|the international journal of computer game research
volume 2, issue 1
Torill Mortensen is an Assistant Professor at the department of media studies at Volda College in Norway. She has a Master's degree in Media Theory from the University of Bergen, with a focus on the production of public information, and is currently a Doctorate student at the Section of Humanistic Informatics at the University of Bergen.
Since 1991 Torill Mortensen has been teaching public information and media theory at Volda College, with particular responsibility for starting up and developing the public information study within the department. In the first years of this period her main focus was the production, structure and meaning of public information. In 1997 she published her first work on computer games, an analysis of a didactic single-user game created by the State Board of Health.
Since 1998 her research has been concerned with Multiple User Online Role-Playing Games: MUDs.
Playing With Players
Potential Methodologies for MUDs
Placing the Self in the Text
Communicating by way of a computer provides a liberty to presenting yourself as realistically as you desire. In writing, the traces of your physical reality are limited to your own presentation. If you control the language, you can appear convincingly as whatver you wish. And while the act of exchanging written messages is common to the ancient genre of writing letters, the speed of the exchanges is closer to the real-time experience of conversation and makes for the intimacy of the physical encounter with the safety of distance.
This creates an illusion of real-time interaction and introduces a high level of intimacy. In conversations where the participants present themselves through a "handle" or an "avatar", the potential for over- or under-representing certain aspects of the "self" is conspicuous. To edit the presentation of the "self" is part of human interaction, as Goffman (1959) describes, quoting from Robert Ezra Park: "It is probably no mere historical incident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a mask. It is rather a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves" (Goffman 1959:19).
To apply the word "players" to chat-users who play with anothers perception of them refers to the game of roles and identities of the online world. Narrow bandwidth permits a controlled and edited presentation, as it makes it technically challenging to offer or demand any communication that might give unedited information (tone of voice, body language).
In the role-play of multi-user online games the opportunities for playing with realities can be taken much further than to the so-called "real identity" of the chat-rooms. In a role-play game the intent of the communication is to create a character or role-figure that only exist within the frame of the game. Still, these characters have complex and varied personalities, that are understood to be equally or more complex than a handle in a chat-room.
Part of my study focuses on how these fictitious personalities become integrated with the fiction within which they exist, and how the player through his or her character participates in the development of the fiction. I study Multiple User Dungeons (MUDs), mainly Dragon Realms, a multi-user game, that ran for four years before it was shut down on February 28th, 1999. These games consist mainly of pure text, and they allow the participants a large degree of imaginative freedom. Role-play MUDs encourage their players to write histories, tales and poems, and they demand that the players accept the limits of the fictitious world in which the game is played out. Simultaneously the games have technical game functions that are integrated in the fictional frame and introduce an element of competition into the game. The study of MUDs require and understanding of the complexity and variety of options available, how the various aspects of the game are integrated, and which strategies the players use for a satisfactory game-experience. These games not only challenge the player, they also challenge the analyst. Because the games are text-based, it seems obvious to think of the player as a reader: however, as games do not easily conform to existing theory on the relationship between the text and the user/reader, I am obliged to question what the concept of the reader might be, something requiring a high degree of flexibility and precision from the tools used for analysis.
Multiple User Dungeons MUDs
When I choose to use the word "Dungeon" and not Domain or Dimension, its as a reminder of the roots of the online games. The Mud Connector (2000-05-07) describes MUDs:
A MUD is defined as a multi-user domain, multi-user dungeon, or multi-user dimension, all of which are referring to the same thing, an environment where multiple people may be logged on and interacting with one another. Although a common misconception is that all MUDs are games, in truth most of the MUDs out there are games. MUDs can be (and are) used for numerous other purposes including education, research and general socialization. Most of the muds you will find listed on the MUD Connector are indeed games and because of this we will try to introduce some of the more common forms you will find here.
