Bart Simon

Bart Simon is Associate Professor of Sociology in the Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University, Montreal. Working in the areas of cultural sociology, digital culture and science and technology studies, his game studies research focuses on aspects of MMO culture, LAN parties and most recently, Wii play. He is currently the director of the Concordia research initiative in Technoculture, Art and Games

Kelly Boudreau

Kelly Boudreau is a PhD student in "Etudes Cinematographiques" (Film Studies) at Université de Montréal. With a BA & MA in Sociology, her research focuses on identity construction and maintenance in MMORPG's as well as on forms of mediated sociality ranging from the dynamics of social identification in online computer games and virtual worlds to the fusion of internet activity and everyday life.

Mark Silverman

Mark Silverman is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Calgary. He also works as a digital researcher and analyst at Critical Mass, an interactive marketing agency based in Calgary. His current research interests include digital consumer culture, social theory, surveillance studies, online ethnography, and web analytics.

Two Players: Biography and ‘Played Sociality’ in EverQuest

by Bart Simon, Kelly Boudreau, Mark Silverman


This article experiments with a form of biographical method for exploring memories and play experiences of EverQuest in the lives of two player/researchers. We posit a notion of 'played sociality' modeled on biographical understandings of lifecourse and attempt to show how different forms of commitment to the game reverberate through the lives of players.

Keywords: EverQuest, biography, cultural sociology, players, interviewing

The Played Sociality of EQ

Everquest (EQ) is undoubtedly a social game but what precisely can that mean? For sociologists there is no such thing as a game that is not "social" so how can we begin to approach the seemingly special "socialness" of this game and others like it? At a basic level the claim that EQ is social can be meant simply as counter-point to culturally dominant media effects discourses implicating all digital games as asocial or anti-social media. This is the idea that sitting alone at the computer for hours on end can be seen as both a symptom and a cause of the further disintegration of intimate, productive and caring social relations at the level of families, communities and even nation-states (Provenzo 1991; Anderson and Bushman 2001). To claim that EQ is especially social then is meant to suggest that rather than generating conditions of social disintegration, the game encourages social interaction (Steinkuehler and Williams, 2005). Indeed, playing this game depends on social interaction no less than (and perhaps no more) than other aspects of a player's everyday life. If the basic premise is that social interaction is a normal condition of play in EQ, then the more important question becomes: what is the nature of this interaction and how does it impact on the lives of those who play? Such a question points us to the forms of interaction or more specifically the forms of sociality that might characterize EQ play specifically and other massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) and virtual worlds more generally.

While this kind of question might normally call for survey research and various kinds of qualitative study, our approach here is to consider the "socialness" of EQ as a consequence of players' understanding of what socialness means in their own play. We want to refer to this as the played sociality as opposed to the designed sociality of the game. That is, while we acknowledge that forms of sociality or social structures have literally been hardwired and soft coded by the programming choices of the designers and the mediating conditions of the hardware interface, at base the meaning of social interactions in the game rests on the active interpretation by the players who engage with the design. Not only does meaningful social engagement in EQ depend on the player's active interpretation, but as a consequence, the specific forms of played sociality experienced by players may differ from the designed sociality intended by designers. While the latter must certainly influence the former we are primarily interested here in drawing attention to played sociality as a distinct object of analysis. To locate the significance of the played sociality of EQ in this way is to call for an ethnographic study of players and their contexts of play. This paper provides a small sample of a larger more extensive study of MMOGs attempting to develop just one tool of the standard ethnographic kit; the biographical interview.[1]

EQ and Biography

With the ascendance of more positivistic methodologies in the social sciences, biography has become something of a lost art that nevertheless survives and prospers in a range of cross-disciplinary fields from feminist sociology, to cultural studies and in the sociology of the life course (Denzin, 1989; Chamberlayne, et al. 2000). As Roberts (2002) argues, "the appeal of biographical research is that it is exploring, in diverse methodological and interpretive ways, how individual accounts of life experience can be understood within the contemporary cultural and structural settings and is thereby helping to chart the major societal changes that are underway, but not merely at some broad social level (5)." In this way, biographical research becomes one method for making sense of the meanings, impacts and practices of diverse individuals experiencing larger scale societal changes. Indeed, we attempt to adopt such a view in our research by looking at MMOGs like EQ as exemplars of broader societal shifts linked to the digitization and virtualization of culture, and in this vein, the played sociality of EQ may be seen as instantiations, experiments or templates for new forms of social life.

Yet, in addition to this grander claim about the scope of MMOG studies that grounds our work we felt biography would be the natural medium through which to express the sense that committed EQ players are living a good part of their lives with or "in" the game. After all, the game does revolve around the idea of playing an avatar or character that does live (and die repeatedly) with others in a fictional virtual world. For serious players who have stayed with the game over several years, the lives of these avatars are often understood in biographical terms similar to the progression of their own lives. While this has led some researchers to consider the ways that avatars function as kinds of alter ego or split personality in games (Turkle 1995), we wish to follow the technobiographical approach of Kennedy (2003) and others in viewing avatar-player biographies as a lens through which to understand individual experiences of played sociality within the game.[2]

With this in mind, there are three traditional features of biographical practice that make this method especially useful in studying MMOG sociality. The first feature is what we will call biographical temporality. We realized this from the beginning of our research when we wanted to discuss EQ and experienced players would ask us "when" or "where" we would like to start; from beta, first or main character, first expansion, first guild, etc… EQ play engenders an experience of time that is marked by a sense of biographical progression. This is the sense of living a life, learning from experience, developing relationships, and growing older. Almost all the players we spoke with over level 40 tended to understand their play in terms of their memory of the progression of their avatars. We could not help but notice the obvious biographical corollary of a statement like "At 12 I moved to Black Burrow" where "12" indicates the level of the avatar but also the relative age-implied inexperience or immaturity of the player.[3] This we find is especially true of EQ (as opposed to EQ2 or other later MMOGs) where the early choices of a player have profound effects on both the play and social experience of the avatar. When this is combined with the actual player biographies with the game, for example whether they have played since beta, or since the last expansion, then distinct historical memories are generated which inform both accounts of play experience and the meanings of those accounts.

