Mary-Anne Breeze

(Cybersociology Magazine Issue Two: Feature Article)





>New multiplayer games turn what has traditionally been a solo pursuit into a communal experience<

<Hugh Foster in "Global Gaming", 1997>

Spoken like a true gamer, Hugh - or perhaps typed like a true nethead. I'm almost positive Hugh would have no problem being labeled this way - would, in fact, probably agree wholeheartedly with these signifier labels. Especially if his fellow gamer buddies were around at the time, wearing their clan colors, shooting the shit out of each other with quad damage and a rocket launcher and watching the blood splatter enemies and friends alike.

>Hmmm< I hear some of you mumble, uncomprehendingly. No, this is not a mob of satanic-worshipping weirdos out on some bizarro sickfest; it is (mostly likely) a group of very average late teen/early thirties men, sitting around playing - on their respective computer terminals - a first person perspective shoot-em-up game. They will probably have linked into a Multiplayer Internet Server Provider, one that caters to a specific type of gamer who chooses not to restrict his/her responses - most probably a him, but I'll get to that later - to those deemed adequate by single gameplay parameters. And they are probably having a really, really good time doing it.

Why? <I hear you ask that too> To those outside the artificially generated confines of this multiplayer environment, being so involved in a largely imagined spatial area with avatars/projections who share in a behavioral motto of <killed or be killed> seems slightly frivolous, if not in fact, pointless. Not to those, however, who display a shared sense of purpose and enjoyment in being able to participate in such a community and by doing so, have helped develop the very defining characteristics of that community, artificial or otherwise. Some of these characteristics involve the development of specific communication traits in lieu of body language and language variations; others include how the power structures and social conditions inherent in the real world that the players inhabit are mimicked in the game itself. Another defining element that makes this gamer community function as it does is how various behavioral traits displayed in either 'reality' (game based or 'rl' - real life) cross over and interconnect.

One such group that plays such a game and uses the online world to construct a shared sense of a virtual environment is one physically located on the east coast of Australia in a city called Wollongong. These guys (and I use the term in a purely non-gender specific way, as I used to tentatively include myself among them) play a game called Quake, through an Internet Service Provider called Spidrweb Online Gaming. The community focuses around the constructions of clans, which are collectives of Quake gamers that form into teams to battle other clans through online tournaments and LAN (local area network) days.


For those of you not in the computer game know, Quake is one of those games set in a post apocalyptic future, where military men fight mutant variations and vicious monsters who are intent on terminating anything that moves. It is a game based on the popular 1st person perspective template - games like Doom, Duke Nukem 3D and numerous others utilize it. Common game parameters are:

1) A player is presented with a sensory environment created via their computer - through the monitor, speakers, devices used to actually run the game itself (via a CD ROM drive, hard drive, sound card etc) and controlling points of a keyboard/joystick/mouse. This environment has a basic narrative structure and survival objective that is competitive based (kill and not be killed, finish various levels and avoid hazards, and collect objects/weapons/health points along the way).

2) Sound and vision are the primary tools used to create this projected sense of a three dimensional environment - as well as an ability within a player to disassociate from the physical constraints presented, such as the fact that the 'weapon' a player is brandishing may actually be a 2-button mouse.

3) A player/gamer can select to play against the computer (single player) or against other persons who link into a game scenario via a phone line connection (multiplayer). A combination of both types (cooperative) is also an option - fighting the monsters with your buddies connected by a phone line but not necessarily an Internet Service Provider.

4) Various game components can be added to the main game which add to the variability of actual responses a player can manifest e.g. 'patches'/add ons that create additional weapons, levels and creatures.

Experienced gamers generally have established preferences as to what kind of games they play, and the more 'into' a game a player is, the higher is the chance they will get involved in a multiplayer community. For instance, different clans play various games online but seem to stick to Quake in their regular amount of allocated play time. What seems to ensure this 'loyalty' to this multiplayer game in particular is the sense of community that has sprung up in tandem with the actual playing of the game itself.


There have been various Quake game niches springing up in Wollongong as online gaming has taken a trendhold here. Various subcultures have evolved within each, with defining characteristics being dependent on the particular ISP used /clan construction etc. Spidrweb Online Gaming started with a group of players (one of them being me) who had mostly played singleplayer Quake alot - a ridiculous amount, actually. On hearing about the instigation of a multiplayer facility, I jumped at the chance to play the game with others.

< P>Two types of multiplayer Quake are played via multiplayer ISP accounts. These are DeathMatch, where each individual player is pitted against every other. Scores are tallied as one player 'frags' (kills) another - who incidentally materializes again immediately (respawns). The other game option is Capture the Flag, where a team - usually a specific clan in an organized match - works to pick up the opposite team's flag corresponding to colour (red or blue) and then take this flag back to their base. A successful capture occurs when the player runs the opposing flag over their own - in their own base. Now this might not sound so complicated in theory, but being thrown into an online CTF game without much of a clue as to what the hell is happening is another situation altogether.

Clans help alleviate the stress of CTF games by having various key positions filled by its members (e.g. a runner, a defender, etc). Clans evolve in an extremely organic fashion - players may be asked to join online, or may be a sibling of a player that wants to start a clan themselves so are asked to join, and so on. Clans choose two colours (shirts and pants) from a game selection. The Captain/leader often chooses for the whole clan, depending on clan dynamics.

This first encounter of mine in a multiplayer Quake CTF game (sans Clan) was interesting, to say the least. Here I was running around like a crazed loon having grabbed the 'flag', trying to get the hang of the game environment with actual other people (or their representations at least) instead of computer generated monsters running around blasting away at me. It made for an interesting induction into the online gaming environment.

