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Virtual worlds don’t exist

A world I’m writing this at Breaking the Magic Circle, a seminar at the Game Research Lab at University of Tampere, Finland. Overall, it’s been an interesting seminar. As is typical of game studies gatherings, we’ve heard a mixed bag of presentations on diverse topics and from distinct angles. This can be both stimulating and frustrating at the same time.

My own contribution was a working paper titled Virtual Worlds Don’t Exist. I got some useful feedback, for which I am thankful. Feel free to drop your own feedback either as a comment on this blog or via email. I’ll paste the abstract below. Updated: you can find my presentation slides here.

Abstract: I argue that much of MMO-related scholarship is implicitly based on a dichotomous “real world vs. virtual world” model, which is heavily influenced by the “magic circle” concept in game studies. I show a number of shortcomings in this perspective and propose an alternative perspective based on Anselm Strauss’s social worlds (Strauss, 1978). The alternative perspective unbundles users from the technological platform and places MMO-centered social worlds in context with other worlds like religion and workplace.

Words of Warcraft, Language of Lineage

Once I told WoW from Lineage,by re-spelling WoW into ‘Work’ of warcraft and Lineage into ‘World’ of Lineage.

Because WoW looks near to game 2.0, while Lineage to Web 2.0 for me.

On secondthought, I re-united the WoW & Lineage by calling both them ‘words’ of Warcraft and ‘language’ of Lineage.

I view the identity of MMO as play association or human platform and the code of MMO functions as words(jargon?) to their cultural members.

Recalling the Muds and D&D, the key is the word itself.

Great work! Vili,


Useful references

Hi Vili,

I’m glad to see you tackling this territory (Unggi was kind enough to link to it on a discussion at TN). I think you’ll want to be aware that a number of scholars are on your side, having already made similar arguments (but great to see your voice added to the chorus). Links to several cites (you’ve got TL’s book) are in my TN comment here:


Beyond Play

Unggi and Thomas, thanks for your comments!

@Thomas: Thank you for pointing out those three works. I don’t regularly follow game-related theoretical discussions, so my knowledge of that area is patchy.

Taylor I am of course alreaday citing. Taylor issues a “call for non-dichotomous models”, but doesn’t go as far as to provide one, so in this respect I see my paper as a follow-up to it (as well as a modest extension in terms of adding dimensions). Steinkuehler I had completely missed, and it seems equally relevant — I’ll be sure to read it.

As for Beyond Play, I regret that I came across it only late in the process of writing the initial version. It’s quite a piece of work, demonstrating your wide learning and erudite style :). I didn’t have time to digest it at the time (and felt that wasn’t vital for reasons described below), but I read it properly today, between receiving your email and writing this comment. You mention the real-virtual dichotomy and conclude that your alternative perspective “places game contexts and other arenas of human experience ontologically on a par with each other”. This is of course very similar to what I concluded in my paper in the context of MMOs, so I understand your surprise over not being cited. I’ll be sure to discuss “Beyond Play” in the next iteration.

As for why I overlooked “Beyond Play” in the first place, I have attempted to keep a certain distance from the bigger theoretical discussions regarding the nature and concept of Games. Page 3 of my paper contains a hasty attempt to set these discussions aside; Copier there gets to represent all the games-in-general literature I haven’t read. What I would like to do is to focus only on the artefacts known as MMOs and a specific young “tradition” of research on MMOs. In this empirical orientation, concepts and constructions serve a sort of instrumental purpose only (the “who cares” -test). Thus I try to carry as few as possible.

As an example of how the social worlds perspective passes the “who cares” -test, I would like to offer the following anecdote. In the seminar mentioned in the post above, one author presented the results of a survey which asked players to what extent WoW “interferes with their real life”. But as we know, many players play with their family or co-workers, or see WoW as their primary hobby, or make money in WoW, or obtain fame and recognition among school friends by performing high-level raids. To these players, a question phrased in terms of a real-virtual dichotomy is invalid and will yield arbitrary responses. Thus in my surveys, I present a list of social worlds, e.g. family, work, religious group and WoW, and ask players to indicate to what extent they feel part of each, for example. As a result, I get responses that are less arbitrary.

At the moment, my paper largely ignores any possible “gameness” of MMOs. Whether or not this is a problem for me depends on how gameness would translate into practice in the form of e.g. survey questions. This is probably one area where both “Beyond Play” and Unggi’s work could help me (calibrated contingency, cultural code). At the end of “Beyond Play” you have of course also pointed out a number of other implications your perspective has for empirical research. It seems I may have to correct my attitude towards what I above termed theoretical discussions regarding games-in-general!

Wonderful to Hear

Hi Vili,
I appreciate the lengthy response *very* much, and I’m very glad that the references I’ve provided will be helpful to you.

I understand what you’re trying to do, and I applaud the effort to get us to move beyond the inherited dichotomies that get in the way of our understanding of what is happening in and around these spaces. As you note, bringing game contexts and other contexts of our lives together is one of the main points of the Beyond Play article. Thus, may I suggest that one more dichotomy in need of transcending is that between “game” and “not-game”? In a way, this is a natural extension of your own (proper) skepticism about the magic circle itself! Pragmatically speaking, we will always need to recognize that some social artifacts are recognized as games (just as people strive — always partially — to set off many domains of our experience, including religion, courts, etc). The deeper point is that we should begin to be able to talk about “gameness” in our understanding of social worlds. Participants of course do this all the time — in a way this would be following their lead (and as you note, I’ve discussed the many important research questions that can follow from this).

More broadly, my primary aim has been to get us to connect existing social theory to games, and in fact to recognize that much of the best social theory we have has struggled with questions of social change and indeterminacy for a long time, in many cases turning to musings about “gameness” without fully theorizing it. In this respect, thinkers like the pragmatist philosophers, the late Wittgenstein, Pierre Bourdieu, and others were doing what many social actors do — trying to find language to talk about the varieties of contrived indeterminacy that they find in different domains of their lives.

Thus, there is an enormous contribution that studies of games can make to our understanding of society as a whole, even (or especially) where a “game” is not on the table. Gameness points to the multiple ways in which open-endedness is contrived (or accidentally present) in a given social world, and this may be a big part of what makes a context feel “worldly”.

Bringing games into the social theoretical conversation means that we have new tools in our toolbox of understanding society. What is more, it avoids reproducing two equally unappealing habits: seeing games (and thus, “gameness”) as interesting but niche — set apart from other domains of our experience (you call these social worlds), or seeing them as places which simply reflect already existing social processes (an approach often associated with narratology).

In any event, this broader argument is obviously to a certain extent beyond what you’re trying to do in your paper. I just hope that in looking to junk the magic circle concept (I’m with you there), you don’t miss a quite powerful implication of doing just that. Breaking down that false wall leads to welcome circulation in *both* directions. 🙂


Magic Circle

Another, perhaps more practical quote on the Magic circle from J.Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens(page 10):

“More striking even than the limitation as to time is the limitation as to space. All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the ‘consecrated spot’ cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.”

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