Co-Creative Media: Online Multiplayer Computer Game Culture
As a new and emerging research area, computer games demand the development of new theoretical frameworks for research and analysis. In addition to the specific requirements of a new medium, the advent and rapidly rising popularity of multiplayer computer gaming creates further challenges for researchers when the text under analysis forms a locus for human interaction ? structuring and mediating communication between large numbers of people, and spawning social practices and identifications within a cultural economy extending beyond the game itself. While multiplayer gaming practices develop within existing social, cultural, technological and economic structures, they are also producing significant shifts within these structures.
Here I will be discussing the gaming practices surrounding multiplayer, first-person shooter (FPS) computer games such as Quake III Arena and Half-Life Counter-Strike. Since the mid-1990s, a large and remarkably cohesive online community has developed around these games, involving hundreds of thousands of players, with up to 100,000 FPS gamers actively playing online at any one time (http://www.gamespy.com/stats, Mar 5, 2003). In addition to actual gameplay, the FPS community engages in practices of game development, criticism, commentary, debate, information exchange, file-sharing and social organisation. Online access to open-source game development tools, the provision of venues for distribution and publicity of player-generated game content and modifications, the use of the online community in game testing, and increased communication between game development companies and players are currently shifting the boundaries between the traditional roles of media producers and consumers and changing the ways in which these games are made. Study of the practices surrounding multiplayer FPS games can provide insight into new and emerging models of media production, consumption and distribution, play, community formation and challenges to existing structures of social and economic power.
A Brief History of FPS Games and the Development of Community
In 1992, the first FPS game, Wolfenstein 3-D was developed by a group of six young game designers working out of a one-bedroom loft apartment in Mesquite, Texas. Wolfenstein 3-D was innovative in both game design and distribution. It was the first shooting game for the PC to use a first-person point-of-view and early 3D technology to create for the player a sense of immersion in a three-dimensional space, and stood out in a gaming world populated by the platform games of Sega and Nintendo console systems. As shareware, Wolfenstein 3-D was distributed for free on bulletin board systems (BBS) and by floppy disk, and proliferated on network environments such as those in business and educational institutions and the (pre-World Wide Web) Internet.
In December 1993, Wolfenstein 3-D?s developers, now known as id Software, released Doom, also initially as a shareware download (15 million copies of Doom are estimated to have been circulated worldwide since). Doom was revolutionary and culturally significant in that it was multiplayer (up to four players could play via LAN, serial connection or telephone lines) and the id developers made the unprecedented move of releasing the game?s source code to the public. This allowed gamers to make modified versions of the game, customising landscapes and game models, and creating new levels and even ?total conversions? ? entirely new game scenarios, such as Barney Doom or Star Trek Doom. These player creations were circulated on BBSs and the Internet.
Players wrote detailed documents (text files) outlining Doom gameplay strategies and game programming and modification techniques, which could be downloaded from Usenet newsgroups, the Internet and IRC (Internet Relay Chat). A famous example is the 55,000-word Doom FAQ written by then 14-year-old student Hank Leukart. Personal and community communication between FPS gamers was made possible through Usenet and IRC.
Both multiplayer gaming and an active mod development scene continued and grew through id?s subsequent titles: Doom II (1994), Quake (1996), Quake II (1997) and Quake III: Arena (1999), and the development of competing FPS titles, such as Unreal (1998) and Half-Life (1999). The popularity of multiplayer FPS gaming saw the development of clans (groups of gamers who play together as a team ? both in online games and at real-life LAN meetings) and a shift towards team-based games, which are now by far the most popular (eg Half-Life Counter-Strike (1999), Medal of Honor Allied Assault (2001), Battlefield 1942 (2002).
Current Manifestations of the FPS Gaming Community
Online game servers, while used primarily for gameplay, are also a social venue for gamers. Players may type messages to each other in the game, and indeed this is an important part of strategic communication, especially in team games. Players also chat, educate each other in the finer points of gameplay, and exchange abuse, jokes and information, depending on the level of seriousness of the game. It is possible to talk as much in an online FPS game as in IRC, although excessive chatter may be frowned upon, and ?spamming? (excessive text messaging) can cause a player to be silenced or ?kicked? from the game. Players may join a server game just to talk to a friend, or to invite players to another server. In-game voice communication has been made possible in recent years by ancillary programs, again developed by gamers, (such as BattleCom, which was later purchased by Microsoft to make GameVoice) and has been incorporated in some recent games such as Tribes2.