A Very Brief History
The first mud was created by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle at Essex University in 1979 (for those interested, Asssembler was the language used for development). The original version merely allowed a user (player) to move about in a virtual location, later versions provided for more variation including objects and commands which could be modified on or offline. The goal for developing the first MUD was to provide a multi-player game defined and interpreted by an external database. In 1980 Richard Bartle took over with development. For a more detailed description of these events please visit The MUDdex, created by Lauren P. Burka, which includes an email written by Richard Bartle to clear up common misconceptions about the beginnings of MUDs.
Trubshaw and Bartles original game was a dungeon/cave labyrinth which when explored turned out to contain dangers as well as rewards in the shape of monsters and treasures. The choice of environment and the references, the monsters, treasures and tasks were derived from the dark wealth of fantasy literature rather than just the medieval dungeons. Today the games are not limited to medieval fantasies, they are as often as not space odysseys or future dystopias. A common denominator for the play-MUDs is that the central fiction rarely takes place in our time and often occurs in a setting not limited by the familiar natural laws.
The Game: Text, Work or Event?
Because they are based on written texts, MUDs are seductively textual and easily thought of as texts. Following the conventions of media theory which uses the term text for television and film, we can also regard computer games as texts, even the ones that are more dependent on graphics and sound than on writing. The potential that a game possesses for being described as a work is on one level easily compared to a books potential as a work (Barthes 1977:155). The activity of the reader in accessing a book through reading appears to be comparable to the activity of a player approaching a game. But reader-response theory fails to provide an adequate vocabulary if we consistently treat all types of computer games as texts.
As Wolfgang Iser and Umberto Eco suggest in their theories of reader-response, the reader has several different names or rather, there are different readers: the model reader, the ideal reader, the implicit reader each concept indicates a position between the text - and the actual reader. These are the readers of the text, constructions, albeit stable, since nothing in the book-as-work changes between each time it is being realised into a text. In a computer game the same reader-positions can be found, but each player will create his or her individual text and, in this process, her own reader. The player is a reader who is also a participating creator, coming dangerously close to being an author. The personal activity that a computer game demands from the player consists of several alternatives for actions to drive the game forward. This is not limited to the inner activity, the interactivity Iser describes as taking place between reader and text: "This is an almost direct statement of the role of the reader in this novel. From the given material he must construct his own conception of the reality and hence the meaning of the text" (1974:40). The player will construct the meaning of the game, but through his physical actions and game-choices he will also construct the game session. The potential for manipulating the session and, in the case of MUDs, the work itself, makes the player separate from the reader, while the reader remains a part of the player. The players ability to provoke new combinations of the elements of the work the game makes even simple games complex, and in a role-play MUD the potential for changing, contributing and creating, is large.
It would be an oversimplification to say that playing a game is the same as reading it, and I will claim that the play activity is closer to a performance than a reading. Hence I will use player as a wider term than reader. My claim is that the reader is part of the player, but the player is not limited to the reader. The player is more active when confronting the work, has more control over its different parts, and has therefore more influence when it comes to his own experience than the reader does. For this reason, Barthes analogy of music and performers more closely resembles the player of computer games than the reader of texts:
The history of music (as a practice, not as art) does indeed parallel that of the Text fairly closely: there was a period when practicing amateurs were numerous (at least within the confines of a certain class) and playing and listening formed a scarcely differentiated activity; then the two roles appeared in succession, first that if the performer, the interpreter to whom the bourgeois public (though still itself able to play a little the whole history of the piano) delegated its playing, then that of the (passive) amateur, who listens to music without being able to play (1977:162-163).
This pendulum swings back with the computer game. The player is no longer a passive amateur consuming texts, reading without writing, but is required to play, and, at some points, is even able to "compose", to create new works or creatively change (hack) the existing ones.
In order to study what the actual player derives from a game, I have to use methods that permit me to go beyond the role-figures and the names used on the net, and interview the players I study. But to study the use of the games, how they are realised into texts or experiences through the activity of playing, I have to study that process from the viewpoint of a player. To study logs from the game as texts afterwards is like studying a description of an event rather than being present at the event. The nature of the computer as a channel, a medium and an archive permits me to both participate and go back in "history".
