People are extremely social creatures in need of communication with each other. Books, Music and Movies are all forms of communication that are accepted societal norms. These are all forms of expression and persuasion for one thing or another; they open additional channels for communication. The appearance of what has come to be called the "Internet" has forever changed the way human beings communicate and opened infinite possibilities for this endeavor. To this end the advent of "Virtual Persistent Worlds" has created an infinite frontier with its own politics, frontiers and organizations that transcend the real worlds national and continental boundaries.
The first widely distributed and highly successful VPW (Virtual Persistent World), called Ultima Online, was presented by Origin Systems Inc. It is "virtual" because it only exists as bits of data on computer systems. It is "persistent" because when a player quits the game, the world still goes on without them. It is a service that players pay ten dollars a month for and has become so successful that several competitive services have sprung up including Sony’s, "EverQuest" and Microsoft’s, "Asheron’s call". Ultima Online, commonly called UO by the players themselves takes place in a medieval fantasy world called Britannia. It is a world of knights, magicians and blacksmiths. Blacksmiths? Yes, UO has dozens of non-fighting professions, which range between carpentry and lumberjacking to cooking and alchemy. A player can start his or her character out as a lumberjack with bow crafting and lumberjacking skills, go out to the woods just north of town, chop some wood from a tree and carve a bow which can be sold in town at a decent price. A blacksmith can mine ingots, smelt them, use a Blacksmith hammer and create different grades of weapons, depending on their ability. Ability? A character develops in this world, just as people have to learn in the real world, so true it is in the virtual world where players pride themselves on becoming a Grand Master Blacksmith or Lumberjack. Surprisingly many people devote themselves to the pursuit of peaceful professions that provide satisfaction in the rewards of quality work. These are just a few of the concepts of the game that enhance the available options for players. As one writer, Amy Jo Kim, states from her research on online communities:
"Graphically, Britannia is a visually pleasurable place to hang out. The towns, forests, and dungeons are intricately realized. Although it's not as photo realistic as Myst or Riven, the production values are unusually high for a 2D isometric-projection game. The details are meaningful - you can pick up and read that book on the library shelf, or play that game of checkers in the Tavern. The people and creatures are charmingly animated; you hear hoof beats, and watch as three knights on horseback ride by, their capes flowing in the breeze, followed by a lumbering bear and a bedraggled-looking dog. Sound effects (such as approaching footsteps) and music cues (that accompany meaningful events) are used sparingly yet effectively. A mind-boggling variety of clothing options allows each participating character to develop a truly unique look."
(ULTIMA ONLINE: An Interactive Virtual World with Multiple Personalities. Amy Jo Kim NAIMA)
The UO universe is so detailed that players can specialize in poisoning even to the extent they can select the quality of poison they intend to use on the item they are applying it to. A Grand Master at poisoning may apply a deadly poison potion to a sword and use the weapon to assassinate another character. It is the incredible attention to detail and realism that gives Ultima Online its appeal to most people.
A virtual persistent world has no social norms and is a ripe place that can be analyzed to understand social evolution. The virtual world changes along world history lines but at an incredibly fast pace. From a few enclaves to powerful communities with embassies, alliances and armies players balance a kind of equilibrium between good and evil. The concept of war and killing are aspects of the real world, though awful to be a victim, balance the world’s carrying capacity. All these concepts of sociology that people spend countless years observing can be seen developing on VPWs at light speed. The creation of civilization, the development of tactics and innovation are all things that have to be re-created whenever any new virtual persistent world is created. One system of organization may not work for another, example of which is the need for strong central authority instead of strict Democratic systems, because the harshness of the world demands it.
Ultima Online is an Internet game that resides on multiple "shards"(servers) throughout the world. Depending on a player’s location in the real world, their character resides on one or more shards. A single shard can support close to three thousand players online at any given moment, but thousands more are not logged in at the same time as a single shard may have people from twelve different time zones. This makes for interesting play habits as many players in Europe may be going to bed at the same time people on the US and Canadian East coast are starting to get into the game after work.
The primary focus of this paper is the "Atlantic" shard and the player guild organization called "The Syndicate." The Atlantic Shard is the oldest and most densely populated shard of Ultima Online, hence it makes for the best opportunity to experience the social formations and clashes of this online community. There is a rich political and social history involving great wars and social trends. Players have small trading areas at major foot traffic locations (there are other ways to travel using magic). Grand Master Blacksmiths sell their products from vendors at shops, which often cannot be stocked fast enough because of the constant demand for weapons of war, a natural phenomenon in any human environment. The economy is very competitive, but very consistent, just like any real world economy a player must track the demand for products and adjust his or her skills accordingly. In the end people spend almost as much if not more time using their merchant characters to create and sell items for trade, as they do for war.
