CSCW at play: ‘There’ as a collaborative virtual environment

Barry Brown and Marek Bell
Department of Computing Science University of Glasgow, Glasgow United Kingdom, ABSTRACT
Video games are of increasing importance, both as a cultural phenomenon and as an application of collaborative technology. In particular, many recent online games feature persistent collaborative virtual environments (CVEs), with complex social organisation and strong social bonds between players. This paper presents a study of ‘There’, one such game, focusing on how There has been appropriated by its players. In particular we describe how its flexibility has allowed players to develop their own forms of play within the game. Three aspects of There are discussed: first, how the environment supports a range of social activities around objects. Second, how the chat environment is used to produce overlapping chat and how the game itself provides topics for conversation. Lastly, how the ‘place’ of There is a fluid interaction space that supports safe interactions between strangers. The paper concludes by drawing design lessons concerning the importance of supporting shared online activity, interaction between strangers, and the difficulties of designing for play. Recently large multi-player persistent CVEs have attracted an increasing audience. Everquest, for example, has over half a million subscribers, and the Korean game ‘lineage’ over two million monthly subscribers [48]. These games feature a complex social organisation in which players develop strong social bonds (in particular between ‘clans’ of players) as well as participate in economic transactions of significant value [9, 33]. The economic transactions that take place in these environments even display many of the features of conventional economic exchanges – Castronova estimates that Everquest had an in-game GNP of $135 million in 2001, and Everquest has recently suffered from an ingame inflation problem. While CSCW has often discussed playful collaborative application of systems, e.g. [3, 13], collaborative games have been a neglected topic. Yet games are one of the most popular collaborative applications currently in use, and raise a number of interesting issues for CSCW. In this paper we draw on results from an ethnographic study of one commercial online persistent game environment known as ‘There’, which we have been studying for just under a year. Three aspects of There’s design are of interest. First, There supports a rich range of collaborative social activities around objects. Objects have a dual role in There, as they are shared 3D objects that can be jointly manipulated, as well as goods to be bought and sold through a 2D web interface. Second, There supports a flexible chat environment with overlapping chat, and provides a range of topics for conversation from the game itself, such as game ‘glitches’ and avatar gestures. Third, the ‘place’ of There is a fluid interaction space that supports safe (although not unproblematic) interactions between strangers. In discussing There we do not focus on its technical features, but rather on how the game has been adopted by its users. In particular, we note how its open design has allowed it to become something of a platform for gaming, and how the system supports enjoyable social action amongst its users, specifically between strangers. From these findings we develop implications for the design of games, and other collaborative systems more generally.

Categories and Subject Descriptors
H5.1. Multimedia: Augmented, and virtual realities

General Terms
Human Factors

CVEs, games, ethnography, entertainment

CSCW has had a longstanding interest in collaborative virtual environments (CVEs) [2, 5], pioneering support for group interactions in virtual reality and critically examining the resources which these systems provide for collaboration [27]. While in recent years research has moved onto combining CVEs with ubicomp technology, commercial applications of CVEs have become increasingly popular in the form of 3D-graphics based video games. Indeed, nearly all video games sold today contain CVEs in some form.
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2. Previous Work
Although some would argue that games do not come under the remit of CSCW, CSCW has increasingly discussed the design and study of non-work and leisure activities, such as Instant Messaging [23] or tourism [6]. Games are not just an intriguing application of collaborative technology: massive multi-player games feature new and surprisingly complex forms of online social organisation. At any one time, millions of players are online; making these environments something of a giant social laboratory in development. As Ruther argues, along with the growing financial importance of the game industry, video games