"Here Be Dragons": Exploring in a Virtual World
Dragon Realms, the multi-user game I am using as my main object of study, is very flexible and can be mastered on several levels: role-play allows the player to create an illusion and develop it; while technical challenges provide opportunities for mastering the various abilities which the game permits the different characters to develop. A game like Dragon Realms can also be played for chatroom quality: it gives players a chance to meet and talk or fantasize with friends.
To be able to make sense of playing in a MUD, it is necessary to master the commands in the game. Since Dragon Realms is a text-based game with a primitive user interface, the player has to type each command. (Cynthia Haynes and Jan Rune Holmevik have developed a web-browser for MOOs -High Wired enCore 2.0 With Express - but this is one of the few examples of a web-browser interface.) Even the simplest commands have to be written. Elementary technical skills include mastering commands like look, say, take, drop, open, close, eat, drink, emote, kill, flee. Most of these commands have variations that triggers related, but different, responses.
A well-planned MUD will contain variations within the ways to use the game. Dragon Realms is a modified DIKU role-play MUD and, therefore, it is more flexible and complex than a so-called Hack'N'Slash game. Hack'N'Slash, as the name indicates, is a game that is more concerned with competition than fighting. It's impossible to indicate a "winner" of a session of role-play. The loser of a conflict can easily be the better player. The player who has won the hand of the princess feels that he has won. Yet the player who has not won the princess's hand does not necessarily feel he has lost. He doesnot have to role-play happiness and satisfaction, and can, instead, put into play a wide range of emotions and motives: jealousy, envy, a shattered self-esteem, self-sacrifice, all of which are good motives for new events and more excitement. "Happy-ever-after" or a peaceful reign, general satisfied desire, is rarely a good background for dramatic conflict and interesting new game-situations.
HackNSlash, on the other hand, contains the kind of conflict in which its possible to win. Conflicts are resolved through fights, and the winner depends on the role-figure or the avatars abilities, skills and levels, and the players skill at utilising them. Abilities and skill are controlled in a game like Dragon Realms through race and class, and can be changed by way of experience points that the avatar receives with each new level gained.
Next to skills, equipment is important in giving the player a chance of winning. Most of the determining factors in a fight can be adjusted by the equipment, and most important while fighting were the statistics of AC Armour Class, Hit Roll, Damage Roll and Saves.
Dragon Realms was an advanced and complicated game, which demanded a lot both from players and administrators. My challenge was to learn what made the different players spend so much time and so many resources on a game that was so difficult to master. What made a hundred people log on every week to play? In the glory days of the game, Dragon Realms had about 25 people logged on at all times. And over the course of its existence, hosted between 500 and 1000 players. What was Dragon Realm's attraction, and what were the rewards of the players for playing around with - words?
Between Reading and Experience
The object of study is complex, and it offers itself to a mixture of methods, based in textual analysis, participating observation and interviews. This is reminiscent of the demands for methodological variety presented by the Birmingham School. John Fiske describes some of the research strategies within the cultural studies in this manner:
Cultural studies, in its current state of development, offers two overlapping strategies that can usefully be combined to help us understand how this cultural struggle operates. One derives from ethnography and encourages us to study the meanings that the fans of Madonna actually do (or appear to) make of her. ( )
The other strategy derives from semiotic and structuralist textual analysis. This strategy includes a close reading of the signifiers of the text - that is, its physical presence - but recognizes that the signifieds exist not in the text itself, but extratextually, in the myths, countermyths and ideologies of their culture (1992:305).
