Eric Hayot

Eric Hayot is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Director of Asian Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of Chinese Dreams (Michigan, 2004) and The Hypothetical Mandarin (Oxford, 2009), as well as essays on contemporary poetry, Asian American fiction, and alternative histories in such journals as PMLA, Representations, and Contemporary Literature. His work on virtual worlds, written with Edward Wesp, has appeared in Postmodern Culture and Comparative Literature Studies.

Edward Wesp

Edward Wesp is Associate Professor at Western New England University where he teaches and researches American literature and culture. His research interests include the art and culture of nineteenth-century America and the comparative analysis of digital games and other media.
Contact information:
ewesp at

Special Issue - EQ: 10 Years Later

by Eric Hayot, Edward Wesp

For a field that prizes currency it may seem out of place to devote an issue to a game that is on the verge of its tenth anniversary. And though EverQuest continues on, true to its name (so far at least), it’s easy to feel as if it should be spoken of in the past tense. This sense of EverQuest’s antiquity is in part an effect of the tremendous speed with which the genre of the MMORPG itself has developed. Major “periods” in MMORPG development happen far more quickly than those of more established forms such as film or literature, and so the threat of falling behind is felt more pressingly in game studies than it is by scholars writing about contemporary and avant garde productions in other media. Add to this rapid pace the far smaller number of major MMORPG “texts” and there is the potential for a single new title, in and of itself, to signify not just a progressive next step, but a fundamentally new period or generation in the development of the medium.

Such is certainly the case with the arrival of World of Warcraft, a game that has dominated the attention of both players and scholars since it went online in 2004. And while the popularity of the game may justify the profusion of scholarship dedicated to it to some extent, the quantity - and quality - of World of Warcraft scholarship was made possible because there was a set of critical terms, methods and approaches already in place and waiting for it; a scholarship developed through a set of earlier encounters with the MMORPG form. This issue presents a body of work on EverQuest as a case study in this foundational scholarship, as that game became the cultural, ludic object that compelled scholars from a variety of fields to address MMORPGs. One of the goals of this issue, therefore, is to offer a look back at the history of the field, allowing readers to gain a sense of how the field developed in response to the game that first most urgently required it.

As the breadth of the approaches contained herein reveals, the questions posed by EverQuest required the definition of some fundamental ideas, including the most basic - if elusive - question of definition: what are massively multiplayer online role-playing games? Games? Virtual or synthetic worlds? Interactive novels? Simulations? Economic systems? Civic spaces, like cities? Classrooms or laboratories? Social spaces? Pieces of theatre? Wastes of time? Ideological state apparatuses? Forms of industry or modern-day nodes of productive? Networks?

No single answer to the question of what MMORPGs are can fully capture their structural and interpersonal complexity. But asking that basic question allows us to begin to think about the ways in which EverQuest has impacted, however modestly, the early twenty-first century, and about what those impacts might mean to the people who are touched by it. Though the authors in this special issue of Game Studies tend to refer to EverQuest as a ’game’, it is obviously not a game in the same way tic-tac-toe is a game, or even that baseball or Monopoly are games. EverQuest has an economy; it has a codified system of what amounts to laws, both of behavior and of physics; it creates shifting groupings of people who come together based partly on their identity within the game, but also partly because of who they are outside of it. It has a geography, a complicated visual organisation of space that shapes social and visual experience. In comparison to games like Monopoly or baseball, EQ’s possible field of play is both very small - stored as data on servers mostly located in the San Diego, California headquarters of Sony Online Entertainment - and very large, encompassing an entire virtual world (and its moon) that takes hours and hours of real time to travel, and weeks or months to explore and understand fully.

Because EverQuest involves so many players, it is also a society, organised around ground rules established by Sony, but also dependent on the written and unwritten rules created by the game's player communities. EverQuest allows players to act out and tell stories; it teaches them things; it arranges them into social units large and small; it allows them to exchange goods and services; it generates profits for its parent company, Sony Online Entertainment; it allows people to experience intensities of emotion that range from boredom to anger, satisfaction to joy, and any number of states in between. To simply say that people ‘play’ EverQuest seems an insufficient account of the experiences it offers both in and out of the virtual world of Norrath. It seems fair, at least, to say that EverQuest contains (and even ‘is’) a living social structure, one that includes many of the kinds of things real-world societies include, including friendships (and love), violence (and hatred), not to mention inequality, learning, personal growth, achievement, in-groups, exercises of power and weakness, of stupidity and intelligence, and so on.

