Ask Massively: The MMeaning of (Second) Life


In this week's installment of Ask Massively, I would like to take you, our loyal reader, away from the realms of prognostication and perspicacity and dive headlong into the murk and mire of pure philosophy. If you would like to be enlightened or just offer your opinion on the subject-du-jour, feel free to drop us a note either via our tipline or by sending an email to ask@massively.com.

In last week's column, my brief comment on Second Life generated a fair amount of passion both from those who claim that we spend too much time covering something that "isn't really an MMORPG" and from those who assert that Second Life is an MMORPG in the truest sense of the word.

As our reader, TigroSpottystripes, points out, this debate begs the question

What makes an MMO an MMO?

Unless you have been living under a rock and somehow stumbled upon this website by sheer accident, you are most likely aware that MMORPG stands for Massively (so that's how we got our name!) Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. It would be easy, and would definitely make this column a lot shorter, to say that these words form a set of criteria that a title must meet in order to be considered part of this genre, but let's dive a little deeper, shall we?

If we use the acronym MMORPG as our starting point in this discussion, then it makes sense that we start off with the words Massively Multiplayer. In the early days of online gaming, multiplayer games were far from uncommon. Even in the early incarnation of the Internet, games such as Netrek and Empire were enjoyed by thousands of enthusiasts who got together online and spent hours destroying their grades and social lives together. However, these games rarely boasted more than a dozen or two players at a time. The community of players existed outside of the game itself and social interaction was not a focus of the game environment. In other words, inside the game itself, player interaction was limited, more or less, to "See player. Kill Player". These games may have been Multiplayer, but they were hardly Massive. Later on, MUDs and MUSHes added a level of social interaction and Role Playing to online gaming, but even then, games featuring more than a couple dozen players online simultaneously were rare indeed.

If we draw a line between MUDs and MMORPGs, then I would think that Massively Multiplayer should be defined as more than X players active in the same game simultaneously. I use the variable X because the word Massively implies a large number, but not necessarily a well defined number. Some would consider a game with 100 players concurrently playing as Massive, and others may not consider a game Massively Multiplayer unless 1,000 or more people are playing at the same time. The number itself isn't as important as the concept itself. Massively Multiplayer means a large number of players simultaneously engaged in the same game.

The next word in our acronym is a lot tricker. Online. Ok, I lied. That isn't a tricky one at all. One could imagine the possibility of a pen-and-paper Dungeons and Dragons game featuring thousands of players simultaneously, perhaps at a convention. However, the easiest way to coordinate a large (ok, I'll say it, Massive) number of players is via the Internet. So far, the Internet is really the only medium available for getting a large group of players together to play the same game without major logistical hassles (read: convention) Therefore, the word Online is basically sine qua non for any computer game wanting to be considered Massively Multiplayer .

Call me crazy, but I don't think the terms Massively, Multiplayer, or Online are responsible for the amount of controversy we have seen over games such as Second Life or a certain advertising campaign claiming to be an MMO. What ultimately determines the meaning of MMORPG is the phrase Role Playing Game. Breaking that down even further, RPGs involve the player assuming a Role in order to Play a Game. This is where it gets sticky for Second Life. (please, no comments about "sticky" and "Second Life" being used together. This is a family column.) It isn't too hard to agree with the notion that creating an avatar and inhabiting a virtual world is, within itself, a form of role playing. The key question is "Is it a game?" While some people may claim that Second Life "does not have points, scores, winners or losers, levels, an end-strategy, or most of the other characteristics of games", neither do well established examples of the genre such as EVE Online. In fact, the most popular example of the MMORPG genre only has one of those things, and I would argue that levels, of all of the things in this list, are one of the least important characteristics of a game.

This ultimately brings us to the question that must be answered in order to determine whether or not something can be classified as an MMORPG. Is it a game? It is fairly easy to determine on prima facie evidence whether or not something is Massively Multiplayer, Online, and Role Playing.

Borrowing a bit from the Wikipedia entry on games, one can determine that it isn't as easy to define the term "game" as it would initially seem. However, each of the definitions of "game" share some common characteristics.
  • The activity's primary purpose is entertainment. (Fun)
  • The activity exists in a reality separated from the player. (the activity has rules separate from the player's normal life)
  • The activity can be performed in finite or independent sessions. (a game starts and ends for the player)
  • The activity is uncertain. (the outcome of the activity is not known in advance)
Some experts on the subject add
  • The activity has some sort of purpose or goal associated with it.
This last point is the main source of contention. What is the point of Second Life? What is the objective? If an activity meets the first four points, but not the last, does that make it a toy instead of a game? Perhaps. However, if we apply that same point to other MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, how could your answer be any different than it could be for Second Life? If your purpose is to explore a virtual world then Second Life meets that criteria. If your purpose is to "grab phat lewts" or "farm lots of gold", then you could certainly accomplish that in Second Life. If the purpose of an MMORPG is to experience an alternate reality and interact or affect it, then Second Life and other non-traditional MMORPGs certainly fit the mold.

Using the always-infallible logic of "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck..." I can only conclude that worlds like Second Life or other "non-traditional" environments of that type should indeed be classified as MMORPGs. Strictly speaking, it meets all of the criteria listed in the acronym, and does so better than other games such as RTS or FPS games. (As I said earlier, if your role playing is limited to "See player. Kill player." then it isn't really a Role Playing Game.)

Now that we have definitively answered that question for all time, I'd like to touch on something else from last week. A few of you expressed the opinion that I was somewhat unkind to Mark C. Let me assure you that Mark is a good friend of mine, and that my tone was meant entirely in jest. He's also not currently holding a large and very heavy object above my head and he is most certainly not trying to do his best impersonation of The Incredible Hulk on my somewhat-thick-but-still-quite-delicate skull right now.

I'm glad we could clear that up.

That's all we have for this week. If you'd like to see your name added to the list of those who seek my wisdom, or if you'd just like to take a stab at puncturing this over-inflated ego of mine, (Editor's note: Please help us!) drop us a line at ask@massively.com or head over to our tipline and let us know how you feel.

This article was originally published on Massively.