress success is definitely an example of a designer’s selected perspective on what is important in life; in this case, a liberal economy, the importance of individual material wealth etc. Thus, the simulated online world, the description of it (the back stories and the stories introducing new expansions) as well as the myriad player-generated stories about the world, functions much in the same way as the presentation of fictional universes in "analogue" storytelling: they are frameworks of interpretation which allows us to judge whether events in the world are, for instance, "moral" or "immoral", "good" or "bad" according to the "world rules", the designated morals of that particular world. This ties well in with Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith & Tosca’s observation that, in general, the function of the fictional world in relation to games is to "prompt players to imagine that their actions take place within a meaningful frame" (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith & Tosca 2008: 171).

Analysing Worldness

This general discussion of the general aspects of the worldness and fictionality of online worlds have hopefully served to point out both similiarities and differences between online worlds and previous forms of cultural texts which have presented invented, time-compact universes. Let me sum up this discussion by recapturing what it has taught us in terms of what to analyse when we look at an online gameworld like EverQuest as a fictional world and at how its worldness is constructed. Understanding how an online world functions as a fictional universe should include an analysis of how it is set up as a framework for interpretation and how the limits and possibilities of acting inside the world will help shape the player’s perception of it. More concretely this can be done by looking at the representational style of the world (to which representational genre does it belong and which mythologies inform it); looking at how it is constructed as a simulation and game (what are the rules of interaction with the world?); and looking at how the social reality of the world is shaped: which elements in the world seem to foster the emergence of community and social interaction (what are the rules and practices of interaction between players?). The conglomeration of all these elements is what characterises the "worldness" of a specific online world, and what makes us engage in and believe in it.

The Constituents of"Worldness"

The Presentation of and Play with the World

The interface to an online world is a tool which is designed to let the player step into and be part of the online world in as transparent a manner as possible. The interface itself presents the world "as if", as if it was a reality without drawing attention to the fact that it is in itself part of the production of this reality. Like other fictions, using the terminology of Bolter and Grusin (Bolter & Grusin 1999), the presentation of the world is intended to give its users a feeling of immediacy, and should not stand in the way of experience itself. However, it appears that users of online worlds do not always seek this experience of immediacy. Anyone who is familiar with online worlds will have observed that players, through their social interaction both inside and outside the world, have a very conscious and instrumental approach to the world, occasionally treating it and talking about it as just a piece of software. It appears that the players themselves have no problem stepping in and out of the reality of the (game) world, one moment acting as if they really were mages in the world, the next moment acting as players rationally discussing a new cool feature of the spell system. When inside EverQuest one could comfortably laugh at - or moan about - the collision detection bug which used to make mobs walk right through trees, without feeling that one’s general experience of being in the world was destroyed. Likewise, though annoying, the pause in the gaming experience (a frozen screen) caused by the shift to a new zone (that the server needed to load), never destroyed my playing experience as such. Though I have little empirical evidence to substantiate my claim, I would argue, that as an online gameworld player you are willing to live with a far from perfect mode of presentation, bad graphics, lag, bugs etc. One might feel annoyed, but though flawed in its representational reality, the landscape the player moves in does not stop being a space that you move through with a purpose, and in the case of EverQuest , it might be a point in itself that as a player you came to feel that even the bugs are a part of the experience of being in EverQuest, present there.

As an example of the seamless oscillation between taking part in the fictional discourse and stepping outside it, consider this little scene, a low-level group discussion that I once took part in. One of the players, Coee, had his wife’s character standing by to help us. He could not help bragging a bit about her (the wife’s character was a powerful high level character). Instantly he was teased by another group member, Glee, who had, with no luck, tried to come on to that particular female character. Glee’s character was a big troll, so at some point Glee’s player simply placed his character on top of the absent wife’s character and succeeded in covering her completely, so that she visually disappeared on our screens.