This complexity of experience is such that coming to understand EverQuest requires a variety of approaches and disciplinary perspectives in order to examine the social and semiotic systems that shape the individual player’s experience and at the same time are constituted through it. Most people don't think about their relation to international economics when they buy a bottle of shampoo, or about how their behaviour expresses a rhetoric of political solidarity when they turn off (or on) the TV; likewise, most EQ players do not think much, minute to minute, about how what they are doing fits into larger models of human behaviour. And just as in the real world some subset of all people becomes interested in economics, politics, literature, or sociology, some EQ players have become fascinated by the structure and meaning of the virtual world in which they spend so much time. One of Edward Castronova’s early papers on the game, for instance, has been viewed nearly 40,000 times since it first appeared on the internet in 2002, and has been the subject of extensive discussion on forums devoted to the game.

Like Castronova, each of the authors in this special issue has played EverQuest, and each of their essays attempts to think some aspect of that play in terms of the academic disciplinary framework to which they belong. The essays range in disciplinary focus from legal studies to economics, literature to sociology, rhetoric to education, technical communication, and beyond. Each of these disciplinary locations produces a different point of view in relation to EverQuest, establishes a particular set of obvious questions, and proposes a methodology for answering them. This resulting diversity of approach testifies, we think, to the complexity of EverQuest itself, as well as to the rich possibilities for the future academic study of video games and virtual worlds.

Like those of most new fields of study, the early stages of the academic study of video games have been marked by a remarkable intensity of self-reflection. As with other inquiries in the realm of popular culture, this work has required a persistent justification of the premise that the object of study is worth paying attention to, and many early essays have spent time simply trying to convince their readers that games are worthy of academic study at all. Additionally, as a new discipline, game studies has drawn its practitioners from a variety of pre-existing fields, as people from a wide range of backgrounds gravitated toward the study of video games. This inter-disciplinary background has been a great strength, but it has also intensified the need for a shared set of critical terms and approaches. The project of definition has required the innovation of new techniques appropriate to the form as well as the cautious translation of terms and concepts from a range of disciplines across the humanities and social sciences.

This special issue is marked by these elements of disciplinary history, of course. But at the same time, one of the goals of this project from the outset was to take a step in the direction of the practice, rather than the invention, of game studies. To this end, we have set out to assemble a collection of articles on a single video game - a sort of case study that would provide a comprehensive examination of an important title as well as a snapshot of the work game studies has to offer.

The social quality of virtual worlds means that they provide instances of relatively constrained cultural practice (relative, that is, to the complexity of the ‘real’ world that contains them) that nonetheless retain much of the complexity of their real-world counterpart. Though what happens inside a virtual world is in some sense ‘fictional,’ it is not fair to say that such worlds are simply fictions; the registers of real practice and real experience inside virtual worlds mean they are profoundly resonant for the people who spend time there. It’s also clear - or will become clear as you read this issue - that virtual worlds exert powerful effects on the ‘real’ world, producing among other things, shifts in capital and the development of markets to trade it in, the filing of lawsuits regarding the distribution of property or of virtual violence, and changes in the languages spoken by their users, to name only a few of the ways the virtual world has fed back into the real. Part of the argument of this issue as a whole is that ongoing work is needed to understand the relation between virtual worlds and the real world, work that may eventually decide that any such distinction is moot, or at least deceptively simplistic. Such work may lead to the suggestion that there is no such thing as a single ‘real world,’ but rather a number of different ‘real worlds.’ The not-quite-fictional quality of virtual worlds such as EverQuest offer opportunities rethink the ways in which the real world can itself be imagined, constituted by powerful socio-cultural narratives and transnational systems of movement that interact with social groupings, national formations, and the variety of modes of personal experience. Such a notion is speculative, of course, but we indicate it here in order to suggest that the study of virtual worlds may eventually have a powerful impact not simply on our understanding of virtual worlds, but on our understanding and experience of the real ‘one’.