There are thousands of websites devoted to FPS gaming: gaming news and reviews sites (eg Blue?s News http://www.bluesnews.com/), online league and game ladder sites (for both individuals and clans) such as the Online Gamers League (http://www.worldogl.com/) and BarrysWorld (http://leagues.barrysworld.net/), individual clan pages (which provide clan information and contact details for match challenges), to large multi-purpose portals such as PlanetQuake (http://www.planetquake.com/) or the Australian Ausgamers site (http://www.ausgamers.com/), which are used by the community to report news, exchange information, publicise LAN meetings and online competitions, download software and files (latest patches, maps, models, skins, sounds) and provide hosting for hundreds of smaller clan and special-interest websites (Ausgamers alone hosts some 2500 clan pages and claims 65,000 registered members). Many of the larger sites host discussion forums where news items, gaming and technical subjects and a wide variety of other issues may be discussed, and provide real-time chat and links to associated IRC channels.
Webpages are the public face of the game community, and provide education resources for players in gameplay strategies, tactics, etiquette, game customisation, development, and allow discussion and debate of these issues. They also allow special interest groups within the gaming community to have an online presence and voice in the community, such as www.gamegirlz.com, which raises issues faced by the relatively small number of female players in the FPS scene, and general issues of gender and computer gaming.
IRC is still popular with FPS gamers, for chat, clan meetings, technical support, game and social organisation, and FTP (file transfer) access, but not as much as in its heyday when it was one of the few technologies providing real-time communication and access to FTP sites. The release of the highly anticipated first Quake test in February 1996 saw an IRC record set for the largest channel ever, of 1556 users on EFNet#quake ? 10% of the total number of IRC users at the time (http://www.the-project.org/history.html, Mar 5, 2003). In 1999 the IRC network EnterTheGame was established by members of the gaming community to offer gamers a better place to gather and chat, setup matches, and meet like-minded people on-line. Instant messaging programs (eg ICQ, Trillian) are popular for chat between individuals or small groups.
Gaming-specific communication technologies have also been developed by the FPS gaming community. One of the most notable is GameSpy, a server-query utility that was developed by gamers (beginning as QSpy for Quake), facilitating player access to over 40,000 active FPS game servers worldwide, and has evolved to include buddy lists, real-time chat and file-transfer functions, and support for other game genres (Vrignaud, http://www.cdmag.com/articles/019/077/otn_104.html, Mar 13, 2003).
Influences on Community
It is important to note that all these online manifestations of the FPS gaming community have developed independently of game development companies. Game servers are run by gamers themselves who have access to suitable hardware and connections, or by internet service providers keen to attract clientele. Web pages, discussion forums and chat venues are all run by players. Clans and competitions are organised independently, as are online gaming ladders and the majority of real-life LAN (Local Area Network) meetings. There are dozens of organised LAN gatherings held in Australia every weekend, attracting between 50 and 400 players, and in January 2003, 1000 gamers met in Melbourne for the inaugural "Big Day In", the largest event of its kind held in the Southern Hemisphere.
Like most LAN events, QuakeCon, the large annual gaming gathering held in Mesquite Texas, and now organised in association with id Software, had its genesis in online community activities. In 1996, regular habitués of the IRC channel EFNet#quake decided to organise a real-life meeting and pilgrimage to their gaming Mecca ? Mesquite, Texas, the home of id Software. Originally planned for 50 people, word spread on the internet and eventually over 150 gamers from the US and Canada (and their computers) met at a hotel convention centre outside Dallas. To the surprise of organisers, the id Software developers, curious to see this culture their games had spawned, turned up on the last day, took attendees on a tour of their offices and paid for the gamers? convention room hire (author?s interviews with QuakeCon veterans Wino and Yossman). Since then QuakeCon has become an annual event attended by over 3000 players from around the world, attracts corporate sponsorship from id and other gaming and hardware companies, and features FPS competitions with prize money totalling $US100,000 (in 2002).
Players have developed intricate rules and etiquette governing gameplay and social behaviour, based on fundamental principles of fair play and general social cooperation. Clans in particular tend to have stringent rules governing members? behaviour, both in games and in other online communication forums, and players may be suspended or expelled from their clans for transgressions of these.
