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  1. A lot had to happen between 1915, when the U.S. Supreme Court first ruled that cinema was not "speech" and was thus unprotected by the First Amendment, and 1982, when the Court decided that films were one of the "traditional forms of expression such as books" and ought to be considered "pure speech" (Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Comm'n).[1] The 1915 Court justified its decision at least in part through reference to "common-sense," a category whose later reversal neatly sums up the changed sense of film's legitimacy as a medium: today the opinion that film is not speech would get its proponent laughed out of the room, even if the film in question were silent.
  2. The history of film's gradual acceptance as an expressive medium--an acceptance mirrored in the academic reception of film studies over roughly that same period--is worth keeping in mind as one approaches new media today. Because while the issue of film as speech has been settled for film and, on the basis of their similarities, television,[2] the issue remains alive for new forms of digital culture, especially video games, whose legal history extends back only twenty years. In the early 1980s, courts reviewing cases involving the zoning and licensing of video game arcades generally agreed that video games were not speech, with one court asserting that "in no sense can it be said that video games are meant to inform. Rather, a video game, like a pinball game, a game of chess, or a game of baseball, is pure entertainment with no informational element" (America's Best v. New York).[3] The comparison to baseball or chess is telling, as is the reference to "information"; the test applied to video games in these early court cases draws explicitly from the early legal history of film, in which the expressiveness of the medium (and thus its ability to "inform" its viewers) was deemed secondary to an "entertainment" value that disqualified it as serious "speech."
  3. But as video games have become more complex--a complexity enabled by the exponential growth in computer processing power--and as they have moved from arcades to home computers and the Internet, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish them from other constitutionally protected media. As newer games approach the conditions by which we identify mainstream literature and film--that is, as they begin to express ideas, develop characters, and tell stories[4]--the claim that they do not "inform" their players seems harder and harder to make.[5] Indeed, the difference between Pac-Man and a contemporary, story-driven game featuring Hollywood actors (Christopher Walken appears, for instance, in 1996's Privateer 2) might well be said to redefine the scope of the entire genre. And the court record reflects this shift in scope. In a 1991 decision, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that there was no record that might allow it to decide "whether the video games at issue here are simply modern day pinball machines or whether they are more sophisticated presentations involving storyline and plot that convey to the user a significant artistic message protected by the first amendment" (Rothner v. Chicago). In 2001 that same court upheld a ruling that argued that "at least some contemporary video games include protected forms of expression," even while it held that several of the games "described in the record are relatively inconsequential--perhaps even so inconsequential as to remove the game from the protection of the First Amendment" (American Amusement Mach. Ass'n v. Kendrick). Although neither decision ultimately settled the question of video games' expressiveness, their ambivalence seemed promising, and the 1991 decision's reference to "storyline and plot" offered another dimension by which games might be judged to be "speaking." Though neither film nor literature is currently held to that standard (books that have neither storyline nor message are still protected by the First Amendment), the demand that video games express either information or a narrative remains, in these decisions as it was in the 1980s, the sine qua non of First Amendment protection.
  4. But if the complication introduced by the Seventh Circuit had seemed to open the door to video games' eventual acceptance as speech (thereby giving them a trajectory to mirror film's), a recent decision in U.S. District Court has closed it with a vengeance. In April 2002, Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh issued a judgment in which he declared that any expression or communication "during the playing of a video game is purely inconsequential," and that video games "have more in common with board games and sports than they do with motion pictures." The case in question, Interactive Digital Software Association v. St. Louis County, involved an attempt by the St. Louis County Council to restrict access to violent video games. Backed by research showing that playing games incites children to violent play and encourages them to identify with perpetrators of deadly violence--and reacting in part to a series of school shootings, most notably the ones in Littleton, Colorado committed by avid players of violent video games--the Council voted in October 2000 to require parental permission for the sale of video and computer games (and the playing of video games in arcades) rated by the gaming industry's own system as designed for "mature" audiences. The Interactive Digital Software Association sued, arguing that the ordinance violated the First Amendment and was unconstitutionally broad and vague. In April 2002, Limbaugh rejected all of the IDSA's arguments, dismissing the case in summary judgment, before it could come to trial.
  5. Drawing on a case history involving both video games and film, Limbaugh's decision is unequivocal about both the standards it uses to judge video games and the degree to which games measure up to those standards. When deciding whether a new medium qualifies for First Amendment protection, Limbaugh writes, one must find "at least some type of communication of ideas in that medium. It has to be designed to express or inform, and there has to be a likelihood that others will understand that there has been some type of expression." Limbaugh finds that video games cannot pass even this minimal standard, and goes on to reject the Seventh Circuit's arguments that some video games might merit First Amendment protection: "The Court has difficulty accepting that some video games do contain expression while others do not. [...] Either a 'medium' provides sufficient elements of communication and expressiveness to fall under the scope of the First Amendment, or it does not." Limbaugh later claims that even though the plaintiffs presented him with scripts of video games to suggest that the games contained "extensive plot and character development," this creative detritus, while itself expressive, did not confer any of that expressiveness on its own final products.
  6. Limbaugh's decision ultimately to deny First Amendment protection to video games depends, then, on his judgment that their expression is "purely inconsequential," that whatever gets expressed during the game remains effectively extraneous to the main "work" of the game experience. Strangely enough, although the video games were initially regulated on the basis of their degree of "violence"--which would appear to let expressiveness out of the digital bag[6]--Limbaugh argues that "'violence' does not automatically create expression," that violent games are no more expressive than other video games just because they are violent. This blanket rejection of the idea that video games might have expressive content allows Limbaugh absolutely to forego the ambivalence of the Seventh Circuit decisions; instead, he classes video games with a group of cultural activities that includes baseball, chess, and bingo: that is, as games.
  7. What the decision thus makes clear is that the status of contemporary video games as a medium effectively hinges on a comparison to two related types of culture: film on one hand, and entertainment activities on the other. And the comparison is definitive: if video games are like film, they are expressive, constitute their own medium, and deserve First Amendment protection (indeed the plaintiffs in the Limbaugh case ask the judge to treat the game medium as "no less expressive than its 'motion picture counterpart'"). But if video games are like activities (pinball, chess, baseball), they not only are not covered by the First Amendment, but also may not even be a "medium" at all (any more than baseball is a "medium"). The decision therefore clarifies the degree to which status as a "medium" confers a priori on a cultural object the privilege of being assumed to mediate between an expressor of some kind (a person or an idea) and the receiver of that expression; the idea that video games do not "express" is thus tantamount to declaring that they cannot transmit content at all.
  8. One potential response to such an argument--one especially tempting for scholars trained in reading texts--argues insistently for expressiveness. Indeed, much work done recently would insist not only that video games express meaning, but that any number of cultural activities or objects not currently granted First Amendment protection are expressive as well; baseball, one might argue, teaches its viewers or players something about teamwork, about labor-management disputes, about geometries of space, and so on. As literature departments have aggregated more and more of the culture to their own field of study, and as the term "text" has come to mean any expressive (or signifying) surface of the real, the drive towards a consideration of everything as (at least potentially) expressive has left less and less outside the category of meaningfulness.
  9. Something like this defense of the "medium" of video games has been articulated by Wagner James Au, who, writing for Salon, calls Limbaugh's decision "a disaster for anyone who wants to see games evolve into a medium every bit as culturally relevant as movies or books." Au argues that Limbaugh's decision demonstrates the need for a "preemptive attack" from the gaming industry, designed to show that the expressions of ideas in a number of recent video games are "inextricably woven into the experience" of the games themselves. Au ultimately suggests that the video game industry borrow a page from the history of motion pictures, whose Hollywood studios, he writes,

