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Online Multiplayer Games as Social Environments


This essay’s intention is to examine the nature of online multiplayer gaming in terms of its perceived social (or anti-social) characteristics, and then to evaluate Marshall McLuhan’s technological determinist argument in terms of whether it can explain the different behavioural patterns and effects that have been shown to exist. Various sources and studies will be used to highlight relevant issues.

Marshall McLuhan (1964) is well known for his proposition “the medium is the message”; meaning that our use of any given medium is of much greater consequence than the content which it carries. His position is one of technological determinism, declaring that technology is the driving force behind cultural and social change. With the development of new technologies, he argues, comes a new set of circumstances and tools which allows us to extend our senses and our capabilities. This is why he called technological products ‘extensions of man’. He argued that with extension there must also be ‘amputation’, where something is lost or lessened to make way for a specific advancement. For example, the invention of gunpowder led to loss of archery skills.

Important to the discussion of the social nature of online multiplayer gaming is the definition of ‘social’ itself. Two broad definitions are included in most dictionaries. One is simply ‘living or disposed to live in companionship with others or in a community, rather than in isolation’, and the other is ‘pertaining to, devoted to, or characterised by friendly companionship or relations’. One definition regards ‘social’ as simply concerning multiple individuals, in which case online gaming is, by definition, social, as it involves multiple individuals interacting through the medium of the game. The other definition includes the criterion of being friendly, which refers to the quality and nature of the interaction that takes place. This relates to the degree to which there exists of a sense community, friendship and belonging. This is the definition which will be referred to in this essay.

Suggested Driving Force(s) Behind Online Multiplayer Gaming

McLuhan's argument revolves around technology itself as being a determinant. This would imply that the nature of a medium (in this case online multiplayer gaming) is what causes particular types of interaction and behaviour to take place; so if social activity is present in online multiplayer games then determinism would argue it is because of the nature of online gaming itself as a medium. Opposed to this view is the social constructivist theory (advocated by individuals such as Wiebe Bijker) which states that it is people who shape technology to suit their culture, ideas, values and goals. Others such as Stephen Kline (2003), author of the acclaimed Digital Play, offer a more complex model which sees developers, consumers and technology as all having roles to play in a cycle consisting of technology, culture and marketing.

Wiebe Bijker (1991) stressed that “technologies do not, we suggest, evolve under the impetus of some necessary inner technological or scientific logic. They are not possessed of an inherent momentum. If they evolve or change, it is because they have been pressed into that shape.” This perspective would suggest that social activity within online multiplayer gaming is caused by those who participate in it, and that the medium itself only gives way to this activity because that is how people chose to create it.

Bijker's and McLuhan's arguments are mutually exclusive. To ascertain the extent to which each argument is correct, the fundamental nature of the medium of online multiplayer gaming, and the industry which is built around it, must be examined. The key consideration here is value, identified by Ludwig von Mises (1949), a prominent member of the Austrian School of Economics, as the basis of economics itself. McLuhan’s argument does imply that technology has value to human beings; as being a way of extending and improving all manner of capacities; but he does not see it as the driving force behind the entire economic process, he suggests that technology develops according to an inherent momentum which both Bijker and Mises deny exists.

Social Environments of Online Multiplayer Games as User Directed

From a free-market perspective, technology does not arise from a vacuum; it has to be the result of the thought and effort of people, irrespective of whether those people form a corporation or any other given business structure. The purpose of any kind of production, including within the gaming industry, is to create value, and then trade this value for a greater value (i.e. profit). Value implies a ‘valuer’: It implies the questions ‘value to whom?’ and ‘value for what?’ The gaming industry develops and produces games (the value) in the hope that consumer (the valuer) will purchase them (due to seeing them as being of value).

This individualistic, free-market model is directly opposed to McLuhan’s technological deterministic model because it places human beings at the start and end of any economic process. It follows that online multiplayer games as a medium are not deterministically defined, nor are the social structures and effects that arise from them. Value is not equally distributed across the whole medium of online gaming – as demonstrated by some games being extremely popular (seen as more of a value to more people) and some being very unpopular – according to the quality of the content as judged by the individuals that play the games.

To explain further, an example would be the fact that people will not buy a book that is filled with random words strung together arbitrarily; they will buy a book to read the content. Different people will read different content for different reasons, just as different people enjoy different genres of computer games or play a particular game in different ways and for different reasons. Values are dependent on the individual(s) involved. This example also shows that the medium (the book) is the means to acquiring the content. The absence of content in any particular medium renders the medium pointless and valueless. The content, being the end value, is what truly drives the form that a medium takes, contrary to what technological determinism suggests.

