Nine Years On: Has my Dissertation stood the test of time?

David William Beck
34 min readFeb 27, 2019


To what extent can the Unwritten Rules of Social & Massively Multiplayer Online Games configure the gamer?’ (2010)

This is my dissertation from my BA (Hons) Game Cultures degree at London South Bank University, completed in February 2010. I’m publishing it here in the hopes that it may be useful to someone. While this isn’t the final copy, as there were further revisions and additional content added, the fundamentals are all here.

Re-reading this dissertation nine years later, I am reminded of the profound power of abstraction. Games leverage archetypal patterns and gamified objectives to create compelling experiences that transcend their visual representation. The pixels and polygons displayed on the screen are mere vessels for the actual game, which unfolds in the player’s mind. For instance, a game like Asteroids, though composed of only a few hundred lines of code, transforms the player into a commander safeguarding their ship from celestial debris. More complex games operate on this same foundational principle. This capacity to engage with shared fictions may underlie the entirety of human civilization, from the perceived value of money to the sense of security felt within a crowd of strangers.

I chose this dissertation because I wanted to explore the ‘unwritten rules’, the implicit rules created through player interactions, or in other words, how players chose to play with each other. The explicit rules are written into the game world by the developers. An example of the difference could occur during a game of chess. The official rules may not specify a time limit per turn; however, the unwritten rules based on politeness may suggest a turn should not take more than 5 minutes, at the most.

Whilst researching topics related to my dissertation, I was amazed at how conformity to unwritten rules can be painful to resist. The fear of social ostracism from the group is incredibly painful; this fear is deeply embedded within the psyche of the human species. In our ancient past, someone ostracised from the group may struggle to survive, or pair bond without the help of the community. This, I feel, could be the root of much of the conformity we see in our society which itself is driven by evolutionary anxiety. In games and social media the consequences of non-conformity can be far less severe which allows on the positive side, an exploration of aspects of the self through play normally suppressed, and on the negative side, for greater aberrant behaviour such as trolling or griefing.

~David W. Beck.


The aim of this dissertation was to investigate the unwritten rules of social and ‘Massively multiplayer’ games, and how they configure the gamer. The questions set out were: ‘How are these rules imposed’, ‘relationships between player and avatar’, ‘deviation from the unwritten rules’ and ‘can games affect social change’. Through personal experience, interviews and academic readings it was hoped to triangulate paradigms that shed new insight. The primary research used qualitative methodology. The sample used Gamers and classmates. Data gathered pointed to trends in rule construction. The methodology included: Semiotic analysis and the interrelationship of Narrative and ludological theory. It was important to play the games in order to better understand the construction of the unwritten rules. The research was compared with an array of other texts such as peer-reviewed research, blogs and game theory’s to aid in triangulation and to increase the validity and reliability of the findings.


1. Introduction

2. Literature Review

3. Methodology

4. Findings, analysis, and Results.

5. Conclusion

6. List of references

7. Unwritten rules survey data


All games have rules that are created by the game designers. In this dissertation, I am looking beyond the rules and examining to what extent social norms configure the player. This dissertation aims to investigate how these social norms are constructed, perpetuated and will also explore deviance from these social norms through a number of case studies, through academic research and through a primary qualitative survey.

The social norms are mostly unwritten rules that may seem like common sense and may not be immediately apparent yet every game has them. A simplistic example of an unwritten rule would be the temporal element in a game of tic tac toe. If one player was going to lose on their next turn they could take an hour to make a move. In this case, the game would most likely be cancelled yet without a predefined time limit per move none of the game rules have been broken and loss has been avoided.

The unwritten rules are derived by a collective of people who share common cultures. In the case of games the unwritten rules are created through normative play and these rules can change over time. One method of passing these rules on is through signs, through the selective use and creation of language. Very complicated systems can be described very elegantly by language. When looking at game worlds the worlds themselves communicate to the player through iconography and that’s why a semiotic analysis of the game case studies has been chosen. This concept will be explored throughout the dissertation.

Salen & Zimmerman (2004, 96) define a game as ‘a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome’. The influence of games and the extent to which they can shape the player through configurative practice has been growing along with the market share of the entertainment industry and the sophistication of the medium; many games are now outgrossing the film industry. The quickly expanding body of academic research reflects this growth.

Semiotic analysis is the study of sign processes and how these construct meaning. “Semiology… aims to take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all these, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment: these constitute, if not languages, at least systems of signification” (Barthes 1967, 9).