    regularly produced a few films every year whose main intent was to dramatize social issues and give their more ambitious artists room to breathe [...]. Imagine what could happen if the game industry followed this example. Successful game publishers could invest a portion of their profits into games conceived with explicit social and artistic goals in mind.

    Only by effectively making games as much like (serious) films as possible (and thereby treating the game medium as "no less expressive than its 'motion picture counterpart'"), Au believes, can the game industry secure for its products the kind of legal status and cultural respect that now accrues to film.
  10. Au's plan may well be the best way to legitimize games as a form of expression, but the impulse to develop a legal solution out of a shift in video game production ought not simply to carry over to video game hermeneutics; that is, while it may be legally useful to make games as much like (serious) films as possible, the legal benefits of such a move ought not to determine in advance the interpretive strategies available to the study of games as cultural objects. Video games are, of course, expressive; they contain narrative elements. But they are not exclusively expressive (in a conventional sense) or narrative.[7] Evaluating video games exclusively on the basis of those features--and inviting them to take their seat at the First Amendment table by defining themselves largely in relation to narrativity or expressiveness--ignores the other side of their cultural position: the degree to which video games resemble gaming.
  11. This is where one learns something from the legal case: though Limbaugh is wrong to decide that video games are entirely like other games, his comparison opens up interesting possibilities for anyone wanting to develop a theory of video games as a medium because it suggests that any such theory ought to deal with both sides of video gaming's cultural history. Though many readers in English departments will be more comfortable with the expressive aspects of games that essentially resemble those of more familiar forms like film or literature (even as they may be suspicious of the right of any popular medium to claim for itself the relevance of those forms), the present seems an opportune time for expanding the range of what literary and cultural study might do with new media.
  12. In a recent essay on this issue, Jesper Juul notes that the "narrative turn of the last 20 years has seen the concept of narrative emerge as a privileged master concept in the description of all aspects of human society and sign-production." But he goes on to argue that some of the main features of narrative analysis cannot be applied to the study of games without substantial modification. For instance, he writes, though narratives "rely heavily on [the] distance or non-identity between the events and the presentation of these events" (what Christian Metz calls "the time of the signified and the time of the signifier"), any game in which the user can act (by firing a weapon, by kicking a ball, by driving a car) necessarily unites those two times as closely as possible. Even when they present players with narrative experiences, then, video games force an experience of that narrative that differs in vital ways from getting a story through a film or novel.
  13. That video games, even when narrative, present a fundamentally different experience of that narrative's topology, suggests that Limbaugh's decision--despite its somewhat primitive notion of expressiveness and the odd logic of its position on "violent" content--might point the way to one possible mode of reading. Caught between entertainment "media" like film and television and entertainment "activities" like baseball and bingo, video games require an evaluation that registers those differences without collapsing them. In what follows we intend, in a reading of the online role-playing game EverQuest, to develop a theory of reading video games that might account for the legal bind in which they find themselves, that might read in and through that bind rather than choosing one side or the other. We would like this approach to EverQuest to illustrate the potential for the apparently irreconcilable elements of video games--their status as game, cultural practice, narrative, or visual text--to be pulled together into a coherent analysis, one that acknowledges both the ways EverQuest is like a game and the ways its "game" elements might lead to a reading of the "expression" of ideas.
  14. EverQuest

