Why walk when you can teleport? Themes of travel in online roleplaying games


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Travel constitutes a significant activity in the majority of Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs), whether players are pursuing quests, trading, adventuring or simply exploring. Yet not all journeys are equal, and the roles of,
  04   276 Volume  Nick Webber   is Senior Researcher and Research Developer at the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Re-search, Birmingham City University, UK. He has written on identity, cultural history and the rela-tionship of technology and culture, and his current research includes popular music consumption, on-line archiving and civic history, and the culture of massively multiplayer online games. k   v  a r    t     e r    akademisk  academic   quarter  Volume 04. Spring 2012 •  on the web Why walk when you can teleport?  Themes of travel in online roleplaying games Abstract Travel constitutes a signicant activity in the majority of Massive - ly Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs), wheth - er players are pursuing quests, trading, adventuring or simply exploring. Yet not all journeys are equal, and the roles of, and responses to, various journeys demonstrate a number of interest - ing interpretations of travel. From one perspective, journeys in games are simply consumers of time: notably, World of Warcraft  ob - tained the nickname “World of Walking” due to player perceptions that there was too much travel involved. Yet it is intriguing that some players voluntarily undertake extensive journeys, which are often difcult (in gameplay terms) and time-consuming, when more convenient routes are available. This article seeks to consider the many roles of travel in MMORPGs, and to reect on ideas of the journey as, among other things, labour ( travail ), a rite of pas - sage, and a means of saying goodbye. Article Although the players themselves remain rmly in their seats, travel, and the journeys that are made, are signicant activities within Mas - sively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs). As - pects of game-driven play which incorporate travel, such as quest -  k   v  a r    t     e r    akademisk  academic   quarter Volume Why walk when you can teleport?Nick Webber 04   277 ing and trading, are supplemented by player-driven journeys, to explore perhaps, or to visit a favourite location. Scholars have noted that 3D environments (which MMORPGs typically are) place an em - phasis on movement through the world, prompting more travel than in 2D environments (Book, 2003, p. 4). Yet in the variety of jour - neys, and in the discourses that surround them, we can see that the players of these games interpret and make meaning from travel in a number of different and sometimes contradictory ways. Travel in MMORPGs serves a number of purposes, therefore, and this article will investigate and consider different kinds of travel, attempting to understand what, for players, travel means.A study of these interpretations and meanings contributes to a number of discussions and developments. Firstly, the investigation informs (and is informed by) debates about social roles in games and about the relationship (or lack thereof) between games and nar - rative structures. Secondly, a clearer understanding of player activi - ties in game spaces provides information useful to game providers in creating fullling environments for their players and in accom - modating a variety of approaches to play. Finally, and in more gen - eral terms, examining online games adds to the corpus of informa - tion about online spaces which, while increasingly widely studied, are still relatively poorly understood, particularly in the context of the relationship between online and ofine behaviour. The academic debates which contextualise this work focus on at - tempts to understand the practices of gamers, and the extent to which games can be thought of as texts containing narrative struc - tures. Both areas of inquiry feature strong analytical structures, which are valuable tools when they are allowed to inform, but not to construct, our research. When considering the ways in which players approach games, there is a tendency to create typologies; Richard Bartle’s seminal 1996 work on player types (rened in 2003) and Nick Yee’s model of player motivations (2006) are undoubtedly the most signicant. Typologies of gamers are, however, “young” enough to be necessarily incomplete, and Yee has drawn attention to the lack of empirical evidence supporting Bartle’s analysis (2007). In terms of narrative, although a lengthy and often antagonistic de -  bate has taken place within and around game studies about the re - lationship between games and narrative (see, for example, Eskelin - en, 2001; Jenkins 2004), this can be broadly set aside (Frasca, 2003).  k   v  a r    t     e r    akademisk  academic   quarter Volume Why walk when you can teleport?Nick Webber 04   278 It has been the site of a great deal of misunderstanding, but has at its heart the common principle that, while games are not stories, notions of narrative (alongside other analytical approaches) can help us to make sense of them. For the purposes of this study, a use - ful intervention is that of Celia Pearce (2004), who offers a consid - eration of narrative in a play-centric context. Pearce denes a num -  ber of narrative elements which can be found in games; of particular value in understanding game journeys are experiential (the emer - gent narrative of the play experience), augmentary (backstory and contextual information) and metastory (narrative overlay) elements (Pearce, 2004, p. 145). Here, then, I set out not to produce another typology, nor to un - dertake a narrative analysis, but rather to explore the journeys that players make in games as cultural practices, in their own terms. Tak  - ing elements from both narrative and typological approaches, I will produce a cultural analysis which might help to rene future work.We move on, then, to the journeys themselves. When considering the various forms of travel which players undertake, we might make an immediate distinction between two general types: travel driven by the game, and travel driven by the player. Although the outcomes of these forms of travel can ultimately be the same – ar - rival in the same location, even after travel by the same route and in the same manner – the sense of purpose is signicant. In the ma -  jority of MMORPGs, game-driven