Unwritten rules are often based on subconscious intuition or ‘gut feelings’ that go on to be rationalised. Many unwritten rules are rarely questioned yet these rules that virtual societies uses become most apparent when deviated from. A seemingly simple act can change these unwritten rules, When Rosa Parks (1955) refused to give up her seat for a white passenger the results lead to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and later helped the Civil Rights movement. Acts of civil disobedience both virtual and real highlight the often unquestioned unwritten rules. Many modern games with massively multiplayer features develop unique social norms that other media do not due to the far greater degree of configuration between game and gamer. The question of how do these game rules configure the player will be explored in this dissertation through the analysis of deviancy in games.

In this dissertation an array of methods will be used as these will enable the dissertation to cover the scope needed to explore the key concepts. A primary research survey knows as “Unwritten rules” will be conducted and should provide valuable insight into many configurative practices that games use as a way to modifying player behaviour.

Another Primary method will be to conduct a semiological analysis of the audiovisual games ‘World of Warcraft’ (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004), Zynga’s Farm Ville (2009) and Mafia Wars (2008) from a ludological perspective. These games have been chosen for analysis because they all represent successful games with very large communities and a well-developed set of norms. These games have their own rules and iconography that give the players a shared virtual culture. In the case of “social games” such as Mafia Wars and Farmville the shared user experience facilitates. Equally these games are very time consuming and require a substantial commitment from the player. This is important, especially in the case of World of Warcraft player’s free time can be rationed by in-game commitments and this has a large configurative effect that will be explored in the results. It is hoped that by researching the aforementioned games and comparing and contrasting the construction of signs in each that this will reveal insight into how these configure the player.

The intent of the study is to try and use a variety of methods and survey data to extrapolate rules that can be shown to reveal insight into the constructed normative behaviour of players as modified by the game. A variety of hypothesises will be formed based on the primary data gathered by the semiological analysis of the chosen games, then these hypothesises will be tested by the ‘unwritten rules’ survey responses given. This should allow for triangulation of the results to point to broader trends that will reveal new insights into how the players are configured.

Whilst the topic chosen for analysis is fairly specific other literature and mainstream academic research will be analysed and critiqued as this will add to the understanding of the topics in question, and the literature review will be necessary to provide additional insight. The analysis of films and other media will provide a greater overall understanding of configurative practice and should add additional perspective towards other media items. Although these media items will not appear in the literature review they will be discussed in the conclusion.

In order to understand the different aspects of the main question additional questions must be asked. These questions include: ‘How are the unwritten rules imposed on players’, ‘what is the relationship between the player and the avatar’, ‘what happens to those who deviate from the unwritten rules’ and ‘can games affect social change’. These questions will be tested against the ‘unwritten rules’ survey results as well as other secondary mainstream academic research and through exploring these questions the main question will also be explored.

The semiological methodology will provide a greater understanding of the way in which World of Warcraft, Zynga’s Farm Ville and Mafia Wars construct their virtual spaces and by understanding the meaning of the game elements the effect they have on the player should become more apparent. This Semiological Comparative media approach will be compared alongside the qualitative survey that has been carried out as well as other academic research to increase the validity of the results. This method will also contribute to a greater understanding of the questions that will be asked.

It could be argued that many people function differently in different environments due to the social norms of a place, for example, most people would behave differently at a rock concert than in a waiting room. The social norms of a place are created by many factors including what other people do, the amount of space available in an area, The class, sex, etc. It could be argued that the utility of a space often affects the behaviour within. Mirror and memory cells in the brain copy the behaviour and feelings of others around us.

The conclusion will relate back to the introduction and points covered. The conclusion will also refer to the questions in the research and the literature review, and will cover additional sites studied that have not appeared in the literature review.

Salen and Zimmerman ‘formed by rules and experience through play, a game is a space possible action that players activate, manipulate, explore and transform’ (2004: 378)

This investigation will be completed through both a primary and secondary perspective. The first primary method used is a study of Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying games, referred to as MMORPGs from now on, as well as social games such as those widely played on a website like Facebook. Although games, like books, have been created by designers and writers, following the ludological perspective, that is to say, studying games through play, demonstrates how through player modification games, unlike books, are a subjective experience and therefore count as primary research instead of secondary. The games studied include most notably World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004), Zynga’s Farm Ville (2009) and Mafia Wars (2008). The second primary method employed was the qualitative online ‘Unwritten rules’ survey. This survey attempted to gather a wide array of information that could be triangulated and the results extrapolated to reveal some interesting trends.

Literature Review

Although the main question is fairly specialised it was found that a large amount of Literature was applicable to advance the reasoning of the topic. Secondary texts used include academic writings, blogs and Games websites. It was felt the use of websites was justified because Games and the studies of games move forward so quickly and the mix of writer perspectives and backgrounds gives increased triangulation to the unwritten rules and how these can configure the player.

Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (2004) offers an introduction to game design and the text attempts to offer a universal model that is applicable to games of many kinds. This text is very good at building up understanding and then uses this understanding as a base for the more complicated understanding of concepts. The text offers new terminology and, expands and seeks to redefine pre-existing terminology with the best elements of other concepts. This text boasts a well written and engaging style that is both enjoyable to read and very informative.

The arguments are constructed well and it was felt that as interactivity and the way the social norms were constructed were linked it would shed a lot of insight. This text offers an introduction to game design and a unified model for looking at all kinds of games, from board games and sports to computer and video games. Also included are concepts, strategies, and methodologies for creating and understanding games. This text also helped define the language and ideas put forward in the dissertation. Though the text is large at every stage it offered highly innovative and well thought out arguments and took seriously the work leading up to the modern theories featured in the text. Salen and Zimmerman’s Multivalent Model of Interactivity will be applied in exploring the dissertation question. Following this model, the player may be engaged with some or all of these forms of interactivity at once. It is useful to explore these kinds of interactivity with a view to better understanding the unwritten rules and their construction.

These interactivity types include Cognitive interaction; the psychological, emotion and intellectual aspect of interaction.

Functional interactivity: the physical utilitarian elements of the game such as menu screens and how the player acts with the UI. Explicit Interactivity; This reference is to interacting with the system and exploring what interactivity the game formally offers such as choosing what link to click.

Explicit Interactivity includes: interacting with random system elements, choices and all manner of prebuilt game elements.

The last kind of interactivity described was beyond-the-object-interaction: this kind of interactivity describes the interaction beyond the game its self, this includes fan fiction, community message boards and external websites created by fans and even through dialogue. This interactivity will be looked at in regards to the construction of the unwritten rules, and how these influenced the Methodology. This text contributed to this dissertation by providing experienced insight which allowed for greater triangulation and helped with the hypothesis.

The methods in this text helped critique the chosen games and allowed for deeper understanding of the foundations of good game design. This text was useful in relation to thinking about the player's experience and how the game could configure the player.

It was felt that, as part of understanding the extent to which games can configure the individual player, the effective mass configuration can potentially have on wider society should be understood as well. That’s why Swains Designing Games to Effect Social Change (2007) was useful in exploring this area.

This article focuses on how games can be used to both change how the players may feel and understand a topic, but also reviews how a game can most effectively communicate its message to the audience. Although this article offers some good insight into the power of games, and the advantages the medium has over the others in expressing ideas, it is interesting to understand what messages ‘unregulated’ games send out about the world. Narratologists would analyze games as narrative; this narrative may lead to those games having lasting effects on the player. The way many people construct their beliefs and place in the world is through storytelling, the news media, soap operas, politics and every other text uses story narrative to construct ideas and beliefs about the world. The article explores how the configurative effect games have on the player and the ‘magic circle’ of interaction when used in certain ways can promote certain causes. This leads to the question of advertising in games, adverts don’t necessarily promote a charitable cause but normally corporate agenda’s.

Games to Effect Social Change is compelling and thought-provoking text that calls into question what the sphere of influence of games really is and how it is and could be used. It reviews ways of spreading the message to as wider audience as possible covering social media and a variety of games.

Although a game may overtly promote a message the difficulty still lies in quantifying the effect this has, this theme is explored in the text. Some advertisers would rather reach a smaller audience and be able to quantify the effectiveness rather than a wider audience with no measure of results. The game also lists many games that have been created to affect social, reviews their effectiveness and future potential of the subject. This text was useful in understanding the wider societal impact games can have and helped focus the ‘unwritten rules’ survey, it did not cover the subject to that depth that would have significantly shaped this dissertation. This was still an informative and insightful text, even though the focus was on using games for good causes instead of the scope configurative practice can cover.

While many texts have been to a greater or lesser extent useful in constructing this dissertation the following text deals directly with how powerful the force to follow social norms can be. David Myers simply followed the rules of the game, yet didn’t follow the unwritten rules, the social norms. This is both an interesting and disturbing account of how powerful those unwritten rules can be. ‘Play and Punishment: The Sad and Curious Case of Twixt (2008)’ explores the community’s rules of play, what happens to those who deviate from them.

Twixt, in the game City of Heroes, was played by a Loyola professor. Myers used a relentless playing method whereby he would teleport enemy units into his own base defences, killing them and slowing down their victory in the game. Although this method is perfectly legal in the game rules it broke the community’s unwritten rules, and as a consequence of this behaviour, Myers becomes over a period of a year one of the most hated figures in the entire online community.