As a game-intensive virtual world, EverQuest presents an interesting set of challenges for its readers. The world’s ludic - that is, game-intensive - aspects exert a powerful suggestive force on those who spend time there, essentially forcing them to become game-players even if all they want to do is to be tourists. You can’t sign a peace treaty with the orcs in East Commonlands, and you would be missing a great deal of possible interaction if you simply sat around and chatted with friends: the social and geographic structure of EverQuest’s virtual world, Norrath, is profoundly shaped by the fact that the vast majority of the people in the world are there to play a game. That fact means that EverQuest (and Norrath) work quite differently than either an internet chatroom (or a real-world coffeehouse) or such non-game-based virtual worlds as Second Life or There.

Any serious scholarly attention to EverQuest will therefore have to meet two challenges: the challenge of thinking about its production of a ‘virtual world’ that allows for certain forms of social interaction and undirected play, and the challenge of thinking about how the game layered over the world (imagine Norrath without EverQuest for some sense of what we mean here) affects the social, economic, rhetorical, pedagogical, or narrative experience of that world both at the level of individual players and in terms of the larger structures that help organize and frame the ways players interact with the game and the world.

These challenges operate along a number of different modalities, each of which might be considered an axis of approach for work on EverQuest:


Any work of scholarship that approaches EverQuest will do so from a perspective that locates its objects primarily inside the game-world, or outside it. Studies that examine modes of behaviour or social structures located fully inside the game-world itself - a sociological study of the different friendship patterns of wizards and clerics, for instance - will make their arguments almost entirely in relation to the logic of the world as it expresses itself in virtual space. Scholarship that looks at the ways in which EQ affects real-world activity - that same sociological survey, but designed to ask whether certain types of people tend to play wizards or clerics - will instead have to take into account the interaction of the virtual world with the real world in which it thrives, and to consider the ways in which real-world categories (like race, gender, social class, or nationality) affect player behaviour and experience inside game-space. Still other kinds of work will find the distinction between inside and outside difficult to maintain - any study of the internal economy of EverQuest, for instance, will quite quickly come up against the fact that the EQ economy interacts with real-world economies in ways that both observe and violate the restrictions set down by the game’s designers and codified in the End-User License Agreement. Depending on the kind of work being done, then, the apparent barrier between ‘inside’ EverQuest and ‘outside’ it will shift its value and meaning. One might think of it as being more or less permeable - more or less amenable to certain kinds of traffic - depending on certain kinds of scholarly approach: while in general you could say that magic items do not cross the barrier between worlds (except, perhaps, in the case of certain Fan Faire costumes), other things, like capital or language, operate just as strongly in the EQ community outside the game as they do inside it.

Experiential Scale

Work on EverQuest coming from different disciplinary locations will necessarily bring with it a wide range of relationships to the question of epistemological evidence. The kinds of experiences or objects that count as valid sources of knowledge for economics are quite different than those that count in the study of literature, for instance. EverQuest is intriguing in that both modes of study can be brought to bear on a single subject, but the overlapping standards of evidence and understanding require some effort at coordination. One way to think about these differences is to consider them along a modality of experiential scale that ranges from individual experience on one end, through forms of social or group experience that operate at a statistical level, and on to structures that operate at macro-experiential levels having very little to do with individual or personal experience at all. Some of the essays in this issue, for instance, present their readers with the experience of a single player, and use that experience to generate arguments about the game world. Others depend on sociological forms of evidence, marshalling survey results to make arguments about the behaviour of large populations. And still others, like our essay on Norrathian geography, rely on forms of analysis that result from player behaviour, but cannot properly be said to belong to player experience at all, having to do instead with the spaces within which player experience occurs.