have achieved a cultural and social importance as a new form of leisure [42]. While research into online games can be traced back to work on text based MUDs and MOOs [12], much of this work has maintained a distance from players’ actual behaviour. For example, research on identity online [35] has discussed at length the role which gender plays, in particular the ability to play characters of a different gender than ones’ own [7]. Yet there is little analysis of how this affects behaviour or talk. Indeed, while a number of studies have looked at game behaviour at the aggregate level, such as through studying economic transactions, there is little in-depth discussion of how individual economic transactions are negotiated. This research does demonstrate, however, that online gaming is an engrossing experience - a number of the players Castronova studied admitted to “living in Everquest and visiting the real world”. Questionnaire studies also suggest that while the social bonds made online are generally weaker than those created through face-to-face interaction, they are social bonds nevertheless [52]. Within CSCW, it is collaborative virtual environments (CVEs), rather than games, that have gained most attention. CVEs present a number of opportunities for online interaction, both for work and entertainment. For example, in ‘inhabited TV’ online players can interact with those in a studio audience during a live TV broadcast [3]. Research has also documented the many barriers to successful interaction that these environments present. In particular, CVE users often suffer from problem with the ‘reciprocity of perspectives’ between users [28], in that users often find it difficult to predict what other users can see, and therefore in reliably referring to objects, and even to other users (see also the problems discussed in [10]). One shortcoming with this research is the lack of data on the use of CVEs outside a staged or research context. Nearly all the existing studies of CVEs make use of data from short staged events, or from longerterm use in research settings. The widespread use of CVEs in games thus presents an opportunity to study the longer-term use of CVEs outside research. Within HCI, systems designed for play have recently gained attention [4]. Pioneering work at the Swedish ‘Play’ lab has looked at technologies which evoke pleasure from their users [31] and Gaver et al’s recent work has discussed the use of so called ‘ludic pursuits’ as a design goal. The drift table [20], for example, is a table on which aerial images of the UK slowly float by. This table is not designed for a specific single purpose but rather to support an open range of playful activities: “[These activities] are not a simple matter of entertainment, or wasting time. On the contrary, they can be a mechanism for developing new values and goals, for learning new things, and for achieving new understandings”.

utilitarianism’ [47] – the goal in CSCW design is usually to minimize the pain that a system produces – for example, by replacing a difficult phone collaboration with a more effective interaction using a media-space (e.g. [19]). There is little concern with the pleasure that systems can produce. Indeed, even though CSCW has been deeply concerned with the social, it has tended to ignore one of the most uncontroversial forms of pleasure - the companionship of others. Even work on instant messaging, while considering the pleasures of communication, has seldom addressed what affects IM has on friendship. With games, enjoyment comes from play. Recent work on games has argued that we need to move beyond considering the game itself (and in particular the games’ narratives) to consider how users play with games [16]. That is, to examine their behaviour and exploration, rather than treating games as a text. Yet play is difficult to define [45]. Indeed, Roy’s classic study of horseplay at work [41] shows how play, rather than being its opposite, is an essential part of the workplace. A number of authors have attempted to build typologies of play (e.g. [8]). However, in our view a CSCW approach to play would not define play a priori, but rather seek to study the different forms it takes. This would involve investigating in depth playful technologies, and the pleasures they generate. For example, research into slot machines [49] has shown how these games fit into individuals’ lives by occupying time while waiting for others, and how this is not necessarily the same as play in the office, or play amongst children.

To understand some of these issues we have been studying indepth one particular online multi-player game known as ‘There’ (see also [15]). There ( has been open to the public since October 2003, although it has been in beta testing for over a year, and development for over six. There shares many of the features of other online virtual environments, such as ‘active worlds’ (, second life (, and other online, persistent role-playing games such as Everquest or Star Wars Galaxies, There is a persistent world with objects which can be manipulated, customisable avatars representing each user, and various facilities for interactions between avatars, and between avatars and objects. In There specific effort has been paid to supporting social interactions [11]. There is marketed as a ‘virtual getaway’ – a non-competitive virtual world, where social interaction and play are the main activities. There is no overall goal to ‘There’ and its environment supports a range of activities such as buggy races, paintball, flying jetpacks, treasure hunts, card games and even playing with virtual pets. Avatars are capable of expressing emotional gestures, and chat is displayed in speech bubbles within the game world, word by word, rather than in the complete lines of text displayed in instant messaging (figure one). There also has a rich range of features for organisation that sit outside the 3D space in separate 2D web browser windows. This augments There’s virtual world with support for instant messaging (both text and audio), forums, tools for organising virtual ‘events’, and forming groups. The interface of There is therefore split between a conventional set of webpages and a 3D virtual environment.

It is obvious that games present some challenges to conventional HCI frameworks based around optimising users’ behaviour. With games, optimising the efficiency of behaviour makes little sense, since it is the experience rather an end goal that is key. The pleasure of games can come from features such as aesthetics, narrative, or connection with a broader culture – topics difficult to address under the troika of effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction. Yet games also present a challenge to CSCW’s frameworks. CSCW retains from HCI something of its ‘negative

We have studied There for nine months, playing There for around two hours each week. Our methods are informed by an emerging approach to studying online activity characterised as ‘virtual ethnography’ [30]. This approach involves the familiar techniques of ethnography with a significant amount of time spent online in the research setting, observing, participating and taking field notes. As with all ethnographic work, the researchers own experiences are taken as key data, yet due to the persistent nature of online data, virtual ethnography also makes extensive use of textual materials such as webpages, screenshots and videos.

