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									          Synthetic Democracy: Associations and Social Capital in Virtual Worlds

                                                                    Capt James D. Fielder, USAF
                                                                     Instructor of Political Science
                                                                 United States Air Force Academy
                                                                                    (719) 333-8088


My paper examines the connections among the internet, social capital and associations. A
significant amount of literature exists examining the impact of the internet on politics in general;
however, I extend this research by specifically looking at 2D and 3D representation of the self
and its effect on online social interactions. I use Tocqueville as my theoretical foundation for
investigating these levels of association. Our democracy is based on association, particularly
face-to-face association and communication, which fosters trust and reciprocity. My research
indicates that when the self is visually represented online the self-identity is projected in a
similar manner as face-to-face communication, unlike other forms of electronic communication
that lack non-verbal cues. Online virtual communities establish behavioral norms, develop social
hierarchies, and ultimately reinforce self validation, which increases personal commitment. I
argue that avatar-based communication via the internet has the potential to not only increase
association in the Tocquevillian sense, but also expand the political discourse by pushing the
concept of association beyond real-world time and space restraints while at the same time
building trust.
    In his book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that what prevents

individual isolation and centralized tyranny within a democratic society is the power of

association, the willingness to put aside individual goals and to apply many hands to achieve

group endeavors. In contrast, in Bowling Alone Robert Putnam assessed that formal membership

in face-to-face organizations dropped anywhere from 10% to 20% in the last third of the 20th

Century, while active involvement in clubs and other voluntary associations plummeted more

than 50%.1 The causes of such isolation include the telephone, television, automobile, and even

the garage door that literally and symbolically closes the home from the rest of the community.

    The Internet, however, offers new patterns of potential isolation; it took a mere 7 years for the

Internet to reach 75% user saturation, a feat that took the telephone 70 years to accomplish, and

by 2004 88% of users reported the Internet played a role in their daily routines.2 Furthermore, in

2000 Norman Nie and Lutz Erbring released a time diary study that identified a hydraulic effect;

that is, Internet usage displaced other forms of social interaction. As few as 2 hours spent on the

Net equaled a 15% drop in social participation. Twenty-five percent of users who spent 5 hours

on the internet reported spending less time with family and friends (both in person and over the

phone), and 10% of the same users said they spent less time attending social events outside the


    For 4% of the US population, though, the Internet is not a place of isolation; but rather, a new

frontier for finding social meaning within virtual societies. To note, by 2004 the population of

EverQuest--a popular Massive Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game, or MMORPG--exceeded

the population of Long Beach, CA, making EverQuest the 35th largest city in the United States.

  Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 2000), 63.
  Putnam, Bowling Alone, 169; Jensen, et al., introduction.
  Norman Nie, and Lutz Erbring. Internet And Society: a Preliminary Report (Stanford University: Stanford
Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society, Feb 2007), 5.

Indeed, the US subscription base for the most popular online worlds grew from just over 1

million users in January 2000 to over 13 million users by January 2006.4

    My question, then, is if association is the bedrock of civic participation and democracy, and

face-to-face interaction encourages positive association, what are the ramifications of virtual

interaction on Tocqueville’s ideas of association? To answer this question I studied available

literature on the impact of textual online interaction (i.e. chat rooms, forums) and graphical

interaction (i.e. MMORPGs, First-Person Shooters) on social interaction. What I found in

common with both was the Internet allows users to create new identities free of face-to-face

social restrictions. But while the anonymity of textual interaction is a potential barrier to

building trust, graphical interaction—where the user is represented by a 2D or 3D figure, or

avatar—builds association through its immersive effect and through individuals grouping

together to pursue shared goals within virtual worlds.


America is, among the countries of the world, the one where they have taken most advantage of
association and where they have applied that powerful mode of action to a greater diversity of

    To understand how association functions in virtual reality, it’s worth revisiting why

associations are crucial for the survival of the republic and how communication influences

positive group development. In his book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville

observed that a potential flaw of our democratic system is the threat individual isolation. What

liberty granted in terms of equality amongst men comes with a price; that is, as opposed to the

  T.L. Taylor, Play between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 21;
Woodcock, Bruce. An Analysis of MMOG Subscription Growth, version 21.0. 29 June 2006.
http://www.mmogchart.com (Accessed 8 Aug 07)
  de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Ed. Harvey Mansfield, and Winthrop, D. (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2000), 180.