In Digital Play (Kline et al. 2003) it is said that the determinist perspective is regarded as ‘too simple’ by critics, because it neglects political, economic and cultural factors. It is argued that there are ‘important continuities between previous historical epochs and our present one’. Although in this they were referring primarily to economic continuities, this has significant relevance to social matters.

For example, artist/curator Anne-Marie Schleiner (2001) commented that "multiplayer games can be very social. In the shooter genre, players sometimes band together into "clans", groups who fight against other groups. Sometimes the social bonds developed in these clans extend beyond the game into friendship and players offer each other moral support through personal hardship and help each other find jobs." Clans are the equivalent of sports teams in online multiplayer gaming, organised either simply for fun or to participate in competitive systems such as the CPL (Cyberathlete Professional League), which is perhaps the most prestigious of these, with top prizes reaching hundreds of thousands of dollars. The social structure and activities of gaming clans are very similar to those of amateur sports teams or clubs which existed well before computer based games, which suggests that the medium itself did not define this social phenomenon, but rather it was simply a continuation of previous social phenomena into the medium of online multiplayer gaming.

These clans can exist for a short time, but often last for many months or even years allowing for real friendships to grow as the members play with each other against other clans. Many clans can become thriving communities where members interact via clan websites, forums and instant messaging, and also likely use voice communication software. The elements of teamwork and cooperation found in clan based gaming are just as pronounced as in offline team based games.

Further supporting the social constructivist argument is how clans came about. Nothing within the games themselves initially supported clan style gaming, it was the players who chose to form such groups. The earliest examples were for early MUDs, but they later were created for early first-person-shooters, especially Quake and Unreal. The players formed groups which played with each other using their own rules and regulations. It was not until later that game developers started to incorporate clan-focused functionality into games. A fairly early example would be Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun (1999) which allowed players to register their own clans and participate in a ladder system that was built into the game itself.

Concepts of justice; of right and wrong; also seem to have naturally surfaced in the online gaming community. These traditional values seem to be quite well reflected in gaming environments as noted by Sue Morris (2003) who has been investigating online communities since 1997. She writes:

Players have developed intricate rules and etiquette governing gameplay and social behaviour, based on fundamental principles of fair play and general social cooperation. Clans in particular tend to have stringent rules governing members’ behaviour, both in games and in other online communication forums, and players may be suspended or expelled from their clans for violations of said rules.

The rules and methods of self-governance that have arisen to combat bad behaviour, rule breaking etc. means that players often have a high level of involvement and become very invested in the community. The emergence of this self-regulation is another example which seems to contradict technological determinism. The technology itself did not determine the rules and codes of conduct that have become widespread, demonstrable by their being a reflection of very traditional concepts of what is right, wrong, acceptable or deplorable, only in a new context.

Technology / Free-Market Dialectic

In Digital Play, new media is described as being driven by a ‘dancing dialectic’ which is referring to a ‘determinative unity’ between communication media and the free-market. Rather than raw technological determinism or the simplicity of the law of supply and demand, this would imply a synergy between the two. There are in fact three elements at play here however, as the free-market includes both producers and consumers.

One way in which these elements can be shown to have affected each other is the emergence of so-called ‘prosumers’ (Toffler, 1980). This term is perhaps especially significant in the online multiplayer gaming industry because online gaming communities are not always focused on playing the games themselves; huge numbers of people participate in the ‘modding’ community, where users create additional or modified content for existing game products. One of the most popular online multiplayer games of all time, Counter-Strike, was actually developed initially as a modification for Valve’s Half-Life. This is an example of how the community can in fact drive the industry forward and suggests that, contrary to McLuhan’s technological determinist argument, that the players are very influential in the gaming industry, and it is the technology which is simply being improved to meet the desires of the gamers.

Another example of a convergence of these factors is how ‘markets within markets’ have formed in games such as Second Life, and unofficially in games such as World of Warcraft or Guild Wars. In game content for these games such as real-estate in Second Life or gold and items in World of Warcraft are being sold for real money. Although the games themselves are designed in such a way to enable this (it is technically possible in World of Warcraft, but it is against the terms of service) it is not the medium itself which drove this type of activity to exist. The players themselves created this phenomenon, which is essentially a mini-economy within the game environment.

Evaluating Determinism

Despite the evidence that suggests weaknesses in the determinist position, there are discontinuities present which suggest online multiplayer gaming as a medium has significant social effects on players.

The concerns surrounding computer gaming in general are regarded by some as a moral panic, a term coined by the sociologist Stanley Cohen (1972) to describe an "episode, condition, person or group of persons" that has in recent times been "defined as a threat to societal values and interests." Moral panics are a result of an exaggerated perception of threat, often caused by excessive media coverage.