Representation and Reality

On one hand, Norrath is a world very much like the real world, in that it establishes a set of laws both natural (in the sense that they cannot be changed by player decisions inside the world - think of the game’s physics, but also of the leveling structure or the combat system) and socially produced (unwritten ‘rules’ about etiquette regarding camping, looting, and the like). From this perspective it makes a lot of sense to treat EverQuest and its world as ‘real’ in every sense of the word. On the other hand, however, EverQuest is also a representation of a world - it is a created object that imitates or mimics certain aspects of the real world more or less convincingly alongside or amidst its invented, fantastic elements. In the sense that EverQuest is a representation, it shares certain features in common with all art objects, but perhaps especially those objects, like photographs or paintings, that attempt to represent the world visually, and those which, like novels or films, represent not only the world but tell stories designed to make that world interesting and believable, to set it in motion, as it were. Considering EverQuest in its representational mode - a kind of work that tends to come from departments of literature or media studies, where such scholarship is common - does not mean ignoring its ‘real’ effects; rather it requires attending to the many interactions between the game-world’s representational content and the reality to which it refers. And likewise, work that focuses on EverQuest’s ‘real’ presence in the world will always do so in relation to a series of representational figures or arguments that are made by the visual and ludic structures of the game.

In calling these problems ‘modalities’ of the challenge that EverQuest presents, we mean to suggest that any scholarly work will at any given moment be operating within these frameworks, even if its position does not remain stable over the course of a single article, much less a collection of articles gathered together in a special issue like this one. We also would like to suggest that insofar as these indicate modes of work rather than choices between fixed perspectives, they do not present scholars with a series of either/or choices in which any given essay looks like a solution in Clue - ‘inside’, using ‘personal experience’, with ‘representation’ - but rather that they delineate continuums of choice along which any intellectual argument might begin to operate. We want to insist, finally, that these modalities take place within the broader framework that we outlined in the beginning of this introduction, namely the problem of EverQuest’s ‘being’, a problem that can be conveniently reduced to the phrase ‘game-world’ but which, as we have suggested, will inevitably exceed it.

The essays that follow operate along these modalities in an effort that is still, in part at least, devoted to sketching out the boundaries of what EverQuest is-and what, therefore, and more generally, MMORPGs are, what they mean to contemporary society and to the future of things like mediatic evolution, social practice, the realm appropriate to law, or the history of mimesis. In part, these articles tell us things about the particular experiences of players within EverQuest, but beyond that, they start to show us ways in which we might understand virtual worlds more broadly, in ways that can reveal more about the real world in which the game was designed, produced and played.

As Nick Yee’s discussion of the way EverQuest’s rules shape the kinds of social interaction that occur in the game suggests, not all multiplayer online games are alike. The choices made by game designers around such issues as player death, access to necessary abilities, and solo ability exert profound effects not only on the purely ludic experience that players have, but also on the ways in which they form extra-ludic relationships with one another. These forms of ‘social architecture,’ Yee writes, allow online games to engineer a set of social relationships, even as improvements in technology permit player avatars to react more and more as though they were fully human. As the resulting arrangement of social patterns and visual clues increases player comfort and opportunities for emotional investment in virtual worlds, they exert more profound suggestive control over player experience, for good and ill.

Those forms of social architecture are not alone, however, in their capacity to shape player behaviour, and should not obscure the fact that the game’s most fundamental laws, including the right to have an account at all, ultimately can be referred to Sony Online Entertainment, the multinational corporation that operates and maintains EverQuest. Sony’s claim that ‘You will rule the Planes of Power’, articulated in the advertising copy for the ‘Planes of Power’ expansion, prompts Greg Lastowka to wonder how much players can ever ‘rule’ Norrath. Moving through considerations of EverQuest as text, cybertext, game, and community, Lastowka eventually argues that what we consider EverQuest to be will exert a powerful influence on its ultimate status as a legal object. His final preference for the communitarian solution aims to open up the possibility of a ‘rule’ over Norrath that will be messier but freer than the one Sony might prefer for itself.

A more complex sense of who ‘rules’ Norrath might come, also, from an appreciation of the forms of labor involved in its production. As Sal Humphreys argues, the affective work done by EverQuest players contributes substantially to the value of the game-world. Though that labor cannot, she writes, be compensated, any attempt to think of EverQuest as a publication would have to revise print-based concepts of publication to account for the co-production of the game-world by an international cadre of self-selected players; EverQuest thus challenges older models of labor, of publication, and of intellectual property law.