former European social hierarchy which both restricted equality but guaranteed a peer group,

democracy freed the individual from hierarchical bonds but provided no replacement for formal

group interaction. Thus isolated from his fellows, democracy threatens to crush the individual

under oppressive insignificance and loneliness. Such isolation leaves the individual at the mercy

of the collective will of his fellow citizens, and the threat of tyranny looms as the government

fills the vacuum caused by the paucity of civic interaction at the individual level:

        “Thus not only does Democracy make each man forget his ancestors, but it hides his
        descendants from him and separates him from his contemporaries; it constantly leads
        him back toward himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude
        of his own heart…[and] it is clear that if each citizen, a he becomes individually weaker
        and consequently more incapable in isolation of preserving his freedom, does not learn
        the art of uniting with those like him to defend it, tyranny will necessarily grow with

    Thus it is social and civic association that encourages citizens to accomplish goals at the

community level and protects the community from centralized government. Community

associations are groups formed without a direct relationship to the pursuit of political objectives,

but which draw in the political habits and experiences of individuals and are directed at

community interests rather than private interests; or as Verba, Nie, and Kim (1978) noted, “the

motivation and capacity to take part in politics have their roots in the nonpolitical institutions

with which the individuals are associated during the course of their lives.”7 The shared meanings

within such community associations connected individuals to everything from the annual

firehouse bake sale to national groups such as the Rotary Club or American Legion, a vast

collection of mundane local and national interaction that built a powerful civic identity. To wit,

 Ibid, 484, 489
 Gary Fine, and Brooke Harrington, “Tiny Publics: Small Groups and Civil Society,” Sociological Theory 22 (Sep
2004): 347.

Tocqueville observed Americans gathering to build roads, raise churches, plan schools, and

distribute books without government influence:

        “An obstacle comes up on the public highway, passage is interrupted, traffic stops;
        neighbors immediately establish themselves in a deliberating body; from this improvised
        assembly will issue an executive power that will remedy the ill—before the idea of an
        authority preexisting that of those interested has presented itself to anyone’s

    Furthermore, positive group structure is reinforced through monitoring and sanctioning,

especially through face-to-face interaction. Indeed, Tocqueville viewed face to face contact as

central to the functioning of associations, noting that when people “have the opportunity of

seeing each other, means of execution are readily combined, and opinions are maintained with a

degree of warmth and energy that written language cannot approach.9” Meeting in person allows

for shared verbal and nonverbal communication, which encourages individual decorum, respect

for and understanding of group personalities, and facilitates assessment of member’s strengths

and weaknesses. It is through such understanding groups build trust between people of varied

education and experience and deploy their strengths effectively while mitigating individual

weaknesses.10 Such building of trust within the community also builds social capital, or the

norms, trust, commitment, and communication that develop within social groups that encourage

collective action and mutual reciprocity between members:

        Your corn is ripe today; mine will be so tomorrow. 'Tis profitable for us both, that I
        should labour with you today, and that you should aid me tomorrow…the seasons

  de Tocqueville, 180-181.
  Michael Jensen,, James Danziger, and Alladi Venkatesh. Electronic Democracy in America: Civil Society, Cyber
Society and Participation in Local Politic (Irvine, CA: Center for Research on Information Technology and
Organizations, Mar 2005), 7-8.
   Andrew Sabl, “Community Organizing as Tocquevillean Politics: The Art, Practices, and Ethos of Association,”
American Journal of Political Science 46 (Jan., 2002): 10.

         change; and both of us lose our harvests for want of mutual confidence and security. -
         David Hume11

     As Hume indicates in the above quote, social capital is that which convinces the farmer to

share tools and labor with his neighbor, thus allowing each to complete far more than the

individual could. The community becomes more than the sum of its parts, with the individual

gaining the advantages of the help and the fellowship of his neighbor. Such commitment

reinforces trust between members and thus discourages deviant behaviors within the group

through reputational norms. Associations, therefore, serve as the centers of civic life, drawing

individuals into participation through shared ideas, material resources and commitment. As

Tocqueville noted, small groups empower the individual and links the individual’s allegiance to

their community and civic institutions. They create social order without turning to legal action,

such as settling land and water issues in rural communities.12 Without such mutual participation

in public life, John Stuart Mill said:

         “…a citizen “never thinks of any collective interest, of any objects to be pursued jointly
         with others but only in competition with them, and in some measure at their expense…A
         neighbor, not being an ally or associate, since he is never engaged in any common
         undertaking for joint benefit, is therefore only a rival,” The engaged citizen, by contrast,
         “is called upon…to weigh interests not his own; to be guided, in case of conflicting
         claims, by another rule than his private partialities…he is made to feel himself one of the
         public, and whatever is for their benefit to be for his benefit.”13

     Association, then, requires reciprocal trust and face-to-face communication; yet as noted

above association membership has declined the U.S. due to a number of cause. But although

Putnam and Nie cited the Internet as a potential cause of this decline, the question remains if the

Internet is a stark symptom of the decline of associations and social capital.

