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11:21am on Friday, 13th September, 2013:
There's a theory of art that goes something like this.
Art is created by artists. What the artist creates is a statement (a text) which those consuming the art read. The artist's intellectual ownership of the work is given up once it is finished, passing instead to those whose job it is to interpret it (the readers).
In this view, the reader makes of the artwork what they will. If they interpret it completely differently to what the artist intended or expected, that's their prerogative. The artist had their say when they finished the work; the reader has it now.
For games, the artist is the designer and the reader is the player.
This point of view works as well for single-player games as it does for paintings, books, sculptures, plays, symphonies, dances or any other form of expression. The artist expresses through the artwork; the player deals with the artwork on their own terms.
It seems to break down with massively-multiplayer games, though. The difficulty stems from a mistake made by almost all non-players, by many players and by a good few designers. See, who are the readers of an MMO? Well, "clearly" the players must be. The problem is, though, there is no such thing as "the players". There are many individuals, all of whom are players, but they don't think as one. They think as individuals.
Why is this problematic? A book can have a million readers, each of whom has their own take on what the book is saying. Why can't an MMO mean a million things to a million players, too?
Well, the difference is that an MMO is (by definition) shared. If one in a hundred readers of a book find it hilarious and the rest find it serious, their laughing while they read it isn't going to affect anyone else's reading of it. There are some types of art where this would be an issue, though, for example theatre. One person laughing throughout Hamlet is going to spoil the performance for the rest of the audience who perhaps don't see the play as a comedy.
MMOs go beyond this, though, because they're also (by definition) persistent. One group of people spoiling (for others) the performance of a play or a movie is an inconvenience, but (assuming they're not griefers) they're only there for one performance. They have read the work of art differently, but they have read it. With an MMO, they're there reading it indefinitely.
This being the case, there's a permanent clash of viewpoints. Some players will interpret an MMO one way, some another, some yet another, with the fine differences extending to the level of the individual. It's all well and good to say that this is how art should be, and that the meaning of an MMO can be thrashed out by the resolution of a dialectic, but it's a dialectic in the wrong dimension. It's not between designer and designer, or even designer and player: it's between player and player. The conversation may be resolved, but it may not be. It is especially unlikely to reach a conclusion if one or more sides has no need to listen.
Take, for example, role-playing. Suppose a designer created a game specifically for people who like role-playing. Hordes of role-players sign up and have a ball, but a small proportion of the MMO's players don't role-play. They don't see the MMO as being "about" role-playing, or at least not about role-playing by them personally. This is a legitimate position for them to take, but their attitude can wreck the atmosphere and ruin immersion for those who do role-play. The role-players may outnumber the non-role-players a hundred to one; they may desperately want them to leave, but they have no leverage on them. They can't do anything to annoy them; they can only be annoyed by them. It's an argument that doesn't move. It ends when the role-players look for somewhere else to role-play, whereupon those who don't role-play but who like playing among role-players will follow them and the story repeats.
So what should happen here?
"Should" is always a suspect word to use in arguments, as it presupposes that there is a right way to do things. However, to stay true to the original ideal about players interpreting art, the context in which the art (that is, the MMO) was released has to be taken into account. If an MMO is launched as a role-playing game and thousands of people sign up to it on that basis, then that is the context within which the players interact. Players who sign up for other reasons, who don't take the role-playing component to heart, aren't playing the same MMO. They're like someone who reads over your shoulder then asks you to go back a page because you turned it too soon: it's the same artefact being consumed at the same time, but not under the conditions for which the other consumers signed up to consume it.
I've used role-playing as an example here, but it could be anything. In the past, virtual worlds have been derailed because of a minority's views on PvP, real-money trading, permadeath, gear score, ... Eventually, the developers have either to let matters run their course or to step in and make gameplay changes or issue bans. That puts them back in the driving seat, though — which is precisely where, according to the view of art that they are intervening to defend, they shouldn't be.
Personally, I don't see this as being reconcilable (unless the MMO was consciously designed to have such conflicts between players, which is a valid, if anarchic, position). The majority of players will have signed up to play based on their interpretation of the designer's vision. When they conflict in a manner that can't be resolved through the adoption of social norms, there can only be one answer to the question of which side "should" be supported: the one that actually does follow the designer's vision, because that's the only constant.
Except, of course, it isn't constant. The designer's vision can change as a result of the way the MMO is being played. Although it's fashionable to say that this makes MMO design collaborative, I wouldn't put it that way myself — mainly because designers are just as likely to react against the way some players are playing as they are to react for it. To be collaborative, players would have a say (that is, collectively they can make executive decisions) but (because they are so numerous) no voice; what we have here is more consultative, in which players have (through their collective actions) a voice but (because they don't make the decision) no say.
Is there a way out of this, theory-wise. Well, yes there is. It does make MMOs somewhat distinct from other forms of art, though.
Yes, the designer's intellectual ownership of an MMO is indeed given up once it is finished, passing instead to those whose job it is to interpret it (the players). It's just, because the players themselves form part of the designed experience, an MMO never is finished. It's merely older.
You knew that anyway, though...
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