Coee tells the group, 'Oh no that is my wife'
Coee tells the group, 'In rl'
Coee tells the group, 'She is 56 druid'
Glee tells the group, 'Yep and im santa clause'
Coee tells the group, 'Lol'
Coee tells the group, 'She is not there thats why i have her afk'
Coee tells the group, 'She isn't home right now'
Glee tells the group, 'MAN!'
Glee tells the group, 'I was making my move !'
Glee tells the group, 'Lol im sitting on her'
Coee tells the group, 'Lol well she wont get cold that way'
Lagria tells the group, 'Glee stop that not nice'
Coee tells the group, 'Lol'
Amydar tells the group, 'Lol'
Glee tells the group, 'Where did she go i can [sic i.e. can’t] see her?'
Lagria tells the group, 'Lol'
Milagros grins.
Glee tells the group, 'I ATE HER!'

This exchange clearly demonstrates that the players are comfortably switching between talking out-of-character about what happens "irl", in real life (the wife is not home and afk),while simultaneously talking about events "in-world" as they happen and pretending they are real. The wife is a level 56 druid, the troll character is sitting on her and that is not a nice thing to do in-world, which is why the Lagria character says "stop that not nice". The entire scene is very playful, the Glee character is obviously bending the game to do something that is in fact not a designed part of the program (literally "sitting" on another character is not a possible action). The players all share an ironic distance to what you can do and cannot do within the world, and in this case it is also what binds the group together and allows for a relaxed moment of social interaction between fights.

Elaborating on the repercussions of this oscillating behaviour, one might argue that whereas acting in-character signals belief in the fiction and the purposeful (role)playing to obtain an experience of "immersion", acting out-of-character still signals belief in, for instance, the game system of the world, or a devotion to the social network of which one is a part. Hence, though OOC-ing might violate the framing of the world as a believable fictional universe, it still happens within the framework of the world as as a social space - in fact, in EverQuest, OOC-ing seemed to be a natural part of making friends and strengthening community ties, i.e. the process of social interaction. Indeed, as Fine (Fine, 1983), one of the first sociologists to study role-playing games, has suggested, with reference to Erving Goffman, the possibility of oscillating between frames of interpretation of the social situation can actually be part of the fun of playing a (fantasy) game, because there is normally no serious social penalty for doing this. Exactly because of this, the act of together breaking the frame of illusion is a natural part of the social interaction of the group participating in the role-playing game

One should consider the effect of the voluntary nature of the frame and the "fun" that is embedded in it. Voluntary frames, i.e. frames in which persons are not constrained to stay, are more likely to be rapidly keyed than are mandatory frames - although this is, of course, a matter of degree. It is not only the amount of engrossment that the actor finds in his character’s role that stabilizes the play, but the consequences of breaking frame. In voluntary activities, such as fantasy gaming, there are few adverse consequences for breaking frames. (Fine, 1983, p. 196)

A analysis of the player’s access to a given world such as EverQuest should include a study of the situations in which they talk about and treat the world as a tool to play with, or a piece of software, i.e. how (and when) they step outside it. It must furthermore also take into account how these experiences with the world as a software system are referred to and used in the gaming situations and as a (likely important) part of the social interaction about the world.

What are the repercussions of this distinguishing feature? It tells us that the experience of "worldness" is not equal to the feeling of immersion, or equal to choosing to believe completely in the presented world; rather, immersion into a world and the feeling of presence within it are only some of aspects of the experience of worldness. But if the concept of "immersion in a fictional world" cannot fully describe what makes us continuously enjoy being in the online world, with which other concepts can we then describe our involvement with the world? Perhaps the scale of experience of worldness is progressive rather than absolute: the concept of immersion could then be used to describe the initial creation of and then continuous on-off belief in the world, the pretend-moments when the player consciously pretends that all that happens in the online world is "real", and accordingly interprets events in conjunction with their in-game or in-world meaning. The concept of presence could additionally describe the feeling of ‘being there’, seeing the world through the eyes of one’s current character , and interacting with other "real people" through the characters, the experience of being immersed in the social reality of the world. Engagement in the world is what emerges through the experience of the world in time, the continuous and combined experience of immersion and presence; the experience of living in the world. This engagement not only relates to the actual experience of playing (in) the world, but also to the mental act of interpreting and connecting the events which take place in it; in other words, and using a term from Mark Meadows (Meadows 2002): in effect constantly interpreting what happens in the world as small "post-facto" narratives. We can then think of engagement as a set of experiences, which maintain a sense of "purposive presence" (following Clive Fencott, 1999), being there for a reason. This also points to the importance of analysing people’s experience with online worlds over a substantial period of time.