That a player could have a specific memory about the place of a game in their life should not be surprising. These accounts give a role to games in the normal biographies of the players who might remember for instance, the first game they ever played, or a game they played when they were going through a rough patch in their lives. Our observation with EQ is different than this however. Our point is that players understand their play in terms of biographical time rather than as a moment in their own biography. Some players go so far as to describe themselves living other lives through their avatars, whilst others frame their play more in terms associated with careers. It is this latter concept that we shall tentatively adopt in considering EQ biographies and we discuss this more detail below.

One additional point to make about this biographical temporality is that it seems less illuminating or meaningful in the case of solo computer and console games. That is, while a player may certainly have fond memories of playing the first level or even the first game of Ubisoft's Splinter Cell franchise, the historical development of the avatar, Sam Fisher, is so relatively linear and predetermined that the notion of biography as a succession of life choices within the game carries little meaning. Indeed, if EQ is understood purely in terms of its designed sociality this would also be the case but our argument is essentially that players do not perceive the game in this way. Moreover, we begin to notice, that like traditional biographies, EQ biographies are structured largely around social relationships of various kinds. These include important friends and mentors, families, social networks and chat channels, raiding parties, guilds and guild alliances, server communities, web boards and the game itself. This suggests that the stuff of biography in EQ is largely composed of other people (or what players believe to be other people) and this is a feature absent from most forms of solo play.

A second feature of biography that makes it well suited to the study of MMOGs is the richness, dynamism and variety conveyed in the lives of individuals. Biography has an ability to capture and convey the historical richness, complexity and variability of individual experience that is often lost with other approaches. Much of the research on MMOG players within game studies has focused on the problem of identifying player types and motivations (Bartle 1996; Yee 2005). These frameworks are very useful for the organization and prediction of some player behaviours but they often risk glossing over the ways in which players change and understand themselves differently over the course of their EQ and MMOG careers.

As we continue to collect the biographies of players we have come to realize both the variety and complexity of individual and social experience in EQ. This experience, as we have argued, can neither be limited to the presence or absence of virtual community nor to designer imposed structures like groups, guilds or servers. The played sociality of EQ, in terms of both scale and organization, criss-crosses idealizations of community and designed structures, as well as offline networks (real life families who play together), the "meta-game" (web boards, MSNing, unofficial resource sites, etc…), popular culture (buddy films, The Fellowship of the Ring), material realities (time zones, bandwidth, economic resources), social realities (ethnicity, class, gender, age) and finally spontaneous in-game interactions.[4]

While one approach to this complexity would be an attempt to catalogue and measure all the varieties of social experience in evidence in the game, we have found that the method of biography provides us with both a sense of the richness and complexity of the played sociality of the game as well as some basis for theorizing the forms of played sociality specific to MMOGs in general and EQ in particular. Indeed, one of the traditional strengths of biography is to provide insight into age-old problems of structure and agency by providing a lens on an individual's negotiations with the structures around them (Mills 1970).

Evidence for this is provided in the biographical accounts we have collected which feature players running up against the "game" or its designers. Such accounts are often the seeds for a more politicized study of player resistance within in the frame of media consumption (Humphreys 2005) but these kinds of stories are hardly unique to digital games. They are also more or less routine aspects of all biography in which a life understood as being governed by an individual agent runs up against the challenge of some external force or structure. EQ biographies like traditional biographies are full of accounts of "beating," "working around" or "living with" the system (de Certeau 1984).

A third feature of biography that lends itself well to MMOG research is what we call the narrative congruence of accounts. As with other MMOGs, Story-telling and narrativizations of play experience are a primary mode of expression and communication amongst players (Klastrup 2003). Whether we see this in terms of players' readings of the game narrative at various levels or their more collective performance of a drama, it is clear that players understand their play in narrative terms. That is, more often than not, we found that players relate their understanding of the game to us and to each other in terms of stories they tell about their play. Our sense of the importance of this arose from attempts to analyze oral history transcripts generated in biographical interviews with EQ players. These transcripts are full of references to names, places and events that are only vaguely recognizable to someone who has not played the game and very often these details are arranged or ordered (often out of any linear temporal order) in the form of episodic stories that loosely conform to structures imposed by the game design (i.e. place is determined by zone, time is determined by level and which expansion is being played, and events usually but not always revolve around game defined actions; questing, camping, raiding etc…). Drawing from our understanding of biographical method more generally we see congruence in how players manage to cope with the complexity and detail of their EQ careers. The narrative form of biography, as opposed to a survey or a structured interview for instance, is well suited to the ways players already relate their experiences to one another as narrativized accounts of the things they did and the people they met in the game.

A crucial point that follows from this of course is that from the perspective of biography, player accounts of their EQ careers must be seen as just that. They are accounts. These are not objective representations of meaning and action but rather retrospective accounts of action that have meaning as accounts. While much biographical research often entails corroborating accounts with other sources we are less interested here in the documenting biographical facts than with developing a method through which players may recount the stories of their play and thereby offer us insight into their played sociality. The method we deploy here is that of the biographical interview or oral history. While the biographical interview has it self been the subject of methodological reflection we only wish to address the misconception that the method is simply a matter turning on the tape recorder and asking players to talk about the game (Atkinson 1988). The process as we deploy it is more structured than this in that the interviewer and subject work together to constitute a biographical narrative that would not otherwise exist had the interview not taken place.

Two Players, Two Biographies

Our choice of which EQ biographies to present in this paper is based partly on serendipity, partly on analytical strategy and partly on a desire to experiment with method. At the time of writing this paper one author (Bart Simon) was the principle investigator for a research project on MMOGs, the other authors (Kelly Boudreau and Mark Silverman) were graduate students working on the project who were at one time avid EQ players and who themselves are the subjects of the biographical analysis presented in this paper. While this situation should certainly raise a number of methodological red flags we welcome these as an opportunity to think through the methodological basis of the analysis we wish to provide. We should however spell out our method in some more detail. This paper began with the principle investigator conducting in-depth biographical interviews with each co-author/EQ player separately. These interviews served as the model for further biographical interviews conducted by the co-authors with other EQ players. The process worked well not only as training in interview technique but also for enabling a kind of guided autobiographical analysis which has developed not just as a dialog between the principle investigator (PI) and the student/player but between the two student/players and the PI. The result is a collective analysis of the original biographical interview data developed in the context of additional interviews and participant observation with other EQ players over the course of six months. Further, as a matter of analytic strategy, we could not have hoped for two more radically different biographies from two more or less equally experienced and serious EQ players.[5]