Myers firstly received abuse for his strategy; social pressure grew encouraging him to stop. Later his own teammates would try and destroy him. This behaviour ended in threats against him and his family. This clearly demonstrates how powerful the unwritten rules are and how far some would go to enforce them. This could be seen as a reflection of how some societies handle deviants. Myers was good at the game, followed the official rules and had a good win ratio. His actions also inspired others to copy his tactics, although those who emulated these tactics received the same abuse and stopped. This research is important to this dissertation because it nicely distinguishes between social rules and the official game rules. This research also clearly demonstrates how powerful the force to conform to the unwritten rules can be, and when the player refuses to confirm it’s also clear how these rules configure the player, in this case, Myers himself.

Salen and Zimmerman’s Beyond-the-object-interactivity (p.60) refers to external media such as fan culture, but this could also seem to apply to another aspect of out of game interactivity. Myers was attacked verbally online outside of the game, just for his tactics in the game. This is an interesting way of also exploring social factors such as cyber-bullying. Myers was a professor conducting research yet if a younger player was to receive similar bulling the impact on that player may be even greater. This is also an example of how a game can configure the player even outside of the game. The pressures to conform could be viewed as a powerful force in many societies and this text has demonstrated another view that adds to the dissertation question.

Barthes, R (1964) Elements of Semiology was reviewed as this is both an informative text regarding semiotics and provides excellent and in-depth analysis of general linguistics. Barthes asserts that whilst linguistics should be a field of Semiology, due to the fact that nearly all signs seem to feature at least some written text that presently semiotics should remain in addition to linguistics. Barthes also distinguishes between the dichotomic concepts of language(langue) and speech(parole) asserting that Language is a set of cultural rules and a social contract we all agree to in order to communicate, and suggests that speech is the conception and verbalisation of concepts which are shared with others. Barthes gives the example that speaking softly or loudly will not change the language in any way yet will change the speech involved.

Barthes provides a balanced critical account of his contemporary’s texts and seeks to taxonomies terms in order to gain a greater understanding of the overall subject. Barthes work was revolutionary at the time, although Barthes himself would suggest Semiology is still a developing field. Semiology had been pioneered by the ancient Greeks and Barthes really helped the subject to come back to modernity with his courses in linguistics.

Ludological studies could be said to analyse through the Semiological method, Barthes said at the time speech could not be easily separated from language, yet modern games and film do create meaning without explicit speech. Using this framework to explore the dissertation question it is hoped to better understand the construction of the unwritten rules and how they configure the player.

Ask, K (2008–20010) is a PhD student at NTNU studying online culture in games. Ask’s research blog ‘Ask in-game’ reveals her thoughts about online culture in MMORPGs. The texts are chronicled over time and are not presented in a classic academic framework however the blog was found to be very insightful. The primary research material used was World of Warcraft. Ask believes that the design of World of Warcraft has been very carefully laid out with utility as the driving force for players to grow.

The Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th edition) defines Hardcore as ‘The most active, committed, or doctrinaire members of a group.’ Ask argues that ‘the exact reason for the “hardcore” concept to hold so many understandings (amongst players)… is because a hardcore approach to the game is not something done simply by a small expert group — it is a way to relate to the game that the majority of players use at some point or another.’ Ask, K (Aug 2009). This suggests that World of Warcraft could have a significant configurative effect on the gamer, whilst all games configure the player to some extent; WoW has a very large configurative effect on the gamer in that it produces hardcore characteristics in its players. In order for the player to attain the highest character level in the game asks suggests a significant amount of information and time must be invested and “hardcore” gaming becomes the norm.

Ask goes on to say that in the game WoW players are expected to be knowledgeable about the game world. Social learning refers to the gaining of social competence that happens exclusively or primarily in a social group. ‘WoW’ relies on social learning in many situations, for example, which path to take in a dungeon or how to defeat a certain boss. It is also normal to ask questions and it’s expected someone will know the answer. Knowledge is valuable and it’s expected that most players will have it. Ask says that:

‘Knowledge is highly revered in WoW. The game will through its design reward players who understand the underlying mechanics (the theory-craft) so to best utilize what abilities they have, but the culture of the game also encourages those who want to learn.’

Ask’s research blog provided valuable insight into online game cultures and helped advance the understanding of how the unwritten rules may configure the player.


The methodology used in this inquiry was felt appropriate because it was felt this methodology covered both the necessary breadth and depth in order to advance the reasoning. The methodology used for this dissertation incorporated two different primary research methods. The first of these was a primary semiological analysis of World of Warcraft, Zynga’s Farmville and Mafia Wars. The second method used an internet-based survey know as the ‘unwritten rules’ survey that has been completed by students and by the general public. It is hoped that these two methods, when triangulated with secondary research such as academic literature would aid in answering the dissertation question that is ‘To what extent can the unwritten rules of social and massively multiplayer online games configure the gamer?’It was felt that through this triangulation the results would suggest broader social trends that would help to answer the research question. In addition to the two primary methods, the secondary research method of the literature review would increase the validity of the findings, as well as helping to construct the research and survey questions.