  15. EverQuest, the most successful "Massively Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Game," is one of the most complicated video games available today, involving hundreds of thousands of players, an immense imaginary world, and large, involved fan communities. Designed by Verant Interactive, a subsidiary of Sony Online Entertainment, EverQuest has, since its release in March 1999, set the standard for games of its type; the game boasts more than 430,000 playing (and paying) customers[8] spread across forty-eight servers, each of which runs a separate version of the game world for up to approximately 3,000 players at any given time.[9] EverQuest's visual- and text-based world, a rough descendant of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, allows players to choose an avatar and go out into the world to fight, trade, make friends with other players, and explore the expansive virtual geography.
  16. Because our reading proceeds structurally, we will not be taking on a number of promising approaches to the study of video games, including sociological studies of players, questions of masquerade and identification (when male players play female characters, for instance), individual game sequences or narratives, or the game's internal economics (the platinum piece, the basic monetary unit in EverQuest, trades on the Internet at a rate of about 1000 to the U.S. dollar). Rather, our approach focuses on the aspects of EverQuest that make it like a "game," namely the formal structures that frame player experience. These formal structures include the rules of the game that limit and direct players' actions, the goals and obstacles set out for players, and the strategies and practices adopted by players as they navigate the game's rules and goals. Like visual and aural conventions of film, the interactive circuit between game and player constitutes a register of meaning independent from narrative content or the conditions of a game's production. EverQuest's rules and goals constitute the core of what defines it as a game, and what establishes the terms by which it participates in the production of cultural meaning.
  17. While online, EverQuest players can freely pursue a wide variety of in-game activities, including casual conversation with other players about characters or places in the game world or the fictive history that provides EverQuest's back-story. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the interaction between players on an EverQuest server focuses on issues more specific to the achievement of the game's basic goals--defeating monsters, acquiring powerful or valuable items, and traversing dangerous territory. Though the pictorial or visual aspects of the game constitute an important part of an EverQuest player's experience, the vast majority of the detailed information required to succeed in the game and to communicate with others appears in a "text box" on the player's screen. In that box, players receive automatic updates on their status and the status of the monsters they fight (e.g., "You slash a drakkel dire wolf for 24 points of damage"), but also spend a great deal of time discussing strategy or the game situation with one another, which would, for example, appear as "Braxis tells the group, 'I need a heal now.'"
  18. This fact in some ways confirms Limbaugh's argument that video games resemble any other type of game or sport. Limbaugh cites an earlier decision about the lack of "expressive" content in a game of Bingo in which

    the court went on to hold that Bingo may involve interaction and communication between runners and participants, but any such communication is "singularly in furtherance of the game; it is totally divorced from a purpose of expressing ideas, impressions, feelings, or information unrelated to the game itself."

    Limbaugh's sense that communication can happen solely "in furtherance of the game" grants messages like "I need a heal" a peculiar legal status: they do not count as "speech," perhaps not even as "expression," even though they communicate meaning. Inside the world of the game, Limbaugh seems to argue, all speech happens in quotation marks, "divorced," in his phrase, from any serious, real-world meaning. Though we are essentially arguing against the conclusion Limbaugh and his judicial predecessors draw from this fact (and it is worth noting that much player-to-player communication does not serve so strictly to further the game as in the examples above),[10] EverQuest's design has a powerful structuring impact on the interaction of the players and their experience of playing the game. But an awareness that players engage in a specialized kind of discourse that derives from the conditions of the game in which they are involved doesn't close the door on an expressivist argument. While the interactions surrounding games of bridge, soccer, or EverQuest may share a structural similarity in that they are primarily instrumental, the fact that those specialized modes of discourse are so closely tied to their associated games suggests that those discourses can be reasonably distinguished from one another. That is, we do not follow the court's assumption that communication "singularly in furtherance of the game" is necessarily "divorced from a purpose of expressing ideas, impressions, feelings, or information unrelated to the game itself." Rather the specificity of the discursive exchange surrounding activities like games carries with it the means by which one can interpret the way a particular game structures the experience of its players: the discursive exchange signifies. By arguing that the game-like elements of EverQuest do not limit or confound those elements of the game that mark it more visibly as a mode of expression, we are in essence arguing that those things that make EverQuest a game can be interpreted, and that in so doing we can develop a more complete understanding of how a video game might in fact express "ideas, impressions, feelings, or information unrelated to the game itself."
  19. In what follows, then, we focus extensively on the interaction between the rules and practices of the game and the in-game interactions that those structural elements inspire. In the case of EverQuest, the rules of the game emphasize two major ideas that establish the structure of relationships between the players in ways that, as we will argue, centrally shape an understanding of the game's place as a medium of cultural expression. The first of these ideas involves a push for the integration of the character within local groups, required by virtue of the obstacles EverQuest creates between players and the goals of the game, and by the nature of the game world's geography and characters--a practice that in the game goes by the term "grouping." The second involves the production of what EverQuest designers and players term "balance"--an ongoing effort to ensure that all characters of equivalent experience are equally powerful and have the same ability to advance.
  20. Grouping and Community Formation