Kelly is a graduate student in Sociology (aged 32). She is the soon to be wed partner of Nathan (31 yrs) and mother of two children (ages 13 and 9). Hers is an highly media literate family, and she can be described as being "plugged in" as an active consumer of digital culture. Her family and social life have been intertwined with digital gaming and other forms of electronic interaction (MSNing, blogging, etc…) and for a long period (from 1999-2003) EQ was a dominant medium of social experience for her. For Kelly, EQ is at the same time a fun and challenging social game, a way to relax, a means of maintaining intimate social ties and a tool for exploring aspects of herself via the actions of her avatar. Kelly's biography is punctuated largely by stories about the people she has met in EQ, how she has fit in or not fit in with the social expectations of her peers, and how she has managed her serious commitment to the game whilst also maintaining some semblance of a "regular" life.

Mark is also a graduate student in Sociology (aged 35) whose previous experience with digital gaming was negligible before he played EQ. An ex-Grateful Dead fan ('dead-head') and radio station deejay who owned his own business before going back to school, Mark became "obsessed" with EQ on a lark. He picked up the game on a recommendation from a store clerk and had no prior relationships with anyone else who played. His biography with EQ is a story of triumph and desolation. Only ever playing one avatar (a human paladin called Kaya), he slowly became an expert at the game moving into the ranks of one of the two most elite power gaming guilds on his server. At the same time his social life outside the game deteriorated, resulting in the collapse of a six-year relationship and a sense of despondency. For Mark, EQ has been about the challenge and mastery of the game and being the best, about identifying as a power gamer and about a certain self-loathing with respect to all the time "wasted" in playing a game with such seriousness.

Generating the biographies of these EQ players presents many of the same difficulties as any biography. Chief amongst these is the problem of reductionism in which the many nuances of an individual history and memory become over-simplified in the service of the conventional narrative structure of the academic essay. This is notoriously a matter of 'double trouble' in the case of biographical interviewing since the interviewee is often in the same position as that of the biographical writer so that the oral history is already a simplification of the lived biography which is then further streamlined for the audience of the biographer. This has certainly been the case in our research especially for the two biographies we present here. In both cases, the players, while still maintaining their EQ accounts, are no longer active or serious players (or have moved on to other MMOGs) and much of their autobiographical account is then reconstructed from memories understood from the perspective of the present. One by-product of this in Kelly's case for instance is a substantial nostalgia for the play experience of the original EQ (before the expansions). Mark's memories, on the other hand, are over-ridden by his later play experiences as an officer in a power gaming guild and by the Velious expansion.

These post-hoc autobiographic reconstructions are not to be avoided however as it is precisely what Kelly and Mark choose to remember, as well as the interviewers probing of those memories and experiences, that points to the ways the players make their game experience meaningful. It is through this technique for instance that we became convinced of the strong biographical temporality of the game. There is nothing in the game manual that suggests that a player will understand their play in terms of the social lives and careers of their avatars and yet in most of our interviews players see themselves as having nearly distinct phases that can be defined as an "early game", "middle game" and "late" or "end" game.

EQ Careers

Silverman (2005) has adapted the serious leisure framework of the Canadian sociologist Robert Stebbins to discuss the notion of an EQ career. This is the idea that serious or committed EQ play is broadly structured in terms of "the temporal continuity of the activities associated with it" (Stebbins 2001, 9) that one thing leads to the next in progressive or retrogressive sequence of transformations over a long period time. Careers in the sense are aspects of a person's broader biography that are governed by the idea that small investments of activity over time yield larger rewards in terms of happiness, prestige or wealth. While the most common use of the term career is reserved for work, Stebbins has demonstrated how the term is just as appropriate in considering some forms of leisure. MMOG play in particular lends itself to the notion of career precisely because the success in the game is modelled on an idealized North American Horatio Alger style career; starting with nothing, the player accumulates knowledge, skill and material wealth proportional to the amount of time invested in the game.[6]

Player careers may span multiple avatars, multiple servers and even multiple games and the specific trajectories of player careers vary depending on how players choose to play the game. In this sense, the player archetypes of achiever, socializer, explorer and killer discussed by Bartle (1996) in his paper on varieties of MUD play may be usefully adapted as examples of design models for player careers. No matter how varied in terms of goals, most player career trajectories follow a similar progression from learning how to play (the early game), through routine play or "grinding" (the middle game) and finally to advanced play (the late or end game). At least, this how many of the players we interviewed related the historical structure of their play so that players who had achieved the maximum levels generally viewed their play history as a progression to their current state in the game whilst novice players generally perceived themselves as having much to learn (often before the game would even be seen as being fun). There is little doubt that the design of the game greatly structures the perception of this kind of player career development and this can actually be a problem as experience players who are in the end game period of their careers are often loathe to start new avatars since these avatars and the zones of the game they occupy are more or less stuck advancing through the early and middle game stages. This can be useful for learning new skills and meeting new people, but it often produces a sense of boredom, as the low level game is perceived as being beneath their capability.[7]

Mikael Jakobsson (2006) has provided some insight into other features of this biographical structure of EQ in what amounts to a semi-autobiographical account of how he learned to the play the game. Jakobsson generates five distinct levels or phases of play (beginner, intermediate, high-end, endgame and death), which are based on his assessment of the increasing complexity of social dynamics the players encounter as they learn to play to the game. Jakobsson's framework intersects at many points with ours and is especially useful as he points to specific game mechanical and social structures that induce a particular experience of biographical temporality. Thus he writes, "just like a player bursting out in a triumphant 'ding' signalling that a new experience level has been reached, I remember feeling a sense of elation when I stepped into the world of interconnected personal networks that signifies participation in the world of EverQuest at an intermediate level" (4). Here, Jakobsson is describing his movement from a largely solo play based beginner experience to a more intensive form of social play (Jakobsson and Taylor, 2003).

