Twixt and between

Although I have a link to heavyweight academic virtual world weblog Terra Nova in my blogroll, I must admit that I hardly ever look at it. This is partly due to time constraints, since when I do start reading it I often end up spending hours browsing through the papers they link to, but is mostly because I hate to be reminded that it is possible to build one’s career around research in this area, instead of having to work for a living.

Anyway, I visited the site the other day, and came across the story of Loyola University (NO) professor Dave Myers and his alter-ego Twixt. It’s a bit involved, but I’ll try to summarise; Myers is a fan of MMORPG City of Heroes/City of Villains, commonly referred to as CoH/V, in which players take on the role of, you’ve guessed, comic-book good- or bad-guys, and battle it out to save/destroy the world, or whatever. As I understand it the bulk of gameplay involves players banding together to fight computer-controlled adversaries, known as PvE play. However there are also areas set aside for PvP play, that is for direct conflict between the players’ characters, with one side, Heroes or Villains, supposedly emerging victorious.

Myers noticed that in one of these PvP areas, known as Recluse’s Victory, or RV for short, not a lot of fighting went on, contrary to what might be expected. Instead the players would fraternise across the Hero/Villain divide, using the space as a social club instead of a gladiatorial arena. Myers decided to see what would happen if he disrupted this social equilibrium by attempting to achieve the ostensible goal of the zone, that is defeating the other team. His heroic avatar Twixt began enthusiastically killing villains, a course of action which had not entirely unpredictable results; he became spectacularly unpopular, was vilified on CoH/V-related web forums and received death-threats.

Myers wrote up his take on the events that unfolded in a paper “Play and Punishment: The Sad and Curious Case of Twixt” which he published last year. The story came to wider attention when his local paper covered it last month; this in turn provoked responses in the blogosphere and a lively debate in the comments section of Myers’ own blog.

Myers is an academic who has been writing about video games for years, so, as might be expected, his analysis of the matter is somewhat impenetrable to a reader unfamiliar with the finer points of the field, but as far as I can see his argument is this; he was playing by the Rules, as set by the game designers, and where these conflicted with the social conventions established in the RV, he had the right, if not the duty, to breach the latter, since the Rules are the same for everybody, and thus more democratic than the conventions established by what may very well be an unrepresentative clique of players, and which, like all social conventions, apply differently depending on where you are in the social hierarchy.

His critics attack him on several fronts, most cogently when they say that he is wrong to distinguish between the Rules and the conventions that have grown up around them through player consensus; both are important in the production of the game experience. Some note his apparent delight in the annoyance he caused to the established community and accuse him of being a griefer, or even a sociopath. Others charge him with violating academic ethics, on the grounds that his study caused upset to a lot of people who were never asked for their consent to be part of it.

I am not particularly impressed by Myers’ position; he has a point in his observation that socially-generated rules can be oppressive, and favour one group over another, but the solution to that lies in constructing a more democratic society, not in sticking rigidly to some code of conduct handed down by an external authority. It’s unclear why he gives so much weight to the intentions of the game developers, who are after all fallible humans, and who he himself attacks for failing to defend the integrity of their creation. He does himself no favours with the style of his response to criticism, which is needlessly antagonistic.

Myers’ whole attachment to the ideal of the Rules seems a little extreme, given that we are talking about a video game. He repeatedly makes the point that social rules poison the purity of game rules, and that this is important because of the crucial role that games play in human development. I presume that he expands on this thesis in his other work, but it seems awfully heavy baggage to hang on a minority pastime involving imaginary men in tight lycra costumes. One can only imagine that he intends it as a metaphor for some weightier social issue, like the Death of Respect or somesuch.

It all positively begs to be analysed, something that Myers himself seems to have anticipated in his blog post “Four types of game-related bloggers“, where he identifies “The Psychoanalyst” as someone who “believe[s] that play is best evaluated with reference to the outside-the-game intentions of players rather than the in-game outcomes of their play [and] that different players play games for different reasons, which may or may not be (but most often aren’t) determined by the game”. That sounds reasonable to me, especially if we broaden our definition of “playing the game” to include things like “writing about the game in a blog”, or “publishing game-related learned papers”.

So where do we start with Professor Myers? What did he mean when he likened his journey as Twixt to a “bad high school experience”? Is it significant that he teaches at Loyola, a Jesuit University? Does he worry that some in the academic community might feel that the study of video games lacks gravitas? What’s with his identification with a superhero, battling not only the villains, but also the treachery of his supposed allies?

With a little imagination (OK, with a lot of imagination) it’s possible to flesh things out a bit. We can see an unhappy young Dave at high school, resentful of the popular clique he outwardly disdains, but secretly longs to be accepted by. There may be unrequited love – for the girl next to him in science class who he can’t pluck up the courage to talk to, or perhaps the captain of the football team. His parents are emotionally distant, and he can never meet their expectations however hard he tries. His Jesuit education teaches him to respect and fear authority. He chooses as a career the study of technologically-mediated escapism, but he is painfully aware that he is living vicariously at two degrees of separation, only able to watch as others live out their fantasies in a virtual world. On the outside he is a mild-mannered professor, but inside he seethes with rage, with dreams of destructive omnipotence that at once seduce and terrify him.

Of course it’s equally possible, indeed rather more likely, that Myers was perfectly happy at school, dating every member of the cheerleading squad on his way to being voted “most popular” and “most likely to succeed”, before delighting his loving parents by embarking on a stellar college career. He’s probably not even a Catholic, never mind a Jesuit. He is perfectly happy with his job, which consists of being paid to play video games, then jetting around the world to address conferences about it, and is at ease with his self-image; a playfully intellectual merry prankster, who punctures pretension and fights injustice wherever he sees it.

Does it matter that I’m able to conjure up such widely disparate images of Professor Myers’ psyche, or that I could come up with a dozen more if I thought about it for another ten minutes? Not really, because we’re not talking about Dave Myers, resident of New Orleans La. here, but “Dave Myers” a character in an ongoing game/narrative of which the “Twixt” episode and my awareness of it is but one chapter.

I’m not sure if I have a bit-part in Dave’s story – as a snarky psychiatrist/blogger who appears in an exposition-heavy cut-scene to fill in some backstory – or if he’s a player in my drama, part of an interlude in which we establish my character as an an uncannily perceptive student of the human condition. I can only hope that some meta-blogger is following all this, and will explain it to me sometime.

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