My dissertation explores the ways in which player interactions are shaped, directed and constrained by the designed experience of modern virtual world computer games from a rhetorical perspective. To that end, I develop a theory of "virtual consubstantiality" based on shared experiences within virtual environments as integral to virtual community formation. I examine two case studies to explore this concept.
First, I examine the massive multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft. I identify three key pressures exerted on players within World of Warcraft's virtual environment: a focus on gameplay, a focus on the player utility, and the pressure to engage in "purposeful social interactions" with other players. I go on to document structures in World of Warcraft's virtual environment that reinforce these pressures: the implementation of a "dungeon finder" system for the creation of random in-game groups, the implementation of the "Real ID" social network that links players across the whole catalog of games produced by Blizzard Entertainment, and the restructuring of the game's virtual environment as a part of the release of World of Warcraft's most recent expansion, Cataclysm.
Second, I examine Farmville, as representative of a new class of social computer games. I explore three key pressures exerted on players within Farmville's virtual environment: The pressure to collect in-game items, the pressure to connect with other users for in-game rewards, and the pressure to consume both in-game and real world resources. In a similar fashion, I go on to document three in-game mechanics reinforce these pressures: the portability of the game space across several computers and several computing platforms, the intentionally simplicity design of the overall game interface and the large degree of automation of both in-game and out-of-game communication between players.
The research finds that virtual environments do shape their user interactions. I further argue that the virtual consubstantiality formed by the shared experiences created by the design of these virtual environments is integral to the formation and maintenance of each virtual environment's virtual community.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. May 2012. Major: Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication. Advisor: John H. Logie, PhD. 1 computer file (PDF); vi, 170 pages.
Baron, Robert John.
Pressures on play: rhetoric, virtual environments, and the design of experience in virtual world computer games..
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