Our concern, unlike Jakobsson, is not with how the game mechanical and social structures might mediate the experience of play so much as with players' retrospective accounts of the meaningfulness of those structures. Jakobsson is not wrong about experiencing a shift from solo to social play but for some players there may be no recognizable transition (or 'ding') here. As with the case of Kelly, discussed further below, EQ play was intensely social even before it had begun and her moment of elation and transition out of the beginner or early phase comes as she extricates herself from the guild of her partner. Perhaps one analogy that articulates the difference between ours and Jakobsson's approach is the difference between looking for structural conditions that define stages of a person's life (such as the age of 18 defining the age of majority in many parts of the world) and more subjective understandings of those stages (such as the ways in which a 30 year old might still see themselves as a child). Both approaches assume a biographical temporality in the recognition of life stages but the understanding of the meaning of those stages is different. What follows then is the biographies of two players, Kelly and Mark, constructed mostly from their oral history accounts and analyzed in terms of our early, middle and late game schema.

The Early Game

The early game corresponds loosely to the period of primary socialization for participation in any social group. Players talk about this period in terms of the frustration and joy of learning new skills, meeting new people and discovering extant social mores and etiquette and developing a sense of purpose and identity within the game. Kelly's early memories of EQ might be viewed as somewhat unusual in that they tend to be framed by her relationship with her partner, Nathan (an avid gamer) and her problematic position as a spousal member of his guild. At first, she was extremely wary of the way Nathan had been drawn into the game and away from the usual social life of the family (even though that life already revolved around gaming in some form or another). Her concerns have been echoed many times over by other players, their non-playing relations and commentators concerned with the possibility of "addiction." As she explains:

[K.B.]…I had seen him stay up and play Mortal Kombat against the computer, or the console, he used to play single player games all the time - which was fine because the mentality behind that was he would play them until he finished them and then he resurfaced. EverQuest - you don't resurface. And that was where my resistance was.[8]

Kelly's solution to this problem was both innovative and counter-intuitive. She appears to draw equally from the performance of a traditional gender role as family caretaker as well as from her very untraditional comfort with new media and electronic communication as a means of redefining the locus of her family life.

[K.B.]…My biggest point at the time was that he had people to hang out with in that game. With the single player games, it was him, the computer and when he was done, he came to me for the social again. But the game fulfilled that social aspect as well which I think made it that much more - engaging for him and bitter for me cause it was… its hard to explain, but when I started to play - like I said, it was really a "if you cant beat them join them" mentality and I've always said you can't complain about something if you've never tried it…Unfortunately, that was the death [laughter] of my resistance...

Kelly's narrative also points to a typical tension in both popular and common sense understandings of the play of digital games. Solo games tend to be experienced alone in the context of normal social life. Indeed, a number of gamers we have spoken to point to the importance of solo gaming (as opposed to MMOGs) in giving them time away from other people. EQ on the other hand, like other forms of mediated communication, is premised on social interaction and as a result may become either a substitute or a supplement for normal forms of social engagement. In this sense, it matters if the player approaches EQ as they might a solo video game or if they see it as an extension of other forms of online communication.[9]

In Kelly's case, being already familiar with other forms of electronic interaction (she participated regularly with her partner in a parents chat room on Yahoo), she begins to see EQ as means of socializing with her partner as well as others and the shape of their relationships start to change as Kelly and Nathan grow within the social structures of the game itself.

[K.B.] We started playing together, and even though he was levels above me, we were still able to communicate within the game, and go back to having friends in common. Instead of our friends coming over and playing the games for the weekend, we would just log in and have the people there. And what's great is your friends in EverQuest, never go home [laughter] there's always somebody online…

Crucially, the relationships Kelly developed in her early game were extensions of the already existing social relationships of Nathan. While many first time players generally take a fair amount of time (in some cases over 200 hours of playing time) to develop any relationship in the game they describe as meaningful, Kelly was admitted to Nathan's guild and immediately provided with both aid and conversation partners by guild-mates. Most players progress through the designed social structures of the game from casual interactions (friendly buffing, exchange of information), to dyadic partnerships and small groups, to larger groups and guilds as described by Jakobsson (2005) but Kelly started the game with instant social support and this had a profound effect on her understanding of the game and its meaning for her.

In contrast, Mark's early game was far less social and seems to conform more or less to the experience described by Jakobsson. Yet unlike many other first time players, Mark's background with multiplayer digital and role-playing games was limited as was his engagement with other forms of electronic interaction. In retrospect, Mark does not feel that it was too strange that he would become a committed power-gamer in EQ. He describes his life as being punctuated by a series of obsessive compulsions with aspects of his work and leisure life. He has had for example obsessions with collecting music and following the band, The Grateful Dead, and hot-rodding cars. For Mark, EQ became just another obsession that he wanted to be the best at. Despite this, Mark's previous experience playing solo console games on a casual basis was primarily what informed his early play. On his background with video games, Mark comments:

[M.S.] There was no one in my circle that was into video games…and that was always the way. None of my other friends… They always used to ask me, "why you spending so much time doing this," when I was younger. And then there was a break period, and then I got back into it - It was all pretty much alone.

This solo or alone play forms the context for Mark's engagement with EQ. After starting a business, Mark bought a state of the art computer specifically to try out some of the newer games. On the recommendation of a store clerk, and having no prior knowledge about the game, he bought EverQuest.

[M.S.] When I started playing EverQuest, I thought it was the dumbest thing in the world… First of all, I had never seen anything like this. The concept…it really was like learning from scratch. Even to the point of, "oh, you have to kill things to go up in level". And then I was level 10, which is the beginning of the beginning.

At first, Mark remembers approaching EQ as he would a game of Resident Evil, a kind of fantasy adventure game structured around a loose story arc, a series of combative challenges, and visual appeal. As Mark slowly discovers the relatively slower pace of the experience and levelling system and rote challenges of low level play, he is frustrated more than engaged by the game. Indeed, for many new players this realization often marks the end of playing the game altogether.

In approaching the game as a form of solo play Mark appears to develop an interesting psychological relation to his avatar.

[M.S]: I could barely work my character, like the way it should be worked. I didn't know anything about the character. I just kind of ran around and killed rats in the yard while a lot of other players were busy exploring the world and saying "oh you should go to this place, go to this place", I never ventured. I remember clear as day players saying "this is as far as you've gone? This is the only area you've visited?" and I'm like yeah…

[B.S]: Do you remember why that was?