Staging the World: Universe, Aesthetics and Genre

Another important aspect in understanding how players relate to a given online gameworld is to study how this world is staged as a world according to existing genre- and world conventions. What genre of fiction does the world tap in to and what is its backstory? Belief in a world requires that the design of the world is consistent, also in its value system and in keeping with the chosen fictional genre of the world. As designer and theorist Richard Bartle has pointed out, coherence is the key (Bartle, 2003). If it is a fantasy world, the representation of the world should be consistently fantasy-like, it would be considered out-of-place if, for instance, spaceships or futuristic social housing suddenly appear in EverQuest. Instead the players come into the world expecting a "medieval aesthetics": dragons, orcs and magic will be perceived as as natural elements in this world, as cars and anti-biotics are in our world. It would be against convention if a character could buy modern guns to slay the dragons or Formula-1 cars to chase the orcs.

A traditional function of the backstory, often presented in the game manuals, strategy guides or intro trailers to expansions etc, can help the player relate to other players, giving them a basic knowledge of their standing in the world, according to their character class and choice. For instance, the backstory in EverQuest provides the knowledge that, despite differences in race, you belong to the same religious community which strives to protect and honour nature. In this way, a backstory also provides players with a sense of history, giving them the impression that they are entering a world which has already existed for a long time. Furthermore, it can help players understand how to decode the world, by identifying known allies and opponents. Often, in the attempt to create a feeling of an ongoing development of the world as such, the conflicts or the ethics outlined in the backstory is forcefully integrated in the present time of the world, such as when sudden and unexpected events, introducing new game features or parts of the world, are related to early mythological events of the world. However, this ongoing "world story" is not necessarily of relevance to the player’s immediate experience of the online world or their personal character story. It very much depends on where the currently played character is in the world, the level the character holds, and the activity the character is currently engaged in. Especially repetitive actions (like killing monsters of the same kind for hours) tend to quickly lose their narrative or world-related significance. Continuing the discussion of how online worlds differ from analogue fictions, we could say that in online worlds, the individual player’s immediate involvement in the fictional world varies. However, the fictional genre of the world will in general create a stylistic continuity and coherence which is rarely questioned.

Performing in the World: Identity and Communication Design and Forms of Interaction

While an initial examination of the presentation of the world and the way it is framed informs us how a player is taught to interpret his characters’ actions in a broader context and possibly reveals interesting details about the player’s attitude to the world, the most important aspect of the analysis of the creation of worldness in an online world like EverQuest is to understand how players can perform and interact with, and within, it. What are the players’ opportunities of developing and displaying themselves within the framework of the imaginary universe, how can they engage with the world and other players and why and how are the limits of their actions and possibilities implemented?

The Performative Range of the Player

Until a few years ago, a player’s main means of communication with the world and other players have been the written and "emoted" sentences and actions conveyed through the player’s gameworld characters.[4] When he or she interacts with the world and other players, a certain performative range and register of actions are available to the player. These performative options can be divided into four categories: design of appearance, communicative actions, emotive actions and command actions. The use and limitations of these actions and the design of one’s character plays an essential part in the creation of an individual and recognisable style of play and in the experience of how you can be in the world. Furthermore, they are integral to a player’s success in the social world of the game since they influence how efficient her communication with her co-players will be. In what follows, these possibilities will be examined further.