travel is constructed through a mechanism of game objectives. Typically, these are quests, where a character is required to travel either incidentally (to another town to collect a package, for example) or as a more fundamental part of the quest experience (they might have to escort an injured soldier to safety). In addition, many games offer achievements (rewards ob - tained for completing longer-term, non-quest objectives) and these are sometimes travel-related (to visit every cave system in the game, say). Finally, travel occurs as an aspect of situation: location is im - portant in certain games for particular reasons (e.g. security, access to facilities), prompting travel to these locations from elsewhere.The notion of a quest as a motivation for travel, and as a way to give travel meaning, is rmly rooted in narrative traditions. Some writers refer to the archetypal heroic quest of Odysseus (Krzywin - ska, 2008, p. 133), and as the vast majority of these games employ common tropes of fantasy literature (around 85% of MMORPGs are  k   v  a r    t     e r    akademisk  academic   quarter Volume Why walk when you can teleport?Nick Webber 04   279 fantasy games: Van Geel, 2012), we might also note the prevalence of quest narratives there, with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings  being perhaps the best-known of many examples. More broadly, Campbell noted the importance of the monomyth or heroic journey to the structure of myths (2008). Academics in game studies have worked to dene quests, suggesting, for example, that they require the player to “move through a landscape in order to full a goal while mastering a series of challenges” (Aarseth, 2004, p. 368). For game players, however, quests are understood in a dual mode: “in both narrative and other, more functional and experiential, terms” (Krzywinska, 2008, p. 133). While quests provide an augmentary or metastory nar - rative which sets the triggered activity in terms of the game’s story - world (Krzywinska, 2008, p. 127), the majority of players engage with the majority of quests, and the journeys they prompt, as a piece of game function which sets clear and simplistic objectives. Indeed, the idea of the heroic journey is so well understood by game players that transitional and expositional sequences can be removed (Jen - kins, 2006, p. 120), turning the quest into a shortcut to game activity. For the majority, therefore, quests function in a manner similar to achievements, and both of those are not far from the simple func - tionality of shopping and banking – the end result (the purchase, the reward) is the objective, and the cultural experience is ignored. Where the quest, achievement or simple location is the driver, therefore, travel is to a large extent meaningless in these spaces: trav - el extends the time of the quest, achievement or location activity, but is not integral to it, and the fact that a player may be pushed to ex - plore the game world becomes incidental. This is reected in player discourse around travel and quests, with World of Warcraft  for exam - ple mocked as a “travel simulator” (e.g. Newlin, 2009) or as “World of Walking” (Rohnalt, 2011). Travel is perceived as work which must  be completed in order to obtain a reward, travail  in the truest sense. We might then think of achievements which celebrate this kind of travel, among other things, as celebrations of the mundane; much like the “gamication” (Castronova, 2011) of life implied in appli - cations like  foursquare  , in which you can unlock badges “for the things you do in the real world” (Foursquare, 2011), achievements “gamify” games, making play activities out of incidental labour. That many of these activities are also repetitious (quests that are re - peatable or achievements which scale: kill 10 cultists; kill 100 cultists;  k   v  a r    t     e r    akademisk  academic   quarter Volume Why walk when you can teleport?Nick Webber 04   280 etc.) supports notions of these activities, and the connected journeys, as in pursuit of a work ethic or corporate ideology (Rettberg, 2008). In another locale, we might see such a journey as a commute.Evidently, the designers of such games understand that travel,  beyond rst instance exploration, becomes onerous (and it is per - haps intended as such). The worlds in which these games are set are “scaled” such that they are functionally very small. Indeed, players remark on the oddities of world sizes, and extensive dis - cussions take place which attempt to provide accurate measure - ments of the effective size of these spaces, from the tiny Telara (the world of Rift; 4.6 miles long and 5.5 miles wide) to larger spaces such as Norrath ( EverQuest ), which at launch was claimed to cover 350 square miles (Maverick, 2011). In addition, travel speed is rela - tively swift: most players make their characters run everywhere, and it is possible to cross the entirety of even a mid-sized game world in under an hour of continuous travel. Even so, as characters increase in power (and often, also, as games increase in age), the “blockage” of travel is lifted, and a variety of ways to make jour - neys shorter become available: mass transit systems, personal transport devices (e.g. mounts), the ability to y, or the ability to teleport. As one commentator notes, in the context of tourism in Second Life  , “one distinct advantage of the tourist experience in vir - tual worlds is that instead of being required to walk to the next sight, one can simply click a link and ‘teleport’ there” (Book, 2003, p. 15). Travel is tedious and a time sink, and long-time players (i.e. established customers) need not trouble themselves with it.With this instrumental notion of travel in mind, it is therefore striking that a substantial number of players appear to choose to travel for reasons other than those driven by the game. Moreover, many of these players choose to travel slowly, or in a manner which does away with the conveniences accorded to those who adopt more conventional approaches. In general, inconvenient forms of travel offer no tangible gameplay benet and, in fact, may expose a character to additional risk – travel on foot through a forest full of monsters is rather more dangerous than simply teleporting be - tween cities. So although travel to complete game objectives may ultimately be either onerous or meaningless, these voluntary jour - neys seem to offer players a way to make meaning of, and through, online travel.
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