[M.S]: Fear. It was fear.

[B.S]: It was fear?

[M.S]: Of dying. I didn't want to lose…and this is the strangest thing, 'cause I didn't understand the concept of how young my character was in its evolution at the time. I remember I once drowned very close to where I was bound, and I couldn't get my corpse, and in a panic I paged a GM. And in those days, when I started, GM's actually responded and were helpful to you. I was freaked out that I had lost my… nothing. [laughing]… I remember once I ventured into a zone, the adjacent zone to where people my level were, and I got killed by something called a Hill Giant - Giant comes over and kills me, I was like, forget it, it's not worth it to go in those areas. I stayed in a place called Black Burrow, I stayed there till almost level 20 [laughter].

Lacking an immediate social network of more experienced players like Kelly, Mark is alone in figuring out how to play the game; not only in terms of the rules and mechanics but also in terms of the goals of his play. He becomes obsessed with keeping his avatar "alive" even when it finally becomes clear to him that dying at low levels with negligibly affect his advancement in the game. Indeed, as Mark's game develops, not dying becomes a major goal and this leads him to avoid what he perceives to be risky play. This concern with risk later develops into an interest in the third party information about the game and a more instrumental approach to the game understood as how to gain the most benefit from the least risky play.[10]

We are struck by the comparison of Mark and Kelly's reminiscence of their early game. Neither player believes that their experience of the game conformed to their expectations when they first played yet their play was also not alike. Kelly's played sociality was to a large degree configured by her relationship with Nathan and his in-game social network. Unlike Mark, she is continuously given verbal instructions about how best to play the game and answers to any questions she might have. Mark's played sociality, on the other hand, was dominated by his struggle with the interface and the lack of clear goals. He deals with this by inventing his own game; a form of solo play within a multiplayer environment. These experiences of play change however, as the players enter their middle game.

The Middle Game

The middle game tends to be defined in terms of the routinization of play (grinding, power levelling, and farming) and players' memories here tend to be more general and imprecise. The exception is player's memories of their relationships with other players during this time. These are often, though not always, memories of guild-based relationships. While the transition from early to middle game is sometimes recounted to us in terms of one's first guild membership or reaching a certain level (usually between levels 20-40), players generally refer to the transition as a moment in which they were playing the game rather than learning to play. In terms of generating biographical narrative, the middle game of many of the players we talked with is a period often expressed in confusing and contradictory terms. Late or end game players initially have few if any coherent narrative memories of this period which they define simply as "the grind." This is the period between learning how to play the game (settling on one main avatar, joining a guild, understanding game mechanics…) and the more spectacular memories of the high-end content of the game (guild raids, uber-loot, server firsts…). As a result, it is usually difficult to talk about this often quite long period in a player's EQ career. In retrospect the middle game is often remembered as being dominated by routine and boring game play taking up hours of "wasted" time from the player's life. Yet with some prompting concerning what actually happened during these wasted hours another picture of the game may develop.

It is during these many hours of rote game play that players start to develop relationships with other players beyond simple casual encounters (Ducheneaut and Moore, 2004). Kelly explains the situation this way:

[K.B.] When I played in 'Lords of Empire,' I did not play with my guild members, they were all above me, so the only time I ever played, I played with a lot of pick up groups in the beginning, so I remember playing in North Ro and killing, what's his name … D'jorn, that damn level 12 guy in the huts over by the water - gives you a ring, which is like the lamest ring ever now. Through the pick up groups I would get the same people. Because eventually you get the same schedules and the same people would be on at the same time so you would tend to "oh I played with him yesterday and he didn't let me die - so ok".

Jakobsson (2006) observes that as the game progresses and mobs become more difficult or less rewarding to take on alone, players begin to learn that is more effective to join groups. Groups require effective teamwork to accomplish rewarding play and this includes not only knowing how to play one's role in the group but also understanding the etiquette of sociable conversation and care in the allocation of loot (or reward). Over time, avatars in a zone will develop reputations for being better or worse group-mates and this can lead to repeated encounters of the same avatars that, in the context of rote game play, may develop into longer term relationships that extend beyond the immediate goals of the game.

Usually relationships form between players with avatars at a similar level because they are more likely to share the same immediate goals (camping for experience points or completing a quest) but it is also not uncommon for mentoring type relationships to form between more experienced players and less experience ones (especially if the more experienced player has started another, lower level avatar). This was the case for Mark, who in the course of his oral history had nothing to say about significant social relationships until the interviewer brought up the issue of mentors.

[B.S]: So, do you remember who your first mentors were?

[M.S]: I remember exactly who it was. It was a guy I ended up meeting in real life too, and we became buddies. A guy named Frank. He lives in New Jersey and he played a character called Manurium. And he befriended me at a very young age, and he would give me stuff, and he was in Underlords. He had a 48 Paladin at the time, but I didn't know that. I met him when he was playing his enchanter, which ended up being his main character later on, but in any case, his character was the same character level as mine, because he had started this new character. So we grouped a little bit, and he showed me a little bit of the ropes of how the game was played.

The relationship between Frank and Mark was predicated at first on playing the same level of avatar in the same zone at the same times, but in other sorts of mentoring relationships a player with a higher level avatar might take "time out" from their game to help another player with a lower level avatar especially if they are members of the same guild in game, or alternatively, a shared social network (family, friends, co-workers) outside of the game. This was also the case for Kelly.

[K.B.] So, if I wasn't in pick up groups, I was being power levelled or babysat by a guild member - one my best friendships/relationships came out of [that]… they would always assign someone to me, you know like who's turn was it to take care of Kelly… so there was always someone that would come out, that would kill the monsters, and heal me and buff me and let me run around and that was where a lot of my idle chit chat came in, I mean, you have a level 50 sitting beside you, so no matter what happens…

One of the intriguing aspects of game play that we have begun to notice over several interviews are the ways in which the middle period of "the grind" serves as a kind of situated condition for the formation of less instrumentally based social relations in game. Thus, in the early game, while the player is learning to play, encounters are often driven by specific goals related to completing a task, gaining information, and being able to perform competently and reliably in groups. In the middle game, where there is less to learn, players in groups may turn their attention to other aspects of their relationships. Their routine play behaviour serves as a condition for more idiosyncratic social encounters.

