A recent study from The Nielsen Company shows that US internet users are spending a greater proportion of their time online using social networking sites, in online games, and watching videos. Concurrent with this increase, a significant decrease has been seen in the proportion of time users are spending on email, instant messaging services, and “portals”, walled gardens often maintained by service providers (eg Yahoo, MSN). For the first time, US internet users are spending more time overall playing video games than they are using email.
To complicate questions around how users spend their time online, the function of online social networks and gamespaces has begun crossing over into the traditional territory of other categories of internet use as measured by Nielsen’s NetView studies. For example, instant messaging, email-like messaging, and accessing news and weather updates are activities that are increasingly taking place in social networking sites (as studied by Naomi Baron in Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, 2008).
Furthermore, Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG) increasingly exhibit characteristics of social networks, with the added complication that the personas that inhabit these spaces often straddle the identities of their “in-game” avatar and their IRL (In Real Life) or “meatspace” personage. A recent article by Kjartan Emilsson, Managing Director of CCP Asia, a game developer, highlights the interrelationship between the social networks that appear in gamespaces, the information architecture that underlies the game, and the physical computer networks on which they run. Emilsson’s description of these layers of networks (social, informational, and machinic) that make up the world of EVE Online, a MMORPG with 340,000 user accounts, centers around the benefits of employing a “single-shard database architecture” (ie everyone and everything in one big database) versus a “sharded architecture” (several seemingly continuous, but actually separate gamespaces). Emilsson argues that in spite of the significant technical difficulties posed by having such massive numbers of players coexisting in a single-shard architecture, the emergent social aspects of the game facilitated by maintaining a continuous gamespace create a richer game environment and by the very complexity of the system they create, encourage innovation by the game’s designers.
Although highly technical in its exposition, this article can be understood in conjunction with the work of theorists like Manuel Castells, Sherry Turkle, and Howard Rheingold when they discuss concepts of individual and community identities on the internet. Writing in the mid 1990s in reference to MUDs, the primitive predecessors of MMORPGs, Turkle notes “We come to see ourselves differently as we catch sight of our images in the mirror of the machine” (in Life on the Screen: Identity in the age of the Internet, 1995, p9). Technical choices made in structuring of networks that underlie the social spaces of MMORPGs play a significant role in setting the discursive frame for the construction of social identities in these worlds that exist both within and parallel to materiality.
If internet usage continues its drift away from modes like email and portals and towards social spaces such as social networking sites and massively multiplayer online games, how will the social practices of communication and identification online change? What will this mean for the technical infrastructure of the networks that support them?