GTA5 photo authorized download media

Grand Theft Auto 5. Photo courtesy Rock Star Games

I watched a young man purchase Grand Theft Auto 5 yesterday as I was standing in the checkout line, and he was excitedly talking to the clerk about her experiences with the game, eager to get home and start his own adventures. This is a scene repeated constantly in stores around the globe as new games are released and people who play them share their experiences with each other over phones, counters, keyboards, and tables around the world. I nearly started interviewing them both on the spot, but they looked at me and obviously found it unbelievable that a woman ‘my age’ would know anything about it!

That brings me to my topic, the great expectations humans have on entering their virtual worlds and how human culture is expressed there.

What is culture? Here’s a definition from Merriam-Webster Online:



noun ˈkəl-chər

: the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time

: a particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.

: a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business)


I didn’t know what to expect when I first entered a Massive Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG), but I certainly have expectations now. Imagine being a young Richard Garriott as a teenager ‘inventing’ the future Ultima Online! How did he come up with the basic abilities for his game that allowed us to take our culture online? What were his expectations as he programmed this game?

Winter_2004_DreamHack_LAN_Party, Uploaded to English Wikipedia as Dh04w.JPG on 27 Nov 2004 by Toffelginkgo under the GFDL, uploaded to the Commons by Toffelginkgo under CC-BY-SA-1.0,

Users meet up at the Winter 2004 DreamHack LAN Party.

Now, in 2013, I have definite expectations on how a game will present itself to me so I can learn it quickly and chat with my friends, and find my way around the little universe presented there. What do you expect upon entering a new game? Do we all have basic expectations now that facilitate our human culture, or even just our own national culture, playing itself out in a game?

Perhaps we can look at this from what may be needed in a world to allow for culture to flourish. What are the basic things that humans look for? Do we look for basics like food, clothing, and shelter as we would in the real world or is that replaced by some very elemental game mechanics alone? I think all those elements may be there, particularly whenever I make a new character and spend a great deal of time making sure she looks lovely in her new clothing and armor! However, in a game I think there may be a few other things that are required in a basic setup, like:

  1. A way to chat. Humans need to talk!
  2. A way to move around, easily.
  3. A way to interact with things inside the world.
  4. A motivation to be there and come back again.
  5. A reward system for endeavors or another way to feel good about what you’ve done there, and, possibly,
  6. A basic economy and system of trade. Early game producers like Richard Garriott discovered that even without this built into the games people found ways of exchanging items and wanted to do it.
  7. And yes, personally, I need a way to provide basics to my avatar representation of myself… like food, clothing, and shelter!

There, so we have a basic set of expectations established … but is that enough? What else do humans bring with them into any place they go? I think they also need:

  • wdstr_screens_032

    Wildstar characters at play. Picture

    A way to group up with friends, make new friends, and be with people you identify with and enjoy spending time with.

  • A way to differentiate yourself from everyone else whether that be by an item you’ve won, or something you have made, or a title you’ve earned in a hard-fought battle.
  • A way to express yourself in celebration or fun, or to woo that really good looking avatar across the room… so perhaps some music or a voice or a set of cool moves your avatar can make to emote or put an emphasis on what you say.
  • Places to go and things to do with the set of friends you develop including a lovely pub or place to chat after you’ve gone and done those things. A place to socialize.

So there… will these 11 things make “culture” in a MMOG?

I think there are a few things I’ve missed and it relates to the young man and woman discussing Grand Theft Auto at the beginning of my story. Humans have a few very basic and inescapable parts of being human. I would list them as:

  1. Gender – Are you male or female and what gender do you want an avatar to be?
  2. Age – We all start out young and then we grow up… and then we grow older. This is reflected in all our lives and art and culture. Its fundamental to who we are, and this sometimes affects what we play and how we play it.
  3. Death – We all die eventually and the games we play tend to have high elements of danger to them. That probably is a given part of a game since it gives it that ‘zing’ we crave. Somewhere along the line we will fail in our quest and be bested by our opponents. Personally, there were certain stories I covered as a game reporter that I simply showed up to already dead just to save time!
  4. Morality and Ethics – There are consequences to our actions as humans and a part of human culture establishes and maintains those consequences along with what we feel are the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things a person can do or be. This gets built into all our games – but not all of them carry consequences for good or bad actions unless you count a ‘crowd-sourced’ ethic that gets carried into the games by the players.
  5. Power Relationships and Hierarchies – Lastly, there is power. Not everyone can be the top dog, unless you are playing a single-player game! Invariably, then, power relationships will come into a game and be a part of it as they are a part of our very real everyday world.

Cartoon from Common Sense Evaluation contributor “Gags”

We are into a very complex set of conditions now, aren’t we? There is nothing at all simple about human culture and relationships. This article is a totally simplistic representation of what goes into making up a cultural experience with human beings. I hope it exemplifies the complexity a little bit at least, and inspires you to think about the accomplishments games have put forth to bring humans into them and represent something that keeps them coming back. It is no small feat to have created a place for us to go to, live in with avatars, and support our online social groups that play and function there in MMOGs.

In my next article I will go into a few of these aspects of culture a little more in depth and I will also be offering some interviews and questions on game development history with various producers who have given us games that translated human culture into an online experience. I will also be pursuing the idea of culture in online gaming with a special interview during our Stratic’s 16th Anniversary Celebration. I hope you will join us for this very special celebration on October 20th!