About the Laws of Online World Design – Part II

This is the second installment in a series of posts I’ll be making about The Laws of Online World Design, as explained in this introductory post. I will start at the top of the list, and work my way down until I’ve poked and prodded every law in the list, not skipping any unless I really feel like it. In this, Part II of the series, I’ll concentrate on the following law:
Modes of expression

This is the second installment in a series of posts I’ll be making about The Laws of Online World Design, as explained in this introductory post. I will start at the top of the list, and work my way down until I’ve poked and prodded every law in the list, not skipping any unless I really feel like it. In this, Part II of the series, I’ll concentrate on the following law:

  • Modes of expression

And we’re off:

Modes of expression

You’re trying to provide as many modes of expression as possible in your online world. Character classes are just modes of expression, after all.

When I read the words “modes of expression” my mind immediately jumps to the 1970-song Express Yourself by Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band (NB! Both links require Spotify to work). Wherever you are, whatever you do, express yourself – and do it good. There are many ways to express yourself in a virtual world. Let’s go through some of the most common modes of expression you have available:

Avatars, character customization, classes and professions

Raph Koster: Seriously–avatars are modes of expression, character classes are modes of expression, professions and pursuits within the game are modes of expression. So are races. Some people feel more comfortable playing a specific racial type within a game because that’s the mode of expression they prefer in online games period. Rick Delashmit has been playing strong silent dumb types like trolls for as long as I have known him. That’s just his mode of expression.

A player’s avatar in a virtual world is his primary mode of expression. It’s through this avatar that the player communicates and interacts with other players as well as the virtual world itself. The avatar doesn’t have to be presented graphically to other players; avatars in most MUDs are just text-descriptions, but whether the virtual world (and the avatar itself) is text-based or graphical, the avatar is at the base of all other modes of expression available to the player.

Naming one’s avatar is for many people the single most important step of the character creation process in a virtual world, and it’s also an important mode of expression. Though some virtual worlds offer name-changes as a “premium service” available if you just cough up the extra cash, usually the name you give your character sticks with the character for ever (unless it goes against the naming policies in the virtual world, in which case the name might change unexpectedly any random day to something very generic). The name of the character will, for good or worse, be what other players will use to identify you as a player in the virtual world, and many players usually choose names for their avatars that won’t disconnect them from the game-world and the role they’ll play completely; no one takes a wizard seriously if he’s called jones15 or evild00d (or Tim). On the other hand, other players deliberately pick names that might be perceived as odd, humorous or provocative. And as long as that doesn’t violate any naming policies, it’s as valid a mode of expression as a more “fitting” name would be.

In most cases the player can customize the avatar’s appearance, though the amount of customization available varies greatly from one virtual world to another. By allowing players to put their own touch on the avatar’s appearance, whether it’s by giving them a selection of different looking races (which may also have different lore-based backgrounds, personality stereotypes and/or abilities) to choose from, or letting them push and pull sliders around to tweak how tall or heavy their character should appear, or the height of their cheekbones, the angle of their noses or the style and color of their hair, they can create an alter-ego for themselves that can be a replica of their real-world self, a unique character to better fit the role they want to play in the virtual world or just a generally cool-looking figure. In all cases it also instills a sense of “ownership” in the player, as they’ve had a hand in creating the avatar as opposed to just popping in-game and finding themselves in control of a random character.

Picking a hair-color is all well and good, but it doesn’t really say much about what type of character you’re playing. For that, we have player-classes. Though there are some “class-less” MMORPGs where you only pick your starting skills and your character remains free to progress in any direction after that (examples being Ultima Online, Eve Online – and very recently – Darkfall), your character is usually stuck with the class you pick for him during character creation. These classes do, in many cases, have similar function. Where they differ is in execution of those functions, the style in which said execution of function is performed, and of course what kind of equipment the character can use.


Character apparel and equipment

That brings us to another popular mode of expression, both in the real world and in virtual ones; the way you dress. While being able to customize the core visual aspects of one’s avatar is all well and good, in the grand scheme of things the only thing that other players sees of an actual character apart from his/her head and hairstyle (if the virtual world offers a feature where hiding equipped helmets from view is possible) is the character’s gear; the clothes, the armor and the weapons.

In some virtual worlds you can pick and select from available apparel upon character creation. In others you start off with the same basic equipment as everyone else and slowly acquire more during your adventures in-game. In others still you’ll find a combination of the above. Common for players in all of the virtual worlds that offer this in one form or other is that they use it for all it’s worth when it comes to expressing themselves in-game. Players have very strong notions of what their characters should look like; if they play a particular class – like a demonologist, or an assassin – they may have certain predetermined expectations of what characters of that class should look like, and many will strive to make sure that their expectations are met.

At the same time, players generally like their characters to be unique, and they’ll go to some lengths to try to stand out in the crowd, sometimes bypassing better equipment (stat-wise) to not ruin their appearance. One example being player-characters in Age of Conan wearing low-level social clothing (which give no stats or bonuses to their characters) because it’s unique-looking compared to the (relatively) stat-heavy gear available later in the game. Or players-characters in Ultima Online wearing Jester Hats dyed in a matching color to their boots, or their kite shield.

Image is everything. Second Life takes this to the extreme, and allows players to really make their characters unique, from character skins to textures for clothes to unique animations and gestures.

