The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us--And How They Don't

The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us--And How They Don't

by Nick Yee
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Yale University Press


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The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us--And How They Don't

Proteus, the mythical sea god who could alter his appearance at will, embodies one of the promises of online games: the ability to reinvent oneself. Yet inhabitants of virtual worlds rarely achieve this liberty, game researcher Nick Yee contends. Though online games evoke freedom and escapism, Yee shows that virtual spaces perpetuate social norms and stereotypes from the offline world, transform play into labor, and inspire racial scapegoating and superstitious thinking. And the change that does occur is often out of our control and effected by unparalleled—but rarely recognized—tools for controlling what players think and how they behave.
Using player surveys, psychological experiments, and in-game data, Yee breaks down misconceptions about who plays fantasy games and the extent to which the online and offline worlds operate separately. With a wealth of entertaining and provocative examples, he explains what virtual worlds are about and why they matter, not only for entertainment but also for business and education. He uses gaming as a lens through which to examine the pressing question of what it means to be human in a digital world. His thought-provoking book is an invitation to think more deeply about virtual worlds and what they reveal to us about ourselves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300190991
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 01/07/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.80(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Nick Yee is currently a senior research scientist at Ubisoft, where he studies gamer behavior. He lives in Mountain View, CA.

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Copyright © 2014 Nick Yee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-19099-1



A good way to understand online games is to trace how they emerged from the intersection of several historical trajectories: miniature wargaming, epic fantasy literature, role-playing games, and multiplayer video games. In 1812, the Prussian army developed Kriegsspiel, a complex tabletop board game, to train officers in military tactics and strategy. It was certainly not the first board game about war—chess also fits the description—but where chess is a metaphorical abstraction, the Prussians developed Kriegsspiel to be a realistic war simulation. Miniature figures represented infantry and cavalry armies; square terrain tiles, laid out on the table, created a grid-based map; and dice determined individual combat outcomes. Rules governed how far each unit could move each turn, how much damage each unit could inflict, and how terrain modified movement and combat. A neutral umpire would assess and resolve the players' actions. In the 1880s, the United States imported Kriegspiel, again for military training purposes. Miniature wargames first became commercially available in 1913, when the writer H. G. Wells simplified the rules, added a mechanical cannon, and sold the toy soldier package as Little Wars.

In addition to simulating contemporary warfare, miniature wargaming branched into other time periods, such as the medieval era. In 1968, Gary Gygax developed a medieval wargaming ruleset for his local gaming group. He extended an existing ruleset and added such features as jousting and one-on-one duels. As he later said in an interview,

Not long after that, as the members began to get tired of medieval games, and I wasn't, I decided to add fantasy elements to the mix, such as a dragon that had a fire-breath weapon, a "hero" that was worth four normal warriors, a wizard who could cast fireballs (the range and hit diameter of a large catapult) and lightning bolts (the range and hit area of a cannon), and so forth. I converted a plastic stegosaurus into a pretty fair dragon, as there were no models of them around in those days.

This new game, published and sold in 1972 as Chainmail, was novel for two reasons. First, it shifted the focus from army squadrons to individuals. Players no longer controlled an army; they controlled one character, a heroic figure. And second, the game retained combat realism but moved away from modeling physical reality and historical warfare. Dragons were now fair game.

Of course, these fantasy elements were popular with Gygax's wargaming group in the late 1960s largely because of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, published in Britain between 1954 and 1955 and in the United States in 1966. Fantasy creatures had existed in literature long before Tolkien, but The Lord of the Rings wasn't simply a story with fantasy creatures; it was an epic fantasy with unique races, centuries of fascinating history, and a varied set of political factions vying for power. Tolkien didn't merely write about characters; he created a parallel world. In a sense, Gygax's Chainmail was an initial answer to the hypothetical question: What if you wanted to be a heroic character in Middle Earth rather than just reading about Legolas, Gimli, or Aragorn in a book?

Shortly after Chainmail, Gygax began working with game designer Dave Arneson to develop a more elaborate and self-contained ruleset because Chainmail, though popular among wargaming enthusiasts, assumed extensive prior knowledge of wargaming conventions. This new ruleset shifted the focus of battle location from outdoor terrain to monster-infested dungeons. The resulting stand-alone game, published in 1974, was Dungeons and Dragons. It created a new gaming genre: role-playing games. The popularity of Tolkien's epic fantasy left a clear mark on this new game genre. As Gygax put it, "Just about all the players were huge JRRT [Tolkien] fans, and so they insisted that I put as much Tolkien-influence material into the game as possible. Anyone reading this that recalls the original D&D game will know that there were Balrogs, Ents, and Hobbits in it." At the same time, he has stated that Tolkien was only one of many sources of inspiration. Thus, Dungeons and Dragons clearly borrowed Hobbits and Ents from Tolkien, but the game also welcomed Medusa and vampires from Greek mythology and medieval lore.