Design of Appearance: Dressing up in EverQuest

Alongside the mastering of the various forms of communication channels and commands, "dressing up" is an important part of the development of one’s character; clothing, the quality and uniqueness of the armour or jewelry you wear, it all distinguishes you as a more or less skilled or wealthy player. "Considering" or "inspecting" other characters to check out their gear is one of the more common forms of more superficial social interaction in most gameworlds, including EverQuest. Most character types are brought into the world with very little clothing. Acquiring combat enhanced gear and personalised clothing is continously one of the motivations for levelling up, questing and earning money. Personally, as part of my own playing experience, I found that through the completion of the various armour quests I had to go through to "dress up" my character Milagros properly, I became much more aware of the "dress" of other characters; I was able to see whether they had completed their armour quest and were therefore wearing an outfit which signalled they were accomplished players. "Dress", then, is an influential part in your performance of the character; it signals to other players how successful a player you are and gives them an idea of how far you have progressed in the game. Furthermore, though most clothing items have the practical function of increasing the character’s statistics (giving them extra dexterity or resistance points etc), some dress items seem to have a purely symbolic value; in EverQuest for instance costly or flashy jewellery, though not immediately viewable when you encounter a character, will appear if you "inspect" it. Hence, dressing is not just a part of the game, of protecting and strengthening your character, but also a way to perform "coolness" and personal taste, as way of adding further layers of interpretation of how the world "makes sense".[5]

Communicative Actions: Choosing Channels

Evidently, communication as dialogue, conversation or "chat" is widespread in online worlds. These communicative statements take place through the chat-functions provided in the world, referred to as "channels". Typically, each communication channel is used (or it is expected that it is used) for a specific purpose. In EverQuest and many other worlds, the main channel will be a "general" or public channel that all players in the vicinity can hear (i.e. read). In addition, there is the option of talking to just one other player (the "tell" channel), the players in your group (the "group channel"), or your guild (the "guild channel"), or all players in the zone that you are currently in (in EverQuest, the "auction" or "shout" channel). In principle, when a player is inside the world, he or she is supposed to act and talk in-character, but the player can also choose to communicate as the player-self on the OOC channel, the out-of-character channel. In principle, players should and will communicate in-character about events or happenings in the world, when they are talking on the general channel (as way of also staying "in-world") whereas discussions about the world as a tool or software, i.e. discussion of functionality, bugs, strategy and cheats takes place in a private channel or out-of-character. However, as discussed previously, communication between players on for instance a group or guild channel, will more likely be a mix of strategic in-character communication (for instance coordinating a fight) and out-of-character banter. The exchange of items between players often take place on the person to person "tell channel", where it is possible to bargain or haggle over the price of the item without annoying other players. These are just some examples which demonstrate that different channels serve different communicative purposes and also serve the purpose of not polluting the public communication channel with activities which are clearly not in-keeping-with-the-world. If one wishes to further analyse the way players think of the world, looking at the forms of communication taking place in different channels would be an interesting place to start. As an example, much can be learnt about the general attitude of "sharing" which in my own experience characterised the social behaviour codex in EverQuest, by the common practice that the "shout" option was used if a player wanted to inform an entire zone about a special event, such as the appearance of a rare mob. For instance, in the Eastern Commonlands zone where I used to play, players always publicly announced when a high-level griffin appeared. In the same zone I have also experienced the public channels being used as a form of "broadcast" channel to announce for instance an extraordinary events like a wedding. This is proof that players also creatively use the available means of communication for creative purposes which gameworld designers might not even have imagined.

Emotive Actions: Expanding the Emotional Register

Another means of expression available to the player is the "emotive" action, which positions itself somewhere between pure communication and a performed event. The emotive function is a remnant of the early text-only virtual worlds (the so-called MUDS) in which characters could only perform actions by describing and "feigning" them in writing. This function, which still exists as a communicative possibility in EverQuest and most other MMORGPS, can be used to express emotions and "faked" actions that are not programmed into the system. Hence, "emoting" allows a player to compensate for the somewhat meagre display of emotions which the world system offers as animated actions. For instance, in EverQuest animations of the player character doing a little dance or bowing is pre-programmed but not actions like "shakes her fist in anger at the sky".

Typically, the emote-function is much used in worlds or on servers where roleplay is encouraged or enforced, because it makes it possible for the player to individualise and "personalise" her character’s behaviour and personality in much more detail than the standard actions allow her to do. On the non-roleplaying servers in EverQuest it was my experience that the emote-function was rarely used, and if it is, it was perceived as a quaint or amusing diversion in the otherwise quite rational game-oriented way of behaviour and communication taking place on these servers.

