Friday, December 23, 2005

What is the critical mass necessary to create a major world culture in an online game?

So World of Warcraft has reached five million accounts. Good for them. You have a population that is substantially larger than the size of the Netherlands during the Dutch Golden Age. Now there was a culture that gave us some great fruit paintings. (And wonderful droppe!)

Will online games one day give us a meaningful world culture?

This got me musing about how major cultures of the world formed and what it would mean for an online world to act as a seed for a new major world culture. It is a very idle thought exercise.

Thought #1: Creating a great culture just requires the right recipe
Culture is not magical or divinely created. Put enough people in an isolated environment for a long enough period of time and strong, highly unique social norms will develop. It is a natural human dynamic evident in any group of any size. Give me an island, a bumper crop of people and enough time and we can grow you a unique culture that has a more outrageous accent than either France or Alabama.

Thought #2: Critical mass matters
Any size group can create a culture. It happens in companies, in families, you name it. But to create a culture that sustains itself over generations and influences others without itself being corrupted requires a certain amount of mass. Population is one measure of mass. Money is another.

If you look back through the years, most major cultures seem to really hit their stride with with populations ranging from five to thirty million. These are numbers that are arrived at in a very rough manner. I looked up the population of countries with strong cultures in the 1700’s and assumed that at the very least, this is what you needed to sustain a major culture that generates its own unique language, rituals, identity and history. Games are starting to reach substantial population levels. Five million is a good start.

With their ties into gold farming and other real world economic activities, online games are beginning to build a strong economic foundation that can anchor deeper social behaviors. We are seeing thousands of people dedicating their lives to performing the rituals in the game for economic reasons. At the very least this creates a classic split between population classes.

How do you greet a gold farmer? What words do you use? What is their social class? Do you look down upon them? Do you hate them? Are you justified? Such rich human biases driven by economic realities are fertile soil for the creation of lasting cultural flavors.

Thought #3: Cultures diverge from their source
All cultures borrow liberally from the cultures that found them. It is only through economic, social, or geographical isolation will cultures begin to diverge into their own unique cultural identify.

Online games will initially be highly derivative places. Early America colonial culture was highly derivative of European culture. Early online games ape the social mores of Western geek fantasy culture or Eastern pop heroic culture.

Game worlds are isolated electronically, but their users can always log off and go home. Is there enough isolation of users in an online world to create a strong divergence from the original source culture? I wonder.

Thought #4: Time is critical
Put a few million European criminals on an island and come back twenty years later and you’ll still have a few million European criminals. Come back in a generation or two and you have a unique culture that is influenced by its past, but is defined by the cultural environment of its present. There seems to be a strong generational element to the renewal of cultural memory.

Online games are short lived commercial entities. It is difficult to imagine any sort of generational maturation process occurring within the population of modern online worlds. Online games at this point in our history blip in and out of existence just long enough for excited child-like cultures to be born and then snuffed out.

But what happens when several generations grow up playing online games? What happens when a single world with a critical population lasts not just years, but decades?

Thought #5: When is a gaming culture meaningful?
When a large group of online users is willing to die in order to maintain their world and way of life, then the online world will be meaningful.

This is perhaps harsh, but is a critical point.

Culture exists because the community declares its existence. They gather up all the quirky little habits and behaviors that surround them, label them, and set them high upon pillars of unassailable values and ideals. “This is my culture and I value it” the members of the community declare to the foreigners at their gates. “I am willing to defend it.”

It isn’t about a few unstable individuals who do something violent. It is about normal, rational men and women who choose a path despite the consequences because they deeply believe in its inherent value.

Until then these worlds we builds are just a hobby. Idle play by idle children. There may be rants, raves and passion, but until an online world becomes a preferred way of life, they have no more meaning than a cheap Sunday play attended by crowds of crowing foppish dilettantes.

