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Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture

by T. L. Taylor
The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts 2006
197 pp., illus. 13 b/w. Trade, $US29.95
ISBN: 0-262-29163-1.

Review by John F. Barber
Digital Technology and Culture, Washington State University Vancouver


Given the newness of online gaming studies and the fact that much of the terrain remains unmapped, it is natural that studies, to date, focus on generic, homogenous, imagined players engaged in broadly-defined interactions. Fine-grained distinctions regarding individual activities and personalities are slow to emerge as is the understanding that online games, especially massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), are fundamentally social spaces.

Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture, by T. L. Taylor, reverses this trend and establishes benchmarks for future research regarding broader cultural issues associated with MMOGs. Drawing on her experience as an EverQuest player and a participant in various offline EverQuest related events, as well as solid research, Taylor presents an ethnography bolstered by thick description that examines multiplayer gaming life lived as players slip back and forth between the complex game-related social networks found both online and offline.

For example, Taylor debunks the common notion that playing computer games is an isolating and solitary activity for teenage boys. Instead, she demonstrates that MMOGs, in which thousands of players of all ages and gender participate simultaneously in virtual reality game worlds in real time, are actively designed, or repurposed by players, for sociability. Such sociability is found online as players group together to share resources as well as rewards, teach each other play-related survival and social skills, and achieve mutually advantageous combinations of leisure, socializing, and work. Offline, players meet and socialize, both in and out of character, as a way of sharing common interests and extending the possibilities for play.

The intertwining of online and offline identities is complex but Taylor’s nuanced scholarship and vivid descriptions provides one a full-immersion in the virtual world of EverQuest and reaps rewards from close association with the players and their social networks. As a good ethnography should, Taylor’s Play Between Worlds offers a snapshot of MMOG culture, showing something of the game itself but also raising broader culture issues. She considers, for example, the "power gamers," individuals who play and interact online in ways that seem closer to work in the real world. In following this issue, Taylor examines our notions of what constitutes play, and why play might sometimes feel painful, boring, repetitive, like work. Taylor also examines female EverQuest gamers and finds they do not fit the traditional stereotype held by the games industry. Her findings cast doubt on standardized and preconceived notions of femininity and the kinds of games in which women engage. Finally, Taylor investigates who owns the game space, and what happens when the player culture confronts the major corporation behind the game.

In this sense Play Between Worlds is more, much more, than a snapshot of emergent multiplayer culture. Taylor, as she says, provides fundamental insights into issues independent of games: the relationship between work and play, gender identities, the use of technology in our lives, and the complicated relationship with commercial culture, especially online governance and intellectual property that will shape future interactions between players and game companies (11).

The result is an engaging description of the social significance of MMOGs, the ways they have evolved and may continue to grow, and the debates surrounding some of the major issues associated with this growth. Play Between Worlds should be interesting, and significant, for scholars and others interested in popular culture, social organization, the relationships between play and work, and the implications for bleeding back and forth across the border between game worlds and real worlds.




Updated 1st March 2007

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