Adventuring is where an interesting social bond is formed between players, where selfishness usually leaves a player dead to the natural forces of evil that prowl the open country and the ancient dark dungeons. Players find other people to "hunt" with, form groups for extra security and proceed to journey around the land of Britannia in search of adventure, fame(you can literally gain fame) and fortune. People heal each other’s wounds, block off monsters using their own abilities to protect their friends, and often agree to split the items that they get off of fallen beasts. It is this kind of cooperation and joint goals that spur on a wonderful social phenomenon that is a revival of the old Guild System.
When examining a foreign society or culture it is important to get an understanding of the political and social bonds that form the core of the community, as Degerando puts it in his guide for observing savage peoples: "Is there any graduation in the formation of this society, that is, is it sub-divided, as among us, into several partial aggregations, more closely linked together, like clans, boroughs, or castes, and what are the relations and limits of these particular associates?" (Degerando, page 91) Guilds were originally mercantile associations that provided price and craft security for its members so that competition was limited. In UO guilds are simply the only form of communal and governmental organization that offers protection for its members. For this paper the primary guild is "The Syndicate" which is considered a social guild, anti-social guilds will be discussed later. The Syndicate is the largest guild in the UO world with over three hundred and fifty members; all managed by one leader named Dragons and multiple sub-leaders. They manage their own IRC(CHAT) room for members, online website with it’s message board and daily leadership updates with a forum for open discussion on topics related to decisions which effect most people within the organization. Guilds also serve as a military alliance between members. In UO the Guild master holds supreme control over the guild in that members swear fealty to him, meaning that he primarily controls the guild through declaring wars and functioning as a servant of the members. Since people are free to leave a guild at any time, this leader has a hefty job mediating between members and trying his or her best to keep people on board. So the power of this leader does have a crude system of checks and balances, where people can simply leave if they have had enough, or their leader is failing to protect them from the anti-social elements in UO.
Every society has its anti-social elements and unfortunately for the citizens of Brittania they are not exempt. Battles are fast and furious events where one side is either slaughtered or forced to retreat; it is not uncommon to come across piles of fallen warriors in major war zone areas. According to Marvin Harris’ study of primitive warfare "Warfare is an ecologically adaptive lifestyle among primitive peoples" (Harris, pg 67). Wars are fought for many reasons, many times to assert the power and standing of the guild or protect the guild reputation. One of the major issues that occurs is when members of one anti-social guild who are murderers begin targeting the peaceful members of another guild for an easy kill and quick money. Player killing is a rampant problem in UO, which is only checked by an encouraged system of revenge. Players become murderers if they kill someone who is "innocent" and it becomes legal for them to be killed by any other player. To this end, guilds declare wars on their enemies to hopefully protect members and acquire some sort of justice for slain members. Alliances and coalitions are formed, wars involving hundreds of players wage across the shard, draining the resources of guilds till they are forced into capitulation and make peace with the victor. Very few guilds survive protracted wars of attrition in which groups are slaughtered in open combat or hidden ambushes. "The study of primitive war leads to the conclusion that war has been part of an adaptive strategy associated with particular technological demographic, and ecological conditions." (Harris, page 80) In UO these ecological conditions are primarily overcrowding and a technologically deficient system for dealing with criminals; players cannot be dragged before guild courts to receive fines or prison sentence. This leaves few options for guild leaders who must either organize for all out war and limited raids or turn a blind eye to the appeals for justice of members.
Just like the real world, Ultima Online has its own social classes with distinct economic advantages over others. Though it is possible for most people to be wealthy, it takes a good "UO education" to grasp the dynamics of the UO economy. The Wealthy classes of Ultima Online are those with the largest land holdings. This is more evident by the fact that people pay hundreds even thousands of real world dollars to obtain virtual homes and castles. Another testament to the dynamic UO economy is the inflation of housing costs, as the frontier has been destroyed for some time. The actual construction of a small home, if space is available, is forty thousand gold pieces but a well placed home can sell easily for two hundred thousand gold pieces. Hence there is rampant homelessness as a small minority controls the majority of the housing in UO.