The questions in both this dissertation and the ‘unwritten rule’ survey were designed in the hopes of providing fresh primary qualitative data to suggest new insight into many areas of the main enquiry. It was felt that direct questions in the ‘unwritten rules’ survey would not always be appropriate as this could increase the likelihood of interviewer bias; That is to say the survey participants answers may be affected by the way the survey was set up and, even subconsciously by the survey designer. This bias may change the answers given and reduce the validity of the results.

To avoid interviewer bias no information was given away that might compromise the result, however, the participants were informed exactly what the survey information was for and that it would remain completely anonymous with only the approximate age, sex and nation shown in the results. It was felt the hypothesis that leads to the construction of the questions being tested should not be obvious as the participants may answer in the way the researcher would have wanted. Participants were not prepped with any information about the contents of the survey before it was undertaken. The questions constructed within the dissertation proposal as well as the literature review formed the basis of the later ‘unwritten rules’ survey design. The survey featured a wide range of questions which looked at what habits had formed in relation to the dissertation question and the participant’s habits. The significance of the questions will be explored, as well as the hypothesis formed about the outcome as this should enable in depth analysis in the conclusion. Although certain hunches were tested in the survey all the questions were constructed so they were not leading the participants to certain answers.

At all times ethical guidelines were followed which included:

Making sure the survey participants knew exactly what the survey was for, that it would only be used for this dissertation. The level of anonymity was stated and participants were told they could withdraw at any time for any reason. That the 1998 Data Protection Act would be followed and after completion everything would be fully disclosed. The participants were told that they have the right to request any information be deleted. In the unlikely event, the information was requested to be deleted, the participant would be asked if they left any notes in the “any more questions” section or if they remembered approximately when they took the survey. If they did not leave any notes all the data from the participants of the approximate age, country and sex without any notes would be deleted.

This dissertation will explore if compassion is part of the social makeup of WoW. Whilst high-level players can if they choose to attack low-level players in World of Warcraft the hypothesis is that that the player would much rather be beaten by a player stronger than themselves than to beat a weaker player. This hypothesis was created based on the primary experience of games like World of Warcraft where many higher level enemy players show compassion to much lower players. The hypothesis was formulated for two reasons. Firstly the game mechanics do not award any tangible reward in the game for killing a low-level enemy player, and secondly, every other player at some point was in the same situation with a lower level character.

This dissertation will also explore the question from Salen and Zimmerman’s Multivalent Model of Interactivity previously reviewed in the literature review of that text. The four kinds of activity include Cognitive interaction, Functional interactivity, Explicit Interactivity, and Beyond-the-object-interaction. These each help to construct the unwritten rules in and beyond the game and the interactions of these will be explored in the Findings, analysis, and Results section.

The motivation for playing a game will differ between individuals yet the survey will help quantify what participants want out of life and out of games.

It could be argued that those players who would rate winning over having fun will be configured to a far greater extent to achieve that victory. The motivation for playing a game will differ between individuals yet the survey will help quantify what participants want out of life and out of games. In some strategy games such as Checkers it is necessary to sacrifice some units in order to achieve an overall win, however, as games become increasingly realistic this ethical dilemma is exacerbated. It could be asserted that some games glorify war and justify, even trivialise death as being for the greater good and necessary. Player perception of death will be explored through the ‘unwritten rules’ survey. The hunch is that when players “Grind” (to gain money, experience and items through killing creeps) the way death has been constructed will mean few players will be so comfortable with the system they won’t even mention it involves death, even if that death is only temporary and ‘cartoony’.

The concept of ‘otherness’ has been used both in games and in history to justify death. In WoW, for example, many of the creatures that you would kill are ugly and aggressive. Killing is constructed as being completely normal to the extent that very few players would even think about what they are doing. Every creature and player is essentially immortal as everything will resurrect. Death can even be an advantage in some circumstances and can be a powerful force in configuring the player’s behaviour. The implications are possibly more interesting than the assertions themselves if death can be constructed in this way in games could this notion be changed as a concept in normal societies. Also if the power death has over us is normalised will it still have the same impact in everyday society?

In a game with massively multiplayer and integrated community features one method of the passing on of the rules can happen through how the player learns the game, as many players would copy their peers. The extent to which this occurs will be looked at more in the conclusion.

Mafia Wars uses a very broad array of systems and rewards. These rewards include money, experience and levelling (in jobs and for the player), sending gifts to friends, unlocking new worlds, and the gathering of items. The game to player to game interactivity is totally based on text and visual signs and that’s why a semiotic analysis will be useful in understanding this game. Although Farmville uses sound it is still largely understood through its visual texts and iconography. The music is non-diegetic and the sound adds no new information to the gameplay. Semiology is useful as it combines the reductionist scientific approach which allows for quantifiable outcomes to advance the reasoning of the dissertation.