6.1 Things and money
The design of There has a number of features that differ from conventional CVEs. First, and of perhaps surprising importance, is that the avatar control method uses the standard gaming control method, combining the use of the mouse (for direction of gaze) and keyboard (for movement). This dual control method allows users to quickly move their gaze with their mouse, and then slow that movement to rest their gaze on a particular object. As their gaze moves this action is visible to other players by the turning of their avatar’s head and body. By holding down a control key a mouse pointer can also be made to appear, along with arrows over objects in the scene. These arrows can be clicked to display a menu to carry out different actions on these objects. There also places its default view above the head and some distance back. This increases the field of view allowing easier interaction with objects that are close to the avatar. This goes some way to smoothing the interactions that take place in There between avatars, and in particular around objects. There supports some remarkably smooth, although not unproblematic, interactions around objects. In the example in figure two, the first author (known as ‘Ba’) is giving a tour to a new player (‘Bo’). Earlier the users had landed a hoverboat to look round a forest and after deciding to get back in the boat the users search around to locate the boat once again. After a minute of searching, Ba resorts to ‘retrieving’ the boat – an in-game function that retrieves objects to where the player is. When he sees that Bo has noticed the retrieved boat he climbs onboard, followed by Bo, and they take off.

Figure 1: A screenshot from There A special focus of our study was the interactions between players in the game. Most ethnographic studies of online worlds have sought, in a broadly anthropological way, to study online culture. In comparison in this study we have focused much more on the details of the interactions between players. Like any online world, There is an unusual conversational environment, and special attention has been paid to chat and interaction in There’s design. We were therefore interested in how interaction proceed with the resources provided. To study this we collected videos of our experiences inside There, and our interactions with other players. These videos could be viewed multiple times to look in detail at how certain interactions were carried out. To analyse the video data we broadly followed an interaction analysis approach [26]. This involved shared data analysis sessions where we repeatedly observed key incidents recorded from our time in There. One of the key inspiration we used for this work was Sacks’ observations on ordinary interaction [43], allowing us some useful comparison between There and real-world naturally occurring interactions and conversation.

1) Ba: Wana get back on the boat?

2) Bo: yes

While There has only been commercially open for a relatively short period of time, it has gained considerable media attention and some popularity [51]. This suggests that its designers have had some success in producing an engaging environment, as does our experiences playing There, and our conversations with other players. Of specific interest were two questions about There: what form does play take in this environment and how have users appropriated There to support that play? We address these questions in four main sections: things and money, chat and the role of the game as topic, identity, and the ‘place’ that is There.

3) Ba: Where did we leave it? Bo: ‘?

4) Bo: I don t know (Ba retrieves the boat)

5) Ba: Hey Bo!

6) (Ba gets on boat, Bo gets on boat and Ba takes off)

Figure 2: Conversation around a boat

While these interactions may not seem a source of enjoyment or a form of play in themselves, interaction around objects is a key part of everyday activity [28]. Most real world games feature some sort of interaction around an object – such as a football. The players in this clip co-ordinate their activities (search, retrieval and discovery) without having to explicitly describe to each other what they are doing– both users search the local area, and are seen by each other to be searching. At the end of the clip, after beckoning Bo, Ba sees Bo walking towards the boat – he does not need further confirmation to jump on the boat. The orientation of each avatar in this example allows what each user sees to be predictable. A key part of this short interaction is how the object of the hoverboat exists not as a single user object but as an object shared between the two players. Not all interactions around objects are as unproblematic in There. In particular, gaze and orientation is only grossly available so, for example, an avatar’s orientation towards a particular seat on the boat would be unavailable (and in our other extracts this causes problems with negotiating who sits where). Yet this is an example of a straightforward successful collective social action, analogous to a real world situation where we drop ours keys and find them again with a friend's help. That players can reliably interact around objects is a crucial building block in enabling more complex interactions in There. Along with their use in the 3D environment, objects can also be made, bought and sold on an E-bay style auction website. This takes the form of a separate 2D web interface that allows players to buy and sell objects. While this 2D web interface is perhaps easier to use than a 3D interface, the move is with some cost. As with real world shopping aspects of identity creation are done through the purchasing and display of objects, such as in the form of avatar clothing. Indeed, one of the main activities in There is making and selling clothes. Many players have large collections of outfits – one player we spoke to talked about having over one hundred outfits, with each outfit costing around US$2 on average. Unfortunately, the buying and selling interface is only a single user interface. The move from 3D to 2D interface has been at the cost of the collaborative features of the virtual environment. This makes one of the most important activities in There – shopping - a single user activity. Players who wish to shop online together need to constantly switch between the 2D and 3D environments and manage the connection with talk or chat. As with aspects of consumerism more generally, the economic features of There are a source of some controversy for players. Since there are only limited ways of earning money in There, the game’s currency (‘Therebucks’) is usually bought with real money. Indeed, this is a key way in which the company that designed There makes money from the virtual world. As an example, the hoverboat, in figure one costs around fifteen (real) dollars. The lack of opportunities for making Therebucks has encouraged some entrepreneurship amongst players. One player flew to a great height in the world and bookmarked this location. The user then started to offer “skydiving” tours where he would transport players to that height, for a charge, so they could freefall down into the world. However, this enterprise failed after only two paying customers, since these customers themselves bookmarked the sky-high location. This user then turned to selling virtual t-shirts advertising the skydiving tours, making more money from the virtual t-shirts than the tour itself.