   Robert Putnam, “Social Capital and Public Affairs,” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 4
(May, 1994): 5.
   Fine and Harrington, 344.
   Putnam, Bowling Alone, 337.


For those for whom Real Life: The Game is indeed joyless, the synthetic world evidently
represents a game that has many of the same features but is more fun to play…synthetic worlds,
being much like our own world in their essence, will grow in popularity if they seem better
places to spend time.14

     A division exists amongst scholars on whether or not the Internet in general is an isolating or

integrating technology. At the dawn of the internet era Robert Putnam argued online groups had

the potential to create new electronic social organizations, possibly at the expense of physical

communities. However, some scholars advocated that online groups exhibit the traits of physical

associations, including reciprocity, shared beliefs, norm enforcement, and ultimately the ability

to carry out collective action, while others doubt that physical social capital and can be virtually

built amongst dispersed and anonymous online participants.15

     But in a study of the virtual world Asheron’s Call, Anne-Sofie Axelsson and Tim Regan

(2002) found online groups make people more social online and offline: they have more close

friends online, participate in social activities more often, and have more social contacts with

players offline. Michael Jensen, James Danziger and Alladi Venkatesh (2005) concurred in a

later survey, stating the Internet multiplied ties online and facilitated the deepening of offline

social ties. 16 In addition, although the hydraulic effect means the citizens of virtual worlds

spend less time in face-to-face activity, they are still investing both time and emotional capital in

avatar-to-avatar interaction. As virtual worlds become more commonplace and used for more

and more functions it will not seem at all strange for people to spend considerable time in these

worlds and to regard membership in a virtual community as part of their multiple social

   Edward Castronova, Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2005), 71, 76.
   Mary Culnan, “Online Communities: Infrastructure, Relational Cohesion and Sustainability” (lecture, Workshop
on Social Informatics, Irvine, CA, March 11-12, 2005), 5.
   Anne-Sofie Axelsson, and Tim Regan. How Belonging to an Online Group Affects Social Behavior--A Case
Study of Asheron’s Call (Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2002), 9; Jensen, et al, 7-8.

identities. Sherry Turkle stated, "we have learned to take things at interface value. We are

moving toward a culture of simulation in which people are increasingly comfortable with

substituting representations of reality for the real…we join virtual communities that exist only

among people communicating on computer networks as well as communities in which we are

physically present."17

     There is a distinction, though, between general Internet interaction and interaction among

graphical avatars. When taking part in textual communication over the Internet a person cannot

physically see other participants, but through exposure they becomes familiar with others

through their nicknames, e-mail addresses, or character names, and repeat exposure leads to

positive or negative feelings about the person depending on the context of interaction.18

Unfortunately, textual communication transmits much less nonverbal information than face-to-

face communication. Psychologist Albert Mehrabain writes that in the “realm of feelings” our

“facial and vocal expressions, postures, movements, and gestures” are crucial. When our words

“contradict the messages contained within them, others mistrust what we say—they rely almost

completely on what we do. 19 The lack of social cues in textual communication inhibits

collaboration and trust and makes it more difficult to reach consensus and solidarity with others.

     Virtual worlds, however, offer richer social interaction through the use visual gestures not

found in textual meeting spaces. Furthermore, in a study conducted by Nick Yee, he found not

just significant time involvement within virtual worlds, but also a substantial level of emotional

involvement. A considerable portion of users derived experiences in these virtual environments

   Jack Balkin, “Virtual Liberty: Freedom to Design and Freedom to Play in Virtual Worlds,” Virginia Law Review
90 (Dec 2004), 2078; Carroli, Linda, “Virtual Encounters: Community or Collaboration on the Internet?” Leonardo
30 (1997), 361.
   Katelyn McKenna, and John Bargh, “Plan 9 From Cyberspace: The Implications of the Internet for Personality
and Social Psychology,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 4 (2000), 66.
   Putnam, Bowling Alone, 174, 176.

that were more satisfying and rewarding than their real-life experiences.20 Although not the true

face-to-face interaction advocated by Tocqueville, the projection of personal emotion onto a

graphic figure capable of displaying verbal and nonverbal cues helps build the foundation of trust

required for positive group development. But what compels a user to spend such time/emotion

on an online identity that is divorced from their real identity, and how does the online identity

influence online association?