Issues of cheating in multiplayer are mostly played out at the community level. While developers try to make games as cheat-proof as possible, the innovative and creative ethos of the community means that game hackers are always looking for new challenges, and players have developed cheat programs that, for example, automate aiming and firing of weapons, make walls invisible, or extend player models so they can be seen from any location in the game. The development of cheats is done much in the same spirit of other hacking and cracking activities ? for the challenge and kudos. Anti-cheating programs are developed in the same way, leading to an ongoing battle of wits at a code-writing level. Major anti-cheating innovations such as PunkBuster have been developed by amateur programmers in the game community, and later incorporated into official game updates (eg in Quake III: Arena 1.32).
This sense of self governance, combined with the creative input of players, has led to a high level of involvement and investment by players in an online community that is vocal, influential, highly social and considers itself self-regulating and, to a certain degree, self-determining.
FPS gamers develop gaming identities which are used across various media. Online gaming culture, like BBS culture before it, requires the use of in-game names (or "handles" as they are sometimes called). Players frequently have a single online name that is used for games, IRC, email addresses, account names and log-ins, instant messaging programs (ICQ, Trillian), web discussion forums, and other, non-gaming sites. On IRC, which requires unique log-ins, names may be registered with Nickserv for security and to ensure that one?s chosen name is always available. Gaming names are also used in real-life gaming gatherings such as LAN meetings where it is rare to hear players refer to each other by their given names (if they are known at all). Online names are important in tying down a concrete identity in a virtual world and gamers place much value on their online reputations.
Influences on Game Development
Unlike the film, television and music industries, which tend to actively discourage fans from modifying content by adhering blindly to rigid interpretations of copyright, FPS game developers have actively encouraged the creative efforts of players. Because of early decisions made by game developers id Software to make the source code of their games and game editing tools available to the public, an active "mod scene" has developed around FPS games. The mod scene is not just an additional hobby available for gamers, but an essential element of the current gaming scene. While a company might produce 10-20 models and maps for a game, those most frequently used on game servers are selected from the hundreds of player-made variations. The quality and quantity of player-generated game content often far surpasses that of the original development teams. Some of the more successful mods have gone on to be greater successes than the original game itself.
Counter-Strike (1999) ? a mission-based team-play mod for Valve?s Half-Life, which has transcended mere mod status to go on to become the most popular multiplayer FPS game of all time ? was developed by British Columbia student Minh "Gooseman" Le, and became so popular it was eventually purchased by Valve and released on CD in 2000, selling over a million copies even though it has always been free and legally available for download. For over three years now, Counter-Strike has eclipsed every other online FPS game in popularity. There are currently over 20,000 Counter-Strike game servers in existence, with 60,000 to 80,000 players online at any one time, 30 times more than the numbers playing any other FPS game (http://www.gamespy.com/stats, Mar 5, 2003).
The success of the mod scene has led to major changes in the relationship between game developers and their audience. There is a high level of communication between gamers and ?official? developers; information regarding game development is made available to the public through ".plan" files and interviews, and players have an unprecedented level of feedback and suggestion to game developers. Gaming webpages provide gamers and game developers with independent critical reviews and feedback from the gaming community, in contrast to the more diplomatic and sometimes obsequious reviews that appear in print publications intent on promoting games and pleasing advertisers.
Developers may also participate in online discussion forums with fans, although this has become less common as the industry has grown. In the mid-90s, id Software developers would frequent the Undernet IRC #quake channel and provide information and partake in discussions about Quake?s development. This open communication between the software developers and their potential market contributed to the heightened interest in Quake during its infancy. Gamer-developer communications now tend to be mediated through major gaming news websites ? which may host moderated online chat sessions, or solicit questions from fans which are then presented to a developer in an interview. Individual developers, major ones at least, no longer give out their email addresses; some have complained of receiving thousands of emails a week from gamers and amateur mod developers (QuakeCon, 2001).
The increased input of players into these games has also had a marked influence on the way these games are developed. Whereas once a game was developed to the point of a "beta", before being released to a few select "beta testers" who would "bug test" the game before the final, commercial release, game "tests" are now being released over the net at earlier stages in development, so that thousands of players around the world can test the game and provide feedback to the developers. This also allows mod authors to get an early start on their development of their add-ons to the game. Earlier unofficial alpha tests (devoid of proper player models or texture graphics) are also leaked onto the net, much to the chagrin of developers, and to the delight of gamers eager to get a glimpse of "the next big thing", regardless of quality.