One particularly jarring example of this is the phenomenon of in-game marriage (Yee 2003). Kelly relates the following story as a continuation of the relationship with her in-game mentor Terrorix.

[K.B.] Terrorix gave me a silver rose quartz engagement ring, I still have it on my character, and it was a big presentation when he gave it to me. And Nathan, even encouraged that we get married in the game, but not me and Nathan, me and Terrorix which I always found an interesting dynamic is how does your spouse support an in game marriage to somebody else, I mean what is the mentality behind that? I don't know!! I don't know, and to this day, I have always found it to be very interesting, because we would spend 10 - 12 hours online together and just be chatting about anything, everything, and nothing …I knew about his mother and his sister, he was in the military, I knew everything about him - but we would never talk about our stuff in guild talk. In-game marriage to me had always been a sort of bizarre… there was no space for it, there was no function, it doesn't give you anything, and I never understand, you know, why? What's the purpose of it in this game?

While this is not a paper focused specifically on the phenomenon of virtual marriage in MMOGs we can begin to speculate on the role of marriage and marriage proposals as a form of relationship which the mechanics of the game allows for but which it does not require for playability.

That Kelly would choose to mark the meaningfulness of her relationship with Terrorix by remembering and talking about the marriage proposal tells us something about how such relationships are made more meaningful. The concept of marriage is a widely available cross-cultural resource for reinforcing particular kinds of social relationships and separating them from other more routine kinds of interaction. Virtual marriages, mentorships and friendships are all, in this sense, unintentionally functional in generating positive social bonds between players beyond the simple sharing of game defined goals. These concepts (which often don't exist as such until their post-hoc reconstruction in biography) become ways of carving out forms of sociality from the otherwise amorphous tangle of encounters and interactions. This is crucial for making sense of the ways in which players move beyond the instrumental coordination of their action for mutual gain. As players develop these relationships, they are no longer simply working together with shared goals but begin to share a relationship which both represents their difference from others and which may be counted on beyond the immediate needs of each player. In the case of virtual marriage the display can be more overt and public but is usually governed by conventional heterosexual norms (it is rare for two male avatars to declare or celebrate a virtual marriage). In the case of a mentor or close friendships however, the bond is generated often without being explicitly named and thus evidence for the existence of these social forms exists only in the prevalence of players' memories of their close friends and mentors.

In addition to the development of close personal relationships in game, the middle game for players can also serve as their first introduction to the larger social networks and political structures of their server and of the game as a whole. Like a schoolyard playground, game servers develop social and political hierarchies through the social form of the guild. While guilds ostensibly come together as a means of more efficiently dealing with high-end game play and competition for scarce resources (mobs and loot) they also develop intriguingly different and often unique ways of organizing and managing themselves. Indeed, guilds are arguably the most sociologically significant aspect of MMOG play and EQ in particular as they constitute significant social actors in their own right which define the game for individual players independently of design. Mark provides a perfect illustration of this point.

[M.S]: …I left the other server cause I didn't want to end up competing with Underlords throughout my EverQuest career…

[B.S]: And you left at 28… And you already had this sense that you couldn't advance because of this Underlords crowd?

[M.S]: Yea, basically… the reputation that these guys had…

[B.S]: Sounds like these guys were terrorizing the server.

[M.S]: They were. They were… Absolutely. Yeah they were the ultimate grief… because if you had a problem with any of them, they would just like call like 25 of their friends, and like they would just sit around you, you wouldn't get a MOB to kill…they were terrible like that, yeah.

[B.S]: Even to level 28 players?

[M.S]: absolutely. I never experienced it first hand…but this was the rumour that I was hearing… from [more than] a couple of players. And there where stories about other guilds… they were infamous for that. In fact, I would be willing to bet that if you were to go on the Yaris board - the new community that was created was Yaris - if you went on Yaris, and just said, posted... for Kennick people, why did you leave Kennick way back in the day, I guarantee you Underlords would come up as a reason.

Again, from a biographical point of view we are not interested in whether the Underlords were truly making life difficult for players but rather that Mark's understanding of the game begins to be influenced by his awareness of another layer of group level and server level sociality. This is fairly simple to grasp in pointing out the function of rumours in instantiating the very phenomenon they refer to which is in this case the 'griefing' behaviour of the Underlords guild. This is also one of the most compelling features of MMOG play; the ability for players to generate narrative about each other that actually influences the collective play of the game.

Like Mark, Kelly was also becoming aware of the influence of guild associations even though she had started her game in Nathan's guild. Kelly's middle game however is marked by a new attention to guild politics and organization. This can be seen in Kelly's story of her movement from her first guild to a new one.

[K.B]: Loyalty issues, the way that people expect the game to be played. I think Nando did something; I think he gave away an article that belonged to the guild, or something, I can't even remember, it was so ridiculous, especially in hindsight, but, Metaxis believed that Nando's behavior was not becoming of what this guild was supposed to represent. So there was a lot of in-fighting… it kind of escalated to just two sides, and finally Metaxis left, and they started the "End of Time" group… a lot of people came over.

As with mentor relationships and virtual marriages, guild relations extend well beyond what are needed to simply play the game. In part as an extension of the problems of trust at the core of group play in EQ, guilds as social actors place a high premium on trust, loyalty and reliability. For this reason, they may work hard to generate more stable forms of structure. Kelly gives one example of this borrowed from the ritual hazings of secret societies and American college fraternities.

[K.B.] Ironically, I was accepted into "End of Time" as a spouse.

[B.S.] So what does acceptance mean? What do you do?

[K.B.] I just didn't have to go through - well, that's not true - they made me walk the entire length from Freeport to Blackburrow - encumbered to the point that you could barely move, I had to walk - that was my initiation. It was horrible! It took me like 4 hours in real life … crawl through like seven zones [laughter]… It was a test of, you know - call it hazing, or a test of your loyalty cause some people would say this is stupid, I'm not doing this stupid act to prove myself to the guild, that I'm willing to you know, cross the mountains...

[B.S.] and what do you have to do to earn the right to even do the hazing?

[K.B.] I think it's that you have to prove yourself. You have to be willing to help whenever they ask; you've got to show the desire to be part of the group.