My time using the online game environment in a continuous fashion lasted approximately 3 weeks - after that, I have played sporadically and never assumed a stable identity within the community because of various factors - the primary one being the discovery of my gender. One of the sad facts of being an online female gamer is that you tend to stand out like a sore thumb, and after it got out that I was female the nature of the game changed dramatically for me. Not many women play Quake online in Wollongong, and I think it is fair to assume that the game is heavily male dominated generally. Being a female player relegates you to a certain marginalized position, and the corresponding behaviour patterns that operate in Western society at large seem to also be perpetuated in the Quake world (unfortunately). However, I have been in close contact with several of the members of the virtual community since then, and am happy to say that the nature of the gameplay has changed considerably, due to the setting up of various rules that make tolerance a key feature in most games. I have observed the gestation and continuing formation of the Wollongong online Quake community, and this has allowed me to carry out an analysis of just what makes an online gaming community tick.


One defining criteria of any community is the language employed by its members. In any virtual community interactions there is room for cross communication and ambiguous statements, as the absence of body language and other real time environmental variables makes common real time communication cues impossible to access.

One way these Quakers deal with this problem is through the use of emoticons - symbols used extensively throughout IRC and e-mail to indicate basic emotional states. :) indicates a smiley face on its side, a grin, happiness; the reverse :( indicates the opposite. These are the two most widely used markers of emotional states used by this online community, and they are used in differing ways and in difference circumstances. When a player first enters a game, they will usually greet the others by typing "hi" - or some other form of greeting - into a game co nsole interface, or through hitting a key to which they have bound the word "hi". This may be followed by the use of a smiley. (Most of these players are a friendly bunch). When the gameplay hots up, the use of the smiley is common - to indicate a state of glee (e.g. I've just blown you away twice) or as an ironic symbol (e.g. isn't that funny - we both just killed each other at the same time). When a player gets excited, successive multiple uses of the smiley become evident - out of frustration (e.g. you bastard, that's the fifth time you've nailed me to death) or perhaps showing a build up of various tensions (e.g. I'm really gonna get you this time you fxxker).

These little smiley symbols can be used to signify game relation complexity. So too can the way minimal sentence structure and condensed phrases are stylistically adopted through multiplayer text based communication. Often in the heat of an intensely demanding game, a player will choose to respond to a typed query with only the crucial/minimum amount of information. For example, a player might be asked a question by another gamer to which they may respond: "Can't speakkilling";). I call this Homer Simpsonspeak.

Generally, the level of complex communication during gameplay is kept low, and this assists in the complications many online communities' f ace in that the text can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. In multiplayer Quake, text based communication is often sporadic and brief - it gets to the point. Gamers do use other forms of electronic communication (such as text-based programs like ICQ, IRC, and email) to carry out extended conversations, as well as real life encounters to compensate for this somewhat brief communication style.


One defining characteristic that sets apart an online gaming community is its sense of unity and longevity, and how this extends itself into the real life environment of its members. I am of the opinion that this multiplayer community has formed strong ties in the real world as well as in the virtual, through the committed action of several of its players who act to develop a sense of cohesion among the rest.

The Wollongong Quake community is extremely active - in the form of having meetings to discuss various aspects of multiplayer gameing, to having barbecues during popular LAN days, to casual get-togethers with families of the players being included - especially within individual clans. There are several players who mostly take on organizing both tour naments and social gatherings alike, and it is often these people that are also clan Captains. This illustrates just how certain power hierarchies inherent in the wider community operate even with an online game environment.

The tendrils of multiplayer interactions seem to creep into the player's real-time lives in various ways. One of these is how players who know each other well will address other players by their Quake aliases; for example, one of the Wollongong clans (Clan Crusher) has a member whose online name is Prucrusher. His real life name is Walter, but most of the other players refer to him (both on and offline) as Pru. This also operates the other way; when playing multiplayer Quake, other gamers may refer to him as Walt instead of Pru. Life imitating Quake imitating life?

Another quirky manifestation of virtual gam ing behaviour that crosses over into reallife action is cyborgian movements. As a player allows himself or herself to fall deeper into the state created by the game environment, corresponding physical actions may occur in immediate 'reality'. For example, when observing a player si tting at their terminal who is deeply engrossed in a game, they may suddenly jerk their body to get out of the way of a game projectile's trajectory. A player may even disassociate themselves from a real time environment to the extend that they ignore people that are trying to talk to them, or swear loudly at the computer (they would say at their virtual competitors) if things are going less than well in the game stakes.



The sense of shared purpose and behaviour exhibited by online Quake gamers indicate that this is one type of virtual community that has strong binding ties, which have developed through the evolution of the game from a single player template to a multiplayer environment. The production and real life extensions of behavioural patterns such as how certain societal relations are emulated within the game itself, and the formulation of a online game-symbolic language indicate just how this type of virt ual community can operate and indeed, survive. Hugh -Nethead-Foster (in "Global Gaming") should have the last word about it: > I may still sit transfixed in front of my computer late at night, but now that I've discovered multiplayer action, I am no longer alone<.



Cleland, Kathy. "New Robots; Cyborgs, Softbots and Avatars" in MESH #8/9. Published online by Experimenta Media Arts, 1996.

Cox, Anna Marie. "Virtual Communities; Is the Well Dry?" in HOTWIRED Brain Threads (published online), 1996.

Hermosillo, Carmen. "Why is There, There?" in the Fleshfactor Mailing List/AEC Forum, 1997 -

Grassmuck, Volker. An Interview with Benedict Anderson in Nettime Mailing List, 1997.

Foster, Hugh. "Global Gaming:From Monopoly to Quake, Multiplaye Games Let You Take On The World." In Computer Life Online. Ziff-Davis, 1997.