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Behind the Curtain: Playing in the sandbox

Craig Withers

I was feeling lost for a little while there. My mojo wasn't working, the Force was not strong with me, etc. I'm back in the swing of things now, however. I tried to break my habit, and move on to pastures new with Lord of the Rings Online, but it seems that I'm a one-game kind of guy, and I ended up back at World of Warcraft.

Before I settled back in to routine however, I did do some exploring and thinking. Listening to my colleague's advice, I spent some time with MMOs that I otherwise wouldn't have bothered with. I even dipped my toes into the waters of Second Life.

I've tooled around in Second Life more than once, trying to get a good handle on it. Try as I might though, it never seems to gel with me, never seems to click. That's probably more down to me than any identifiable fault with the game. That said, any game which, if I recall correctly, used to offer a furry as an option at character creation automatically scores low in my book.

That was a joke, hold off on the flames please.

I did get to thinking though, about Second Life, Entropia Universe, and any other sandbox kind of MMO out there, and about their appeal, versus the appeal of more traditional MMOs. I thought I'd do a bit of research into the different types of personalities found in MMOs. To do that, I looked to Dr. Richard Bartle, and the test he created for this purpose.

The Bartle Test identifies four main personality types in MMOs: the Achiever, the Explorer, the Socializer and the Killer. The terms are self-explanatory. The Achiever is goal-oriented and focused on acquisition. Levels, achievements or loot are all possible goals for the Achiever, and all others are secondary to them. The Explorer's rewards come from finding things no-one else knows. Finding hidden shrines, profitable spawn points, even exploitable bugs are their bread and butter. Socializers are there for the banter. The multiplayer aspect of an MMO is what keeps them going. Meeting people, forming connections and building relationships is where they thrive. Killers like to dominate others. Their fun come from imposing their fun over others players'. Despite the name, Killers aren't always Pkers – old-fashioned griefing, insults and ridicule are equally as tasty.

There's a bit of crossover between the four Bartle types – Killers may have to socialise with other Killers to trade information; Achievers may spend some time as an Explorer to get access to new gear and rewards; Socializers may take on some of the Killer's aspects if a friend asks for some help.

It wouldn't surprise me if a little bit of dedicated research into the people playing World of Warcraft (for example versus the people playing (or using) Second Life would show all four Bartle types in abundance in both arenas. It stands to reason though, that Explorers and Socialisers are going to be much more common in in Second Life than World of Warcraft, purely because of the type of world that's presented. There's still be space for Killers there, too. Just ask Anshe Chung.

I'm guessing that a major difference between the two is that with Second Life, you're required to bring your own structure with you. Essentially, Linden Lab give you the tools, the opportunity to use them, and then leave you to get on with it. Terrifying for some, enlightening for others. Most of us thrive on structure, whether we realise it or not. Stepping into an environment where there's little to no structure, no 'game' to speak of, puts a lot of us off. There's no real reason that it should, other than habit. Jumping into Second Life and flying off in a random direction to see what you can see might be your idea of bliss.

I guess that's the idea and appeal to Second Life – that you create the kind of game or world that you want to see, the kind that only you can think of. If other people decide they want to join in, and find your work enjoyable, then so much the better. If not, they've got the same tools as you to go make their own.

Maybe that's the reason I've never stuck with Second Life – I'm going into it blind, so to speak, waiting to see what there is to be found, instead of going in with a target in mind. That said, if anyone knows about a Zombie apocalypse themed island in Second Life, drop me a line.

Still, I know that I'm not alone in preferring my MMOs to have more game in them than they do sandbox. The abundance of the former versus the latter speaks volumes to the kind of fun that most gamers seek out.

That's the crux of a whole other argument though. Are the people who play Second Life and other sandbox-style MMOs really 'gamers'? I'm not going to get into that one now. Partly because it's an argument that doesn't really interest me, and partly because getting into said argument is just asking for a trolling. However, let me say this – splitting hairs over the difference between an MMO and and MMOG may not be the dictionary definition of pedantry, but it'll come pretty damn close.

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