“Let’s not bullshit about this. Racism is a wonderfully effective political tool for Republicans, yet explicit racism is frowned upon in polite society now, so there is a constant flow of new issues to stand in for racism in political discourse. Lee Atwater, who invented Nixon’s ‘southern strategy’, explained this all decades ago, and it is still true. George Wallace could be outright racist, but subsequent generations of politicians have had to cloak it in ‘welfare reform’ or being ‘tough on crime’ or, now, opposition to ‘wokeness’ and ‘critical race theory’ — things which mean, by the way, ‘caring about racism’.”

— Hamilton Nolan in The Guardian

Play Time

Analysis of MMORPG play as economic activity

Play Time: An Overview of the MMORPG Genre

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This work provides a broad overview of the origins and character of the Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) genre (as of 2004). The genealogy of MMORPG is traced through ‘pen & paper’ roleplaying games, text adventure games, and MUDs. The activities of MMORPG players are briefly described, with attention given to exploration, combat, crafting, and socializing. Finally, the general nature of MMORPG play is outlined, particularly the player’s attempts to transcend game-imposed limitations by improving their character’s abilities.


1 Introduction

Recent years have brought growth and change to the computer game industry. The popularity of home computers has made it cheaper and easier to play games. New game genres have brought fresh players to the market. Increases in computing power have facilitated the most ambitious designs, games that convincingly model worlds both real and imaginary, and portray them with minutely detailed, eye-catching graphics.

As the game industry has grown, so has the internet. By joining computers together, the internet joins people as well, and thus a new input is supplied to the game industry: sociality. The output of this union — a class of entertainment called online games — takes many forms, from computerized versions of classic board and card games to the latest in pyrotechnic, virtual carnage. Many such games are free, or charge one-time fees for play; others charge subscription fees. Some feature gambling with real or virtual money. What these games share — and what they offer prospective users — is a massive network of human players; players to talk with, to make friends and enemies of, and to compete against.

One genre within this thriving industry is the MMORPG, or Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game. The first MMORPG launched in 19962. Since that time, the MMORPG industry has grown tremendously in size and importance. As of 2004, one American game, EverQuest, serves over four hundred thousand players3. Lineage and Lineage II, both South Korean games, host more than four million accounts between them4 (Woodcock 2004). Other notable MMORPG include Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, and Star Wars Galaxies. Many more have been recently released or are in production.

The following pages outline the origin of the MMORPG genre, the nature of the player’s activities within that world, and the game mechanics that support those activities.

2 Pre-history and history

The origins of MMORPG gaming can be traced, ultimately, to the mid-1970’s.

2.1 Pen & Paper RPG

The first roleplaying game (RPG), Dungeons & Dragons, was published in 1974. In this and other pen-and-paper roleplaying games, the game world exists within the collective imagination of the players and a gamemaster5, who is part storyteller, part referee, and part god. Before play begins, the gamemaster sets the scene by devising an adventure for the players, complete with fictional locale, monsters and non-player characters, and some plot device to motivate the characters. The gamemaster oversees the players’ actions, describing events within the game, interpreting rules, providing hints, and improvising where necessary. While character development (particularly the increase of skills and abilities) is an important focus in most such games, players are expected to play their characters as roles rather than mere tokens, imbuing them with personality and weaknesses not necessarily their own6. As such, roleplaying games are neither ‘won’ nor ‘lost’; the players’ goal is simply to create (and participate in) a compelling narrative.

RPG rulesets vary tremendously in scale. Some are little more than narrative frameworks, party games almost; others constrain or dictate play at a very low level. Though fantasy is perhaps the most popular genre, many variations and combinations of genre have been used in RPG, particularly science-fiction and horror.

2.2 Text adventure games

Around 1975, software engineer William Crowther — himself a D&D player — created a computer game called Adventure (Jerz), one of the earliest computer-mediated virtual worlds. The first of numerous text adventure games7, its interface consists entirely of text: the game world is described with simple prose, and the player acts by entering one or two word commands (for instance, take lamp) which their game persona follows. Though perhaps influenced by D&D, there is little possibility of character development or distinct play style, and hence, no roleplaying per se. The game is essentially a collection of puzzles; the player finds and uses game objects in more or (frequently) less logical ways to overcome scripted obstacles. Once the final puzzle is completed, the player has won and the game ends.