  21. The creation of local group identifications within EverQuest represents a particular way of modulating the "massively multiplayer" experience that defines it. While the special appeal of EverQuest (and the cornerstone of its marketing) is the large player population that can interact within the game, much about the structure of the game itself encourages characters to develop a sense of distinction and to feel a part of smaller communities within the game. One of the most basic ways in which this happens derives from the fact that the game is conceived geographically. The action in EverQuest takes place within a virtual geographic space divided into connected but discrete "zones" that are modeled to represent a variety of external and interior locales.[11] While players can communicate with players in other zones, it is only with players located near a character in the imagined space of the game world that characters can engage in more complex interactions or work to pursue the goals of the game (that is, defeating enemies, gaining wealth or equipment for one's character). While the creation of a virtual space for the game may seem like an obvious approach for an interactive game, such a decision carries with it a variety of implications related to the interaction of space and personal interaction.
  22. For instance, when a player creates a new EverQuest character, he or she chooses a "race" for that character (from a variety of Tolkien-esque choices including Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings) that also determines where in the EverQuest world that character will begin play.[12] Without assistance from other players, beginning characters will not be able to travel far from their starting locations, so characters tend to spend much of their early careers near their home city in the company of other characters of the same race.[13] As a result of the game's efforts to enforce these geographic limitations, players cannot help but encounter and become familiar early on with characters of their own race near their "home" town, thereby encouraging from the beginning of the player's experience a sense of locality and distinction within an online community of players defined by its vastness.[14]
  23. In addition to the effects of the geographic nature of the EverQuest world, the way the game structures its goals directs the characters to form a variety of formal and informal groups in order to progress. At the smallest scale, the design of the game nearly requires that players band together in order to venture into areas of the game world that would be too dangerous to traverse alone, but which players must enter in order to develop their character's skills and to gain wealth or equipment. It is as a part of these groups that most players engage in the central activities of the game. These groups may be impromptu gatherings of players who are all interested in exploring the same area or pre-planned groups of players who know each other from previous experience in the game or friendships outside EverQuest. Because obtaining power and wealth in EverQuest requires killing monsters, players will gather at known "camps," and the vast majority of these camps require groups, either by virtue of the relative strength of the monsters that appear there or the rate at which they "spawn" in the game world. This structural encouragement to group increases exponentially as characters become more powerful, with many high-level encounters (at which players may acquire the most powerful and valuable items in the game) requiring the presence not only of one or two groups (each group with a maximum of six people) but of as many as thirty or forty players. These large group endeavors are undertaken by "guilds," long-standing formal associations of players who agree to cooperate in all manner of in-game activities.
  24. The structure of the game in a variety of ways thus encourages people to find smaller communities, conceived either in response to local proximity within the imagined space of the game or to the difficulty of the challenges the game presents to its players. EverQuest therefore ought to be considered not simply in terms of the numbers of people who are able to play the game together simultaneously, but also by the degree to which those people all experience the game as part of smaller, more local communities. For instance: 100,000 people playing simultaneously will be divided into forty-eight servers with around 2,000 to 3,000 players each, further divided into geographic "zones" containing as many as 100 people, many of whom have organized themselves into groups composed of two to six individuals. While this description does not make EverQuest "about" the creation of local community in the explicit way a film could be, the game's structure nonetheless leads players to experience a necessity for organization at various scales and gives them the chance to identify that imperative consciously or unconsciously. Though we are attempting to argue for the meaning of games as a medium apart from film, it is an instructive analogy to suggest that if a film can convey an experience of forming local communities through its visual depiction of characters and events, then EverQuest can be said to communicate these concepts through its depiction of such activities on the computer screen and through the processes of actually playing the game of EverQuest, bound by its design and its rules.[15] This structural analysis of EverQuest, in which one sees and reads aspects of the game that are like "grouping," might be thought of therefore as an attempt to develop a "grammar" for the game, an understanding not so much of its specific expressions but rather of the modes through which those expressions articulate themselves.
  25. Balance, Homogeneity, and Alienation

  26. While community formation is an important underlying theme implied by the rules of EverQuest, "game balance" remains the concept most explicitly central to the design of the game's rules. EverQuest gives players a wide variety of choices in the design of the character they will play in the game. In addition to the aforementioned choice of character race, players assign their characters a "class" or profession (classes include Warriors, Wizards, Rogues, and Druids) that defines the character's skills. Additionally, players may assign their characters physical and mental attributes, choosing to develop a character that is physically strong, agile, highly intelligent, or some combination of those traits.
  27. Bounding all of the diversity of these decisions, however, is an explicit assurance that each of the individual races and classes "balance" in terms of their effectiveness in the game. While certain combinations may provide a short-term advantage--physically strong races such as Barbarians or Ogres will start the game as particularly effective warriors--the game is designed so that these initial differences can be erased (largely through the purchase of equipment) as the player progresses through the game; in other words, the game effectively promises that no class will, in the long run, outshine its peers in terms of power or ability.
  28. No concept contributes more visibly to the discussion of what EverQuest is and how it should work than the idea of balance; in message board discussions by fans and official communiqués from the Verant Interactive team, "balance" dominates the continued development of the game. Because it is relatively difficult for the creators of EverQuest to predict the effect of specific game rules on the dynamics of game play, EverQuest is designed to be continuously altered and updated. Periodically, players must download updates of the game software that alter the rules of the game in various ways, making certain pieces of equipment more or less powerful, or adding to a class's ability to perform magic or heal injuries. The overwhelming majority of these changes expressly address the issue of balance, correcting some perceived weakness or strength of a class relative to all others.[16]
  29. This premise is repeated by the conditions in which the character starts, outside the race's home city, with the same rudimentary equipment as any other character of the same class, and, like all other new characters, with no money. While it seems reasonable enough to have characters start from the same position, this is in no way mandatory or even conventional for some of the sub-genres from which EverQuest borrows. Characters in other video role-playing games, as well as pen and paper role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, can start with much greater differentiation both in terms of physical and mental abilities and in terms of initial wealth, allowing the game to model the advantages of class privilege or genetic predisposition. As the EverQuest player begins play, the pronounced equality of the character's starting situation translates the structural concept of balance into the played experience of potential or opportunity. Though EverQuest's goals are open-ended, its players' most consistent long-term project requires developing a character's abilities, enabling the character to explore the game world more extensively and to obtain items that both enhance the character's powers and serve as a mark of status. In this context, the assurance of balance and the equality of starting condition situate characters within an apparently neutral conception of personal achievement based solely on perseverance and effort.
  30. Through "balance," then, the game conveys a set of ideas about identity, community, and time that are central to the game's participation in a broader cultural expression. By effectively creating a situation in which everyone is "equal" in game terms--and by making that situation a stated goal of the software development--the makers of EverQuest establish a framework that echoes an idealized vision of American, and more broadly capitalist, culture; in turn, the player community's visceral investment in "balance" as a game concept points to the ideological drive towards not simply a form of consumerist "choice" but rather more deeply held ideas about the kind of world players want to "live" and play in.[17]
  31. The disjunction between the game's combination of a character system based on idealized equality and the high fantasy setting of the game's imagined world produces a deep and revealing irony. The latter carries with it a generic tradition of heroic individualism: characters in popular fantasy novels, as well as characters played in sessions of Dungeons & Dragons or single-player computer fantasy role-playing games, are almost inevitably depicted as uniquely heroic. Whether born with some special gift or fated to play a pivotal role in their fictive world, these characters do things that no others could do, confirming their distinction from the ordinary with their dramatic, singular achievements. But in order for EverQuest to allow all of its players the chance to assume this kind of heroic role, it must ensure that all players have the same opportunities for heroism. This is the logic behind the game's insistence on "balance," but of course it has the paradoxical effect of eliminating the possibility of uniquely talented, exceptional heroes who might play a one-of-a-kind role in the unfolding of the game world's history. Thus, the promise of developing one's character to greater and greater power, defeating ever more powerful enemies and acquiring greater wealth, is always undercut by the knowledge that there are in the world other heroes exactly as powerful as your character and a host of other characters who will be in time.
  32. The drive towards balance and homogeneity means that the only distinction between any two characters in EverQuest can be understood simply as a difference in time. Because of balance, the external limiting factor on a character's success is the amount of time it is played: today's brand-new character can, within a year or so, be as powerful as any other character. One of the effects of this structure is to inspire many players to focus intensely on "the furtherance of the game" so as to translate their playing time into as much character advancement as possible--and since advancement is always possible, no structural feature of the game itself offers players a reason to ever stop playing. Understanding the structural relationship between time and game balance emphasizes the usefulness of reading the game elements of EverQuest, since doing so demonstrates one of the ways that the game encourages players to focus on the furtherance of the game in preference to either the development of narrative[18] or even the types of less-directed online interaction (via the Web, chat rooms, message boards, and so on) that have garnered more academic attention than have video games themselves. Indeed, as the players interact, kill things, advance their characters, and organize themselves into imagined communities, it may be that they experience little that is narrative at all.
  33. The phrase "imagined communities" belongs, of course, to Benedict Anderson, who uses it to describe the processes that undergird modern nation-formation: that series of cultural and political developments--particularly the development of print capitalism as expressed in the widespread availability of the modern novel and newspapers--that linked disparate individuals to "socioscapes" providing a shared sense of time and space, a "deep, horizontal comradeship" (7).[19] While such a concept might have a limited application to the sense in which EverQuest creates online communities of players, we want to bring a more developed version of Anderson's ideas about community and the socioscape to bear on the way EverQuest structures its players' relationships to time and identity regardless of the relation of those relationships to actual circumstance outside the game because, as Anderson notes, "communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined" (6).
  34. For Anderson, the time of the imagined community of the nation is "based on a conception of 'meanwhile,'" a neutral temporality that a citizen might imagine sharing with his or her unseen fellow countrymen. As Anderson writes of two theoretical characters, A and D:

    What then actually links A to D? First, that they are embedded in "societies" [...]. These societies are sociological entities of such firm and stable reality that their members (A and D) can even be described as passing each other on the street, without ever becoming acquainted, and still be connected. (25)

    In the context of a cultural sense of "meanwhile," citizens can imagine the simultaneous participation of thousands of other unseen citizens; a temporal common ground comes to replace the geographical proximity that united premodern, pre-national communities, as citizens imagine themselves in relation to a series of anonymous others to whom they are tied through affiliation, not filiation proper.
  35. Anderson's interest in the novel as a cultural form is based on key formal elements of the novel that encourage and illustrate the kind of thinking that makes imagining national community possible. In particular, he argues, the structure of the novel conditions its readers to accept an understanding of social activity as embedded in a free-flowing, neutral temporality that Walter Benjamin describes as "homogenous, empty time." The novel's contribution to the cultural development of nationalism thus derives not from its specific plots or characters, but rather from its ability to schematize the relationship between time, space, and community that induces affiliation with anonymous others.
  36. Anderson's reading of the novel's formal and temporal structure makes his observations useful for a reading of EverQuest without forcing an equation between computer games and novels. By abstracting the premise of Anderson's observation, we have a way to pursue a reading of how a game might be able to reflect and shape its culture despite the fact that it lacks those elements--narrative, literary or filmic symbolism, allegory--that seem to be prerequisites for consideration under legal or academic tests of expression. The arrangement of characters, space, and temporality in EverQuest creates a substantive instance of an Andersonian socioscape, the imagined framework of social organization in time and space shared by the fictional narrative and the real world of the reader.[20] This is especially important to the way EverQuest structures character development and relationships around time. Because game balance creates a situation in which the primary goal of character development depends almost exclusively on the amount of time played, EverQuest presents its players with "homogeneous, empty time" taken up only by segments of the character's theoretically infinite progression. Similarly, the distinction between characters of varied levels of power is rendered, in large part, as a difference of time. Especially powerful characters are the object of envy or admiration from other players, but the temporal basis of characters' power always allows a lower-level character to imagine that he or she could at some future moment be as powerful as any other character on the server. No EverQuest character can be so singled out by fate or circumstance that it could present a unique and unrepeatable model of heroism. Meanwhile, the promise of game balance assures any player with a low-level character that his or her character's rise to the highest levels of development will be just as easy or difficult as it was for the more powerful character that preceded it. This evokes a temporal frame in which characters are to some extent earlier or later versions of each other, at different points in the same progression.
  37. All of this happens within the temporality of EverQuest's "persistent world"--a term used in EverQuest and similar online multiplayer role-playing games to denote the fact that time passes in the game world no matter how many players happen to be online. Thus, during the time that a player is not playing EverQuest, thousands of players are online, exploring areas, gaining virtual wealth, and developing the power of their characters. A player might return after a week's hiatus to find that another player's character has in the interim changed considerably, had any number of adventures, and relocated to a distant part of the game world.
  38. We see in this a remarkable manifestation of the temporal logic expressed or implied by certain novels, films, and especially television series in which it seems as if the viewer is stopping in periodically to look at an ongoing timeline of events. While this impression is a narrative illusion in the case of a weekly television series (it would be difficult to argue that the characters in ER are doing anything between the times depicted by the show), in the case of EverQuest it is essentially true that the game-time does keep moving when an individual player is not playing.
  39. EverQuest's persistence is thus a temporal persistence, deepening the player's experience of a temporality so "empty" that it proceeds unaltered by the player's presence or absence within the game. Indeed, the player knows whether or not he or she is playing, but the game-time of EverQuest does not honor that distinction for any individual player. More than the overwhelming scale of the online population or geographic separation, the temporality of EverQuest offers the player the very real potential of an existential alienation: one's participation in the game forces one to confront the fact of a virtually global indifference. This is true both while playing the game, as players feel an obligation to use their time to develop their characters, and especially while not playing, as EverQuest players experience a very literal form of alienation, entirely removed from the still-active game world while it continues without them.
  40. Balance and Grouping: the Dialectics of Online Community