Computer games in general have long been widely criticised for having a negative impact if played “excessively”, and this perhaps relates to stereotypical conceptions of computer users. For example, Schott and Selwyn (2000) commented “The popular stereotype of the frequent computer user persists to be one of a male, socially inadequate and isolated individual”. A CNN news report (2007) supports this dystopian perspective by saying “It's true to say that anti-social behaviour occurs frequently within the real world but it would appear that the Internet acts not just as a mirror to the real world but as a magnifying glass, exaggerating malicious tendencies.”

For example, some argue that virtual friends can end up being a replacement for “real” friends and family:

In this sample, the Internet was used extensively for communication. Nonetheless, greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants' communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle, and increases in their depression and loneliness. (Kraut et al. 1998).

This has been viewed as potentially very harmful by reducing one’s capacity to deal with real-world social situations, as well as decreasing one’s emotional well being by causing loneliness (Moody 2001). This supports McLuhans model of technology as being ‘extensions of man’ in that we can see how extension in one direction has led to ‘amputation’ in another (in this case, real-life contact). The above examples relate to McLuhans idea of ‘over-extension’ where one media becomes so extended that the ‘amputations’ that result become harmful or debilitating.

Although the above may be true for some cases, it does not demonstrate that virtual socialising via the Internet is the cause, as opposed to the effect. Studies have shown that gamers do not give up other activities in favour of increased amounts of gaming, and also that gamers generally play with their real-life friends on these online games; meaning it is more of an extension of their social activities than a replacement for them. A study by Steinkuehler & Williams (2006) likened the virtual worlds of online multiplayer game environments to coffee shops or pubs where "social bridging" can take place.

In the chapter “Should We Sell World of Warcraft by Prescription Only?” (Orzack & Orzack 2006) in the book The Battle for Azeroth: Adventure, Alliance and Addiction it is described how up to forty per cent of MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games, e.g. World of Warcraft) players ‘do not stop, do not turn off the computer at appropriate times, and do not live a balanced life.’ The level of addictiveness of online multiplayer games is certainly disproportionately high when compared to other media, suggesting that it does have medium-specific effects, however Orzack & Orzack continue ‘Makers of MMORPGs freely acknowledge that they design them to be never-ending games. The design lures players to finish one quest and immediately start another’. They point out here that it is how the games are designed – the content – which is the reason for them being so addictive.

Another argument; that violence in games leads to violence outside of games; is supported by various researchers including Anderson & Dill (2000) who argued that “violent video games may be more harmful than violent television and movies because they are interactive, very engrossing and require the player to identify with the aggressor.” However, studies by other researchers have contradicted the findings by researchers such as Anderson and Dill, as pointed out by Benjamin Radford (2005), managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer. This inconsistency in conclusions that have been made makes the subject quite controversial and contested. Radford contests that the studies that have been carried out are extremely weak and make faulty conclusions which do not address the direction or strength of the causal relationship between gamer violence and games which contain violence.


McLuhan’s idea of technological determinism when applied to other media seems to have a greater degree of validity than when applied to online multiplayer gaming. The nature of the industry is moving towards a state where there is greater flexibility and greater levels of user interaction with both each other and the developers of games. The free-market model seems to hold true to a large extent, where demand drives supply and encourages innovation – even if this is hampered to some extent, as argued in Digital Play, due to a market oligopoly.

Individuals who enter the realm of online multiplayer gaming do not do so as a blank-slate; they already possess their own views, ways of acting, temperament and values and will use the medium accordingly. The view that this medium in particular acts as a magnifier of anti-social behaviour is only be applicable to those who see it as a place where they are comfortable to act in such a way. Online gaming itself has no agency, only characteristics which are interpreted and responded to by the actor – the player. This is supported by the lack of consistency in the ways people choose to play online games, ranging from casual gamers who play on public servers, to ‘hardcore’ clan gamers who participate in large competitions, to the cheating and hacking community which opts to break rules and disrupt other gamers’ experiences at every opportunity.

The online multiplayer gaming community includes a large number of individuals who choose to uphold and maintain civility, oppose cheating and abusive behaviour and who create highly organised and friendly groups, communities and environments. There also exists a contingent of players who do seek to break the rules, cause tension and animosity and spoil things for others.

The environment of online gaming presents the individual with variables and rules no less than the real world does. These variables define the limits of a person’s course of action, for example if a person in real life jumps from a tall building they will likely die – similarly, in a game a person doing the same will likely see their character die. The variables do not define the course or nature of person’s actions, only the limits of such action. The technological components that together form the environment of an online game do not drive social interaction any more than the physical components that together form the outside world.

It is largely the individual players who determine the kind of social environment that exists within an online multiplayer game. It is not the technology which drives people in, but these individuals select their own goals and patterns of behaviour. This same principle is how the economics of the industry seem to work, according to how people choose to play games and which content is of value to them.


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