Chat – voice and text

One of the most basic (or if you look at it from a different angle, one of the most advanced) ways to express oneself both in the real world and in virtual ones, is through communication with other people.

In real life, you’d primarily communicate with other people by talking to them face to face – or on the phone, by instant-messaging or e-mailing them, by blogging – or replying to blog-posts, or even by recording a song. It’s really no different in a virtual world; you have voice-chat options, instant text-messaging/chat rooms and text-based emotes for any and all occasions.

Voice-chat in virtual worlds usually occurs between real-life friends, or between players in the same group and/or guild. Some players use the text-based chat-features to try and put their mark on the virtual world, for instance by being very active in the main chat channels. The more people they can reach, the more people they can touch in some way with their chatter, the more fun they’re having and the more successful they’ll see themselves as. Others use instant-messaging and text-based emotes to assert their power over other players, often after defeating them in player-vs-player combat.

(Evocations, freeform emote systems, verbs?)

Animated emotes

Body language is a very important, yet sometimes underestimated mode of expression in the real world. We use it every day; while on the bus to work, while talking to co-workers or bosses, while flirting with a hot chick in a bar, while letting ourselves loose on the dance floor, while relaxing in the company of friends and family. Sometimes it’s small, subtle motions that we use instinctively without really noticing – but which other people pick up on. Flickering eyes, fingers tapping on the armrest, muscles flexing, etc. Sometimes it’s blatantly obvious – such as when someone shakes a fist under someone else’s nose.

Virtual worlds usually don’t make much use of the subtler parts of our body language, mostly because it’s so hard to notice for other players – in real life our eyes don’t hang 5 metres behind and above our body, and in virtual worlds you very seldom see other avatars up close enough that such subtle body language would be really noticeable.  They do make use of the more obvious motions though, in the form of animated emotes.

At first glance, having animated emotes in one’s virtual world seems like a special service that will mostly benefit hardcore role-players and ignored by most others, but that’s not always the case. Animated emotes can come in many forms, from hugs and kisses to PvP-related taunts and rude gestures to dance-moves. The different types of animated emotes might see higher usage in particular segments of the player-base, both when it comes to play-style and the gender of the player, but the more of them there are, and the more varied they are the more likely it is that every player will find one or more that will let them to express their reactions to a situation in-game or to other players’ actions.

Bartle types?

(Player styles, killers/achievers/explorers/socializers, interaction with other players, interaction with the virtual world, acting on other players, acting on the virtual world)


(Second Life; art galleries, museums, live music concerts) (Metaplace?)

Players create their own modes of expression

Raph Koster: If your game doesn’t provide some adequate mapping to a mode of expression players want, then they will not play there, because they will not feel welcome–or they will try to create said mode of expression within the game. That’s why you get vampires in games that don’t support it, why orcs and elves popped up in UO despite its supporting only humans, and why Atriarch (which has only newly invented alien species) will have problems. It’s why Furry games are popular (Furries are easily mapped to personality traits) and why people demand a thief class in muds that clearly don’t support the traditional thief class worth a damn (eg, all of them). They’re all trying to build a mask that presents what they want as their virtual self-image.

Should a virtual world not support the modes of expression that a player wants to use, they’ll either find a different virtual world that does or try to create substitutions for those modes of expression within the game. Players in UO put on orc helmets and ringmail armor and called themselves orcs, then proceeded to create a dictionary of words suitable for their newly created orcish race, like “nub” or “yub”, even though the creators of the game had no such intentions when making the game.

The players will pick and choose from different parts of the game and try to create something that will let them express themselves the way they want. This type of player-behavior is especially prevalent amongst Second Life users, who can create more or less anything they want and import it into the game if it’s not available already. If they want to play a faun-like character with a halo and demon wings, they can – either through add-ons created by other users, or through a little hard work on their own part. There are even BDS&M-based communities in Second Life where the players have created all the necessary accessories – and extra body parts! – to make their… interactions… truer to life, and in some cases beyond that.

(Hm. Relevant?) The companies behind the virtual worlds do not always appreciate the creativity of the players when they create their own modes of expressions, though, and not all of them occur ingame either. In one case, the “Mystere incident“, a player in Verant’s EverQuest was banned from the game for writing fan-fiction that depicted an evil dark elf, Xyth, raping a female dark elf character of “barely 14 seasons”. He wrote the story to develop the Xyth-character as a cruel and heartless bastard. The general characteristic of the dark elves in this story seemed to fit into the universe that Verant had created for the game, but was ultimately deemed to have gone “over the line”, and the player was banned – even though the story was posted on a separate, third-party forum.

(Hm. Relevant?) Then there’s “A Rape in Cyberspace“, where a user in a MUD called LambdaMOO found a way to falsely attribute actions to other users’ characters, and then made their characters perform sexual acts towards other characters, an activity he kept up for several hours, which of course was a source of some annoyment and frustration to the other players that were/could be affected.

The bottom line

The bottom line is this: Different types of players enjoy different things, and the more modes of expression that are available for them in your virtual world, the wider appeal your world will have and the larger potential player-base that world will have.

(Post-Publish-Edit: Yeah. It’s an incomplete post, I’m aware… Just fill out the parts with keywords only using your imagination. Think of it as a feature, not a bug! )