The nature of the data however denies my study easy placement in the British tradition of cultural Studies. According to Fiske the texts were supposed to be considered as political expressions: "Every text and every reading has a social and therefore a political dimension, which is to be found partly in the structure of the text itself, and partly in the relation of the reading subject to the text" (Fiske 1992:305). While it will be possible to say something about the political dimension in which the work according to Roland Barthes (1977:156) is created, the realising of the computer-game-as-work into a text is subjective, and in the case of a game, more so than the comparably trivial reading of a book. "The Text (if only by its frequent unreadability) decants the work (the work permitting) from its consumption and gathers it up as play, activity, production, practice (Barthes 1977:162)." While the subjective view might be both more or less political, as the subject might to a larger or smaller degree influence or be influenced by politics, on this level it's harder to draw general conclusions about the political dimensions of the individually realised text, as it will be subject to too many changes caused by subjective choices.
This subjectivity is not limited to the single users conception of a fairly stable work, such as a book. The conception of the co-creation of the reader in the meeting with the literature has been expressed in Reader-Response Theory with Isers words:
This, however, is only possible if we pinpoint that which actually happens between text and reader. As we have seen, the overdetermination of the text produces indeterminacy, and this sets in motion a whole process of comprehension whereby the reader tries to assemble the world of the text - a world that has been removed from the everyday world by this very overdetermination. (1978:49)
An ergodic text such as a computer game is distinguished by the way its supposed to be read through change; its a text which demands a more than trivial effort to be read (Aarseth 1997:93-94). According to Iser a reader will always change a text as a result of his reading: there is an interactivity between the reader and the text. Iser uses the word interactivity as a prerequisite for the creation of meaning in the reader:
Such a meaning must clearly be the product of an interaction between the textual signals and the reader's act of comprehension. And, equally clearly, the reader cannot detach himself from such interaction, on the contrary, the activity stimulated in him will link him to the text and induce him to create the conditions necessary for the effectiveness of that text. (Iser 1978:9).
The interactivity Iser describes is limited to an inner process, a process of interpretation whereby what is being changed is the readers perception, understanding and creation of meaning.
When the word interactivity is used in connection with a computer game, it reflects an outer rather than an inner process. In the marketing of information technology interactivity is a word that demonstrates the extent to which a program will react to acts performed by the user a form of reactivity, rather than interactivity. Interactivity requires two or more parties that can interpret, understand and respond to the other partys signals, mainly between two equal actors. The way information technology is developing, the exchange of signals is struggling for a level of communication that is intricate, but is still not an equal exchange between human and machine. The answer from the machine is still a reaction, the human partner still has the initiative and the ability to act. And I will claim that to code ways for a program to react still leaves the initiative and the activity in the human, although its delayed and stored through the code. It is the reaction from the game-program to the players input which will make a game special to each player, even in the events where the player is making an effort to copy the actions of an other in a MUD.
In a normal play situation the experience of playing a MUD will be individual and unique each time you log on. This comes partly from the manner in which the game is programmed and partly from the fact that you play with other people who treat you as an individual. Within a multi-user game like Dragon Realms there is interactivity when the player is communicating with equal parties, human to human (PC Player Character to PC). The role-play provokes new, unique situations, and makes the concept of the reader too narrow to be useful for the analysis of MUDs.
Three Aspects of Playing MUDs
MUDs are created with a wide variety of choices for the player in mind. Game software offers possibilities for (and limitations to) the original creation of characters. This would belong to what I will call the technical aspect of the game. This part of the game is basically about control of the statistics coded into the game-platform. and what is most important in my study is the examination of how the players use the statistics to their advantage. I gathered knowledge of this aspect of the game through interviews with players, to better understand how they use the game to achieve a sensation of success and skill.
The second aspect of the game in a MUD is the culture within the game itself. On the one hand we have the fictitious culture, the surrounding fiction, the In Character (IC) culture. An example of such a surrounding fiction was the central conflict on Dragon Realms: The Dragon Lords wanted to destroy the world and enslave all life. Some more or less powerful gods stood between them and terror, but some of these gods had their own agenda. The action took place in a post-apocalyptical setting. To study how the fiction was used and developed, I analyzed logs from my own playing-experiences, saved help-files and conversations with players and administrators. Long-time Dragon Realms players, who knew different sides of the game's history, also informed my research.