Command Actions: Making Behaviour Efficient

Command actions are an integrated part of the gameworld design and by command actions, I simply mean the act of giving of a command to the system, through certain words or keyboard strokes. For instance the command, typed in the general interface box, will make one’s character perform a bow. Thus, some command actions enable the player to perform one’s character in a more nuanced way, in principle adding more layers to the believability of the character as controllable corporeal "body". However, command actions are much more than just commands which trigger a character animation, it is also an effective way of communicating with the game system and formalising certain aspects of the social interaction which you would "in real life" spend a lot of time figuring out or discussing: for instance you use quick commands to join a group, share loot, disband etc, thus also adding to the elliptic time experience of the world. And, as is the case with the other means of expression described here, it is the mark of an experienced player that she constantly switches between these different forms of expression, depending on her intentions and immediate goals. A candid display of one’s mastering of the communicative options can also make it easier for a player to bond with other players and make new social contacts.

Interaction Forms: Design

In online worlds we can identify different forms of interaction, which all affect the player’s world experience. These forms of interaction have traditionally been approached by different academic disciplines: human-computer interaction studies, schools of interpretative practices such as film or literature studies: sociology and games studies. Within this space, there is no time to go further into the discussion of the academic practices of each of these paradigmatic approaches to interaction, suffice to say, that we need to be aware of the presence of all of them at the same time, and that by studying interaction forms we can learn a lot about both game mechanics and "social mechanics" in a given world, because experiencing the consequences of interaction is an important part of understanding the "cause and effect" chain of in-world behaviour. Hence, in online worlds, we can approach interaction as the relationships between the user and system (the study of how for instance the game aspects of the world teach the player to behave optimally); the relationship between the user and the world as a signifying system (the study of the function of the world as imagined universe and interpretative framework); and the relationship between users (the study of the world as a social space and "community").

However, when most people (including academics) talk about "interaction", they are quite often indirectly referring to social interaction (unless they are interaction designers). I therefore suggest that we reserve the specific word "interaction" for the type of interaction referred to as "social interaction", and that we, for analytical purposes, use other words to describe the other recurrent forms of interaction in online worlds. These are primarily:

Manipulation, the form of interaction which consists of moving and combining objects. This is an essential form of interaction in computer games and gameworlds. Retrieving objects, combining them with other objects, and using the new combined object to then obtain even more advanced objects or to overcome an obstacle or monster by using the object is a widespread action form in most action and adventure games. In a world like EverQuest, a majority of a player’s time is spent "working" to find or loot objects that the player can then manipulate in various ways to gain a further advantage gamewise.

Information retrieval and storage, the form of interaction which consists of providing information, obtaining it or storing it. It is different from social interaction in that this form of interaction might also take place between human agents and non-human agents such as NPCs or in-world message boards ("informative objects"). Information might be stored in, for instance, letters or books or NPCs. And retrieving this information means interacting with the object, as for instance sending commands to it to make it respond and "talk" to you. In return the object itself might change, the information it held might be erased or updated or manipulated by the user in question etc.

Social interaction, the form of interaction which consists of communication and play with non-verbal and verbal cues and languages, i.e. both linguistic and paralinguistic interaction. Social interaction is a feature unique to multiplayer games or worlds. Single user games or worlds will often feature informative interaction disguised as para-social interaction, but since NPCs cannot communicate in the same playful way as humans, interaction with NPCs remains essentially an exchange of information or entertaining distraction. Even though NPC’s may be programmed to communicate in a non-verbal way (using for instance pre-programmed emotes or movements to express certain feelings), they will never be able to emote freely - or precisely understand the nature of those emotes the human players use. Imagine a player combining a series of pre-animated movements, which intentionally ends up looking much like "a dance" to another human when they follow quickly after each other. If the player performs this dance with another user, to a by- standing human player, this form of interaction will quickly be interpreted as "they are dancing with each other". An NPC would just interpret this as a very quick series of separate actions, and respond to them as such. I will here venture the hypothesis, that much social interaction in online gameworlds does in fact center around the intentional "play" with seemingly rational or innocent movements or phrases or gamemechanics, a play than only other human players embedded in the culture of the world will be able to understand.