     In 1951, psychologist Carl Rogers proposed the individual is not a singular being, but rather a

collection of expressed qualities dictated by social mores and unexpressed personalities that are

often discouraged and suppressed (another way of looking at this is someone who considers

himself humorous and easy going, but must project a straight-laced persona in a work

environment). It is the latter, unexpressed persona Rogers calls, “the true self.” Furthermore,

the expressed persona is difficult to change, if at all. Peter Gollwitzer noted an individual cannot

wholly change their public identity without the acceptance and acknowledge of their peers. 21

Moreover, one’s physical appearance (gender, age, weight, race) are strongly associated with

social categories, roles and stereotypes, and so additionally limit the individual’s ability to

successfully assume an alternative personality.22

     But without cues generated by physical appearance, verbal communication, nonverbal signals

and social mores, the individual controls what is or is not revealed to others online. Typically,

our physical traits cannot be perceived by others when we go online, which allows for

   Nick Yee, “The Demographics, Motivations and Derived Experiences of Users of Massively-Multiuser Online
Graphical Environments,” Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 15, (2006), 30.
   Bargh and McKenna, 62.
   Diane Saco, Cybering Democracy: Public Space and the Internet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
2002), 129.

experimentation with alternate identities.23 When an individual begins to take part in the social

outlets on the Internet they become part of a new peer group unencumbered by their offline

social customs. Thus, online interaction provides individuals with the chance to successfully

realize identity changes, and indeed this has been found to occur and to result in increased

feelings of self-worth and acceptance. To wit, in a series of studies conducted by Bargh and

McKenna (2000) the results indicated people liked each other more when they first met in an

online setting rather than face-to-face.24 From a civic standpoint, in another experiment by

Jensen, Danziger and Venkatesh (2005) the team proposed the Internet’s erasure of traditional

markers of identity frees persons from some of the constraints operating in offline political

contexts.25 The team further offers such greater social inclusion online can beget greater levels

of participation in the political community.

     Moreover, social interaction involves the communication of signals through verbal (spoken,

written) and nonverbal (gestures, posture, expression) interaction. In addition, individuals must

share the meaning of those symbols or cues--shared meanings allow individuals to share the

same reality. Jim Blascovich identifies the concepts of social verification, agency and behavior

realism which are necessary for effective avatar association:26

         Social verification refers to the extent to which participants in virtual groups experience
         interactions with virtual others in ways that verify that they are engaging in semantically
         meaningful communication.

         Agency represents the extent to which individuals perceive virtual others as
         representations of real persons in real time.

   Ibid, 127.
   Bargh and McKenna, 62.
   Jensen, et al., 18-19.
   Jim Blascovich, “A Theoretical Model of Social Influence for Increasing the Utility of Collaborative Virtual
Environments” (Paper, ACM Collaborative Virtual Environments conference, Bonn Germany, 2002), 26.

         Behavioral realism represents the degree to which virtual others appear to participants to
         behave as those participants have been socialized to expect others to behave.

     The above concepts are realized through “presence,” or the sense that the user has projected

their identity to a real place filled with real people. Users experience the interactions of their

avatars as if they themselves are inside the world, or “I am there,” as opposed to, “my character

is in the game.”27 The citizens of virtual worlds can then not just be anonymous, but they can

also build an ideal graphical self that is visible to other participants. The individual who is weak

of body or mind in real life can build their inner warrior or wizard, virtual identities which are

validated as real online.28 Given that users can choose to appear as attractive as they want within

the world’s software limitations, users may become friendlier and more sincere with each other

because of the heroic attributes their avatars project. In addition, the concept of virtual presence

strengthens online identity and social interaction. For serious users the routine of participating in

a virtual world becomes part of the individual’s everyday life, blurring the borders between the

real self and virtual avatar. Players talk about their “real” selves as a composite of their

collection of avatars and sometimes talk about their avatars as means for working on their “real”

lives. One player says, “You are what you pretend to be…you are what you play.”29

     The importance of presence in virtual reality was demonstrated through two small group

behavior experiment conducted between 1995 and 1998. In the first experiment conducted at the

University College London, the research team recruited ten groups, with individuals in each

group divided into teams that interacted virtually on a desktop system (Green and Blue) or an

   Mel Slater, Amela Sadagic, Martin Usoh, and Ralph Shroeder, “Small-Group Behavior in a Virtual and Real
Environment: A Comparative Study,” Presence 9 (Feb 2000), 41; Castronova, 51; Balkin, 2047.
   Castronova, 78; Yee, Demographics, 13; Balkin, 2057.
   Turkle, Sherry, “Computer Games as Evocative Objects: From Projective Screens to Relational Artifacts,” in
Handbook of Computer Game Studies, ed. Joost Raessens, and Jeffrey Goldstein, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
2005), 270.

immersive system with a head-mounted display (Red). In addition, each subject was represented

by an avatar of the same color as their assigned team. Each subject was given a sheet describing

a task to be performed and then was asked to introduce themselves to one another online through

the system’s audio function. They could only refer to themselves and to the others by their color.