The other culture within the game is expressed in the interaction between the players themselves. This is what's called Out Of Character (OOC) culture . Even if the OOC culture was not supposed to influence the game, it did. This is revealed in the logged interaction between the administrators and the players, demonstrated, for instance, by behaviour that was rewarded or not and by the tolerance-level for errors. This culture is better studied through observation, participation, and interviews, or at best, a combination of all three. In my dissertation I explore more fully this side of the game, examining, for instance, how it corresponds with David Hakken's (1999) description of "The Distinctive Features of Anthropological Ethnography."
The third aspect of the game is the player's notion of how to play the game. The many different factors controlling his or her activity demand a personal approach to the game, and this personal approach is what is understood as role-play. Role-play is a combination of the players' ability to cooperate with the mechanisms of the game, the surrounding fiction and the culture underpinning the game, the OOC culture. Role-play helps create a common IC experience, which, in this digital space, is desirable. It paves the way for the creation of not so much a story as a potential for fiction. Stories can be acted out, experienced, told. On this level the player is completely dependent on his or her actions, within the limits of the first and second aspect of the game.
To study this aspect of the game it is absolutely necessary to enter into the game and interact with the other players, to play, if possible, a part in the creation of the game universe. This demands an immersion into a programmed, fictitious, but also socially very real, universe deep enough to participate and observe without disturbing the flow of the role-play.
To Enter Into the Text Searching for People
Role-play is something very different from theatre. The play happens for the sake of the players, rather than the spectators. To observe without participating provides considerably less than observing a drama performed on a stage. To observe traditional theatre as a member of the audience means to study it from the angle from which it is supposed to be viewed. But analyzing a role-play game from the position of a spectator permits, at best, description of the event without understanding. It becomesvery difficult to know what the player's words and actions entail.
To understand the motivation for playing the game I needed to understand what actually occurred during game play; in order to effectively observe I had to participate in the play. Since MUDs are text-based games, I could have studied the games as static texts and read through the logs of the players in the game. When I chose to participate as a player rather than just as an observer, it was to understand the dynamics of the game, the game-play-process itself, how it worked and by what criteria, and how advanced it was. While playing I noted that I did not understand all that was happening and that I did not receive answers to manyof the questions I directed to other players. This was a result of the OOC culture of the game: players didn't want to be accused of cheating and certainly didn't want to be criticized for revealing too many of the secrets of role-play or giving undue assistance with the quests. Any discussion that could be construed as cheating by the administration/immortals could lead to the player being punished or even banned from the game. (The entire domain of aol.com was banned from playing at DR over a period of months, in punishment for in-game cheating and verbally attacking the administrators.)
This made it necessary to interview some of the players vital to my study in an environment outside of Dragon Realms. I also chose to interview players who were not part of the text-material (my logged play-sessions). I interviewed them face-to-face. While I could have interviewed them on "neutral ground," for instance in another MUD or MOO, I chose to meet them in person. I had come to understand how easy it is to misunderstand a question in narrow-bandwidth communication without being aware of the misunderstanding, and how complicated it is to ask further questions or to clear up a misunderstanding when a conversation happens online.
Non-linear Texts and the Influence of the User
The player's position in relation to the text is a position with influence: games have rules and limitations, but given these rules the player can achieve results through her own efforts. Depending on the type of game, player's choices range from the ability to select the sequence of events to a wide range of choices that specify race, gender, background history, skills, spells, preferences as to player style, redesigned equipment, and a self-defined goal for the character. This appears to be very different from the popular media's entertainment formulas, where the consumer's only space for feedback is a strongly delayed "yes" or "no," indicated by consuming or not consuming. Computer games do not presuppose a consumer or even an actively understanding reader, but a manipulating reader, an aspect of the active player.
