Raph Koster says it better

I first realised that Dark Age of Camelot was not going to be something I could simply walk away from when my friend Talien quit the game. It wasn’t until he quit that I realised I really valued his friendship, that I had, in fact, considered him a ‘real’ friend.

I’d been through the process of making ‘virtual’ friends before. I played a text-based strategy game called Utopia, way back in the last century, and, as a member of a group of very silly roleplayers called the Danish Brotherhood (nothing to do with Danes, everything to do with pastry), made several friends whose houses I visited, and whom I corresponded with for years after we all stopped playing Utopia. The difference between those relationships and my friendship with Talien was that my Utopian friends were only very loosely tied to the game. Our relationships existed chiefly on forums and via email; our shared world was one we’d created rather than the one the designers of Utopia had created for us. (More on that at some point). Talien and I on the other hand interacted mainly within DAoC, though we had spent a weekend together IRL, at a mini-meet in Brighton. We had not established habits of communication outside the game that would carry us through his ceasing to play. So we lost touch, and I grieved. I became confused about my other friends in the game. How ‘real’ were those relationships? Who would I miss, if they quit? Would anyone miss me if I did? And if we did miss one another – was that only within the context of the game, or had we taken root in one another’s lives in a way that would transcend the virtual world and affect our ‘real’ lives?

In this essay, written way back in 1998, Raph Koster explains how, when a member of the UO community died in a car crash, the grief the other members felt changed their perception of the game:

In the end, the social bonds of the people in a virtual environment make it more than just a game. They make it Real. Sometimes it takes a moment of grief to make people realize it, and sometimes people just come to an awareness over time, but the fundamental fact remains: when we make a friend, hurt someone’s feelings, suffer a loss, or accomplish something in an online world, it’s real. It’s not “just a game.”

So we can take as established the fact that for those of us involved, online relationships are as real as any other relationships, and online ‘communities’ have social bonds that make virtual worlds real. Does that mean that those communities behave in the same ways as communities formed through other media? I don’t think they (we) do; the issues of identity and ownership that Sharkith has been looking at over at The Empty Pixel feed into this discussion, as do the strengths and weaknesses of the virtual world in and around which the ‘community’ has aggregated, the methods of communication the playerbase uses to talk to one another, and the methods of communication the company uses to talk to the playerbase.

For me, the social bonds between myself and other players did not become clear until we had started to share more than just the virtual world – exchanging details of the other areas of our lives and establishing other, reliable, methods of communication that allowed me to beleive that our friendships were stable and would persist outside the game should any of us leave. I read somewhere (yeah yeah, I’ll try and find the reference) that players who participate in forums subscribe to MMOs for one average 50% longer than those who don’t. I think social ties are the likely reason. This would give weight to the argument that forums and all other arenas attached to but outside of the game itself need to be considered as part of the world; they are the foundation of the ‘community’ and are dismissed at the peril of the game-runners.

Arvon, Clarion West, and the Great DAoC Aftermath

I’ve spent a couple of hours this evening talking to my friend Sharkith about MMO’s, and the breakdown of ‘community’ in virtual social groups. It’s a subject that’s dear to our hearts at the moment, because we have both recently left Dark Age of Camelot (I haven’t offically left but I am not playing). It feels as though there has been a catastrophic breakdown on the Dyvet cluster (Excalibur & Prydwen), but who knows as to whether what we experienced actually had any effect on the population.

I’ve decided to take a look, as objectively as possible, at what causes so-called game communities to go bad, and what breaks the trust between the playerbase and the company running the game. Does it really make people leave? What can be done to prevent it? I’m partly doing it as catharsis – I am grieving over what I’ve lost, strange as it may seem – but I have always been fascinated by the psychology & sociology of MMO’s.

I shouldn’t be doing this as this point, because I am still flailing around trying to complete my novel, a task which has become far more urgent due to my acceptance onto Clarion West. Six weeks in Seattle during which I will not have time to work on it, followed by an imminent Pipeline issue, means I have to have it ready for a final proof-read and edit by 15th June if I’m going to hand it in on time in September. I’m very excited about CW, excited enough to risk the novel for.