2.3 MUDs

A few years later, a group of computer science students at the University of Essex (led by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle, another D&D player) created their own ‘adventure’ (Cuciz), to which they added simplified versions of certain D&D rules. More importantly, their game allowed multiple players to login and play together, in the same game world. They called their creation MUD1, short for ‘Multi-User Dungeon’, a game that (like Adventure) gave name and inspiration to a genre that still survives.

Superficially, MUDs resemble adventure games; the player acts by reading and entering text, and much of the game involves the solution of puzzle-oriented adventures or ‘quests’. Unlike Adventure, MUD1 and its many descendants8 provide a community of human players to interact with, plus detailed character development systems that facilitate roleplaying.

While some large MUDs charge for access, most are free, non-commercial ventures run by hobbyists. Many free, open-source MUD servers are available, and setting up a stock MUD requires nothing more than a share of server resources and a few hours of developer time. This doubtless explains the large number of MUDs, as well as their often casual nature. Though difficult to track, as they appear and disappear with great regularity, as of 2004, over one thousand MUDs are said to exist9. Some are highly distinctive worlds supporting hundreds or thousands of players. Others are virtual ghost towns.


Ultima Online is oldest surviving MMORPG in the United States. Game play in UO is much like that of a MUD; players meet, socialize, and launch bloody crusades against hapless virtual fauna. The game world is portrayed visually, with an isometric view of the character and their surroundings, but this is not what distinguishes a MMORPG from its MUD forbears; rather, it is distinguished by scale.

Playing a MUD is like living in a small town. Since there are no more than a few hundred active users, experienced players will know most of their peers. Developers can monitor their world by standing in the town square and watching. They can deal with problems directly, using the complainants’ reputations as a guide.

With tens or even hundreds of thousands of players, MMORPG are more like small cities. At this scale, it is seldom feasible for developers to intercede in person. Most conflicts must be resolved impersonally, with game rules or company policies, and negotiating or exploiting these rules becomes part of the game itself. The boundaries between player-citizens are mediated not with porch swings, but with burglar alarms.

Every MMORPG in 2004 is a commercial product. The player starts by purchasing a box that contains client software and documentation; this costs anywhere from ten to fifty dollars. Most boxes include a short trial subscription, after which the player pays a monthly fee for continued access. Most MMORPG charge between ten and sixteen dollars per month, with no limit on play time.

3 Game activities

Having purchased a box, the player installs the client and connects to the game site. After establishing an account, they create one or more characters, these being the personae which embody the player within the game world10. The details of character creation vary greatly between games, but generally the player chooses a game profession or specialization, assigns physical attributes and skills, and selects a name, gender, and some details of the character’s physical appearance. The character is then ready to enter and interact with the game world.

Most MMORPG players devote a great deal of time to game play. In one study, EverQuest players reported spending an average of 21.9 hours per week in-game. 13.3% of respondents claimed to play 40 or more hours per week (Yee 2001). What occupies these long hours in the game world?

3.1 Exploration

MMORPG worlds contain large and diverse geographies, and exploring these is an essential part of game play. Though anything could be implemented, existing MMORPG geographies are broadly similar in structure.

New characters invariably start in cities. Though usually safe places, protected from wildlife and hostile players, the great size and activity of a large city can be daunting to new players. As in the real world, cities are places to trade, to receive training, healing, or employment (in other words, quests), and to meet other characters.

Cities are separated by expanses of wilderness. Within these are found caches of natural resources — perhaps trees to fell or gold veins to mine — plus creatures called mobiles or mobs11, many of them dangerous to adventurers. These are places to gather resources or gain experience through combat, and they often must be crossed to reach other cities.

Throughout city and wilderness are scattered small areas of special interest. Broadly analogous to the ‘adventures’ presented in pen-and-paper games, these offer distinct settings (an enchanted wood perhaps, or a graveyard, or the classic ‘dungeon crawl’) and a high concentration of mobiles and valuable items. This combination of risk and reward is one of the primary motives for player cooperation and socialization, and characters often explore them in groups.

3.2 Combat

Combat between characters and mobiles is the primary focus of MMORPG play; most character skills relate directly or indirectly to combat, as do most game items, and much play time is spent preparing for, engaging in, or recovering from battle.

This activity offers great benefits to the character. Careful players will fight battles on favorable terms, making victory almost certain. When they prevail, the character is entitled to loot their opponent’s remains, which may yield money or valuable items. Combat also improves the character’s attributes and skills, which prepares them for more dangerous and lucrative opponents. Most characters are highly specialized, their skills focusing on missile or shock combat, or offensive or healing magic. Players often exploit this specialization by fighting in groups — small ad hoc teams that band together to raid an area or complete a quest. These typically contain a mix of character types with complementary abilities.

