Configuring the player - subversive behaviour in Project Entropia

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Configuring the player –subversive behaviour in Project Entropia Peter Jakobsson, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden Daniel Pargman, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden This paper presents a theoretical framework from the field of Science & Technology Studies (STS) as a way of studying virtual worlds and employs the framework to study one such world, Project Entropia. In doing so, we explore the social and cultural implications of technology through the users’ reactions to what some of them may experience as an unfair or even oppressive system. Using the metaphor of the game as a text or script highlights the interpretative flexibility of technology. This gives the user a part in the co-construction of the game. The market for Massively Multiplayer online games has grown rapidly over the last years. Most games employ a subscription-based business model where players pay a monthly fee, usually between 10 and 15 US$. A Swedish company, MindArk, has however set out with a completely different business strategy. Their software is free to download and usage does not incur any monthly costs. But, you are probably better off if you load up with some local currency – PEDs – before you start to play. MindArk is not in the charity business and they aim for your wallet, only they have another way of going at it. For the average player, a visit to Project Entropia’s virtual world Calypso is bound to set them back in terms of PEDs (Project Entropia Dollars) but they can always acquire more. The price is however what MindArk charges for their very own homemade currency – currently 1 US$ for 10 PEDs. Project Entropia in a sense works the same way a lottery or a casino does – dollars are redistributed among the players but some of those dollars are skimmed off and stay with the bank (MindArk). Instead of the thrill at the casino table, a Project Entropia player can experience the thrill of a virtual world that to a certain extent (at least in terms of economic consequences) is for real. Lurking in the background is the promise (e.g. possibility) of getting rich for real. If you manage to make money in Project Entropia, you are free to transfer your surplus PEDs back into US$. This set-up is practically guaranteed to have interesting (and controversial) consequences. This far and in contrast to many other online games such as for example Everquest (Castronova 2001, Jakobsson & Taylor 2003, Delwiche 2003), not much has been written about Project Entropia beyond a Master’s thesis about the legal implications of the game (Damgaard 2002). This paper is the result of an ethnographic study conducted among the inhabitants of planet Calypso. The study has been complemented by also looking at Calypso’s surroundings, e.g. fan sites and various web forums on the Internet. Following the work of Bruno Latour (1992), Project Entropia is not viewed primarily as a game but as an open-ended setting containing both human and non-human actors. That is, the study is not limited to the players but also includes Calypso’s large population of bots (Leonard 1997) and non-human actors (at an analytical level we do here not discriminate between these types of actors). The paper is more specifically concerned with two questions; 1) what strategies do MindArk use to get the players to subscribe to their notion of what the game is and how it should be played and 2) to what degree and how do players subscribe to or resist/subvert that notion? The first question makes use of Akrich and Latour’s (1992) terminology where they categorize users’ responses to a setting as either subscription or de-inscription. The result of the process through which the designer, or the author of the setting prescribes/allows certain usages and discourages/disallows other usages is called a script. The Project Entropia script can be studied in many different ways such as looking at the games manuals, marketing material, software interface, gameplay, version updates and game world (see also Oudshoorn and Pinch 2003, Sumerton 2004, Woolgar 1991). It is crucial that the players subscribe to MindArk’s basic notions of "what the game is about" for their business model to work. As to the second question, it is through the players’ actions, and particularly through their resistance to the values expressed in the setting that the taken-for-granted inscriptions, or biases (Friedman and Nissenbaum 1997) of the setting are revealed. We will therefore describe different strategies that players deploy to negotiate the meaning, or de-inscribe the setting of the game. Some of these strategies take place within the game (e.g. exploring, exploiting and scamming) and some take place outside (e.g. on web pages, forums). These two questions can be seen as an example of O’Day et. al.’s (1996) social-technical design circle but with the added complexity of a layer of political implications (as noted by Curtis (1998) in relation to text-based worlds and by Taylor (2004) in relation to graphical online worlds). Although most players subscribe to MindArk’s notion of what the game is and how it should be played, some players clearly operate as "cultural terrorists" who through their deeds resist/subvert the harsh economic reality of this virtual reality. Within the game they have to make-do with the restricted set of tools (de Certeau 1984) that the world lends them. Outside of the game they have a larger collection of tools. Both sets are often used in ingenious ways. That is, while being a nuisance to MindArk, such players show a considerable degree of creativity as they borrow aspects of Lévi-Strauss’ bricoleur (1966) or tinkerer who "make do with ‘whatever is at hand’ " (p.16) and who engage in "reflective manipulation of a set of resources accumulated through experience" (Orr 1990, p.184). As MindArk ultimately control all in-game space, any successful in-game tactic of resistance/subversion can be successful only until MindArk changes the fundamental conditions of the game (typically through the monthly software updates but also with the help of web-pages and through alliances with different player groups). Players can however use strategies that promise to be more successful outside the game (outside of MindArk’s direct jurisdiction). These are further described in the full paper. References: Akrich, M, and Latour, B, (1992). A summary of a convenient vocabulary for the semiotics of human and nonhuman assemblies in W. E. Bijker and J. 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Contact: Peter Jakobsson, Royal Institute of Technology, Media Technology and Graphic,
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