book review

Play Between Worlds
Exploring Online Game Culture

T.L. Taylor (2006)

Massive Multi-Player Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) are increasingly popular, so it should come as no surprise that we see an increase in the academic attention these games get. T.L Taylors book is among those works that study MMORPGs (in this case mostly EverQuest). Although Taylor still needs to explain a lot about MMORPGs to a general audience that might not be familiar to this type of game, the real strength of Play Between Worlds is found in the latter chapters where Taylor's critical cultural analysis differs from the game publisher's standard rhetoric.

The first chapter of Play Between Worlds explains the world of MMORPGs and the experience of playing this type of games. Together with the second chapter that zooms in on social structure of these games the material presented here is pretty straightforward. Interesting if you little experience with MMORPGs, but not adding much to other (academic) accounts of this type of gaming.

Taylor's account of power gamers, however, is very original and valuable. As a power gamer myself, I recognise many (though not all) of the described traits and cheer the open, in general more positive, approach she takes to power gaming. The power gamer's true drive to master a game and to explore its potential, not as some would have it to cheat. Further breaking down the stereotype, Taylor shows that in social games like MMORPGs this includes mastering the social aspects as well.

The fourth chapter is on gender issues, which remain an issue that cannot be ignored in MMORPGs. Taylor goes against the current industry sentiment to simply ignore gender issue to either ignore women, downplay their problems with the game or step over them lightly. Although the games do have some liberating powers and allows women to safely traverse space where this is not always possible in real life, the focus on the white male demographic (and the associated sexual fantasies) still dominate these games to the point that these games might actually cause more damage than they do good.

The industries legal practises are questioned in the fifth chapter. Currently most MMORPG publishers guard their copyrights with zeal and will not acknowledge the contribution of the players to the online cultures that have emerged from and shaped these games. This is pretty ironic, as most of these games "quite reasonably has drawn on existing symbols and conventions, and to try to prohibit such forms of creative reappropriation is absurd" (p. 144). This leads Taylor to call for a critical game studies in the sixth and concluding chapter. She calls in to question the separation of game worlds from the real world. The magic circle through which most game companies wish to control and constrain their games is more open than they would like and have us believed. Games constitute a cultural practice that has grown beyond the control and responsibility of the games industry.