Many games also allow combat between player characters, a practice called player-versus-player combat (PvP) or (somewhat confusingly) player-killing (PK)12. Though riskier than hunting mobiles, PvP holds great appeal for some. It is a contentious topic in MMORPG, one that opposes distinct notions of fun and fairness in the game world.

Inevitably, characters are ‘killed’ by mobiles or other player characters, but death in the game world is impermanent. After dying, the character is resurrected in a safe place. Usually they are missing items (possibly very valuable) they carried in their previous incarnation, these having been left behind on their ‘corpse’. It is common to see resurrected characters loot their own bodies, rearm, and perhaps avenge themselves against the creature that slew them. Players can expect to experience character death scores or even hundreds of times throughout a character’s career.

3.3 Crafting

The collection of game items is another major focus of MMORPG play. Most are created ex nihilo, entering play when a mobile is destroyed or a quest completed, but some are produced in a gamified caricature of the real-world production process called crafting.

Crafting starts with raw materials. Each game offers its own array of inputs, such as wood or various ores. If a character has the requisite skill (lumberjacking or mining, perhaps) they can travel to the nearest forest or mine and extract materials on their own. Otherwise, they may buy them from another character13.

Having acquired materials, the player uses their character’s trade skills to produce finished products. Often there are intermediate steps in this process; a smith in EverQuest first converts ore to ‘metal bits’, then bits to ‘files’, and finally files to ‘studs’ before producing studded armor. Unskilled characters often fail in these tasks, consuming material without producing output. Practice is the primary means of improving trade skills, so developing a skilled craftsman can be expensive in game terms, and requires hours of play time. However, skilled characters can generate significant game income through the sale of their goods.

Though popular with some players, crafting is repetitious, and there is no room for creativity; combining particular materials always produces a fixed range of output, defined in advance by the developer14. To many outsiders, this looks more like work than play.

3.4 Socializing

Social interaction is perhaps the most pervasive and compelling game activity. The game client can be used to send text messages to specific logged-in players, to groups of players, or (by ‘shouting’) to entire game areas. Some players also use apps outside the client for instant messaging or voice communications. Social interaction takes many forms in the game world, but a few stand out for their ubiquity and their effect on play.

In crafting (as in other areas) characters excel through specialization, but some products require input from several trades. If a character lacks one of the required skills, they must contract work from another player, which encourages sociality. The sale of finished products also rewards social behavior, as player characters often pay more for goods than NPC merchants. Many game worlds feature areas that (by accident or design) act as marketplaces. Players crowd these areas seeking partners in trade, haggling, arguing, and otherwise socializing all the while.

Characters are specialized in their combat skills as well. Most games categorize characters by class, which determines their combat specialization. Players exploit this by hunting in the aforementioned groups, which range in size from two to perhaps a dozen characters. Some group outings are regular events organized by friends, while impromptu ‘pick up’ groups are made up of strangers. Though solo play is possible, group adventure offers a safer and shorter path to character advancement, and the hours spent waiting for mobs to spawn provide many opportunities for friendships to develop.

Unlike groups, guilds or clans are formal organizations that persist between game sessions. Guilds vary in size from just a few players to more than a hundred, and offer a range of benefits to their members, including protection from player killers, advice or equipment for new recruits, and many opportunities for socializing. Within the game client, the character’s guild is usually displayed after their name, so membership is a status signifier as well. Loot from guild actions is often distributed communally. Other property is held communally as well, such as meeting halls and supply caches.

Many guilds also manifest a presence in the real world. Some maintain websites, where they host guild rules, rosters, calendars, and bulletin boards. Players often keep friendships with guildmates even after quitting the game. Guilds themselves sometimes move en masse to colonize new games.

4 Play mechanics

Traditional games are relatively abstract; though Risk and Monopoly draw inspiration from the real world, they do not model it to any meaningful extent. Roleplaying games, by contrast, seek to model the world in greater detail.

Also, though some traditional games use referees to monitor and interpret rules, they rely ultimately on player compliance; referees can identify and punish rule variance, but they can hardly prevent it. If the game is to proceed at all, its rules must be widely known and easily applied. By contrast, a computer program (ideally) enters no state without the approval of its designer. This produces a correspondance between the code of a computer game, its rules, and the ‘reality’ that the game evokes, since each determines what should happen and what can happen15. Because rules are enforced automatically, players need not (and often cannot) understand them except in a general sense.