  41. This powerful form of alienation is absolutely central to the experience of EverQuest, as it provides the dynamic tension for the game's push toward grouping. In the context of a fictional construction in which a player is always missing something when not playing, the formation of group-based identities provides the consolation that the player will be missed in return. The importance of limited communities as a resistance to the game's threat of alienation is thus repeated in the way it modulates the player's development in the context of game balance.
  42. In the absence of uniquely heroic characters, the formation of smaller communities within EverQuest provides at least partial resistance to the homogenization of identity, as interaction within these groups interrupts both the equality of characters and uninterrupted flow of time that provides the medium of that equality. At the smallest scale, for example, characters in adventuring groups rely heavily on each other's abilities to defeat enemies and avoid being killed. This provides a context in which players can focus intently on their own activities and accomplishments and provide each other with an audience prepared to appreciate each character's vital contributions to the group. The structure of the group simultaneously highlights the capabilities and usefulness of its characters and provides a more limited context in which a player can measure his or her character's abilities. Additionally, as the group discusses its strategies and recalls its successes and failures, the players layer a narrative structure over the time they spend together, shaping and distinguishing a segment of EverQuest's otherwise empty time.
  43. One might argue, then, that EverQuest allows its players, indeed encourages them, to seek community in the face of a spatial and above all temporal vastness that threatens their character with dismaying anonymity. But at the same time, it must be noted that the game is as responsible for providing its players with the alienating temporal/spatial structure as it is for providing them with the means by which to resist or avoid it. This opposition or bind between alienation and community is the central effect of the game elements on the players' experience of EverQuest; that is, the relation between these two fundamental structures in the game establishes, dialectically, both the reason to avoid playing the game (the alienating, temporal vastness of unheroic indifference) and the reason that the game is so compelling to play (the opportunity to overcome that vastness and indifference through community formation).
  44. A more thorough analysis of EverQuest would have to explain why designers engineered this bind at the core of the game, and perhaps more importantly, why players find the experience so compelling. For instance, one could ask whether EverQuest's homogenous time is compelling because it creates a bridge for players, matching the in-game experience of social time to players' sense of time in the world around them, thereby producing a subtle but compelling reality-effect that undergirds the game's otherwise fantastic setting. Or one could ask whether the representation of an "empty, homogenous" temporal structure exists only to create the dynamic of its resistance through the formation of small communities and whether players accept the threat of alienation because it raises the stakes for the pleasure derived from the formation of community within the game (much in the way that the prospects of loss create the thrill of gambling). In either case, there remain questions as to the tenor of the game's central tension. Does the formation of community in the face of alienation offer a cultural critique, modeling social practices that offer solutions to the dilemmas of time conceived under national and/or capitalistic cultures? Or does the game's simulation offer a false confirmation of community, defusing players' frustration with the very sense of social dislocation in the real world that drives them to find virtual community online?
  45. The goal of this essay is not to answer these specific questions, but to illustrate the way we might read the specificity of the video game form by concentrating on formal elements that distinguish these games from other expressive media. This avoids the temptation to subsume the computer game form under a generalized conception of "texts" or "culture" and accommodates the unexpected paths a game like EverQuest might take to intelligibility.
  46. The fact that EverQuest is played online, over the Internet, clearly makes possible many of the structural qualities (continuous time, for instance) we have been discussing. Our discussion of the game, and of Anderson's Imagined Communities, has yet to substantially address the implications of EverQuest's community formation for theories of citizenship and identity that see the Internet as a potentially revolutionary, or at least historically significant, development in the possibilities of political being. While we are sympathetic to the argument, our reading of EverQuest--arguably one of the most complex forms of interaction on the Internet today--suggests that the political question is complicated. Though some elements of the game may well be pushing players towards new forms of experience and identification, the political value of those forms remains difficult to parse.
  47. In a recent essay published as part of a special section in PMLA on "Mobile Citizens, Media States," Mark Poster offers a replacement for the term "citizen"--the neologism "netizen," to denote what he calls "the formative figure in a new kind of political relation, one that shares allegiance to the nation with allegiance to the Internet and to the planetary political spaces it inaugurates" (101). Though we agree with Poster that "certain structural features of the Internet encourage, promote, or at least allow exchanges across national borders" (101)--and believe that EverQuest is one of those features--the kind of political relation EverQuest's players are involved in, or rather, the kinds of communities that the game structurally encourages them to form, nonetheless remain readable within a framework that resembles the one Anderson uses for the modern novel (even if, as we have argued, there is no easy formal equivalence between video games and literature). That is, though the communities EverQuest forms (or encourages players to conceive and form) may well be "new," the difference that newness makes may simply be a difference we already know.
  48. Poster dismisses comparisons between forms, arguing that the difference between the novel and digital media is one of kind, not degree; he writes that "a novel does not constitute subjects in the same manner as a digitized narrative inscribed in the Internet" and adds that "humanists too often diminish the cultural significance of technological innovations" (102). While we have been insisting on the importance of understanding video games (and by extension, the technological innovations that produce them) as culturally significant, our reading of EverQuest suggests that in at least one important instance the innovation in form might not immediately produce utopian forms of citizenship or cultural experience--or rather, that it may not create forms of citizenship that cannot be created by novels or films. By virtue of its position as (one of) the most extensively structured and complex forms of Internet experience, EverQuest seems to present, if nothing else, a substantial obstacle to Poster's claim that what is "new" about new forms translates into something as radical as "bringing forth [...] a humanity adhering not to nature but to machines" (103).
  49. Poster argues that the Internet may introduce "new postnational political forms because of its internal architecture; its new register of time and space; its new relation of human being to machine, of body to mind; its new imaginary; and its new articulation between culture and reality" (103). Certainly EverQuest players experience their communities transnationally and outside traditional forms of the local--there are large numbers of players in Western Europe and in East Asia (especially Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong). But as we have shown, the political forms suggested by the game's complex register of time and space are, for all that, not necessarily different than ones we already know. Though players may identify with a transnational EverQuest community at the expense of their local political districts, they do so within a space that is busy constituting them in terms that are recognizably political and national themselves (the drive towards "balance" draws, for instance, upon a very clearly American ideology about equality and opportunity, one likely to support bootstrapping over the welfare state). Though the "digitized narrative" and form of EverQuest do not "constitute subjects in the same manner" as a novel, the game nonetheless seems capable of producing political identities and experiences of time and space that resemble those that novels can produce--even as it puts its players in a complex and addictive bind. To say this is not to dismiss the Internet's potential, nor is it to deny the possibility that new identities might be created there. What the EverQuest example suggests, however, is that liberating possibilities do not inhere in digital forms, but rather develop out of the uses to which they are put.
  50. In a review essay of Poster's "Digital Networks and Citizenship" published as part of that same PMLA section, N. Katherine Hayles argues for the seriated (rather than absolute) nature and value of technological change and its effects on individual experience, suggesting that there exists a more general "cultural heterogeneity, in which older cultural formations exist side by side with the technologies that are supposedly rendering them obsolete" (119). The word "supposedly" is vital here, as it suggests that the perception of obsolescence is simply an effect of (and coming to terms with) technological change. Obsolescence in such a scenario figures a more general acceptance of and discomfort with the passage of time, the moving of the future into the present, and the present into the past. One might say the same thing about the perception of "newness," particularly as it gets described as utopian (as is Poster's view) or dystopian (as in the many critiques of the Internet's effect on local communities, or on video games' effect on "genuine" human interaction): it is an effect of coming to terms with technological change that insists on absolute differences between the present and the past and which, in doing so, forgets that such change will probably "take shape as it has in the past, as heterogeneous striations overlapping and interpenetrating areas of innovation and replication" (Hayles 119).[21] Cultural change--and political value--articulates itself at different rates, even in the same object.
  51. EverQuest, we have been arguing, is one such object. And its striations are multiple: formally, it juxtaposes a highly visible form of technology as technology with a much older, seemingly non-technological form of entertainment (most elegantly articulated in the divide between video or computer and game); it brings together an emphasis on text-based communication (between the game world and players, and between players themselves) with explicitly filmic codes that allow for viewing in-game action through a number of different "cameras" or "views"; it mediates its broadly transnational community of players through divisions into smaller, local communities defined by either "geographic," "ethnic," or goal-oriented affiliations (that is, groups or guilds); it unites seemingly new experiences of both space and time with older notions (as Anderson describes them) of what those experiences ought to mean; and it establishes at its most fundamental structural levels an unresolved tension between the formation of community and a powerful experience of cultural alienation.
  52. As we have suggested all along, only by remaining aware of the productive interactions of these differences (beginning with the basic difference between "film" and "game" at the heart of Interactive Digital v. St. Louis County) does such a reading of EverQuest become possible. This is not to deny the utility or value of other kinds of readings--one could read the game purely in terms of its narratives, or its production of identification, or the sociological makeup of its players (their gender, their race, their class, their sexuality, their politics)--but rather to suggest that converting new media to textual or other analogous forms is not the only way to read. Within the terms laid out by the discipline of English as it currently exists in the American academy, one can take seriously the "game" in "video game" and still claim it as readable within a framework of (con)textual practices with which we are familiar. Such a reading--and readings of cultural practices like games more generally--will always tend towards the ideological, as readers will inevitably want to evaluate how that practice makes people act (in the "real" world) in political terms. But the material here can be read in multiple ways, and one of our goals has been to suggest that the complexity of a game like EverQuest requires a specific and careful analysis (which is why we have left open the question of whether it does "good" or "bad" work, in political terms, to the people who play it). Beyond that general proposition, however, the goal here has been to illustrate through the reading of EverQuest not simply the degree to which it represents and/or shapes the real experience of hundreds of thousands of players, but also to suggest that those representations (and the structures that make them possible) constitute an important site for the articulation and experience of cultural and political value, of broader understandings of communities and what they mean, of time and its relation to individual lives, and of one especially compelling form of alienation and its endlessly present solution. That our structural reading of EverQuest can be turned to make an argument about the uneven development of new media and technologies in the digital age, we take simply as evidence that video games are (and are readable as) culturally significant sites of the production and reception of capital, identity, and their pleasures.
  53. Eric Hayot
    Department of English
    University of Arizona