In role-playing games, players first create their characters based on predefined templates of different races and abilities in the rulebook. Elves may be more proficient in archery, and Dwarves may be able to endure more combat damage before dying. Players can choose from different combat specializations, such as warriors trained for combat or mages trained for casting spells. Combat is initiated and won using conventions from miniature wargames. A two-handed sword may inflict "2d6" damage—"2d6" refers to rolling two six-sided dice and taking the total, thus inflicting between 2 and 12 damage points. Characters and monsters have health points, and when the combat damage exceeds their health points, they die. As characters defeat monsters, they accumulate experience points and ascend to higher levels. This allows them to improve on skills or learn new ones over time. Typical role-playing campaigns are weekly social gatherings that may run weeks, months, or even years.

One frustrating feature of role-playing games is the constant need to reference tables in the rulesets. There are tables that list the damage of every weapon, tables for each monster's health points, tables for how skills improve as characters level up, and tables for suitable treasure for different character levels. Almost every rule in the game has an accompanying reference table. As role-playing games became more complex, the computerized automation of dice-rolling and referencing tables was a natural progression.

Online games emerged in the media and the public consciousness around the turn of the millennium, but networked computer games existed as early as 1969. The University of Illinois, funded by the National Science Foundation, created an experimental computer-based teaching system. Named PLATO, for Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations, the system consisted of a set of computer terminals connected to a central mainframe computer. The terminals were "dumb" in the sense that as simple input and output devices they merely relayed information to and from the mainframe, which carried out all the computation. A programming language allowed users to create programs, and thus games, of their own. In 1969, Rick Blomme used PLATO to program Spacewar, a game in which two players controlled their own spaceships and attacked each other. The graphics consisted of a monochrome, top-down view of the star field. PLATO's terminals were located all over the campus, and this meant that two users could play against each other remotely, making Spacewar a networked game. The first three-dimensional, networked, multiplayer computer game, Maze War, appeared in 1974. In this game, eyeball avatars represented players who would chase and shoot each other in a maze. The monochrome line-based graphics provided a first-person perspective of the maze.

Maze War paved the way for action shooter games like Quake and Doom. The predecessor for computer-based role-playing games came a few years later. In 1976, Will Crowther created ADVENT, a single-player text-based adventure game that led to games such as Zork. ADVENT plays like a fantasy-infused dungeon explorer, inspired by Crowther's experience with Dungeons and Dragons and his interest in cave exploration. The game begins with the following text: "You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully." Players moved around and performed actions by typing in keywords. For example, if a player typed "go in," he or she would see the following text:

You are inside a building, a well house for a large spring.
There are some keys on the ground here.
There is a shiny brass lamp nearby.
There is food here.

There were also fantasy elements in ADVENT, such as a bridge guarded by a troll who demanded payment for crossing.

It wasn't long before someone figured out how to create a multiuser adventure game. In 1978, Roy Trubshaw, a student at Essex University, began developing a multiuser version of DUNGEN, a textbased adventure game inspired by ADVENT. The very first version of MUD (Multi-User Dungeon), still text-based, was released in the fall of 1978. Richard Bartle, a fellow student, soon joined Trubshaw in developing MUD: "The game was originally little more than a series of inter-connected locations where you could move and chat.... Roy was mainly interested in the programming side of things, rather than the design of rooms, puzzles and so on. When he left Essex, I took over full control. At that point, there was no objective for the players, and only primitive communication." Drawing from his interest in board games, Bartle added many game elements to MUD, such as a combat system, an experience system that permitted characters to level up, and puzzles. In 1980, Essex University's computer network was connected to ARPANet, the network that became the Internet, and this meant that MUD became a full-fledged Internet-based game.

The separate historical threads we've been following so far—miniature wargaming, epic fantasy literature, role-playing games, and multiplayer video games—finally intersected with the creation of MUD. As with ADVENT, other developers began creating variants of the original MUD, changing the game design and adapting the code to different computer systems. These variants in turn started their own lineages of MUD code bases; among them were TinyMUDs, AberMUDs, and DikuMUDs. In the 1980s, MUDs began to appear on commercial online services such as America Online (AOL) and CompuServe. One notable MUD was Island of Kesmai, the first online role-playing game to display rudimentary graphics using ASCII symbols—mazes and rooms, for example, were created using dash, pipe, and asterisk characters on the screen. MUDs were cash cows for these early Internet service providers because users paid for each hour spent online. Island of Kesmai cost six dollars per hour on 300-baud modems and twelve dollars per hour on 1200-baud modems. This meant that early online games could be very profitable even with relatively small player bases, as long as there were enough dedicated players. The first multiplayer online role-playing game to display true graphics—that is, using colored pixels to represent characters and the virtual world—was NeverWinter Nights, launched on AOL in 1991. The game used graphics to render the world and the characters in a top-down 2D representation. The game server's initial capacity of two hundred concurrent players was eventually upgraded to five hundred concurrent players.