In ways like this the complex uses of objects in There builds on the actions shown here – interaction, transportation, trading - to produce complex compound activities such as skydiving into falling cars, or making short films which are recorded in-game. Importantly, objects in There have taken on a social function, in that they centre the collaborative activities within the game and produce opportunities for social action. As Duck argues in his work on friendship it is through experiencing enjoyable activities together that we perform our friendships and relationships [14]. This is a view of social relationships as collective action. By choosing to do leisure activities with certain people they become our friends. Yet over the Internet there has generally been very little opportunity for ‘social action’, for ordinary shared social experiences together with others. Social action on the internet has tended to be limited to text communication, such as in message boards, or chat rooms. While these are obviously powerful mediums, they are very different from face to face interactions. By offering a range of collective activities around objects, There expands the opportunity for social action. What is crucial here is a sense of acting together around objects – such as skydiving, trading, travelling around the world, playing cards and such building up a shared history of collective experiences. Work on other online games, such as Everquest has also suggested the importance of shared activities in producing enjoyable experiences, for example, [46] argue that a key feature of guilds is their shared activities in the game.

6.2 Chat
Along with interactions around objects, chat – what players say to each other – is an important part of There. As evidenced by the popularity of instant messaging, chat can be a valuable and enjoyable part of online interaction. While previous research has uncovered problems with text chat, such as the out of turn sequencing of turns [40], less attention has been given to the temporal aspects of text chat. That is, the timing of chat as it is typed. These aspects are particularly important in There since, unlike IRC or IM, text is displayed in speech bubbles which rise above users as they type each word [11]. In its design There takes the use of speech bubbles in systems such as Habitat [39] or Comic Chat [36], and applies this to a 3D environment. Since sentences are shown as they are typed, the system affords some dynamic features of chat, with overlapping typing visible on screen as turns unfolding simultaneously. For example, in this extract a group of users are arranging where to meet up in the UK (the square brackets show overlapping typing, the numbers in round brackets are notable pauses): Jim: We have arranged Internet meets not for this program but for IRC and the best place to (.5s) hold a (1s) meet is (9s)[Birmingham] [Holland?]


One player suggests meeting in Birmingham, but his pause allows a second player to heckle him, completing the sentence with a joke destination. Overlapping talk affords replying to chat as it is produced, rather than waiting to the end of a turn, hastening conversation. Chat in There is thus unusual in that, rather than having only one speaker

at a time, the system supports overlapping chat. In this extract a user replies while the previous turn is still unfolding: Jo: Something as simple as town hall meetings should be a [requirement of each subcommittee thing] [I agree or more vocal] webpage at would be nice


Sue’s reply agrees with Jo’s suggestion before she has finished, displaying an assumption about how Jo’s suggestion will finish. This display of chat as it is produced limits the time in which players are waiting for others’ turns to end and mitigates some of the frustrations of slow typing: Jo: Sue: Gail: Maybe they read but don’t respond Or can’t [officially respond] [well they used to] really respond and gleam info from the forums

This topicalisation of the game itself can also be seen in how gestures have moved from a resource for conversation to a topic. Gestures pervade conversation in There, and, as with emoticons [24], players have adopted these gestures to communicate lost aspects (e.g. emotions, illocutionary force) of face-to-face conversation. However, gestures have also become a topic of conversation in themselves. Users discuss the different gestures, and tutor each other in using them effectively. Support for gestures has even led users to exchange ways of producing avatar ‘dances’. Using keyboard macro software, different, otherwise unrelated gestures, can be combined to make avatars ‘dance’ on screen. Indeed, ‘dancing competitions’ have even become popular where avatars compete for prizes for elaborate or inventive ‘dances’. In this way much of the chat in There is actually about There. As Sacks remarks, in some cultures there are topics that are inexhaustible as topics: they are “intrinsically rich, in the sense that whatever it is that members of that culture tend to talk about […] they can talk about via that thing.” [43, Vol i - p178] In American youth culture, Sacks observes that topics such as ‘respect’ can be discussed - often at great length – through talking instead about cars. This can also be seen in There: Jo: Gail: Jo: Gail: The advisory board seem really closed [off to the untrained eye.] [Well if you have any time Jo get on the IM with them let em] know I’m not sure my little voice would make a difference= =oh please woman [you are public beta 1 you people get mad respect from there] [every little bit helps I don’t think it is due to a lack of listening] more a slow development turn around