Loss as a game mechanic in many social and multiplayer games can be used almost interchangeably with loosing and is a good simple method of configuring the player towards certain behaviour. In Farmville the player is encouraged to harvest their crops in a certain amount of time or else the crops will die and the player will lose the money invested in that crop. In Mafia Wars the player loses economically when ‘Iced’ or killed. The Unwritten rules survey will seek to understand if players have been configured to see death as a very normal and unquestioned outcome.

Loss is justified in WoW because the ‘creeps’ are constructed as being ugly, different, violent and ‘other’ and this somehow seems to be used to justify the creeps deaths. The death mechanic norm is so taken for granted it may hardly seem abnormal. The question then arises can death in computer games configure the player to reduce the impact of death in the real world? Death will be explored through the simple question of ‘What does Grinding entail’. Grinding is the process of spending a long time levelling up or trying to gain an item, yet it also involves a lot of virtual death. This question will be explored more in the conclusion.

According to the semiological analysis, the meaning of death in WoW is one that’s followed by reincarnation. When an avatar of one faction kills someone of another faction this isn’t automatically wrong, a test of skill in a life and death situation can be an enjoyable simulated experience when the fight is fair. The roles of the stronger player and the weaker player will be looked at in the survey. The ‘unwritten rules’ survey will look at both of these issues and once the answers have been explored this should reveal trends that aid in answering the main enquiry.

Whilst there are many academic papers covering related and relevant articles it is felt that this particular issue has not been addressed much, and as Game Studies is still an evolving discipline the body of academic work is not as comprehensive as more classical subjects. However, the subject is quickly expensing and some fascinating research has come out on the subject. A growing body of research helps contextualise this dissertation.

In order to better understand how games configure the player; the unwritten rules will be explored through a semiological analysis which will look at the narrative elements of the selected games. Semiology generally refers to the study of how language is constructed through signs. Language is essentially the transferring of thoughts from one person to others through specific recognised verbal sounds or written text. However we do not communicate using language directly, language signifies our thoughts on a topic and allows others to understand these thoughts too. However many thoughts can be lost in translation. This can be assumed by the greater efficiency close family members and friends can communicate, often being able to complete sentences before they are completed.

Computer Games and other media could be seen as a form of language as they also communicate ideas to the viewers that will be interpreted differently depending on the viewer’s subjective background. This is why it is felt the semiological analysis is such a useful tool for understanding the selected games in this way.

Findings, analysis, and Results

In order to better understand the extent to which the unwritten rules of social and MMO games can configure the gamer several methods were used to triangulate and to increase the validly of the findings.

In the following section, the findings of the ‘Unwritten rules’ primary qualitative survey and the primary semiological analysis of World of Warcraft, Farmville and Mafia Wars will be analysed and interpreted. The previous findings from the literature review will also be taken into account as it is believed this will add another layer of the validity of the findings. Whilst conducting the semiological analysis both primary research and secondary research was consulted because this provided both a more primary ludological based approach and secondary approach where the construction of meaning through game symbolism and iconography was looked at. In World of Warcraft (abbreviated to WoW) the players are slowly fed vast amounts of information from place names to character ability’s to quest strategies and enemy tactics.

Unique language has evolved in WoW consisting mostly of abbreviations that acts to reinforce the feeling that insiders are part of a group. Another feature of WoW are the clothes, achievements, money and honour. The clothes worn are physical representations of the dedication of the player to the game. In this way, WoW becomes like a meritocracy in that any player who would dedicate enough time and effort to the game can achieve and will advance through the game. It was found that games like World of Warcraft can really have a powerful influence in configuring the player to be ‘Hardcore’ because outside research can really add value to other player’s game experience and so those players are rewarded in the game world. It was found to this end that often the majority of players regardless of real-world success can find some measure of success in games. This aids in configuring the player because anybody can role play as someone else with status and importance regardless of their real-life situation.

The horde and the alliance, the two factions in the game are diametrically opposed and encourage competition. The players of each literally speak different languages and these appear as gibberish to the other faction. Both appear to have different cultures and norms. Equally, it has been found that ‘Grinding’, a process of gaining experience and items through the death of the AI enemy’s, the creeps, has been constructed in a way to make the player believe no death has occurred. This seems to have been achieved my literally demonising those creeps in that the creeps are ugly, aggressive and different. Both the language barrier and the creeps constructed as others appear to configure the player more towards their chosen faction, the diametrically opposed Horde or alliance. It could be argued that one reason WoW has been to a greater extent been successful is because of the shared culture and norms in the game.

