Thursday, October 30, 2008

Online Interactivity and Social Networking: Warhammer Style

Journal Entry No. 6

Social networking has improved tremendously over the past recent years. I think massively multiplayer online games are an extension of this growth. First, in the early days of AOL Instant Messenger, people could jump into different chat rooms that are separated by different tastes. For example, car mechanics could join the same chat room and instantly have something in common with everyone else in the chat room. Forums were (and are) the same idea. Second Life, I believe, was another step. People suddenly had three dimensional avatars to portray themselves: and, instead of chat rooms, there were huge, 3D worlds to socialize in. Car mechanics could suddenly go to a world full of other car fans, and people interested in virtual slavery could find a world for them. Still, all of these tools still allowed people to be anti-social. What if a tool, or a game, forced you to be social?

I think MMORPG's have successfully done just that. Of course, there is the way MMORPG systems link people together in parties: damage dealers need tanks, tanks need healers, and healers need tanks. Playing Warhammer Online, I have realized that other systems exist in MMORPG worlds: and in Warhammer, the system is really cool.

As my little goblin character, I eventually made it to the gigantic hub of all evil characters: The Inevitable City. Despite the morbidity of the dark city, it felt very alive. Monsters lurked just outside the city walls, which were made up of huge black spikes; shopkeepers stood waiting and calling for you; people bustled all over; goblins were seen tricking some orcs in a game of dice. After exploring the city a little bit, I found some fellow guild mates. I also saw some players were of other guilds, with whom we had sort of a rivalry (though, later, we would end up forming an alliance with them. Keep your enemies close and all that). Soon afterwards, there was a lot more talking in the area. The forces of Destruction (that's us) were very successful, since the launch of the game, to be able to capture most of the keeps in the game. Anyone can check on the keeps at any time on the map: red for Destruction, blue for Order. Suddenly, as people in the Inevitable City were clamoring over, many of the red symbols were blue. First, it was just one. No problem. But then there was one right after the other – in a span of about 15 minutes, Order had become organized enough to take over the forces of Destruction in four different keeps. Parties were soon being formed in the City: my guild members and I were soon a part of warband of two other guilds, but our goal was the same. Get back the keeps.

We were lucky enough to first go after a keep with relatively low defenses. Soon afterwards we ran to another keep, and entertainingly enough defenders of the last keep died trying to follow us. After some great battles and some good leadership we knocked down the door of the next keep and took it over after a bit of work. We got three keeps back that night, but by the time I went to sleep, the forces of Order were already pushing back. After our third keep, though, the first keep we got was already blue again. On our march back there, we had encountered a gigantic Order war party. Our little band of heroes was no match for them, though we kept trying. As fun as success was, I felt that the defeat brought our three guilds even more so together, and the main similarity between us grew even stronger: we needed to kill the other guys.

Many people still feel that feelings can never be represented on a computer, and that no one can really socialize with a computer. An article about the first interactive video art installation states that “some people feel that computer systems will eventually reflect the personality and biases of their users. Yet these systems only appear to talk back. That they are alive or independent is an illusion. They depend upon the architectural strategy of the program” (The Fantasy Beyond Control, Lynn Hershman, page 3). I think things like Second Life and Warhammer Online have drastically changed this outlook: no long is there a false illusion of computer systems talking back. Now, experiences can depend totally on other people, on totally organic living people, perhaps on the other side of the world. One person is looking at another person's 3D avatar, made by a 3D artist and programmed by a programmer, existing on computer functions, but the feelings and actions of that avatar are led completely by its user. Thus, personality and biases are reflected in these avatars, in these computer systems. Programs like Warhammer Online bring people together towards a common goal, and force people to socialize. The more people talk, the better organized the team will be, and the more likely that team can take over a keep or whatever needs some good taking over. This comes close to being even more of a social interaction that some real life experiences. Walking in the middle of New York City, for example, no one talks to you unless you talk to them first, usually. The same as in the Inevitable City. But in the Inevitable City, a large portion of the City might suddenly band together in defense of their keeps. Still, these avatars are still goblins and dwarves. In the future, avatars, I think, will become more responsive and controllable to the user's personality with appropriate, smooth, facial expressions and the like. Often times, though, I feel more at home being a goblin anyway.