MMORPG rules resemble those of pen-and-paper roleplaying games. Characters and items are defined by statistics that describe their suitability for various tasks. When an action is attempted (i.e., a character casts a spell, or sells an item to an NPC merchant) these values are used in calculations that determine the outcome. For example, when deciding whether an arrow reaches its target, the attacker’s bow skill and the defender’s agility might be taken into account, along with enchantments on the combatants and their equipment. If the arrow hits, a second calculation might be used to determine the severity of the injury.

To a great extent, the player’s ability to act within the game world is determined by these numbers, so players naturally seek to maximize their character abilities, and character advancement becomes another focus of MMORPG play.

New characters enter the game with little power or wealth16. Their attributes and skills are undeveloped, their equipment sparse and ineffective. Characters often advance by gaining levels, which are the most significant measure of power in many games. New characters start at ‘first level’. As they defeat mobs and complete quests, they are awarded experience points (XP), with more difficult challenges offering greater amounts of experience. When a certain number is accumulated, the character ‘gains’ a level, which increases their toughness, improves theirs skills, and perhaps qualifies them to undertake new quests or use new equipment. ‘Leveling’ is cause for minor celebration among players, and recent gainers often shout their new level to other players in the area, who respond with a round of congratulations.

Characters also advance by collecting items. Mobiles often ‘drop’ items when they are killed, including weapons, armor, food, or currency. Other times they drop items that — though not useful themselves — are necessary for the completion of a quest, or the crafting of another item. While drops are somewhat random, specific creatures offer a fixed range of possible loot, with certain items (an ‘orc fibula’, for instance) dropping only from specific mobiles (the ‘orc slaver’), and perhaps rarely at that. It is common for players to spend hours hunting one creature in pursuit of the rare drop that completes their quest or complements their equipment.

5 Conclusion

In less than ten years MMORPG have generated staggering enthusiasm, controversy, and profits. Many surprising phenomena have emerged, and close inspection shows contemporary MMORPG design to be fraught with unresolved tensions and unmet potential. Observers can expect more surprises from MMORPG as the genre matures.

1 Thanks to David Kennerly and Brask Mumei for their helpful comments.

2 Two MMORPG were introduced in 1996: an American game, Meridian 59, and a South Korean game, The Kingdom of the Winds. Reports differ as to which launched first.

3 Of which, on an average night, as many as one hundred thousand are logged in and playing at the same time.

4 Because many of these accounts are held by internet cafés (which rent them to players) the actual player count is possibly even greater.

5 Or dungeon master, in D&D parlance.

6 In fact, most games mandate a certain level of roleplaying by making skill specialization integral to the ruleset.

7 Latterly known as interactive fiction.

8 The term ‘MUD’ now encompasses numerous subgenres, including MOOs, MUSHes, and MUCKs, Teeny-, Tiny-, LP-, and Diku-MUDs, all of which appear more or less identical to the uninitiated.

9 See https://www.mudconnect.com, a popular MUD directory, for an up-to-date count.

10 Note the distinction between the player’s account and their characters. A player may have many characters, but typically has only one account. Also, characters do not incur subscription fees; only accounts do.

11 Mob is an abbreviation of mobile (terminology that originated with MUD1). It describes a single creature rather than a group.

12 This term has a more literal meaning in South Korea, where in-game rivalries have inspired real-world violence between players. Players and police call this ‘offline PK’. (Levander 2001)

13 As with game currency, large lots of game commodities are often sold in real-world markets.

14 An exception of sorts is found in Ultima Online. Characters in this game are able to own ‘houses’, spaces that other characters cannot enter without the owner’s permission. Players commonly decorate their houses, and while the game offers items for this purpose (potted plants, tables, et cetera), players have created apparently novel furnishings by dyeing and ‘stacking’ other items. One recipe uses cloaks, tables, and ‘fish steaks’ that — when carefully placed — appear as a piano in the game’s isometric view.

15 An obvious exception is the problem of programmer error. Play strategies that utilize bugs are called exploits by developers; common examples include tricks that duplicate items or incapacitate player characters. Though the boundary between clever play and ‘exploitation’ is vague, most games punish exploits by banning players, temporarily or even permanently. Another issue is player speech. Though most games filter obviously obscene language, no algorithm can match a human’s ability to offend or be offended. Prescriptive rules thus exist to guide and sometimes punish player speech.

16 The distinction between player and character should again be noted. The player may be a veteran gamer (and their skilled use of the character will show this), but the new character itself will have few skills or abilities.