Saturday, May 17, 2008

Virtual Chain Migration

Yesterday Georgia Tech's Celia Pearce came to the UC Irvine Informatics seminar to give a talk entitled "Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures and the Case of the Uru Diaspora" about the migration of players from a popular Myst sequel to environments like and Second Life after their primary online game of choice shut its virtual doors.

When it comes to virtual worlds, I'll confess that I tend to be what I call a "Goldilocks Ethnographer" in that I like to explore computer-generated places when no one else is around, and I have a tendency to be easily spooked and startled when I'm chowing down on a stranger's simulated porridge or sleeping in the virtual bed of another and those whom I see as the legitimate occupants appear and start to ask questions. I'm much better about collecting data on the development of videogames, digital archives, and websites in the spirit of mutual communicative exchange, perhaps because -- in solely face-to-face situations -- I don't have such a strong sense of trespassing. Of course, the really interesting thing about this supposedly "detached" state of observation that I experience in these situations is that I feel a remarkably strong sense of embodiment. In contrast, Pearce is the real deal, participating in all kinds of social interactions with her Uru-based community and wearing the label of "group ethnographer" proudly. She even describes a kind of initiation experience when she was playing a buggy polo with others.

Pearce is also deeply attuned to the political dimensions of trans-game (or trans-world) migration, in which more established members of a virtual world may resent a "large group of players with a strong ethnic identity" who may create lag in the online experiences of others, since processing power is a limited commodity, even in the seemingly unconstrained utopias of virtual worlds. She describes how self-described "Uru refugees" faced harassment from virtual nativists and how circumstances forced the community to move seven times. She showed how the Uru immigrants created Yeesha costumes that imitated one of the characters in the game, which they only wear in certain occasions that she explained as appropriate for "ethnic garb."

Another great thing about Pearce's work is its stereotype-busting conscientiousness about research that doesn't arbitrarily take young males to be the norm. (For more on the not-so-subtle ageism of digital cultures research, see this rant.) The population that Pearce studied -- about 300 migrants to and 200 migrants to Second Life -- was composed of fans of the best-selling Myst PC game, which was sold from 1993 to 2001. Half of this group was female and the average age was in the 40s/50s range of Baby Boomer players. However, Pearce's interest in feminist ethnography is about more than the gender of her subjects. She described herself as interested in subjectivity, empathy, authority, messiness, and other kinds of challenging interpretive endeavors that are often associated with feminist intellectual life.

Pearce's account of "a community of loners" looks at how "intersubjective flow" operates in play situations and also challenges the notion that play is inherently divorced from the realms of productivity and the creation of social goods. In looking at how fans of Uru create designed objects and built environments, Pearce is interested in the role of the gift and of social agency. She described how members of this group participate in what could be called "chain migration" in helping others both to assimilate and to preserve their cultural heritage by creating community centers, libraries, museum-style exhibits, and an archive of stories about the players' experiences from the original game. She also describes how the Uru diaspora played a significant role in creating the "University of There" where over a hundred faculty members chose to teach classes in ways that suggest a link between play spaces and distributed learning, the subject of Pearce's current NSF grant. As Pearce puts it, she is interested in "why people do things that are work-like."

When I explored some of the Uru-based installations in Second Life (including a classroom space) and read postings in online forums, I was impressed by the rhetorical investment I encountered. This thread may give you a sense of some of the debate about migration among the inhabitants.

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