The Microcosmic Virtual World
Perhaps the most interesting facet of the Massively Multiplayer is the kind of microcosmic society that results from the character interactions. On the largest level, there is the esoteric system of “game lingo” – the requisite nicknames and abbreviations for certain things that requires some initiation before being able to fully comprehend. There is a certain cross section with the internet culture in general – things such as “lol” or “brb” – but also a unique system of in-game references, perhaps specific to the individual game or the genre in general. These things include terminology such as “MOB” (derived from EverQuest's source code, which referred to monsters as “Moving Objects”), “PvP” for player-vs-player (or, in Asheron's Call's case, “PK” for Player-Killer), or “buff,” slang for “buffing up” with the use of beneficial spells. To particularly complicate matters, such terminology is rarely content to stick within one form of speech, crossing the lines of noun, verb, or adjective with great ease. (One “buffs” by casting “buffs,” for instance, if one wishes to become “buff.” Maggie the Jackcat dedicates a page of her site to such lingo: http://www.thejackcat.com/AC/Odds'nEnds/Abbrev.htm )
Thus, interaction on its own terms requires initiation, and thereby some level of immersion in the game culture, in order to make sense of the rather Babel-like initial experiences of the game world.
Of further linguistic noteworthiness is the individual “dialects” that spring up between game servers in the case of Asheron's Call, as the result of popular terminology for certain places or things. A player will find one server referring to Player-Killers as PK's and Non-Player-Killers as NPK's, reasonably enough, but then stepping into the PK-Only server, “Darktide”, will enlighten them to that server's distinction between a “Red” player (a Player-Killer), or a “Carebear” (a person playing on a “White” or NPK server). Obviously this distinction comes with its own manner of value judgments. Furthermore, where many servers refer to the central portal complex (something like a train station of the game world) as the “Hub,” others have repurposed the “RL” (“real-life”, an interesting abbreviation in its own right) term, “the Subway.” Thus, one begins to travel the world more efficiently upon learning the meaning of the rather opaque phrase, “anyone have sub?”
Lastly, the individual cultures of the independent servers seem most apparent in terms of popular locations and market economies. Playing on most servers, one finds the “Subway” to be the popular trade location, given its high-traffic nature, yet most players switching to the Solclaim server were surprised, and often vocally critical, to find that we had “chosen” the rather out-of-the-way town of Qalaba'r (connected by no major portals except in Subway itself) to be the trade town of choice. Perhaps most interesting was everyone in Solclaim' total inability to defend or explain this town's location as the trade nexus of our Dereth. The process of its selection seemed rather to have been entirely organic, evolutionary.
Without creating a breakdown of the form and functions for all tradeables within Asheron's Call, it seems safe enough to say that each server held its own unique distinctions as to what was or wasn't valuable as well, leaving many to wish they had this or that currency on this or that other server.
The obvious and indefinable culture shock in the transition from one server to another – despite the total symmetry of their histories – seems proof enough of the divergent and multicursal nature of an interactive medium such as the Massively Multiplayer. Though everything was identical in terms of content, merely the values, popular terminology, and social tendencies of these particular subsets of people took on lives of their own, certainly worthy of sociological study in much greater depth than these few pages.
Though Asheron's Call features no “Role-Play Only” servers, such as the ones found within EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelot, the topic of role-playing is always one of interest among the playerbase. Whereas some players choose to name their characters in very “high fantasy,” Tolkien-esque manners, still others choose names ranging from the “RL” references (anything from a Mozart-inspired “Lacrimosa” to a chef character named “Pizza Hut”), to PK-intended taunts (perhaps the most famous of which, on the Solclaim server, was a character named “Ur-red-ur-dead”). Obviously this creates a level of breakdown within the illusion of total gameworld immersion. But in another sense, the allowance of “non-role-playing” elements allows for a greater potential for naturally emergent role-playing styles, the greatest of which seems to be simply the natural conversation styles of standard in-game chat. Asheron's Call's own homepage features a section dedicated to instructing new players on proper techniques for role-playing, which seems to be precisely the style they are better off without , given its quick focal shift to the proper usage of “Archaic Speech” (even featuring a subheading titled “ A Footnote: Thou, Thee, Thy, and Thine” – http://ac.turbinegames.com/index.php?page_id=202 ).
While perhaps such speech has allied itself with the notion of fantasy, Asheron's Call has no basis in terms of real-world earth whatsoever (barring vague references to the Aluvian race being like the medieval British, or the Sho being like feudal Japan), and such language seems much more likely to create an awkward, or at least forced, feeling of adherence. Instead, we see very honest character “summaries” from names such as “Ur-red-ur-dead”, which comply perfectly to the game's vernacular. Though references to the outside world seem to have no such saving graces, there seems nothing destructive, and indeed something very immersive about characters being allowed to discuss – in their natural voices – issues of in-game concerns. Things such as trade conversations, spell requests, or even combat commands (even if spoken in contemporary English) seem only to be players naturally acquiring the sort of immersion into the game that role-playing would hope to create. The issues facing their characters have become the issues facing them – their level, their needs, their requests. Indeed, characters lamenting a lost item, for example, even at their most agitated states, seem to reflect this immersion, referring always to their avatar character as “I” (“I died…”) and to their items as “their” items (“…and I dropped my shield”). While perhaps the reasons for this seem unremarkable and obvious, it is interesting to consider that, to the observer reading a logged conversation, for instance, there would be nothing about this that has broken the illusion. Conversely, perhaps the awkward misuse of “thy” or “thine” would pull someone out of the moment, or even ruin it with the sheer irrelevance to any modern sensibility. Though apparently defying their intended manner of speech for Asheron's Call, the developers' decision to not enforce role-playing has actually seemed to allow a more organic method of roleplaying to emerge from the chat systems of their game, the adherence to which seems yet one more immersive factor, compelling the players to take part in, and help culturally shape, the game world. Even in terms of language, the Massively Multiplayer displays elements of near-limitless multicursality.
Lastly, even the ways in which the Massively Multiplayer game does occasionally break down and reveal its own form – as a game taking place within the confines of a real, external world – reflects relevant information about its open-endedness, and its use to a society such as our own. Everything from politics to sports become the topics of “OOC” (out-of-character) conversation within games such as Asheron's Call, and each reflects the ability for such games to provide a forum wherein people otherwise separated by region or schedule, etc. can take part in a social environment. It is at times eerie to see the real world reflected in terms of the world of Dereth, the most extreme example possible being the gameworld's reactions to the very real tragedy of September 11 th , 2001. Whether very respectful or entirely tasteless, a staggering number of people, over several hours, took part in a virtualized “candlelight vigil” within the “Subway” of our Solclaim server, where the leaders of the event organized passers-by into a ring extending entirely around the circular shape of Subway's main entrance plaza, and distributed game torches to be held in front of the character. Players were expected to stand silently, in reflection, (or perhaps a sort of social speechlessness had set in), holding their torch for as long as they felt necessary, and then to move along, wordlessly, about their Derethian business. Needless to say, reactions to this, depending on the person seeing it, ranged everywhere from gratitude to fury – but no one had the nerve to break the somehow very real solemnity of that silent Subway, filled with torch-bearing characters. In this way, and perhaps most certainly externally to the original designs of Asheron's Call, the virtual world of Dereth served as a very real outlet to a grieving nation, for better or worse in terms of tastefulness. Seeing a perspective on the reactions of the large number of multinational players alone validated the gameworld as a forum for many. Though having absolutely no basis in the gameworld itself, the reaction of those vigil-holders, out of context or not, was essentially a Derethian reaction, played out through role-playing.
(9/11 Vigil Screenshots: photo1, photo2)