Closing thoughts
If I were to create a score card of the key categories that are necessary to create a great culture and then rank modern online gaming, we still have such a long ways to go.
  • Population - B+: The population numbers are looking good.
  • Economic leverage - C+: There’s promise, but it isn’t there yet. I expect this to catch up quickly in the next couple of decades.
  • Divergence Time – D: This is a big problem. Online worlds still don’t last very long. This leads to a series of ephemeral toy cultures. Perhaps the days of the Roman Empire are long lost and our Golden Ages can be measures in seasons instead of centuries.
  • Core values – E: The basic human values of friendship and companionship are in place, but no online world has managed to give players something bigger than themselves to believe in. Until this evolution occurs, online game worlds will remain a pleasant adornment that rests lightly on the real world we all must inhabit.
Did I mention that these were very idle thoughts? :-)

Take care

Completely meaningless references


  1. Hey Danc, another great article, although I don't know if I agree with this entry as much as some of your other posts ;)

    I agree that currently games are too shortlived to produce a "major world culture". I think this is the most significant reason why we won't see a world culture specific to any game any time soon.

    I don't know if I agree with your point that a culture is "meaningful" when people are willing to die for it. It really depends on your definition of "culture". If we take it as meaning someones "way of life" then often this defines the way in which someone gains the means to survive. In this case I agree that, if someone's means to survive is threatened, we can expect them to defend it with their life. But is this really the kind of culture we could ever expect to find in a computer game? I don't personally think it is. If my means of survival ever relate directly to a computer game then something is very wrong!

    If I've misunderstood your point please correct me :D

  2. You were right to identify the generational aspect to culture. I happen to think that most of the work involved in "making" a culture - which is to say becoming distinct from other societies - is done during childhood. Each generation has its own impact and culture evolves on forever. I cite the intriguing example in Nicaragua where deaf children were gathered together but weren't taught any sign language. Soon they made up their own and use it to this day!

    For a group of people to be a society, and to have their own genuine and complete culture, I think it's essential for them to be born into it and grow up there. (Not that I'm concealing an argument against real life migration here, which has interesting dynamics of its own, especially after the first generation.)

    The big question for me: how is anyone going to grow up in a game?

    Only when (and if) games become such all encompassing experiences that people would think it desirable for children to spend most of their lives in them, can the potential be opened for new cultures outright.

    Though bearing in mind that unlike founding a new country in the wilderness, even the laws of physics needn't apply in a virtual land ... the possibilities once you're out there are endless!

  3. Idle thoughts often lead to epiphanies. It’s good to think about stuff like this every once in a while. It’s funny, I just wrote a few articles on the topic of culture the other day:

    I think people would die for their own beliefs and values before considering how that might relate to the larger culture they find themselves in. Not to say that is the case in all cultures. For instance, Asian cultures tend to be more homogenous and take the group or society as a whole into consideration a lot more than we do in the west. But if we wanted to define culture, perhaps focusing on the traditions, methods of interaction, and guiding attitudes of a group and how those elements affect/influence the society’s way of life would be a better place to start.

    This is my first post here, but I’ve been following your blog for a while, keep up the great writing ^^


  4. I live in the UK. It's a fairly small place on the scale of things, but it's absolutely packed with people. You can travel for 50 miles and notice a change in culture. It might not be as significant as, say, travelling across the border from France to Italy, but I think it proves that you don't need the huge populations that you talk of to create a culture. Many places in the UK are very distinct culture-wise and have a population of around or less than 1 million. Cornwall, for example, has a very distinct culture, and only has a population of around 500,000. Of course, this isn't the "major world culture" that you talk about but I think it's a step in the right direction. The combination of all these smaller cultures creates the complete British culture.

    I would personally be more interested to see regional culture change in a game than to see "world culture". To travel from one are of the game to another, and not just feel that the designers had given this new area a different look, but that the players here had given the area a different culture seems very exciting to me. Whether this is possible in current MMORPGs is something I can't decide on. I think the fact that avatars generally have no fixed abode in a gaming world seems like an important factor. Surely if you are not a "citizen" of a region, with all the responsibilities and privelges that entails, then you have no reason to connect with a culture or to create your own?