    Edward Wesp
    Department of English
    University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee

    Talk Back




    1. In 1952, the Supreme Court had already written that "it cannot be doubted that motion pictures are a significant medium for the communication of ideas" (Burstyn v. Wilson); the decision, however, extended only limited First Amendment protection to film. Film censorship lasted slightly longer--the last censorship board in the United States closed its doors in 1993, some seventy-seven years after the Supreme Court's first review of film's status as film.

    2. At least legally--the academic place of television studies is marginal in comparison to film and literature.

    3. Other cases include Malden Amusement Co. v. City of Malden (1983); Tommy & Tina, Inc. v. Department of Consumer Affairs, (1983); Kaye v. Planning & Zoning Comm'n (1983); Caswell v. Licensing Comm'n (1983).

    4. Avant-garde work in any of these media is excepted from these definitions, as Jesper Juul notes.

    5. At some basic level, of course, even the simplest video games express ideas and tell stories: Pac-Man tells the story of a brave circular creature chased by evil ghosts; the arrival of Ms. Pac-Man places the characters of both games within an easily recognizable conventional narrative. This may well be said to express the idea that heterosexual marriage, even for non-humanoid creatures whose major form of existence is to be chased through mazes, is the end-point of all play. But in something like Privateer 2--which includes cut-scenes, dialogue, and a large backstory involving one character's mysterious parentage--narrative elements are much more visible as such to an "average" reader.

    6. The ratings systems used for video games specify that to be considered "violent" the game must include violence done to humans or human-like creatures; in such a scenario Pac-Man is not "violent" even though it involves "eating" ghosts. This seems to require recognizing that video games can have "content," though Limbaugh disagrees.