Life in EverQuest - Levels of Experience

An analysis of which elements constitute the particular worldness of a world like EverQuest should consist of a study of the parameters I have presented in this article: the way the world is framed, the performative range and forms of interaction available to the player. A further study could look more closely at which forms of interactions especially seem to be supported in the world in question, how the communicative options are applied in social interaction, and which forms of interaction players themselves seem to prefer. This would give us a picture of which forms of emerging event and stories EverQuest as gameworld supports and encourages, and which type of communication and interaction the players themselves prefer.

However, an in-depth analysis of an online world require that the researcher looks at how the elements presented above influence the player’s experience of, respectively, immersion, presence and engagement, and how the player’s use of interaction forms and communicative interests is likely to change over time. To the seasoned player, the overall remembered experience of a world, both as fictional universe and as a game, is the sum of all the experiences he or she have made with various in-world characters over a longer period of time. Hence, a solid analysis should aim at identifying the stages of world-experience the player goes through, and the forms of interaction and performative possibilities the player engages with a each stage. A hypothesis would be that what players come to think of as memorable experiences could be especially those experiences which marked the transition from one stage of knowledge to another. The continuous presence of players helps keep the fiction of the world alive; when their experiences are communicated to other players either in-world or on out-of-world websites, they themselves create and become part of the many "texts" which enable the collective and ongoing (re)creation of the world.

In the final part of this article, a tentative identification of the levels of experience and knowledge a player passes through follows. This description is partly built on my own experiences with EverQuest and can therefore in short also be read as my story about EverQuest following my own chronological experience of the process. However, judging from other players’ stories, this process reflects the experience of a majority of players new to MMORPGs.

The first stage of living in a world can be described as "getting to know the world": this stage is mainly about getting a feel of the geography and interaction forms and learning how to use the interface and immediate game items efficiently. Navigating the world and manipulation is often used forms of interaction in this phase. You will also try to get to know the language which is spoken in the world (by NPC’s and players respectively), such as the huge number of abbreviations and acronyms used in everyday interaction. It is difficult to get through this stage without resorting to "out-of-world" or paratextual guidelines, maps, bestiaries etc.

The second stage is that of "interacting with the world". You are now able to interact in a more competent way with the world and you start to exchange (or perhaps rather, trade) information and experiences with other players. You start to "group" with players in parties in order to complete high-level quests and obtain experience points faster. Some players you may group with more than once, and they become friends. These are largely activities which teach you the rules of social interaction in the world. How do you ask other players for help? When do you do it? When dare you do it? How do you thank them? How do you present yourself as a desirable party member? How do you start a successful group etc? Inspired by your meetings with other players you may start to experiment with playing other races or classes, in order to learn more about their abilities or to explore other parts of the world. Gaining an overall feeling of the world is, to some extent, related to playing multiple characters, at least this is the natural effect of the fact that the EverQuest developers have encouraged multiple character use. Through playing different races, the player will gain an overall knowledge of the world which she can use when moving her various characters around in the world. Thus, it is important to note that the overall knowledge and experience of the world, both as world-space and as a game world logically resides with the player, not the character, since it is a knowledge gained from the experience with various characters.

However, most players have one character which they at any given point spend most time levelling and caring for, typically referred to as the "main". Clearly, a player will "care" for her character, since a lot of hours will go into advancing it, and care becomes pertinent especially from the moment when dying becomes somewhat of an obstacle for your advancement. At the time I played, in EverQuest until level 10 if the character died, it respawned in its home city with all its belongings and no loss of experience points. However, after level 10, the "death penalty" became more serious: the character lost experience points and the player would have to go back to the site of the death and find the dead corpse of the character and reclaim all the belongings the character was wearing and carrying at the moment of death. At this stage, it was not uncommon that the character at the moment of death had ventured far from home which meant that the player would have to travel far to get to the corpse. Therefore, at this level, death became much more time consuming and dangerous event, which signalled to the me that I was now at a stage of my interaction with the world where "playing" was about to become a much more serious affair. Situations where I came close to dying but was perhaps saved by other players, situations where I was an inch from dying, and situations where my corpse was left behind at a place where it was very difficult to get hold of it again are the situations which I personally remember most vividly from my time in EverQuest and these are also situations which you find described in much detail and with much gusto by other players. This is one reason why death experiences and death design from a game perspective seems to be particularly interesting to study (see Klastrup, 2006, 2007, 2008).