The ethical mindset of people is released into Ultima Online to do whatever one desires without any real-life consequences. The game itself flushes people into likeminded groups for a common ethical purpose. Referring back to "The Syndicate" the organization is primarily anti-PK (Player Killer), so inevitably the members follow similar goals and endeavor along the same lines. Before people even begin to talk, its their looks and actions that tell people their first impression. In UO a first impression may be whether someone kills you or robs you. Another possibility is that someone will try to help another person, giving generously of his or herself. People can fall into a temptation of evil without real-life ramification, but the game tracks how "evil" a person becomes by tagging them as a "murderer" if they have killed too many "innocent" people. So it is possible to find out deep underlying sentiments that cannot be expressed in real life, distinguishing someone who is friend or foe in game goes a long way to describing the same in real life as this individual stated in an interview with Fortune Magazine: "Solving shared challenges brings total strangers together like nothing else on earth," explains Jeremy Young, 24, a California state government intern known as Rainman on UO. "The emotions shared are the same, be they in print, in pixels, or in the real world." (FORTUNE Date: 08/02/1999 "The newest Addiction") Indeed the emotions are the same, and whether they are frustrations at a computer screen or at the rude neighbor, it still feels the same way. Referring again again to the "The Syndicate" as a social entity, their players actively hunt murderers; a common drawing point for members is a frustration with having been murdered in the past.
When Degerando wrote "The Observation of Savage Peoples" to give 19th century French explorers advice on how to observe and analyze primitive cultures, he asked the following questions: What is the force and character of the bond between brothers? Is there any precedence of age among them? To what point do the relations of kinship extend and keep any influence. In what ways are they observed? Do the members of a single family unite for work, for hunting, for food? What law and order is observed among them? (Degerando, page 89) In UO Guild governance and community, the focus is around the guild master who must be able to lead his or her guild much like a king. This central authority greatly undermines the longevity of a guild but is also a necessity. The Syndicate’s single head leader goes by the screen name "Dragons." His guild is the largest and oldest, which translates to him managing over three hundred different personalities. The job requires the answering of hundreds of emails and joining in many online debates and discussions. He attempts to do this while trying to protect members whom he considers his friends. This requires total authority and power, since UO time passes much more quickly than the real world; armies can be mobilized in minutes, not months. Through four years of consistent leadership, Dragons of the Syndicate has created a real international organization (approximately 29% of his members are international players) through limited warfare and having the staying power to watch as enemies crumble. "Dragons" also has a responsibility to ensure that members follow the strict rules of the guild or risk immediate excommunication. Though this may sound harsh, it has allowed The Syndicate to emerge as the largest and oldest guild in the online gaming community. It is an irony of the modern age where members of real Democratic states gladly submit themselves to a single leader in the virtual world.
When a person enters UO they are the explorer who must learn all the customs, language and most importantly how to survive. A thirty-year old may bring with him moral and philosophical maturity, but physically he feels like an outsider in a strange world where he must learn how to walk all over again. This brings up another concept that UO and online gaming in general have done. They have brought generations of people together to experience a whole new world based on who you are, where discrimination is virtually non-existent. It is not uncommon for a person in their forties to ask a person in high school how to do something or for pointers on combat. The virtual world has become an excellent bridge for people of all ages and ranks in society, as older and younger people adventure and play together in this new frontier.
The UO phenomenon has even gone beyond the confines of the virtual world, where wealthier and very busy people don’t have the time to build up a strong in game character:"Last month David Hoem, a 21-year-old student in San Jose, Calif., cashed out of a most unorthodox Internet investment. He sold a magician, a warrior, a thief, two houses, 120,000 pieces of gold, and all the armor, swords, and crossbows he had accumulated playing Ultima Online, a medieval role-playing game that unfolds in a two-dimensional fictional world called Britannia. Another aficionado paid him $510 after an auction on eBay, where players buy and sell the virtual property of Britannia every day. Prices can be steep--castles in the best locations, which come with skilled characters and magical spells, sell for $2,000 to $3,000. And you thought Internet stocks were overpriced."