The task was to locate a room which had sheets of paper stuck around the walls. The sheets each

had several words in a column, each preceded by a number. The task was first to figure this out

and second to unscramble as many of these sayings as possible.

      The most surprising indicator of presence was how subjects were respectful of the avatars of

the other people, and tried to avoid carrying out actions that would cause distress or be

impossible in real life. For example, because of the lack of collision detection (i.e. the avatars

were not solid and therefore avatars could walk through each other) subjects reported feelings of

fright and embarrassment if another subject walked through their avatar. Others felt it rude to

walk through others, as if they were violating the personal space of a real person. In addition,

even with rudimentary avatar movement and gesture control, participants both attempted to use

cues and were influenced by cues (both purposeful and inadvertent). For example, one member

interpreted another’s crackling audio to be deliberate interference, while another member felt as

if a participant’s avatar was staring at everyone else simply because the avatar was facing other


      Another empirical study on unstructured virtual interaction based on the MASSIVE system

(Model, Architecture and System for Spatial Interaction in Virtual Environments)31 attempted to

understand the projection of real communication onto basic avatars. The study used

Conversational Analysis to transcribe dialogue and was extended to include the simple avatar

     Slater, et al., 45
     University of Nottingham, UK, http://www.crg.cs.nott.ac.uk/research/systems/MASSIVE (Accessed 10 June 07)

‘gestures’ possible in the system (such as whole body turning or ‘ear flapping’). The study found

that in spite of the very limited range of avatar movement, the avatars were used to supplement

language as an additional mechanism in social interaction.        Participants sought ‘face-to-face’

communication, even though everyone could communicate through audio channels. Participants

also coordinated movements to communicate, sharing patterns of movement and ear flapping to

establish common communication cues.32 The avatars were not just a means of navigation and

representation, but became invested with social meaning.

      What is common between both these early experiments was the use of rudimentary avatars,

with limited movement and no capability for motional expression. Yet, both inspired significant

emotional responses from the participants merely though basic facing and digit movements. 10

years later, we see the use of Voice over Internet Protocol, full facial expressions, and complex

gestures in worlds such as Second Life, World of Warcraft and EverQuest. The next section of

this paper, then, explores how technology influences virtual association.


Unlike the simplest computer games, there is no set narrative or fixed set of possible narrative
chains of events [in a virtual world]. As a result, virtual worlds have histories. They allow not
only the game designer, but also the participants, to make new meanings, to have new
adventures, and to express themselves in new ways.33

In his 1955 book Homo Ludens Johan Huizinga defined play as:

            “...a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not
            serious”, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity
            connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within
            its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly
            manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves
            with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other
            means…The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the
            tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e.,

     Slater, et al., 49.
     Balkin, 2056.

         forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within special rules obtain. All are
         temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act

     Game theorists refer to Huizinga’s game space as “the magic circle,” or the literal and/or

figurative line players cross when they exit real-world boundaries and immerse themselves in the

game. Game theorists Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman in particular asked, “How open (crosses

into real-world behavior) or closed (remains within the game once the game ends) are the

boundaries of the magic circle of the game and the world outside the game?” In response,

Zimmerman proposed the concepts of rules, play and culture:35

         Rules: formal, closed systems that immerse the player in the game space.

         Play: Game experiences that are open or closed.

         Culture: Extremely open boundary where the player takes game experiences out of the

     For example, under these rules a simple game such as Tic-Tac-Toe remains closed within the

magic circle; that is, the rules, play and culture of the game only immerse the player for the

duration of the game. On the other hand, while the rules of a virtual world remain closed to

define the game space, the world’s play and culture are decidedly open, as presence in-game can

influence the player’s offline identity.

