Literacy in the Context of an MMORPG
Let us begin with the New London Group (1996) definition – the notion that literacies (plural) crucially entail sense making within a rich, multimodal semiotic system, situated in a community of practice that renders that system meaningful. Figure 1 shows the interface of the MMOG Lineage II, one of the primary virtual world contexts in which the ethnographic data described herein was collected. We might ask ourselves, how many adults (let alone tenured professors) can ‘read’ such a space? Without prior experience in Lineage II, or at a minimum in some other MMOG design, few could make sense out of the seeming sundry assortment of images, bar graphs, texts, icons, and symbols. Yet, for gamers who have mastered this interface, it is a completely transparent (albeit dense) semiotic system. Such mastery is a prerequisite to any successful game play, yet little is known to date about how gamers manage to parse such visual arrays so quickly and adeptly. Knowledge of and facility with other game interfaces surely facilitates such learning; further research is necessary, however, for us to better understand how gamers come to so easily ‘read’ such dense representations in order to use them as mediating tools for virtual action.
In Figure 1, bar graphs (top left corner) show the status of your avatar in terms of health points, mana points, and experience points, with your avatar’s current level denoted by a number in the far top left. Below that is the status bar of all members of your current party, which allows you to monitor their overall health and adjust your own behavior accordingly. To the immediate right of your avatar status window (top, mid-left of screen) are icons and symbols denoting magic spells cast upon your avatar, each of which has its own unique function and therefore changes what you can and cannot do. At the top right corner of the interface lies the radar, which displays your position in relation to the in-game cardinal directions and other members of your current party. In the bottom left corner is the chatbox containing multiple threads of conversation (denoted in different colors), each of which serves a different communicative function as determined by ingame community norms (Steinkuehler, 2006a). At the bottom of the chat window itself are buttons that denote the various ‘chat commands’ used to engage in said chat channels, such as trade solicitations (on global channels), party chat, and alliance chat – each of which engages a different although overlapping group of other gamers, used for different purposes and in different contexts. On the bottom right of the interface are hotkeys that provide access to various management screens, each containing another complex set of symbols and text, that in turn provide access to the game system settings, your avatar’s current inventory, your character screen, elaborate maps of the virtual kingdom (and your current location within it), and even in-game threaded discussion boards. To the right side of the interface are action icons and symbols that, when clicked, enable your avatar to take various specific actions related to monsters you are hunting, other players in your party, or your own virtual self. In the main game window, on the right-hand side, is the exchange window that allows players to give or trade various items in their avatar’s current inventory such as potions, raw materials, money, or supplies.
The particular scene portrayed in the main game window of Figure 1 is an instance of the Lineage II community ritual of gift giving. It was my ‘real life’ birthday (Adeleide is my avatar) and therefore in-game friends were giving me celebratory symbolic tokens – gestures of good will, hard work, and camaraderie. Thus, despite the length of the above translation of the gaming interface, it still says very little about the actual sociocultural norms and the shared practices that tie them together into one coherent surface on which each gamer ‘writes’ their own ongoing narrative (Clinton, 2004; Robison, 2004), let alone the meaning of the avatars of other players that act on screen or how one comes to successfully inhabit the virtual kingdom of the game. The official strategy guide to Lineage II is a daunting 288 pages, yet most experienced gamers master these semiotic aspects within the first few hours of play.
Thus, if we take the contemporary definition of literacy as ‘sense making’ within a multimodal, socially situated space, then surely the most mundane versions of MMOGaming demonstrate fluency and participation in a thoroughly literate space of icons, symbols, gestures, action, pictorial representations, and text. Gamers must continually ‘read and write’ meaning within this complex semiotic domain as every successful move within the virtual environment requires participants to both recognize and produce meaning out of the overwhelming array of multimedia, multimodal resources that make up the game. Thus, there is a strong argument to be made, based on the New London Group (1996) definition, that playing an MMOG is itself a literacy activity, albeit one that the non-gaming but vocal public may find a bit too opaque to readily participate in and appreciate. Such a definition of literacy, however, for some may seem too liberal. It is worthwhile, then, to interrogate MMOGaming as a literacy practice from the more restricted definition espoused by more traditional crowds.
A game screen is a complex collection of symbols that are meaningless to traditional literacy, but they do comprise a literacy that tells a story for those who can read it.
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