Bart Simon also explores the central dynamic between coded and social experience in his analysis of the relationship between what he terms the ‘designed’ and ‘played’ sociality of EverQuest. Following a more individually oriented approach, Simon advocates for the value of biography as a tool for social inquiry in the virtual world setting, noting the match between ‘biographical temporality’ and the manner in which players come to understand their progress through the game. Co-authors Kelly Boudreau and Mark Silverman translate their experience as EverQuest players into a pair of player biographies that offer both a compelling example of a biographical approach and an opportunity to consider broader questions of the methods by which virtual worlds like EverQuest might be most profitably investigated.

Biographies are stories, of course, and any reading of them will attend to the manner in which they deploy a set of literary or aesthetic codes to announce themselves as members of a genre (‘Once upon a time’ begins a different kind of story than ‘I was born in a log cabin’). As Lisbeth Klastrup suggests, EverQuest’s ‘worldness’ also presents us with a question of genre, namely the difference between fiction and non-fiction. As part of a more general inquiry into the terms by which we might understand the basic elements of virtual worlds, Klastrup considers the ways in which EverQuest articulates a fictional universe. Examining the ‘oscillation’ between game world and real world frames of reference, Klastrup illustrates the ways in which we can understand a new medium of storytelling and imaginative experience. In the end, she suggests, playing EverQuest is not a matter of simply maintaining or dispelling a sense of immersion - rather, the experience of EverQuest as a world comes about by virtue of those many elements that cross such boundaries, alternately accepting and addressing the world’s status as a fiction.

One of ways the world most forcefully articulates itself as both a generated, fictional space and as a set of immutable (and therefore ‘real) physical laws is in its representation and production of virtual space. Our article considers how EverQuest presents players with a sense of geography marked by the forces of game design and player activity. Applying concepts from the study of real world geography, we look at how players have used the virtual space offered to them by the game, finding examples that reflect but also adapt real-world attitudes about the relationship between space, travel and efficiency. We suggest that players’ movement and congregation within Norrath reflects their construction of geographical relationships inside the game world over and against the world’s own self-presentation as a network of space and place. Thinking about Norrath both in terms of a longer history of virtual representational space and as a new possibility for certain kinds of spatial experience, we end our essay by trying to think about why the experience of Norrath today seems to be, for so many players, preferable to the experience of the real world.

Part of what these essays suggest is that virtual worlds are potentially important sites for experiments in forms of social organization, economic structure, and human interaction.. In one way or another, all of the articles in this collection analyse the ways in which the complex interaction of players and the game world produce results that the designers could not have predicted. That observation does not lead us to suggest that the impact of the game-world’s design is not felt powerfully throughout the wide range of player experience - as we hope the articles themselves make clear. Rather, this special issue intends to recognise the degree to which the meaning and value EverQuest, considered as a community, a world, or an experience, is determined by the intersection of a variety of factors, including the everyday activities of players, the economics of exchange, the sociological structures that create its appeal in the real world, and of course, the software that effectively makes the world possible. In that spirit, the collection ends with a set of interviews with some of the designers who helped create and manage EverQuest over its long lifetime: Kevin McPherson and Brad McQuaid, who helped design and build the original game-world, and Chris Lena, who was the game’s producer from 2003 to 2006.

Though this special issue is designed to be relatively comprehensive in its survey of the academic work inspired by EverQuest, it is not offered in a spirit of definition, poised, as it were to tell its readers - especially readers who are also EverQuest players past or present - once and for all what EverQuest means. If there is a central lesson that emerges from all of our studies, it is that EverQuest is a dynamic system, in which little is fixed except in social agreement - and even then subject to re-organisation and reevaluation brought about by the innovation of players, designers, or, most often, both. It that spirit, this special issue is intended to be read as a set of ideas and possibilities. We hope readers will enjoy these articles even as they adapt them to particular own uses and interests, and that they will feel free offer suggestions, corrections, and extensions of the ideas they see here; in that sense, we intend these articles sincerely as an opening to the future work of thought.

Final Words

We must thank our contributors for their patience and commitment to this collection. We are grateful for their perseverance along the path from conception to publication, and wish to extend particular thanks to Susana Tosca, who ably guided us through the complexities of the peer review process at Game Studies.

Eric Hayot, Penn State University

Edward Wesp, Western New England College

January, 2009

©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.