(ArticleSource: FORTUNE Date: 08/02/1999 "The newest Addiction")
The phenomenon of UO has gone beyond anything that the game designers had ever imagined, as players put this virtual real-estate up for sale on places like Ebay(www.ebay.com), where hundreds of virtual goods are sold on a daily basis. The Games leading developer (who resigned from Origin during the development of this paper) was surprised that his creation took on a life of it’s own as shown in this interview with Fortune Magazine: "Not even Richard Garriott, the 38-year-old Texan who created Ultima for game industry giant Electronic Arts, expected his world to develop an economy so robust that there would be a floating exchange rate between Britannia gold and U.S.dollars. "This has transcended virtual reality," Garriott says. "It has become as real as life." (ArticleSource: FORTUNE Date: 08/02/1999 "The newest Addiction")
The transformation into real life was not the original intent behind Ultima Online, it was meant to be a place where people could play a single game together, but the player community themselves took the reigns away from designers and Game Masters. Players created their own plots, their own cities and their own style of role playing, playing themselves: "All of these people are finding their way to Britannia, and trying to figure out if this brave new world is a place they want to call home. It's a testament to the imaginative power and Utopian allure of this fantasy environment that so many people see the possibilities, and want to make Britannia their own." (ULTIMA ONLINE: An Interactive Virtual World with Multiple Personalities Amy Jo Kim NAIMA) This "Utopian allure," and a limitless frontier all make for a community that many people now call home. People have a natural curiosity that is difficult to exploit in a world without physical frontiers. The real world satisfies, all too often, material wants and needs, but sometimes feels lacking for social needs of a close knit community. The virtual world offers a seemingly tangible universe, like a book come to life while adding the visual and audio sensations that a computer can bring the individual. There is a temptation to wish this and that would have happened in a movie, a traveler in the virtual world is both living and influencing a drama; the individual greatly influences the outcome.
The great expanses of land in the UO world provide almost unlimited possibilities for resources gathering. The main obstacle for open wilderness sharing is that often people will rush in front of each other, kill one another and steal in order to obtain valuable items and resources. With no system for land ownership, there is very little settled areas that have some semblance of player control and policing. Where in Europe one of the greatest successes for increasing food production and land value was a system of enclosure, which made people feel more responsible for the land that they owned. The game masters of UO have yet to acquire an appreciation for adding this kind of feature. The concept of a Utopian Anarchy where everyone gets along with and respects each other is impossible where man still has the freedom to choose between good and evil. It is only through the use of heavily armed guards and patrols that players feel secure in player run shopping and trading areas. A player who leaves protected zones unarmed and with anything of value is asking to die. It is not uncommon for someone to spend an hour loading up a couple packhorses with lumber only to be killed by another player and have his hard work stolen.
So who are the people that form this community? Many players in UO are international, ranging from Germany to Antartica: "Early this month, the number of players enjoying Ultima Online climbed to over 160,000. With players from around the globe, from the frozen reaches of Antarctica to the mountains of Kazakhstan, Ultima Online has grown to the size of a small city"(UO newsletter Month of March 2000) Despite the vast international composition and the fact that many countries have their own shards to play on, many people choose to play on shards outside of their local communities. The Atlantic Shard is for servicing the East Coast of the United States, but The Syndicate guild’s constituents are 29% international players. These players come from Canada, Germany, Italy and Israel, just to name a few. This true global community shares common in game rules and traditions that are separate from the real world. For the test group that was used in this paper, The average player is 26 years old, with a range between 15 and 54 years, they are also very good with computers. 11% are female. While many are students, those with professional jobs would be considered in the upper middle class, based on income levels. The average player has been playing for over one year ten months and plays about four hours a day. Of my test group, 76% considered themselves good players while the remaining 24% classified themselves as self-centered. Players were in almost unanimous agreement that UO was more than a game, that it is in fact a social community. In addition to this, 73% believe that their friends online are as real as those offline. 70% of people seek revenge. 83% of those surveyed felt that UO justice is inadequate. 14% cried because of an in game incident and 81% got a "rush" from fighting other players in game. Players enjoy the companionship of other virtual players so much that 43% of them have arranged to meet in real life. (Independent Personal Survey of Guild Members)
It has been said that humans are sub-creators. People have unlimited creative capacity and often find their wishes to express themselves confined by concrete walls of a modern society. The existence of Virtual Persistent Worlds has unlimited resources with unlimited space. UO and games like them allow someone to live out a fantasy within the confines of their own imagination. They not only provide insight into people through moral and ethical decisions but also educate them about others. Just as television has allowed us to see the world better visually, Virtual Persistent Worlds allow people to experience each other more easily than ever before. This new technology certainly has every intention of staying, as seen by the rapid growth of Ultima Online. There is no doubt that the technology will improve and become more mainstream so that more people can enter into the ever changing and infinite universe of Virtual Persistent Worlds.