I would also claim that it is also at this stage the player starts to discuss the gameworld and the system as "just" software. The player can show off her lived experience with the world by demonstrating knowledge of the technical aspects of it as well.

Since EverQuest like most MMORPGS is in principle an open game, which has no specific finishing point, apart from perhaps an end-level, there is no specific end goal of the world as a game to strive for, so there is really no end to the last stage of the experience of the world (unless you quit the game all together). This last stage is characterised by the player’s desire "to perform in the world". Dedicated players are often recognisable by their desire to improve their characters, be it by advancing it to higher levels, improving class skills, acquiring rare items, trying out new character classes etc. Once you have reached the higher levels of the game, levelling takes a long time, which means that earning a new level becomes more momentous. In general, at this stage of the game, the game mechanics of MMORPGS are typically designed in order to make the player more and more co-dependent on fellow players. The extent to which you have also been present in the world with these fellow players informs your level of engagement in the world. Co-dependence and shared experiences are reflected in the many player stories which describe the importance of other players and the seriousness of gameplay itself.[6] Thus, an interesting hypothesis is that this final stage of one’s life in a gameworld is also characterised by the emergence of player-told stories which emphasise and commiserate the important social events in a player’s or a guild’s ongoing history. Furthermore, perhaps what makes stories "tellable" is how they reflect the experience of sharing the world with, and being part of a community of equally interactive peers, that is experiences with the social reality of the world that are in themselves pivotal in keeping the culture and the mythology of the world alive. Thus player stories will contribute to keeping the world alive and present beyond the time the player herself spends and chooses to live inside it.

Defining EverQuestness

Above, I have tried to describe some of the many experiences and experience forms which informed my encounter with EverQuest, the point being that it is and, in my case, was the sum of all these experiences that created that special feeling of EverQuestness once I logged on and logged into the world. My knowledge of all the twists and corners of the game; the weird bugs (such as the never quite perfect collision detection for NPCs), and the experience of the flawed graphics which nevertheless never really impacted my experience of being in a consistent fantasy genre world; my attempt to shape my character into a person with its own style of clothes and behaviour; my growing understanding of the EverQuest language and social practices; the identification of different communities in the world and how I might fit with them. If I am to define the "worldness" of this particular game world, it includes both the experiences of being in-the-world (immersion and presence), but also the experience of the malfunctions of the world; and the shared experience of juggling both the reality and un-reality of the world, as well as the experience of the world as it is presented in all the many websites on and stories about the world.

Perspectives on the Analysis of Online Worlds

Can I now, through this illustrative analysis of how EverQuest works as world, return to the general level of the study of "worldness" and say something more general about what makes an online world an engaging actualised fictional universe? Worldness in general seems to be the sum of our experiences within the framework provided by the gameworld in its instantiation as a particular and new genre of a fictional universe that you can actually inhabit and share with others, and of our experiences with it as particular game design, which both enables and restricts our possibilities of performing and interacting in and with the world. However, the importance of also taking into account the time lived in the world cannot be emphasised often enough. And as in real life, it is the sum of your experiences, both the good and bad, which inform the stories you take with you, when you finally leave a gameworld for ever. The attraction of a new fictional universe like EverQuest lies in the fact that it requires hard and honest work and dedication of time to engage with it, and that in return you are rewarded with very affective and strong memories and the inclusion in a real community of players, with whom you share an entire world as well as the stories about it. We have to recognise that in computer-mediated universes like these with all the options of interaction presented to us, we can no longer distinguish between fiction and reality, and it is the constant challenge of this boundary that makes these worlds such fascinating places to live in and talk about.


[1] According to my research, the initial slogan was “Welcome to our world” (cf May 1999 version of the official website).

[2] The quote is taken from Chapter XIV of the English poet Samuel Coleridge’s manifestlike autobiography, Biographia Literaria from 1817 and in context reads:

"In this idea originated the plan of the "Lyrical Ballads"; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."