During the primary research, there seems to be mutual respect and sense of fairness between most players, for example, many high-level players won’t kill those of the enemy faction if they stand no chance of victory as will be explored shortly. Loyalty to the players chosen faction is reinforced through fighting together for a common cause, namely fighting through raid dungeons to advance their group/guild and avatar.

WoW also has somewhat of a darker side too in the way it can configure the player. It has been suggested by some that, when a player dies a subliminal voice tells the player to continue playing and to give Blizzard more money; equally at the start of the game rewards are easy to get, the player can easily get to level 10 in around 8 hours of play. However, the player must work harder and harder to continue getting the same rewards. This process emulates drug addiction, with the player needing more and more of the drug as resistance builds. Equally game addiction is an extremely serious problem, where the game configures the player to such an extent the player ends up abusing it, or perhaps when the game abuses the player.

In the Unwritten rules survey when asked “Have you ever played a ‘Social game’ like the ones on Facebook, for example, Farmville or Mafia Wars?” 13 (36.11%) said No, they had not whilst 23 (63.89) had played.

It was discovered that social games such as Farmville or Mafia Wars had played for a lot less than the participants had played MMO’s. Although these specific games are fairly new similar games have been out for years. The results suggested that these kinds of games still had less long term appeal; Only 1 participant had played for over 12 months.

Whereas WoW has been suggested to configure the player to be hardcore, Social Facebook games appear to appeal more to the casual gamer and become part of the Facebook user’s routine, however, these games can go beyond purely casual play.

When asked ‘Has any game you have played tried to promote an idea, lifestyle or product?’ in the unwritten rules survey one participant responded ‘Farmville promotes the idea of working together with your friends and neighbours to watch each other’s backs and enjoy each other’s company.’, This response was interesting because whilst players never at present interact in real time they can perform jobs on other farms.

Mafia Wars and Farmville whilst still based on goal orientated play use the same endless game style as the Sims. Unlike the Sims, however, the games are regularly updated and enhanced. This business model allows for the kaizen to be implemented, The Concise Oxford English dictionary defines kaizen as ‘A Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement’. The advantage web-based online games have over more traditional downloaded MMO software is updates are automatic, instant and seamless.

This allows for both seasonal items to be added to the game as well as addressing any game issues on the fly. Mafia Wars and Farmville’s time-based system incentivises the player to manage their time almost around the game. For many workers who use computers regularly, this system is appealing and there’s a sense that if your farm is not growing a useful crop then valuable time is being wasted with no productivity.

It was interesting to observe how the longer the survey was available online the longer participants took to complete it. This was discovered because the average time spent on the survey increased as more participants took it. This increase in time was attributed to the assumption that participants with more free time spent longer on the survey and interviewer bias may have played a role as participants asked if they wished to complete the survey would have finished it faster than those who volunteered when they had some free time.

The survey found that fun was the primary motivation for playing games. Equally, fun was also found to be the primary motivation in life. Personal Reputation was rated second in work and in life, and excitement was rated second in games. Interestingly gaining money was the lowest rated motivation for playing games despite a booming industry selling virtual money, selling money is one of the main revenue streams for Farmville and Mafia Wars, and there are countless ‘gold farmers’ in many MMO games exchanging real money for virtual money. From this data, it could be argued that it’s not the money its self but the virtual objects it can buy that’s of value. Following the theme of the meritocratic virtual society perhaps that’s why high-value objects must be earned through play and cannot be simply brought.

Although death as a game mechanic is one that is usually unpleasant some deaths, it was found are worse than others. If a player is breaking the unwritten rules and is gaining an unfair advantage over another player the death that may follow is seen as unjust or even outrageous. This can be a point of tension in the game and can reinforce the loyalty to the players chosen a faction, in the case of WoW the two factions being the Alliance and the Horde. One of the survey questions asked: ‘What outcome would you prefer? Winning against a much weaker player or Losing to a much stronger player’.

When questioned it was found that 75% of the participants surveyed chose ‘Losing to a much stronger player. In addition to this finding, it was also found that over twice as many players considered their Personal Reputation to be most important than Being the Best. This would suggest that integrity is more important than winning at all costs and those players do act often act compassionately. Vastly stronger players were rewarded for killing lower level players the game may be very different.


It was found that through the various methods employed the unwritten rules of social and MMO games can configure the gamer in a variety of ways.

The findings of the ‘Unwritten rules’ survey and the primary semiological analysis of World of Warcraft, Farmville and Mafia Wars along with other texts have enabled the reasoning to advance and conclusions drawn. It was found that configuration occurred not just from player to game and game to player, but through player to player interaction as well. Kinship is established through shared experiences as much as shared dialogue. Great and meaningful achievement in society is really hard to attain, and this achievement is often gained by those from privileged backgrounds whereas any player willing to invest time can achieve a measure of success virtually and this should not be underestimated as a motivation for continued play.