In February 1996, months before the commercial release of Quake, id Software released three levels over the net to allow gamers to bug-test network play. Two days later, game hackers had not only discovered bugs, but provided patches to fix them; hundreds of patches and hacks were sent to id in the following months. Users had even figured out how to activate features in Quake the developers had not yet thought were functional. One id developer was quoted as saying: "The joke around here now is [that] we can let the rest of the world finish Quake for us" (Laidlaw, 1996:189). In 1999, following the release of the first official test for id's Quake III Arena, (the first of a planned four tests before the release of the "Q3 Demo") id developer Graeme Devine received over 6,000 feedback emails (http://www.telefragged.com/pels/interviews/graemedevine.shtml, Jun 1, 1999).
Some level of involvement in the mod scene or other creative, gaming-related projects is common for FPS players. In an email survey I conducted in 1999 of Quake II players, 83% had completed some sort of creative project related to the game, from creating webpages to model and level design. Creative input is an important part of player involvement in the FPS scene, and allows players to see themselves as playing a recognised role in the games they enjoy and in the gaming culture. As Counter-Strike developer Gooseman explains:
My initial motivation [for making mods] was probably the same as anyone else involved in the mod scene. I just wanted to customize the game to fit my vision of what a game should be. First and foremost, it is MY vision. not anyone else’s. I don't spend 10+ hours a week working on a mod for free just to make a mod that satisfies everyone, I make a mod that I am happy with and if someone else happens to like it, then that’s a bonus. (http://csnation.counter-strike.net/articles.php/1/print/, Mar 1, 2003)
Apart from the lucky and talented few for whom participation in the mod scene is an entry into professional game development, most gamers receive no financial or professional reward for their contributions to the mod scene, but enjoy the creative challenge, recognition from the game community, and participation in an open-source, code-sharing culture, that John Perry Barlow has described as an "economy which consists almost entirely of information" (http://www.eff.org/pub/Publications/John_Perry_Barlow/ HTML/idea_economy_article.html, Apr 21, 1999).
Mod development is now the most common route of entry into professional game design. Access to open-source development tools and online distribution channels for completed works have allowed young, talented developers to enter the industry judged solely of the quality of their work, despite a lack of formal training and industry contacts and in spite of other obstacles such as geographical location. It is not uncommon for a game development team to have members located all over the world, communicating and exchanging work files online, and young Australian developers in particular have benefited from such arrangements.
Online communication has also had an impact on recruitment practices within the industry. David "Zoid" Kirsch, creator of the Quake multiplayer mod, "ThreeWave Capture the Flag" (1996) sent a brief press release regarding ThreeWave CTF to the major Quake news sites, which caught the attention of id?s John Carmack who offered him a job creating the CTF mod for Quake II. "Id's hiring process was rather strange," according to Kirsch. "Honestly, there wasn?t really an interview per se for getting my job. The majority of meetings were over the Internet. I only met John in person a couple of times" (http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2002/04/16/modding/, Mar 1, 2003).
Amateur game development has led to greater creativity and experimentation within the industry. Whereas major game developers are constrained by marketing, censorship and strict financial considerations that affect game development, amateur mod developers are free to experiment with new ideas and release them online to gauge public response. Because online game servers may be set up by anyone with the necessary hardware and network access, and are run independently of the game industry, server administrators are free to install any games, mods, maps, or rule variations they like ? according to personal preference or in response to player demand. Software companies are then able to invest in ideas that have already been tested on the market, and develop and distribute them further. Software distribution methods have also been influenced by lessons learnt from the FPS gaming scene, as companies have discovered the benefits to be gained from giving a portion of their products away for free.
While the success of the FPS scene has had major benefits regarding the evolution of computer games, gaming culture, and the online community, it is not necessarily perceived in a positive light by the game industry in general. The most profitable games for the industry are those that are largely disposable ? played once and abandoned for the next release (http://www.gamestudies.org/0102/editorial.html, Mar 3, 2003). The sustained longevity of a great game such as Counter-Strike means that gamers playing Counter-Strike predominantly or exclusively for years at a time are not buying many other games, and this has led to some tensions in the industry, in which community building has been seen by some as being a little too successful.
In this brief exploration of the online gaming community surrounding FPS games, it can be seen that gamers have developed a highly participatory culture from their gaming practices. While the concept of "participatory media" is familiar from research into television fan communities, I would argue that these games are "co-creative media"; neither developers nor players can be solely responsible for production of the final assemblage regarded as "the game", it requires the input of both.
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