In this extract following Sue’s collaborative production of a sentence (as in [43, vol I, p144]), Gail’s ‘really respond’ acts as a contrast right after Sue’s ‘officially respond’, even though her sentence started before Sue had finished. The slow movement of the speech bubbles up the screen can also work as a resource when entering a new conversation or walking past conversing groups – the bubbles allow users to see at a glance the previous turns in a conversation and thus quickly gain a rough concept of the topic of the conversation. However, the use of speech bubbles does not come without cost. Speech bubbles occlude much of the environment as they are relatively large and each bubble may only contain a small segment of the conversation.. To prevent overlapping speech bubbles, There also needs to puts users into a specific ‘conversation’ mode when it detects a stable conversation, moving users into positions where their speech bubbles will not overlap (as in figure one). As with all modes, users need to issue an explicit command to leave. While this does solve problems with achieving positioning of avatars during conversation [1], it does put limits on the number of participants in a conversation as well as the possibility of interaction around objects. Large groups also lead to problems with speech bubbles overlapping on screen. Simultaneous chat can also lose the sequential positioning of turns. This can cause confusion regarding who players are addressing their talk to, and players often need to use naming (such as in figure one) to disambiguate turns.


While the topic here is ostensive the system itself, matters such as showing each other respect, and organisational politics are covered through a conversation about the system. So while chat in There often concerns There itself, like with any group of enthusiasts, other topics are addressed through that topic.

6.3 Status and identity
In the classic text based MUDs there is often a differentiation between ‘mortals’ [33] - ordinary game players, and ‘immortals’ – players with special abilities who are usually involved in running the game. In newer games such as Everquest or Star Wars Galaxies this has developed into ‘levelling up’ – player characters gaining levels through completing in-game tasks, with different levels having different abilities. While There does have levels for users, such as ‘socialisation’ or ‘boarding’ level, the advantages of higher levels are limited. This makes levelling up less of a goal in There. However, one clear visible divide that does exist is between trial users (who play for a limited time for free) and paying users. Trial users have no money to buy clothes, and so are usually adorned with a plain white t-shirt and slacks, in contrast to the colourful outfits of other players.

6.2.1 Topic
The social interaction in chat rooms often disintegrates into 'trivial, useless, sex-oriented’ babble. (Esther Dyson, quoted in the New York Times [38]) Much of the conversation in There concerns There itself. For example, glitches (bugs or mistakes in the system) are common topics of conversation with users often manipulating the glitches to produce bizarre actions that are otherwise impossible. In one ‘glitch’ two users found themselves superimposed upon each other. This allowed the players to appear as a combination of two people, causing much play and conversation around the bizarre combined body. Glitches have become ‘local resources’ for conversation, topics for discussion as much as problems or bugs in the system (see also [43, vol ii –p92].

Indeed, appearance is a major focus in There, with avatar clothing used to present an identity in the world and differentiating oneself from others. While much of the research on virtual online worlds has argued that online identity is more flexible and transitory than real world identity [50], with users experimenting with changes such as trans-gendered identities, identity in There is a relatively stable and persistent phenomena. The system itself presents barriers to maintaining multiple identities; users can only have one avatar per account, with a fixed gender and name which is decided before a user even enters the game. There also creates a standardized home page for each player, listing their interests, the clubs they are a member, a biography and a virtual and real photo. These features encourage the maintenance and creation of a single online identity, with a fixed gender. This stability assists the formation of stable relationships – users create virtual relationships listing each other on their ‘buddy’ list. Indeed, our experiences with identity manipulation in There met with considerable resistance from other players. When we experimented with logging into other accounts, this generated hostility from our ‘buddies’ who felt we were misleading them, and subverting the relationships they had built up. Even experimenting with changing our avatar’s body shape was a source of complaint.