It could be asserted that WoW contains many configurative elements, however, it’s often the unwritten rules created through the social interaction between players that have the greatest configurative effect. In a post 9/11 and 7/7 world, Social and massively multiplayer games offer a safe space for online community’s to develop, for players to interact without fear of safety or rejection, In safe worlds created as much through player behaviour as the designer's intentions.

Social commentators have remarked that democracy has given us all it can, and with increasing reported cases of depression and anxiety, and as the great works of philosophy and the unknown are replaced by reductionist empirical science the meanings of life seems less attainable than ever before, and it’s this void that is filled with the hedonistic and prideful meanings social and MMO games brings to the lives of so many players. It is the observation of the primary research that these games can fill this void and brings purpose, structure and meaning to the player. In the UK today the average age for buying a first home is 45. The player may feel they can achieve more in one night of WoW than in many years of hard dead-end labour, and it was found that many games meritocratic values and achievement systems are one reason why some social and MMO games are so appealing to the player.

The configurative effect WoW has on the player is not only profound in terms of time management but it is socially normal to spend time out of the game exploring game mechanics, dungeon strategies and upcoming updates, all of which shave become the social norm. In this way, games can have a profound configurative effect on the gamer. Equally, Farmville strongly encourages the player to manage their time and to remember deadlines for when crops are ready to harvest. It could be argued that owning a well maintained tidy farm full of rare animals and items is similar to having a tidy house, it’s a source of pride and something other Facebook members can look at. Equally, Mafia Wars was found to really encourage the player to both spread the game and to compete with the players Facebook friends in the same way some people may compete with their neighbours. The rewards offered by Mafia wars are greater at certain times. The rewards are: advancing through the game and advancing in level; Cultural artefacts go a long way to influencing and creating opinion. Equally when new texts are created the creator’s opinion will often reinforce the pre-existing norms of a society and so those norms will remain prevalent unless challenged.

Although unwritten rules are often seldom questioned they are also rarely imposed on the player and act as part of a choice. For example, although character nudism in World of Warcraft is discouraged in the social rules it’s perfectly fine in the written rules, Warcraft’s EULA. It has been reasoned that if players are not allowed to misbehave in regards to the unwritten rules then they may try and defy the written official rules instead. This is expressed in society through the right to protest and, is expressed through language with banned words. Yet having the ability to use these banned words under certain circumstances is liberating, and paradoxically it could be argued the right to protest discourages protests.

The survey suggests that the participants have different priorities based on different situations. This may be because in different environments the social norms are different, for example, most would behave differently in a game, at a rock concert and in a waiting room. This is a clear example of how the social norms in an area can configure the player’s behaviour and this behaviour is also modified both in the game and outside of the game. The player’s dedication to a game may facilitate a change of behaviour of the player, for example, many players may be modified to eat whilst playing or may suffer from erratic sleep patterns.

Finally the question of whether games can affect social change will be analysed. Surely any widely spread system that has an effect on an individual must have a broader effect on society. A generation has been brought up on Facebook and social networking sites, and these people will be the consumers of tomorrow,

This dissertation has shown that the unwritten rules of social and massively multiplayer online can have very strong configurative effects on the gamer in-game and out.

List of references

Salen, K and Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. London: the MIT Press

Juul, J. (2005). Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Lessig, L. (2006). Code: Version 2.0. New York: Basic Books.

Lessig, L. (2008). Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Penguin Press.

Barthes, R. (1968). Elements of Semiology. Hill and Wang

Ask, K (2008–2010) Ask in game; Playing is thinking. (accessed on 20/03/10)

Swain, C. (2007). Designing Games to Effect Social Change (DiGRA)

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Zynga (2008). Mafia Wars

Rob Pardo, Jeff Kaplan, Tom Chilton, (February 11, 2005). World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment

Unwritten rules survey data.

This section will contain graphs and statistics that will be combined with other research to suggest trends, and in conclusion, the graphs and stats outcomes will help answer the dissertation set questions. Please note: some stats will be rounded to 2 decimal places and rounded up.

21 of the 36 survey participants were aged 16 to 22(58.33%). This is the most common age range of participants. 14 of the 36 survey participants were aged 23 to 30 (38.89%). 1 of the 36 survey participants was aged 31 to 40 (2.78%).

29(80.56%) of the survey participants were Male and 7 were Female (19.44%) This statistic reveals that most participants of the survey were male. This could be accounted for because most of the participants from the Game Cultures course are male.

The number of users who responded: 36 (80%) — Number of users who did not: 9 (20%) — Those who did not respond were those participants who started the survey and did not finish. No data was gathered from these people.