I’ve come to accept that I may not finish on time thanks to a lovely bunch of people that I met last week at a writing retreat at Lumb Bank, a mill owner’s house outside Heptonstall that used to belong to Ted Hughes. The place is owned by the Arvon Foundation and MMU takes students there at this time every year. It was a last-minute decision for me, but I’m very glad I went. The tuition (from Nicholas Royle and Conrad Williams) was excellent, the food was good, and the company was superb. Lumb Bank is a wonderful place. It’s not the open fire, the comfy sofas, or the incredible view across the valley that make it – it’s all those things, experienced through the imaginations of talented and fascinating people. The company of writers brings you to life and makes you appreciate everything around you so much more intently. Thanks guys.

NFD GG2 Manchester RL Meet Up

So, this weekend was the long awaited meet. Here’s my photo-diary of the event. You can click on any image to see it BIGGAH.

Drachais and Shark arrived on the Friday night, and we (Maxis and I) took them to a Greek place on Deansgate. We stayed there until they kicked us out (I noticed that they weren’t kicking anyone else out. Were we being disorderly? I think not.)

The next morning Drach and Sharky leaped out of bed at the crack of dawn to go to the Imperial War Museum North. Max and I finally managed to drag ourselves there at about 11:00 and found them playing with a tank. We told Drach to kite it, but he must have been rooted or something. /shrug.

We walked back across the rising bridge at Salford Quays towards the Lowry Centre; here are the lads standing by the bridge…

…and this one is Drach, Shark and me looking back across the dock at the War Museum (this pic’s for you, Alex.) It looks nice and sunny, but there was a very cold wind, so actually we are all freezing our tits off in that shot.

Back in town, we met Deadweight, then Tammuz and then Jamiesmallicus at Piccadilly. It was fun scanning the people arriving into Starbucks and trying to spot the internet gamers. Harder than you might think, but we identified each other without too much trouble, refrained from screeching in shock/delight, and went in search of some pre-beer padding.

Here we are sampling that traditional Manchester dish, curry for lunch, except Tammuz who for some reason ordered a pizza. Like, yeah, pizza from a curry house is gonna be nice! Deadweight looks happy though (that’s him in the stripes). I think Jamie might have said something mildly amusing. He’s such a wag.

Here we are wandering aimlessly around central Manchester, on warden speed, looking for a fight. I mean a pub that wasn’t too full. From L-R: Shark, Jamie, Maxis, Tammuz & Drachais.

We had a couple of beers in Night and Day and then retired to a corner of The English Lounge, shown here, where Shark, Maxis and I sampled the tasty warm English ales, much to Drach’s disgust. We lost Deadweight in between the two bars. I think he pulled or something.

Jamie went home before supper, but the remnants of the group went into Chinatown. The food was pretty good, as it usually is in Little Yang Sing, but they had some kind of weird restaurant-meme going on, whereby someone has a birthday: cue music, singing, clapping, ice-cream with a sparkler in it etc. Then everyone decides to get in on the act and we have at least 5 rounds of this in a row. It was loud. It gave us headaches. We opted not to invent a birthday of our own.

And so to dancing. Tamm bottled out of it, so we were down to 4 at this point, but we’re hardcore so we hit the clubs. Well, FAB Cafe anyway.

Shark: Maybe if I throw enough shapes, this Dalek will be really impressed and not nuke me down.

Dalek: Exterminate!

Drachais: Ah, my pits are as fresh as can be. Come and smell these, everyone!

Everyone: NIPPLES!

Finally, there were 3. The morning after, not feeling too fragile at all (honest) Max and I met Drach in town for a coffee. Shark was meant to be heading back home early; hope he remembered to wake up…

You’d better click on this one to get the FULL EFFECT! This is the MK1 radio telescope at Jodrell Bank, one of the biggest radio telescopes in the world. If you look carefully you can see two little gimpy eldritches standing underneath it.

And that’s just about the end of it. We took Drach to the airport, took a peek at Concorde, gave him a hug and a kiss (Drach, not Concorde) came home and fell asleep. Three cheers for RL meets, four cheers for GG2, one cheer for Manchester, no cheers for sick bards (Pol, we missed you.)

Looking forward to the next one