Well, here it comes finally... T.L. Taylor from the IT University in Copenhagen talks about multiplayer online games in general and World of Warcraft in particular. As a researcher she begins by establishing a very important metodological fact about online research (logical, fundamental and worth mentioning): the choice of avatar affects the data you might get, the interaction with other players and the experience of a gamespace. Your choice of avatar, and the way it looks, become methodological choices.
Since moving to Europe three years ago Taylor has experienced gameplay from a new angle. She is now connected to the game from a European, English-speaking server, which moreover is a player vs player server, i.e. the gamers both work together and fight against each other. The social aspect of gaming thus becomes a crucial factor, which actualizes the question of how online cultures emerge.
Taylor stresses that emergence is not only the "nice-looking positive stuff, talking and sharing..." It also equals regulation, policing, stratification, and hierarchy, usually parts of an emergent culture. One of the examples she gives is language and the impression some players have that English is the only language allowed: "English in general [the main chat]! Go read the rules". Taylor read the rules and found that the developers were less inclined to make English the only language allowed than the players in some cases. Through word of mouth the developers' guidelines are slightly distorted, and some players take it upon themselves to educate or regulate the others.
Another example of the stratifications in an emerging culture can be seen in the formation of guilds (sometimes national ones, to tie it to the language example). To become a part of a guild, players send in applications giving the required information about themselves. They are then evaluated and accepted into the guild — or rejected. The guild members help each other, but the guild also has a stratifying and coordinating function. It establishes a hierarchy which defines the culture that emerges.
The game experience is also altered by different add-ons, user interface modifications, where players who have access to these UI mods get information about other players on their screen (not seen by the others). The attitude towards these UI mods is ambivalent. On the one hand they can be used for surveillance and data-mining, to further regulate and steer the game, but at the same time many of the players participate in this voluntarily and even use it in a playful way. It becomes co-veillance. The use of these meters is also regulated, and this highlights both the influence of the players and the intention of the game designers, whose intentions while programming the game set the boundaries for the emerging culture.
Taylor stresses that the social work people do in the game is actually what makes people want to continue to play the game. She has found that the building of an emerging culture is fundamentally important to the gaming experience.
Peter Zachariasson brought up an interesting question: Since the players in WoW cannot influence the visual environment, he suggested that UI mods are a vehicle for enhancing the gaming experience and making it possible for the players to influence and control the culture/environment they are a part of. If I draw parallels to Second Life, where there are very few UI mods, the possibilities to influence the visual environment are almost infinite on the other hand (if a "gamer" owns land). The quest element is virtually non-existant in SL and the online environment is far less goal-oriented than in WoW, and thus the incentives for "playing the game" or reasons for creating a culture seem to be slightly different. Still there are definitely emerging cultures in SL too, but they seem to be based on other things. Shared interests? Shared tastes? Mike Shannahan points out that the status symbols in SL are based on good looks or different skills (building, programming etc). It's seems to be advantageous to have an attractive or interesting avatar, a beautiful or innovative house, or a nice car, yatch or helicopter. Hmmm.... it sounds very much like real life at this point... I'd better check this out... :)
T.L. Taylor's keynote lecture is streamed here.