interactions. One aspect of the ‘place’ of There is that a player’s presence in There indicates an availability (and willingness) for interaction. Conversations are relatively easy to start in There, since one can just walk up and join a group, or simply greet an individual and see if they respond. Encouraging interactions between strangers has been a goal of a number of CSCW systems [29, 34], usually with little success interaction with strangers is a heavily regulated activity. While we frequently interact with strangers (such as with shop staff), the interactions we have are strongly regulated. Yet there are situations where new interactions are accepted and even usual. As Goffman observes: “[an] illustration of the open regions provided by convivial occasion is carnivals […] the assumption of mutual regard and good will built into open regions guarantees a rationale for discounting the potential nefariousness of contact among the unacquainted” [21, p136]. Initiation of interaction between the unacquainted is less likely to be rebuked, by common implicit agreement. In this way, There shares some features of an open region, such as a carnival or a party. Presence in the environment indicates availability for interaction. If participants are already in conversation this can affirm this availability. The explicit commitment that individuals have to make to play There – as with joining a distinct social place such as a carnival or a party - acts as a way of signifying a distinct set of time constraints and commitments. While this availability for interaction can be a strength of the environment, as with parties it creates problems with leaving conversations. Players who leave a conversation usually account for why they are leaving: Sam: Well I’m going to look around. been nice talking to you. Cya! It’s

6.4 Place
The last issue we discuss concerns the role of place in There. Since Harrison and Dourish’s critique of the notions of space in CVE design [25], the role of places in coding and controlling behaviour has been a strong theme of CSCW work. Harrison and Dourish emphasise how places are culturally invested with understandings of appropriate behaviour. One aspect of this ‘cultural coding’ is the practical constraints put on activity by the presence of objects and other people. Often our actions are controlled simply by the configurations of objects and people that are in different places. That is to say, what we can do in different places is constrained by what is actually in different places. In There constraints on behaviour are to an extent imposed by the system. So although the different ‘islands’ in There are differentiated considerably in terms of their design, style and appearance, it is these constraints on action which configure activity more than appearance. For example, some areas are specifically designated to support particular activities, such as paintball or buggy racing. This is not just a cultural coding, since these areas contain roads for driving buggies on, or a flat clear area for playing paintball. These activities are fairly incompatible with conversation - talking in the middle of a paintball game would be difficult with other players attempting to shoot around you. Alternatively, in the drop off points where new players enter the game there are usually a large crowd of players ‘hanging out’ available for, and engaged in, chat. These places not only have a reputation as being where to go to chat, but there is a practical motivator for this, since they are the busiest places in There, full of new players. The different places in There thus comes in part from the practical organisation of There. Place has come from the way objects and other avatars behave and interact. That is, from practical significance rather than an arbitrary assignment culturally. Overall, There is also a distinct place in itself, with its actions coded and restrained technologically, different from real world


Well I’m going to get my boarding skills up somemore. Toodies :-)

The ‘place’ of There also suffers from the complications that its inhabitants are not ‘in’ the environment, but are simply using a computer simulation. As highlighted by Bowers et al [5] this produces the problem of alignment between avatar and real world activities - players are often engaged with real world contingencies, with no sign of this on their avatar. As an added complication, with a system such as There users may also be busy in other windows – such as checking their mail or shopping using the system’s 2D web interface. Absences from interaction cause confusion for other players, since they encounter a ‘dead’ avatar that does not reply, and appears to ignore their conversational opening. For example, here a user does not reply to her name for 23 seconds prompting a question about if she is away from the computer smoking: Sue: Sue: Jo: Gail, (23s) smoking? I think so

The developers of There have taken some effort to counter these problems –the system displays sunglasses on an avatar who is using their computer in another window, and a small microphone if a player in an instant messenger conversation.

Some attention in the CVE community has been given to the notion of ‘social presence’ – the sense in which users of a CVE feel that there are real people present in the online environment [1]. Alternatively, in the game literature the social ties formed in online games have also been a focus [52]. However, we would argue that both these approaches ignore the importance of social action in CVEs. This is the ability to do things together with others, something often enjoyable in itself. A focus on ‘social bonds’ misses the importance of the shared activity together such as chat, or interaction around objects, where we perform our friendships. Research on friendship underlies the importance and enjoyment of leisure activities carried out in the company of others. We would argue that it is this shared activity in itself which is pleasurable and a goal for players, rather than necessarily making new social bonds. As we mentioned earlier, There is unusual in that it encourages and supports interactions between strangers, something which has proved difficult to support in face-to-face settings [29]. Over time, however, players do build up collections of ‘online buddies’. Some players also play online with their existing friends and family – encouraging them to join. So it is not that There is only about doing things together with strangers, but also enjoying social action with those you have built up a relationship. The flexibility of There means players can choose to interact with strangers or those they already know. These social actions in There depend to an extent upon the conventions for interaction developed by users, which although similar to those used in everyday life, differ due to the very different nature of the online world. So, while in spoken conversation one speaker speaks at once, within There multiple speakers can chat simultaneously. Yet speakers still use techniques to select the next speaker, such as including their name in their chat [44]. The placement of avatars staring into space also makes use of the very unusualness of this behaviour to indicate a user’s unavailability. The interactional structures of There are, therefore, adaptations of the ordinary structures of interaction to this new context. Players have appropriated everyday interactional structures to overcome limitations of the system.