The manipulating reader reads with an eye to what can be changed within the limitations of the medium. What in the text can be used, and where will it permit the player to expand - and play? To study the manipulating reader is to study a medium user with influence or agency. Janet H. Murray defines agency in this manner:
When the things we do bring tangible results, we experience the second characteristic delight of electronic environments - the sense of agency. Agency is the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices. We expect to feel agency on the computer when we double-click on a file and see it open before us or when we enter numbers in a spreadsheet and see the totals readjust. However, we do not usually expect to experience agency within a narrative environment (1997:126).
While its doubtful whether Dragon Realms can be called a story, it can be called a narrative environment. It is a framework that permits stories to be created, and lets events unfold, the more epic the events, the better. And afterwards these unfolding events can be retold as stories, whether as romances, tragedies or heroic tales. Influence or agency within the narrative environment does not mean that the reader becomes an author. "The interactor is not the author of the digital narrative, although the interactor can experience one of the most exiting aspects of artistic creation - the thrill of exerting power over enticing and plastic materials. This is not authorship but agency." (Murray: 1997:153). At this point I want to stress that the manipulating reader, the user with agency, is still just a part of the player. This becomes particularly clear in role-playing games, where the power of the player far exceeds that of an agent in the narrative environment and approaches that of a soloist in a large band: improvising against the background of the game.
The user described above uses the text to a much wider extent than the type of user known as a "poacher". A media user who uses the media after a controlled pattern of choice and rejection which some call poaching (Gripsrud 1995:260, Collins 1992:337) is seen as an active subject within the framework of postmodern theory, and thereby an active co-creator of the texts. Postmodern consciousness has been described as leading to an extreme awareness of the text. All statements have been used before, everything quotes something else, and the user has an ironic distance to the message and the content. This leads to a playfulness in relation to the text which goes beyond intertextuality. The audience are the poachers who fetch what they like, and also use what they like according to their own whim. When the producer then re-introduces the knowledge of the audience's use of the media messages back into the content, we have layers of hyper-consciousness and a play between these layers that is entertaining in itself.
To Master the Game Universe
The user of the computer games goes one step further, and expects to be able to influence the work to create his unique text through personal experience and active manipulation of the many aspects of the game. This makes the ironic distance disappear, as well as the light easy playing with the surfaces that seems to indicate that nothing makes an impression and nothing is important. The post-modern distance to the text does not compare to the intensity and possessiveness of the players of computer games. The computer-game is not post-modern. Perhaps it is rather a kind of Leonardo da Vinci-game, an attempt to convince the player that hes a universal genius who can master everything, man in the image of God, with both knowledge and power? The games then become miniature universes, allowing players to see through the game's mechanisms and manipulate them. The intensity and the feeling of ownership towards a role in the game and to the events in the game indicate a seriousness and an experience of reality or realism in the game that is reflected in in the player's language and in the way computer-games catch, hold and become addictive.
The question I am left with is whether my method is sufficient to measure how games change the expectations of the players with regards to the limitations of the medium. What happens to a generation that has grown up being able to change the text through manipulating the work? How will these players use the computer when they are no longer limited by the conventions of linearity learned from books and films, where they have no options of influence or manipulation? Is it possible to analyse oneself and subsequently understand such a change at all, or is the best I can do to gather fragments from a cultural field where change might be taking place?
In the aftermath of my participation in computer games both as a player and as a "manipulating reader," I am fascinated by the flexibility of the computer as a tool for asserting influence in the meeting with the media products it conveys, but questions still remain as to whether such a change of perception will be real or imaginary,or even important at all in the wider view of human perception. I still log on to the net though, to write myself into the experience of having the liberty to choose and to change.
Aarinfel rules for players: <http://aarinfel.mudservices.com/>, last visited 2000-05-06
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The Mudconnector: <www.mudconnector.com>, last visited 2000-05-07