A group of teens sits around a large table with books, manuals, papers and dice strewn before them. Maybe a few pizza boxes and drink cans add to the clutter. One of the teens acts as a mediator, reading from a manual and giving directions and choices to the rest of the group. Another teen replies and rolls a many-sided die. Eruptions of hoots and hollers follow. Scribbling on the paper and rearrangement of figurines ensue in a flurry of activity. From such humble beginnings, a universe would be created.
In 1974, the pen-and-paper (PnP) roll-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) was created as a means for people to interact in fantasy settings that could not be found in the real world (Hope). Thirty years ago, role-playing games were played live and in-person with a defined group of fellow gamers. Each participant took on a specific type of character and role, rolled dice to determine strengths and casualty, and utilized a bound hard-copy manual to guide play. The character creation was just as important and almost as much fun as playing the game itself, and therefore took time and consideration. One player was designated the Dungeon Master (DM) and ultimately guided the course of the game. The other players pulled together to work for the common good while at the same time strived to enhance their own individual characters. A roll of the die determined the chance outcome of the current encounter. The plot consisted of traps, twists, turns, battles, magic, monsters, dungeons, treasure and all things fantastical.
Fast-forward 20 years. By the mid-1990’s, role-playing games had transitioned from old-fashioned PnP into the digital era as videogames. The landscape of the virtual world provided the fantasy setting gamers once only imagined, and the flesh-and-blood DM had been replaced by a computer controlled guide created by the games designers. Rolls of the dice were replaced by clicks of the mouse, but the outcomes were still up to chance. Though not a role-playing game, the release of the wildly popular Doom in 1992 sparked the flame of networked multiplayer game play on college campuses and other entities where networked systems already existed (King and Borland). Removal of internet restrictions in 1995 brought multiplayer games online and allowed gamers from the world over to come together and join in common play (Gupta). What was once a relatively small gathering of buddies spending an afternoon huddled around a table had morphed into millions of players spending countless hours huddled around their keyboards at the larger “table” of the world wide web.
With another 20-year leap, online gaming has become an all-in-one form of entertainment, overshadowing music, movies, and TV shows. Major advancements in graphics, especially 3-D, the ability to create individualized characters, and the continual one-ups-manship of developers in plot development have solidly gripped the gaming world. Videogame launches now bring in higher first-day revenue than the latest and greatest movies. While it is viewed as more of pastime in the states, online gaming has become a professional sport in Korea (Ming). Developers have successfully married the multiplayer functionality of the original Doom and the individualized choose-your-own -adventure aspect of PnP D&D, and massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) have caught on like wildfire. The spark lit on college campuses and corporate networks has been fanned into a flame that has engulfed the gaming community at large.
Interestingly, what began as a mostly select grouping of like-minded young adult players has become a true melting pot of diversity. Students from grade school to grad school, dropouts, the unemployed, high powered CEOs, at-home parents, scholars, pastors, doctors, and lawyers have all been known to play. This leveling of the playing field is satirically portrayed in the web-series The Guild, which follows the real-life interactions of an online group of players via “the game”. The Guild mocks the stereotypes that surround obsessive online gamers using characters across all spectrums of life. The main character around which the series revolves is a young woman who uses her web-cam to narrate the happenings of her real life and that of her gaming group. Secondary characters include an older, unemployed recluse of a man who lives mostly in this virtual world, a stifled at-home mom who uses gaming as her escape from real life, a college-aged techno-dependent girl who is never seen without some electronic devise at her fingertips, a jobless young man who has a history of falling for his online relationships, and an ego-driven teenage boy. This motley crew shows that the gaming world bears no prejudices, the online world is truly “come as you are”, and both have powerful attracting qualities.
What draws so many different types of people to this common realm? What is it about the online gaming world that has caused it to explode into the mega-money-making business it has become? Why do videogame sales now outrank those of movies, books, and other playthings? Why have we become so fascinated by this world that a web-series has been created around it? How has it come to be that many people feel more comfortable in the virtual world than in the real one?
The resounding answer to all of these questions is “community”. In one way or another, gamers who play MMORPGs do so for the sense of community. Many of today’s most avid role-playing gamers found that first taste of community in the old days of pen-and-paper D&D, including Richard Garriot, a heavyweight in the earliest days of videogame programming. Garriot was introduced to the highly interactive role-playing game in1977 while attending a computer camp at Oklahoma University. From that point on, Garriot strived to recreate that sense of community in the computer world (King and Borland). Many others are drawn to online games as a means of staying connected to friends as life moves them on (Reinicke). The younger generation of gamers find the virtual world a much more desirable and comfortable social hangout than the real world (Boyer).
Community. We are all searching for the sense of connectedness to people like ourselves, those who have a common interest. As unlikely as this common ground may seem, the virtual world of online gaming has a definite community. And with community comes culture. The culture of the online gaming world is diverse in form, yet common in theme – people brought together for the social interaction of playing together. This sounds much like a small child’s real-world playground. Come on, let’s go play.