Many guilds do try to organize around symbolic displays of identity that range from minor displays such as adding the guild's name to the character tag displayed on screen to travelling together in groups to wearing similar armour. Other guilds develop in-group displays such as Kelly's initiation ritual, guild parties and most prominently access to guild chat. Despite this, we would caution against the over analysis of the militaristic and hierarchical form of most guilds and look instead to the meaning individual players invest in their guild associations. While Jakobsson and Taylor's (2003) innovative analysis of guild networks in terms of fictional mafia organizations demonstrates how complex these game based structures can be it is also clear that players seldom share the same degree of commitment or even understandings as members of such organizations. Moreover, and possibly this is more like a fictional mafia family than anything else, players may simply play at being responsible guild members while all the while sharing no genuine commitment to their guild mates at all.

For many of the players we have interviewed, reflections on guilds are often foremost in their minds but they are often critical of their first guild associations. This begins to change however with players who devote a great deal of time to playing the game and they soon find that guilds are the social form in which the high level game is played. This difference between "casual" or "family" guilds and more "serious", "uber" or "power gamer" guilds is made clear by Mark as he makes his decision to take the game even more seriously than he had until this point.

[B.S]: Ok, lets back up… So you're in Hellgate until when?

[M.S]: Probably early 40's or mid 40's.

[B.S]: And these are all power gamers?

[M.S]: No, there were some, there were some… But 'Hellgate' was just a laid back guild, it wasn't any kind of power gamers guild. We had raids, and stuff like that. We started trying things, but they were minor league stuff. And it started to annoy me… I wanted to toss out all the players who weren't committed. I wanted to clean house - lets be a serious guild here. Lets play this game seriously. They're like…no, that's not the way we want to play. So I was like…fine. After enough of this, I got so annoyed that I went on a raid one day with 'Beyond the Stars', and I met a guy, his characters name was Garguon, he lives in Korea, and he's also become a very close friend of mine, even coming to Montreal to visit me from Korea. But, this guy led a raid. There was no talking in guildchat. There was no bullshit. We're here to kill, GET THE FUCK OUT OF CHAT!! Like that kind of thing. Very, very, very hard core.

The case of "uber" guilds points to one of the more interesting contradictions of social play in EQ. On the one hand, the played socialities of the game enable kinds of sociability that are not necessary to game play itself (i.e. guild parties and virtual marriages have no direct bearing on play). On the other hand, social forms such as uber guilds can become virtually the only mechanism for high-level game play such that some game content is designed specifically with uber guilds in mind. Mark's switch to "Beyond the Stars" helps to put the opposition between purely sociable play and more instrumental play into perspective. While some have argued that instrumental play is not sociable in Simmelian terms (Ducheneaut, Moore, and Nickell 2004) the point here is that uber guilds are organized as a form of sociability given that all social activity within EQ is organized in the context of a game.

What Mark is doing is 'playing uber' and this is itself a kind of sociable activity that the structure of the game cannot in itself determine.

[M.S]: Because, that to me is playing the game. The game isn't about making friends per se. You can always make friends, no matter what kind of guild you're involved in… but advancement, character advancement. That's what I was hooked into. I wanted the best gear, so I went to the opportunity that gave me that. I liked the structured guild, structured raids. First of all, structured raids work better. You don't end up spending four hours doing corpse recoveries in an organized raid. When players are there to play, you win more often as opposed to like…a corpse recovery. The first raid I went on with 'Beyond the Stars' was Hate, which involves a port up. A corpse recovery in Hate can take you three hours… if you didn't get a cleric camped out. I wanted a guild that won, that spent more time actually playing than they did corpse recoveries.

Being "uber" or a power-gamer, as Taylor (2003) similarly argues, is a form of sociability in denial. Instrumental play is fun precisely in its denial of fun as a reasonable justification for play. For these groups of players, the game is work not fun (Silverman 2005) but at the same time, unless they are ebaying their loot (which many have done), these players are still just playing at working since from a purely instrumental perspective they should not be playing the game at all.

The End Game

The end game (and not all players reach this stage) tends to be defined as the period in which nearly all the aspects of the game are open to the player. Almost all end game players are members of guilds and their play is usually defined in terms of engaging in any challenge the game has left to offer (high level raids, rare loot, maximizing crafting skills, being a guild officer, ebaying their character). End game players tend to focus on three features that make their play meaningful. The first is the presence of challenge; that there is still something to do in the game, or someplace to go. The second is some kind of identity differentiation as players attempt to define themselves or their groups as being distinct from one another. And the third is a sense of social continuity; that one can continue to play with those one has developed long term relationships with in game.

In the end game, meaning is generated in increments, as players can no longer look to game mechanics to provide their justification for playing even while the designers respond with generating more end game content. The perception on the part of players is that there is simply no more room for vertical advancement so the played sociality must be adapted to accommodate for the continuation of meaningful play. In the uber guilds much of this is provided by the player innovated Dragon Kill Point (DKP) system for equitably distributing loot to members of a guild. The system database effectively serves as a method of ranking or differentiating guild members on the basis of their commitment to the guild and uber guild players often refer to the end game in terms of simply playing for DKP. But at a certain point, for some players, even DKP fails to provide status differentiation. For Mark, the only thing left to do was to become guild leader.

[B.S]: What happened to Garguon?

[M.S]: He retired. He finally got some work [Laughter].Yeah, he finally got a job. He retired from EverQuest and I became guild leader at that point, and I hated being guild leader just because Garguon was such a great guild leader that really replacing his…

[B.S]: So in terms of your expectation for the game, you were as high as you could imagine you would go.

[M.S]: Yeah, but the thing about the game is that it never ends… It starts to be such a drag because you realise oh here comes another expansion, more grinding experience, it became very monotonous for me. But it, I mean it took a long time to reach that level… but once I gave up the guild leadership, that started to start the spiral towards me eventually saying, "Ok, I'm out. I'm not playing anymore."

In Mark's comments we can see how the high end game starts to become less meaningful. His enthusiasm and commitment to the game and the other players starts to wane when he becomes guild leader and this ultimately leads him to become more self-reflective about his career with the game.

[M.S]…you know what? I gave up a lot. It extracted a price from me, there's no question. If I could go back in time, and never have taken that game, I wouldn't have. I wouldn't. What I gained from the game is not nearly as much as what I lost from it.