     Rules within virtual worlds are typically designed to make sure the best strategies require

communication and cooperation. For example, fans of First-Person Shooters (FPS) such as

Counter-Strike and Team Fortress do not see the games as singular events, but rather work to

improve their edge by forming clans, competing in tournaments, and discussing strategy tips on

websites. Similarly MMORPGs such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft promote playing in

   Marinka Copier, “Connecting Worlds. Fantasy Role-Playing Games, Ritual Acts and the Magic Circle.” (lecture,
Proceedings of Digital Games Research Association Conference, 2005), 5.
   Copier, 5-7.

groups because certain tasks cannot be completed by an individual player.36 Thus, for both

styles of play, strategic planning and communication encourages community building. Game

designers also control the rules by coding the physics, establishing spatial boundaries and

defining character abilities. Through code they can modify the landscape, grant or deny player

powers, and kick participants out. The designers can also control what goes on in the game

through contract; in most worlds players must agree to the platform owner's Terms of Service

("TOS") or End User License Agreement ("EULA"), which cover features of proper play and

etiquette that cannot be coded. Game designers can then enforce in-game social norms by

threatening or removing players who violate the EULA. However, virtual worlds form

communities that grow and develop in ways that the platform owners do not predict and cannot

fully control and can become joint projects between platform owners and players. Indeed,

Second Life has already experienced a "tax revolt" in which the players persuaded the platform

owner to modify its code.” 37

     In terms of play, Economist Ed Castronova observed if a virtual world is to be treated as real

by users rather than a glorified chat room, then the world must have functionality similar to real-

world experiences: persistent, physical and interactive.38 First, persistence is the glue that

connects players to a world with a shared identity. Community is relationships between players,

be it friendly or adversarial, symbiotic or competitive. Without community, the virtual world

becomes simply a space shared by individuals without a shared identity, which discourages

repeat play. Next, Katie Salen (2005) added that interactivity was not simply about manipulating

the environment through your avatar’s hands, but also having choices in how you interact with

   Jesper Juul, Half Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
2005), 91.
   Wagner Au, “Tax Revolt In Americana!” http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2003/09/tax_revolt_in_a.html, 12 Sep 2003
(accessed 27 Sep 07); Balkin, 2049.
   Castronova, 80.

the environment.39 A linear world with few choice options, then, reduces the overall replay

ability of the game; and, as with a dearth of persistence, it also discourages repeat play. Finally,

it is risk that influences physical interaction, since the player soon learns the consequences of

mistakes (typically measured in time and treasure lost).

     Concerning culture, although the given world’s manual will teach the user how to build a

character, purchase items and fight monsters, it does not tell the user how their chosen character

fits within the world community, let alone how thousands of other users developed character

customs over time. The manual doesn’t teach user-developed slang, particulars about when and

when not to mix modern and game period-specific vocabulary (i.e. shouting “Wal-Mart!” in a

strict medieval role-playing world), or discuss how violations of any of the myriad of user-

created norms can damage your in-game reputation.40

     Within virtual worlds the users will understand the particular risks and rewards particular to

the world and thus maintain a shared emotional validation, which makes status and advancement

meaningful and encourages the development of virtual social groups. Indeed, most virtual

worlds are purposely designed to encourage grouping in order to achieve high-level goals that

cannot be completed by the individual player. Outside the realm of combat and adventure, group

structures give players access to markets and opportunities to socialize. All of this builds

community, which encourages players to cross continuously into the game’s magic circle. In

addition, such designed grouping mechanics ensure players who do not get along with others

generally do not advance--as with face-to-face association, reputation and norms are often more

powerful than any rule the game designer could place in the code or EULA.

   Katie Salen, and Eric Zimmerman, “Game Design and Meaningful Play,” in Handbook of Computer Game
Studies, ed. J. Raessens, and Goldstein (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 72.
   Mikael Jakobsson, and T.L. Taylor. The Sopranos Meets EverQuest: Social Networking in Massively Multiplayer
Online Games. (2003), 81; Castronova, 112, 115.

     However, changes of in-world technology can also have adverse effects on association; for

example, the early lack of easy transportation options in EverQuest forced players to find

workarounds. Players with the ability to cast transport spells bartered with those who could not,

and such bartering encouraged development of regional trading and social gathering centers. 41

In addition, such bartering encouraged players to negotiate prices, display generosity (i.e. the

occasional player offering free transportation to build a local reputation), and ultimately

generating trust between players meeting face-to-face. Unfortunately, automated travel was

added in a later version of the game, which reduced the nuisances of travel but turned the player-

created trade centers into ghost towns.