    I've heard good things about the MMORPG "a Tale in the Desert". I haven't played it myself, but it is more focused on economic and social values than on combat. Perhaps this model is better suited to creating world culture than the hack-slash, level-up, grinding model of many MMORPGs? Here is the Wikipedia article on a Tale in the Desert. It can summarise the game far better than I can :)

    I agree with Kaz's closing paragraph: "But if we wanted to define culture, perhaps focusing on the traditions, methods of interaction, and guiding attitudes of a group and how those elements affect/influence the society’s way of life would be a better place to start." I think expecting to see a world culture in games is too much to expect. But seeing the smaller cultures that affect the larger society is something that no doubt happens on a small scale today.

  5. Actually, Dan, I believe that in fact games has actually ALREADY created a strong culture, especially online games.

    If you look at the popular online games they definitely have both the fanatacism you would identify with a group culture (for instance the problems with the CPL where one team member brought a weapon to a match) and the internal language you would define with a group culture.

    I think its just that these days, cultures are not as easily identified as they were years ago, because geographical boundaries are far far less important now than in the 1700's.

    For an example, the culture of game developers and games players is actually quite strong. Which is something we are both kind of pushing against too :)

    My point being that if this were the 1700's and we were all geographically localised, we'd already be classed as a culture or nation.

    The fact that we know each other after so many years clearly shows there is a cultural tie between us no? That technology has surpressed the geographical boundaries for us is the only real difference. I'm sure I'd have much stronger allegiances to you or Ray or any of my other game dev buddies than say your average UK footy hooligan, etc. We tend to group with people who mirror our own tendancies, so naturally we group, but online instead of finding local people of the same group.

    I have heard plenty of stories of happenings during world war 1 and 2 where people from my own county of yorkshire (small county in england) where they actually had people from the yorkshire regiment desert from the war and come back home to defend thier own land when it seemed like Britain would be invaded.

    Local bias obviously strongly affects culture. Only through artificially strengthening local culture can you keep a misplaced culture strong, which is why you tend to get things like ultra-orthodox religious types in ghetto's in major cities, rather than the more integrationist moderates, as you moderate to "fit in" you lose the cultural identity and rightly so.


  6. Aye, I couldn't agree more that you don't need tons of people to create a unique culture. Anyone who has been in a long term relationship knows that even two people can rapidly end up with their own language and more.

    One of my pet hobbies is studying the dynamics of work teams. There is a lot of great work that has gone into identifying the exact process the occurs in the formation of group norms. It is happening constantly and is highly predictable. It comes as no shock that the game community has been acting out these basic human urges for many years and has formed an interesting and unique sub-culture.

    However, I was setting the bar a bit higher. Quilting groups have a lot of the same characteristics of gamers. Its a common interest, it has its own language and heroes. There is even controversy and different factions attempting to split off and start their own groups. (If you ever want a chortle, check out some articles on quilting pattern theft). But it isn't a great world culture. Most people put it aside when they go to work in the morning. It is a hobby.

    A great world culture (in my perhaps inflammatory definition) has a certain element of blind faith that pushes people to accomplish great things in its name. Be it patriotism, religious fervor, or a passionate belief in a higher value such as Capitalism or Democracy...there needs to be something at the core that grounds and inspires the participants of the culture in order for it to achieve greatness.

    You can ask if these things are worthy of pursuit. Many are scared of such burning beliefs. But without these, I still argue online gaming remains just a hobby with a nice little community of people who participate.

    It is about setting the bar and seeing what happens when people try to reach it.


  7. I think in that case the topic is really about civilisation, isn't it? Could a game ever inspire a virtual civilisation?

  8. The population number you cite (5 million) for WoW is misleading. These people are merely subscribers, not full-time inhabitants of the world. Part of divergence must also be isolation, and for most of those subscribers, the real world is what defines their culture.

    If you count people in fragments, depending upon what percentage of their waking hours are spent online, I suspect the number would be a lot lower.