[B.S] What did you gain from the game?

[M.S] Nothing.

Kelly's end game is much different however. For her, the end game phase of her EQ career becomes a source of rich social experience and personal gratification. She provides some insight to this in her account of her move to a guild without Nathan.

[K.B.] …basically at some point in playing, I think I was level 40 …45 in that area - still feeling really stressed that I don't get to play the game that my guild gets to play…

[K.B] And Nathan was able to play?

[B.S.] He was a core member.

[K.B.] So he was one of the six… so in that sense, you got to always see…Yeah! You got to see what you were missing!… When the Danes asked me to join the 'Forgotten Ones', and I agreed; this is great, I finally get to play, I'm invited to a group of people who are inviting me based on my skill, based on the game and what I can add to it… And I wanted to play! Two and a half years of watching everyone else getting to play, that was kind of enough. And with the 'Forgotten Ones', it was great. It was small…really small, I think there was like seven real members, something like 20 characters, they were insane genius' at playing three characters at once, you could never tell….

While Kelly's EQ career follows the general path of most others as she moves up in levels and gains experience, her biography takes a unique turn as she moves to a new guild without her spouse. This is both a symbolic and practical achievement that not only marks a new phase of play but which also becomes of means of differentiating herself and generating meaning in the end game where most other players have more or less finished with moving through the designed structures of the game.

[K.B.]… I guess that's when the game really became about the game. About what my capabilities and limitations were, in my character. That's when I started to learn about what my armor did, what the spells did…

[B.S.] You taking the initiative to learn, right?

[K.B.]: Yeah, right. And I think being in this environment where this group of people want you there… and even though they fed me information to help me, you didn't want to look so dumb, you know what I mean? Cause now, these are people who want you there for your ability, you don't want to admit that you have none [laughing].

From her comments above, it might seem that Kelly has only entered the middle game phase of her career (albeit later than most others) but this misses the point of Kelly's realization that she is finally able to play the game. It is only at the end game, where there is little or nothing left for her to do by rote that she becomes anxious and bored enough with being an 'outsider' in her guild to move to a new guild without Nathan. In this case, the shift in guild is a way of redefining, not only her play, but her social relationships on and offline in the end game. Like Mark, Kelly invested many hours of her life (up to 10 hours a day for weeks and sometimes months at a time) in EQ, but unlike Mark she holds on dearly to the experiences her played sociality generated for her during that time.


As Helen Kennedy suggests following Carolyn Steedman, the purpose of (auto)biographical projects should "not be to draw generalized conclusions which can be used to theorize the lives of many, but rather to understand the many and varied ways in which individuals negotiate social experience" (Kennedy 2003, 120). In this sense, we have drawn on the method of the biographical interview to explore some of the diversity and nuance in the social experience of EverQuest. The two players, Kelly and Mark, highlight the often, divergent ways in which the game can be played and understood. At the same time, the stories of Kelly and Mark conform to those of other players we have interviewed in describing a kind of biographical temporality of play that we refer to as an EQ career. While the designed sociality of EQ ensures that players will experience a progression in their play (or lack thereof) over a period of time, careers in EQ very much depend on players' subjective understanding of that progression in relation to other players. These relations form the played socialities of the game, which emerge and transform over time as a confluence of game mechanics, online player interaction and the offline contexts of play. Through the case studies presented in this paper we suggest that biography is one promising method to develop in helping researchers, designers and players to makes sense of the enormous social complexity that games like EQ have engendered.


[1] We wish to acknowledge the feedback and support of members of the Montreal GameCODE project (, T.L. Taylor, and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

[2] While we do not deploy Kennedy’s method of technobiography explicitly here we do see our approach as sympathetic with hers in drawing on biography as a means of exploring the diversity, specificity and nuances of digital life, the complexity of online/offline configurations and the importance of technological influences on subjective experience.

[3] Of course this is the meaning of being 12 only in the case of one’s first avatar. I have found it quite confusing as a novice player for instance to play on older servers where the few low level avatars running around were experienced players that had been around since the game started. Quite simply, we were not the same age with respect to the biographical temporality the game.

[4] The social and cultural complexity of EQ has been most comprehensively expressed by T.L. Taylor (2006).

[5] While we have chosen to use the real names of the players whose biographies we present here (because there are also co-authors) we should note that the names of other players, avatars, guilds and even servers have been altered in the presentation of this material.

[6] This idea of a serious leisure player career in EQ (or MMOGs more generally) must be distinguished however from the idea of playing a career. In as much as players are guiding their avatars through the working world represented by the game, it can be said that EQ players are playing out fantasy careers. That is, avatars have careers as bards, thieves or paladins and through an investment of time (spent playing and learning how to play), money (subscription fees) and social capital (mobilizing the help of friends and acquaintances in game) players advance their avatars through their careers ending with a kind of virtual retirement at the maximum level achievable in the game. On behalf of their avatars players experience the ups and downs of a, mostly blue collar, working life and in this sense players are playing a career.

[7] An important caveat to the biographical schema we suggest here is that the stages of play are defined for the player rather than the avatar so that a player who has already reached the highest level in the game with one avatar does not experience an early game again when she starts a new character (and indeed, she frequently bypasses this phase through power levelling). Similarly, it is possible for a player to acquire a high level avatar (through Ebay or as a gift) but still experience the early game stage with that avatar.

[8] As a means of providing some methodological clarification in our use of interview data we note that all quotes presented in this paper are taken from interview transcripts of taped interviews with Mark and Kelly in March 2005. We have edited and abridged the quotes but have not altered their content (even if Mark and Kelly wanted to change their stories in hindsight) and pauses or asides are indicated with a dash in the transcript in an attempt to present elements of the narrative form of the biographical interview. In addition where possible, the interviewer’s (Bart Simon) transcript has been added in an effort to illustrate the dialogic nature of the interview.

[9] This does not include those players already familiar with text-based MUDs and MOOs but even amongst the first EQ players engagement in MUD culture does not seem to be widely shared.

[10] Later as Mark’s game becomes more social, his early obsession with “not dying” becomes a mark of distinction demonstrating, for himself, and others that he is a careful and serious player.


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