     As a historical example of the facets discussed in this section, in 1985 Lucasfilm (now

LucasArts) began developing Habitat, the first major attempt to build a graphical front-end

interactive world that could support thousands of players on a standard home system—the

Commodore 64. In particular, Habitat was specifically designed without goals or a fixed end-

game.42 The design team simply sought to provide tools and activities users could manipulate

and pursue based on their self-derived goals. The designers envisioned everything from simply

meeting with friends to establishing businesses, founding religions, and experimenting with self-


     Habitat was live from 1986 to 1988 in the US, but in that short time the designers made

crucial behavior observations regarding cyber-group dynamics. Above all, the team noted social

engineering through game design typically did not play out as they expected; although the team

could create tools and activities with preconceived outcomes, rarely did users apply the tools,

approach the activities, or create the outcomes the team expected. As one developer said, "In the

 Taylor, 61-62, 64.
 Chip Morningstar, and Randall Farmer. “The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat.” In Cyberspace: First Steps, ed.
Michael Benedikt (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 1.

most carefully constructed experiment under the most carefully controlled conditions, the

organism will do whatever it damn well pleases.”43 But considering the users were presented a

world with an absence of order, users quickly established norms and groups to encourage

positive play experience. One example was the establishment of the first Habitat faith: the

Order of the Holy Walnut. The creator, a Greek Orthodox priest offline, forbade members from

participating in violence of any kind, to include carrying weapons.44

     Technological mediums have, of course, improved since Habitat, when play over a 300 baud

modem limited graphical functionality. However, even then Lucasfilm noted users could

communicate effectively within a virtual world as long as the users maintained a shared meaning

within the world’s technological confines. Their observations of communication carried over to

other areas of game functionality, as well. For example, whether or not an in-game table was

rendered in full textured-wood or as a simple geometric shape, function was more important than

form to immerse the user. 45 If users understood how to interact with the basic geometric table,

then the collective consciousness of the world accepted the basic table as real.


The second degree in the exercise of the right of association is the power to assemble… there
men see each other; means of execution are combined and opinions are deployed with the force
and heat that written thought can never attain.46

     On entering the virtual world, the typical first action is to move around to get familiar with

the world. New users will then start conversing with others, beginning with 'where-are-you-

from?' or 'what do you do in the real world?' In other words, the small talk used to establish

   Ibid, 13.
   Ibid, 14.
   Ibid, 6, 10.
   Tocqueville, 181.

rapport amongst established and new group participants.47 New participants then undergo a

socialization process above and beyond the rules found in the game manual, teaching the new

user the culture and practices that have emerged within the game community. One example is

how a player issues a public warning in EverQuest. A player running frantically from an army of

monsters is expected to use the “shout” channel to let other players know there is trouble

brewing. This is not something mentioned in the official company game rules, yet over time the

player community has established this norm as a means to collectively manage danger.48 New

players will learn additional communication shortcuts, expected mores (i.e. don’t steal loot from

another player’s kill), who and what is or is not important in the game, and a myriad of other tips

and unofficial rules that assimilate the player in the world.

     Also, while identity is malleable online, an individual’s role within the world both restricts

their behavior while at the same time enhances their potential experiences. For example, if a

player chooses to play a healer, the collective norms of the game will most likely restrict the

player to healing others and discourage participation in melee combat; but by conforming to the

expected role of a healer the player can build a substantial reserve of trust, reputation and social

capital amongst other players. All roles have strengths and weaknesses, but a cohesive group

learns to effectively employ individual strengths against opponents while at the same time

mitigating each other’s weakness (i.e. the warrior archetype with the higher damage threshold

charges the enemy while the mage or archer provides missile support from afar).49 Only by

submitting the real self to a virtual role can a group take on and defeat opponents mightier than

individual characters in the group.

   Ralph Schroeder, “Networked Worlds: Social Aspects of Multi-User Virtual Reality Technology,” Social
Research Online 2, (1997), para 4.4.
   Taylor, 34.
   Castronova, 102; Yee, Demographics, 29

      To maintain standards within the community, players who continually cause trouble often

find themselves ostracized. Bad players can acquire a reputation that has serious effects on their

ability to get groups, be invited into a guild, and by extension meaningfully advance in the

virtual world. Thus, given the reliance on social networks to progress, sustained bad player

behavior carries a significant cost. The strong emphasis on reputation in the creation of social

networks grows out of a need from the players to protect their positive gaming experience from

the combination of deviant behaviors and the absence of an effective official governing system.