    Also, in order for the culture to actually CREATE something meaningful, the game must allow more freedom to create. WoW is a somewhat structured MMO (which may be part of it's popularity). A less structured MMO would probably be more ripe for the creation of a unique culture.

    Thanks for looking at the MMO trend from a different perspective, though. Am I the only one that is getting sick of seeing the same MMO Economics article reprinted in different forms around the country?

  9. You make a valid point andy, we should also remember that WoW is split into servers, further fragmenting the population.

  10. A very interesting article. I sometimes have idle thought like this, though usually not in as much depth.

    I think the main factor that prevents any type of major cultural development is that gaming in general is a form of entertainment. By definition, it is not something to devote your life to, but something to fill up spare time. Very few people make a living from playing games. And very few people can afford to live with out working. Despite what we may think, the majority of our time is still spent trying to survive, or preparing for a time when we will have to survive. If gaming in general can't fill that need, then a specific genre, such as MMORPG, has even less of a chance of filling that need, and therefore giving people the time to form a culture. Because culture is mostly formed by a belief in an ideal or the activities in which one participates in pursuit of that ideal, the online gaming community could never be a major culture (By your definition). Perhaps it could become an integral part of a larger culture, but left alone, I doubt that the WoW community could create a culture.

    Perhaps it would also be interesting to consider what it would take to make gaming a cornerstone of a culture, and the way the people of the culture behave as a result.

  11. I completely agree with Andy's comments above about enabling users being a crucial part of building a culture. WoW has developed its own complex jargon, but I don't think anything that could be described as "culture" can emerge in a world where player options are so closely defined by the developer.

    For an online environement where users really are making the rules and defining the experience, check out I'd be curious to hear Danc's take on that pseudo-game some time.

  12. It's called drop! Ever had the triple salty ones? They're very.. salty..
    I'm a honey drop fan myself..

  13. This is a fascinating discussion! I see what Danc is getting at: that members of a 'great world culture' would risk great things to achieve greatness. I also agree that it is our inherent connection to the real world that prevents this from occurring. Stated more simply; the stakes aren't quite high enough yet. (With some exceptions, like the Korean kid who killed his friend over an on-line item. But remember, even in that circumstance, there was real-world money involved.)

    A agree too that the great world culture we should use as the model is the gaming community, particularly the relationships between developers and consumers. There is a language developing, people are risking things that are inherently valuable and worthwhile in order to create greatness.

    History (and only History) will tell if any of it can stick around. I personally (as a gamer and developer) believe that it will.

  14. I think the creation of a culture similar to real life ones are dependent on many things, but one of the most important is the "need" to stick together in the world. The biggest reason for this in real life is in fact death. If we were all immortals (like in many mmorpgs today) we probably wouldn't form the kinds of communitites we have today. Safety in numbers and so forth. Animals that have few real enemies in the world usually travel alone, and only meet up to mate. (Tigers, Bears etc... Wolves/Dogs and lions being the exceptions).

    Just think of it. If we didn't have a reason to fear anything, why would be stick together like we do now?

    So in theory, fear is the biggest reason to form a community. Crazy huh?

    Just my two cents....
    and a question : Can we be afraid while being immortal?

    - Here's hoping for a perma-death mmorpg in the future.

  15. when people will have a rich world mmorpg (wow is already pretty rich and big in details) AND players CAN modify, change , improve, destroy, protect... you will see a real "culture"

    in Wow, you cannot create a new castle of magical ice or whatever

    there are some kind of culture for all players , as " Onyxia is the wicked dragon daughter of Deathwing" or "Thrall was raised as a human slave". It's the world game created by developpers and artists
    but nothing the players can create themselves and teach to others.

    and the Five millions people don't play in the same "copy" (instance) of the "world". even if we could create artistic items, wonderful houses, politicals movment and whatever, in a "world server" we are only a few thousands. not millions.


    ho, yes, the lack of "perma-death" in mmorpg prevents to have History. a feeling of time.