[3] Unless doing all these trivial tasks is an integral part of the gameplay, as is the case in certain simulation games.

[4] I am aware that voice communication is becoming more and more widespread in online gameworlds, but further discussion of the impact of this new mode of communication falls outside the scope of this article, though it should clearly be taken into account in contemporary studies of gameworlds.

[5] For further studies of the importance of clothing and "dress-up" in gameworlds, see Tosca & Klastrup 2009, Fron et al, 2008.

[6] By "stories" in this context, I mean to include all forms of descriptions of self-experienced or staged events that players post online. It can just be brief summaries of, for instance, raids posted to a guild website, anecdotal stories posted on official and unofficial forums discussing the world, real-time recording of funny experiences in the world, more elaborate machinima movies etc. This “story” material exists in abundance once you start looking.


Bartle, Richard. (2003). Designing Virtual Worlds. New Riders.

Bolter, J. D. and Grusin R. (1999). Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Castranova, E. (2005) Synthetic Worlds - The Business and Culture of Online Games. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Fencott, P. C. (1999). "Presence and the Content of Virtual Environments". Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Presence, University of Essex, Colchester, UK. Available HTTP: (29 October 2006).

Fine, G. A. (1983). Shared Fantasy - Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. Chicago, Chicago University Press.

Frasca, G. (2002). "The Sims: Grandmothers are Cooler Than Trolls". Game Studies, vol. 1, nr.1, July 2001. HTTP: (29 October 2006).

Farmer R. and Morningstar C. (1991). "The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat" in Benedikt, Michael (ed.): Cyberspace - First Steps. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press.

Fron, J., Fullerton,T., Morie, J.F, and Pearce, C. (2007). "Playing Dress-up: Costumes, Roleplay and Imagination". Paper presented at the Philosophy of Computer Games Conference, January 24-27, 2007. Retrieved January 5, 2009 from

Juul, J. (2005). Half Real:Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Klastrup, L. (2003). Towards A Poetics of Virtual Worlds - Multi-user Textuality and The Emergence of Story. Copenhagen: IT University of Copenhagen.

Klastrup, L: (2006). "Death Matters: Understanding Gameworld Experiences", in Proceedings from the Advances in Computing Entertainment Conference (ACE) 2006. ACM Digital Library:

Klastrup, L. (2007). "Why Death Matters: Understanding Gameworld Experience" in Journal of Virtual Reality & Broadcasting, 4 (2007), no. 3, May 2007.

Klastrup, L. (2008). "What makes World of Warcraft a World? A Note on Death and Dying" in Digital Culture, Play and Identity - A World of Warcraft Reader (eds. Corneliussen, Hilde & Walker, Jill). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Küchlich, J. (2003). The Playability of Texts vs. the Readability of Games, Proceedings of the Level Up Conference 2003, ed. M. Copier and J. Raessens. Utrecht, Utrecht University.

Meadows, M. (2002). Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative. Indianapolis, New Riders Publishing.

Ronen, R. (1994). Possible Worlds in Literary Theory. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Ryan, M-L. (1991). Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

Searle, John R. (1975). "The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse" in Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, T. L. (2006). Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Tosca, S. (2002). "The EverQuest Speech Community" in Mäyra, Frans (Ed.): Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference Proceedings. Studies in Information Science 1.Tampere: Tampere University Press, 2002, pp. 341-355.

Todorov, T. (1977). The Poetics of Prose. Trans. Richard Howard. Oxford : Blackwell.

Tosca, S. and Klastrup, L. (2009): "Because it just looks cool! - Fashion as character performance: The Case of WoW" in Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, vol. 1, no 3, 2009.

Yee, N. (2001). The Norrathian Scrolls: A Study Of EverQuest. Haverford University. Available HTTP: (29 October 2006).

©2001 - 2009 Game Studies Copyright for articles published in this journal is retained by the journal, except for the right to republish in printed paper publications, which belongs to the authors, but with first publication rights granted to the journal. By virtue of their appearance in this open access journal, articles are free to use, with proper attribution, in educational and other non-commercial settings.