This system of norms develops slowly through the input of thousands of players, making the

developer and player co-creators of the given virtual world.50 Being perceived as a team-player,

gregarious in helping with raids, or simply being powerful enough to tip the balance in an

alliance, can significantly affect ones ability to mobilize resources when needed. While a

character might be quite individually powerful, as in real-world Tocquevillian association

players also need social capital to draw on to progress to the highest levels and reaches of the

game. To fully appreciate such group dynamics, consider this: the risk calculus, varied opinions

and united or divided decisions of a group are communicated in as short as 5 seconds; and

depending on the difficulty of the objectives the deviance of even one member will determine the

life or death of potentially all the members of the group.51

      Given the high-level decision making processes required to organize or pursue an advanced

objective, such virtual association also allows players to apply leadership attributes within

groups made up of varied experiences and roles; to include task delegation, logistics, motivating

group members, managing group conflicts, and building team cohesion. In a survey conducted

by Nick Yee at Stanford University, 10% of respondents felt they had learned a lot about

     Taylor, 36; Fine and Harrington, 349; Jakobsson and Taylor, 89.
     Yee, Psychology, 5-6.

mediating group conflicts, motivating team members, persuading others, and becoming a better

leader in general within MMORPG environments, while 40% of users felt that they had learned a

little of these skills. The findings are even more remarkable given commercial virtual worlds are

not explicitly designed to teach such skills.52

     Associations within goal-oriented worlds such as World of Warcraft typically fall under three

categories: combat groups (temporary association between a few users), guilds (formal, long-

term membership organizations), and ideological alliances (agreements between guilds or

“racial” groups).53 But of all three, guilds best represent the application of real-world association

into a virtual world. In short, guilds are organizations of players with a basic hierarchical

leadership structure; guilds provide characters membership into a private chat channel, a tag

under their name stating their guild, and generally participation in bulletin boards or email list,

and provide a formal means for players to gain experience through teamwork. 54 The guild also

has a leader who can invite and disband members, thus granting some authority within a larger

virtual world that typically lacks formal law structures.

     There two main types of guilds: the social guilds that focus on informal fun, and uber or

raiding guilds which are defined by extremely high time commitment in pursuit advanced goals.

The main mechanisms at work in all guilds, to varying degrees, are reputation, trust, and

responsibility. Guild members are frequently risking their lives for each other and, in turn,

trusting each other that raids will be well planned and that if problems arise the group will band

together to solve them. Advanced play involves immense coordination and cooperation and

participants trust each other to not only play their characters well but to see through group events

   Yee, Psychology, 23.
   Yee, Demographics, 6.
   Taylor, 40

until everyone leaves safely.55 Furthermore, such group membership encourages social

interaction. In a study of the MMORPG Asheron’s Call, Axelsson determined the more groups a

player belongs to, the more social they are. People who are members of both game allegiances

and fellowships (types of groups specific to the Asheron’s Call world) reported more close

friends online than other players who did not align with a group. Players also reported a higher

participation in social activities like adventuring with other players and increased engagement

within the Asheron’s Call chat room.56 The end result is serious members of virtual worlds are

investing significant emotional energy into their actions and into the support of virtual groups.

As with the brick and mortar community that builds trust and reciprocity through continuous and

varied projects, online groups are also building trust between real people represented by pixels.


Why would you type into your computer when you could talk? And why talk to a gray screen
when you could instead have conversation over a virtual lunch with an attractive humanoid-
looking being?57

     What is the forecast for face-to-face Tocquevillian association when over 13 million

Americans find more meaning pursuing virtual goals? Indeed, every virtual church, road, and

school built in Second Life means there are that many fewer hands supporting real-world

community endeavors. But, given all the sources of civic decline highlighted by Robert Putnam,

I see virtual association as a positive reversal of the decline of physical association and social

capital. Tocqueville stated, “Political associations may therefore be considered as large free

schools, where all the members of the community go to learn the general theory of

   Taylor, 43-48; Jakobsson and Taylor, 87.
   Axelsson and Regan, 8.
   Castronova, 9.

association.”58 But while the garage isolates the citizen from social groups, virtual worlds bring

citizens together. While the television passively feeds the viewer, the citizen feeds virtual world

with emotion and commitment. Synthetic democracy creates “virtual” schools where users learn

political association by applying the general theory of association. So, is social capital built

within a virtual society less real than capital built in the town square? That remains to be seen

through further empirical study. But if virtual worlds are integrating rather than isolating, and if

social lessons learned in a virtual environment carry over into one’s offline identity, than virtual

worlds can strengthen face-to-face association.

     Jensen, et al., 3.


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