Figure 3: players avatars left in the environment Players themselves deal with some of these problems through the placing of their avatars in the environment looking into space. Players often leave their avatars in a position and orientation such that their avatars are “looking at nothing” when they are busy elsewhere. Indeed, the environment is often littered with avatars composed this way (figure 3). Although the appearance of these ‘awaying’ avatars can be disconcerting, players are indicating their unavailability for interaction. As Sacks comments in ordinary life we rarely stare into space for long periods of time – we occupy ourselves: “it’s not a usual thing to do, to say well this evening I’m going to examine that corner of the ceiling.” [43, vol ii - p217]. In this sense figure three might seem unusual, yet it is specifically because we do not normally stair into space that this stance can be used. While it is possible that these players have chosen to examine a particular part of the environment in detail, that it is unlikely can be used to indicate another involvement. This politely manages unavailability for interaction, players’ avatars in figure three are in There but their owners are shown to be busy elsewhere,

Now we have given an overview of There and some aspects of users’ orientations within the environment we will draw out two points for further discussion: the development of shared social action and the role of structure in the game.

7.2 There as an open game
While designing for appropriation is a familiar recommendation for the design of CSCW systems, it is still a rare feature of computer games. Games are normally constrained around a linear plot based involving the completion of a set number of tasks [17]. However, in There much of the play has come from the creation of new activities - heckling, joking, dancing, skydiving and the like. As Hughes’ work on playground games [32] shows, children invent whole repertoires of new rules around traditional games, provided sufficient resources are available. For children in a playground this can be as simple as chalk markings, free time, and a ball (e.g. [22]). In There these resources were its flexible support for chat and interaction around a range of objects. Consequently, this means that There is as much a platform for gaming and play, as it a specific game in itself. There provides resources for users, but it is users themselves who decide what form their play will take. There has been appropriated for play by its users in ways not intended by its designers, such as in how accidental glitches in the system have become opportunities for play and conversation. The social online environment, and fan

7.1 Enjoyment and Social Action
Computer gaming has always been a social affair – the original video game “Pong” was, after all, a two player game [45]. The massively multi-player environments of There and other games bring this even more to the fore. This is at the heart of what makes There enjoyable – it supports, in a crude, though still enjoyable form, many of the ordinary activities that we engage in as part of our social lives. Conversation is perhaps the most obvious, but There also supports travelling, buying goods, exploring new places and playing conventional games (such as cards). While many of these activities are possible in single player games, multiplayer features make these activities sociable, supporting a community around these activities.

websites around the game all produce an environment supportive of appropriation with sharing of new activities. Yet this flexibility does come at some cost - There presents a problem to users in that they need to decide what to do next, rather than have a preset goal or task. Users must find their own activities in the game and negotiate their participation in group activities. Enjoying There thus involves some of the commitment and organisation of real world activities. While the open nature of There supports playful appropriation, it in turn require commitment from its users. The key problem for users in There is ‘what will I do next?’ There’s open nature also gives it a more ‘playful’ form than many other games. Sacks [43, vol i - p475] remarks that in children games mistakes are seldom serious, since the games are short and imaginary. Yet due to the persistent and competitive nature of online games mistakes, such as loosing objects, often have serious consequences. In There, however, the consequences of losing objects are minor, since missing objects can be easily ‘retrieved’. In the situations discussed in figure one, although the players lose their hoverboat, Ba can ‘retrieve’ the boat easily. The lack of a competitive goal allows for a safe environment where users can play with different activities without conflict with their overall goals or broader enjoyment.