Early online games required much of both developers and consumers. Good graphical capabilities were not standard on personal computers in the early 1990s, and Internet connection fees via the early service providers were pricy. On the development side, the creation of online games required teams with incredibly broad skill sets; these teams needed to pioneer methods for rendering 3D graphics, create server technology that could handle thousands of concurrent users, and figure out how to manage online communities in which players could stalk, harass, and kill each other. It was 1996 when Meridian 59, the first 3D massively multiplayer online game, launched. Players could now see the game world rendered in three-dimensional graphics from a first-person perspective. Instead of having to play the game through AOL or CompuServe, anyone with an Internet connection could join. Meridian 59 also has the distinction of being the first online game to employ a monthly subscription model. The game charged players ten dollars per month, regardless of how many hours they played.

Although many recognize Meridian 59 as the first 3D massively multiplayer online role-playing game, this unwieldy label actually wasn't coined until a year later, in 1997, by Richard Garriott, the producer of Ultima Online. Before this, many gamers referred to these games as graphical MUDs. What constitutes "massively" has never been standardized: Is it the number of total active players or the highest number of concurrent players or the greatest possible number of players a server can handle? Perhaps the best way to understand "massively" is that it differentiated the genre from other multiplayer online games available in that era. For example, multiplayer shooter games like Quake could handle up to sixteen concurrent players on each server. This means that there is some wiggle room as to which game can claim to be the first in the genre. After all, in 1991 NeverWinter Nights could handle five hundred concurrent users.

Ultima Online's highly successful launch in 1997 changed the playing field, and the game eventually peaked with roughly 250,000 active subscribers. Ultima Online made it clear that the industry was no longer looking at a niche gaming subgenre that catered to a handful of hardcore players. EverQuest's launch in 1999 was an even larger commercial success, with an eventual peak of 450,000 players. With the shift to subscription-based revenues, the number of total active players mattered more than the number of hardcore players. It also meant that a retail game continued to generate revenue month after month after its purchase. Game companies were quick to realize the significant commercial potential of this model. Ultima Online and EverQuest are often recognized as popularizing this game genre and bringing online games into the public consciousness.

The success of Ultima Online and EverQuest led to a surge of online games in the following years. Games such as Asheron's Call and Dark Age of Camelot stayed within the medieval fantasy setting. Others, such as EVE Online and Star Wars Galaxies, took the gameplay mechanisms to futuristic settings. The success of the genre among older teenagers and adults led to the development of virtual worlds for preteens in games like Habbo Hotel, Club Penguin, and Toontown Online. Despite the large number of online games launched during this time, there was a general consensus in the game industry by 2004 that the online game player base had reached a plateau; new games would simply siphon players from older games. No online game in the American or European markets had approached the million subscriber mark, and the overall number of players did not seem to be growing. Yet that year Blizzard launched World of Warcraft. Within months, the game had a million players. In early 2006, when the game broke the six million subscriber mark, Blizzard announced that it had more than a million subscribers in Europe—four times higher than the previously estimated size of the entire European market for online games. As of the writing of this book in 2013, no other online game in the US or European market has come close to matching World of Warcraft's peak player base of twelve million paying subscribers. This is remarkable, given that it has been eight years since the game launched.

One Short Day

Even though online games can have wildly different settings—ranging from medieval fantasy to intergalactic science fiction to contemporary cityscapes—their core gameplay is remarkably similar. Contemporary online games draw heavily from the conventions of miniature wargaming and tabletop role-playing games. Players begin all online games by creating their character, a weak novice who slowly gains experience and becomes more powerful. Players can select from a range of races (such as Elf, Troll, or Human) and classes (such as Warrior, Mage, or Cleric), each with unique strengths and weaknesses. Depending on the game, players can customize the appearance of their character by selecting different hairstyles, skin tones, and clothing.


Excerpted from THE PROTEUS PARADOX by NICK YEE. Copyright © 2014 Nick Yee. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall 1

Chapter 1 The New World 9

Chapter 2 Who Plays and Why 22

Chapter 3 Superstitions 39

Chapter 4 The Labor of Fun 59

Chapter 5 Yi-Shan-Guan 78

Chapter 6 The Locker Room Utopia 96

Chapter 7 The "Impossible" Romance 117

Chapter 8 Tools of Persuasion and Control 138

Chapter 9 Introverted Elves, Conscientious Gnomes, and the Quest for Big Data 159

Chapter 10 Changing the Rules 177

Chapter 11 The Hidden Logic of Avatars 197

Chapter 12 Reflections and the Future of Virtual Worlds 209

Notes 217

Glossary of Onliae Gaming Terms 235

Index 241

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