    7. Neither, for that matter, are books or films.

    8. At $12 per month each, EverQuest's 430,000 players generate some $62 million in annual revenue.

    9. No matter which server a player chooses to play on, they will encounter exactly the same geography and computer-controlled monsters. However, players can only encounter other players who are on that same server.

    10. Players tell jokes, discuss their (real-life) social situations, politics, and sports, or gossip about other players in both private discussions and larger groups; none of these furthers the game, strictly conceived. Or, if one adopts a broader view of what a "game" is and does--if one imagines that games exist for social reasons furthered by phatic communication--then such communication does indeed further those purposes. The fact that EverQuest players simply cannot have such discussions unless they are actively within the game world, unless they are connected to the Internet and running the EverQuest software, suggests something of the need to more broadly consider what the "furtherance" of the game means in this case.

    11. For instance: cities, open plains, dungeons, mountainous regions, deserts, and the like.

    12. Each player is allowed to create up to eight characters to play on any of the EverQuest servers. It is very common for players to alternate their gaming sessions between one or more characters, and players will often create extra characters in order to experience the geography and "culture" of a different region of the game world.

    13. Or similar races: home cities for "good" races like dwarves and elves are near each other, but far from home cities of such "evil" races as trolls and ogres. Recent changes in the game's structure, through an optional software expansion known as "Planes of Power," have given low-level characters a much higher degree of mobility.

    14. The sense of community encouraged by the geographic division of the game space is often very persistent. It is a common for players to recognize each other's characters from their early days and hail each other as old friends might. Thus, for instance two players playing Wood Elf characters might express a sense of expatriate community upon encountering each other in a distant city that is home to Halflings.

    15. To be sure, it is possible to play EverQuest idiosyncratically--refusing to group or communicate with other players, or to otherwise advance a character. One could, of course, do the same in other games; a soccer player who insisted on always heading the ball rather than kicking it might achieve some personal pleasure at the cost of team success. But EverQuest, like soccer, will not reward idiosyncratic players in the game's terms.

    16. It is worth noting that these changes are generally called for by the community of players. In general, players seem to accept the concept of balance enthusiastically; some portion of the agitation for game changes in the name of balance, however, simply conceals lobbying efforts to increase the ability of players' own preferred character types.

    17. In fact, on the face of things, it is not clear why "balance" would be a problem--if warriors are more efficient or fun to play than wizards, a purely consumerist chooser would play a warrior every time. But players on message boards not only articulate their insistence on playing a certain class (combined with a directive to Verant Interactive to balance the class fairly) but also a refusal to play other classes that they feel uncomfortable with. What the players therefore want is the opportunity to make a "choice" that does not have to be based on in-game efficiency but can stem from other (cultural, emotional) factors.

    18. The structure of such a feature can be translated, to be sure, into narrative terms (the game is, in some conceptions, a "neverending" story), but it seems to us that such a reading might make the structural importance of "balance" harder rather than easier to see, while a reckoning with EverQuest as a game brings it into relief.

    19. As Anderson notes in his preface to the second edition of Imagined Communities, the original edition deals primarily with the problem of time; the second edition (1990) adds a chapter on space and "mapping" (xiv).

    20. In an essay offering a revision and extension of Anderson's "socioscape" designed to remark the degree to which the imagination, in late capitalism, functions as a "social practice," Arjun Appadurai writes that "the imagination has become [...] a form of work [...] and a form of negotiation between sites of agency ('individuals') and globally defined fields of possibility" (327). In Appadurai's terms, EverQuest occurs at an especially intense node of the global "mediascape" (it is, after all, owned by Sony) but, by virtue of the kind of world it invites players to spend time in, maps that mediascape onto a landscape involving ideologies, technologies, and the flow of money.

    21. Hayles thus insists that striation is not so much a new condition as one which new situations make easier to see. In How We Became Posthuman, Hayles argues against the idea that the digital age is creating an entirely new type of human and destroying the older, Cartesian model, that the "becoming" in question has been ongoing and diachronic rather than the product of any recent, synchronic break in the fabric of human experience (283-91).

    Works Cited

    American Amusement Mach. Ass'n v. Kendrick. 244 F.3d 572 (7th Cir. 2001).

    America's Best Family Showplace Corp. v. City of New York. 536 F. Supp. 170, 173-174 (E.D.N.Y. 1982).

    Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso, 1991.

    Appadurai, Arjun. "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Economy." The Post-colonial Studies Reader. Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1995. 324-339.

    Au, Wagner James. "Playing Games With Free Speech." <>. 22 Aug. 2002.

    Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495, 502-503 (1952).

    Caswell v. Licensing Comm'n. 444 N.E.2d 922 (Mass. 1983).

    EverQuest. Computer software. Verant Interactive, 1999.

    Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.

    ----. "The Complexities of Seriation." PMLA 117:1 (January 2002): 117-21.

    Interactive Digital Software Ass'n v. St. Louis County. 200 F.Supp.2d 1126 (E.D. Mo. 2002).

    Juul, Jesper. "Games Telling Stories? A Brief Note on Games and Narratives." Game Studies 1:1. <>. 22 Aug. 2002.

    Kaye v. Planning & Zoning Comm'n. 472 A.2d 809 (Conn. Super. Ct. 1983).

    Malden Amusement Co. v. City of Malden. 582 F. Supp. 297 (D. Mass. 1983).

    Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Comm'n. 236 U.S. 230, 244 (1915).

    New York v. Ferber. 458 U.S. 747, 771 (1982).

    Poster, Mark. "Digital Networks and Citizenship." PMLA 117:1 (January 2002): 98-103.

    Tommy & Tina, Inc. v. Department of Consumer Affairs. 459 N.Y.S.2d 220, 227 (N.Y. Sup. Ct.), aff'd on other grounds, 464 N.Y.S.2d 132 (N.Y. App. Div. 1983.

    Rothner v. Chicago. 929 F.2d 297, 303 (7th Cir. 1991).

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