8.2 Supporting social action
One key finding above was the importance of social action in There and how the environment supports a sense of activities being carried out together with others. For example, activities could be designed to require the co-ordination of groups of individuals, encouraging collaboration. Skydiving into a car in There involves co-ordination, since one player needs to drop the car from high up, while the second player jump into the car as it falls. The pleasure of this activity comes in part from the difficulty in co-ordinating actions together. This suggests a key design goal for future multiplayer games will be supporting in game social activities. Economic transactions are one activity that could be enhanced in this way – with greater support for negotiation and interaction during the exchange of objects. Systems could also assist in producing a sense of group activity and belonging amongst users. For example, a system could automatically generate a history of what a group does together (such as in the form of a weblog), or of allocating a special game area to a particular group. The formation of groups and relationships in There are facilitated by its successful at supporting interaction between strangers. One aspect of this is that presence in the environment provides ticket for interaction between strangers. This suggests a lesson for the design of systems that require interaction between strangers: these systems should require some sort of commitment from participants to a setting which is differentiated from ordinary interaction. In that way a setting may work to produce an availability for interaction amongst participants. This also suggests that interaction between strangers will be harder around technologies which require little commitment to their use – such as, for example, museum exhibits [29], compared to those where there is a clear divide from ordinary interaction - such as in a tour group. More success may be had in settings where participants can show an availability for interaction with others.

By successfully supporting interaction in a CVE, There produces an enjoyable social gaming experience. We draw a number of lessons from There for both the design of games, CVEs and collaborative systems more generally.

8.1 Objects and talk: building blocks of play
At a basic level, the necessity of interactions around objects underlines the importance of prosaic design features in CVEs such as the default position of the camera, and the control method used. Certainly, the keyboard and mouse method used is a standard and successful way of controlling movement. The split in functionality between the 3D environment and 2D web pages that are used for buying and selling objects is also a promising feature. 2D web pages offer a quicker interface for certain actions. CVEs and Games may therefore benefit from splitting their functionality between a 3D and 2D interface. One shortcoming of this split in There is the lack of collaboration around these web pages. 2D interfaces could therefore be augmented with support for collaboration, such as in systems which support collaborative web browsing [37]. Another promising feature is the presentation of chat as part of the game world. While other online gaming environments feature more complex graphics, or richer game worlds, There succeeds in how it supports chat – a basic building block of online interaction - in a more natural way than other environments. Although there are some disadvantages to the speech bubbles used in There, they do offer a more versatile resource for chat that using a separate chat window (as in Everquest). In particular, the ability to see turns as they are composed allows for overlapping turns – a resource that can be used to hasten conversation, or even for jokes. The technique of displaying text as it is typed is a feature that could also be applied to other chat systems such as instant messaging.

8.3 Designing for play
The players of There have shown considerable originality in adopt the flexibility of the environment to support their play. There is an example of a game where its designers have not overly constrained what players can do, instead allowing communities of players to form who exchange new activities and forms of play with each other. A final lesson then we would draw concerns how one can thus design for play. The key here is to implement resources for play that can be combined and used in different ways. A key characteristic of these resources (such as the support for gestures or chat in There) is that actions are visible to others, and can be combined together in new ways. A ball and a field, for example, are unremarkable in themselves, but support a remarkable range of games when combined. Their flexibility comes from how players themselves invent new activities around them. Resources for play may not even be explicitly designed, since accidents can also be appropriated (such as with the system glitches). Indeed, resources which support play perhaps all share the feature that when they are successful their use will extend beyond that conceived by their designers.

This paper has focused on three aspects of There’s use. First, we have described how play in There depends upon the building

blocks of smooth interaction around objects and chat between players. While these are not dramatic features, they enable many of the richer interactions in this game. Second, we discussed the open design of There and in particular how users have appropriated features of There to support their play in unpredictable ways. Lastly, we discussed the importance of social action in There, and how players can carry out social activities with other players. There also supports social action with strangers, something that has proved difficult in face-to-face settings. Virtual environments, perhaps more than any other application, have suffered from hyperbolic accounts of their impact and development. Exaggerated claims of ‘replacing reality’ place unrealistic goals onto systems, and may, as Fraser et al argue, undermine the goal of designing compelling CVEs [18]. The nature of There and other virtual environments as games should be kept in mind – they do not replace social encounters or life in the real world. Although for some users they can become obsessions on the whole they fulfil the traditional roles of enjoyment and enrichment, a role that games have traditionally played along with movies, music and fiction. It is easy to dismiss games as of little significance, certainly when compared with more weighty topics or activities. Yet games occupy our attention for longer than many of the traditional office applications studied within CSCW. It is not only that games are an interesting new application of collaborative systems, but that in looking at games CSCW has the opportunity to consider new purposes for the systems we design, and new social benefits that they can produce.

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The authors would like to thank Jon Hindmarsh, Matthew Chalmers, Carl Gutwin, Eric Laurier, and our anonymous reviewers for useful comments on the paper. Both the authors work is supported by the Equator EPSRC grant (GR/N15986/01).

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